In the Chair 80: Anna Rashbrook

downloadWelcome, Anna Rashbrook

How would you describe your writing style in only three words? Anna: Light, gripping, enjoyable.

If you could have a relationship with one of your fictional characters who would it be and why? Anna: Mollie, because we think alike!

If you had to exist for a week in one of your books … which one would it be? Would you be a central character or simply watch the story unfold from the sidelines?

Anna: I would watch Chaos unfold from the sidelines, like a real fly on the wall. That way I might find the ending!

Dead or alive literary dinner party: who would you invite, and what would you serve?

Anna: Elizabeth Goudge, Monica Edwards and Beverley Hughesdon. Traditional English roast beef as they are all older ladies!!

DSCN1690 (2)If you had to write in a different genre which would it be and why?

Anna: Autobiography, I’ve kept diaries all my life and it would be fascinating to see how I viewed things at other times in my life, and maybe some of my adventures might be interesting to readers

What do you dislike the most about being an author?

Anna: Lack of time to write and interruptions!

Favourite word? Anna: Grießenk! Local dialect for hello

Anna Rashbrook was in the chair, author of: Challenger and Compromise.



Disappearing Dreamscapes 7

Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.

Chapter 7: Home Ground

Springtime in Parc Mawr Woods. Snowdrops first, then maybe a few daffodils poking through the leaf mould and all around the insistent drilling of a woodpecker. But when it’s time for the wild garlic and the bluebells to flower, the fairy grotto effect is in full force. At the main fork in the path, the lower track returns walkers or riders to the lane. Alternatively, another ten minutes of climbing elevates one beyond the tops of the fir trees to reveal far reaching views of Conwy valley and the river. Pass through the rider-friendly gate and take the steep bridleway – usually studded with primroses by the close of March – and sheltered by ancient, gnarled trees, to arrive at the old church. Progress is slow as it’s a rocky route, often gushing like a healthy brook through the winter, during a wet spring, or after snow. Drystone walls border the way, forming a narrow passage to the church of St Celynin – a sixth century saint. One of the oldest churches in Wales, horses would bring coffins along this way to their final resting place. Beyond the church the open countryside is much as it was thousands of years ago, predominantly inhabited by Carneddau ponies, sheep, and birds of prey.
IMG_5013I’ve known this area for a long time. I’ve admired it in bright sunlight, and in the chill dusk of winter. And I’ve seen it sprinkled with snow and bathed in moonlight beneath the stars. I’ve also looked with longing at the hoofprints pitted along these tracks, thinking how wonderful it must feel to be able to observe such ancient wildness from the back of a horse, but I’ve had to accept that the public riding school as I used to know it, was pretty much finished. Other than my short list of places which meant long-distance travelling and an overnight stay to make a riding trip viable, there was nowhere to ride beyond an indoor school.
midnight-sky-series-coverMeanwhile, writing had been extra productive, including two sequels in the Midnight Sky series. Aspects of these books represented how my equine obsession developed by exploring areas which not only appealed to me as a writer, but reflected an interest in alternative training methods and therapies. It also opened a variety of different doors which not only drew me deeper into my community, but affected a subtle change in me, too. One of the early triggers for this came from watching Guido Louis Leidelmeyer on a couple of occasions back in 2016. A stunt rider, and an equine behaviourist, Guido’s methods come from that broad spectrum described as Natural Horsemanship.Once upon a time the British Horse Society was the only equine reference on the shelf. Everything one needed to know would be laid down in black and white, somewhere. There were rules. There were standards. These inflexible, uncompromising ways are becoming old-school. Every horse, every person, is an individual. How any one combination of horse and rider works together, is not always black and white. I think we’ve always known this, but it’s never been quantifiable. Real equestrian skill comes with understanding what works for one, might not work for another, and how to apply that knowledge. Sometimes it’s only a feeling, but instinct can be more powerful than any how-to manual. Guido suggests we train in silence. Our gibberish means nothing to horses. Body language is how animals read us much of the time. After all, it’s how they survive in the wild and communicate with each other. Understanding more of this language, or engaging whispering techniques, can teach us not only about the relationships we have with our horses but much of the time a good deal about ourselves, too. You might be able to fool a stranger with a fake smile, but a horse will know the real story. And in essence, the horse remains the most truthful of teachers since his agenda is never compromised by incongruent behaviour. 
10982448_877878988921417_4697274201469467442_nAs with any relatively ‘new’ subject which comes along to challenge the old ways, there will always be extreme versions and there will always be con-artists, but if the desired result is achieved without distress for the horse and no one gets hurt, then it’s good enough for me. I’ve watched Guido manage to clip a nervous horse he’s never met before in the space of twenty minutes. The owner had tried everything. As West Taylor (science-based horsemanship) also reiterates, it’s not always about the stuff, it’s often about us. It’s about our perception of the problem and not allowing it to manifest into something bigger than we can handle. At times though, outside influences are so strong we literally dabble with life and death.
More on Guido:
DSCN5324A road traffic meeting in Conwy’s Guild Hall in the spring of 2017 only came about after a tragic accident – much like closing the door after the horse had bolted. A driver ploughed into the back of a horse and rider in broad daylight, and although the rider only sustained severe bruising it resulted in a broken leg for the horse which had to be destroyed on the spot. The driver didn’t even stop. That rider could have been me. She was experienced, mature, wearing hi-vis, and riding a quiet horse. The Sychnant Pass is mostly single-track, winding, and with variable visibility. Sheep and wild ponies roam loose across the area and common sense should dictate speed and behaviour. I’ve watched children trying to remove their ponies from Pinewood’s fields with traffic whizzing past at 60mph… The guild hall was packed, standing room only, and the debate was heated. Some of the stories were hair-raising, and in some cases the ignorance, the sheer disregard for someone’s life, quite breath-taking. The conclusion was that the speed limit on the Pass should be cut from 60 to 40 mph – other than where it already dropped to 25 – and large hazard signs employed. On the whole traffic is pretty calm in this beautiful, scenic place, but I’m aware at all times that it only takes one careless driver working to an impossible schedule, or someone under the influence of drink, stupidity, ignorance, or drugs, to change that.
HenrydOur world is often one of fear and disappointment and reading or writing fiction is good escapism, or at the very least a powerful medium to channel thoughts and emotions. But I also needed to escape the isolation and unhealthy aspects of writing, sitting, and thinking. Then I came across a mobile phone number and some scant information about trekking pinned to a supermarket notice-board. The yard was in Henryd – a couple of miles away from me at Merchlyn, a beautiful old forge with Victorian stables and stone barns. And so in the spring of 2017 I found myself cantering between those banks of bluebells in Parc Mawr woods on Debbie Youngson’s thoroughbred, Trudy, aka The Intruder. Not in the first flush of youth, the mare was still an eager accomplice whenever we rode up to the old church and back down the steep, winding lanes where a short cobbled bridleway brought us back round to the woods again. Or we’d loop through Rowen village, past the pub and the telephone kiosk – which is now home to second-hand books, plant cuttings, business cards, and a defibrillator. Then a left turn brought us past the Dutch Pancake House and the Water Gardens. The horses sometimes spooked at the Water Gardens. During busy times there could be a long line of fisherman behind the hedge and we had to be aware of sudden movement, or the sound of whipping and plopping lines. I wasn’t so keen on the road riding despite the scenic nature but the kinder, drier weather of late spring promised longer mountain rides, so this was something to look forward to. And it was undeniably lovely to ride through those woods.
Riding circuits around the local villages it didn’t go unnoticed that there was a schooling area by the entrance to Parc Mawr, attached to Tanrallt farm. I’d been researching disabled riding for a theme I’d introduced into Strawberry Sky, only to discover that this very locality was used by Conwy RDA group – and they wanted volunteers. What better way to research a subject than to be actively involved in it? Not only this, it would place me into a familiar environment, a situation which I hoped could produce mutual benefits. And so one spring morning I walked from home across the fields, through Rowen Woods and up to the top of Henryd village to watch a session in progress and meet the team. IMG_20170920_114641288_HDRStraightaway, I felt there was something real and organic about this upbeat, positive community. Above all, it was run for the benefit of the people who used it, rather than for the sole purpose of making money. It’s much how I’d begun to approach producing the books I wanted to write, because much of the time ebook publishers are about trends and making cash rather than producing something of substance and quality, so this parallel ethos appealed to me and I committed to Wednesday mornings with ease. Getting involved with people who are disabled or disadvantaged in some way is a great leveller. Curiously, I began to feel less stressed, able to concentrate for longer, and generally experienced a better frame of mind. Was that down to the horses, the environment, or the people? I like to think it’s down to the unique combination. 
More on Conwy Gogarth RDA:
