(Disclaimer: this is an old Pizza Hut reference: no horses were hurt in the making of this blog post)!
I arrived at the yard early and in the sunshine, on a day previously predicted to be under constant drizzle. I was excited about hacking and was walking along smiling when I could hear the clip clop of many hooves trotting down the hill that leads to the yard. I took to the nearest driveway to stop and watch them pass: two of the yard girls were riding bareback and leading. One was on the Appaloosa gelding Dotty (totally a mare's name, I know) while leading Theo. The next to come along were a pair of horses I knew to see before I'd even visited the yard for the first time and had dreamt of riding: the giant grey brothers Starsky & Hutch. I knew there was a Common Ride that day, and as Starsky & Hutch are ride-out horses, I assumed that's what they were there for and why all four horses looked spotless (something I found odd as presumably they were being brought in from the field in their bridles)!
Anyway, the horses went out of sight and when I got onto the yard I saw Dotty being loaded onto a lorry, and could see several horses behind her including grey and chestnut faces. With Starsky, Hutch & Theo out of sight, I assumed they'd gone on first and while not surprised, was a little bit disappointed that they wouldn't be available for the hack. I saw Geoffrey, the rude coloured who tore up canter stretches on my last hack, go last in the lorry. I was glad he was away, but a bit bemused why was dirty and the others were clean. Always trust the horse with white patches to get a dirty rump!
After the usual long wait, I was first in the office and was met with “Have you booked? The YO really shouldn't have allowed a hack today with so many horses going to the Royal Highland Show; not everyone will get a horse. Don't know how we'll manage the river crossing either.” Luckily, not only was I first in but I was literally the only name in the book for the hack! The printed list of horses was produced, and the stable hands started to tick off who'd gone to the show, who was still turned out and so on. I said I'll ride anything but have only hacked Frankie, but no sooner had I spoke than “You're on Hutch!” was barked at me. I paid my money, left by bag and coat to be locked up, and went out nervous but beaming: I was riding one half of the infamous giant duo!
With only me and 3 other riders on the 2hr hack, I got chatting to all my fellow riders before getting aboard which was nice. I spoke with the Hispanic lady that rode Robbie on my marathon-day hack, a fine and forward looking horse that she spoke highly of. She said she was on Honey today and asked if I knew her: I said I didn't, but upon her coming out, I recognised her at the non-cobby version of Frankie in terms of colour, markings and height: the only pony I couldn't name from my second hack! The next horse to come out was for the man who rode Ransom on the first day I'd met both of them; I immediately recognised the horse as Starsky: - about 18hh of steel grey, carriage/light draft loveliness. No sooner could I admire him than out came Hutch: another 18 hh massive vision of steely grey loveliness.
I mounted up, and while the height was similar to Homer who I'd ridden the night before, the build and proportions were completely different. I couldn't believe how far back the saddle seemed, but that's because Hutch's shoulders were HUGE! I asked about Starsky & Hutch, asking if they were Percherons or Irish Drafts or similar. I found out that they were half brothers, both sharing the same Friesian sire. Now, as everyone knows, Friesians are my fave breed of horse in the whole entire world, and have been since I was a young kid, so I was very excited about riding a cross. It sort of made sense as well: I clearly couldn't see Hutch as I was on him almost as quickly as I saw him, but Starsky did look like a baroque Friesian, just on a larger scale and with a grey gene. (Starsky has exactly the same steel grey markings of another cross I know, a TB x Friesian, the TB mare being grey). I guess it is something like a grey Percheron or ID adding the extra height and thicker build t the boys, and it does make for a sexy combination (Irish Drafts also being another of my fave breeds, along with Clydies, Ardennais, Dales & Welsh Section Ds).
I chatted to Starsky's rider and we stroked and admired each other's horses, wondering how we'd sit to such powerful canters! We also spoke about Ransom, and the man told me Ransom's the joint tallest horse on the whole yard. Given that I was told that Theo is 18.2hh, Ransom must be at least 18.3hh! :0 I had thought when I saw him on my last hack that I'd underestimated his height quite a bit, but didn't want to overestimate it either because I hate when the kids all deliberately describe the pony or horse they were on as bigger than it actually was because height equals impressiveness to them. Turns out I was right: he is bigger than I said and either is or is near to 19hh. I've cantered a truly giant horse: no wonder it felt like it was in slow mo!
