Memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.
Chapter 1: Spring
Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge, Cheshire. 1976. Since I was the new girl, I was invited to join the regular Sunday morning crowd. Most of them were hungover, but the guy with his foot in plaster assured me that this wouldn’t be a problem. This same guy elected to ride Specky, the one-eyed hunter. No one questioned whether this was a wise combination, or not. No matter, spring was in the air along with the peal of church bells, and the day was full of promise. Masses of daffodils and crocuses, every shade of dark emerald green through to the palest of jade, chocolate-brown fields wet from heavy showers. I followed cautiously on a quiet bay mare called Babysham, which felt entirely appropriate on all counts. We turned off the road after some ten minutes and began to ascend a steep, sandstone track partially formed by huge boulders. Crouched low over Babysham’s neck, the climb presented a challenging scramble for four hooves – but all the horses took it at speed, experienced at keeping the momentum going and knowing exactly how and where to lunge around the rocks. Once the horses had caught their breath at the top of this escarpment, we would wind our way through ancient woodland, sometimes cantering along a criss-cross of tracks and leaping small logs along the way. The mare was light and forward, the company funny, and a whole new riding experience looked set to unfold. I was hooked…
Mary Dawson’s kitchen at Higher House was invariably a wonderful chaotic jumble; pans of boiling barley and sugar beet, wet jodhpurs steaming over the Aga, something in a bucket covered with a wet cloth. A chewed laundry basket full of puppies, a three-legged lamb in a box under the kitchen table. On the windowsill, a row of gin and dry martini bottles containing milk and fitted with huge rubber teats. Dogs, always dogs.
Bee the greyhound dropped a size eleven shoe on my foot and looked up expectantly. Naturally, I hurled it as far as I could across the muddy garden. The dog merely tilted her head enquiringly until eventually, I was forced to go and retrieve the thing myself. I was less amused when I discovered the shoes belonged to Big John. I understand now that Big John may have been mildly autistic, but mental health wasn’t really acknowledged or talked about much in the seventies. Verbally, he was pretty non-communicative – but his favourite story, when he felt so inclined, was the one where he cycled to Macclesfield on a bike with no gears in less than twelve minutes. He was freakishly strong – which had its merits on a stable yard, but on the flip-side he was often in trouble for over-tightening things and once, for teaching Midnight Prince how to smoke his pipe.
Big John found great amusement in trying to pair-off my friend, Nicola, and I with the local vicar; engineering timings so that we rode out together. We always tried to get mounted up and off before the local reverend arrived, one eye on the driveway as we fiddled with girths and adjusted stirrups. The vicar drove an extremely flash sports car. I can’t recall the exact make and model but it was sleek and low slung, and he invariably struggled to climb out of it. He was an archetypical country vicar too, with buck-teeth, a loud voice, and a receding hairline.
I loved all of this mild eccentricity, and stored it away for future use, for reasons unknown to me at the time, but anyone who has read my novels may well recognise my fictional roots starting to form.
Under her main hat, Mary Dawson bred racehorses as well as running a riding school. None of the hacks out were ever accompanied, she was too busy teaching and training. After a couple of visits and once I’d proven myself to be trustworthy, I was pretty much allowed free rein of the school horses. I bought a 1:25000 map and plotted dozens of routes, often riding out solo and I continue to do so now, although my dreamscape these days belongs to the Welsh hills – a significantly more remote playground than the cosy Cheshire green-belt I frequented then. My solitary riding across the hills here often attracts more than a raised eyebrow but this was how I learnt to ride well, and in hindsight how I learnt to fix problems of my own making. Back in the seventies and eighties, we never envisaged falling foul of an accident, and we never experienced anything we either couldn’t fix at the time, or learn from. We simply took responsibility for ourselves.
Now, we live in very different times, governed by a whole plethora of health and safety rules. Common sense and trust aren’t allowed to develop and prevail. But the domain of the public riding school has changed beyond recognition – access to suitable land has become more and more restricted, many bridleways have gone, country roads have become racetracks, and crippling insurance costs reflect our blame culture. The artificial world of the indoor school has obvious advantages, but its rise in popularity through the eighties and nineties has also produced a generation of horses, business owners, and riders nervous of the real world. Does this combined social baggage add to the mass of anxieties we have become? I think it might. Of course, riding schools find it physically easier and more financially lucrative to allow one member of staff to teach ten riders or more in a confined indoor space rather than venture off-site and risk an ‘accident’. And in this decade there’s been a boom in children’s parties, coffee mornings, and ‘educating’ children having them learn how to fill hay-nets and muck-out. This is good, but only up to a point.
I’m glad I learnt to ride more than fifty years ago. For me, it was a time when those personal dreamscapes felt real because we were allowed to experience them. Now, we seem to have lost a wealth of respect on our roads, and the ability to trust our own risk assessment of any given situation. Above all, we’ve lost a wealth of freedom.
