My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
There’s a dead banana on the Sychnant Pass Road, splayed flat like a dirty yellow star and embedded into the tarmac. The pony always drops his head to investigate, nostrils quivering. This is despite much nicer pickings amongst the stitchworts and bluebells along the verges and the tall hedgerows, heavy now with cow parsley and other delicacies dangling at nose level. But the downside in stopping amid all this abundant foliage is that we’re dangerously concealed along some sections of this narrow road, and I’m always happier when we get onto the open ground at Crow’s Nest. Sheep and feral ponies roam here, many of the Carneddau mares with foals at foot. The pony tends not to be overly interested unless there’s a young stallion in the vicinity, although I’m not convinced that making a noise like Scooby Doo is sufficient warning.
We turn off Hendre Road into an unmade lane by Llechwedd, a route back onto the open hillside which is dogged by gates. Storm’s small stature is appreciated when it comes to jumping on and off, especially since there’s nothing remotely helpful to stand on. Even I can get my foot in a stirrup which is just a few feet from the ground and mostly stationary. (I’ve learnt to ignore his rolling eye.) We approach the second gate when the head of a lamb suddenly pops up… from beneath the cattle grid. My immediate thought is to applaud Storm’s lack of reaction and assume that if the lamb has fallen down there, then it must be able to get out. But as we draw closer, the lamb appears to be well and truly imprisoned. I slide off the pony and trust him to stay put, which he does. I try every which way to manipulate the lamb, but there’s no way he’s coming up through the bars of that grid. The ewe paces up and down, bleating pitifully. A neighbour says she’ll call the farmer, so not much more I can do.
More Carneddau ponies by the lake at Pensychnant, including a foal born during Storm Hannah; one I’d been concerned about in the rough weather, but all looks good in the sun. The pony picks up his pace facing home, and pounds up the road at full speed, shying at a pair of knickers in the hedge. The two mares he shares field space with, whinny at the sound of his approach well before he’s in sight. The smaller mare, Lady, is currently in season and in fat-camp (on sparse pasture) and this situation can be comical or exasperating depending on everyone’s mood. There’s often much calling and posturing between both gelding and love-sick, segregated mare. The older, taller thoroughbred, Ellie, misses her female companion and is mortally disappointed when I release Storm back into her space. She gives him a cursory head toss, ears flattened. Uh, it’s Pipsqueak. I guess he’s better than nothing. Go on, get out of my way! He generally heeds her warnings. It’s an entirely different scenario when Lady is around, since she actively seeks him out the moment he’s through the gate. Where’ve you been? Shall we groom each other? How about I nibble your withers?
He strolls single-mindedly towards the water trough as if it’s a big American fridge, like he’s some hotshot stallion home from the office and he’s going to get a beer. Lady follows, and he slows up, turns to contemplate. Give me five minutes, can’t you? I’ve just got in from work. Been up and over hills all afternoon with the Old Biped…
13th May 2019.
Next instalment: https://janruth.com/2019/06/05/over-the-hill-2/
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.
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.
New Series Over the Hill featuring Storm: https://janruth.com/2019/05/29/over-the-hill-1/
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.
I’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.
Meanwhile, 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.
As 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: https://janruth.com/2015/01/25/sweet-nothings/
A 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.
Our 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. Straightaway, 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: https://janruth.com/2018/10/26/rda-our-conwy-community-collage/
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.
A 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. The 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…
Continue reading: https://janruth.com/2019/04/27/disappearing-dreamscapes-8/
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.
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. Hunting 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.
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.
After 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.
Spring 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.
I 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.
But 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. There 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.
Inevitably 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.
Continue Reading: https://janruth.com/2019/04/15/disappearing-dreamscapes-7/
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.
Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018
Chapter 5: Pastures New
In the summer of 1997 we took a holiday in Cornwall. Poldark country…. Heather-clad moorland, ancient mine workings and a turquoise sea adorned with rolling, foaming white horses. It was a week of ponies, coastal walking, body-boarding and discovering the surf, and remembering the cast of Baywatch – well, Second Draft did, not so much the rest of us. The horsey highlight for my son and step-daughter happened at Wheal Buller Riding School in Redruth, Cornwall. The children chose the pony they wanted to ride straight from the fields (supervised) and the riding was proper off-road stuff in a small, bespoke group as opposed to pony trekking in a long line. The whole experience got three thumbs-up. My son’s beautiful little pony, Mini, was even up for sale and on our final day the hints fell like incendiary bombs. Oh, if only… the dreams of youth never quite go away, even though as adults we propose to know better. But we lived in Wilmslow, Cheshire, and had no resources financially or otherwise to consider owning a pony. Inevitably, Second Draft marched us all kindly but firmly in the opposite direction. Just as well someone in the family had immunity to such ethereal things, even if Pamela Anderson and a wet suit had easily over-fired his imagination earlier.
But then something happened which fired all of our imaginations. We’d taken a weekend break in Conwy, and the existence of twenty or so new-build houses springing up on Sychnant Pass didn’t escape our attention. The aforementioned Pinewood Stables epitomised much of my teenage dreamscape, and this familiar yard was just half a mile down the road. I knew the area intimately, in particular the medieval town of Conwy, the local mountains, the wild Carneddau ponies, and the beach beyond the marina. Noses pressed against the hoarding surrounding the building site, we allowed a good deal of mostly unspoken what-ifs to dominate the homeward journey. The location was without any doubt, heaven on a stick.
And then a curious thing. Second Draft received a work-related phone call about a colleague’s imminent retirement in North Wales, and less than a couple of weeks later we were speeding back to take a closer look at number twenty-three. Afterwards, we drove up to the car park by Crows Nest to ‘think’ about it. It was a really drab November day, the best kind of day for considering a job relocation and buying a house. A day when Conwy Mountain seemed entirely enveloped in scudding cloud and mist. A day when the wind bent the trees double and the dark, brooding mountains rearing beyond Pensychnant looked enticingly wild and inhospitable. And we knew there was no real need to discuss anything further. I easily recall the chain of events that day because the assistant in the sales office – also called Jan – apologised for listening to the radio while we signed on the dotted line but her daughter, Lisa, was in a band called Steps and they’d just broken into the charts. It felt like a good omen and by February 1998, we’d sold our Cheshire property and moved into the new house. And the dog came a couple of months later.
Riding lessons for my son continued at Tynllywn Riding School, Bryn Y Maen, Colwyn Bay. Teaching was excellent here (until inevitably, they too changed to a livery yard). Hacking out was restricted to the roads but this didn’t matter, since we had Pinewood Stables two minutes away from home. Snowdonia Riding School in Waunfawr also obliged with riding out onto the hills, but unlike Conwy with its gentle coastal tracks the landscape above Caernarfon was harder and steeper and more suited to pony trekking. I loved that Renee Thomas, the owner, was still riding and working horses into her seventies and I liked the ‘old-school’ feel of this yard. It was a bit like stepping into an old pony book, but the riding wasn’t quite right for me. A couple of times we went up to Penmachno Forest and rode with a yard there but again, the hard forest tracks (and a few other issues) were less than desirable, despite stunning snow-peaked views of Moel Siabod rising above the fir trees, and the smell of Christmas. Tal Y Foel Riding School (now operating under different ownership as Anglesey Riding School) was a great setup for children and novice riders, with something like five miles of private grass bridleways. However, these bridleways weren’t in use unless the ground was dry, creating only a small window of opportunity for somewhere like North Wales. Understandable that they wanted to keep these tracks in good condition, but more often than not, riding was confined to the indoor school. On the one occasion I did ride on the beach with them some years later, the experience was disappointingly lack-lustre. Likewise with another yard on the coast by Talacre beach, a yard which promised lots, delivered nothing. And this after the most rigorous of assessments in the school prior to a ‘beach ride’ which amounted to a novice trot along the beach on a mostly unfit pony. It was expensive, too!
