I ask myself the same question, every time, every year. Actually two questions, simultaneously. “Am I fit enough to ride short?” “Am I fit enough to not ride short?”
It’s always at the bottom of a British gallop, amongst a set of trainer George Baker’s, a bouncing line of horses coiling and readying to leap into motion. I watch the other riders, when they go for their stirrups, I go for mine, always pondering the last hole or two, ‘Should I – can I – go up one more?’ Ride too short, you get tired. Ride too long, you get tired. I usually choose a happy medium; it feels short now, 13 years after riding a race. Back then, it would have felt long.
Ride short, and it’s easier to hold them. Ride short, and it’s easier to…fall off, get tired, cramp from using muscles you haven’t used since the last time they made you sing for your supper at Manton, Whitsbury or Far Westfields. It’s the annual Cheltenham tradition – stay out, ride out. I’m getting used to it. Somewhere, deep below my aching shoulders, my tightened calves, my heightened nerves, I do enjoy it. Refreshing to get the blood flowing early in the morning, even better to feel the rhythm of a Thoroughbred, feel the wind, the speed, the power (oh, I sound like a movie trailer).
It’s even better in England, where uphill gallops do most of the work for you. Horses pull only to the level of effort, as they climb, you can feel them take a deep breath, allowing you to take a deep breath. After a few mornings, just a few gallops, I begin to relax and enjoy the ride. Four Nations, an American-bred son of Langfuhr aiming at a foray to the Iroquois Steeplechase, guides me up the gallops most mornings. He pulls just enough to make me pay attention but not enough to make me panic. His sense of humor for the job is contagious, he has come around in the months he’s been with Baker, slowly, steadily enjoying the routine again. The first time I reach up to pet him behind his ears, he recoils. The second time, his ears flutter. The next time, they go up. And stay up. What a companion for the week.
On the first morning, they ask me, “Hey, Claaaaancy, when was the last time you rode?” I said, “Oh, I ride a little at home.” “When was the last time you galloped a horse?” “Oh, that’s different. Right here, a year ago.”
Wow, does it come back to you. The subtle nuances, the subtle tricks to the trade, learned so many years ago – widening my cross to gain an inch of leverage, sliding my right hand back when Four Nations switches to his left lead, alternating pressure with each ring finger at the bottom of the gallop to instill rhythm in him…
This year, it is cold; wind gusting, nose running, toes freezing, horses wild from the chill and the breeze. At 42, perspective simply has become a natural part of thought, I almost whinge about the cold, then think of all the friends, all the comrades who aren’t here any more or can’t ride any more. I think of Jake Chalfin specifically. Paralyzed from the chest down from fall in 2010, Jake loved to ride horses – foxhunting, racing, anything.
As Four Nations climbs the woodchip gallop, past Baker’s white Range Rover, past Brian Meehan’s set, I think to myself, ‘Wow, what Jake would do, to do this.’ I pull up at the top of the hill with a smile. Four Nations’ ears go up. My stirrups feel just right.
– Check out more about Jake.
– Check out more about George Baker’s move to Manton.
– And even more about George Baker.