Booths, Shaftesbury Avenue, Timperley 1968. The birth of an obsession. My new Australian friend regaled me with stories of her ponies ‘back home’. She owned the biggest collection of horse books I’d ever seen and The Observers book of Horses and Ponies, published around the year I was born, immediately went onto my Christmas list. I still have it. My imagination was further captured by Australian author Elyne Mitchell whose books – an unusual equine series set in the Snowy Mountains region of Australia – began to feature heavily in my teenage years. In direct contrast to my friend, I grew up on a quiet, leafy council estate in south Cheshire, with non-horsey parents. I was an outdoor child, fuelled by books and maps. Rupert Bear, and Nutwood, the fictional idyllic English village. Enid Blyton’s Brer Rabbit and the Secret Seven books all helped to inspire an active interest in animals, the countryside, and the idea of setting out on an adventure. I liked to be on the move. Around the age of ten, my father would cycle 6 miles or so with me from where we lived in Cheadle to Booths place, where Pamela Rigby taught me the basics on a ‘yard’ consisting of a few acres of fields and a couple of caravans. It was open and flat, and despite the road running alongside, felt like a different world to a child with a good imagination. Not surprisingly, this entire area is now under concrete and the road is a roaring, incredibly busy dual-carriageway.
Mr Booth, always seated in his maroon Jaguar, took the money. In 1968, an hour in the saddle under instruction cost ten shillings, aka 50p. Sometimes, Booth would put three-penny-bits between our knees and the saddle, promising we could keep them if they were still there at the end of the lesson. I don’t think I ever managed it! Now of course, gripping with the knees has long been ousted as correct or effective horsemanship. Copper prizes notwithstanding, Dad and I would cycle home afterwards, and my six-day wait would begin again. I started on the steady ones: Twinkle Toes, the grey, and Puffin, the roan, before progressing onto a smaller, albeit far wilier and more challenging Welsh Mountain Pony: Merrylegs. Twinkle and Puffin may have given me confidence and balance, but Merrylegs taught me how to ride. The adventure really began when I was considered proficient enough to leave the confines of the fields and join day rides to exciting places like Ashley, or on one occasion, a holiday in Hope, Derbyshire.
In the early seventies, Pamela Rigby relocated to Mobberley Riding School, Newton Hall Lane; a much bigger establishment with proper stables and an indoor school. I did continue to go as a child for lessons and even a few times in the late nineties when I took my son along for one of Pam’s holiday clubs. She kindly allowed me to hack one of her horses around the Cheshire lanes. The 16-hand middle-weight hunter was wonderfully schooled and a joy to ride, but the restrictions of those Cheshire roads just felt too confined for my roaming soul. Although I wasn’t part of this particular story, I love that Mobberley Riding School survived over 40 years and Miss Rigby enjoyed a long career at top competition level. The school only closed in the spring of 2016 but Pam is still very much in the business and now runs a performance and event venue at New Barn Livery in Knutsford; jokingly referred to as her ‘retirement project’. Pam was awarded the MBE in June 2013 for her lifetime service to people with disabilities. The site of Mobberley Riding school is now under redevelopment.
Once I was considered sensible enough to coordinate a bus ride into Stockport and catch a second bus to Offerton, I began to frequent Forsythe’s place at Offerton Riding School, Holiday Lane. This yard offered more scope in that we could ride – unaccompanied – on private land for something like £1.20 per hour. A horsey haven, nestled in the middle of suburbia. The beautifully kept whitewashed stables and the authentic Victorian buildings complete with iron hayracks and cobbled floors, the smell of the leather – all of these things felt deeply evocative – though I couldn’t explain why. Perhaps the history of those buildings and the thousands of dreams it all represented had somehow soaked into the foundations.
Ken Forsythe kept a big desk diary with all the horses’ names running down the left-hand column, Flikka, Trigger, Sabre, Winston, Brandy, Romany, Charmaine, Piper… It was a foolproof booking procedure, and nothing much ever went wrong or got mixed-up, and nothing was ever cancelled. Ken always wore a shirt and a tweed jacket with his wellies, which seems ridiculously formal but we didn’t have all the purpose made outdoor clothing we have at our disposal now.
Riding gear was mostly for show, rather than practicality. Anything other than a hacking jacket was often too bulky, or too long. Hats were not always worn, let alone air-jackets or back-protectors and high-vis tabards. Outdoor gear is probably one of the best improvements we’ve had since the early years – protective, lightweight, waterproof, high visibility, breathable clothing. I had a brown, second-hand riding hat for years, its only anchorage to my head being a loose length of elastic. I remember investing in a buff-coloured rubberised raincoat in the eighties which was the order of the day, but there was no ‘give’ in the material and the coat was so rigid it practically stood up by itself when I wasn’t wearing it.