When the weather improved, Debbie and I – often joined by Gill who had a horse on livery at Merchlyn, and Angharad, Debbie’s business partner, rode longer circuits of Tal Y Fan. Bessie, the black cob mare reminded me of Kirby and she was probably my favourite, although the mare was nervous if not following another horse. I really liked Storm, too, the small pony with the big personality, and Martha. Sadly, just as I was settling in to the possibilities of adventure, Debbie’s personal circumstances changed into one of an uncertain future and despite sporadic rides through the summer, I had to accept that yet again there was some familiar writing on the wall. 
But as my involvement with the RDA grew, so did my connections to local equine people, and the secretary for Conwy Gogarth RDA, Carol Moore, soon introduced me to her three cob geldings Snowman, Freddie, and Fergus. Carol’s yard was tucked away in Rowen Woods, part of the estate known as Glyn Parc. Formerly a tourist attraction, Glyn Parc used to be a rare breed farm prior to the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. Some of the original sheep have been retained to cross-graze the pasture, but the place is now primarily a livery yard and a holiday cottage. I wasn’t unfamiliar with the area as it’s criss-crossed with public footpaths amid an idyllic setting – lush with flora and fauna, orchards, peacocks, and doves.
Fergus, the rather Rubenesque coloured gypsy cob with a classic apple-shaped bum, reminded me of my unease riding the aforementioned Paddy. His rolling gait and the tendency to lower his head in canter wasn’t the best physical fit for me and my short legs. Snowman, adopted by Carol and previously owned by a riding school, was less forward-going than his step-brothers but essentially a sensible, genuine sort. A stoic character in excess of a portly 16 hands, mounting and dismounting was always going to be a major problem for me, but generally he was a gentleman to handle, even dipping his head low enough for me to pass his reins and the martingale over his head, although fastening his girth wasn’t quite so easy! Adept at escaping his loose box, one always had to ensure both bolts were rammed home and the feed bin out of sight.
Freddie, the lighter, slimmer skewbald horse felt pretty perfect, although this came at a price. Freddie had an unusual personality. Sometimes ticklish, he did his best to avoid being groomed, but much depended on his mood. I guess one might say he was mildly unpredictable and not always the easiest to handle. He certainly had a twinkle in his eye and he did test me initially, but Freddie was great off-road and remarkably athletic, reminding me of the aforementioned Ted. A sporty chap, Freddie was always happier in the lead and occasionally he’d put in a disgruntled buck if he found himself behind one of his stable-mates. And then one fateful July day, Freddie and I parted company. We’d enjoyed a good long ride with Carol and Fergus, and we’d done all the arguably risky bits across open countryside without incident other than a couple of playful bucks, but nothing unseating.
We were on the final sun-dappled canter track along the bottom of Parc Mawr, heading for home, tired, happy and bowling along behind Fergus but steady, relaxed. We weren’t too close to Fergus, nor were we too far behind and our pace couldn’t be considered as excitable. Any spooky outside influences were less than negligible. One second I was listening to the birdsong and wondering what to have for dinner and the next I was on my back looking at the tree-tops. Freddie was nowhere to be seen. One of my stirrup leathers dangled on top of a bush. What the…? Usually under these circumstances there’s a couple of seconds to consider impending doom as one slithers down the right or left flank, braced to hit the soil. But this time… nothing. Once I’d got over the shock, I staggered to my feet without too much creaking but I knew instantly I’d badly bruised my coccyx the second I began to walk.
A concerned Carol materialised from the opposite direction, leading both horses and full of questions but I had no explanation for what had happened. To this day I still have no idea how Freddie managed to evacuate me with such lightning precision, if indeed, that had been his agenda. I did remount (standing on the wall by the scout hut) and rode back to the yard, leaning forward rather more than I should – but driving home afterwards included swear words, especially where too much clutch action had me gritting my teeth. The injury took at least a month to fully heal and the inconvenience of not being able to drive or sit for too long, and the very real fact that my accident could have been so much worse, prompted me to invest in an air jacket. Unlike the old, stiff and restrictive body protectors which I’d resisted for years, the air jacket is the cutting edge in equine protection. It consists of a light tabard style ‘jacket’ which is worn over all other clothing and attached to a D ring on the saddle via a bungee cord. If the cord becomes forcefully detached then the jacket inflates, cushioning any fall to the ground.
imagesA fairly hefty sum to purchase initially at around £400, it’s still a small price to pay to prevent broken bones or another bruised coccyx, and I also had to bear in mind my recent diagnosis of border-line osteoporosis. The only caveat is that it is so light I forget I’m wearing it and therefore forget to detach the bungee when dismounting. I’ve jumped down off Snowman with it still attached and obviously, the taller the horse the bigger this problem can be! Stretched taut, it’s the very Devil to unhook from the ground, in fact it’s easier to remove the entire jacket. I’ve never made so many notes to self… Remember to unhook the blasted bungee cord!  
Four weeks after the fall I was back in the saddle. I’d taken to riding Snowman and came to enjoy his predictable, steady pace. We rode for almost four hours one warm afternoon in late summer, taking the route which swings left after the old church and around Craig Celynin before following the lower flanks of Tal Y Fan, and enjoyed some long grassy canters despite the number of uncooperative gates along the way, held up with the ubiquitous ancient rusting wire and frayed baler twine. Then we took the green lane back to the village, plucking blackberries from the hedges along the way. I loved these occasional long rides through the hills, but there were changes in the air. Snowman’s owner talked of taking him back, another young horse came onto the yard and the equilibrium of our small group felt disturbed. A shame also that the close bond of ‘the boys’ meant they wouldn’t ride solo, at least not for any substantial distance and I wasn’t sure if the restrictions created by these various arrangements were going to suit me long-term.
When the offer of riding Emily – a prematurely retired New Forest pony – cropped up in October, I took my leave from Glyn Parc and decided to rise to the challenge of bringing the mare back into work. Em lived on a hill farm at the top of Henryd not too far from the old church, so access to the Carneddau couldn’t have been easier, or more attractive. Driving up to my allotted parking spot, though, was often like running the gauntlet and one needed to be prepared to reverse downhill or uphill, the usual ditches and stone walls running to either side. Wild, and beautiful, the hill farm was perhaps the opposite to Glyn Parc in terms of cosy convenience and ease of execution. But I soon came to realise that none of that mattered. I relished the challenge of nurturing a proper bond with this mare, a mare I knew would ride out without the security blanket of other horses. Already, I felt we were two of a kind. Em wasn’t completely unfit having access to several acres of high ground and typical of Welsh hill farms, none of it was level. IMG_2098The configuration of various field gates was awkward, though, and sometimes it was no mean feat to remove the mare from the field without disgorging her pony companion and several hundred sheep at the same time. However, I set to cleaning her neglected tack with oil and saddle soap. We began with ten-minute ambles down the lane. Because of her change of shape since she’d last been ridden – she was clearly more rotund than she should have been – I did get a few problems with her saddle slipping but a new, rubberised saddle pad and a longer girth seemed to fix this. And it soon became clear that Em wasn’t averse to being put back into gentle work, in fact she felt keen to get going so I began to extend our walks in various directions. Only once did she plant her feet and test my intent. We were up by the old church and she still wasn’t shod so I wondered if her sudden stubborn streak had anything to do with the anticipation of scrambling over the rough stream bed further on. I hadn’t intended to take her that far but it took some insistence from me to have her going forward again. I let her turn for home only when I decided she could, and by way of protest she put in a funny little buck and the sort of canter only a tubby, unfit mare could do.
By the time we’d got into November Em acquired a full set of shoes via Fraser Youngson from Merchlyn and we enjoyed longer rides, building up to an hour-and-a-half every other day. She felt good, and slowly the mare was able to sustain a strong trotting pace up some of the gentler hills so I felt we were well on our way to a future summer of fun. She was sensible through gates, unfazed by vehicles be it farm machinery, refuse trucks, motorbikes. Although she had plenty to say about other horses, maybe down to her being turned out in an isolated spot for a number of years, but every equine we passed in a field had to be commented on in the form of snorts, whinnies, and goggle-eyed stares – as if she’d forgotten there were other horses in the world. But she’d go wherever I pointed her, never shied, bucked, or misbehaved. I could approach a group of ridden horses and ask her to stand while I chatted, and she’d walk away again in the opposite direction without a fuss. And I never had any trouble catching her, despite the acres she had at her disposal. Sometimes she’d be perched on top of a knoll, mane flying in the wind like Black Beauty, surveying the far-reaching views from her elevated estate. She’d watch me toil towards her, halter over my shoulder as I climbed against the wind, eyes and nose streaming with cold. And then one day in December I knew we’d really started to bond when she uttered a deep wicker of recognition and walked towards me, dropping her soft muzzle into my cold hands. It felt mildly euphoric, but sadly this lovely sense of mutual trust pre-empted a truly nightmarish day. The day of the pigs…
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About this Series

