Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018
Chapter 8: Storm Force
Debbie and Fraser had always kept pigs at Merchlyn but on this occasion they were behind the hedge alongside the road, and there were plenty of them. The noise and their smell was unmistakable on the breeze. Pigs are historically a natural predator of anything equine and since my mount was a New Forest pony – one of our ancient native breeds – and since the forest had also been the historical habitat of the wild boar – maybe Emily already had a strong fear of all things porcine in her DNA.
Most horses recoil at the smell of pigs but Em’s reaction was unprecedented. There was no way she was walking past that hedge. The frustration of it! I tried gentle coercing, I tried firm coercing. I tried for twenty minutes to walk her past those pigs but my efforts only resulted in the mare trying to spin round, or threaten to rear. Not good. She was wild-eyed by the time my husband caught up with us on his road bike – maybe a lucky coincidence he’d chosen the same route as us, or perhaps he’d not agree. I decided to jump off and lead the mare, thinking that once we were downwind of the smell she’d get over the whole incident.
But even after half a mile she was still prancing, snorting, sweating, and rolling the whites of her eyes. And I felt less in control walking by her side than I had been on her back, but remounting proved tiresome as she continued to spin round, head up, nostrils wide, eyes bulging while she scanned the horizon. I just couldn’t hold her still long enough for me to get a foot in the stirrup, and so I had to resort to standing on a low wall and then somehow launching myself across the saddle while husband led her past. Somehow, I scrambled on and we pranced along the lane while I struggled to get both feet in the stirrups and gather up the reins, realising that the only other route home to avoid the pigs was up through Parc Mawr. Husband wasn’t happy about this, but I sent him on ahead to open the gate for us and we had a silly conversation about why I was riding Em in the first place. Well, because I loved her and anyway, she’d never done this before! He sighed, duly propped up his bike by a tree, hitched open the heavy gate and shook his head as we skittered through. Bikes don’t have any of these weird issues, he muttered.
I reasoned that if Emily fled through the woods and we parted company then at least she wouldn’t be able to get onto the road. Once inside, I allowed her to shoot up the steep path right to the top – not something I’d usually ask of a horse but I was unsure whether to risk the lower path as its gentle undulation might encourage flight. And I wondered if the extra energy required to climb to the top might help to take the edge off her fear. Not one bit. At the top, I made her stand to recover, flanks heaving and running with sweat. Eventually, we turned right and headed through the trees and the mare stayed in a traumatised walk the entire time until we arrived at the far entrance, where another fit of anxiety meant she wouldn’t allow me to open the gate. Instead of standing close to the handle, she backed up the bank and shook her head, as if I was asking too much of her, or maybe she felt too close to her source of discomfort again, since technically, we’d doubled back on ourselves. Judging by her distended nostrils, I’ve no doubt she could still smell the objects of her distaste.
Reluctantly, I dismounted yet again in order to lead her safely through the narrow entrance, then we had another dance in the car park, her reins slippery with sweat. I led her into the RDA yard hoping to find someone… anyone… to either hold the mare still or give me a leg-up but typically, I’d hit on a Marie Celeste moment. Not having a better idea, I clambered onto the picnic table while Em stood four-square, ears and eyes fixated in the direction of the pigs. Back onboard, I chose the long route home along the lanes hoping she might relax and cool off, but no… even back on home ground in the barn she remained so wound up that I struggled to unfasten the tiny buckles of her bridle and loosen her girth in the fading December light. She looked as if she’d had several buckets of water thrown over her, her long winter coat drenched in fear.
Throughout all of this, I surprised myself by remaining calm and matter-of-fact. I have no idea where this mindset came from but it proves that in times of serious stress it is possible to engage mind over matter and deal with the immediate situation. At no time did I feel especially worried about Em’s behaviour and I believe it was this mindset that allowed us both to arrive home safely. She was simply frightened. If I’d panicked or got cross with her, I suspect the mare would have panicked, too. But then, like the drawing of a hypothetical line, we had several days of snow and ice, halting any progress either backwards or forwards. I did ride Em again but she wasn’t the same. Her fear began to manifest itself in other animals, and she felt constantly anxious and grew nappy and difficult, just in case I faced her in the direction of Public Enemy Number One. I suggested to her owner that we employ animal behaviourist Guido, to help. Jayne agreed it was our only option, but then over Christmas we had another discussion leading to Jayne’s decision to retire Emily once again. I did understand her reasons as they echoed some of mine – mostly the potential cost – but it did seem such a sad waste of a lovely mare.
