Last week I wrote the beginning of Bruce’s story, weaving the facts I know into fiction. I felt elated and a tad overwhelmed when many of you asked for more, so I had a chat with Bruce. He seemed unconcerned with the past, and asked me to scratch the itchy spot on his shoulder that was bothering him now. It’s good to feel he’s let go of his past, and that shoulder scritches are what’s important.
The huge transporter truck carried a cargo of nine Irish horses, and the journey to England by road and sea was long. Loaded in order of geographical drop-off, Ned was flanked by a grey heavyweight cob also acquired by his new owner, who ran a classy hunter dealing yard in affluent Oxfordshire. They were loaded first and would be the last consignment delivered. A nervous young thoroughbred had trouble keeping his balance in the confined partition space and thrashed about with each rolling turn. Fretting at the distress, Ned was unable to relieve tension with teeth rasping, so he gently swayed from one foot to another. In the time it took to cross the Irish Sea he had taught himself another calming technique.
Two girl grooms wearing smart green sweatshirts with an entwined ‘FFK’ logo were waiting as the transporter drove through the ornate iron gates of Frank Fyford-Knox’s dealing yard. They quietly untied Ned and the grey horse, spoke some soft words between them, and led the horses down the ramp of the empty lorry. The horses blinked in the evening sunlight, bodies wobbling as their legs adjusted to terra firma, and the girls let them stand a moment to re-balance, before walking across the immaculate courtyard to a block of Victorian stables with hayloft and clock tower above. Timeworn cobbles formed an apron in front of the stables, swept clean without a wisp of hay to be seen. A Victorian water trough, overflowing with brightly coloured flowers was the only concession to frivolity in an otherwise mellow colour scheme. Frank Fyford-Knox personally sourced horses for money-rich-time-poor clients, and charged them handsomely for the privilege. His reputation was impeccable, his client list always full, and his staff of experienced grooms and younger working pupils provided the highest standards of turnout and professionalism. At the back of the farm there was a field for landing helicopters, and the elegant manor house dining hall hosted lavish lunches for prospective buyers.
The two new horses were led into large looseboxes where rubber-matted floors had deep beds of shavings. Plump haynets and automatic drinkers were in one corner and the back windows looked out to paddocks beyond. As their headcollars were removed, both horses sank to the ground grunting and rolling to relieve the stresses of their journey. Then, rising in unison and shaking vigorously, they walked to their water and drank deeply before tucking into nets of sweet haylage. The grooms left them alone to settle for the night. Early next morning they found the grey asleep and snoring, and the black cob, having re-decorated the walls of his box with rasping teeth marks, calmly shredding the front of his cotton stable rug into thin strips.
After two days grazing together in the paddock, Frank’s head lad rode both horses in the Olympic-sized arena and jumped them over some stout fences. He felt the black cob was a little sensitive in the mouth for a novice rider to hunt, but as opinions didn’t please his boss he kept his thoughts to himself. Later that week after trying their mounts and being wined and dined, the prospective owners paid the full asking prices subject to positive vetting. Both horses passed the vet tests with flying colours, and when the grey left the field to travel to his new home, Bruce continued grazing, viewing the expanse of grass he could now eat without interruption. It was a yard custom for the grooms to name their charges, and the black cob was now called Bruce. Next morning Bruce flapped his lips as he journeyed south to his new hunting home in Dorset. It was his fourth move and he was six years old.
Horses are flight animals, flight is their saviour. The only time horses run together en-masse is to escape predators or perceived danger. Humans have harnessed the power of this fastest-horse-doesn’t-get-eaten instinct into horse racing, and the other sport where horses all gallop together, flat-out in an adrenaline-fuelled frenzy is hunting.
