Review: The Centre of Horseback Combat, Hemel Hempstead, UK Part 1: Rider Confidence

This isn’t a straightforward review to write. What I experienced at the Centre for Horseback Combat was some way beyond words. I’ll do my best to explain it. Over the last two weekends, I went to the Centre for two separate one-day courses: the Rider Confidence Course, and the Horse Combat Day.

The Centre is owned and run by Zana and Karl, two professional stunt riders who perform all over the world with their team. They don’t teach you how to ride – if you want standard riding lessons, they state on their website, there are plenty of good riding schools who can offer you that. They offer courses in stunt riding, trick riding, confidence, mounted combat, horseback archery, and more.

I heard about them through my university riding club, who had organised the Horse Combat Day (see part 2). I had also seen their horse lorry on the motorway a few times, with Stunt Horses In Transit emblazoned on the tailgate. I investigated the Centre’s website and noticed the page for the Rider Confidence Course. It was covered in glowing testimonials. The course covers a few potentially terrifying experiences: a rearing horse, a falling horse, losing your seat, and my personal demon: falling off completely. Using their trained and well-mannered stunt horses, participants are able to experience these scenarios in a safe and controlled manner, and learn how to cope should any of these things happen. There is also a session of hypnotherapy designed to put a stop to any irrational fears.

It took me over a month to summon the courage just to register for a place on the course, and I left it until two days before the course was happening. It was a moment of panic: panic that I would die on the course, and panic that if I didn’t do the course, I would die from a rearing, falling, spooking, throwing-me-off horse. If I was going to be jousting and shooting a bow, I thought, I had better deal with all this fear first.

I woke up on that chilly Sunday morning feeling horrifically ill with nerves. My stomach was churning, I could barely eat, and the knot in my guts got tighter and tighter as I drove to the Centre. I was sure that this was the stupidest thing I’d ever done, including dating a cowboy, and including quitting my university degree to go and be with said cowboy.

We started with a session inside with Karl, who is a qualified hypnotherapist, and who specialises in equestrians. We needed to wipe the slate of fear clean. I’m not sure what I think of hypnotherapy, but at this point I was ready to try anything. I had nothing to lose by getting stuck in as completely as I could.

The Centre is beautiful. It’s nestled amongst the trees, surrounded by quiet green fields, and absolutely no road noise. I am used to riding at a school where the A3 thunders past behind a twiggy hedge, a stone’s throw from the arena. The Centre’s arena is tucked away in the walled garden. You feel enveloped, safe and protected. It has a springy, soft surface, the fence is decorated with standards, and the sound of birdsong accompanies the instructors’ voices. And, might I add, Karl and Zana are lovely to listen to. They speak with a calm, no-nonsense manner, without the brashness that I’ve often found at riding schools, and their confidence and enthusiasm is infectious. Their instruction is clear, concise and easy to absorb.

“It doesn’t have to be pretty,” Zana said, demonstrating how to scramble back into your saddle as she hung off one side of her horse. She makes it looks easy and exceptionally pretty, but then she is a professional and evidently has years of dance training (I spotted her ballet hands a mile off), and abdominals made of liquid titanium.

Our first experience was rebalancing. Just a few days before, I had lost my centre of balance by about two inches whilst attempting to get a deadened horse to canter whilst I had no stirrups. The panic had made me want to retch, and I had sent my right leg into spasm as I’d gripped hard with my thighs to squirm myself back into the centre. Zana showed us how far it was possible to slip before you are even close to thinking about falling. It was considerably more than two inches. I felt very silly.

Our first task was designed to teach us how to find our centre of balance (we rode in Cossack trick saddles, which have a gloriously large horn to hold on to for dear life, should you feel the need – and I never did feel that need…), and quickly and easily adjust our seat, even if we found ourselves sitting side-saddle. We learned how to switch from side to side. I recalled carefree days at Pony Club Camp, having Around The World races, when I used to throw my legs around my horse until I had turned through 360 degrees and back again without a second thought. This is was nowhere near as gung ho, and a whole lot safer, but I was still swallowing some worries.

“You can go first,” Zana said, smiling at me. I put on my bravest face and climbed up into the saddle. Niagara, Zana’s courteous grey Andalucian gelding, barely twitched an eyelid. I tried to engage my dancer brain, and not my panic brain, and think of it as choreography. I had to learn the moves, and I learn by doing. It was very much easier than I had imagined. Just a little tweak and shuffle, and I was completely balanced. After a bit of practice at a standstill, we set off at a walk, and then later at a trot. The movement of the horse was helpful, now that I wasn’t bracing against it in blind terror. I caught myself smiling from the inside, like I used to when I bombed around the fields with Domino, my beloved pony of many years ago.