The first four chapters of Disappearing Dreamscapes represent 30 years from 1968-1998 and are split over four seasons based on diary entries through 1979. Chapters 5-8 represent 20 years from 1998-2018 and are recorded chronologically.

Disappearing Dreamscapes 6

Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.

Chapter 6: Midnight Travels

We flew to Auckland in late February 2013, leaving behind an early spring day in Snowdonia, to arrive at the tail-end of New Zealand’s autumn. The 2012-2013 drought affected the entire North Island and the west coast of the South Island.
It was one of the most severe droughts to have impacted these areas in at least 40 years, and in some cases more like 70 years. The trip was in aid of my step-daughter’s marriage to an equine vet, culminating in a beachside ceremony on the beautiful Coromandel. But before all of that, a taste of riding the farm boundaries, Kiwi style. A few days later, a couple of hours’ drive south of Auckland saw us head out through the small township of Huntly in the Waikato district (much like small-town America) and into miles of deserted, tinder-dry brown landscape out towards Raglan Bay. A long, long way from the green green grass of Conwy Valley.The horses were most certainly crossed with a heavy draft type – Clydesdale, Percheron, or Irish Draft – with the infusion of a lighter breed like Arab or Thoroughbred.
My allotted beast, a well-muscled bright bay, was as sensible as he was strong, calm, and sure-footed. In looks at least, he had me in mind of the Cleveland Bay, an old-fashioned Yorkshire breed used mostly for driving or fox hunting. gdimagemirror_full_withtacks2Hunting of all types is commonplace in New Zealand. Much of the traditions and protocol of English fox hunting applies, although it’s more likely that the quarry will be hare or wild boar. Farms and indeed many homesteads are so remote life is pretty much reliant on farming and self-sufficiency, although hunting is equally enjoyed for recreational purposes.We had no trouble eating and enjoying all of the home-produced beef, and the fish and shellfish caught, gutted, and cooked by our Kiwi hosts. In the rural areas there is less reliance on shops, less choice of commodities, and much of the country has a feel of how parts of the UK probably functioned in the fifties. I found this deeply appealing but the one aspect which did surprise me was because the country is so young compared to the UK, the lack of history had me feel strangely homesick for our ancient heritage and those miles of drystone walls. As is the case for our own corner of Wales and the farming communities, historical backgrounds are what shape the people as well as the country, and I hadn’t realised quite how much I was emotionally rooted in my adoptive country. North Wales is astonishingly compact compared to New Zealand. There are vast, vast acres between properties and roads, much of which is featureless. The countryside is generally not as accessible as the UK and any boundary fences up for jumping out hunting with horses, will almost certainly be constructed of wire. After all, New Zealand is the real Mordor, the land of extremes, and outdoor adventures are not for sissies.

