I've been riding since I was old enough to point to a pony and squeal.
Not regularly, money was too tight for my parents to have been able to pay for me to have proper riding lessons, not with all the associated expense of a hat, boots, gloves, let alone the jodhpurs, gilets etc that serious riders wear, so I waited until I had birthday and Christmas money, or until I'd saved pocket money, and then negotiated with my father to take time out on his weekend to drive me to the local riding school. That probably happened four or five times a year.
When I reached ten years old and we were living in Watford I had a friend who helped out at a riding school in Radlett, and sometimes I was allowed to go and stay with her after school on a Friday so that we could go to the stables together. And we'd spend a blissful day collecting the ponies from the field in the cold, dawn light, grooming and feeding them, tacking them up for the first of the riders, sometimes mucking out the horses that were stabled, cleaning tack and then, after twelve hours of hard labour, we got to ride the ponies bareback back to the field.
What can I say? I loved it. And I'd probably happily do it again, if a little sixty year old woman wouldn't look ridiculous playing with ponies and hanging out with the teenage girls at the yard.
When I was earning my own living I had regular lessons. And, if I say it myself, I was not a bad rider. I could take a horse round a cross-country course, tackle a show-jumping arena, sometimes, with a fair wind and the right horse, I could even manage a passable dressage display. I was never going to win rosettes or compete at the Horse of the Year Show, and the Spanish Riding School were never going to employ me, but I did ok.
I taught The Rags to ride. Properly, at a really good riding school. Fully kitted-out in the jodhpurs and waxed jackets, the leather boots and gloves that I could never afford when I was their ages. On properly schooled ponies. With skilled instructors. The Ragazza rides well, she has a good seat, she's elegant and precise. The Ragazzo rides more like me. What he lacks in style he makes up for in enthusiasm. Sadly they were never keen enough to want their own ponies and I did not push my frustrated childhood ambitions onto them. It was enough, for them, that we rode together from time to time and had fun.
I hadn't ridden for 9 years.
Today I went to a riding school close to my home and had a lesson. With the children. With the children who were all, I suspect, under 10 years of age. And we walked round the arena, and we trotted in circles, and over poles, and in and out of cones. And we practised sitting to the trot, and rising to the trot, and steering their ponies and my horse, and it was tame and it was beginner's stuff, and it was enough for me. In fact it was almost too much for me.
You see, and here's the thing, through all of last year, after my cancer diagnosis, and all of the MRI and CT scans, the biopsies and ultrasounds, the mastectomy and lymph node removal, the chemotherapy, the radiotherapy, the Herceptin injections, the oncologist appointments, through all of that I held it all together because I had to. I had to be brave for my Ragazzi and I had to be strong because my employers of eight years were, excuse me swearing, bloody useless. No practical support, no emotional support, save for a weekly, "How you doing kiddo?" from a manager at the end of a group conference call and from the other side of the world. No financial support - they even neglected to tell me I was eligible for a critical illness payment that would have enabled me not to have to work through the treatment. To have been able to relax and take time out, to have been able to take a real holiday post surgery, before chemotherapy.
They gave me nothing, rien, niente. They did tell me I would not be paid after I'd exhausted my statutory sick leave. They did not tell me about the critical illness insurance. They did blame me for not questioning the incompetent HR man, they did not think they had done anything wrong.
Do I sound angry?
You bet I am angry!
So, I held it together for eighteen months and then, last month, I fell apart.
I've been trying to work out why.
And then today, as I sat on that horse and tried to pluck up the courage to ride, I realised that I no longer have any confidence in my own body's ability simply to survive. And I really wanted to bail out. To say, "I'm sorry, this is a mistake, I can't do this. I am going to get off this horse and go home and never go near another horse again."
But if I'd done that... well, when we stop fighting we die.
So I stayed in the saddle, holding the reins. Physically and, I think, metaphorically.
It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves (Sir Edmund Hillary)