The next experience was sliding off-balance to one side of the horse, learning how to stabilise myself, and how to get my balance back. This had sent my whole life flashing in front of my eyes just four days earlier. First, there was practice at a standstill and learning where the limits are. I learned just how feeble my upper body is, and made a mental note to do more pushups, but my limits were evidently further than I thought. Again, we set off at a walk, and then a trot, to drum the movement into my brain. Zana jogged alongside, giving encouragement and correction.

“Man, she is so cool,” I thought to myself, watching her demonstrate and teach, and wondering where she got her energy from. I needed a piece of that, and what’s more, I felt like it was coming to me. An infectious positivity was seeping into me, as we moved on to the next challenge: a horse that rears.

Niagara chewed on his hackamore while he waited, and at Zana’s request, lifted up gracefully onto his hindlegs, and dropped back down without a fuss. He looked around with his ears pricked expectantly. He is adorable.

“He’s looking for a polo,” Zana explained. “He’s trained not to rear when he’s not asked. If he does it when he’s supposed to, he gets a treat; if he does it when he’s not supposed to, he gets nothing.” A good rule. Niagara was duly rewarded for his good show. Zana explained the aid to ask him to rear, and how we should respond as riders to school a horse that rears out of bad behaviour. To me it was fairly common sense, but perhaps I’ve been helped by watching Cowboy working with horses and his analogy of leaving doors open and closed for horses. The open door will be where you want them to go, so you take the pressure off that part of the horse. There were other riders in the group who had probably had worse experience than I had with rearing, and it was an education to me to see how other people responded.

I was up first again, and for a moment I thought Niagara wasn’t going to oblige, but with a little help from Zana’s commands on the ground, up he went. I couldn’t help an excited little “Woohoo!” from slipping out. It was like flying. It felt easy and safe (and he wasn’t going up that high anyway). We reared a few times, to get a good feel for it, and to practice the necessary movement. I discovered that I wanted more.

After a good lunch at the pub across the road, we came back to learn about a falling horse, and about falling off. A wooden horse and a crash mat were set up in the arena. We had an expert demonstration from one of the stunt team, and then the movement was broken down. Having broken my left arm and torn up my right arm from falling off horses in the last year, this was my biggest mental block. Falling meant pain and long rehabilitation. It meant the end was nigh. It meant I should go to bed and never ride horses or ever have fun again.

The blue crash mat beckoned. We learned about how to jettison ourselves from the saddle safely. Technique was driven into us with repetition. After tripping and nearly face-planting twice while I tried to get on, I looked down from the wooden horse at the blue mat and made a pathetic squeaky sound. What if I fell on my face?

“You’re overthinking it,” our helpful demonstration stuntman said. “Just go for it.” Cowboy’s voice rang in my ears: “It’s all in your head, babe.” I squeaked, shut my eyes and went for it. The mat was cold, but squishy, and it wasn’t awful at all. I didn’t have a broken arm.

“Good!” Karl said cheerfully. “Without the squeaky noise next time!”

We threw ourselves off the wooden horse again and again. Each time, we got a little quicker, a little smoother, and I felt my dancer brain kicking in. This was the choreography, the mat was the mark I had to hit. As Karl explained where my shoulder should be as I fell, I began to visualise the movement pattern, trying to get my muscle memory to take it all in.

We practised how we might land if we fell over the horse’s shoulder by walking through the motions, so that we learned what it would look like and how to land safely. I rolled around in the arena sand, determined to make the most of it. It wasn’t going to be the last arena sand I ever get in my hair, but it was going to be the best. I wanted more. More falling. Falling from higher. Falling from speed. I wanted to make it ordinary. I used to fall off all the time as a kid, bounce and roll, get back up, and get back on. It was the lack of falling in my life that made it terrifying. I forgot how, and when I was bucked off into the sagebrush last summer, I ended up in hospital (eventually, after much bullying from Cowboy). But now falling was an art. It was a choreographed dance. I knew the steps.

We finished our work in the arena by visualising what it would be like to have a horse slip and fall over, and talked through how to respond if our foot is caught in the stirrup, if we are stuck under the horse, or if our foot is free. Niagara snoozed in the sand while Zana showed us how we might end up, what we would need to think about, and then with a little command, Niagara got up neatly with her still on his back. She’s so cool, she did it bareback.