I was chatting this man's his wife too, who was riding a fine built bay pony called Stella, a new creature to me. Stella's sister is on the yard in the school too: the RS seems to know what it likes, picks its stallions, and snap up the youngstock at the right price to break when older. While her husband had never been on Starsky before, she had ridden Hutch last time and fallen off! That took me aback and I asked her what happened: she said the higher you are, the thicker the branches, and she'd grabbed one to stop it hitting her face, but it was too thick to budge so she stayed with the bough while Hutch went on! I admit I was worried: I've had some terrible hits while on Frankie, some so sore I was sure for several minutes I'd end up needing to get checked over in A&E. I was not looking forward to being up in the heavy stuff, especially given how wet the trees will were!
Having had most of the kids on the yard run up and pet my giant horse, the leader (a new one who hadn't taken me out before) asked me my name as she's never led me, and off she took us on Gandhi. I'm glad a decent pony was leading: Toby's leadership was far too stop and go last time. I started off 3rd after her and Starsky, and the little mares Honey and Stella followed. We all heard the river before we saw it: it wasn't that deep, but was flowing rather fast, so the ride leader (let's call her RL) told us to get our legs on. While Gandhi was forced to walk in an arc with the current, Hutch took me over in a straight line, and fairly athletically went for the step out! I pulled up after that until we waited for the 14hh mares to cross, and off we set.
The mud channel along the river was narrow and deep: it's quite dense wood, and with only a horse's width and a bit more clear to walk, there is a dense canopy of branches to navigate though from horseback: it's one of the places with the most face-smacks, that and two later canter stretches. We didn't trot along here as we normally do, holding off until on firmer ground. The trot came up quickly though, and while I got the hang of Hutch's trot straight away, it just didn't feel all that comfortable. I also learned that I could do rising trot while leant over a horse's neck like I was mid-air over a triple-bar fence! lol. Hutch's trot had its own great power, but didn't have the catapult action of Homer and his rounder WB paces. It's nothing like I ever remember riding before, and consequently I'm struggling for the words to describe it! It was not a high-kneed trot though: I was paying attention to see if Starsky or Hutch had that action from their sire, but no (a great looking movement for carriage horses, but bouncier to ride than the traditional straight knee-action).
I found my mind focusing on the canters though. I'd just experienced a new type of trot, and had no idea what canter would be like. I hadn't cantered Homer yet, and honestly haven't needed to: there's so much schooling to do and things we can both work on before going up a pace to apply them in canter! While I'd been fine sitting to Ransom's big strides, it was only for a few circuits of a school and didn't have the power a horse like Hutch can produce. I was glad we'd not gone the road-route out of the yard though: the first stretch of canter by the river is uphill, which is easier for balancing and feels thoroughly wonderful.
I saw the hill, and after we passed two dismounted horses, off we went. I was sat in the saddle and learning forwards, but found it so bouncy that I immediately took a light seat. Hutch's canter surprised me even then though: I was up out of the saddle, but the movement was so big that the saddle came up and hit me in the arse as I hadn't realised just how much adjustment I needed my knees to make! Just as I had a stride or two of being up and forwards without touching the saddle's seat again, we'd reached the top and were back in walk to allow the mares to catch up. On such a physically strong and solid horse, I'd was so impressed with the feeling of that big canter, although it did come with more nerves and fewer strides than on Frankie, Hutch's longer, fewer strides were covering the ground and having the same net effect.
I settled a bit after that canter stretch, but was nervous about a true canter on flat ground, with no hill to make things easier. The RL didn't help when she said to be very aware of branches on this stretch, and be prepared that the horses could try and jump the puddles. That totally put the wind up me: I am a perfectly capable jumper, but it's much easier to do when you know it's coming and what height the horse is going to jump. Not knowing whether Hutch would jump and what height he'd use to clear puddles more than a meter across made me nervous. I quickly decided I wasn't sitting to this canter: I was riding it in the two-point position, which would help with tree-dodging, and would lead to faster and easier adjustment into the correctly angled jump position if suddenly necessary.