The foxhunting season starts in August, with Autumn Hunting to train young hounds. Hunting proper begins with Opening Meet in late October, runs through to April the following year and most hunts meet twice weekly. In the melee of the hunting field experienced riders, novice riders, novice horses, novice riders who think they’re experienced, and horses and riders who are out of control all mix together. Jumps are usually taken faster than advisable, if a horse refuses or falls it can lead to a pile-up where horses get rammed from behind, and riders often come off. Going through gates can cause an impatient bottleneck of excitable horses, with predictable results. The aim of the Huntsman is to prevent hounds getting trampled and kicked, and allow them to do their job to the best of their ability. The Fieldmaster needs to control the followers, and they need to obey his directions. The hunt Master is responsible for everything, and you do not want to get in his way. Bruce hunted for nine seasons.
Hunting is now an emotive political debate which I’m not going to join. I hunted occasionally, the excitement is incomparable but the joy of watching hounds work is like learning a hidden language. One day, standing in the pouring rain with water dripping down my neck, my horse Teddy shifted against the weather as hounds cast in circles for an eternity, trying to pick up scent. From this soggy perspective I had an overwhelming feeling it wasn’t the right thing for me any longer; I didn’t feel morally comfortable, so I went home. I’m not anti-hunting, I support all the benefits of countryside conservancy, but I’m happier sitting on the fence.
When it came to money, Bruce’s new owner was a very clever man. The knowledge of a forensic accountant and the acumen of a venture capitalist, coupled with a titled heritage and connections forged within the highest level of public schooling, allowed him access to the pinnacle of world finance. He worked in the City as CEO of a bond-trading organisation, lived in a penthouse overlooking the river Thames, and drove an Aston Martin which earned him the nickname James Bond. His two passions were wives, and foxhunting. At weekends he would leave London and ride with some of the finest hunts in the country, mounted on been-there-done-everything hireling horses, and while he was in-between wives, he decided to buy his own hunter and a country house in Dorset. An exquisitely re-built historic home with its own stables and paddocks alongside a leisure complex fitted the bill, and he hired a live-in groom to keep his horse. No cost was spared on his new commodity.
Bruce is a stoic horse, he aims to please and does everything to the best of his ability. If you ask more, he does more. Because stoics don’t express discomfort doesn’t mean they don’t feel it, it just stays inside. His new owner was a thoughtless rider and wanted a stalwart horse who could ignore heavy hands jabbing at his sensitive mouth, and jump everything without guidance or balance. Bruce wanted a rider who gave him confidence to face what he didn’t know, and leadership to quell his ever-rising anxiety. The rider wasn’t going to change, and the horse had live with his circumstances. He did as he was asked time and time again, he got no thanks, no praise, and he didn’t know if he’d done right but he continued trying.
Six times a month Bruce went hunting. Impeccably turned out, his coat shone mirror-like, reflecting hours of attention and every muscle in his super-fit body was majestically defined. James sat at the back of his custom-made saddle, with immaculately booted legs stuck forward, one hand nonchalantly holding the buckle-end of his plaited leather reins while the other idly brought a cigarette to his lips. Anxious to please, Bruce stood stock still and watched which way hounds were working, to avoid being barged by other horses when everyone set off. Suddenly a searing pain shot through his mouth, up his cheeks and across his head as James, cigarette finished, hauled heavily on the reins. With a sharp dig of spurs he turned Bruce abruptly, bumping into the adjoining horse. Bruce threw his head as high as possible to avoid James using his mouth as a balancing prop, but the short martingale limited head movement, as did the tightly tied noseband binding his mouth firmly shut.
“Don’t do that” growled James, digging him again in the sides and then hauling back on the reins as Bruce shot forwards to the kick, and ran backwards against the pull. “I said don’t bloody mess me about!” James turned Bruce alongside the hedge where, with a hefty kick and wallop of the stick, he galloped the horse up and down the headland until the clear cry of hounds on a scent cut through the air, and Bruce joined the throng of jostling horses being ridden towards the first jump.
