A bay with an upright mane, she stood about fifteen hands and was considered a Cheval de Selle Francais throwback.
She had one passion in life: Big fences, the bigger, the better. She was the reason I’ve flown illicitly over some of the off-limits-to-me fences on the cross-country course in the Forest of Compiegne.
I loved riding her despite not sharing her passion for bolting over stratospherically high obstacles. I’m more of a flat rider. I learned to jump because trail-riding in France required the ability to jump a meter twenty. She didn’t bolt every time I rode her, either. No nearby fences of interesting height meant no bolting.
Two of the fences she chose to bolt over are permanently engraved in my memory. The first turned out to be the biggest on the course. There’s nothing quite like coming up to a very big fence on a rather small horse! I’d already learned that once she’d decided to jump something, there was no stopping her. Not me, not anyone else. I knew she wasn’t mean and that she wasn’t trying to get rid of me. I took one look at the monstrous fence, closed my eyes and went with the flow over a two-meter (6 feet 8 inches) fence! I didn’t come unstuck but once was quite enough which I think Volga understood. Sigh of relief, she never tried it again while I was up.
The other fence was actually an in-and-out. Huge logs piled one on top of each other, they were only about five feet high but they were very broad and VERY SOLID! And very scary to riders! Horses respected their solidity. They usually either flew over or said no. Volga flew over both. I ended up hugging her neck for dear life but I didn’t come off!
Volga was actually a very safe ride despite her predilection for big fences. You see, she knew how to jump and was good at it. Even if you were at a disadvantage, she never tried to get rid of you. She was a very good teacher and I am the better for having ridden her.
Satellite imagery reveals a Cercle Hippique de Compiegne (CHC) which isn’t at the location I used to go to.
The old CHC had its entrance on a corner. You could drive in and park by the outside riding area located in the center. On the left side of the entrance gate, buildings abutting the outside wall contained first the clubhouse, then tack and grain rooms and finally a series of loose boxes which turned the corner. There was a good-sized indoor arena at the other end of the loose boxes. Kennels for two packs of hounds occupied the back of the enclosure while a small stable with a half-dozen tie stalls and a loose box for the chief instructor’s horse sat next to the wall on the right side of the entrance. A head-height wall surrounded the whole. Thirty-six working (and I do mean working!) hunters lived there.
From 1963 to 1965, all the things we used to do on weekends were crammed into Saturday to free up Sunday for riding. My mother would drive (no highways at that time) from Paris to Compiegne. We’d stop for an espresso, pastries and the fixings for a picnic lunch before riding in the Forest of Compiegne for two or three hours, rain or shine. In bad weather, we’d picnic in the clubhouse; otherwise we’d have lunch in the forest.
The Forest of Compiegne was (and probably still is) an extra-ordinary place to ride!
It was said that the Empress Josephine once got lost in it. To make sure she couldn’t get lost again, a signpost was erected at every intersection with the name of each and every lane identified at both ends and in betwixt if necessary. A small vertical red line was painted on one side of each post. Turn your back to it, ride away and you’d end up in Compiegne. Bridle paths were unmarked and went between the bridle lanes.
Before ever riding in it, we were instructed on how to deal with the wildlife. If roe deer, you gave them a wide berth so they wouldn’t spook too easily in hunting season. If boar, you split up and ran away as fast as possible, leaving the boar to decide which horse to chase. By the time it had made up its mind, hopefully everyone would be too far away to be in danger. In the time I rode there, this happened once. Fortunately, it was a short dash and we were able to regroup easily. The sow and her offspring didn’t even realize we were nearby!
It was the French government’s policy at the time to manage deer population by allowing hunting in the fall. An inspector rode with each hunt to ensure that the kill was done as humanely as possible and that the quota was not exceeded. In those days, there were several participating stables. The then CHC had two packs of hounds so that they could hunt every two weeks and rotate the packs. Deer hunting on horseback was done in woodlands rather than open fields and required very athletic, very fit horses. It was those horses we rode in Compiegne.
As nearly as I can tell from the Internet, only one stable remains in Compiegne. There are no packs of hounds so no hunting as it was practiced back then. The fabulous cross-country course, once the second hardest in France, is no longer in use. It’s been replaced by a steeplechase.
I have never hunted or ridden the actual cross-country course although I’ve ridden the track along side it. It was off-limits in its entirety, a fact which eluded Volga!
