Continuing memories and reflections of an equine obsession 1968-2018.
Chapter 3: Autumn
Higher House, Mottram-St-Andrew, Alderley Edge. Shorter, darker days meant woodsmoke and bonfires, drifts of leaves, bottled damsons in the farmhouse, and abite to the air. Clay-pigeon shoots; and the horses would be momentarily startled into a dead-stop, heads thrown up, ears pricked, nostrils wide. Or they chose to dance and prance, crab-like, snorting. Being a densely wooded area, Alderley Edge was especially spectacular through the autumn and my hours in the saddle tended to increase once the school holidays came to a close.
Grey Filly’s pale coat was good for dark days, not so good in a mist. Although I didn’t go out of my way to ride on the roads, I never really worried about traffic and our visibility. Sometimes we’d head up Mottram Road towards Alderley village before taking a tight left into Swiss Hill; a narrow, cobbled lane winding some 200 feet uphill between a variety of individual properties. Some of them, like Frog Palace, were positively mansion-like. Looking at recent footage on YouTube, this tough ascent seems to have become a rite of passage for local cyclists, despite it being cluttered with parked cars at the top; something I never encountered back then. This conservation area used to be a haven of Sunday solitude, like most country lanes. At the top, I’d turn onto the main B road, the mare blowing slightly by then, with The Edge and our off-roading playground less than a mile away. The main Macclesfield Road out of Alderley village was perhaps the busiest section on this circuit, but I never ran into a problem. The increased volume and speed of traffic along the B5087 now is not something I’d care to experience on the back of a horse, and Sundays have become like every other day of the week – busy.
I began to read the Poldark series by Winston Graham and then, looking for something lighter, enjoyed the early books by James Herriot. Although Herriot’s books were set in an era before my time, I felt a deep wistfulness for the freedoms and values Herriot’s way of life represented. Herriot used his own life experiences in the books, adding a rich believability to the narrative, something I like to try and do with my own material. In contrast to the plain honesty of Herriot’s easy style, Jilly Cooper’s Riders hit the shelves in 1985. My copy had the modest show jumper on the cover. Novels containing this much sex are everywhere now, although the BDSM culture has overtaken Cooper’s original handsome, controlling male character: the infamous Rupert Campbell Black. Of course, commercial publishing is all about money and this book has sported a few different covers to reflect the times. Curiously, on Riders 30th anniversary edition in 2015, the hand on the female behind was moved higher, but you can also see more of the riding crop – a shameless and unnecessary nod to Fifty Shades?
In the mid-seventies I also rode with a yard attached to a place I only remember as Montebello, at Bucklow Hill, Knutsford. Some of the characters wouldn’t have been out of place in a Jilly Cooper novel. The property was a rambling, crenelated building up against Chester Road. Some of the livery owners allowed their horses to be hired out by individuals like me, no doubt as a way of keeping their horses fit for late autumn-winter hunting fixtures, taking full advantage of 2,000 acres of nearby parkland at Tatton Hall. The riding was fairly reckless when I think about it now, but then, I simply viewed it as a super-charged adrenalin run, and every man – or woman – for themselves. We’d set out from the yard on a selection of pumped-up, grain-fed horses who’d likely been stood-in for a few days. Champing at the bit took on a whole new meaning. Crossing the Chester Road would be unthinkable now, but the traffic actually stopped for us. We’d continue along quiet country lanes through picturesque Rostherne village to arrive at the main entrance to Tatton Park, with fully warmed-up horses, raring to go. Basically, we galloped from the Rostherne gates to the Knutsford gates, and the pace was furious from the off. Within seconds we were at a flat-out gallop between a wide avenue of beech trees on a beautifully firm surface which felt tailer-made for the experience. During late autumn these trees were vivid with colour, the horse-chestnut trees always the first to surrender to cooler temperatures. Rapidly swirling leaves and the sounds of rutting stags added to the charged atmosphere.
Only once did I feel out of my depth on one of these rides and the perpetrator was a stocky, dun-coloured horse called Shadrack. Ridden in a cross-over noseband and a pretty severe bit, I should have spotted the warning signs early on. After a mile or so, the avenue of trees end and the parkland opens up to herds of red and fallow deer, huge lakes called meres, botanical gardens, families walking dogs, uneven ground. All of this flashed by at breakneck speed. Galloping is one thing, experiencing a brake fail when the ground begins to veer downhill, is quite another. Shadrack must have bolted with me for at least a mile – I even considered throwing myself off – until I faced him towards Tattonhall Mere, where he bounced to a reluctant canter before finally stopping, snorting like a dragon and pawing the ground. No one came to my rescue.