None of the horses jumped the puddles in the end, and I really enjoyed the canter: out of the saddle I was comfortable, wasn't phased by the changes in direction to avoid puddles, and didn't feel nervous about cantering unseen when I had to put the top of my hat in a vertical position to take the brunt of the branches. I had a total blast, and Hutch had maintained a lovely rhythm, albeit falling behind Starsky. Honey and rider asked to overtake at this point, and I was happy to let them past: it made sense for the faster pony to go ahead of the steadier horse. The married woman on Stella was finding the mare uncomfortably bouncy (I could hear her footfalls in trot happening twice as often as Hutch's), so she was happy to be behind a slower horse to try and steady her a bit. This did mean that she was in the splash zone from Hutch's weight hitting the ground with those dinner plate feet of his though: even then she didn't take up my offer of passing by! lol.
I decided that come hell or high water, I was having a good go at sitting to Hutch's canter on the next stretch. I immediately felt that I wanted my stirrups shorter when I sat, and in stretching for them I felt my lower leg go forward. I was back in safety zone: when nervous on a big horse and/or stirrups not ideal, lower leg goes forward and heel goes further down. I brought my leg back to the correct position to prove I could do it, and having held that didn't find it hugely comfortable. I made the decision to let them forward: that effective rather than correct riding was more appropriate out hacking, and having the control to turn it on and off means I wouldn't beat myself up about it. My leg was correct when in a light seat too. I did trot with my leg correct though, even though it did take that bit extra effort in my slightly longer-than-usual stirrups. All in all, I wasn't too unhappy about it even if it's not correct.
After this canter, the last of my nerves had completely disappeared. I also came to the realisation that actually nerves and confidence are not two extremes of one spectrum, but are in independent: my brain had been nervous, but I rode assuredly and without fear of falling as I'd secured myself and knew how to cope. I was happy to learn that I could sit to the canter, but also that being out of the saddle like a jockey was more comfortable on this horse and had secure enough legs and balance to maintain it without nerves or wobbles. I found slowing quite funny too: while it was always gradual rather tha sudden, it felt like I was experiencing G-forces in the saddle, a bit like an airplane air-breaking on the runway, but without any threat of me going out Hutch's front door. I was enjoying the trots more and more as time went on too, but still found his trot less comfortable relative to other horses.
We passed quite a few pedestrians whilst walking and trotting, all of which were polite and respectful (as we were in return), always putting their dogs on leads when they heard or saw us and saying “You're welcome” to our thank yous. Starsky and Hutch drew lots of comments and most of the attention, mostly how massive they were, and how they looked like twins. One Asian mother and daughter even took photos of us parading through town! I hope I accidentally come across those photos on facebook some day, but I don't fancy my chances! Lol. I also noticed something in towns that made me laugh: while with Frankie I'd often have to swing my heels toward my bum to avoid wing-mirrors, I was so high up on Hutch that the soles of my feet totally cleared all wing-mirrors, even on a people carrier with higher-set wing-mirrors! The same thing happened with fence posts: with Frankie I either had to work hard to adjust her or tuck my feet up to avoid them, but my feet were above them on Hutch. That really put things into proportion for me!
I should probably mention that Hutch is a head-shaker: even from when I'd seen him ridden bareback onto the yard, he was tossing his nose up and down. I always ignore head-tossing while riding, and wasn't prepared to hold too much contact so that he'd sock himself in the mouth (he had no martingale on), and I didn't want to be yanked on either. I therefore rode him in a 'Western' contact for most of the ride after that 3rd canter when the last of my nerves dissolved. I always took up a contact during road-work for safety's sake and for trotting and cantering, but otherwise I let him fidget along. In truth, it was easier to hold the buckle too: Hutch's neck was so long that even with a good contact, my hands never made it as far as the rubber grip of the rein, only ever to the leather junction where the rubber grips joined the reins! I felt totally safe though: I had no concern that he would spook or try it on, and I never rode on the buckle in any more than walk: he only head-tossed in walk too, so I needed only to make sure I didn't carry tension in the contact whilst moving faster, and I didn't. I used riding on the buckle and his non-forward cut saddle (backwards cut doesn't sound like the correct adjective) as a chance to put my hands over his whithers and spine, and literally feel the movement of his should blades. The length of their stroke was incredible: the degree of movement was beautiful, and I followed every feel of this movement with a wither scratch for generally being such a calm and sexy beast!
