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Category Archives: optimistic opsimath

learning late in life

legs, legs!

I went to my riding lesson feeling a little trepidatious this afternoon. This was because I was a bit concerned that my legs wouldn’t function properly, having walked round the entire county of Suffolk at the weekend.

My brother-in-law, his wife and friends came to visit and they’re all keen walkers. One in particular. Very keen.

So we extended our daily amble along the river to a seven mile round trip with a stop for lunch in the pub.

It was easy flat walking (ahem, this is Suffolk) and bright and beautiful (I got sunburnt. I do whenever the rays poke through the clouds).

One of the party was technically a giant and I took three strides to his one (not hard, I’m only about five feet tall). This meant the pace was just that little bit too fast for my comfort. But I wasn’t going to show myself up by asking them to slow down – oh, no – particularly as they all live in Cambridge and have huge brains. Besides, I’m trying to get fit for this horse riding lark.

I spent most of the afternoon whispering, ‘Ooh! Legs’ to J when no one was looking. (Actually they all got blisters and fell asleep in the tiramisu, so it wasn’t just me).

The next day we decide to go for it all over again with a walk round Aldeburgh. (Packed. Where was everyone last November?)

Well, my legs recovered speedily, which was good because my riding instructor is keen that I use them effectively as aids to move around horses. (Actually, it was hands she wanted me to use this week. And shoulders. And back. But I’m getting there).

Fortunately, a large group of school children had nabbed all the solid, dopey, chunky horses (Fergus and Bertie), leaving me with Duke. Yes, you can tell a lot from a name.Duke was enormous and I got vertigo at first. But he had the advantage of being really sensitive to any aids. Unlike the safe, slow horses, he responds to slight pressure of the leg rather than requiring several ungainly kicks.

The disadvantage – other than his height – was that he was more likely to spook easily and bolt (Fergus just stops). He didn’t, and I felt happy being on a horse that would normally be ridden by an experienced rider because I totally trust Karen, my instructor.

It was like having a go in a Ferrari, before you’ve actually passed your test. You know it’s beyond you, but it’s motivating.

On the way back I stopped off to check out the cattery Pippin will be spending our summer hols in. More horses! Hundreds of cats! Kittens! I would’ve sneaked one of the kittens out in my pocket, if it weren’t for Pips carrying the cat flu virus which he could pass on.

Anyway, today horses and cats are the things I’d add to the Action For Happiness website.  I love the concept. It’s crashed now due to too much interest, ironically making people cross and frustrated rather than happy.

I’d also add being outside in the sunshine, matzos with cheese, builder’s tea in the afternoon, finishing my freelance work way before the deadline andhaving a huge supply of library books on the table. J’s away doing exciting radio production work in London, which makes me sad, but there’s the anticipation of his coming home, plus I can watch back to back episodes of Shameless all evening while he’s not here.








Fergus rebels

I had my fourth riding lesson today: a disaster!

I’d booked a lesson with Fergus and Karen. Karen had a lesson with someone else so I was with Fergus and Kim.

As I said in my earlier post, Karen and Kim (fortunately, both are incredibly patient and empathetic) have very different teaching styles. Karen spent a lot of time on posture, balance and how small muscular movements like tightening the stomach affect your horse. Kim understood I’d lost my nerve when I was younger and was keen to push me out of my comfort zone, asking me to canter for just a few strides so at the end of the lesson I’d have achieved something to look back on.

Anyway, at some point – something minor like Ferg stumbling a little – I got anxious. I made the mistake of not stopping him when he started to play up and really lost control.  He, being a clever horse, picked up on this and carried on being awkward and I got more nervous to the point where I felt like crying and my stomach was churning. I was also sending out conflicting signals with my legs and voice and whip (something Karen doesn’t use, interestingly) to move him on, but then instinctively and confusingly pulling back with my hands (and heart!).

Kim was patient and supportive, telling me things she and other riders feared, and made me do it again: “You’ll hate me now,” she said, “but it’s worth it. I wouldn’t ask if I thought you couldn’t do it.”

She was right in that now, looking back, I can remember that the few strides of canter were longer than the last lesson and that for a split second I identified that there was something soothing and appealing and even more comfortable in the rhythm. And Fergus didn’t try and throw me off.

Unfortunately, I’m feeling like it was a disaster overall, that the successful canter was more by luck than judgement, and am worried I’ll start out even more nervous in a fortnight’s time for my next lesson.

Should I book an interim lesson with Karen, I wonder, to ‘ground myself’ in the basics?
The idea of alternating between thorough, steady technique and lessons that push me out of my comfort zone is appealing.

Should I just trust that Kim wouldn’t push me further continue if it truly was a disaster? Especially as Fergus’s method of expressing displeasure isn’t to buck or bolt, but to just stop!

Questions to ponder before the next time…

more thoughts on riding

I had my third lesson yesterday. I had such a beautiful time hacking through the woods – how could I have forgotten to mention that we spied a herd of about 4o deer under the trees?
So I booked with Kim, who’d been brilliant, to ride Fergus this time.

It was a half hour outdoor lesson at the end of which I felt euphoric, teary, silly, shaky and exhausted. Kim had gently recognised that I needed to build up my confidence. She gave me the whip and had me guiding Fergus (grubby white horse with a cute billy goat’s gruff beard) and – to my amazement when I reviewed the lesson in my head later that day – cantering. Just three strides of cantering. But enough to be able to say I’d cantered and not fallen off.

Fergus, Kim reassured me, would be far to lazy to bolt off over the fields. The most wicked thing he’d do would be to stop and wander into the middle of the ring to stand next to the teacher.