Despite the romanticism of the famous Tudor hall in the distance, not a single hero materialised. There was nothing for it but to pull up my big girl pants and carry on. My arms felt like they’d been wrenched out of their sockets from holding this horse steady for an hour, the reins slick with sweat. How we managed to find the other riders was a miracle, but we did. And we both survived intact, eventually locating the rest of the party under the trees by the Knutsford gate enjoying a cigarette break and gossiping about Cheshire life. After an additional ten-minute breather – presumably for my benefit – we galloped the two-and-a-half miles back to the Rostherne gate. Shadrack, a pure galloping machine, easily kept pace with the thoroughbreds and the bigger hunters, and I could have been a sack of spuds for all the difference I effected in the saddle. I tried to take heart in the belief that certain horses come into our lives at certain times for a reason. Shadrack certainly taught me how to dig deep, and as I’ve reiterated before, there’s always more to be gained from those horses who defeat us one way or another, or test our resolve.
Although Montebello is no longer in operation, horse riding is still permitted in the park, although galloping is now prohibited.
Before any galloping fun was stopped, I had occasion to ride another headstrong beast in the park, this time with Tatton Hall Stables. The yard was situated on site and within the park boundaries, so no roads to cross. As part of my ten-year-old son’s riding experience in the mid-nineties he joined a small group of intermediate riders to sample riding across open countryside. Satisfied his quiet pony was suitable, I left them to it. My husband (the improved, second draft) and I, donned walking boots and followed the second party of riders – the advanced group. I did fight a certain measure of nostalgia following in their wake on foot, but I reminded myself how rusty my riding skills were, having ridden considerably less through the nineties as family and financial commitments had combined together to temporarily defeat me. The group of maybe five riders cantered ahead in single file, skirting a large field as a warm-up. A horse in the middle of this group let fly with a playful buck and raced up to the front of the line, unseating his rider easily. There was a commotion at this and since we were on hand to help, my husband and I became drawn in.
The fallen rider wanted to limp back to the yard and I offered to accompany her and lead the horse. But then someone suggested I actually get on the horse and join the ride. Never one to turn down an opportunity, I borrowed a hat, and received an energetic leg-up onboard. Straight away, I knew this horse and I were probably at odds with our level of strength and fitness. The hat was too big and my walking boots were not the best thing to ride in. When I understood we’d be jumping, I was a bit less sure about how things might pan out, but I ignored husband’s rolling eyes and adjusted my stirrups accordingly. Memories of Shadrack popped into my mind but then so did all the other glorious rides in the park which had happened without incident. Fortunately, this horse seemed to know his job well enough and we flew over several fallen tree trunks at a strong gallop without me putting too much guidance in. These tree trunks were big, in girth as well as height but the horse had a humungous leap and we gained ground very quickly. Barging past some of the other riders isn’t the safest thing to do, and I spent much of the first twenty minutes shouting apologies to the left and right. Initially, it felt pointless and possibly fatal to fight my equine partners’ enthusiasm for running with the ‘herd’ but once he realised I wasn’t going to hold him in too tight, or, God forbid, hold him back, the horse settled down and even began to listen to his pilot. We remained friends, and both of us stayed in one piece for the duration of the ride.
I guess riding in the park back then was comparable to the thrill of the hunt – but without the dogs, or a fox. Prior to the ban hounds only contributed to the deaths of 6.3% of the 400,000 foxes killed annually. Foxes will always be shot in rural areas by farmers to keep the numbers under control, since they have no natural predators. Shooting a fox is notoriously difficult and not always a clean kill. Our desire for free-range and organically reared chickens and other birds, is severely compromised by Mr Fox. I have friends with small holdings who struggle with these issues and see no alternative but to shoot those foxes who consistently come onto their land and are quite capable of killing up to thirty or more birds in one fell swoop.
Conflict between fox hunting and saboteurs has grown in violence – and there’s been ugliness on both sides – at times directed just as aggressively towards the horses and hounds as much as the riders. This is often out of context as to what is actually happening. Often, these meets are drag hunts ie: no fox, merely an artificial scented trail. Obviously, ‘accidents’ do happen if hounds come across a live fox and I’m sure this woolly boundary is probably exploited. For the vast majority of modern rural communities, the hunt is a social day out. It’s about the challenge of riding across countryside normally denied, since farmers will only open up land to allow fox hunting, and for no other reason. This access to open land is more of a big deal than non-riders might appreciate, especially in modern times. I’m a bit of a sucker for tradition, and I admit to enjoying the historical pageantry of it all, but the idea that people who ride to hounds are bloodthirsty ‘toffs’ lends significant fuel to the theory that the surrounding conflict is often about a class war. Some saboteurs don’t seem to be nearly so worried about the shooting or snaring of foxes, and yet the sight of a group of well-turned out horses and riders nearly always evokes an extreme reaction. So, although I don’t especially like fox hunting per se, I have to balance it with the viable alternatives, and how communities exist in rural areas. Those who are interested in farming, horses, and country life do feel increasingly ostracised in our urbanised world. A world which understands less and less about farming and food production. For the most part, fox hunting is well down on my personal list of animal welfare concerns. I feel more aggrieved about the transportation of live animals, what goes on in some abattoirs, and the production of halal meat, veal, and pate.