I wasn’t sure what came next, but then Wizard happened. Down to the generosity and goodwill of the community, New Year’s Day saw me astride a Welsh Section D gelding belonging to Penny Wingfield. To the uninitiated, Welsh ponies and cobs are divided into four types and Section D is the big guy. Everyone told me I’d love Wizard but my gut feeling was slightly at odds with this presumption. In company I’m sure he rode quite differently, but for me, Wizard was a little on the strong side and, combined with the elevation in his gait, I did occasionally feel compromised, especially during those tricky downward transitions on uneven ground.
A handsome horse, Wizard was rather taller than ideal for me but I rode him solo twice a week for around three months, and we mostly rubbed along, although once on the open hillside by Pensychnant Lake he tried his best to get the upper hand, especially when we turned for home. Several people walking dogs stood well back, slack-jawed with apprehension as we whizzed by at a gallop rather faster than I would have preferred. Wizard could be a joy to ride but occasionally, he’d argue over my directional decisions. One day he planted his feet for some fifteen minutes in Parc Mawr before agreeing to move forwards. Later, by way of revenge, he managed to execute an especially sudden and athletic pirouette at sight of an Asda bag in the hedge, and I hit the tarmac. During this rude eviction the air vest sprang into action with a loud pop, and I rolled across the road like Mr Blobby. I don’t know if Wizard was horrified at the sight of an inflated me or the sudden noise I’d emitted, but he clearly thought it safer (and way more fun) to scarper at this point.
Other than feeling mildly winded and stupid, I was completely unhurt but I did worry about Wizard – who’d disappeared without trace. I asked every passing car if they’d seen a large, black cantering horse but no one had… what the hell? Had he jumped a hedge into a field? Hitched a lift in a passing trailer? Maybe he had wizardly skills in disappearing acts… but no, a couple of urgent phone calls confirmed that he’d arrived safe and sound at Merchlyn Forge a mile away and was enjoying a hay-net courtesy of Debbie Youngson. Relieved, I accepted a lift from a passing farmer travelling the same way and Wizard was duly collected and ridden home. All things considered I decided to retire from the charms of Mr Whizz, deciding there and then that prospects for rambling solo across remote places weren’t looking good. Jayne Moore and Penny Wingfield were the nicest of horsey owners and I felt mortally disappointed that neither of their horses had quite worked out for me. Fair to say that husband was by now thoroughly perplexed as to why I insisted on this path of dangerous recreation. The simple answer is that of course these events don’t represent the full picture. When equine partnerships work well, it’s quite simply the best feeling in the world. Husband wasn’t convinced, but he duly replaced the £17 cartridge in the air jacket.
In other equine areas, I experienced rather more success. The Welsh Institute of Therapeutic Horsemanship (WITH) ran a two-day EFL (Equine Facilitated Learning) training course for those wishing to qualify as an assistant to a trained therapist. Unlike the RDA which is mostly about physical disabilities and riding the horse, EFL is all about mental and emotional well-being; about assisting clients to discover ways of helping themselves through the medium of interacting with horses. Some of the research supporting this sounds improbable and someone with long-term depression or post-traumatic stress disorder could be forgiven for feeling skeptical, but in the vast majority of cases it works, and it’s effective for those suffering a variety of diverse mental health issues.The session plans developed by WITH are also beneficial for those who want to develop skills in leadership, communication, and confidence. Put simply, it can give someone the courage to look in the mirror and love what they see. Horses accept us for who we are, and because they are never incongruent they can also encourage us towards healthy change. Undoubtedly, there is something on the inside of a horse that is good for people and, sometimes it’s as simple as the endorphins produced from aligning our human heartbeat to that of an equine heartbeat.
In preparation for my training course in April, I took a refresher lesson in lunging with Wendy Tobias-Jones of Conwy Community Riding School and head coach for Conwy Gogarth RDA. As a WITH assistant, my role would be to interpret the reactions of the horse during the therapy session. In order to facilitate this, I might be expected to demonstrate skills in free-schooling, using a round pen, or lunging. Nutmeg proved an interesting partner and it took a while for my coordination to remember how to handle a long schooling whip and a lunge line with a lively horse on the end of it. The real bonus though was the natural horsemanship session we did at the end, aka the Monty Robert’s join-up technique. And the ‘feels’ were undeniable when Nutmeg – free from all restraint by then – chose to follow me so closely I could feel her breath on the back of my neck. For anyone suffering with confidence issues I defy them not to feel a surge of joy and power when a horse chooses to react this way of its own free will. And it’s a valuable insight into how an equine mind is programmed to that of trust and survival, and how it can affect our own persona. In that moment, Nutmeg saw me as a clear leader.