Something inevitable happened when my son began his secondary school years when any interest in horses became lost to other things. But I always thought if one could swim and ride a horse, you were pretty set for most adventures in life, so the boy did good. I still can’t swim with any great conviction and only if the pool is devoid of all other activity likely to make a dangerous swell. I did try swimming lessons in later years and managed to – not drown, exactly – but to stub my toe on the bottom of the pool, thereafter it contorted into a black and purple toe twice the size it should have been. Dad did try his best to get me to swim as a child but if there was a choice between Wythenshawe Swimming Baths and riding in the rain, the pony always won. I hated that chlorinated pool; the smell, the noise, the changing rooms and the feeling of being confined in a building. And then in 2001, to further compound the lack of riding opportunities, North Wales was hit with the Foot and Mouth outbreak and the movement of all animals ground to a halt. Many rural businesses were compromised. The virus doesn’t actually infect horses, people, or dogs, but they can spread it, and as a result Conwy Mountain and other places were closed. Grass began to grow across the well-worn paths, dog walking was confined to the beach, and it wasn’t until the following spring that the countryside was opened-up again.
The beach rides with Pinewood took larger groups of riders than I remember in the earlier years, although I never experienced a problem. I recall enjoying Nero, the lightweight black cob, and the freedom of galloping along a beach has to be up there with one of the best riding experiences. Getting down onto the beach at Conwy is easily rideable from Sychnant Pass; the long stretch of hard sand at low tide interrupted only by mussel banks and deep rivulets of seawater. Most horses would take the water in their stride, some would slow to plough through, occasionally one would come to a dead stop before taking a wild leap of faith. There are also some areas of deep, muddy sand which are to be avoided, or at least only taken at a walk. But on a dry day with not too much wind, the beach affords miles of space to canter, or merely amble in a daydream disturbed only by chattering oyster-catchers and soaring gulls. Or, if the tide is close enough, a paddle, although cantering through even shallow surf can result in a good soaking, especially if you happen to be riding behind a set of big feet! But Nero and I managed to stay afloat, and there was never a time when I thought I might sink or stub my toe.
When they were short-staffed I worked a couple of times for Pinewood, riding tail-end-charlie on rides across Conwy Mountain. In 2003 another inevitability when Pinewood changed their status to a livery yard. And that was the end of a very significant and happily revisited era of my childhood. Like many other yards the closure was down to a combination of timely retirement plans and other family matters, but it was also about being worn down by the blame culture. There was a max height barrier at the entrance to the beach. I was chatting to my friend riding behind me. I didn’t see the barrier and you didn’t warn me in time… A family run trekking centre from the sixties and through the generations, the original Pinewood represented those riding schools which perhaps epitomised a way of life, rather than a business model.
And so, it was back to the increasingly shrinking drawing-board. A board which represented hundreds of miles of accessible open countryside, but with no available horses in the vicinity, other than those privately owned and kept on livery yards. I began to look further afield, and although some riding schools advertised the fact that they catered for experienced riders, I more often than not found that this wasn’t quite true. It wasn’t so much as they couldn’t cater, it was more the case that they didn’t really want or need to. Unaccompanied riding is a thing of the past, and mixed abilities on hacks can be the stuff of nightmares. (If one member of the party doesn’t want to canter, then no one else can down to the nature of the beast, in all respects.) Occasionally, the riders making bookings are not without blame and for some unaccountable reason people do exaggerate their level of ability. But then if there’s little choice, the onus is very much on the riding school. Perhaps they’re looking to fill a lorry to take horses to a venue and make it financially viable, and a couple of less able riders may then slip through the net.
I’ve been in situations where I’ve travelled an hour to get to a yard and paid something in the region of £65 (2016) for a three-hour ‘experienced’ hack, but down to a couple of riders coming off at the first hurdle so to speak, the remainder of the time has, by necessity of safety, been given over to the novice riders. But where did that leave the rest of us who’d paid for an advanced ride? Dissatisfied, and unlikely to recommend or return. These problems are compounded as horses are used more and more in indoor schools. The behaviour of a normally quiet, compliant horse can easily become excitable in open countryside if, for example, this sort of riding is only scheduled once a month. In the end it becomes easier – and cheaper insurance-wise – to keep horses and riders on site.
