Horse Riding in Nairobi, Kenya with Mrs Carles - Instructor to Prince Philip and Prince Charles
by Pat Kitchen.
In summer of 1970, I met Mrs Carles for the first time. She was probably forty to forty five years old, not very tall, with thinning very blonde hair and a kind of high shrilly voice. I can hear her now, “Pa-tty”.
She enjoyed riding bareback and could grab a handful of mane and fling herself on to her horse never missing a beat. Me, I never got much past the grabbing of the mane. If I ever managed to get on to the horses back inevitably I fell off on the other side, she gave up asking me to do this, it was never going to work out.
She was the only certified riding instructor in the Nairobi area and was very much into dressage, which she felt everyone needed to know before they could move on to other disciplines. It was important to her for her students to be well rounded whether we wanted it or not.
We, and the Carles, lived just off Lower Kabete Road, in Lower Kabete, a suburb of Nairobi. We lived about a quarter mile apart so I would ride my horse to her house for lessons. It was quite rural, even for back then. The closest grocery store and filling station, as they were called, was about ten miles down the road, near the first roundabout. About ten miles from our house in the other direction, down one hill and up another, set in the middle of a coffee plantation was our school, where I would ride every weekend.
The Carles’ had a nice but simple home surrounded by high hedges and avocado trees. Mr. Carles was a Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi in Upper Kabete.
Her barn was built with logs, rather than cut lumber as they are here. She had a fenced in riding ring with avocado trees in the center and a big open field between her drive and the barn, where we would later learn to play games. This big field was surrounded by an electric wire about one foot off the ground. It was the first electric fence I had ever seen or heard of.
Besides horses she had a passion for bunny rabbits; she had all sizes, colors and types of bunnies. Lop eared bunnies were her favorite, and there were hutches for them all. On weekends we would go to her house for tea and crumpets. She always had Scottish shortbread cookies put out for us kids. The tea was always fresh, crumpled tea leaves put in a small strainer, set over your cup and hot water poured on top, no tea bags. While the adults drank tea she would let me go see the horses and bunnies. She would let me groom her horses, no treats unless they earned it. She used to use the term 'Bribery and Corruption". You would bribe the horses to do as you asked and corrupt them by giving it to them. Made perfect sense back then, and it always worked.
She also 'allowed' me to clean the rabbit hutches, which back then I thought was a privilege. She wouldn’t let just anyone clean their hutches I told myself. Eventually I progressed to cleaning all the tack as well and I was still feeling 'special'. I adored Mrs. Carles and did everything she asked me to do without question. Looking back, she was the mother I wished I had had, and I was the daughter she never had. We had a very special connection.
Many of her horses, Anglo Arabs, were originally polo ponies or bred for polo, just as my horse Zorba was. She retrained them all to be lesson ponies and some were show horses as well.
Her favorite horse was a beautiful bay Egyptian Arabian mare, Dusty. No one was permitted to ride her, only Mrs. Carles. But she did, on occasion, let me pick Dusty’s hooves and comb her tail; another privilege or so I thought. She had a Welsh Cob for younger, smaller riders. She disliked Shetland ponies, said that they were flat out mean and unpredictable. They were 'of no good use'. That being said, she did pick out a Shetland pony that my parents bought for my sister, Donna, and we brought him home! A piebald, Picalo, who would run under a fence just to knock my sister off. I always thought that was pretty funny, but no one else did.
For my first lesson I groomed the horse I would be riding, then tacked him up. Horses' manes had to be combed so that they would fall on the right side of the horse and you would have something to grab onto when mounting. I had to be dressed properly; white shirt, jodphur pants (with lots of treats stuffed in the pockets), jodphur boots, and of course, helmet; which in those days was always black velvet. If you were not dressed properly you could not ride.
We had to learn, and repeat again and again…, how to mount and dismount properly. To mount always on left side, reins crossed over our palm of left hand, not bunched up in our fist, right hand on pommel. Grab a handful of mane, maintain light contact with the bit (bit was barely to make contact with corner of mouth), just the ball of our foot in the stirrup, not more, and pull ourselves up. Stand up in the stirrup and swing our leg over the saddle. This exercise had to be done in one fluid motion. If we plopped down into our saddle, we had to get off and do it again. I was pretty proud of myself because I did it properly the first time.
To dismount, we still maintained light contact with horse’s mouth, took feet out of stirrups, leaned forward, and pulled our legs, with knees straight behind us up over back of saddle. Keeping our legs straight, we clicked our heels together over the back of the saddle, swung our legs over and onto the ground, again one fluid motion. We had to land with feet together and still standing. Looking back, it was like gymnastics on horseback; head up, shoulders back and in complete control. We had to do an emergency dismount this exact same way. If we left one thing out or fell, we had to get back up and do it again and again…. The clicking of the heels took me a couple tries, but…success. Then the grooms led us around the riding ring and out the gate.
I still take my feet out of the stirrups and maintain light contactwhen dismounting but, if I were to lean forward and click my heels behind me, I would fall on my head, Mrs. Carles would be so disappointed.