I came across a couple of opportunities to participate in drag hunting through the eighties but it never came about due to a combination of foul weather and the right horse never being available for hire. Then, bad news around 1983 when access onto my beloved hacking-out area, The Edge, was denied to horses. After some ten years this news was a terrible, terrible blow. Undefeated, friends and I began to travel fortnightly to the aforementioned Glyn Ceiriog in North Wales: a 130 mile round trip to the Welsh hills or when I could afford it, an even bigger trip to Ferniehirst Mill in the Cheviots. Since the hacking in both these places was so good, it went some way to appeasing the disappointment over the local riding ban on The Edge, despite the distances involved. It also had me elicit something of a U turn on my avoidance of indoor schools because in 1985 not only was the situation becoming Hobson’s Choice, but I suddenly decided to consolidate my random riding experiences and begin training towards the BHS (British Horse Society) exams. The exams covered care and handling as well as riding to a standard recognised by the BHS.
Practice of the riding element happened during the evening after work at B1st Riding School, Higher Fold Farm, Windlehurst Road, High Lane, Stockport, where I rode Kestrel. This funny little horse wouldn’t have won any shows for looks or conformation but he could complete a tight, indoor jumping course like a gazelle, and he taught me the finer points of balance and control – without relying on stirrups. It’s easy to underestimate the technical and physical effort that goes into riding a perfect circle at working trot without stirrups; let alone the precision and discipline of the most basic dressage test. It’s a brave and foolish man who thinks the horse does all the work! Back then, I don’t think we even described it as dressage, it was simply advanced riding or schooling. I learnt the basics; shoulder-in, leg-yielding, extending and collecting paces through trot and canter, and how to canter a 4-loop-serpentine – to a reasonable standard. To perform classical dressage it used to be assumed one needed a suitably supple and responsive, classical sort of horse but the boundaries have softened over the years and this discipline has become more accessible, which is a good thing. And although some of these exercises might seem nonsensical to the uniformed, they do demonstrate how important it is to get the basics right first before going on to bigger things.
And in truth, a turn-on-the-forehand, reining-back, or a nifty leg-yield (lateral movement) is an everyday occurrence when riding out and about, for example, when passing through a gate. Ah, the power of gates and the joy of spotting a rider-friendly handle! Some gates are in the downright awkward category with not a chance of getting through them safely – regardless of reasonable riding skills and a calm, helpful horse – without dismounting. A particular ‘favourite’ of mine collapses the second one slides the bolt back. Lifting this heavy metal contraption to open it wide enough to pass through, also happens to take down half the barbed-wire fencing to one side. And then once through, it’s necessary to repeat the entire farce in reverse and rebuild the damned thing. Not an easy manoeuvre with a horse in tow, reins looped over one arm.
Some of my training also took place at the Manchester BHS exam centre at Carrington Riding Centre, Nursery Farm, Isherwood Road. I acquired a second-hand copy of The Manual of Horsemanship… You will be assessed in your competence to ride a variety of school horses showing walk, trot and canter, change of direction and correct pace through all school movements. You will be able to show an understanding of respecting other users while applying aids to work the horse. You’ll be able to ride outside in an open space, jump single fences and a small course. You will be starting to evaluate your own riding and the way the horse goes both in flatwork and jumping…
I found all of the elements well within my capabilities. My only concern was jumping the previously unseen course at the end of the day. It wasn’t something I’d had the opportunity to practise much, and I worried about remembering the order because the examiner only gave us this information once. I made it my business to watch the other candidates and pray I didn’t get picked to go first. There were eight pool horses for the exam, a couple of them I knew from training sessions such as the handsome warmblood, Tulsar, and the lovely sparky Sunshine, but we weren’t allowed to pick and choose our partners in crime – we had to draw straws. Somehow, I knew I’d get the one and only big stubborn Dobbin – and I did. When my turn came to ride the heavy cob, I gave up trying to get a warm-up canter out of him and decided to go for an energetic trot instead. We managed a trot of sorts, but I can’t honestly say we achieved much in the way of lightness and forward movement! The three British Horse Society judges watched from behind the paddock fence, po-faced, clipboards in hand while the cob huffed and puffed towards the first obstacle. He bunny-hopped awkwardly over it, and I knew I had to get tough if I wanted to complete the course in reasonable time, so I resorted to growling at him, and then by fence three had to give him a hefty whack with the crop. By then, I imagined my lack of style and my less than eloquent vocal ‘encouragements’ had amassed so many negative points I was a sitting duck to fail.
Somehow, we finished the course without a refusal, or without demolishing anything. At the finish one of the judges actually broke into a grin and slow-clapped. At first I couldn’t decide if she was being facetious, but she shook my hand and told me well done for persevering. So I passed all the required elements and received certificates for Grades One and Two. I even began training for Grade Three, which would have opened up possibilities of becoming a BHS AI (Assistant Instructor). But then, somewhere along the way I lost interest, partly down to facing some facts as an adult with a mortgage and coming to realise that the financial prospects for working with horses remained pitifully low. And, if I was really honest, my dreamscape remained one of cantering into the wind with a map stuffed in my pocket, and with no one passing comment on my leg position. And then, the following year I was excited to discover another development – I was expecting a baby.
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.