Gathering the Herd

laying the foundations

From the beginning, books and ponies were my entire life. I read every book I could find on how to look after ponies, ride ponies and train ponies, and every storybook about girls who had ponies. Today my imaginary pony was Black Beauty’s friend Merrylegs. Merrylegs and I flowed through our paces with effortless movement, schooling over jumps made of twigs. We were as one, and I could effortlessly see a stride.

With small hands holding double reins, a willow wand stick, a silver trophy and the biggest rosette imaginable, we cantered our winner’s lap of honour around the garden; physically and mentally moving as one entity.

I dismounted and put my arms around my pony, thanked him for being the best, and led him, prancing, and dancing, to the make-believe stable. We squeezed through the narrow gap between two trees, and I re-arranged the bracken bedding and settled him for the night. After feeding him a ‘bucket’ of mash from a flowerpot, I went indoors for my dinner.

Donkey was grey, and had an unusually broad brown Jerusalem cross, reaching from tail to withers, with crossbars that ended below his knees. Such vivid markings made him a church favourite at Easter and Christmas, and although he was not heady with fame, he certainly knew his own mind. Donkey lived at the pig farm where my school friend Maureen kept her pony. I helped her in the evenings, and the farmer thought we might like to ride together. I found riding Donkey a mixed blessing, but he was REAL, and a huge improvement on imaginary predecessors.

I put the grooming kit I’d bought especially for him in my bicycle basket, and cycled twenty minutes to the farm, lifted his felt saddle-pad and bridle from the hook in the barn and carried it out to the field. Wherever Donkey was standing in the field was where I brushed and dressed him, because I quickly learnt it was pointless to suggest somewhere different, no matter how many times I told him he was handsome and good. The first time I put his bridle on I thought he was going to die; as I slipped the headpiece over his ears he began to splutter and heave, with huge internal bellows pumping overtime. I stood back thinking his sides would explode, until he turned his head towards me, and uttered one huge monotone out-breath bray, which was loud enough to split the atom. He did this at every bridling, moving closer and closer to my own ears, which seemed to amuse him. Once mounted, we trotted round the perimeter of his field three and a half times. He was intransigent about the pace, direction and number of laps, and it was a while before I questioned his authority. . .

One morning I decided we would like to go for a walk outside his field. He decided we wouldn’t. As we walked though the gate, he planted three hooves on the ground and one front hoof directly on my foot. Half in and half out, I was trying to hold him, hold the gate which swung towards us, and move him off my foot. No matter how much I pulled, pushed, cajoled or chastised, he remained motionless and stood with his ears pricked and eyes fixed on me. I can clearly remember his look, and I swear he was smiling. The pig farmer walked past us, with a sow on its way to the slaughterhouse, and nodded in our direction. Not wanting to lose face, I pretended I was petting Donkey, and standing mid-gate was a predetermined destination. Some time later, the farmer walked back, and didn’t seem surprised we were still ‘petting’. Without saying a word, he took hold of the gate so I could move my aching arm, and made a hissing noise at Donkey, who swished his tail, turned round and walked back into his field. I un-tacked him, hung everything back in the barn and placed his grooming kit next to the saddle pad. I limped to my bike and pedalled slowly home.

Elizabeth was horse-mad too, so she was my best friend at school. When we turned eleven, our parents agreed we could have riding lessons every other Saturday with Miss Bush. We lived and breathed for those Saturday lessons. Built like a tiny sparrow, with weatherbeaten features and curls of soft white hair, Miss Bush was a dynamo of wiry energy. Born into a wealthy family, the Victorian family house and stables became hers when her parents died, but there was little money for upkeep. Everything had an air of neglected grandeur, but she was a local legend and her teaching was superb. Along with a string of patent-safety ponies, she kept three chestnut thoroughbreds stabled in the old cobblestone coach house. We girlies worshipped the big horses, and if we rode particularly well in our lessons, our reward was to groom them; it was joy beyond words to touch that velvet skin, and brush the silken tail of a proper horse, like the ones who showjumped on television. I saw Miss Bush again years later, shortly before she died, and she didn’t look any different to that first day in 1966. She was eighty-seven, and she died wearing her riding boots just as she wished. 

My grandmother died when I was twelve. Nana lived with us and knew that horses were my world. She bequeathed an item of precious family jewellery to each of my cousins, but left me the most precious gift of all; one hundred pounds to buy a pony. A pony!! A pony of my own!! None of my family is, or ever was, in the least bit horsey. Mum used to take me to the saddler so I could spend my savings on a brush, or halter, or saddlesoap in readiness for my own pony, but when I began to look at local ponies for sale, Elizabeth and I cycled to see them on our pushbikes. We rode the pony and asked pertinent questions, but most suitable ponies were above my budget. On the cycle ride back home, we discussed the pros and cons, and as soon as I was indoors I wrote concise details in my Pony Book; sitting and writing that book at the dining room table was a hidden memory, that came floating back as I type this on the laptop.

