London, England -- My eyes grow wide as the horse I'm to ride through Hyde Park is led toward me. I've been paired with a fairy-tale-beautiful grey with flowing mane and tail. After rubbing his soft nose and smoothing his long forelock by way of introduction, I climb up and settle into the saddle.
Behind me in the cobbled stable mews, my husband is also meeting his mount, a giant retrofitted cart horse named Albert. Albert is brown with white socks and hooves the size of dinner plates. Their introduction, however, is not going well. Albert is less than happy at the prospect of going out into the rainy, grey morning, and the two eye each other with suspicion. After my husband's tentative gestures toward Albert's nose are coldly rebuffed, it's pretty clear to everyone that the big horse is pissed.
Despite this acrimonious introduction, my brave husband scrambles up onto the big horse. There are other early signs that Albert isn't the ideal partner for a novice rider. After a steady rain the night before, the park and bridle paths are soaked. As they make last-minute adjustments to our stirrups, the stable girls casually mention that Albert is afraid of puddles.
But he's the only horse big enough to carry a 6-foot-something rider. Our lead riders clip their blue ropes onto the bridles and we set off for the leafy green splendour of the park.
As we clip and clop our way along city streets, one of our lead riders chats about Hyde Park's rich equestrian history. Acquired from the monks of Westminster Abbey by Henry VIII in 1536 as a private hunting ground, the park was reserved for royals pursuing deer on horseback until 1637, when a series of allowances granted the public access to the 350-acre property.
Londoners of the time valued the benefits of a clean, green space, and many actually moved into the park in a desperate attempt to escape the devastating Great Plague in 1665.
One of Hyde Park's most spectacular features is the Serpentine, a 10-hectare winding lake constructed in 1730 for Queen Caroline. Today, people can rent boats and row its length, past icons like the infamous Peter Pan statue, to the Italian Gardens.
My husband and Albert the wonder horse tolerate each other well enough until we get to Rotten Row, a section of the park's five miles of bridle paths.
Rotten Row got its name from a century's mispronunciation of Route du Roi, or King's Road, the world's first illuminated roadway.
We start trotting, which, given Albert's cumbersome hooves and his vain, lurching attempts to avoid the puddles, is giving my husband the ride of his life. And then a yippy little dog darts out from the woods. In a brilliant display of strength and agility, Albert drags the lead horse and rider off the bridle path onto the grass. As Albert and husband circumnavigate the instructor at the very end of their tether, I stare in amazement.
How the story of what happens next unfolds depends on who you ask. My husband will tell you that he skilfully dismounted, mid-spin, on purpose , then landed on his butt. The lead rider will tell you that Albert leapt sideways and my husband did not.
Either way, my husband sits on the ground pale and terrified, staring up at a guilty-looking Albert. The desperation in his eyes must appeal to the giant horse's sympathy, because Albert's disdain for his novice rider evaporates. With a conciliatory nudge, he seems to apologize. For the rest of the ride, Albert is as docile as a Queen's corgi, clip-clopping bravely through the puddles.
Our experience in Hyde Park is highly unusual. The stable prides itself on its safe horses and experienced instructors. Maybe Albert is just having a bad day. But while our ride is more eventful than we expect, we're both smiling as we ride back to the stables.
Passing a house where Winston Churchill once lived, my husband is reminded of a quote: "Every dog has its day." While the joyful, yippy little dog that sparked his mishap certainly had its day, the view of Hyde Park from on and off horseback has made our day in the park, too.