England – Fabulous horses, green forever fields, sheep, wildflowers, and fat log jumps perfectly tied up with twine, the great Tony Hill driving along beside me on an ATV yelling to me in that know-everything-there-is-to-know English accent.
I am on a 17-hand powerhouse of a horse. Galloping along in jumping position, counting strides between log jumps – up, down, and around the course. My heart pounding faster than the horses hoofs on the soft English earth. I try to regulate my breathing so I don’t pass out, trying to hold this engine underneath me at a steady pace while Tony Hill is yelling, “Pinky! pinky, Nina, your pinky…!”
My pinky seems to want to grip the rein instead of hanging out on the other side of it. So at full speed looking straight ahead, I release my little finger and hang it out over the taut reins half way up my horse’s neck. “Perfect.” Tony yells back at me over the loud noise of his machine, “Now keep that position for the rest of your life and you’ll be fine!” Who cares about my foolish pinky, I’m going to die. The rest of my life will be just until I get to that jump in front of me.
Tony Hill cares. About your hands, your breathing, your butt, your legs, and what you’re doing with all these things as you learn to fly. I’m not going to die. That’s the most important lesson. Tony would not let me do something I (or the horse) was not capable of doing.
When I was a young girl growing up in upstate New York, I rode every day. I never took lessons except from my mother. After school I would get on my horse and ride around the jumping courses that the hunt club people would use weekends. My best friend and I decided we would go to England after we got out of high school and take the Horsemasters course. What happened then is a tad vague now, but I think I lost my nerve. It seemed that the older I got, the less courage I had. By the time I went to college I was afraid of what I would have to face on those English cross-country courses. I remember seeing a photograph on a brochure of a horse jumping down into water and it scared me.
Even harder to admit was that I didn’t want to leave my brand new summer boyfriend. Pathetic, I know, and very embarrassing. Too soon old, too late smart. Old saying that makes more sense every year.
Now it’s the time in my life where I am assessing the mistakes and trying to fix as many as I can to finish up proud and fulfilled. Horses are playing a great part in the repair. Glue for the heart and glue for the nerves that are frayed from fear. It seems that instead of turning and running from my fears, or worse just ignoring them, it’s best to face them head on and realize that they existed mostly in my mind. Even though they felt like they were imbedded into every bone in my body.
Thirty years later, but better than never, I decide to go to England and take a course in cross-country jumping. Thirty years from now would be too late. I started to plan. Searching the Internet, reading everything I could, talking to those in the know, I heard about Great Rapscott in Dover and Tony Hill, and knew this was exactly where I needed to go. Cross Country International made the arrangements and off I went.
Tony Hill grew up in the 16th century stone Devon Longhouse that is still his home and home to guests at his 800-acre horse farm, Great Rapscott. One beautiful Tudor room leads into another. We had breakfast in the morning room, where large glass doors open onto a perfectly manicured lawn. Beyond, the hills seem to go on forever, dotted with cows, white sheep and separated by perfect hedgerows. The living room, filled with comfortable couches, chairs and the fireplace is where we spent the evenings talking about riding and watching Tony’s riding videos. One night we watched “International Velvet.” Tony was an extra in the movie and his wife Stephanie pointed him out to us as he flew by on the giant jumping courses.
Tony was the good-looking teenage boy wrapped in a blanket in one close-up scene, and the boy who helped Tatum O’Neal get up after a fall. Tatum’s horse in the movie along with most of the horses used in the cross-country jumping scenes, were trained at Great Rapscott. Besides being a famous movie star, he rode in the Junior Three-Day event team for Great Britain winning gold and silver medals. There isn’t a course in Great Britain that Tony has not ridden including the famed Badminton Three-Day Event and over 30 Point to Point wins.
Growing up under the wing of his greatest inspiration, Birdie Hill, Tony was exposed to the best training England, and the world, had to offer. Birdie was not only Tony’s dad, but also his mentor and eventually his partner in creating the training program at Great Rapscott. A riding legend in Great Britain, he competed in three Olympic games, winning the gold medal in the Three-Day Event in 1956. In 1967 he became the Three-Day Event team trainer for Great Britain, helping the nation win gold medals in European, World Champion, and Olympic games.
The back stairs that go up from the kitchen to the bedrooms and baths are lined with photographs of Birdie Hill during his career. There is a photograph of him training Princess Anne. The Queen, of course, would not settle for anything short of the best for her daughter.
Held captive by those photographs of three generations of riders, the nightly trip through the stairwell will forever be in my memory.
But, of course, the best times I spent at Great Rapscott was on the back of a horse. Every morning after breakfast we walked out to the end of the house where the stones turned from house to stable, and got on our horses. Tony and his dad decided years ago to keep the training down to four people per week, two trained in the morning and two each afternoon.
The other two students are free to do as they wish, but no one wanted to miss watching Tony work. I found I could learn as much watching and listening as I could from riding, plus it gave me a great opportunity to photograph and relax in the English sun. That is not an oxymoron; the sun was out most of the time during that week in May.
Tony worked with us one-on-one. The other student on a horse would ride around and wait for his or her turn, mostly watching because no one wanted to miss one word he said. Before we would start jumping, we would spend the morning training in the art of Dressage. My horse responded to me, as I responded to what Tony told me. It was like magic. I had no previous experience with Dressage and I was doing it, only because I listened and Edward listened. Fascinating.
The first day of jumping I was scared to death, but Tony knew that, so he gave me a horse that could have done the course without me. Things went great and I felt like I was this fabulous rider, riding the horse over the jumps, and riding on to the next one. After a few days he asked me to get on a different horse. I thought, “Oh no, that’s OK, the horse I have been riding is working out just great.” He said, “You haven’t been riding that horse. You’re just sitting up there looking good.” Well, feels like riding to me, I’m fine, someone take my picture.
Nope, didn’t work. Edward, who was my morning horse, was not as fond of jumping, as was Don. He was the best Dressage horse for me, but had to be ridden over the jumps. At first I rode him like I rode Don. One of my biggest fears is falling off a horse that refuses a jump. So, holding back, I get scared and don’t ride. I brought this up to Tony earlier in the week when we discussed our goals. This is why the first few days he had me on a horse that would never refuse a jump. Tony wanted to teach me how to ride Edward forward, into the middle of the jump, and over it. At first Edward refused. “You see, he refused and you didn’t fall off, take him around again!”
I would ride that horse as strong as I knew how and Edward would go over and Tony would yell, “Again!” Oh no please, let’s quit while I’m ahead. “Again!” So I take him over it again, mad now, and very aggressive. “Again!” So again I go, around and over, knowing that if Edward refused, or swerved around the jump I would be doing this all day. With more determination then I have ever put into anything I rode that horse over the jump for what seemed like the hundredth time. Tony finally smiled his big approving smile and said, “OK, enough, you did grand, you’re finally riding.” The next day Tony had me back on Don. The difference in my riding kept a grin on my face all day. I was riding him and it felt fantastic.
Nina Fuller is a freelance writer/photographer living in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Visit her website, www.ninafuller.net.