“La Vie du Château”
Aah …. the good life, in French.
And here’s a rather gorgeous, distant view of a pair of châteaux which crown a rocky outcrop above the Gorges d’Aveyron, an hour or so’s drive from here. (You wouldn’t believe how sadly decrepit they were inside, tragically dilapidated.) There are two, side by side, because – well it was due to a complicated family quarrel which wouldn’t have been out of place in a modern TV “soap”.
Last Friday was our wedding anniversary, so I got out the old Michelin green guides and tried to find somewhere different we could do in a day without too much driving. And so we visited Bruniquel, an almost deserted village with two extant and two ruined castles on the border between the Tarn and Garonne and the Tarn departments.
(Forgive me if you already know – I didn’t, until I came to live in France – that the French “départements” – an administrative area between a county and a state in size – were redesignated in the Napoleonic era and named for the rivers that flow through them. It’s very practical to remember, once you’ve got the hang of it!)
Bruniquel (a mellifluous name to my ear) belongs to the designated tourist category of “One of the Most Beautiful Villages in France”. In other words, it is hanging on to life as a picturesque fragment of architectural history, but hardly anyone wants to live there, as there is precious little work around except to serve a 2 month tourist season. And the houses were built by tiny, undernourished, medieval-sized people who used their livestock as central heating. It’s now just a notch above village-as-museum.
Legend has it that Bruniquel owes its name to Brunehilde or Brunehaut, a 6th century Visigoth princess (not to be confused with the legendary Valkyrie) who married Sigebert 1st of the Francs. After his death she ruled, as regent, over parts of France, in bitter rivalry with her in-laws, especially Frédégonde, (the woman she believed responsible for the murder of her sister Galswinthe) the mistress who then married Brunehilde’s brother-in-law Chilpéric.
Queen Brunehaut …..
The Valkyrie Brünhilde …
Though she outlived most of her enemies, and was regent for her son and grandson, in her eighties Brunehilde met a terrible, vengeful fate. Cornered, at last, by rival forces she was tied her by her hair, one arm and one leg to the tail of an unbroken horse, which they then loosed and whipped on to do its worst.
How brutal! I expect all of you riders shuddered at the savagery and carnage of Brunehilde’s martyrdom.
And were any of you, like me, reminded of times when you’ve been carted, or thrown, or even avoided coming to grief by a hairsbreadth? And afterwards found fear sitting on your shoulder like an evil imp………
The downside of riding and that addictive relationship with our horses is fear of the inevitability of falls, knockdowns and the risk of very serious injury. We’ve now, mostly, succumbed to the sense of wearing helmets when riding, yet most riding injuries are to limbs and ribs, which have little protection. And possibly more of us are injured on the ground, especially in banal circumstances where we least expect it and would feel ridiculous wearing protection.
I had a broken jaw and skull fractures just from tripping backwards when letting the horses in for the night (my recently fractured tibia was still too weak to support me properly) and I’m still not sure whether my head met up with a stone wall or a shod hoof!
Anyway, because we can never be immune from accidents, the best and most obvious way to protect ourselves (besides the physical protections) is the confidence and horsemanship we build between ourselves and our horses.
When you’re very young and rubber-coated by your imagined immortality, you expect to fall and remount, maybe break bones and mend; you are always on an upward trajectory. Confidence is largely untried and sky-high in bold youngsters.
But, alas, what goes up must come down. Just getting older and knowing your bones are more brittle; having an accident or a fall, having work or parenting responsibilities you can’t afford weeks off from; all sorts of life’s “what-if’s” make you more risk-averse and less gung-ho (I love the old-fashioned term!).
Fear is as much a necessary part of our psychological make-up as it is to the equine mind-set. In balance with curiosity, it teaches us how to temper adventure with caution. And when that balance is upset, it is quite hard to retrieve your equilibrium. But the ideal balance between bravado and fear gives us preparation, forethought, good sense, achievable ambition …. we just have to recognise where the bubble on the spirit level lies.
My own example is from this week’s riding. As regular readers know, I have a lively (euphemism!) Spanish horse and a fairly recent history of bone breakages and other hindrances to regular riding. I always seem to be just getting back into a regular routine with Pom when some anarchic twist of fate sneaks up to interrupt us. Well me really. I’m the unlucky half of the partnership – but then he’s young and vibrant and I’m …. less young.