In the form of classical equitation I was taught, you executed a movement by thinking of your objective instead of which aids would produce the correct result. Your mount was to appear to be the initiator, your request so minute as to be invisible and the horse's movements to flow seamlessly.
To achieve this, your knowledge of how each aid works must become as fundamentally ingrained as is how to breathe. Repetition, repetition, repetition! Your brain learns the effect each aid has, applied singly. Eventually, intuition will determine which combination will produce the desired effect and success comes without conscious thought.
Every horse is capable of picking up a rider’s minute body movements, the ones you’re unaware of making. Let me give an example: My mare Tschuess when riderless walked perfect straight lines but with me up wandered. This meant she was responding to movements I was unaware of. If I tried consciously applying aids to change her wobbly line of travel, it got wobblier. If I thought of her feet as two lateral pairs, each on one side of a straight line, it straightened. To this day, I’ve no idea how I achieved straightness, I just know that visualization was the only conscious effort I made.
These days, health issues limit me to walking. My objective is relaxation for horse and rider. Clyde, my current mount, was originally trained for the track. He lacked/lacks interest in being the fastest and became a dressage horse: Someone did a very good job of training him. He’s extra-ordinarily responsive to leg and seat aids. His trot is abysmally uncomfortable and he’s not interested in cantering. Walking suits him just fine. He has a naturally big stride and covers the ground well.
Yesterday, Clyde got damp but not out of breath in free-schooling. I knew I’d be alright on him when he put his head down to accept my bitless bridle. He was much more awake than usual: His ears were everywhere and he kept looking around. When he neighed I knew he was not keen on being out of sight of other horses. A neigh means, “I’m here, where are you?” None of the other horses answered. During all this, he still had part of his mind on me. I asked for a halt and he gave me a lovely square one.
Lately, I’ve been dreaming of dressage work in a double bridle. Yesterday, I visualized containing Clyde's hindquarters in a tight turn to left. HE CROSSED BEHIND!!! One step, a sublime step!
The theory works!
The premise used by the SEP instructors of that time was that the more different horses you rode, the more likely you’d actually learn to ride. That’s one of the reasons there were so many horses in their stable. With some exceptions, I rode all their horses at least once.
Some were a great deal more memorable than others.
The first horse I ever rode was also my mount when I took the “premier degré” test in the winter of 1962-1963. Passaro was a medium-sized brown bay with a fair amount of white on legs and face. I remember he reared in refusal during my test. Getting him to jump 30 centimeters from a halt led to success. That was my first but not my last experience with rearing.
The next horse I actually rode fifteen times, fourteen times in a row, skipped one week and then a last time. I suspect I got him as a mount to try my endurance! He had two very trying habits. He’d wait until you had your left foot in the stirrup and you were in that peculiarly defenseless position of being just on the point of swinging right leg over rump. He’d reach around and sink his teeth into my left hip. Aiiee! Ouch, ouch, OUCH! He didn’t do anything to get rid of me once I was astride but I carried a huge black-and-blue bump for months! His name was In Fine as in Infinite Ouch!
In Fine’s other habit was to stick his nose in a corner and kick all passing horses. The fifteenth time I lost my cool and he quit this routine. I never rode him again. It wasn’t until years later that I learned what I could’ve done to prevent the biting.
The second year at the SEP we were joined by our mother. She had one mount, named Sultane, who was the venerable empress of all the horses; she’d been the first horse the SEP had acquired.
That year, I occasionally got to ride an intermediate-level horse named Baby III. A dark brown bay, he was “cold-backed”. This meant that you couldn’t sit down in the saddle until a good half-hour had passed because he had tender kidneys. Riding him was like driving a Lamborghini instead of one’s usual runabout!
On one occasion, Baby III started to shake all over. I couldn’t talk him out of it while astride so I took him to X, dismounted, and soothed him by voice and patting. The instructor whirled to give me what-for, saw what I was doing and left me alone. After ten minutes, the shaking subsided, I remounted and rejoined the lesson. Nary a peep from anyone but I did ride him several times again without incident.
After a winter of riding around a manège, my mother got fed up. We started trail-riding at the Cercle Hippique de Compiegne in 1963.
At the SEP, we rode in lesson groups of up to 24. The horses probably knew that the instructor couldn’t see all of them all of the time and were adept at making life interesting! They weren’t mean but they probably were bored and found ways to liven life up.