I completed and passed the preliminary WITH course at Bryn Gaseg, Anglesey, and later in the year went on to assist Jackie Williams help a client suffering with PTSD by practising the EFL programme. The results were astonishing. More on Jackie and Bryn Gaseg: https://janruth.com/2017/11/18/with-or-without-you/
Some of these experiences went into GIFT HORSE: A time-slip novel about the choices women make, the healing power of horses, and the consequences of human error. Of course, I’ve touched on horse-whispering techniques, therapies, and mental health issues in the Midnight Sky series, and part of Gift Horse is a natural continuation of that theme, one which this time connects more directly to my main character. Caroline is a product of her sheltered upbringing. In direct contrast her flatmate, Niamh, is part of a loud, sprawling Irish family – including the gorgeous but licentious Rory O’Connor; Caroline’s nemesis. Unfortunately, Caroline is intent on pleasing everyone except herself, and there’s a price to pay… I hope my so far modest experiences with equine therapies adds some reality and richness to the story.
But what of my own story? I’d almost given up hope of a regular ride but in late April I received a tentative message… something about a share in a pony and would I be interested? A pony I knew rather well from my days of riding with Debbie Youngson, a pony who in fact still resided at Merchlyn on livery. Storm. A trial ride was arranged and one summery evening in May I rode to the Ty Gwyn pub in Rowen, where husband arranged to buy me a shandy. When Storm tried to follow me into the pub I knew we were going to get along just fine. Now, that one looks a lot safer, husband declared knowledgeably, pint in hand.
A Dartmoor who looked more like an Exmoor with a cream muzzle, a dun coat with a cream belly, black legs and a black mane and tail. A pint-sized pony with a big personality, Storm was a force to be reckoned with. At something like 12.5 hands I wasn’t too worried that I looked out of place on him thanks to my short legs, but at 9 stone I was probably at his top weight. Down to the best motivation I’d had in a while, I lost a stone over the course of that summer and came to appreciate the ease of jumping on and off a pony exactly like I used to when I was twelve. Actually, I probably looked about twelve from the rear in my pink hi-vis, but all well and good if this image had motorists extra cautious on approach. I can only imagine their thoughts on passing me though and maybe glancing in their rearview mirror to see a colourful, child-sized rider in her sixties. But none of that mattered. Difficult gates lost their power to determine a route. Dismounting and mounting was easy peasy, no need to look for a rock to stand on or hop about while an impatient horse tried to move off. Sometimes, though, Storm would turn and look at me when I stuck my foot back in the stirrup. Come on, old woman get on, get on! But generally he was undeniably forgiving.
Through a hot, dry summer, we roamed the hills, the woods, and the lanes around Henryd and Rowen. He’d go anywhere I pointed him, never spooked, never napped, and other than drawing the line at sharing passing space with dragons (aka massive tractors and trailers) he exhibited a sensible approach to anything we encountered. He showed a passing disdain for the pigs, but nothing more. Occasionally we’d come across a stubble field with an open gate and we’d canter across it, easily hidden behind tall hedges profuse with summer foliage. Storm was always up for a spot of mild mischief, and I knew I had a great partner in crime when he pricked his ears at the prospect of galloping over mildly forbidden ground. Beyond cantering, though, I generally let him set the pace. Parc Mawr Woods and Tal y Fan is hard on ridden horses and ponies; the ground rough, the inclines steep. Sometimes, I’d dismount and we’d walk side by side, both of us panting in the dry heat. But there were specific places where he liked to gallop, especially on level grassy areas or sometimes uphill, and I let him fly. I never pushed him, but then I doubt he would have allowed me to.
