Healthy as a horse: riding at Vauxhall City Farm


BYLINE: Nicola Marven

“Top horse riders are as fit as 100 metre athletes,” the sprightly riding instructor Tess O’Brien tells me. “But those horses in the Olympics were every bit as important as the athletes that rode them.” Perhaps the horse will do all the work for me then? She laughs: “It’s a team sport.”

I’m here at Vauxhall City Farm to burn 384 calories an hour whilst sitting down. It sounds like a wild goose chase, but the place feels like a magical Disney film: hairy Kune Kune pigs are posing for gaggles of school children and a Shetland pony is relaxing after work at the Royal Ballet. Really.

Linda Hinds, Riding Centre Manager, is very happy to work there. “If I get stressed, I can go and cuddle an animal. People who work in offices can’t do that. Horse riding is a sport anyone can access, from four to sixty years old. We’d like more funding to build bigger stables.”

Why do they need bigger stables? “We need bigger horses. We generally have a weight limit of 11 stone for riders.” I cough. I may exceed the weight limit. She laughs politely. “With bigger stables we can support more riders. We’d like to do that but we’re very reliant on grants and donations.”

This is probably why when George the horse comes wandering out, he doesn’t look impressed. Winter’s comfort-food hibernation has not left me looking Olympian, but he definitely looks wary. Perhaps the horsemeat headlines are still fresh in his memory.

I heap my frame upon the poor beast but my joints creak. “Ooh, I heard that hip click!” exclaims Tess with glee. George looked round. Was that pity I saw in his eyes?

Once up, staring over the green of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, I feel like a warrior. Now where’s the ‘go’ button? “You have to squeeze your thighs,” Tess tells me. Groan. I just about locate my hidden inner thigh muscles and George saunters off. Hooray!

Giddy with excitement, I hear Tess reminding me to keep my core tight and my posture upright. “Your posture is really important because if you don’t balance yourself properly the horse can’t work to balance you either – you have to work together.” And if I lose my balance? “You’ll fall off.”

There’s nothing like the prospect of injury to keep you focussed. The wind on my face blows all the cobwebs away, along with thoughts of deadlines and washing up. I can’t pop on headphones and zone out like I’m jogging: I really have to pay attention to what the horse wants. And right now he keeps stopping like he wants to tell me something, something important, something perhaps of the deep hidden bond between man and beast…

“He wants to stop for a pee,” said Tess, “stand up in your stirrups so you don’t crush his kidneys.”

With an awkward manoeuvre, I stand up very quickly, not because some aerobic instructor told me to, but because I don’t want to hurt poor George. This contact with animals really is psychologically beneficial over and above any benefits gained simply from doing an outdoor activity or taking physical exercise.

I don’t feel like a sweaty hot mess at the end, I just feel more alert and quite lifted – a little healthier, a little happier. Despite my less than graceful dismount, George and I stare at each other with big grins when I say goodbye. Forget losing weight, I think I just scored a second date.

Lessons at Vauxhall City Farm, 0207 582 4204, are £30 for a half-hour private lesson.


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