And Tabourba Came Down Like The Wolf On The Fold . . .
Some people started riding on a laid back, seen it all before riding school hack. The kind of horse who is willing to forgive a learner’s clumsy scramble into the saddle, and does his best to interpret muddled signals from reins and legs, as the novice tries to put shouted instructions into practise. A horse who takes his succession of hapless novices in hand (or hoof?) as they discover, to their dismay, that what looked so straightforward in the British Horse Society training manual is a tad more complex when precariously balanced on top of a half ton of muscle and bone. Some people got cared for, and gently nurtured – I got Tabourba.
In 1970, I was serving Queen and Country in a cave deep underground in Malta, working as a radio mechanic, trained in the technical skills of fault-finding and problem solving. One of our pieces of equipment was housed in a large grey-painted cabinet, carefully marked on one side with a red cross, and on another with a blue cross. When it started flashing and sparking, you delivered a well-aimed kick at the blue cross, and normal service was resumed. If it started to emit a scorching smell, swift application of a desert boot to the red cross put the trouble to sleep, and we were able to resume our game of cards.
Feeling the need of a change from all this frenetic high-tech activity, I decided to fulfil a long-held ambition and learn to ride, so caught a bus into Valetta, and signed up with the Combined Services Saddle Club. My first lesson was on an elderly Arab mare, a retired polo pony who was a sort of four-legged Mother Theresa – but the Boxing Glove of Fate was already being loaded with the Lead Shot of Destiny.
Noting that I had neither broken my own neck, nor that of the mare, the stable manager decreed that henceforth I should ride Tabourba – who was nothing whatsoever like Mother Theresa, having more in common with the philosophy of Ghenghis Khan, or Attila the Hun.Tabourba was a Barb stallion, imported from Libya, and trained as a polo pony. Unlike English horse owners, the Libyans apparently did not geld their stallions as a matter of routine, and nobody at the Saddle Club had bothered to, either. There were twenty-six horses in the Club stables, of which sixteen were stallions – the other ten being, I think, four geldings and six mares. Never having set foot in an English riding school, I assumed this was normal, and happily wandered in where angels feared to tread.
You may have seen pictures of carvings, made in ancient times, of the Assyrian cavalry. Fierce looking men, with metal helmets, and beards shaped like spades, riding ferocious looking horses, with necks and shoulders which rugby players can only dream of, and every muscle as sharply defined under the skin as that of a champion body builder. I was a gentle, beardless soul in a riding hat, but Tabourba was, every inch, an Assyrian war horse. Older, sadder and wiser people might have looked at him, and decided to go to the beach instead. I, being young, and therefore certain of my immortality, clambered aboard – heavy of backside, and light of heart.
We set off for the group lesson – stallions, geldings and mares as well shuffled as a fair hand of cards. All went well until we were out in the middle of our large training area in the middle of Valetta racecourse, when I decided that Tabourba was trotting a tad fast for my liking, and applied what I thought of as ‘a touch of brakes’ – and what Tabourba knew was “that idiot hauling on the bit”.
A lot of people will tell you that, in order to keep his balance when cantering or galloping, a horse must extend his nose as far forward as his front feet are reaching out. Regrettably, none of those people had had the decency to explain this to Tabourba, so he responded as he always did to heavy handling; he rammed his head into his chest, and exploded away in a ‘polo canter’ – that is, a flat out gallop! Onlookers said that the whites of my eyes were clearly visible from 25 yards away; I’d have thought it more like 50 yards, myself . . .
When, after an eternity, Tabourba condescended to stop, the thought came floating up from him, with all the menacing courtesy of a traffic cop with his hat on, and his notebook out, "Next time, sir, may I suggest that you try asking me POLITELY?" Tabourba was a living illustration of the old saying that “You tell a gelding, you ask a mare – and, if you've any sense, you discuss it with a stallion!”
Nobody in that stable ever spoke of a horse ‘working in a nice outline’ – in fact, I doubt that any of them had ever heard the expression; any attempt at achieving such an outline by pulling on the reins with those horses would result in them going backwards – at a trot! The holy grail of riding then was ‘light hands’ – by which was meant hands which always had a feel of the bit in the horse’s mouth, but used the minimum possible pressure – and Tabourba was particularly skilled at indicating how much was too much! On the other hand, if you handled the reins with delicacy, and respect, he could be incredibly responsive, giving you instant and crystal clear feedback on your riding skills. It was a bit like learning to drive in a Ferrari; it might scare the living daylights out of you, but you learned very, very quickly – whether you wanted to or not.
The thing was, Tabourba, for all his intolerance of clumsiness, would give so much if you asked him the right way. A slight shift of your weight was all that he needed; lean to the left, he’d turn to the left, matching the sharpness of the turn to how much you leaned – just like riding a bike. And, if a change of leading leg was required, he’d throw it in as a freebie. You wanted to accelerate? Lean forward. To slow, or to stop? Lean back. When I say lean, by the way, I mean such a slight movement that an onlooker would not be able to see it – all Tabourba needed was the gentlest of hints, and he’d turn or stop on a sixpence.
There was one slight drawback with his willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty. Like most of the horses there, he was trained to play polo – but the spirit of the old war horse was still very much alive in him. A football manager was once accused of behaving as though the sport was a matter of life or death; to which he replied, “It’s much more important than that!”
Tabourba would, I’m sure, have agreed with him wholeheartedly – which was why, on the polo field, he always wore a muzzle. Frequently, a polo player will find himself racing an opposing player for the ball. Then, stiffening the sinews and summoning the blood, Tabourba became the war horse of old, joining the fray on behalf of his rider. Drawing back his head, whilst still galloping at full speed, he would lunge at the opposing horse’s neck with his teeth, doing his damnedest to put him off his stride – hence the muzzle . . .
He gave 100% of himself, and expected no less of his riders. It was a hard school, studying with Tabourba – but he was, without a doubt, one of my finest teachers.
11th January, 2009
“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold”
first line of ‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’, by George Gordon, Lord Byron