This typical pony personality extended to the field where he escaped on a regular basis. Merchlyn favoured strip grazing; a method of rotating the land using electric fencing. Unfortunately the height of this was set at chest level for the horses and didn’t really accommodate Storm, who easily slipped underneath. He had no shame in performing this act before my very eyes, tossing the length of tape up and over his head, pausing at the mild zap across his withers before continuing on his way to pastures new with a defiant little trot and a wary eye. I’d often find him knee-deep and big-bellied in long grass and buttercups; the equine equivalent of gorging on a Michelin Star menu. Sometimes, he’d tear round the perimeter of the forbidden paddocks and throw in a buck. The livery horses, some of whom could easily step over the sagging tape but wouldn’t dare, looked on in bewildered admiration.
But there came a time when his escapes led to a difficult situation at Merchlyn and his owner, Sue, decided to have him back home, just a few miles away in Conwy. This was a good move for me since the Sychnant Pass was my old stamping ground with fond memories of Pinewood Stables and Conwy Mountain. The terrain is a little less harsh by the coast and the variety of tracks offer plenty of freedom for mountain and beach riding. Storm’s new pasture was a secluded area of land behind a neighbouring property. As a bonus there were two mares in close vicinity, one of whom he liked to watch closely through the hedge. Discovering the hollow beneath the trees where he’d lain down to sleep, was the stuff of childhood fiction. Close by, the beehives hummed, the occupants busy with a variety of pollen in the gardens and beyond. Rich and dark, the honey gleaned from these pickings created a hillside garden in a jar, the perfume and flavour a distinct floweriness combined with the earthiness of our local Welsh heather.
Storm’s grazing was easily managed, along with occasional supervised spells in the orchard; an atmospheric, rambling place with disused greenhouses, several low, gnarled fruit trees, and a variety of overgrown vegetable beds. When arrangements were made for Storm to move in permanently with the mares, his domain was complete. Not that he saw himself as a small, 16 year old gelding. For a while Storm’s behaviour was more that of a virile 16 hand stallion. The older, taller, thoroughbred mare took no notice of him whatsoever, while the younger, smaller mare enjoyed egging him on. When she came into season and riding necessitated that he leave her side, Storm would stop and call to her at random moments in random places, head high and ears pricked. His voice was astonishingly deep and resonant for such a small pony and it reverberated through his body like the call of the wild to the point where occasionally, we’d attract the attentions of a wild Carneddau stallion checking out any possible opposition.
In late autumn we noticed that Storm had a protruding front tooth, a bit like Nanny McFee. The equine dentist was summoned and Storm duly sedated, his drowsy head resting on a sturdy stand so the dentist could prop his jaw open and have a good look. It looked quite a brutal procedure when the wobbly tooth was extracted but Storm didn’t flinch an inch and we couldn’t help wondering what else we needed to do to him while he was in such a dreamy state. His back teeth got a good filing down and we had instructions not to allow him to eat until the sedation had worn off, and not to ride him in a metal bit for a couple of days. I heeded the advice about the bit and decided to ride him the following day by improvising and attaching his reins to his halter. What could go wrong?
I didn’t chance riding along the road, not even for a short distance, but wandered up the Muddy Lane Bridleway onto Conwy Mountain. Storm heeded my every command, what a good boy! Even during canter he allowed me to slow his pace and change direction and I only had the clumsiest of aids since his reins were attached to his big, comfy padded halter. But then we turned for home, and, oh boy, did he have some fun with me. I had no idea he could actually gallop that fast. It was like a switch had been thrown. We set off up a gentle incline by Pen Pyra Farm at a fair canter, gathering in momentum without slowing as we turned to the right and picked up a long track across a flattish area peppered with rocks and undulations. Usually he’d slow here and we’d catch our breath, but not this time. Shallow ditches and uneven ground whizzed by at a swift pace. I shifted my weight and used alternate pulls left and right. Nope, no effect whatsoever. He was at light-speed by this time, head well down into his noseband, and some elderly guy with a dog stepped back off the track just in time. Bloody hell, love! I garbled an apology. Storm did eventually slow up, luckily just before we began to descend, although he was full of himself and jogged me all the way home. I laughed at his nerve but by the time we’d arrived back at the yard he’d lost his cockiness and just shoved me with his head. What are you talking about, what bolt? You’re making a storm out of a teacup!
When I was young I used to think that I’d be doing very well indeed if I was still riding at the age of 60. And the close of 2018 concluded 50 years in the saddle, so I’d reached a special anniversary. But rather than these times be about Disappearing Dreamscapes, it was more about rediscovering those areas of my childhood which epitomised the simple freedom of riding in the countryside. Exactly like it used to be.