Once again, we’ve just got back into “proper” work after a summer of heat and flies. We’ve been doing a mix of hacking out and home schooling to get a bit fitter and our success has been varied.
Last Sunday the weather was too perfect to ignore; azure skies with a breath of fresh breeze and humidity from recent rain made a hack out irresistible. This climate combo also signals perfect mushrooming conditions and the woods were full of folk appearing suddenly from behind trees, cars parked everywhere and even surging suddenly into view driving on woodland tracks.
I wasn’t fearful as such, but quite uptight because I didn’t want Pom to rush off and slip on the greasy, clay tracks. However, every time he tried to rush, I tried to keep him moving through circles and lateral movements, half halts – all the moves which allow him to keep moving as slowly as possible, movement being the antidote to stress I was thinking, without gathering speed on soft, skiddy going I considered unsafe. This blurry photo is the best I could manage but gives an impression of how unsteady we both were…
There were so many slippery paths and surprises among the trees, even bold-boy Pom got ever more stressed; jogging and pulling and I felt less and less safe ….. and then, amazing coincidence, I came to a crossroads at the same moment as my old friend Patrick, on his lovely Lusitano, Athos, that I used to ride (his quarter horse Onyx needed shoeing and he had scraped an hour of liberty, ad hoc, after a family lunch). Pom was far more reassured by safety in numbers, but his blood was up and, even with company, the rest of the ride was a bit of a fight for me to keep control of our speed.
The following two days we concentrated on schooling.
Pom moves forward beautifully and can collect quite nicely, but we still had trouble coming to a motionless halt or dropping down a pace at the place requested and I’m pretty sure it was because I was still trying too hard to be in control and demanding changes of pace very precisely to test that control.
On the fourth day, another glorious bright but fresh day we went for a different hack and I replaced our usual full-cheek snaffle with Pom’s old (previous owner’s) bit, a Spanish D-ring “Goyo” with a curb chain.
But I didn’t want to do any more than ride on the buckle or take the lightest contact except in emergency. And before resorting to taking up the reins, I used another method I’ve found works like a side-pull. Like many trekkers, I usually put Pom’s bridle over his headcollar and loop the lead rein round his neck into a non-slip knot when we go out on a hack. In this way I have something to tie him with in emergency, likewise something to grab on to rather than the reins, like a balancing rein. I can also bring the knot round and take hold of the lead rope and apply gentle pressure to the noseband of the headcollar and this has worked better than pressure on the snaffle bit in the past.
Conditions were quieter, though we had to cross some week-day traffic. I made a really big effort to hold off and keep out of Pom’s face. When he got a little joggy, I sat as still as I could and drew deep breaths with his hoof-beats. In-two-three-four, out-two-three-four (with a bit of a snort on the out-breath – aren’t you glad I don’t do videos!). I didn’t do any of the circling or turning, and mostly the jogging fizzled out and when we came to the places we decided to trot and canter, it felt far more rhythmic, and we could both agree when to bring the pace down.
I took a very light contact on the bit at the faster paces, but it’s a long time since he’s worn that bit and he seemed quite responsive to and comfortable with it.
Yet again, we had to pass some testing challenges. As we rode into a neighbouring village, coming up to a bridge over a small stream, (not a fave obstacle) chugging towards us was a cherry-picker lorry with flashing lights and a “men at work” sign on top of the cab. Then in a field to our left up thundered three, heavy Comtois mares (I went back later to take a pic and only one was visible!!).
Bless him, Pom was tense, but strolled on through, to unexpected compliments from the men in the truck!
The rest of the ride went enjoyably. I dropped in on some friends and had to ring a loud bell by their doorway to raise them. I didn’t really want to dismount, so it meant ringing the bell close to Pom’s head. After lining him up I “dinged” it softly a couple of times, which he accepted, before giving it a good clang. He might as well have been born in a belfry!
Overall, I was so pleased to find that by being less tense and controlling, I felt safer in the end.
Not necessarily “feel the fear and do it anyway” – more, recognise what the fear is there to teach you, then adapt what you do accordingly! Catchy – maybe not, but a useful way to go for me and Pom.