Memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1967-1997.
Chapter 4: Winter
Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge. New Year’s Day, 1979. Alderley Edge was gripped by frost, and topped with a dusting of snow. A frozen woolly hat embedded in a frozen cowpat. A thin, piercing blue sky and a cold sun creeping over the snow-capped Pennines. From Higher House, we rode along Oak Road through Kirklyditch, past farms and the occasional palatial property, the road so narrow in places that we could glimpse through the icy windows of roadside cottages. We took care to ride along the middle of the lane, avoiding the slippery verges. The crazy lurcher from the yard ran alongside us, joined on this occasion by a black Labrador from the cottage at the end of the lane. The lurcher, easily leaping fences, gates, and hedges, travelled twice as far as the rest of us, disappearing over the fields in a blur. His mission – to hunt rabbits. More often than not, he’d reappear unexpectedly further along the route, with only a frozen bread-crust, tongue lolling, flanks heaving. This mostly uncoordinated procession never caused a problem on the roads, but then, forty years ago, drivers fully expected to see horses and dogs in the countryside.
We trotted along the lane beside Finlow Wood, cantering on the wide grass verges where the low, winter sun had miraculously softened the ground, hundreds of noisy crows suddenly taking flight; an evocative sound I’ll always associate with The Edge. The trees along Artists Lane were still especially snow-laden and sparkling, but this dense canopy and the high bank to one side kept everything below in shade. Rivulets of water had frozen underfoot, leaving a solid film of ice beneath our horses’ hooves. We dismounted and let them slither their own way, yelping as they dragged us along at a pace we couldn’t quite manage. Both dogs barked, happy to demonstrate the non-sliding qualities of four paws. And then, once reunited with brothers Victor and Skippy, we continued onto the old sand quarry, an area which usually afforded a good place to let off steam. On this occasion, though, even the sand was frozen and we didn’t progress much above a careful walk until we entered the dripping silence of Windmill Woods. The horses were like coiled springs by then and burst into a canter along the muddy track, ice cracking like gunshots as we sped beneath low branches – collecting a neck full of snow – before clattering briefly across the main road and onto The Edge. Both dogs were panting hard by then, and the Labrador was beginning to lag behind. On the summit of Stormy Point, we dismounted and stamped some feeling back into our feet. As we turned for home, huge snowflakes began to obliterate the scenery, fingers and toes feeling the air frost begin to circulate again as the pale sun slipped away.
I loved riding in the winter. I rode on New Year’s Day, Christmas Day and any other bank holiday the horses were available. The weather or special dates didn’t seem important or relevant, perhaps because the horses knew no different. I enjoyed braving the elements despite suffering from chilblains one especially snowy year, but there’s always a cosy satisfaction in returning to the yard as dusk closes in. Expectant horses nickering for hay, our own faces pink and speckled with snow. Sometimes we’d head to the pub, to re-live and exaggerate our adventures. But the best snow ride ever was with the previously mentioned Golden Pheasant, Llangollen, North Wales. On this occasion – it was January 1986 – the horses had been fitted with snow studs in their shoes to prevent the snow balling-up – I guess the equivalent of equine snow tyres – which allowed us to canter slowly and safely along the lanes through deep, soft snow. The sound of all those muffled hooves thudding along in unison, the pungent air, the trees and fields dipped in crystallised sugar and the rose-tinted sky as the sun began to set, equalled a truly magical experience. And probably not one which would get past health and safety rulings now!
The way our roads are used now has become increasingly worrying for cyclists, walkers, and riders. Vehicular traffic has taken complete priority. Much of the time, I ride along the Welsh lanes without incident and the vast majority of drivers are respectful and patient. However, over the previous twelve months I can think of three or four occasions where I’ve been placed in a potentially dangerous situation, and it usually comes down to ignorance, or sheer impatience. Occasionally, it feels hostile. Most of these incidents happen in the summer time. Since I live in a popular North Wales tourist area this makes sense, but why drive any differently when on holiday? The lanes here are narrow and twisting, often heavily shaded, bordered with ditches and drystone walls. Combined with summer hedgerows visibility can suddenly be compromised in a second. A valid reason why I ride less in the summer. At least in the autumn and winter months, the hedges are cut right back and despite the darker days, visibility for riders and cyclists is much improved.
Compounding all of this, vehicles are faster and bigger than they used to be, including agricultural machinery. A modern tractor pulling a baler and travelling along a narrow lane bordered with hedges or stone walls, is a daunting obstacle from the back of a horse. The cab is crazily high, and if the driver is wearing earpieces or ear-defenders, he appears lost in his own world. Has he even seen me? I’ve been trapped between farm machinery unable to reverse, and a car behind me who wouldn’t reverse. On one occasion I rode down a farm driveway out of the way but the guy in the car began gesticulating, as if he wanted to get down the drive too, and I was now in his way. So, out we came and waited on the grass verge. For some unknown reason the tractor driver revved his engine and this huge rattling monster began to creep towards us. My sensible mount had an understandable wobble about this and took a couple of steps back, only to discover that the guy in the car hadn’t gone down the driveway at all, but had crept up behind us. Why? Where did he expect us to go? The pony inevitably came into contact with his front bumper and panicked, shot forward, then made for the driveway but slipped on a strip of concrete, and down we both went. The only injury was a grazed elbow (mine). The pony leapt up, unharmed. By the time I’d got to my feet and grabbed the reins, the car had vanished.