“Man, she is so cool,” I thought to myself. “When I grow up I want to be like her.” Never mind that I should probably be grown up already, at 27 years old, and my abdominals will never be that taut.

One of the other horses was asked to lie down so that we could all crouch down beside him and picture the scene: we’ve fallen out on the trail, we’re down on the ground with him. We imagined what we would think, how it would look. It wasn’t a bad sight.

We finished the day with another session of hypnosis with Karl. My brain felt like it was overloading, but at the same time I was feeling flooded with visions of wonderful possibilities on horseback. I imagined riding the trails with Cowboy, imagined galloping across the hills, imagined ducking around cows, imagined falling, getting up and getting back on, imagined how glorious it would feel to be able to get on Sunshine and trust her instead of fear her. How wonderful it would be to let her be a horse without assuming her intention was to get rid of me. How good it would be to move with her, relax into her, balance with her, and let all of my nervous tension that winds her up just disappear.

I opened my eyes at the end of the session feeling optimistic. I had no idea if it had worked, but I wasn’t dead, and I’d spent a lot of the day laughing and smiling. The test would come when I rode again, and when I came back to the Centre the following weekend for Horseback Combat.

I went for a regular lesson at our motorway-friendly yard the following Wednesday. There is a lane we have to ride down to take the horses back to their stables from the arena, and I usually approach the lane with a sense that something awful will happen and I will fall on my face and break my skull and die (it never happens). This time there was no such wave of fear. My horse wandered along, his ears up as he looked around – a move that usually worried me – and he sighed as he stretched out after our lesson. He was relaxed and happy, and so was I. I imagined what it would be like if a bird was to fly out of the hedge and spook him. My imagination suggested that I would stay on, laugh, smile, and carry on like nothing happened.

A curious thing happened. It wasn’t just in the saddle that I noticed the difference. I noticed that as I was drifting off to sleep, my mind would bring up images of riding, of it being easy and light and carefree. It would bring up images of falls and spooky horses, and it wouldn’t be a problem. It would bring up images of me coping with all of it, and enjoying it. I had several night of vivid dreams where I did this equine choreography over and over, practised dismounting, falling, rearing. I would wake up feeling energised and ready to face the world. I suddenly had more faith in my car, no longer worrying that it was about to fall apart on the motorway. I had confidence in my decision to move to the USA. Somewhere, I’d opened up a seam of Good Stuff in my brain, and I was mining out nuggets of Julie Andrews singing “I Have Confidence”. I got to grips with other tasks in my life that I had been putting off, as I embarked on a mad week of moving house and minding a very small child for my brother. I was able to robustly deflect any negative suggestions from other people. I slept well.

More than anything, I long to get back out to Washington to get back on Sunshine and feel the difference in her. I want to show Cowboy that the rigid fear in my spine is gone. I want to feel her quick, quarter horse gaits without worrying about them. I want to spend time with her without being suspicious of her. It wasn’t her fault that I got injured whilst riding her in the summer – she was trying hard to do what I asked and didn’t mean to hurt me. It’s time for us to get beyond that one experience and bond properly. She’s only young, and we probably have many years of riding together, if life goes as I hope it does. I’m just glad that I took this course sooner rather than later.

I arrived at the Centre with a sense of dread, and left with a new outlook on my equestrian life. Perhaps it was just the reawakening of my childhood love of all things horses. Whatever it was, it has proliferated across my whole consciousness, and I feel like I’ve emerged from a long, dark hibernation.

The only down side I’ve encountered so far is Cowboy’s surprise at the overnight transformation in me. He has yet to see what I’ve achieved, he’s only heard me talk about it over the phone, and he’s not sure what to make of it. “What happened to my timid English girlfriend?” he asked, bemused. “What did they do to you?”

I am sure he will like what he sees. He won’t hear me say “I don’t want to do that” so often. He might hear me say “Hey, let’s try that!” I’m excited about it.

Anybody looking to rekindle their enjoyment of riding, or hoping to shrug off their fear demons, this is the course you need. Don’t hesitate to book yourself a place.

Read more about my experience at the Centre of Horseback Combat in part 2 of my review: Horseback Combat Day!

You can find details of all of the courses on offer at the Centre of Horseback Combat by visiting their website: www.horsebackcombat.co.uk. They offer gift vouchers, and also cater for parties (e.g. stags and hens) if you have some adventurous friends. You can see their own stunt team, the Stampede Stunt Company, performing around the country. Check their website for their show schedule: www.stampedestuntcompany.co.uk

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