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I’d left the UK in the midst of writing Silver Rain and later, much of the New Zealand landscape and character found its way into the story. I did intend to write a travel blog too, but that never happened and many of my impressions manifested themselves as short stories instead in A Long Way from Home. In other book matters I continued an email conversation with my new cover designer about Midnight Sky. It was a difficult book to pin down, image wise. The two professional bodies I’d dealt with at the time of writing were conflicted. The agent who was half-interested in this novel suggested less equestrian references in order to ‘sell’ it as a straight romance, and the other, in a more advisory, editorial capacity wanted more, believing it better placed as a niche product. Both believed their versions to be more commercial. The agent declined the book in the end as is the nature of the publishing beast. My original homemade cover didn’t really sell the book, but then my branding hadn’t developed by then, either. The cover we settled on whilst I was in New Zealand did relatively well, but the third cover – once I’d extricated myself from a bad publishing deal in 2016 – was the one which really worked for the material. So much so I wrote the sequel, Palomino Sky, with a lot more confidence, perhaps because I wrote the book I wanted to write. And I included as much equine detail as deemed necessary to enrich the story.
GarethWynJones-webAfter four weeks away in New Zealand with flying visits to Australia and Singapore en-route, we were tired and ready for the cooler temperatures of North Wales. Exhausted by the time we finally reached Manchester International Airport, I just about had the wherewithal to call the taxi firm to confirm our ride back to North Wales. The driver warned us that we might not be able to get to Conwy because of the snow. We laughed. It was March, springtime! We imagined not only did our body clocks need time to readjust, but after 90% humidity in Singapore, our temperature gauges probably did too. Forty minutes later and we hit crawling traffic around Chester, aghast at the volume of snow piled-up at the side of the roads and smothering the fields. Once finally home after a slow journey along slushy roads, we were devastated to learn the full impact of a sudden, massive snowfall across the Carneddau. Sheep and new lambs, and half of the wild ponies from Aber and Llanfairfechan were buried beneath drifts. Local farmers had spent days and nights digging out animals. Over half of the ponies had frozen to death. Natural disasters are part and parcel of farming and rural life, but the cruel prettiness of our mountains had never felt quite so brutal.
DSCN0167Spring eventually arrived in a guise we all recognised and I resumed my quest for a horse to ride. Occasionally, through 2012 and 2013 I rode with Willington Hall Riding Centre, Tarporley, Cheshire. Close to Delamere Forest, Kelsall Hill Farm Ride, and the Sandstone Trail, the drive over was worth the journey if there was a forest ride in the running but more often than not, the farm ride seemed more popular. Farm rides are a man-made equestrian leisure complex with cross-country fences, gallops, and training areas. I’ve no objection to popping over the odd natural obstacle whilst out and about, but the artificial nature of farm rides don’t really tick my boxes. On the occasions we did venture into Delamere Forest I enjoyed the company of Charlie, a robust very forward chap (sometimes a bit too forward) and Penny, a particularly agreeable grey mare. The forest is the largest area of woodland in the country and provides plenty of scope for long rides. We regularly became lost in the maze of tree-lined paths, bridleways, and dense forestry and it was always a great mini-adventure, but the combination of travelling and pinning down the right ride at the right time (the forest rides were very much restricted to dry ground) began to feel impossible and infrequent. And then in April of 2013 I came across Pennant Park Riding Centre, Whitford, Holywell. 
This yard had inherited some of the horses and ponies from the aforementioned Coachman’s, and Whitford represented an easy forty-minute drive into Flintshire. In terms of bridleways and quaint villages – and Mostyn Farm Ride, should you be so inclined – this hidden gem of an area had a lot going for it. The yard itself was maintained to a very high standard, but my suspicions were mostly confirmed that the riding itself was geared very much towards novice riders and children, and their mix of cobs and ponies reflected this. However, I really enjoyed Simona and once, the rather handsome Tom. During the school holidays there was a trip to Mostyn Farm Ride, a pub ride, and a beach ride to Talacre but with nervous, less-able riders in the mix these trips didn’t really work. And I much preferred the natural countryside around Whitford with its historical buildings, country lanes and criss-cross of old bridleways.
The name Mostyn has strong connections to Flintshire and Llandudno, the family name going back some 500 years. Despite the strong presence of the Pennant family, Mostyn Estates remain the oldest landholding institution in Wales and soon took stakes in Whitford through marriage. Opposite the lodge house to Mostyn Estates Sawmill, lies a long grass slightly uphill bridleway – perfect for a canter – and a likely route the family from the ‘big house’ would take to the village church. An impressive area of managed estate land sits in-between this bridleway and the village, and affords plenty of attractive off-road riding. The proprietor always accompanied me on these hacks and initially, seemed keen to oblige with two-hourly rides and even explore new territory across Halkyn Mountain. This all sounded promising but I noted with some trepidation that there was an indoor school under construction and sadly, any commitment seemed to fade rapidly as the summer progressed. By the time daylight saving hours had crept in at the end of October, the hacking had politely tailed off. I certainly wasn’t new to this pattern of events, in fact I almost expected it, but this time around I did feel especially cheated and defeated.
KIRBYI was running out of options. Someone suggested Cae Hic Livery and Riding Centre, Ffordd y Blaenau, Treuddyn. This meant over an hour of driving for me so not worth the trip unless riding for at least two or three hours. I took a private riding assessment on a black cob mare called Kirby. Thereafter followed three years of three-hourly rides every three weeks. Initially, I didn’t take to the black mare at all, but arranged a ride on Seamus. Smooth, with a big stride Seamus ate up half a mile of bridleway in a strong canter. Great! The Coed Talon bridleway was a former railway line and the long, level track bordered by trees and streaking across part of a watery nature reserve proved pretty good for riding through all seasons. The first occasion was late autumn and especially scenic down to the variety of trees. In summer-time it was like riding through a green tunnel, wild garlic so profuse it lay like snow drifts along the edge.
Real snow happened, too. On this occasion, the ground was on the hard side so we discounted the alternative destination to Nercwys Forest, imagining the heavy shade would further compromise the icy ground conditions. We were a sizeable group. Horses and riders had been cooped up for too long down to poor weather, and we were looking forward to some Christmas fun. I was riding Ernie, the-fastest-milk-horse-in-the-west. An ex-racer, he was tall and sleek with a slightly discombobulated trot. But Ernie hadn’t been trained to trot, he’d been trained to gallop, and it really was his best stride. Cool-headed, he was always chilled when the other horses jostled for position, knowing full well he could outrun the lot. The track looked icy here and there, with random frozen puddles. We set off, carefully. No overtaking. A long line of jogging horses, all of them tail-gating. As we began to canter, eyes peeled for ice, the horses strung out and Ernie found his stride. We skimmed over a big frozen puddle and for a heart-stopping moment he lost some traction. The guy behind me shouted out but I couldn’t stop, didn’t dare look round. Miraculously we all made it to the end, faces flushed, horses steaming.
66-1000x504_cBut it was Little Jack the pure Haflinger who really challenged Ernie’s fleet feet. A pretty chestnut boy with a full flaxen mane and tail, Little Jack stood around 14.2. Pony-size really, so straight away one is lulled into a false sense of security, but I’d witnessed his performance on Talacre beach… Hence, I was a cautious participant when on this occasion we partnered each other along Coed Talon. All good, until we made that fateful decision to simply turn round at the end and gallop back the way we’d come. Bored with waiting whilst we discussed the finer points, Little Jack suddenly burst into action as if catapulted. No polite warning, not even a paw at the ground or an impatient toss of the head. Trees and ditches whizzed by at a rate of knots, the ground a blur, hoof beats a galloping staccato. There was nothing I could do to slow him, let alone stop. Aware of his personality via Colin’s stories, I knew it would be pretty pointless trying to pull him up. I settled-in for the duration and crouched low over Jack’s neck, quickly deciding that going with the flow was the safest option, although I dreaded meeting someone or something, head-on at such breakneck speed. Worst case scenario would be pedestrians walking in the same direction wearing earpieces, and maybe pushing a double buggy with excitable dogs tied to the handle… but no, the track was mercifully clear. Jack shied at the wooden bench to the right, then shied at a bird taking flight to the left, but motored on relentless, eyes bulging like Bambi’s, ears aerodynamically flat against the side of his pretty head. I could hear the others pounding behind me. Someone shouted my name, asked if I was ok? I yelled in the affirmative but warned whoever it was not to come up too close or God forbid, try to pass me! I was determined to stop Jack before he decided he wanted to stop, and I did just about manage it, using my body weight the second he showed signs of slowing. No harm done and we did laugh on the way home but Little Jack changed his name to Little-Tenna-Lady-Boy for a while.
Longer rides happened in Necwys Forest or sometimes Coed Talon was made into a longer loop by incorporating part of Hope Mountain. The forest was some fifty minutes away but there were plenty of rideable tracks once inside. Colin’s routes always made full use of the forest terrain (until the council saw fit to incorporate several tons of hardcore onto some of the main tributaries, making for an uncomfortably hard surface). To break the long ride back along endless single-track lanes, we’d sometimes take a byway which afforded long, fast canters all the way to the top. Our shaky start forgotten, Kirby soon grew to be my favourite for these excursions. The mare was a different character once out of the school – much like myself – and I found a kindred spirit. A trot so smooth one didn’t even need to rise, a strong canter, brakes. But freedom-wise the beach remained the best place to canter and gallop and Talacre fitted the bill for this. Tacking-up excited horses in a beach car park – amusement arcades and a bingo caller within earshot – is no mean feat. 58, make them wait. I was 58 at the time, and Ginger wasn’t up for much waiting.
On another occasion I rode Tyson the slim coloured cob in exchange for Paddy. Paddy and I didn’t get on. This is what happens with age, one discovers weak areas at the most inopportune times. I’d never ridden Paddy before and horses big in the barrel and sporting a rolling gait, often made me feel insecure in the saddle and put a strain on my lower back. As a result I couldn’t get a handle on this horse at all as he ploughed across the sand and leapt through water inlets, but a kind soul swapped with me and I clambered onto Tyson instead. Thereafter we had a magical, sunlit afternoon; cantering through the surf at the edge of the incoming tide and sending up sprays of seawater over each other. Sliding down deep, soft sand-hills and racing across the rippled sand before heading back towards the lighthouse.
One summer, a group of us headed over to the aforementioned Kelsall Hill Farm Ride. We set off in high spirits, the old horse box lurching along at a leisurely pace with six horses swaying in the back. Kelsall is a slick operation, not as pretty as Mostyn Farm Ride, but the acres of clean space is undeniable. As the smart trailers began to arrive, disgorging immaculate thoroughbreds and hunters for training and exercise, we tacked-up our hairy cobs round the back of the manure-splattered lorry. On unfamiliar ground, the horses were all as high as kites and Tyson lived up to his name. A strong horse, he proved a serious handful at being held back when some of the other riders made use of the cross-country instruction from Sarah. The water splash was fun, no casualties. Then a calm interlude through a wooded area before we got to the wide, beautifully managed grass gallops – where all the horses thought they were in the Grand National. Little Jack, and Sarah’s competition horse ridden by Chinese Chris, fronted the group while Colin, our in-house ex-paramedic, ran behind with the first-aid box. We powered up a hill in a tight group, powered down the other side with a few whoops, then executed a tight left-hand turn which came upon us all too quickly and made for much hilarity. Whilst other, more manicured horses went gracefully about their business, we were a bit like an oversized version of Thelwell. It still makes me smile and it’s a reminder of how important it is to push the walls of our comfort zones from time to time.
But then the inevitable happened when Cae Hic acquired an indoor school, and that old familiar shift kicked-in. After three great years, travelling distance and ride arrangements began to feel inhibitive for the first time. Much like my publishing journey, catering for the non-mass market is hard from both sides of the fence and one has to be ready to take the negatives. There’s always a price to pay for individuality and I’d fallen through a gap in the market yet again, trapped in an equine twilight zone. I wanted what I perceived to be the most simple of disciplines; a willing equine companion and some countryside. I didn’t have the resources or especially want the full commitment which came with owning my own horse, but I wasn’t ready to give up on something I’d loved for over forty years. It was a conundrum which alternated between me fearing I probably should give up, and then feeling depressed that I was about to draw such a permanent line. 1a516b3130fa769ae23bc62007995491There was fear too, fear that if I stopped for any length of time at this stage of my life, I’d lose something precious. Not so much physically, but mentally. We all know that learning new things becomes more difficult as time goes on, but confidence is also an especially tricky beast to handle. If you don’t use it, you can lose it. For women, it takes a hit when we become mothers, which I guess is part of our survival mechanism but then it takes another, more complicated hit after the menopause. Physical stuff, too. I hurt my foot in 2015. No, not doing anything even mildly risky or interesting. I was hanging out the washing and slipped backwards off a tiny step. And no, no alcohol had been consumed. I continued to drive to Treuddyn to ride Kirby, then because my foot still felt quite sore after a fortnight, I decided to get it x-rayed. The radiographer told me I’d broken my metatarsal bone and asked what I’d been doing to look after this injury because now it was a displaced fracture. Suitably admonished, I admitted I hadn’t felt the need to do anything, not even the need to take a painkiller. I was strapped into a plaster boot on the spot, and diagnosed with borderline osteoporosis a few months later.
50810175_2351959371751413_5496139932088926208_nInevitably a new, whiny voice crept in, reminding me that I do in fact have a limit. I’m fit, but I’m not as agile as I used to be, reactions can be a split-second slower and sometimes, that’s all it takes to hit the ground. But rather than be anxious about breaking bones, I was more scared of being forced to take up knitting or deep-clean the cupboards. A lot of women my age and still riding are either confirmed horse-owners, or happy to join those coffee-morning rides to refresh their skills for an hour once a week in a safe, controlled environment. I can’t yet envisage a time when a safe, controlled environment might appeal to me. So I began the search yet again for the missing piece of the jigsaw. A piece of me. Out of ideas but not of energy or enthusiasm, I looked to my community instead and discovered something which challenged all of my equestrian experience to date. Not only did it present something a bit left-field, but I like to think it also offered me a slice of Karma, too.

