There is a widely held misconception that people with horses must have money. This is because the average cost of keeping a horse at grass livery is between £2,925 and £3,630 a year. In my experience horses are money pits. Giant hairy eating machines. Head, tail, leg at each corner and generally rampant flatulence. Maybe this says more about the individual horses I have chosen to spend my life with, but many horse owners I know will agree with me that this is the case.
Horses have been an integral part of the structure of our society and civilisation for eons. Beasts of burden, transport, pleasure pursuits and status symbols. They powered agriculture, industry and war. They remain symbolic to many aspects of popular culture; there is still the mounted cavalry, the trooping of the colour, equine sports. But what about us? The Joe Bloggs horse owners who fell in love with the concept of ponies while young and incredibly naive. Saturdays, doe-eyed at the riding school with clean jodhpurs and coloured wellies. Bless those children, little did they know.
Horses do not bring the glamour we watch avidly in the rarely televised events. Pristine animal and rider in perfect harmony. Exquisitely turned out acing a dressage test or getting that elusive clear round. Smooth lawns pre-first chukka, tea dresses and champagne amongst the huge horse boxes and long leather boots. They (in my experience) are distant and unreachable dreams.
The Reality – Max: scrawny, shivering and utterly wild
Instead of the sleek and shining steeds I adored, my first pony purchase was a Dartmoor foal. Direct from the moor at Chagford pony sale. £16.50. Scrawny, shivering and utterly wild. ‘Max’ became the centre of my world. After a few injuries and the bribery of many carrots and polos (essentials in the pony owners’ arsenal), he succumbed to my attentions. This pony was walked, fussed and adored. Quintessential Dartmoor: small, strong, patient, with an intelligent gleam in his eyes and tiny ears that became spherical when he grew his winter coat, this fantastic fur that waterproofed and insulated his little body. I always felt his fur was made of three layers. Short furry mole-like hair close to the skin, a thermal layer. Then a fluffy air trapping one, like an arran jumper, knitted by your Grandma and wheeled out each autumn. Finally, long hair to direct rain across the body and drip away. Water never reached the skin or underlying fluff. The long hair curls and twists into tight spirals like a cartoon sheep. Hours spent nose deep in this coat, whispering secrets into those tiny pom-pom ears. Sadly, I grew, ‘Max’ did not.
A string of in-between ponies came and went. Always with problems. If it was crazy, dangerous, ugly or headed for the meat man it somehow ended up in our field. We boasted a collection of unwanted problem ponies. Luckily, by pure coincidence, my family ended up living in a house belonging to a company specialising in artificial insemination for cattle. The company had closed, and we secured the house, field and buildings for ridiculously low rent, so the fluctuating pony population was not a problem. Unfortunately, it came with an equally ridiculous name; Number 2 Cottage, Genus Insemination Plant. This soon became 2 Genus Cottage. Said luck ended as the property was put under compulsory purchase to build the new A30 near Exeter airport. It was demolished and concreted. We moved, and horses departed from the forefront of my life for many years. Then at 21 I decided that one of the holes in my life was horse-shaped.
The search for a new horse is stressful. Elimination processes are needed and must be brutal. Luckily, I had a vague idea of what I wanted, but above all it needed to be chunky. No rider wants to consider ‘does my bum look big on this’. The other essential was “Can I get on from the floor?” This equates to a horse that is not too big and is willing to stand still whilst I flail about trying to get on. Ideally mounting from the ground would not be necessary, but everyone falls off. I opt for falling when it is more difficult to try and stay on, when you’re past that point of no return and there is a little more dignity in hitting the ground; it’s best to admit defeat. There is an art to falling that I do not possess. Some riders glide to the floor and arise appearing unscathed to return to their politely waiting animal and they carry on. Lucky buggers. I seem to fall into mud, or water, or some other non-descript effluent which clogs my nostrils and causes involuntary urging. Then generally I must try and catch my pony who has decided this is all a wonderful adventure and proceeds to disappear. Once caught, it then decides it wants no further part in this tom foolery and makes remounting a comedic affair.