At Offerton, there was a flat sandy area we were sometimes allowed to canter round, sensibly. Trigger was always especially up for this, and although I was a pretty confident rider by then I parted company from Trigger a couple of times in spectacular style. He was the first young, finely-bred horse I’d encountered. He moved much more quickly than the ponies I’d grown up with, sometimes choosing to leap the pools of sandy water rather than plough through them, and he was especially adept at changing gear and direction. Sometimes, we were allowed to leave the confines of riding school land, cross the stream and venture along the banks of Poise Brook for a long canter, until the track petered out. We were always accompanied for this venture, I suspect because none of us were trusted to stop in time before we ran into the immaculate greens of the local bowling club.
At the beginning of the eighties, the horses and ponies at Offerton were whittled down in preparation for Ken’s retirement – many of them sold privately or to Bank Farm Riding School, Poynton – which is still operating as a riding school, albeit only offering walk and trot rides. I do remember riding there a couple of times and galloping along the Middlewood Way on a horse with only fair-to-middling brakes, trying to slow down enough for the rest of the party who were miles behind. A sad coincidence that in 2017 my mother had occasion to stay in a nursing home just off Marple Road and I drove past the end of Holiday Lane in morbid fascination, lost in the nostalgia of it all and the terrifying march of time. Although in the grip of advancing dementia by then, Mum seemed to remember the day I led her around the fields on Brandy. Offerton Riding school closed at the end of the summer in 1981 and I read recently that the area is being further developed by a sand and gravel company. Sad to see that the stables and the buildings have all but collapsed, including those handcrafted Victorian stalls, now cluttered with rubbish and old shopping trolleys. The land is not built on as yet, but maybe it’s only a matter of time. The end of more than one bygone era…
Still in the early seventies, someone I only remember as Rosemary, set up a small riding school at Bruntwood Park, Cheadle, alongside her boyfriend’s dog training business. This was great news for me as I could walk or cycle the short distance from home to the cottage at the top of Bruntwood Lane. Rosemary had half-a-dozen horses but I only really recall Ebony – a huge black cob, both in height as well as girth. Eric Broadhurst ran a security business retraining failed police dogs, usually German Shepherds. I remember one afternoon running around in one of those padded strait-jackets so the dog could leap at me and wrestle me to the ground. Eric’s career as a dog trainer gained considerable repute, being associated with Crufts along the way and enjoying a long working relationship with Granada Television training dogs for film and TV.
When Eric and Rosemary went their separate ways, Eric retained custody of Ebony. Fearful of the cob’s ever expanding size, I began to ride him at Eric’s request that I keep the horse fit. This was no mean feat. The world was one big smorgasbord to Ebony. He was a wise soul, patient, mostly plodding, and happy to be taken anywhere, if we didn’t rush him. I occasionally rode him home, across Brookfields Park, paddling through the Micker Brook, round the fields at the back of the houses and onto Brookfield Road where we lived. I left him on our driveway once while I nipped to the bathroom. I could hear my mother shrieking downstairs that not only had he eaten a tub of geraniums but he’d come partway into the hall, looking for me. Dad went looking for the camera. Clear evidence here that he always managed to chop our heads off.
Sometimes my friend Barbara would join me on expeditions further afield, and we took it in turns to either ride the horse or pedal the pushbike – our packed lunches in the basket on the front. We attracted some verbal abuse and hilarity out and about through Cheadle Hulme and Bramhall, especially waiting in traffic at the lights where Ebony towered above the cars and peered through the rear windows of stationary traffic. Sometimes he’d choose to pee just as the lights turned green. He’d plant all four hooves, oblivious of honking traffic trying to get round him. And it could take a while, at least until the lights turned back to red – a torrent of foaming urine spreading across the tarmac. All credit to his stoic character, Ebony wasn’t fazed by anything we encountered on the roads. As part of his fitness regime we encouraged him to trot for as long as possible, especially uphill, and he did usually oblige – at least until whoever was on the bike began screaming for mercy. Barbara and I were very fit through those years, not sure how much impact it had on the horse.
During all of this I remember getting stranded in London in the spring of 1975 because I’d gone to see Led Zeppelin at Earls Court (with an unsuitable boyfriend, naturally) and missed the last direct train back to Manchester. The parents were furious. I think I arrived home just as the milkman turned up. A quick change of clothes, a note on the kitchen table and I was straight out again, Ebony’s halter swinging on the handlebars of my bike. I ditched the boyfriend not long after, kept riding the horse. Eventually, all that sustained trotting only produced the required slight sweat (mostly Barbara and I) and we moved on to cantering. Cantering only happened on Ebony’s terms, usually on the way back to his field. This was an idyllic meadow, full of big oak and beech trees – gone now, concreted over by a prestigious housing estate with properties hovering just below the million-pound mark. The park is hopelessly over-developed now boasting a boutique hotel and more car parks sprawling across what used to be an unlabelled open space of almost 100 acres. Another large chunk of this has been swallowed up by various superstores on the periphery…
This is an extract from the memoir My Life in Horses:
Continue reading: mybook.to/MyLifeinHorses