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About this Series

The first four chapters of Disappearing Dreamscapes represent 30 years from 1968-1998 and are split over four seasons based on diary entries through 1979. Chapters 5-8 represent 20 years from 1998-2018 and are recorded chronologically.


RDA: Our Conwy Community Collage

Proving that the power of community spirit can change lives…

44821228_1962430440507923_5440474218175135744_o2019 will see the 50th anniversary of Riding for the Disabled and by way of celebration a campaign called 50 Faces will comprise 50 portrait photographs of people within the entire UK organisation who have challenged the perceptions of disability, volunteering, or equestrian sport. More on the project here:

In small, relatively unknown RDA communities across the country, there will be more than one face who qualifies for inclusion but of course, not everyone will make the final 50, so it seems an appropriate time and place to bang our own small but very significant drum here in the wild Welsh hills of Henryd, Conwy, North Wales. We’ve created our own special collage: an acknowledgement of each and every individual, including our riders, all the volunteers, the teaching staff and of course, the horses.

Conwy Community Riding Centre. The team of horses – loaned and managed by head instructor Wendy Tobias-Jones at Conwy Community Riding Centre – are of course, key to the entire operation. The mental and physical benefits of horse-riding are far-reaching and it would be impossible to list all the attributes here. And it’s not all about winning rosettes and the more obvious success stories – although there have been plenty of those too, with some of our disabled riders reaching both the regional and national finals in dressage –  it can be as simple as participating in something which provides a broader scope for less inward thinking. For some riders their enjoyment can simply be down to enjoying close proximity to the horses and perhaps feeling more aware of the environment. It’s no secret that the companionship of a horse can engage the senses and heighten a feeling of wellbeing in both able-bodied and disabled riders. And for the latter, the physiological affects are doubly beneficial purely by encouraging a different range of movement.

Conwy Community CollageFounder Member of our RDA group Liz Futyan, herself the parent of a disabled daughter, is our longest-serving member. She is currently the safeguarding officer as well as organising many yearly holidays; often taking on all the catering requirements herself (I can vouch for her goat’s cheese tart – in fact, I did hear that one child thought the food was the best part of the holiday. Sorry horses, you’ll have to try harder!)

“I have been involved with RDA since 1985. All the local groups have merged from that period into the present Conwy Gogarth, ” explains Liz.

IMG_4806“There were originally two groups. I started an RDA Group for the children of Ysgol Wern y Wylan, where my daughter Hannah went to school and where I worked as a physio. Hannah was already riding at Bwlch Mawr, where Wendy Tobias-Jones ran a pony club. She loved riding there and I was very keen to get other children with learning disabilities to learn to ride, so I started the Wern y Wylan Group at Glanwyddan. There was already a group there for physically disabled from Ysgol Gogarth which diminished as the disabled moved into standard schools, and Ysgol Wern y Wylan moved into the present school amalgamate with Ysgol Gogarth (and I moved my job into Ysgol Gogarth too) and our corresponding RDA groups also merged. The West Clwyd Group was for adults and that was started at Pinewood, and later changed the name to the Aberconwy Group. When Pinewood closed, we merged the two groups to form the Conwy Gogarth Group we have today at Tanrallt Farm with Wendy Tobias-Jones.”