Dandy: the comedian with a dark, twisted sense of humour
The rule is to always get back on. A mantra instilled by my mother, who coincidentally found these psychopaths for me to ride in the first place. Getting back on is the last thing you want to do when your pony is off auditioning for rodeo championships. Some have a dark twisted sense of humour and dump their riders purely for sport. ‘Dandy’ was such a comedian. Probably the prettiest pony I had. A 13.2 strawberry roan Welsh section D. His coat in summer would change to a deep speckled peach, darkening around his ears and ankles. Well-mannered and affectionate until you got on. His repartee was astounding. Vertical buck, from standstill, drop and roll, shoulder throws, tight and unexpected spins. This was a pony wasted on countryside hacks, he had ambitions of becoming a world class wrestler with his moves. Eventually even my mother admitted defeat and classed him dangerous. My princess pink pony was ‘sent on’ after I made quite dramatic contact with a windscreen. Although I was bleeding and slightly broken, I remained ever-faithful to my mother’s mantra and got back back on. I digress.
Mostly I was wanting that elusive something. That connection, the spark that indicates the start of a partnership. I wasn’t looking for a horse, I was looking for my horse. I had been sold that romanticised ideal that out there somewhere was ‘the horse’. I had been seduced by fantasy, I wanted the relationship portrayed in War Horse, my very own ‘Joey’. The partnerships and glamour Jilly Cooper created in Riders and Polo. It also had to be a native breed.
For a small island nation, we have a vast diversity in our native horses. Each has different characteristics specific to their original location and needs of the breeders. Many of our native breeds have fallen out of fashion as their environment and place within the world has altered. Native horse and pony breeds are dwindling. On the critical list are the Cleveland Bay, Hackney, Dales, Suffolk Punch and Eriskay. Dartmoor and Exmoor are both endangered whilst Clydesdales, Fell and Highland are vulnerable; the Shire and New Forest are also at risk. Most of these animals are fundamentally working horses. The carriage horses, draft horses, heavy horses. As machines took over, their place within our lives became obsolete.
As a child I used to assist my mother in showing heavy horses. Hours spent polishing brasses, oiling leather and intricately plaiting these giants with ribbons and flags. I loved the enormity of the Shires and Clydesdales, with their silken feather that dances when they walk, the gentleness and elegance combines with sheer strength and presence. There is nothing more awe-inspiring than watching a group of “heavies” race. They thunder along, shovel-like hooves cutting into the earth with weighted power. It is a noise like no other, deep rhythmic and rumbling. Often these races are held as a feature at race meets, a novelty act between the more serious spectator sport. I have little time for the spindly prancing thoroughbreds, although I admire their athleticism – but they’re not a heavy, nor, more specifically, a Suffolk Punch.
The Suffolk Punch is one of Britain’s oldest breeds; its stud book was established in 1768. Distinguished by their deep chest, huge powerful haunches and relatively short legs, they are always chestnut in colour with no feather and minimal markings. They are also considered to be the rarest horse in Britain. The Suffolk is smaller and stockier than their heavier counterparts, they have a large head and small eyes and shine like burnished copper. They are ideal agricultural animals, patient, strong, with legendary stamina. They are not bogged down in mud by heavy feathering, are elegant enough to be versatile and less expensive to keep than the larger heavies. I adored them and was aware, even then, of their scarcity in the showring.
The decline of heavy horses is well documented. At the start of the twentieth century there were 2.6 million across the British Isles. In 2017, 464 pedigree foals were registered to these three breeds combined. 25 being Suffolks. This species is rarer than the giant panda. Indeed with around 80 brood mares left in the UK, experts predict the breed could become extinct by 2027. In some small way I wanted to preserve a tiny pinch of national heritage and identity. To forge a small affiliation with the horsemen gone by and protect a species under threat.
Blossom: a gypsy dream
I had that dream horse in my mind, but I couldn’t manage the sheer size of the Suffolk and so landed on a Fell and Dales pony. Native breed, endangered. Black, elegant headed, a bigger version of ‘Max’. Instead I saw, and out of pity, bought ‘Blossom’. A 14hh underweight, mistreated 3-year-old cob mare. While the Irish Cob has a long history, its stud book was not officially founded until 1998. The breed was developed by the Romani in the UK and Ireland to pull their wagons, hence they’re recognised worldwide under the blanket term ‘Gypsy horses’. It seemed fitting as diluted gypsy blood runs in my veins. This could work.
She had been starved and neglected. Broken as a yearling, she had not had chance to mature either physically or emotionally before being put to work. Circumstances meant she had been ignored for months and the result was a vacant depressed bag of bones, so filthy she was beige, with matted feather, an overly large head and no spark of interest. She also had an overly large attitude and vicious streak when around food or men. For those who haven’t been privileged enough to have a long relationship with an animal, it is difficult to grasp the impact they have on your life. They are more than a pet, they are an integral part of you, and that intensifies when they come from a place of abuse.
