After about six months in Kitwe I had settled into teaching at Chamboli and made some very good friends. One of the my friends who was a very keen horse rider suggested I might like to join the “Polo Club” which was situated alongside the Agricultural Show grounds just out on the Ndola road. In actual fact polo was no longer played there – it was simply a riding club the name had obviously arisen in colonial days and still remained.
As school finished around 1 p.m. and with the afternoons free most people joined some sort of club to occupy ones time. At the riding club there was a full programme of social events (as well as a swimming pool) so I paid my subscription and began to enjoy the facilities although of course I did not have a horse.
This was about to change, however, as in the new year I was approached by one of the trainers from Kitwe race track who said he’d heard I was looking for a horse. The trainer said that he had retired one of his horses from the track wanted to sell him and would I like to see him? I had nothing to lose so I agreed and I was taken out to the stables and introduced to Dandy Dick. He enjoyed standing with his front legs in his manger so as I looked down the stable block my first view of him was his head way above the other horses. He looked very handsome. A gelding, not quite black, seventeen hands tall with a lovely sheen to his coat.
We took him out into the sunshine and he was led around for my approval – I don’t know what the trainer thought I knew about horses ! So far, a price hadn’t been mentioned and I must admit that I felt that, lovely as the animal was, I couldn’t really afford a race horse even though he wasn’t racing any more. When the trainer asked me what I thought I had to agree that he was a fine animal but it would be way out of my league as a mere teacher. He handed the halter rope to me and said “Give me thirty quid.” I couldn’t believe my ears. £30 for this lovely animal. He went on to explain that it was costing him about £150 a month to keep him in training and he would rather let him go to someone who would give him a bit of care and attention and enjoy riding him. He pointed out that he hadn’t been schooled for general riding but would require quite a bit of work to cure him of the race track. In my ignorance I said that that would not be a problem. I was to remember his words and my reply. I handed over the thirty pounds and arranged with the club for a stable and groom. The cost for me was to be £7 a month which included all food, a groom and his stabling which I felt was a bargain.
I couldn’t wait for the weekend when I could actually ride Dandy Dick for the first time. I took him of the stable and led him outside into the yard. I had borrowed a saddle and with some help put it on him. He snorted a couple of times and looked back at what was going on. He hadn’t been saddled up for some weeks so he was a bit restless. I should have read the signs but in my ignorance I didn’t. As he was so tall I took him over to the mounting block and put my foot into the stirrup, and swung the other leg over his back. The next minute I was flat on my back. Dandy Dick had puffed his stomach out when we’d fastened his girth strap so that when I’d put my weight on the saddle he had relaxed and the saddle simply swung down underneath him depositing me neatly on the sand by the block. My pride was the only thing hurt so I tightened the girth and tried once more. This time there were no problems and I settled myself nervously in the saddle.
My first impression as I sat astride him was the feeling of all that incredible power that was between my legs. Secondly, I realized that I was about ten feet up in the air and consequently the ground was a long way down. The trekking ponies in Wales, my only previous riding experience had been nothing like this. Dandy Dick could obviously feel my uncertainty, nervousness and inexperience and he looked back over his shoulder at me to see just who this guy was sitting on his back. I swear he had a grin on his face as he started to do quick little steps in the sand. I gathered the reins, determined to show him who was the boss and pressed my heels into his flank. I knew that the most important thing for me to do was to keep my heels down. After a few seconds of hesitation Dandy Dick settled down and we moved off. I experimented with the reins and pointed his head towards the open bush area which was beyond the stables. He moved off in the right direction and I began to relax. ‘This was more like it,’ I thought, as my confidence began to grow.
Dandy Dick was obviously enjoying himself too, not having been ridden for some time and was looking around him checking out just what was going on. He had been neglected for far too long. There were other people there, other horses and some of the grooms watching our progress. We passed out of the stable yard and started to make our way slowly in between the anthills and underneath the stunted trees. Needless to say the sun was shining, it was a gorgeous day and I couldn’t believe that I was riding my own horse through the African bush. Everything felt right. There were one or two other riders out as well who greeted me as I passed by and I really felt part of the riding scene. I wasn’t confident enough to try to make him go any faster than a walk but was completely satisfied with our stately progress.
