Hurrah to these four, who spared the time in the run up to holiday madness to take the tardis back to childhood and remember pony mania. I wish you horses under your Christmas tree and subscriptions to Horse and Hound all round. You endured not only ponylessness but even broken bones, parental bafflement and life-limiting zoning laws in your pursuit of Horse. And perhaps – maybe – we discovered that sometimes it is better to travel horsefully than to arrive. But I will still be accepting any donations of unwanted lusitanos this festive season. You know, if you bought too many.
In Shel Silverstein’s poem “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony,” Abigail’s heartless parents tell her nobody ever died from not getting a pony and deny her endless requests for one.
Guess what happens to poor Abigail.
As I filled the Connemara-shaped hole in my own life with horse-substitute activities, I wondered, too, at my parents’ obtuseness…I mean, really, how hard could it be to buy the neighbors’ house, knock it down, fence the land, and stock it with horses?
(That’s about the time I learned what “budgeting” and “zoning laws” meant.)
Toy horses, horse books, galloping around the yard neighing shrilly, and drawing horses sublimated the desire for a horse but didn’t satisfy it.
I finally took matters into my own hands by cutting brown paper bags into horse body-part shapes and fashioning a life-sized horse on a wall. I’d greet this Dobbin every day before school. Then I’d turn my attention to a smaller but more malleable steed made of non-hardening modeling clay, with pebbles for hooves and a yarn mane and tail. This one lived in a shoebox stable with a green-towel pasture. He got fresh water in a small bucket, a pile of grass for hay, and regular turn-out. On cold days, he wore handmade felt blankets.
Actually, I think Clay Horse preferred it cold. He became distinctly bandy-legged when it was hot, and his hooves would fall off. Nobody ever said horse ownership was easy.
Fastforward a few decades, and my own horse-crazy daughter picks up the baton. She begs to eat her noodles without utensils (“they’re hay!”) and plops an old saddle on the pile-up of lawn chairs that stands in for a horse.
Now she owns an actual horse. I pat its nose (and, yes, kiss it). So hang in there, Abigail. Sometimes ponies come to those who wait.
My first pony was called Beauty. Black with a white star, he was sleek and swift as the wind. Beauty came to me when I was five years old. I would ride him to school and tie him to the drainpipe during lessons.
Beauty went everywhere with me. Up and down the road, round the garden, on long journeys in my Dad’s old Cortina. He could shrink down into my pocket and hide away safely.
Nobody knew about Beauty, of course. As I grew older, suspicion was raised in the playground as I would trot and gallop, whinnying shrilly. My white, platform sandals that were, perhaps, a little old for a then seven year old, were pleaded for, not for their fashion flare, but for the clip clop cloppiness of their wooden soles against the tarmac.
Time passed and Beauty took on a new form as I learned to ride a hand-me-down bicycle. Eventually I got POCKET MONEY. I would save up for three week and cycle four miles each way for a half an hour of terror, clinging onto the evil old riding school skewbald’s mane, while he tried to ditch me. How I loved him. I fell off once and broke my elbow. I didn’t tell my Mother for fear of the lessons being banned. It was a week before I took my anorak off and she found out.
I sort of grew up, eventually, but Beauty is still with me, and we still have a little gallop when nobody is watching.
I grew up in London, where horses are few, and those that are there cost a lot. Real contact with horses was limited to occasional rides on holiday, and those glorious Sundays when polo was played near Richmond Park. “Treading in” between chukkas, and walking where horses had been. I was taken to see the Harness Horse Parade, where I breathed in the smell of Horse. One marvellous time, I went to watch at Olympia.
For the rest of the year, imaginary horses had to stand in, and in many ways these were more real to me than the flesh & blood type. I had a lot of Britains horses. These formed herds which roamed happily around my bedroom floor. There were fights between stallions, foals born, horses rounded up and sold. They all had names, and complicated relationships.
I acquired a riding hat but no pony to ride. I kept the hat. It gave me hope that maybe, one day, I’d have the pony to go with it.
Once grown, I still sought out horses. I took the long route to work so I could cycle past the polo ground. I kept on looking for horses out of car and train windows. Sometimes I rode at a local yard, into the park, and I rode on the beach on holiday. I was in my thirties when we moved, to Devon. Our new house had its own field, and it was the perfect size for a pony…
Show jumping, when I was a child, was a big thing on television, not something you had to hunt for in the distant corners of subscription tv. For someone convinced they were a horse, who’d for some inexplicable reason ended up a child, playing show jumping was the acceptable face of being that horse. Half passing along the pavement was definitely considered odd, but copying Ann Moore was fine: except I was April Love, or Ryan’s Son, or Penwood Forge Mill. Occasionally the dog would be allowed to be the horse, and jump my splendid course of pea sticks stuck into the lavender hedge, but mostly I hogged the part of horse myself.
Unfortunately my equine alter-ego had no sense of sympathy for her herd. My sister and best friend would join in the show jumping games, and my sister fell at the saw horse, our equivalent of the puissance wall. We encouraged her to get up, get on her metaphorical horse again, and continue, but she carried on crying, and eventually even our stern, proto-Pony Club Commissioner selves realised Something Was Up. She’d broken her collar bone. We were banned from jumping again. No more bamboo stick and flower pot doubles. No more oddly balanced deckchairs, and definitely no more hurtling towards the saw horse, heart in mouth, the excitement of getting whole to the other side almost, but not quite, as good as the thrill of jumping on a real horse.
So thank you again, ponyless sisterhood. Send me an email with your postal address and any requests for dedications in the book, and I will send your copies off ASAP!