Do you remember any of the previous groups? Have photos and stories to share? Send them to our Facebook page! 

Volunteer! Our workforce is always busiest behind the scenes. Prue Timperly (Conwy RDA charity shop), Carol Moore (secretary, charity shop-shifter and master cake-baker), Peter Davies (permanent loan of a horse to the group and horsebox transport as and when required), Kerri Rockey (Chair trustee), and many, many more. Several volunteers return each week to brave the Welsh weather in order to prepare the horses for lessons, keep the muck heap in good order, and make the tea. Without this network, the RDA wouldn’t exist in Conwy. We work on very limited funds and rely heavily on volunteers – allowing local disabled riders to experience something that would normally be out of their reach, mostly down to the strict health and safety limitations of ordinary riding schools – lots of them now closed due to spiralling insurance premiums and the very real dangers of riding along the roads – and the significant difference in costs.

So although our collage is a special thank you to our local community, it’s also a shout-out to you. If you have a skill set you’d like to share – general dogsbody abilities always welcome. Fundraising would be most desirable and would likely earn celebrity status and extra cake – or, if you know someone who might benefit from riding with us, please get in touch.




Write Your Own Story

3d4ee1db5d3591084c1f57bf8a1bf37d_cool-drawing-idea-drawing-random-shapes-and-colors-coming-out-of-thought-drawing-ideas_498-700Where do ideas come from? Even if I tell myself I’m done with writing for a while – and I do, frequently – something will eventually worm its way out of my subconscious. This mutation of daydreaming is often coupled with observations of other people and happenings in their lives, as well as my own, until eventually all of these considerations are pulled together and mulled over, like some sort of fictional tombola. And for me, it’s those personal stories which add an extra layer of reality to a work of fiction. Write what you know is all about understanding your subject thoroughly, and preferably having experienced some of it first-hand.

I’ve been working with disabled people through my local RDA (Riding for the Disabled) for some eighteen months. Then earlier this year I was offered the opportunity to train as an assistant to a therapist working for WITH (Welsh Institute of Therapeutic Horsemanship). This is all about people with mental health problems, and the astonishing success of equine therapy relies purely upon the interactions between people and horses. I hope my modest experience adds a touch of reality and richness to the story of Gift Horse.

Unique-horse-assistedOf 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 flat-mate, 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…

Gift Horse is a contemporary time-slip novel about the choices women make, the healing power of horses, and the devastating consequences of human error.

silhouette-1992390_960_720I tend not to plan too much, other than factual things like dates, and timelines. And I don’t have a messy desk with endless notes stuck to my screen or big notebooks overflowing with complicated scribblings. What I do have is a good instinct for the order of things. I think this comes from reading a lot of good fiction and learning why and how something works; what to hold back, when to reveal, how much to tell, what to show, which scene works best as dialogue, or narrative. This balance will be slightly different for every writer, the literary stamp of personal style?

If there’s a parallel to be drawn between trying to break into commercial publishing and staying true to myself as a writer, then for me it’s the creative freedom to write the books I want to write. So many mainstream books are all following the same trend, and some of them feel like different versions of the same book! This might sound a bit like sour grapes, but I prefer to let a story grow and mature until it’s ready to be picked from the vine, and there’s a tremendous satisfaction in penning a story which is unique to me. 

‘Ruth digs up the bones of what really matters to the human psyche and Gift Horse is no exception.’ John Hudspith, Independent Editor.

Gift Horse Cover MEDIUM WEBImagine living eighteen years of your life around a mistake…
Caroline Walker’s daughter suffers a horrific riding accident. Her distraught parents wonder if she’ll ever walk again, let alone ride. And when Mollie’s blood group is discovered as rare, her husband offers to donate blood. Except Ian is not a match. In fact, it’s unlikely he’s Mollie’s father.

Eighteen years previously, Caroline had a one-night stand with Irish rock star, Rory O’Connor. Caroline fell pregnant. Deeply flawed boyfriend, Ian, was overjoyed. And Caroline’s parents were simply grateful that their daughter was to marry into the rich, influential Walker family.

Caroline turns to Rory’s friend Connor; and although his almost spiritual connection with his horses appears to be the balm she needs, Caroline cannot forget Rory, or her youth – both lost to a man she never loved. Eighteen years on and after surviving cancer Rory lives as a virtual recluse in the Welsh mountains. Through his well-meaning but interfering sister, he is shocked to discover he has a teenage daughter. Or does he?

Someone has made a terrible mistake… someone is going to get hurt…

With or Without You…

W.I.T.H – Welsh Institute for Therapeutic Horsemanship

IMG_2747It’s a well-known fact that getting back to nature can offer a healing balm to those minds and bodies disadvantaged by modern life. Jackie Williams has taken this concept a step further by introducing horses to help heal broken people. But what of the broken horses? Her therapy centre on Anglesey (a satellite centre to the main base in Portmadog) is home to a wide variety of equines: abused, neglected, misunderstood. It may sound ambitious and unlikely, but Williams is adept at bringing the right combination of horse and human together, to create new bonds of trust, hope, and mutual respect.

How do animal therapies work? Don’t go looking for scientific evidence or hard facts as to why animal therapies work, they just do. Maybe it’s a sixth sense and only tenable if one is open to the idea. After all, communication is key to all forms of life. We do know that horses are a flight animal, reactionary to body language and more than capable of understanding what’s going on inside someone’s head and heart. Friend, or foe? Their survival instinct depends on being able to monitor situations and either look for a means of escape, or seek those beings who offer that safe harbour, a trusted leader. Trust. Once we have trust, we have the foundation to build good relationships, both human and equine. And rehabilitation can be all the richer for being a two-way journey.

IMG_3943Sapphire’s story. I recently enjoyed a visit to Jackie’s centre, based on Anglesey. The chestnut pony with blue eyes – Sapphire – had been ostracised by the main herds for a long time and wasn’t doing too well. It’s something of a mystery why this mare was shunned, but we think her poor eyesight may have much to do with the herds’ strict list of criteria for survival. After a few months of basic nurturing, ‘Saffy’ has been physically transformed, although she remains shy. Williams is keen to keep her ‘wildness’ and avoid over-familiarity, in order to add genuine authenticity to those therapy sessions.

IMG_2750And finally, so heartening that four more Carneddau colts have been rescued from the yearly Gathering; one of whom was badly beaten-up by the resident stallion and may well have come to a sad demise. These boys will be gelded and rehabilitated before beginning new careers as therapy ponies.

About the charity

WITH is a pioneering charity based in Portmadog, which aims to help disadvantaged individuals from North Wales and the wider community to improve their health and well-being through equine-assisted, educational and recreational activities. We work with individuals of all ages, many of whom face multiple disadvantages and might never have the opportunity to spend time around horses. Our unique method pairs clients with rescued horses for mutual gaining of trust and respect, and hope for a better future.

More information; book a course of sessions, sponsor a pony or become a volunteer:

Some programmes funded by Comic Relief and Children in Need.