I was very aware on this hack as I was the lesson before about maintaining a firm core and really letting the horse move me as M had said on my birthday. I couldn't quite believe how much Hutch's walk shifted my pelvis. When I was really engaging my core, and I do mean engaging: I don't mean just sitting up straight and tall but actually adjusting the alignment of hips, I found I made contact with the saddle in a different way, using less anterior pubic bones and more buttocks. It felt like my seat was deep, and I really want to get feedback on it in my next lesson: to check that this realignment is more correct and classical. There was only one problem though: I was tiring my core out, and with the longest, fastest canter stretch I'd ever done coming up as a surprise, I was about to fatigue them!
On the woodland steps after having spent quite a while riding with core actively and very consciously stabilised, the leader asked me if I'd been this route before. I told her that not only did I know what was coming, but I had gotten rather good at the occasional sliding stop! She laughed, and said that although I'd never been out with her, she had thought from my riding that I was experienced on this route already. This leader was to do things a bit differently though: usually at the bottom of the steps we go for a nice steady canter, then a walk to the stone-tunnels, and then started the fast-stretch there. With so few pedestrians outside of the towns, the fast stretch started as soon as the steps ended this time. I had my plan of attack ready: I would be out of the saddle again for this (as I'd planned in my head to try with Frankie if I'd had her that day and had already found Hutch and I preferred it) and that I would totally relax and enjoy the best bit of the day. Hutch didn't need the aid for canter this time: he took off, and I adored the extra speed he gave. He did not keep up with Honey though: she was doing a Frankie and tearing it up with her rider sat astride, and with the room ahead of us it was all I could do not to put my leg up and ask for gallop. Having spent so much time out of the saddle in canter, knowing I was balanced there even with my eyes pointing at the ground while my hat broke through heavy tree boughs, I had no fear. I knew it must be clear of foot traffic ahead too, as the front horses were still cantering. I resisted though: I knew it was irresponsible, even if I had given Hutch loads of room to come back to me. The woman behind was not enjoying Stella's choppy stride, and had finally taken my advice to stand up through the canter to make it more comfortable: I'm sure that little pony would have galloped too, and that wasn't fair or safe. I did enjoy picking up the pace to catch up though: it was a total thrill to cover the ground so fast, but with much fewer strides than Frankie, making it much more comfortable.
The rest of the ride was sedate: we did some trot work on roads and lanes, but the stretches didn't last as long as with L. We definitely walked more than I'm used to, so saw a bit less of the land, but on such a beautiful morning and with walking being so comfortable, I was happy. The noise of Hutch's footfalls on that open valley bridge and through those two tunnels, as well as the waterfall bridge with such fast water levels made for wonderful sounds too (though Hutch was so big if I fell off him, I could have fallen off the bridges: an impossibility from little Frankie)! I am used to having one final canter after the fast-stretch though, and when we got to usual point, we stayed in walk. I was gutted: I wanted one more canter before I was done. I think where else we could have a last canter instead, and even part of the trot trail had to be walked on the way back because of the ground. We got back onto the narrow, winding path alongside the river, the usual final trot point. Much to my surprise, RL then asked if we were happy to canter this stretch but were free to say no as the foliage made it a bit hazardous for me and the man on Starsky. I was game, he was too, so off we set, and I was grinning! I had to ask 3 times for canter: Hutch was not used to cantering here and was not keen on the idea. A firm boot and strong voice and up he went, and after taking a bit wet smack of rain-covered tree in the face, I spent the rest of the canter laughing with the top of my hat pointing forward. I did discover a new problem though: riding with your head horizontal means water from trees go down your neck and back: yuck! lol. We soon came to the little S-bend and Hutch broke into trot: I wasn't keen on cantering it either, so was quite glad he slowed without asking. With voice alone he transitioned up again after the bend, and off we went tearing through the mud. My place was splashed to buggery, as was the lady's behind (more because of Hutch's splashing than Stella's, poor woman), but we were all smiles. The river crossing was smooth, and I thought he probably needed it as his legs couldn't have been grey any more! Lol.