After the first bout of injuries – kicks, crushes, bites, purposeful foot stomping and well-aimed flatulence – I gave this animal six months, else she was becoming a £750 can of Chappie. Blossom literally bloomed. Never the prettiest of Cobs she has quite a pleasant face now that she has grown into it. Dark brown eyes ringed with white hairs, as if someone got overenthusiastic with eyeshadow. Long whisker type hairs protrude around her eyes and velvet muzzle, these assist with spacial awareness akin to a cat. They’re generally trimmed for the showring, but she isn’t show quality. Bloss, for a piebald mare is too white. Bright white like a burnished pearl. Not the most practical colour. Next time I’m opting for brown, in shades of either mud or horse excrement. When wet, her skin is covered in small black spots like a Dalmatian, unfortunately the black hairs never came through. She has an extraordinarily thick tail which needs regular soaking in DAZ to try and eliminate some of the muck that gets mushed into it.
As she recovered, she grew, filled out and muscled up. Physically she was a great example of her type with a thick neck and large apple bum. She developed a personality and sense of humour. She learnt how to drink tea from a mug and will politely share an ice cream cone, most of the time. Unsuspecting children are fair game, easily distracted they fall victim to her charms and lose whatever sweet treat they had held in their clutches. She is not averse to cake, chocolate, pasties or bananas. Given the opportunity she has been known to snaffle a bacon sandwich and beak into Tupperware to gorge herself on the contents. Desperately nosey she will nonchalantly put her long moustached face through open windows to greet startled occupants. She has a love for baby things, human or animal. She interacts gently, with patience and sensitivity that I would not have credited to a horse. Especially one who was so unpredictable at the start.
The Reality of Ownership
Nothing can ever prepare the new owner for the reality of ownership. Breaking ice on water butts, losing wellies in knee deep mud and the inevitability that this mud will soon be cementing itself under your toenails. When your hands are so cold they’re burning hot with pain. Chilblains, hay nets, rats, headtorches, multiple escapes, tangled electric fences, magical disappearing hoof picks, the rug wrecker who obviously doesn’t want to be warm or dry. Stables, the daily joy of shovelling away the large digested hay net that she has stomped into your beautifully arranged bed, urinated over and slept on. White horse plus stable stains…
The rewards outweigh the work, at least they do in summer. However, then it’s a minefield of midges, horseflies, sunburn, buttercup burn, new grass madness, laminitis risks and sudden overnight grass bellies. For most, horse ownership is done for pleasure. The freedom and peace of being out in the countryside. To enjoy the landscape and reconnect with the world. For me this is meditation time. I slip the tether of being contactable. I value this time. Just me, Bloss and the countryside. The view of the world is different on horseback. Not only for the obvious reason that you’re elevated and can now peer over hedges to watch the progress of crops and livestock stoically on the journey to maturity and harvest. Suddenly you become aware. Exposed. Vulnerable. This animal is bearing you because it chooses to. It has its own brain (whether it is engaged or not is another matter) and therefore is not wholly under your control. A horse may not be at all bothered by the looming HGV in the single lane road. She may well lull you into a false sense of security as a troop of Lycra-clad cyclists whoosh by, all frantic legs, thinly-clad bobbling buttocks and rampant competitiveness. No, it is the menacing terrifying horse-eating plastic bag that incites terror, a swift shift into reverse and unnecessary snorting; that pony-swallowing puddle which she dances around; let alone the fortnightly invasion of wheelie bins. These mysterious containers of doom filled with dismembered pony parts are the stuff of nightmares. But only sometimes. Do not ever expect consistency with their irrational fears.
A New Perspective
The freedom and exposure to the countryside you get from riding allowed me to enjoy it from a wholly new perspective. I observed the hedgerows passing by, mindfully tracking their journey through the seasons. Watched wildlife who are unthreatened by a horse walking along. The surreal minutes when a fox trots all slender limbs, russet tones attentive ears alongside you on a farm track. Once I found a mole, black, with the softest fur so smooth it felt wet. Above ground they’re vulnerable, and in the middle of the road they’re suicidal. I put it in my pocket (much to its confusion) and carried it to a safe place. No doubt far from its territory, but I had the right intentions. Aware of your surroundings, a different map grows in your mind, one that highlights tracks and pathways that lead to hidden treasures, a fallen tree that’s perfect to jump, a long gallop where you can stand in the stirrups, arms outstretched and whoop into the wind. It’s a different emotional connection to the land, only brought about by the relationship with my horse.