As I write this in 2019, it does often feel as if many riding schools – or Equitation Centres – are about making money first, and providing the experience second. Beware those misleading on-line sites with stunning photography of riders cantering carefree along beaches, where the eye-watering price list is more about children’s parties, dressage competitions, ladies’ coffee mornings, and even ‘training’ sessions to take the BHS Road Safety Exam for something in the region of £130. Concentrating on the indoor school or changing to livery only seems to be the only way forward for many equestrian yards trying to stay afloat. I understand. But in some ways this feels as if we’re playing into the hands of insurance companies and those who seek monetary gain from what has already been established as a medium to high-risk sport for a very long time. And what of our bridleways? These are already under serious threat, and combined with a growing fear of riding along the roads – in some cases, purely to access those precious bridleways – we’re allowing ourselves to be pushed out of the countryside altogether.
Despite my sporadic riding through the nineties and the early Millennium years I did rediscover a passion for books again, in particular, a series by retired racehorse trainer, Jenny Pitman. Not surprisingly, these books were about a racehorse trainer trying to make a living out of a falling-down farm in Wales. The Welsh landscape certainly kick-started my stalled interest in writing in a very positive way. Although Cheshire has its history and pretty rural surroundings aplenty, Wales is far more abundant in both aspects. The castles and the rugged hillsides strewn with stone settlements, druid circles and Roman roads brought out the historical muse in me. To think that I’m treading the same path as someone who lived in the Iron Age, is both fascinating and humbling. This makes me sound as if I write historical-based fiction. Far from it. Much as I admire many other genres I tend to be very much rooted in current times and, much like Pitman, my material reflects a lot of my own life experiences set in a Welsh background. Typewriters a thing of the past, I began to dabble on a word processor with Wild Water.
But the sun seemed to have set on the sort of riding comparable to any of my old dreamscapes – until the spring of 2008. We were taking a walking break in Cumbria and I was sifting through the usual pile of tourist guides in our cottage, when I came across a leaflet about Mike Myers and Biglands Hall Equine Group, Brow Edge Road, Ulverston. The ride descriptions looked and sounded promising, so we went to take a look. The visit resulted in arranging a three-hour fell ride. I’d actually thrown my riding hat in the car – always hopeful – but forgotten my boots, but no matter, light walking boots it had to be. My calves suffered that day, but it seemed I’d hit a pot of riding gold, finally.
Mike Myers, someone who’s ridden at competition level in endurance riding and time trials, remains one of the best ride leaders I’ve ever come across. My horse for the afternoon was Spirit, a speckled grey Connemara mare. We soon left the Cumbrian lanes and rode up through a sprawling forest and eventually onto the open fells above Cartmel where the challenging terrain allowed a faster, albeit more technical pace. Spirit was sharp; dancing expertly over the undulations, ditches, streams… tail flying behind, ears pricked forwards. And then we headed towards Cartmel, clattering through the village with its imposing priory and the famous sticky-toffee-pudding shop, before crossing over a section of the local racecourse. Beyond the village, the woods were sprinkled with bluebells and wild garlic, a breath-taking gallop along the edge of open land, then ancient bridleways draped with heavy spring foliage and noisy with birdsong. We continued over part of the Holker estate – distant views of Morecambe Bay – and bounded back over Canny Hill.
The variety of the terrain, the mare herself, and Mike’s active pacing made this ride pretty special. Since I’d not ridden seriously for a good while, I suffered for the pleasure for several days afterwards, but I was hooked. I returned every occasion we travelled to Cumbria enjoying as well as Spirit, a cob called Jacob, Stanley, the ex-racer, and the tall, dark thoroughbred-cross Indy. I don’t usually enjoy big horses so much now, probably down to being five-foot-nothing and I sometimes feel compromised by my lack of leg, but Indy was an exception and nothing much beats an open space combined with the smooth power of a gentlemanly horse.