Initial energy and enthusiasm spent, Bruce knuckled down to the job in hand. The fence was a neatly laid hedge and he saw no wire. Trying to steady himself in order not to shoulder the horse in front, he pricked his ears and leapt, landing clear with head down to minimise the pain as James steadied his entire bodyweight against the reins, legs still stuck hopelessly forward. Other jumps followed, some higher, wider and trickier as the pack streamed westward across the open galloping countryside of the Blackmore Vale. At each jump the black cob had seconds to calculate his self-preservation, seconds to adjust his jumping style, prepare himself for the strain of a muddy take-off, stretch sinews and twist tired muscles away from dangerous drops and taut wire, and land galloping. The man precariously perched atop never shifted his inhibiting weight from the back of the saddle, other than when he unwittingly slumped to the side, as the tired horse scrambled over a huge blackthorn hedge which had almost floored the Master’s horse jumping in front. The day drew to a close and most riders loosened their horse’s girths and thanked their steeds for a job well done. James puffed on his cigarettes and Bruce thought about his feed.
Bruce was not well suited to hunting the fast country and steep hedges of the Vale. He was a sturdy conveyance for a man who could neither ride nor read the countryside, but he would never be in the first flush and still able to gallop at the end of the day. After enduring six season’s hunting with James, the strain of his master’s incompetence and the adrenaline of the field was tipping Bruce over the brink and he began refusing jumps. Things came to a head during a very fast hunt. Hounds found their scent immediately and as hedges came and went James clung on, but instead of letting Bruce sort himself out he decided to take charge at the fourth fence, and ploughed Bruce through the top of the hedge. The horse was lucky to stay upright but received a sharp kick for his endeavours, and when a horse sideswiped him at the next fence, he received punishment for that too. As he approached a post-and-rail fence, the horse in front of him fell, and with lightness of foot due entirely to Hilary Marson’s schooling, Bruce was able to turn quickly and avoid trampling floundering horse and fallen rider. He received a beating for his refusal and was re-faced at the rails, almost underneath the fence and too close to take-off. With the whip beating, the horse’s ears flicked back and forth and legs flailed helplessly in a vain attempt to go over the obstacle. In the end he crashed straight through the splintering wood.
They say that horses forgive anything, but as the colic spasms swept through his body that night and sweat on his dark coat stung the deep weals, Bruce couldn’t reach the bottomless pit of absolution. The flesh wounds eventually healed but his spirit never quite recovered. James bought a faster, bigger horse, a proven hunter costing thousands of pounds, who would gallop and jump in spite of the man on his back (that was the theory anyhow) and Bruce became second horse.
The groom had just two horses to look after, the stables were purpose-built to house every mod-con, she was was well paid and had beautiful living accommodation, but she had a troubled love-life which included falling in love with James. James, the consummate professional, never mixed business with pleasure; his rebuff was tactfully direct. Overwhelmed with jealousy when James married his third wife, the groom vented her pain on Bruce, who became frightened of her presence and developed a repertoire of displacement activities; shaking his head, rattling the door bolt, box walking, and frenzied lip flapping. He learnt the quickest way to diffuse a situation that might mean getting hit was playing the fool, and he retreated further into his own world. Bullying his field companion became his release as anxiety worsened, and they were quickly separated by an electric fence. For the first time in his life Bruce stopped eating and spent his turnout time pacing the fenceline, flapping his lips.
Like all ‘kept’ animals, horses are prisoners of their keeper’s personality. In order to feel safe a herd animal needs a dependable leader, we consider ourselves that leader but we’re not dependable; we have a miasma of drama and confusion which horses don’t understand, and they’re unable to read our inconsistent energy and act appropriately. Depending on how we’re feeling, we present them with a different version of ourselves each day, expecting them to bear the brunt of our impatience and anger, and then to heal it. We shout louder when they don’t respond to a command and use stronger training aids when they won’t bend to our will. When domination fails, we call them a Problem Horse. Sometimes they carry on trying, sometimes they simply shut down. In order to survive, Bruce shut down.
“Good people get cheated, just as good horses get ridden” ~ Chinese proverb