I fell in love again with my local area and began to appreciate it deeply. One of my favourite rides was across Lamberts Castle, an iron age hill for in Dorset. Owned by the National Trust since 1981, it has been a designated site of Special Scientific Interest because of its ecology, geology and archeology. Ancient and ringed with trees, it’s the perfect strategic stronghold with a view of the Jurassic Coast and away inland. On a clear day you can see all the way to Portland. Patchwork agricultural land undulates away, pockmarked by houses and farms. Wildflowers peek through the springy carpet like grass, but it’s not grass, nor moss. It’s a congregation of many plants all stitched together underfoot and punctuated with animal droppings and tenacious gorse saplings. Through the kissing gate and into the woods where puddles never fully dry. They just crisp over purposely to thwart the unsuspecting wanderer. Mosaic leaves cast a yellow green glow in the weak pre-summer sun and the smell of earth rises heady and thick to mingle with the wisps of mist sliding two inches above the dew. The car park is never empty as people congregate to walk overeager dogs across the lattice of footpaths. To gaze out over the land. To feel small in an overwhelming landscape. Or simply to walk the dog impervious to their surroundings, hunched and insular. Buzzards call, their voices bouncing around open sky as they lazily wheel above, always watching below. This is where I come to pay homage. And get rewarded for the trials.
There is nothing quite like the pungent fermented stench of concentrated mare piss at 6am to make you question your sanity. Then, if you’re extremely lucky, you have an uneven stable floor, with a large depression perfect for collecting this stinking liquid. If you’re even luckier this is where two rubber stable mats meet, and if stood on incorrectly squirts a spout of urine skyward. The icing on the cake comes when you’re running late and rush to feed the wonderful, not moody at all, mare before going on date night. Picture it. Nice hair, dress, make up. Don’t bother putting on overalls or wellies. And she knows, oh she knows. So, she pushes you off balance, step, squelch and yep…horse piss up the leg. I am thankful that my boyfriend has no sense of smell; the rest of the cinema is not my problem.
My Greatest Love and Achievement
Blossom is newly retired. She is around 20 years old, which isn’t a great age. But due to her early start and long working life she has developed arthritis, a bit of a dodgy back and can’t be arsed attitude. She does not pick up her feet properly and falls to her knees, kicks the toes out of her back hoofs, she only wears front shoes. It is my responsibility and privilege to care for her now as she has cared for me over the years. Much to her distaste, I take her for walks. Bloss does not understand the need for this new activity. She is not impressed. Used to carrying me she now opts to protect me as we walk along, placing herself between me and cars, not to mention seeing off any human massacring leaves and the ever-threatening wheelie bins. She is more observant seeking landmarks around our more frequented routes. She is not fast, and we plod along at a snail’s pace, content in each other’s company. Local people are confused at the concept of my walking the horse, not realising their need for stimulus and exercise. When Blossom gets bored, she gets naughty (if she musters the energy) and I do not enjoy dealing with the aftermath of her escapades. We are sometimes joined on our meanders by dogwalkers venturing in the same direction. We share anecdotes of our respective animals, natter about the weather and breathe in the cold. Bloss accepts the attention; horses are social creatures, they get lonely. It always ignites a warm fuzzy feeling when your horse is happy to see you. Obviously, the joy is closely linked to the food buckets you provide, but I willingly suspend this belief, and through rose-tinted glasses see friendship and affection. The unfortunate reality is that Blossom is not going to last forever. The vet has refused to remove her head (after death may I add) so I can taxidermy and preserve her beautiful face. At some point, as with anything alive, she will drop from this mortal coil. I do not want to consider this, not yet.
We have been together for 15 years. She is my greatest love and achievement. But my elegant childhood pipedream is just that.
Needless to say, in the years I have had horses they have cost me money. So much money. Time, friendships, a social life and feminine hands. They are hard work and sometimes there’s little reward. As an owner, you are not only responsible for the animal, you are responsible for their excrement. Like the horse this is a commodity and out of interest I made some calculations. With prices settling at around £50 per cubic metre of well-rotted manure, the current value of my muck heap stands at approximately £2800. It seems that I’m rich in shit.
If you enjoyed reading this, then you’ll enjoy ‘Becoming Fantastic’, Delia’s first article for The Write Life.