Words and photography by Jan Ruth

Ferniehirst Mill, The Cheviot Trail, Northumberland 1979

Day one, and we stopped in a vast forest throbbing with birdsong to gather mushrooms, easily filling one of the saddlebags with our cache. Hopefully, we’d picked a non-poisonous addition for breakfast the following morning. My horse for the day, Cinnamon, was the colour of, well, cinnamon. Standing at 16h I needed a handy rock to perch from in order to scramble back on as he wasn’t keen on standing still and I’m on the short side. We’d already passed some sort of horsemanship test together by hurtling down the steep grassy slopes of an ancient fort, galloping out through what would have been a drawbridge. An excersise our leader informed us, ‘Sorts out the wheat from the chaff,’  before we got onto the serious part of the ride, a four-day trail across The Cheviots.
jans-horses-015The Cheviot Trail – a loop reaching from Jedburgh in Northumberland all the way to Kirk Yetholm, just inside the English border – was no pony trek. Our horses were thoroughbred-cross, corn-fed and super-fit. To the uninitiated, this meant it wasn’t for novice riders. John Tough (pronounced Tooch, although tough suited him just as well), was no ordinary leader. If I had to make a short list of people who’d made an impression on me in my life then this guy would be close to the top. Not one to pander to any British Horse Society regulations, Tough set his own high standards and had little regard for officialdom, preferring to trust his own instincts about people, as well as horses. Hosting riding holidays for total strangers, some of whom spoke no English was clearly not for the faint-hearted, but if Tough decided after day one he didn’t like the way you handled his horse then your holiday ended right there with a full refund and a lift to the train station. There’s nothing like the burr of a Scottish accent in full flow to overcome any language barriers. No one, argued with him.
jans-horses-009I was bunked-up in the local village with Hope, an Irish woman who claimed to work in the only undamaged building in Belfast – the library. She’d travelled with two male companions, Mike, a solicitor, and Barry, a TV news reporter. Mike was perhaps the least capable rider of the three and the butt of many jokes. Since he was allotted a sturdy cob – Midnight Sun – he was also saddled with the saddlebags, which other than a token first-aid-kit and a hoof pick, were mostly stuffed with cans of beer. Part of the lunch-stop ritual was finding a suitable stream to cool down the cans. After three hours of bouncing they’d built up a considerable head of steam. The saddlebag straps even came adrift on one occasion, hanging beneath Midnight’s belly in full gallop and I don’t think Mike and Barry ever got over losing two cans of lager in a bog. All three of the Irish contingent partied hard, able to drink copious amounts of whisky, perform a reasonable demonstration of Irish dancing – with the aid of two riding crops crossed on the floor, and a good ‘diddler’ – and still ride for five or six hours the following day. Like the best of stories though, it wasn’t all laughs. By midweek, the drama cranked up several gears. Five thoroughbred horses and a cob carrying booze high on the moors in a high wind was maybe the precurser for some sort of misadventure. But before all of that, we were lulled into a sense of false security in the June sunshine; trotting through bubbling burns and stopping for ice creams and cigarettes in quaint hamlets such as Mossburnford and somewhere called Bloody Laws.
11-15-2011_20On Tuesday at the start of the serious trail, I was allocated a different horse – a chestnut mare called Flick. Tough told me she disliked men. Not all men, but most of them, and there was no knowing her level of tolerance until it was too late. This was one of her two, less endearing idiosyncrasies. Since I discovered she was perfection to ride, I worried about the other trait for most of the morning. There was plenty of distraction though, in the form of big scenery and fast riding. Northumberland is designed for premier horse riding, it’s simply the best terrain. Whereas my native Snowdonia lends itself more to pony trekking because of the mountains and hard tracks, the Scottish border country is softer, combining undulating grassy hills crossed with Roman roads such as the famous Dere Street. Miles of uninterrupted moorland dotted with mysterious stone circles and the relics of hilltop settlements, long since deserted to the Jacob sheep and the wind, decorate a landscape that probably hasn’t changed much since Roman times. And Tough had a good liaison with local landowners and this meant we could wander across territory normally inaccessible, riding virtually road free for the entire day.
jans-horses-007Lunch was as civilised as it could get up on the remote heathland by a disused farmhouse at Pennymuir, and brought to us via our own personal Roman chariot, the Land Rover from The Mill. Rolls filled with thick slices of beef, a buttery fruit and treacle cake and gallons of coffee. Why does simple food taste so good outside? This was despite being fortified only hours before with a full cooked Scottish breakfast – including haggis, and those wild mushrooms. The horses had earned a break too, and rolled free of tack in a huge meadow. True to form, they all trotted to the furthest point until they were a spec on the horizon.
And then the catch. After lunch, I discovered that my horse was the only one which was basically uncatchable. My companions were all tacked-up, remounted and ready to go, whilst my mare watched from afar with pricked ears, her saddle still perched on an old gate and her bridle slung over my drooping shoulder. ‘You’ll be alright walking for a wee while, won’t you?’ Barry deadpanned, already out of the gate and on the track heading towards Capehope Burn. It was only when my mare thought she was actually being left behind for real – and so did I at this point – that she finally cooperated and came flying down the hill like Black Beauty, mane and tail streaming behind. She even paused mid-gallop to throw out a beseeching whinny. She looked pretty amazing, but then I guess she knew how to work the crowd! As soon as she came within touching distance, Tough caught hold of a chestnut ear as if she were a recalcitrant teenager, and she stood patiently.
jans-horses-001Saddle and bridle back on and a leg-up from Tough, and we were back on the trail, cantering alongside the foaming burn and scattering long-eared Border Leicester sheep, disturbing rabbits, partridge and pheasant. The occasional stag leapt from cover, startling ourselves as well as the horses. The open hills grew steadily more remote as we climbed, where the cry of the curlew became a constant, familiar wail. Where possible, the riding was fast, challenging and exhilarating. We were assured of the safety under-hoof, as long as we stayed in single file behind Tough and his horse, Carita. This was the general guideline for not descending into a bog, or encouraging the horses to race alongside each other on open ground. Tough would raise an old, battered riding crop to signal he was slowing down, or there was a gate across the track (good excuse to take a nip out of the hip flask) or something needed negotiating at a slower pace. We knew we were in for a long steady amble when the whistling started (usually Mull of Kintyre) and then it was a slow descent into Hownam where the Land Rover was waiting for us at our designated B & B. First though, it was dinner for the horses – a tasty selection of oats, nuts and sugar-beet tipped into a selection of washing-up bowls. Several acres of grazing stretched towards the horizon, and I was concerned about the distance Flick could put between us overnight but I needn’t have worried. The orange washing-up bowl proved key…
jans-horses-018Our destination for the following day was Kirk Yetholm, over the border into England, an area well known for its turbulent history between the Scots and the English. There was no sign of any turbulence as we resumed the trail with blue skies and light cloud, splashing through wide burns and meandering the sheep tracks as we headed towards a remote hill farm above the Bowmont Valley. The Billinghams were Flick’s previous owners and in both senses, we enjoyed a warm welcome in the hills. Tea out of big copper kettles. Fruit cake slathered with butter on willow-pattern plates. Shortbread warm from the Aga and a trio of drooling sheepdogs. We lazed in the garden until the sun slowly withdrew and the clouds began to roll stealthily over the Pennines, but it was the increasing wind which had us gather ourselves together, ready for the final push into Kirk Yetholm. Horses and strong winds are never the best companions. Barry’s horse, Silus, a lean ex-steeplechaser, was perhaps the most perturbed and Barry had his hands full from the off. The weather worsened as we climbed onto higher ground. Craik Moor, Blackborough Hill and Windy Rigg already had predetermined personalities, and they lived up to them. Gunmetal grey skies and powerful crosswinds – the sort that could lift a well-secured riding hat – made for heavy going. And then the rain started.
