|Photograph: Julian Herbert / Getty Images|
There isn’t a satisfactory way to describe the feeling of a horse going from a standstill into a fully-fledged gallop.
You could say it’s like being in a roofless sports car, close to the ground, the moment you put your foot to the gas and speed along an open stretch of empty country road, or in a tiny six-seater plane just as it takes off into the air leaving all that space beneath you. But it isn’t really like either of those things, because it’s so much more than both.
Imagine for a moment that you’ve spent ten minutes at a pretty speedy trot getting from the yard on Saturday morning out into the rural depths of northernmost Home County. You’re one of four riders who’ve slowed to a walk as you weave through the brambles next to the gate and onto a narrow bridlepath that’s tall with grasses.
You’ve settled into the gait as your large, bright bay mare follows the big black and white mare in front of her. The hedges are aching with blackberries and rosehips, and the smell of leather and warm horse comes up from the saddle. Black and White starts slightly at the sound of a tractor and plough a few fields over.
The fleabitten grey, part Thoroughbred, part Arab, jogs past in a side-step, increasingly excited as you all turn into an open field where the crops have been freshly cut, leaving inviting acres of buttery yellow stubble sweeping out in front of you.
“We’ll have a gentle canter across here,” the leader of the ride says as the four of you line up abreast, held as if by invisible starting gates.
There’s an almost imperceptible moment of inertia loaded with anticipation. Of a pebble hanging in the air before it falls. And then… Off.
A leap through the clear air pushes you back in your saddle, g-force grabbing you by the stomach as you feel the mare’s hooves hit the earth underneath you. You’re momentarily winded as an enormous gulp of air hits the bottom of your lungs; your eyes stream as the wind rushes past your face.
Clumps of earth come flying out of the hooves of the huge, dark bay gelding in front of you. You tip your head down, letting the peak of your hat shield your face from the mud. Standing up in your stirrups, you give the mare her head and let her go. She stretches out her neck and eases past the bay.
“You all right?” The ride leader yells over the deafening sound of cavalry charge.
“Brilliant!” you call back as you thunder past her black and white mare,
You lift your head up and look along the mare’s neck, up her dark mane. Between the pricked ears you can see the grey up ahead.
Until now, you’ve let the mare find her stride, make her own way across the stretch of golden field. Now, you ask for just a little more. You crouch a little lower over her neck, click your tongue.
She shifts seamlessly into top gear, sticking her nose out, lengthening her stride. Her ears turn back as you come alongside the grey, an unspoken tussle as they vie for leader of the pack, both thundering down the field as if to the post at Cheltenham.
Moments later, as you come to the hedge at the end, you slow to a canter, a trot, a walk. The bay comes up behind. And then, hooves beating, the black and white mare comes up behind at a canter along the hedge.
“Well come on then, why are you slacking?!” the leader of the ride says as she squeezes her heels into her mare’s sides, taking off at a gallop back down the opposite side of the field.
Again, there’s a moment of inertia. Then, OFF...