The British Horse Society says there have been more than 2,000 reports of accidents involving horses on UK roads since 2010 with almost one in ten resulting in a fatality. And according to the survey they conducted, three in four accidents happened because the vehicle passed the animal without allowing enough space. A spokesperson for the charity said a major problem was that many drivers are unsure how to behave when near a horse. Section 215 of the Highway Code sets out how road users should act when there’s a horse on the road. It says that: “Drivers should take ‘great care’ and ‘treat all horses as a potential hazard’. Drivers should ‘pass wide and slowly’ when passing a horse and always listen to a rider’s request to slow down or stop. If a driver doesn’t slow down or drives in a dangerous or inconsiderate way around horses on the road, try to get their number plate and report it to your local police station.”
This statement already feels out of date. And the police tell us they are powerless to enforce prosecutions now without video evidence. We are expected to ride wearing a Go-Pro camera, or its equivalent, at all times. This is putting all the onus onto the rider. We should all be responsible for everyone’s safety. And I’d rather we took this back to source and include education about other road users for learner drivers. Passing horses and cyclists should be part of the driving test, even if it’s only a simulated version. I’ve seen terrible road rage between cars and cyclists, I’ve experienced verbal abuse at first-hand for no good reason, and I’ve had cars skimming past me despite clearly requesting a speeding, approaching vehicle to slow down. These days I am fully insured through the British Horse Society, I wear high-vis clothing, and I possess a certificate to prove that I am road-worthy on the back of a horse.
I took my British Horse Society Road Safety Test in 1989 at Finlow Hill Stables, Over Alderley. When The Edge closed to horses in the mid-eighties, we were thrown onto the mercy of the roads and the BHS were keen to have riders aware of the rules of the road – especially those young enough not to hold a driving licence. I’d ridden out solo from Finlow Hill a few times on a very obliging albeit slightly neurotic mare called Kerry, but riding in the area was never the same without the freedom to roam. Despite the close proximity of the sand hills and the track through Windmill Woods, restrictions elsewhere meant that most viable routes were linear, and repetitive. And then the upheaval of my personal life in the early nineties meant that I only rode occasionally, lacking both the spare cash and the enthusiasm to find somewhere new. Finlow Hill eventually changed its status to a livery yard. I don’t know when Dawson’s closed. I suspect Stan and Mary retired in the nineties but at the time of writing, Higher House is currently a cattery. Good to see that the original listed house and the stabling, is all still intact.
Not only did my first marriage end when my son was four, but it felt as if the carefree era of riding I’d taken for granted had also come to an abrupt stop. I found my writing mojo again though, and penned a second novel which actually found an agent. Nothing came of Summer in October but this time, I didn’t burn the manuscript because someone credible in the publishing world had told me that ‘it had something.’ Much later it became the basis for Midnight Sky. It’s worth remembering that any serious rewrite can always make for a better version of almost anything, and by 1995 my storyline had changed completely. Along with Second Draft and my son, we moved to pastures new in Wilmslow. I continued to work in property, mentally storing a wealth of research and first-hand experience for Wild Water – a novel which didn’t surface until much later. But the best job I had for studying character and appreciating satire was a tele-appointing position for a hearing-aid company. One needed a special blend of humour, patience, and empathy to get through the week. In addition to this mildly entertaining job, there were two horses to the rear of the offices. For reasons which escape me, someone christened them Elvis and Mad-For-It. If it was warm enough to take lunch outside, these two cobs tended to gravitate towards us and wait for apple cores. On learning of my riding experience, a male colleague dared me to climb over the fence and sit on one of them. So, naturally, I climbed through the barbed wire (I had said colleague hold it away from my smart office suit). I weighed up the docile looking coloured cob, took hold of his mane, and vaulted on. Elvis didn’t bat an eyelid. This was before social media and mobile phones with cameras.