Horses were divided into four categories. Those for beginners mostly walked with a little bit of trotting about six hours a day. Once you learned how to get such a horse to keep going more or less where you wanted it to go, you graduated to horses for novices; they worked fewer hours because they introduced you to cantering. Once in a rare while, a novice would get to ride a more advanced intermediate-level horse, one with issues other than that you were on its back boring it. The high-school horses, which worked an intense hour or so a day, were off limits except to instructors and a few advanced students.
The tack was basic: jointed snaffles for beginners and novices, and double bridles for intermediates and the advanced. The saddles were the old-fashioned anything-but-deep-seat hunt-seat ones put directly on the horse’s back. If you couldn’t control your mount with a snaffle, you needed more lessons, not more aggressive tack. No saddle pads, no numnahs, no legs wraps, no side reins, no martingales, no dropped nosebands, nothing complex.
The stable grooms tacked up, then you led your assigned mount to the assigned riding area and waited inside the track with a safe distance between each and heads facing in. This is when you made sure the leathers were the right length to mount from the ground. You mounted when the instructor, standing in the middle of the arena, looked at you. He wouldn’t move his gaze until you were safely up. Remember, up to 24 horses in a group! You had to be quick. Once up, you moved out onto the track at a walk if a novice or higher. Beginners went out onto the track when all were mounted.
There was no place and no time to walk a horse cool after exercise, so the horses had to be kept cool. The more time spent trotting or cantering, the more time at the end was devoted to walking. You might spend the first ten minutes at a walk or slow trot, twenty minutes at a canter and half an hour at a walk. Or ten minutes at a walk, half an hour at a sitting trot and twenty minutes walking. You were in deep, deep doo-doo if any part of your mount was even damp at the end of the lesson!
Calisthenics on horseback were done almost all the time. You might be asked to click your heels above the horse’s neck or lie flat back with head to dock or do torso rotations with your legs sticking straight out to the sides while keeping your mount on course at the correct gait and at a safe distance from the horse in front. During the odd break from calisthenics, the instructor would ask questions about points of conformation, footfalls in each gait, the major anatomical bones and muscles. All this information was readily available for purchase in any bookstore.
I lived for that precious hour from three to four PM on Wednesdays!
We became members of the Societe d’Equitation de Paris (SEP) in the fall of 1961. I rode there every Wednesday from 3 to 4 PM. Initially, just we youngsters got lessons. Our mother was eventually persuaded to join in and riding became the family sport.
The SEP shared facilities and horses with the Touring Club de France (TCF). There were a hundred-odd bays, chestnuts and greys stabled in ample tie stalls. The individual Dutch-door loose boxes surrounding the central courtyard housed the mounts of the few well-heeled enough to own their own. The TCF had one circular manege (covered arena) and two carrieres (outdoor arenas) while the SEP had two differently sized maneges and a special out-door round pen used in training horses to jump free-style.
That special round pen was fascinating and I’d watch whenever possible. Essentially, it was a circular lane wide enough to change directions. The inside fence was lower than the outside one, low enough to allow working on a lunge line. Horses were eventually allowed to travel free. Then a white ground pole would be introduced and gradually raised to a meter, where it would be exchanged for a dirt-colored one and, with a jump standard, slowly raised to a meter fifty. The point was for the horse to learn confidence in itself while the trainer learned the maximum comfort height of each trainee. The process took as long as it took. Some horses lost it at 90 centimeters, some at a meter twenty. It was each horse’s natural maximum jumping ability which determined how it would be used as a school horse. The end result was a horse who rounded over any fence. Training over more complex fences was done by a rider with very gentle hands.
This is where I found out how to warm a horse up by free-schooling. The SEP trainers didn’t believe in lungeing a cold horse; they said that a circle is hard enough on a warmed-up horse and not to be used until a horse was already warm. The free-school area was a rectangular fenced-in one set out of sight and away from distractions. Here I learned to use my hearing, sight and sense of the passage of time to determine when enough was enough. Here the not-tacked-up free-schooled one could be assessed for potential lameness at progressively faster gaits and, if necessary, get rid of the buck. The trick is (and was) to slow a free-schooled horse before it can run out of breath or steam, or injure itself. Once over-enthusiasm has been safely dissipated, a horse is ready for the lunge, mounted or unmounted.
I started riding in L’Isle-Adam in 1961. A family friend would drive my sisters, me and a picnic lunch out from Paris. XO of a merchant ship, he loved to ride while on shore leave. Eventually, our mother took over and made our trips more predictable.
The horses were ex-cavalry remounts from North Africa. They were perhaps not the best horses for total beginners but they were kind. This is where I had absolutely no trouble learning to post: Barbs have a spine-shattering trot!