The advert for Jimmy appeared in the Saturday edition of our local evening paper: 13.2 h.h dark bay New forest pony gelding for sale, 7 years old. Good with traffic, farrier etc. £75.00 including tack. I phoned the seller and arranged to see him the following morning. Elizabeth was going to church so I cycled there alone.

Something intangible connected me to Jimmy the first moment I saw him, and it gave me a sharp rush of adrenaline. None of my pony books had mentioned this happening. Its a pattern that’s been repeated with all my best horses, leading to logic being chucked on the muck heap, and the famous words “I’ll have him” being blurted without forethought. Jimmy was a neat stamp of pony, true to type for his New Forest breeding. He had a small white star and mealy coloured muzzle, and of course, he had the sweetest breath and kindest eyes ever bestowed on any pony. The woman selling him saddled up her own horse, and took me for a ride to try him out. His steering was very wobbly, his balance ungainly, and I fell off as soon as we started cantering. (I later discovered he was actually rising five and just broken). But I adored him and he was within my budget so I got back on and said I would have him, and next day Mum wrote the cheque. My life was just about to begin; I owned my very own pony. I found a field and stable to rent for him, and a week later we rode the eight miles to his new home, with mum following in her car. Today, the very thought of riding a four year old just-broken pony with no steering, along those busy roads makes me cringe, but back then belief triumphed over everything, and no harm came to us.

Life with a pony settled into the routine I had meticulously planned in my dreams. Every evening after school, I cycled to Jimmy’s field; my favourite journey because everyone would know that a bucket balanced on the handlebars, and saddle strapped to the back of my bike meant I had a pony. I fed and groomed him and loved him more than anything in the world. At the weekends, we went riding on the heath and that was where my fantasy abruptly ended. In reality, riding Jimmy scared the daylights out of me. Loving a pony doesn’t stop you falling off, and nothing had prepared me for riding an uncouth, unschooled bundle of nervous energy. Time after time I lay winded in the heather, watching him gallop home, and gradually I realised he would never be Merrylegs. Sadly, his sweet breath and mealy muzzle didn’t make that realisation hurt any less.

With un-horsey parents and nobody on hand to help, I took him to a Pony Club rally hoping for tuition. I bathed and brushed him and trimmed his hairy bits. Despite having a new white school shirt to wear with my jodhpurs and shoes, we were still the scruffiest among a field of expensive show ponies, immaculately dressed little girls and matching mothers. Nobody picked us to join their teams, and none of the instructors sensed my problems, so we never went again. Instead, I decided we had to work this out ourselves. We ignored all the pony books and made it up as we went along, spending rides doing what felt right for us. Eventually I learnt to sit and he learnt balance; more of an achievement than I knew. We taught eachother to jump which wasn’t pretty, but like everything else, it worked for us and that was what mattered. Jimmy never became Merrylegs; he became something so much more, and the only dreams that became reality were that we moved as one.

In 1976 I wanted to travel abroad, so my friend Sheila took Jimmy to use in her riding school. He became a firm favourite with the school clients, and forged a lifelong friendship with Mickey, a lookalike New Forest pony. When I came home from my year in Canada I used to visit and ride Jimmy regularly, and Sheila gave me the job of taking out experienced clients on a ‘fast ride’ while she accompanied the beginner walkers. No matter how many other people rode Jimmy, we never lost our bond or our own intuitive way of doing things, and the self-judgement of ‘proper’ riding never replaced the joy of free-wheeling. Jimmy died when he was thirty-four, shortly after Mickey.

By my mid-twenties, I was newly married and living in a North Dorset village nestled in the outstanding beauty of Cranborne Chase. Horses surrounded us, and my husband began taking lessons at the local riding school. Quite by chance, an acquaintance-of-a-friend told him about a mare for sale. We weren’t planning on buying a horse, but saw no harm in just going to have a look. Just a look, nothing more. . .

The following evening, we drove in through the huge gates of a very smart country house, which was like a photoshoot in Country Life. As we parked the car outside the stable block, the seller came to meet us. She said she was expecting an important phone call, pointed to Astra grazing in the paddock, gestured to the stables, gave us a halter and said to take as much time as we wanted, and come to the house when we’d finished.

Astra was a gorgeous mare; 14.2 Arab crossed with Welsh Mountain pony, like a dapple-grey rocking horse with fine features, elegant limbs, long flowing mane and flag tail. She was for sale as an unbroken four year old, so I thought there couldn’t be much wrong with her. As events unfolded, I lost count of the times I ate those words.

The mare seemed very complaint as we walked into the field, caught her, and led her back to the stable. She stood quietly as we inspected her, she moved backwards and sideways when we asked, and trotted up soundly with beautiful flowing paces. When we turned her back out in the field, the three of us stood looking at each other. My husband and I knew it was a done deal. I could complete her training, and if she wasn’t suitable for me, she would be easy to sell. I was at that wonderful age when failure was still an unknown concept.