Most of us had set out in waterproof attire, but Barry’s jacket was still tied around his waist. His mistake was to try and put it on with his reins in one hand. Tough said he didn’t think it was a good idea, twice. Barry had about three seconds to realise he was probably right, when the wind whipped the kagoul from his grip like flotsam. The real problem started when the toggles somehow wound themselves around the reins and then the flimsy material clamped itself limpet-like to the side of Silus’ head. Silus reacted predictably; reared, then bolted, covering the rise of boggy ground to our left as if it were a stretch of flat turf. Man and horse seemed to melt into the windswept moorland, lost to sight in the blink of an eye.
jans-horses-010Tough prepared to set off after them. ‘Stay right here, on this track. Don’t move an inch.’  Midnight, Flick, and Hope’s horse, Kelly, were not happy that two of the party had set off without them, and we had our own battle trying to keep them more or less stationary. The errant pair did eventually return, with Barry walking down the hill leading Silus. It didn’t look good, but at least they were both still walking. Both of them were plastered in bog. Amazingly, other than looking and smelling pretty bad there was no real damage, although Barry was white-faced. Silus had clearly run an impossible race against the wind, flanks heaving, eyes bulging. The culprit, the bright blue kagoul, was shredded and got stuffed in a saddlebag out of harm’s way. The hipflask came out. Should I have been flattered that Tough insist that I swap horses with Barry or was it down to my unflappable jacket? I wasn’t overly keen on losing my mare to a powerful thoroughbred with wind-fright, but at age 22 I was always up for a challenge where horses were concerned. Taking into account the amount of mud between horse and rider, Barry and I looked an odd duo, but no one was quite ready to laugh at that point. Tough was angry with Barry for not heeding his earlier warning, and the mood dropped. Every time Carita moved into canter, Silus was like a coiled spring right on her tail. It was a tough afternoon and none of us really settled until we’d dropped down a few hundred feet and left that dark hill and the screeching wind behind.
jans-horses-011We joined the Pennine Way and a small group of wet hikers stumbled alongside us for the last couple of miles, warming their hands on the horses and feeding them polo mints. The long, final stretch of this 267 mile long hike from Edale in Derbyshire is boggy and desolate, and many walkers are defeated by it where the terrain is mostly peat moor and incredibly inhospitable. None of the walking party had seen anyone quite so filthy as Barry (it was especially strange since he was riding a relatively clean horse). ‘Hell, man! What happened to you?’ Barry, recovered by then, obliged with an embellished version of events such as a herd of kelpies enticing his horse into a bog. Despite the mud and the chill wind, the atmosphere warmed-up considerably and as the village came into view Tough struck up Mull of Kintyre. The hikers began to sing along and we clattered off the hill and down the main street flanked by several footmen, all of us anxious to get within sniffing distance of a pub and a hot bath. Our billet for the night was a stone house full of faded opulence, and its fair share of clocks and antiques. Virtually everything ticked. But there were rocking chairs and books around a roaring fire – yes, after all it was still only June – and a rattling Georgian tea trolley materialised, loaded with a substantial afternoon tea. The diminutive landlady took a moment to take in Barry’s appearance. ‘Och, now, has the wee man taken a tumble?’ Tough waited till he’d selected a cream scone and tested it. ‘Aye.’
We didn’t make the pub.
The sinister mood of the hills continued the following day. We ate breakfast in silence, aware of tree branches tapping the windows, warning of another furiously windy day ahead to negotiate College Valley. Barry was impressed that his riding gear had been cleaned and dried overnight, less impressed about riding Flick for another day, claiming she was hot to handle. Since Tough wanted me to take Silus again, neither of us had much choice but to get on with it. Trotting out of Yetholm, Silus shot across the village green and we narrowly missed a leaning telegraph pole. Barry was struggling with Flick too and at the first opportunity a playful buck had Barry halfway up her neck. We paused on a track above the village and Tough lit a cigarette, using his hat as a wind shield. He decided that I was best riding Flick again. Barry scrambled onto Carita and Tough took care of Barry’s overwound steeplechaser.
jans-horses-016We were enchanted and battered in equal measure by every weather condition as we left Kirk Yetholm and crossed back into Northumberland, hit first by rain, and then hot sun would break through thick, swirling mist. Ethereal and atmospheric. Not much imagination required to expect a Roman army to come marching over the horizon. We cantered across the sodden heathland, stretching into a gallop up a long hill which eventually pulled us up and out of the Scotch mist, and then we were looking down at skeins of floating cloud. But then by afternoon we were in pale sunlight again, riding across a labyrinth of rolling countryside through the renowned College Valley. Vivid and intense, rainbows would be there one second, gone the next. It wasn’t only the scenery which was mesmerising, it was the growing bond with our horses, too. Riding the trails certainly evoked a deeper connection to this historical land, those ancient routes of the Border Reivers and the bloody battles between the Scots and the English. We fell into companionable silence, enjoying the low moan of the wind, the clink of horseshoe against stone, the creak of a leather saddle. Cold and wet, or dirty and sweaty ceased to matter. Minor discomforts became inconsequential, small victories where we’d pushed our personal boundaries became more important. How could we go back to ordinary jobs after this? I think I even told my parents not to bother collecting me.
jans-horses-008The final day and we headed back to The Mill via Sourhope, along steaming wet lanes in bright sun, trotting into a flat-bottomed valley like a Scottish prairie. There was a herd of feisty bullocks grouped beneath the trees, flicking tails and watching our progress with interest. A breath-taking gallop, the horses full of spring on the lush expanse of damp turf, knowing they were homeward bound. The thud of hooves seemed to echo in that hollow space and then we realised why it was so loud – we had serious company. About 200 head of cattle had decided to follow us! Fortunately, they lacked the pace and stamina of our horses and we soon left them behind. A warning clink-clink on the tarmac warned of a loose shoe. Of course these were the days long before mobile phones and we had to find a phone box. An hour later, the Land Rover trundled towards us and Tough, ever resourceful, pulled out his farriers last and secured Flick’s nearside hind shoe. Problem fixed, we completed our ride across familiar territory as we dropped down through Birkenside Forest again. Soon, the mill house was in sight and our horses whinnied advance greetings to stable-mates they’d not seen since Tuesday.
It was our leader’s birthday – he’d kept that quiet all day – but we made up for it with a night of dinner, drinking and diddling at The Carter’s Rest in Jedburgh. The Irish trio were actually late, turning up halfway through the starters, still in grubby riding gear and holding each other up with leery grins. All of this attracted the attention of the next group of riders assembled in the bar. Barry made a makeshift sling from a couple of big white napkins, and began to hobble towards them. ‘Are you here for the Cheviot trail? No, don’t be put off by the bandages. We all really enjoyed it.’
‘Don’t listen to his tall tales,’ Tough said.
jans-horses-005Once upon a time, John Tough bought a rundown mill on the River Jed and restored it. Then he bought horses, some of them with problems, both physical and otherwise, and nurtured them to full health. His reputation for riding the Cheviots, grew. In 1980 he built a lodge on his land, for rider accommodation. I returned – of course I did – from 1979 to 1986, riding in many different seasons, including colourful autumn trails and once, during the heavy snow of early spring. Tough retired at the end of the eighties due to ill health. Did I set out to write a book about John Tough, and Beryl, the young interior designer from London who never went home after her riding holiday? Surely, this was the stuff of fiction! Not that I was aware of, but I guess it’s an example of how more than 30 years later, the subconscious finds a story somehow, pulling together characters, historical facts, impressions and experiences… one I’ll never forget.