Once a week I volunteer at a local riding school. When I arrive the lights are on in the indoor school and I can see children trotting round on familiar ponies. If I’ve come straight from work, I go into the toilets to change out of my office clothes into old jeans and wellies. Then I head out onto the yard to see what I can help with.
At first, I struggled to justify going in my mind. I liked the idea that I might be useful but it was a long time since I’d done much yard work; I felt like I’d got really slow at even basic tasks like mucking out and filling hay nets. By 5PM at work I often just want to get home and the idea of driving for forty minutes and delaying my crash on the couch by a few hours seems daunting. Not because of the work – I quite like that bit – but because I might not really be necessary, or I might somehow make a fool of myself, or some other reason my tired brain invented between leaving the office and getting in the car.
But I kept going anyway because the staff and customers were friendly and welcomed me to the yard and I figured the exercise was good for me. And consistently, week after week, I found that after a few hours work I felt much better about, well, everything. The fresh air, the company (both human and equine), the jobs that I learned to do as a child, the idea that you’re looking after another living creature – what’s not to like?
I suppose the answer is what you might find under the straw. Last night I walked along the row of loose boxes and was, initially, pleasantly surprised. The ponies had made minimal mess on their little square beds of wood shavings; the cobs were a bit worse, but nothing too bad. Then I reached the stables at the end of the row with deep straw beds. They looked okay, but once I got started I realised what a mess their occupants had made. Droppings were trampled right into the straw and huge wet patches were revealed as I forked the top layer to one side. I almost despaired when one of the grooms looked in and commented, “He was only in from 2 o’clock.”
The beauty of only having to do this sort of thing once or twice a week though is that you can be philosophical about it. I got stuck in, remembering how my childhood riding teacher taught me to pile the good straw up on one side and simultaneously experimenting with a sort of scraping technique for a horrible wet bit. I filled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow and tipped them into the trailer for local allotment owners. I always fret a bit over losing too much good straw, so there’s something satisfying when I see the barrow full of brown mucky stands and the golden bits saved in the stable. I even (in an especially Herriot-esque romanticising of the task) thought about how for hundreds of years people must have taken pitchforks into stables and sorted brown straw from yellow.
One of the stables was for a horse who tends to sleep laid down in his box so we laid a great deep bed for him and banked up the sides. I took a quick picture, thinking I’d write down some of what I’d been thinking. Perhaps I’ve got my priorities wrong but after I’ve sorted out a pony’s bed, I can finally go home satisfied with the day.