My younger sister always, always wanted a horse. (And a dog, or cat, or rabbit, or guinea pig.) I wasn't bothered. This apathy has continued into adulthood: I can watch a cat video without blinking, and Facebook updates of what Tiddles did last night have me rolling my eyes. I am also incredibly lazy, and would rather take a spork to the eye than expend any energy outside that will end in a) sweat and b) muscle fatigue. Almost.
So seeing as this column is meant to pit us against our fears or pet hates, naturally it was a no-brainer that I would be the one who ended up grooming and showering a horse. Having left home at 6am, I met Andy and YP cadet Jack at Tuen Mun MTR station at the ungodly hour of 7.45am, and trekked to the Tuen Mun Public Riding School, where Riding for the Disabled stable 10 of their ponies. We met Jessamine Ihrcke, RDA's Operation Manager, and headed straight to meet our new equine friends.
The mild-mannered Thomas was selected for my first-ever horse-grooming experience. It's a good thing that we were working with the RDA, as all the horses are pretty placid and patient, as they are part of a wonderful programme that offers the therapeutic benefits of riding and working with horses to disabled children and adults.
First of all, Jessie showed me how to put on a head collar and tether Thomas to a fixed post so he would stay still. Next, she handed me a curry comb, a hard plastic brush that loosens dirt, dead skin and loose hairs from the coat. Moving the comb in big circles over Thomas' body was a full, upper-body workout, but it was particularly gratifying when I massaged the spot Jessie pointed out by the horse's withers, by the base of his mane, and he whinnied in delight. The amount of dead skin and general muck that came out was quite amazing, and I was soon coated in grey gunk.
Next up was the body brush. Stroking this along the length of Thomas' body gave his coat a glossy shine.
Then a purely cosmetic step: combing the mane. At 21, Thomas is quite old, and has some "old man" hair issues, like dandruff and greys, but working out the knots felt little different from detangling human hair. The tail didn't need combing - because of Thomas' age, his hairs come out if they're pulled - so we just made it look a bit more presentable.
The final stage was to clean out his hooves. A metal pick is used to loosen the dirt from around the shoe and the edge of the hoof, while carefully avoiding the sensitive "frog" in the middle - "it's the same as the skin under your fingernails", Jessie explained - then the dirt is brushed away. Jessie removed clods of earth in moments, but I was so nervous about catching the frog, I think I missed a lot of spots while taking far too long.
My next "victim" was a mare called Suzie Wong, who is known as a bit of a diva. (At the ripe old age of 27, she has every right to be!)
Luckily, she decided to be kind to me as I led her out for a shower and shampoo. Needless to say, ol' Clumsy Cox was soon as wet as Suzie. I'm fairly sure she rolled her eyes a couple of times, but she let me hose her down, massage in her special shampoo, and lead her over to munch on some grass while she dried off in the blazing sunshine.
It was an exhausting, sweltering hour or so of manual labour, and the need to keep a clear head (and keep that head well away from the horses' powerful back legs!). I was overwhelmed by the amount of work required in a stable yard. And yet everyone at the stables, even the staff who muck out (clean the horse poop and replace the wet bedding), walked around with wide grins on their faces, and a sense of peace.
I came away with a new respect for a horse's intelligence. They anticipate human behaviour - Suzie Wong turned to look at me before I started washing her, almost warning me not to spray her in the face. They can be gentle and patient, protective and playful (Thomas nibbled at the back of my T-shirt while I was cleaning a hoof; maybe he just wanted a YP tee). Mostly I was astonished at the bond between horse and human, and privileged to have experienced just a fraction of what folks who work with horses live through every day.
RDA is always looking for volunteers. To find out how you could help, visit www.rda.org.hk