At home, the situation was less exciting and I began to cast the net ever further. On a cold, sleety day in January, 2010, I travelled to Coachman’s Riding School, Hall Lane, Sychdyn, Mold, on the borders of Denbighshire, where I signed up for a riding assessment on Penny. Thereafter, I rode out with Coachman’s every three weeks for a couple of years. The destination was always Halkyn Mountain – around an hour’s ride away along country lanes. Halkyn Mountain is something of an anomaly. Scarred with the remnants of limestone quarrying, plus lead and copper mining, Halkyn rises gently to a summit of just 290 metres, with views across the Dee Estuary and the Clwydian Range. The open landscape has never been enclosed and is still mostly common land grazed by sheep. It allowed plenty of freedom to roam, and this worked pretty well as a three-hour route especially in the early days when the group consisted of experienced riders only. It was a miserable winter’s day when I first rode Penny to the mountain, with thick mist on higher ground and not much of a view. But there were a good few places to canter along grassy tracks and a penultimate gallop up to the trig point. Thereafter, I rode Dublin, Mal, and Charlie; all strong, forward-going cobs, and the handsome, athletic thoroughbred, Ted.
Ted was a speedy, sporty sort of chap with amazing suspension and could launch himself effortlessly over most obstacles as well as standard fences. On the occasion I rode him onto Halkyn, we’d already popped over a few random boulders and I was enjoying his athleticism to the point where we were flying over rows of gorse bushes at a speed rather faster than I would have liked, but he had brakes, so all good. Then our group split into two. The majority of the ride disappeared elsewhere whilst Ted and I followed Helen and her horse down a long slope to a wide flat area split by a watery ditch. Ted flew over this at a fast canter. Great! There was nowhere to go then, other than to turn in a wide circle, leap the ditch again and gallop back up the hill. I suspect that was the plan, anyway. Ted, pretty pumped-up by then, anticipated this a lot sooner than me, and although I’d got a firm hold of him, his slowing-down-canter was a thing of great bounciness and then the mother of all potential downfalls – I lost a stirrup.
It was at that point when Ted spun round, seemingly on one foreleg in a matter of seconds, when I lost my balance completely with no chance of recovery and I kissed the ground. Unhurt, I looked up in time to see Ted describing a beautiful arc over the ditch, before galloping up the hill and heading for the horizon, stirrups flying. My co-rider cantered off in hot pursuit while I walked in the general direction of… well, I wasn’t sure really. Is there nothing more embarrassing than a mud-splattered menopausal woman wandering about the moors dressed to ride with not a horse in sight? Ramblers and dog walkers smiled and nodded, eager to explain they’d seen a galloping horse some miles back. Great! Meanwhile, my right hand turned a ghostly shade of blue. (Months later, my little finger formed a funny bump on the bone, but much like the stubbed toe, that’s all I had to show for it.) Ted was soon recovered – a bit sweaty from his exertions – and we joined the rest of the party, although my shocked and shaky blue hand refused to cooperate in grasping the saddle in order to haul myself back on, so I swapped with Barry and rode Sky home instead. An active participant as part of the Coachman’s Polocrosse team, the mare was easily ridden with one hand and the ride home passed without further incident.
Sky, the grey Irish mare was probably my favourite horse on the yard and when Coachman’s finally closed and changed to liveries only in 2012, (yes, another one) I was glad when my riding buddy, Alison, bought her. For a while, thanks to Alison’s generosity, I continued to ride Sky. I even took her out solo onto Halkyn one sparkling, frosty morning in January. There are not many horses I’d trust to be sensible along frozen roads and white, misted hills, but some horses just inspire confidence from the get-go. Sky was one of these, and we clicked. Although she shied and started at tiny things, there was somehow a familiar pattern to this and in all the ways that mattered, she was generally cautious. The only problem was putting her bridle on in the first instance – there was clearly something in her past which niggled away at her, some rough treatment maybe. The bit itself, a plain rubber mouthpiece was never a problem, but I always struggled to slip the headpiece behind her ears and I usually had to summon help from someone much taller.
Sadly, the livery business also came to a close, the horses were moved elsewhere, and as is the nature of these things, the original crowd lost touch. And as is the nature of other things, my son moved to London, and we said a rather more permanent, sad goodbye to our family dog in the summer of 2012. By 2013 we’d downsized and moved a short distance out of Conwy. Meanwhile, a bit further away –halfway around the world, in fact – an unknown horse was waiting for me.
Continue Reading: https://janruth.com/2019/04/02/disappearing-dreamscapes-6/
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