Eventually, after about twenty minutes, we reached the far end of the polo club grounds and I pulled on the left rein to turn his head back towards the stables and the club house and kicked his right flank. He’d had enough. It’s difficult to describe what happened next. I felt him tense. His muscles under my legs quivered and from what was virtually a standing start he went into a full gallop. After all, he was a thoroughbred racehorse and this is what he had been trained to do at the start of the race ! I hung on for grim death. The wind whistled past my ears, I was being thrown all over the place but at least I was staying on. After my first panic I realize that there was nothing I could do but concentrate on keeping on his back and keeping my feet in the stirrups with my heels pressed down.
A race horse at full gallop runs at about forty miles per hour but it felt like sixty. The trainer had told me that Dandy Dick was a sprinter and that he was capable of running five furlongs, roughly a thousand meters, in just under sixty seconds. Was Dandy Dick trying to show me something, or was he trying to impress me? My heart was banging and in a perverse way I began to enjoy myself. I didn’t get an opportunity to revel in my enjoyment for long however, and the feeling lasted only seconds because as we approached the end of the riding ground and got nearer to the stables we were heading straight for an enormous anthill the sides of which had been trimmed back with a bulldozer so that the rock hard sand was a vertical wall some twelve feet tall. I took all this in in a flash, as one does !
What to do now? I had to decide which way he was going to go round the obstacle, as sure as hell he wasn’t going over the top. ‘So,’ I thought, in what must have been a nanosecond, ‘if he goes to the right I must lean to the right, if he goes left then I would have to do the opposite.’ Just like riding a bike really. Needless to say I chose the wrong option. Dandy Dick went to the left, I leaned to the right. Centrifugal force now took over and I flew gracefully out of the saddle and carried straight on in a straight line hitting the wall at about thirty five miles an hour. It was like a Tom and Jerry cartoon. I remember hitting the wall and then sliding down it to finish up in a heap in the sand at the bottom while Dandy Dick continued on his way and only stopped when he’d reached his stable door.
People nearby rushed over to see if I was OK. Later, one or two of them confided with me that they expected me to be seriously injured as I had hit the anthill at such a speed. I wasn’t even wearing a crash hat. I lay still for a while, totally winded and began to move my limbs checking if they were all right. Thankfully I could move them and I sat up with my back against the wall. My ribs felt as though I had been trodden on by a herd of elephants. I could breath though and after a few minutes got to my feet and someone offered to take me up to the hospital but apart from the bruised ribs the only other part of me that was hurt was my pride. I had just learned the hard way that there was something more to this riding business than just sitting in the saddle like a poser!
Looking back at the incident I realized that it was completely my fault. Dandy Dick was trained to walk out to the end of a five furlong straight and then go like the clappers as fast as he could to the finishing line. Plus, of course the fact that his stable was ready and waiting for him in that direction. As I had turned him I must have given him an extra hard kick in his ribs or some other sign and he took it for the ‘off’ !
Fortunately, shortly after my disastrous initiation into riding a full sized horse a young woman came out to Kitwe who was a graduate of the Spanish school of riding, joined the club and offered riding lessons to anyone who wanted them. I decided that I must invest a little money in a safe future and took lessons.
Over the months to come I learned how to ride and spent a lot of time with him on the end of a lunge rein, schooling him and trotting him over posts just lying on the ground. These we raised gradually until after some months of very hard work we finished up jumping fences up to 4’6” high and I entered junior show jumping events at the club. Eventually Dandy Dick lost most of his race course bad manners, not totally however, as whenever there was a competition of some sort at the club and there were more people and cars there than usual he seemed to sense the atmosphere and he would begin to sweat and get very agitated and his neck would become covered in thick white sweat. He obviously had never got over the adrenaline rush that he had whenever he saw the car park full of cars and people watching the events, he obviously thought that he would be taking part in the races – When we got out on to the course and started the jumps he would take a lot of pulling back from top speed. At least by then I had learned how to do it and I only fell off him once more and what was so satisfying was I had learned a new skill