I decided that, so long as I could always have Fergus and Kim, I’d carry on and I booked another lesson.

When it arrived yesterday my heart sank when I heard Kim was ill. It would be Fergus still, but this time with Karen.

The lesson couldn’t have been more different. Kim is a Suffolk girl who lives on a farm and loves dogs and her style was to dive in and canter on our second lesson.
Karen was an Essex lady with six sons who all worked at the school (“Thing is, I was never that maternal but I can talk to ’em now.”) Her style was to put Fergus on the lunge, no whip, no cantering – more focus on feeling the horse and balancing with no reins and taking it very steadily.  There was a lot of laughter (“look at your face!” she’d giggle when she asked me to do something I found scary). I felt a bit like a ten-year old – once I’d realised I really was asking Fergus to trot and slow and halt (“bum under, tighten your stomach”) and he WAS, I was saying, “Can I go again?”
“Of course,” said Karen. “Don’t mind if I sit in the middle here and have a fag?”

I decided that, so long as I could always have Fergus and Kim or Karen, I’d carry on and so I’ve booked another lesson.

Here’s Fergus on Poplar Park’s Flickr site.

optimistic what?

I nicked the opsimath idea from Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less  Travelled.  An opsimath is someone who learns late in life. Stephen Fry’s philosophy that simple curiosity is something to be cherished is inspiring.

Over the last couple of years my life has been enriched by:


  • going along to evening classes in Italian (learned at university, subsequently forgotten in that classic ‘use it or lose it’ way)
  • learning basic Russian (I want to fly to China and travel back on the TransManchurian)
  • annoying the neighbours by learning cello
  • day course in photography
  • day course in couple’s massage
  • and the most recent, an online course with the Open University in Creative Writing

I used to think that, unless you were going to play with the Royal Philharmonic or interpret for the UN, then such courses weren’t for the likes of me.  That a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Better to be a fox than a hedgehog.

But in fact, life is broader and brighter when you’re role playing the part of a Russian customs officer.

Riding Seamus


I went on a gentle hack yesterday on a particularly dopey horse. I rode a lot when I was younger. I was never very good at it and after I got thrown off a bucking horse and broke an arm – my horse Chantilly was snorting and puffing his way up the field and naughty Ben behind us nipped his bum – I gradually stopped going.

So I went along to just enjoy pottering along, with nothing more in mind than a gentle trot, to remember what I’d enjoyed about it, without beating myself up because I didn’t actually want to jump six foot fences.

The brilliant thing was that my teacher also had her levels of fear and stretching her comfort zone. ‘I love the idea of galloping along, jumping over all those fences on a really sharp horse,’ she said, ‘but I also like being safe.’

I also read a book recently called Zen and the Art of Horseriding. Ingrid Soren identified that horsey people like horses. They don’t all necessarily want to be teachers. So it’s nothing personal if the girl at the riding school isn’t a natural at patiently helping you overcome your fears. My teacher, fortunately, was great. But ones in the past haven’t been so good at putting me at my ease.

Horses are beautiful and intelligent and don’t suffer fools. Again, it’s nothing personal if they get spooked or bored or frustrated when you’re yanking on the reins all wrong. Seamus, for example, was very placid and seemingly content to follow the horse in front. I was content to sit there doing nothing and chat to the teacher. At one point, bored and a bit naughty, he sidled into a tree, leaving me with a huge branch in my stomach. Had he chosen to gallop off at that point, I would have ended up in that comedy dangling in mid-air on a branch scenario. But luckily, he responded to my – now unsurprisingly – quite firm commands for him to stop.  I paid attention after that!


Cameron, co-operatives and conductors

Amazing, beautiful icy effects in the puddles along the path by our house, this morning.

David Cameron is working with charities and co-operatives on “the most pro-big-hearted, pro-generosity, pro-joy agenda ever unleashed by a government.”

Oh, no, got that wrong. He’s working with the biggest UK firms for a pro-business, growth and jobs agenda and he wants to make it easier for employers to sack us.

That’s alright, then.

I’ve just read that Peter Maxwell Davies thinks too many conductors are just churning it out. The idea of louche, lazy conductors (surely the sexiest profession going) doing it for money is pretty hot.

our house

We put an offer on a house today. Well, more a bungalow than a house. A home.

The process of moving home is quite odd.

It seems to have taken us several hundred years:
to decide we want to move, to decide where, to go and look at the area, then the house.
Then to change our minds on the area.
To decide whether we were going to have kids and how many or none at all, so did it have to be near a school? And how near is a pub or shop so that’s it near enough to walk to, but not near enough to be noisy?
To decide whether we want rural isolation or buzzing bohemian towns.
To try to sell ours. To fail.
To try again 18 months later and be succesful.
To want character properties with views, but no road noise.
Not actually wanting a ‘project’ so going for off-the-peg, new home now, please. Apart from that really gorgeous one with the walled garden that needs tonnes of work and that’s next to the motorway.
And that character one with the views and the quiet… well, we just didn’t like it. The one up the road is absolutely, completely perfect in every way and we  both love it.
But we can’t afford it.

We don’t have children or a job that’s relocating, so that’s maybe why we’ve taken our time. We finally decided on a town. A road even. We found it. (Maybe? should we just check a couple more?) Yes, all in all, all things being equal, after a hundred years of looking… We make our offer.

Thing is, what with there being a recession and prices likely to fall and the whole town being so overpriced anyway and us having x amount to spend… We make a genuine offer on what we can afford and what we think it’s worth. Whether the vendors, who are lovely people, take it, is… well, the next post on this blog, most likely.