Too distracted with family life through the nineties, I didn’t write and I wasn’t even reading much, but I did pick up The Horse Whisperer by Nicolas Evans. It was a book (and a film) which coincided with the rise in popularity of Monty Roberts. An American trainer, Roberts was the first recognised ‘horse whisperer,’ bringing a new, softer method to training horses which hadn’t been explored before. ‘Natural horsemanship’ taps into natural behaviours and Roberts developed this into a two-way language based on the social dynamics of wild Mustangs. It’s not so much about whispering but listening and observing body language and natural reactions to any given situation. This sits easily in tandem with the most powerful instinct of all – that of survival. Although variations on these natural methods are now commonplace, back then it was a different way of looking at a subject I thought I knew plenty about. It made me question the impact we have on riding horses. And it perhaps also reflected a changing mindset when it dawned on me that horses only tolerated being ridden, and surely it made sense that better relationships could evolve if the ‘conversation’ between horse and rider was sometimes less rulebook and more instinctive and observational. After all, we don’t all parent in the same way; the give-and-takes which work for one child, might not be as effective for a child with a less subservient personality. Although unable to reason emotionally, horses are as individual as people and just as much a product of their background, breeding, and historical interactions as humans are. It was a concept I’d return to in later years and much of it, along with my experiences of riding schools and the complexity of family relationships, sewed considerable seeds for my second novel, Midnight Sky.
My son began riding around the same age as I did. Fortunately, children’s riding lessons were easier to come by and we began to frequent Ashton Old Hall Equestrian Centre, Church Lane, Sale. In December of 1996 a children’s fun ride with Father Christmas at Finlow Hill Stables ended the year with something less formal. It was a strictly supervised event with an army of teenage girls leading a string of novice children around the sand hills. Somewhere along the line, my son’s pony spooked at some fake fairy wings and he experienced his first tumble. It didn’t put him off, but like most boys, he was never as keen as his older stepsister. We sometimes took both children to Finlow, walking beside the ponies along those same lanes I knew so well. Through the following summer my son gained considerable confidence under the instruction of Lisa, riding forward-going, interpretive Fudge and a much less responsive pony called Shantih. Between these two characters, he learnt that stop and go had variable boundaries.
Body protectors came in and according to the manufacturers, every rider needed one. Since my son had happily inherited my old hat – the latest style then was one with a moulded chin strap – which was a perfect fit, so it didn’t feel too extravagant to invest in a body protector. In later years, I even purchased one for myself. I could see where it might prevent a collar bone injury or worse, but for me it compromised the way I sat and moved on the horse and I never got past the feeling of being encased in a straitjacket. I wore it round the house for a while in an effort to get it to mould to my shape, but it never really did, and more often than not, it remained in the boot of the car. In these consumer-mad times, equitation attracts a formidably expensive catalogue, if one dares to go looking. Alongside the matching this, that, and the other, there’s an astonishing amount of unnecessary bling. Fortunately, there’s always a budget version of anything and everything, but one thing I’ve never compromised on is a kite-marked hard hat. Surprisingly, it’s not a statutory requirement, but I wouldn’t think of getting on a motorbike without one, and I’d not ride a horse without one either. This is basic common sense, surely? Head injuries usually mean bad news and on the occasions I have parted company with a horse – and it’s probably inevitable at some stage – the outer shell of my hat has taken some hard hits, sustaining a variety of nasty looking dents. So why wouldn’t you wear one… vanity, bravado? Maybe it’s the irresistible feel of one’s hair blowing in the breeze.
Despite personal and relationship stability, Second Draft and I began to feel suffocated by encroaching suburbia. Building along the Cheshire greenbelt exploded in the mid-nineties as did the sprawl of Manchester International Airport: now the third busiest airport in the UK. The 60 million-pound Wilmslow bypass ripped through the countryside, the birth of a new, consumer saturated landscape. Perversely, during its construction, the bare bones of the road made a pleasant cycle path, a smooth ribbon of compressed earth stretching for miles through the still quiet fields. The calm before the storm. Once it opened we enjoyed – at least for a short time – two of the big city stores within easy reach, but there was a hefty price to pay. Two stores grew into five, six, seven… more. Where the bypass did indeed create quieter roads around Wilmslow, Handforth, and Cheadle, it also generated more retail developments, fitness centres, and housing estates alongside the new road until eventually, the volume of traffic increased to a constant roar. The familiar problems had merely taken a side-step and mushroomed into something far less attractive than the original village bottlenecks. We began to crave open countryside, a dog, and opportunities to walk (and ride) more than the convenience of shopping and all the other trappings which went with a semi-urban lifestyle. Keeping up the Joneses began to feel disingenuous, if only to ourselves. My childhood Cheshire had changed beyond recognition, and horses had begun to feel part of a long-lost dream, something I felt powerless to recapture. The sad demise of the public riding school had continued to spiral slowly downwards until I felt trapped in the winter of my equine discontent. In retrospect, and although it is probably rather self-indulgent to admit, I think my environment stifled much of my creativity. Of course, horses and creative pursuits are luxury items and jobs and schools had to take precedence. But then, at the end of 1997 some crazy plot twist came out of the blue, and a life-changing opportunity presented itself. It felt like another bite of the cherry, although for a while we couldn’t decide if it was maybe a little too much like pure fiction to take seriously…
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