“What you need to know about Brandy,” —I was told— “is that his default mode is to stop. Your job is to keep him going!”
But here’s the thing. My default was to stop too. Brandy and I were kindred souls. Which would have been just fine if I wasn’t trying to learn how to ride. Movement is somewhat of a prerequisite.
An interesting fact about horses in Japan: there aren’t all that many. According to Professor Masahiro Okumura at Hokkaido University’s veterinary school, there are around 6,000 horses in the country and most of these are race horses. This presents some challenges for trainee vets in Japan as race horses are too valuable for inexperienced trainees (or even regular vets) to treat. Equine studies in Japan are therefore often completed abroad.
However, all of that was a distraction from the problem in hand: how I was to stay mounted up when I had just been told to let go of the reins.
The Okamoto Riding Club sits near the base of Mount Fuji. On a clear day, the iconic snow topped, sawn-off mountain top forms a backdrop to the club’s location, allowing riders to take a photograph that no one would believe wasn’t photoshopped. It would look like the photo above if the day had been clear… or if you had photoshopped in the mountain.
The club is run by Masami Okamoto, who speaks fluent English having gone to school on Long Island in New York and then college in Canada. He hires helpers for the stables who come from around the world to spend a few months or a few years helping take care of the horses and leading riders on short hacks. So far as I could tell, Okamoto leads all the lessons himself.
They also have a baby horse. Foal. Whatever. It was cute.
When I arrived, a family with two older girls were just leaving. As they departed, one of the girls had to be encouraged to say goodbye to Okamoto, making me wonder whether she’d had a terrifying experience and I was about to lose a leg. And part of an elbow.
Okamoto waved the group cheerfully from the stables before retuning to me and gesturing at the door. “She’s training for the Paralympics,” he explained. He pointed at one of the photos that decorated the room. “We hold a big competition here every year.”
The photo showed a large group of people, but I couldn’t tell if this was principally for disabled riders or for the whole stable. Either way, I started to have faith that if Okamoto could train someone at the level of the Paralympics, he might keep me on a horse for an hour.
This wasn’t the first time I’d attempted riding, but it might have been the first time I’d had an actual lesson. My previous experiences had been limited to beginner-level hacks, where you’re plonked on a horse whose inclination is to follow everyone else. Occasionally without a hard hat.
We started with a short ride around the area surrounding the riding school. I was instructed how to mount up, told to hold on, and was led by one of the stable assistants who was originally from South Africa. It took about 20 minutes and helped me find my seat, get over a mild fear of heights and the fact I was only vaguely control in how we were moving.
Actually, I never got over the last point. While in a sport like tennis, I might miss the ball (frequently) or send it soaring over the court fence into the wild blue yonder (that too), at least everything moved as I expected. But the horse…
People, horses are alive.
And they move in a way that is not tightly correlated with your own movements in either time or space. At certain points during the proceeding lesson, there was no correlation at all.
The lesson lasted about forty minutes and I was able to ride two different horses. Brandy was my second mount who successfully tapped into my desire to remain completely stationary. Okamoto used loose elastic straps linking Brandy’s bridle to his legs to discourage a wayward command by me resulting in a gallop (although as we previously established, this wasn’t to be an issue) and then tried us to get us to master a trot.
For the rising trot, the rider needs to rise up and down on the saddle in beat to the horse’s hooves. My mother (who rode as a child) has assured me its easy once you feel the rhythm. She can also sing in tune which I quite noticeably cannot. Okamoto instructed me to release the reins and move my arms outwards as if I were swimming breast stroke. The time it takes to move your arms out and in is roughly the same as the trot pace: no musical ability needed.
And… I came close. Plus I did not fall off.
The latter made me declare the whole exhibition a wild success.
A trial lesson at Okamoto Riding Club costs 12,000 Yen and you can take several of these before needing to become a stable member. The actual cost of joining the stable is far more hefty and probably means I’ll stick to randomly hitting tennis balls around the place, but this wasn’t because the experience wasn’t extremely good: Okamoto is a skilled teacher and extremely encouraging. The countryside around the stable is also well worth a visit if you’re looking for a day out from Tokyo.