It’s definitely odd. I have never really been a *horsey* person.
Waaaaay back, in my former life as a convent boarding school student (I TOLD you it was a very, very long time ago!) there were several ‘Horsey Girls’ who were contemporaries of mine. They were the ones who went riding at least once or twice a week and who had ponies of their own at home, which was often many miles away. Some of these girls lived on the Yorkshire Wolds, not far from The Grange in fact. Some lived in villages around York. Some were from much further afield, especially if they were Forces Kids. That’s a whole special group that deserve a post of their own, so I’ll save THAT stuff for another time. Today, I’m recalling the Equine Adoration Club.
Wendy was the epitome of this group. Wendy adored horses, drew pictures of them constantly and often communicated with little whinnying noises, occasionally accompanied with a theatrical head shake and nostril flaring or even – if she felt so inclined and your impudence called for this – a good nose snort. I can remember her *trotting* around with two hands in front (I was never sure if she was imagining she was holding reins in this position, which therefore meant she was the rider in this scenario, or that she was imagining herself rearing up and kicking out her front legs wildly like Champion the Wonder Horse) which was probably terribly endearing when she was oh, say five or six years old – possibly even as old as nine maybe. When she was sixteen and still displaying this behaviour, I began to suspect that she may have been slightly unbalanced. But then, in English boarding schools, this kind of eccentric conduct was almost expected and eejits, like myself, who refused to display such idiosyncrasies were perhaps lesser mortals who had to find other ways to make themselves acceptable to the group. A therapists dream, surely!
Wendy wasn’t alone in her equine exaltations. I could name at least a dozen other girls who simply loved horses. Some of them were farmer’s children and their veneration for the animals stemmed from working with them since they were very small. These people I could understand a little at least. Their animals worked hard on their farms and as they lived fairly long lives and we were merely in our teens, it made sense to me that they would have a healthy respect and indeed love for their noble steed.
But that other group, the girls who just *loved* horses, they were unfathomable to me. In my experience, up to this point in my short life, the only horses I had met were either the huge, world-weary cart-horses that the rag-a’bone man, the milk man or the coal man used to wander the streets of my youth, plying their goods and trades, or else they were the wild, angry-eyed dervishes on the big screen, usually ridden (if at all) by equally wild-eyed Cowboys or Injins. Why on earth an ordinary, real person might want to even stand next to one of these creatures was simply beyond my comprehension. Then.
I did try to like horses.
I read Black Beauty when I was about nine years old. I adored reading and this tale of companionship, love, betrayal, sadness and ultimate happiness quickly became one of my most treasured favourites. The fact that it was written from the horse’s point of view gave me such insight into the mind of the animal that I felt I could not be afraid of such a beautiful soul.
I watched National Velvet with the eleven-year-old beauty, Elizabeth Taylor and the ridiculous Mickey Rooney. I became Velvet. I ‘rode’ the arms of the sofa to prove my point. I loved that movie and watched it every time it came back on the telly. I must have seen it three times at least. Which was a lot, back in 1970.
My Nan was obsessed with horse-racing and one of my earliest memories is of watching her tiny, black-and-white, six-inch television screen, housed inside a beautiful walnut-burred cabinet that was taller than me, on Saturday afternoons, when the 3.20 from Kempston or the 2.40 from Chepstow was the focus of attention. I’d watch the diminutive creatures haring around the track, keeping as close to the white rail as possible and, with a sidelong glance at Nan, shout my head off, mimicking her as closely as possible, for ‘Liberace’s Dream’ or ‘Red Rum’ to pass the winning line first. In those days of course, it was in fact nigh on impossible to tell who had actually won the race until it was officially announced, because the screen was so small and it was in black and white, so determining which jockey was wearing which colours was a Fool’s Errand (pun intended!).
Occasionally she would drag me into William Hill’s, the betting shop that stood at the top of Gorsey Bank Road for many years. I’ve seen many interpretations on both the small and big screens of a variety of betting shop interiors, but none of them matched that establishment. An imposing, white-washed building, with room for several fancy cars to be parked outside, this den of iniquity felt like something from the Arabian Nights to me, whenever we entered. There were brightly coloured silks on the walls, probably relating to the jockey’s of course, but to my child’s eye, they were simply declarations of overly ostentatious Turkish Delights. The seats around the edge of the room were plush red suede and there was a CARPET on the floor. For someone who had only ever experienced linoleum, or bare floorboards, this was the height of expensive luxury and it’s a wonder I never became addicted to gambling, such a bounteous and exciting impression this place left on my psyche.
We’d go there so she could wait for the results which would always come through more quickly and she could collect her winnings with her little cackle and then we’d be on our way, usually over the road to the chip shop for a penn’orth of chips, extravagantly in a tray, with gravy.
So, I was familiar, sort of, with race horses and considered them to be wondrous, impressive beasts, capable of providing much entertainment to many around the country. But, I’d never seen a horse up close at all.
That treat was saved for a school fair when I was about ten or eleven. Someone had decided that the children would all *love* pony rides on the day of the event and thus I came across the biggest pony I’d ever seen. He was all legs (four of them mind!) and humongous hooves. I swear that each hoof was as big as my head. He towered above me – I’d learned that they measured horses in hands and he must have been at least a hundred hands (my hands, which were very small, even for my age!) high. And his head! Oh, my, how BIG it was!And how snorty were his huge nostrils? I was picked up by the lad who was handling the pony and thrown onto the saddle on his back.
From this vertiginous vantage point, I felt, briefly, elated to be able to see the entire field, with all the games and stalls and people. This didn’t last though, as the animals haunches moved beneath me I froze with sheer terror as the thought of falling off, down the many miles to the ground, then hitting that floor and having my head kicked and stamped upon by this monstrous beast, which would surely bring me the sweet release of a bloody, violent death fairly quickly at least. I have no idea how I was released from this frightful moment, I just recall my overwhelming sense of relief that I was back on Terra Firma and I vowed never to try this stunt again.
So fear of horses has been my over-riding emotion throughout most of my life.
I didn’t mind taking my children on donkeys because, well, generally speaking, they are MUCH shorter than horses! And I could appreciate the beauty of Equine creatures. Just preferably from a very safe distance.
But recently, living as we do amongst some of the country’s leading stud farms, I’ve come to appreciate horses for what I consider some of their very best qualities.
Horses, particularly ones that are happily grazing in lush fields, with nothing in particular to bother them, are very sociable animals. If you stop by their hedges or gates and look out across the field towards them, they will invariably notice you, pretty quickly. They will pose perfectly for you to snap their best features and show their inner beauty as well as their fine fetlocks, elegant necks, perky ears and magnificent manes.
Then, when they think you’ve captured the perfect shots, they will inevitably wander on over to you and then they do something that many humans are reluctant to do. They look you directly in the eye and they see right into your soul. It can be very unnerving. If they like what they see there, they will come and nuzzle or best of all, they will slightly cock their head to one side and really, truly, they *listen* to you.
You don’t have to use actual verbal noises. Although, if I’m alone I usually talk aloud to them at this point. But you can converse with a horse, even one that doesn’t know you, using just your eyes. They can *know* your life story almost instinctively and all your thoughts, actions and dreams are laid bare for them to peruse. I swear, I saw this horse smile at me last week.
And it’s only taken me forty years to understand what those *Horsey Girls* knew. I’m chalking this up to ‘You live, you learn.’
Now, I have lived.