Astra settled quickly into her new home, and we couldn’t believe our good fortune. I wrote a plan for her education, and showed John how to do everyday tasks. Astra was quite bossy around food, but I didn’t realise how bossy until the morning she came flying at me with her ears flat back. I flung the breakfast bucket at her, and exited the stable as quickly as I could, closely followed by a splinter of wood as her hooves double-barrelled the door. Mareish? I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Later that week I was grooming her as she dozed in the sunshine. As I turned to brush some dust from her quarter, searing pain tore through my shoulder; she had bitten me hard for no apparent reason, ripping my tee-shirt and my skin. I tied her shorter to prevent further accidents, but as the weeks went by, she began to cow kick with vengeance; she had perfect aim and a deceptively long range. Each time something happened, I made another excuse; that she was in season, ticklish, or maybe the flies were worrying her. One afternoon we were lunging in the arena when she stopped, looked me in the eye, turned and galloped straight at me. I threw my arms in the air and waved the lunge whip at her, but she kept coming, and I jumped out of the way just in time. Afterwards, she stood calmly while I gathered the lunge line, and walked back to the stable as if nothing had occurred. I even began to doubt it myself, until the same thing happened when I went to catch her in the field. Suddenly I understood why the seller had ‘been on the phone’, and given us the halter the day we went to see her.

After a thorough workout, the physiotherapist pronounced Astra ‘as sound as a pound’. The vet found nothing wrong with her teeth or eyes, and gave her an internal exam. She behaved impeccably for both people, and I suspected they thought I was exaggerating, so I carried on pretending her outbursts were normal because I didn’t know what else to do. Praising good behaviour and ignoring bad certainly wasn’t working, but if I shouted at her, she reared up and boxed at me with her front legs. The one time I smacked her, it was as if I’d unleashed Satan’s child, and I never did it again. In the end, I just tried to keep out of the danger zone, because when she was good she was fantastic. She took to saddle, bridle and riding without batting a long-lashed eyelid, which I put down to her quick learning, and my good handling. Many years later I discovered she’d been broken-in at three and turned away to mature, so she already knew everything I later ‘taught’ her. Unfortunately, the financial recession necessitated her being sold prematurely, and in the year before we bought her, she had changed homes four times.

Astra worked diligently in the arena and out on rides, and muscled-up into a stunning horse, an absolute showstopper. We had jumping lessons from a visiting instructor, who said she showed real talent. As she gained confidence, her cranky behaviour worsened, and I felt like an abuse victim; being bitten and kicked had become normal. Needing a professional opinion, and hoping Astra would benefit from experienced training, I chose a well-recommended schooling yard, where the owner agreed to take her for an assessment month. She went to Rosemarie’s with a danger warning! 

Two weeks into Astra’s training, I made a pre-arranged visit to the yard, and found everyone praising her progress. Rosemarie suggested I brought the mare out of her stable and pop over a couple of jumps in the school. The moment I entered the stable alone, Astra turned her back on me and fired a warning kick. Her hoof made sharp contact with my knee, and I doubled-up in pain, stifling a scream. It was mortifying that a horse bullied me, I was certain it was my fault, and too embarrassed to ask for help. Trying not to wince, I led the mare to the mounting block and as I slowly swung myself into the saddle, Astra hunched her back, and turned and snapped at my leg. Rosemarie saw the snap, shouted loudly, and Astra went straight upon her hind legs. Luckily I had both feet in the stirrups, and I clung to her mane until she was back on the ground.

Rosemarie raised an eyebrow, and held the mare’s bridle while I steadied myself. “She’s not done anything like that since she’s been here,” She said with a grimace.

“No,” I sighed, “It’s just me”.

As we warmed-up in the school, Astra’s floaty paces felt more elastic and confident, and she trotted over a row of ground poles without missing a beat. She popped over a couple of rustic uprights like a pro, and Rosemarie pointed towards a spread fence, which stood about three feet high. As I turned my waist to see the jump properly, Astra gathered herself together and transitioned smoothly into a powerful canter. She approached the jump with perfect ease, and cleared it without breaking rhythm. I had a childhood flashback to watching Horse of the Year Show on television, and grinned from ear to ear.

“Crumbs” I said. “She’s good!”

Rosemarie smiled, nodded, and held Astra as I dismounted. “I’d say she could go far. I can sell her if you want, but she’s the best horse you’ll ever have. Why not give it a bit more thought?”

“I’m just so fed-up with her crankiness” I replied. “I’m covered in bruises”.

But I did as suggested and gave it more thought. The indescribable elation of her powerful paces was such magnetic motivation, and I wanted to feel it again and again. It stuck a primeval chord of connection between woman and horse, one that I had never felt before. Two weeks later Astra came back home. Unfortunately, rhetoric painted a rosier future than reality could create.

To be continued. . .

2 thoughts on “Gathering the Herd

  1. I love the photo of you in your jodhpurs so young and fresh! Perfect Monday morning reading whilst sitting in the conservatory with a cup of coffee 💕


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