I spent some time comparing and contrasting horses. Hutch was kind, steady, pretty bomb-proof, a harmless head-tosser and a bit lazy (I often had to work to get a canter: he only offered it once, and often took repeat aids). He was a confidence giver, and I'd recommend him to anyone with the addendum that sitting to his canter was not an easy or comfortable experience at first. Starsky was nappy at points, always motivated by grass and turning away from home, but was clearly a faster, more forward ride. If available again, I'd definitely give Starsky a go – he didn't buck, rear or spin when being brought out of his naps. Frankie in comparison is forward, has short and choppy strides, but if you're used to little horses are easy to ride, and comfy. The only time she feels uncomfortable is that final canter stretch, where her footfalls are so frequent. She's great for any competent rider that can keep their balance and adapt to short strides well, but is a bit speedy for a beginner and I would not put my granny on her unless she was a very competent canter-er! Frankie is heavier in the hand and needs more contact: you can't ride her on the buckle for example, if you're walking in what's usually a trot stretch. She is an ideal hacker though: leads or follows, and transitions up without any encouragement, but will come back to you if you ask (she just doesn't like to be asked)! Lol. I do wonder if I'll ever be lucky enough to be hacking again when Starsky & Hutch are in from the field and are not ear-marked for a Common Ride instead!
We arrived back on the yard, and I hopped off. I went to run the stirrups up, but they were so filthy and grainy from mud, I refused to dirty the saddle with him. I turned to pat Hutch and he tried to use me as a scratching post! I hate that: it's bad manners and he's too big a horse to push against someone. I did very happily scratch his itch with my fingers though, and I could almost feel his relief! I got a quite but appreciated stroke and scratch with him, and then a young boy, maybe about 13 took the reins. (The older, regular grooms had gone to the show with the horses). His response when he saw us was “Fuck me, you brought us back a black horse!” lol. My big horse was whipped away, while I bid him farewell and went in search of my bag and the baby wipes within it. I was mud splattered head to toe: I couldn't change my clothes before the bus, but I could clean my face and hands at least!
I'd had a fab ride. I was pleased that I'd conquered my nerves about cantering so quickly, and that by standing up to canter, I enjoyed things more, really got my gallop confidence up, and genuinely now feel prepared for any size of build of horse thrown at me; I won't turn Theo or Ransom down for a hack just because of their height. I was also delighted to have ridden a few dream horses rolled into one: a Friesian, a draft horse, and of course being my fave colour was the icing on the cake. I thought I would be too short and not heavy enough to ever 'qualify' for taking one of their giants out when I first began riding there, so I'd written off Starsky and Hutch even though I'd fallen for them just from their photographs. I don't think I'd ever ridden a horse who's name and reputation preceded them before: I loved him, and he was so gentle I'd put my granny on him (if I had one)! I think me and Tom could have a great time on them: Tom felt a bit precarious on Murphy because he was narrow with so little there. I actually think he'd feel better higher up on a solidly built horse: I certainly don't notice or get bothered by the height, and I think he'd forget too. Shame I didn't get a Groupon voucher for him! lol. So, when can I justify spending the rest of my money on the next one?! Lol.
Here's a photo of Starsky & Hutch on a common ride: they are steel/rose grey here, but are dappling and paling out on their necks and faces now. The photo's from the YM's daughter who said "Starskey and Hutch out on a common ride. These 2 were not the easiest to back as they were over 17.2 at 3 years old once i worked out how to get above them they turned into the lovliest horses." These are two grown men on them, so I hope that gives some idea of scale! Hutch is in the back, Starskey's in the fore.