Once we’d mastered staying on fairly consistently, we were allowed out on the trails.
The feature I remember most clearly was THE CLIFF! It was most likely a glacial moraine which had been “adapted”. You gallopped up the trail on one side, turned your mount a quarter-turn at the crest and jumped down. It was Kebira (my usual mount) who chose the best moment to leap from the moraine. He had zest in this maneuver which might have had something to do with being born in the Atlas Mountains. The moment when rider was most likely to part company with horse was after landing on level ground. Unless your seat was particularly adhesive, you’d end up either in front of the saddle with chin between ears or on the ground. The horses were not as self-disciplined after landing as they were on the moraine. And who could blame them? There was such a lovely lane nearby.
Kebira was a fifteen-hand smoky grey with darker grey points. I’ve no idea how old he was. I did ride others but he’s the one I remember best.
One day, my mother decided that we could have once-a-week more “structured” riding lessons closer to Paris.
We became members of the Societe d’Equitation de Paris, on which more anon.
(aka, on the importance of being straight!)
In the parlance of classical French equitation, a horse is “straight” when the line of its spine exactly mirrors its line of travel. So, a horse bending true to an arc is going “straight”! If following a straight line, a horse is “straight” if its right-side feet stay to the right of the line and its left to the left.
Pyrrhus had serious problems being straight. He would set his spine like a wet noodle, using this bit evasion to avoid doing what he seriously disliked doing, which was fording a stream. While the others splashed through, Pyrrhus had to be ridden over the closest bridge.
One day, the guide forgot about Pyrrhus: All the other horses gallopped across while Pyrrhus did his rubber spine thing.
After ten minutes of dithering on the wrong side of the stream, he forgot and was straight for a moment!
Eureka! The importance of being straight! I applied heels and crop with vigor and Pyrrhus shot forward! But since his straight line of travel didn’t aim him straight towards the horses on the other side of the stream, we ended up in the deep hole on the side!
Appalled Pyrrhus needed no incentive to swim to the other bank and climb out!
From then on, if I rode him on trail rides, Pyrrhus would jump off any bank into water, gallop or walk through as asked, and jump out.
Pyrrhus was probably a Friesian despite being a deep red bay. He had the most extra-ordinarily rhythmic trot, one which was easily cadenced. If not in the small covered arena (five horse lengths by six), I rode him in the Bois de Boulogne. He preferred high-school work; the rubber spine manifested itself only out on the trail.
When I set out to look for my first horse, I looked for an aged dark bay gelding with no white on the feet, good conformation and a stable temperament. The breed was of no particular moment.
I looked in a lot of places. One February day, I walked into a horse's box, said "Hello" and put my hand on Tschuess's rump.
Bonding took place in a nanosecond! She treated me like an old friend from the very start.
Purebred Trakehner Tschuess was fourteen, a former broodmare with a copper-red summer coat, four socks and a blaze. She'd injured her right eye and had started a cataract. Herd boss to seven other mares, she was VERY alpha. Fundamentally bold and bright, she had an overlaying spookiness caused by losing eyesight. My experience riding horses with vision issues meant I could cope with her antics.
I started riding her that April. We had the usual disagreements about direction and speed, especially out on the trail. One day, I sat down the wrong way in the saddle to the point of ouchiness. I thought I'd have an argument over speed on the way back to her stable; instead, she walked as though on eggshells. She took really good care of me! A horse in a trillion!
I was able to buy her. She was the center of my life for the next twenty-two years.
Tschuess had a well-developed sense of humor, particularly under saddle. Her favorite "joke" was to wait until my attention wandered, jump up and take off at a gallop. She'd stop when I laughed! The first time she did this, we were pushing through two pines overgrowing the trail. I was hunched up with my head between my shoulders, my eyes mostly closed and my attention on not getting spiked by the trees.
In her thirty-second year, she started have trouble getting up. Four years later, her hind legs failed her completely. I had to have my beloved friend put to sleep.
She is buried in a corner of her paddock. Two years later, the ground is settling while grass has hidden the earth's scar, It's a peaceful corner, a place to meditate and listen to the birds.
She taught me so much, particularly about friendship. She is with me still.
I'll write more about Tschuess and about some of the many other horses I've known. Expect a "vignette" a month. I'd write more were it not for the fact that as author of a self-published book, there are a great many things my book hobby has to have done, all of them time-consuming.