Today I saw a ghost…

In 2006 Germany experienced World Cup fever. Berlin was hosting the football championships and every cafe, bar and restaurant showed the matches on giant TV screens. Round about that time, in a city already full of street art, the work of a new artist caught my eye. They were stencilling hoofprints onto the pavements.

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I set up a blog to document them and a Google Map. I found that road railings had been painted red and white like showjumps, with evergreen trees cycle-locked to each side. The hoofprints would approach them then “jump” the rails and disappear. Some street events full of prancing people pretending to be on horseback were staged, though sadly I missed them. I found them in other cities and other countries too – people started to send me photos of them.

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At the time I had no idea how to begin what would become If Wishes Were Horses. It was a very academic text, short on life. The book was born the moment I realised that the graffiti was part of it. Shortly after I finished the book I found an interview with the artist, who said she began the work because she felt that while male sporting passions were celebrated by the World Cup, women’s equally great passion for sports was often belittled. So she covered the city with imaginary horses.

It’s over a decade since I started collecting the hoofprints. Today I saw one I’d never spotted before and which must be one of the last survivors. The ghost print is on the edge of the pond in the Weinbergsweg park in Mitte. A cross country water feature for Berlin’s imaginary herd? Here it is modelled by Otto the dachshund.

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East Berlin’s surfaces are pied with graffiti: spray-painted ‘tags’; paper cut-outs gummed in peeling layers of palimpsest; stencils of hand grenades, bananas, political slogans and dachshunds; giant murals by professional street artists that cover five-storey fire walls. Walking through the same district every day, you notice fresh ones as you might clock a new species of flower emerging from the ground, or tune into a different birdsong <use normal spaced en dash throughout>— a kind of urban nature trail that changes with the seasons. Because I never saw any artist at work, the images seemed to sprout from nowhere, a little bit of subconscious bubbling up to the surface like a rash or a dream.

The hoofs were new.

I first saw them on Kastanienalle — Horse Chestnut Avenue. A trail of white hoof prints the width of my spread hands appeared next to the pavement and walked across the pedestrian crossing. Someone had meticulously cut out the stencils and made their way across the road, spraying one, then another, in a pattern I recognized as a walk: the two left hooves struck the ground close together, the two right hoof prints were spaced wide. One, two, three, four. An invisible pony. When it reached the kerb, it vanished.

A little while later I found a second set, which sauntered across the road at Veteranenstrasse and marched up to a mysterious ‘Equine Institute’, where a bridle hung in the window. There the invisible horse planted its front hooves squarely on the doorstep, as though peering in. A third horse walked clean across the middle of a busy junction outside a police station. Up by the Mauerpark there was a fourth set, which approached the metal railings by the road. A section of the railings had been painted in red-and-white stripes like showjumping poles, and chipboard ‘wings’ had been strapped to the sides. As a finishing touch, two evergreen plants in pots had been placed on either side and fixed to the rails with bicycle locks. The invisible pony cleared the showjump and clattered off across two lanes of traffic and a tramline into the park, where it appeared and disappeared, walking the length of an old stretch of the Wall.

After that it was as though the pony were everywhere, or he had a herd of friends trotting around Berlin at night, always just round the corner, always after I was asleep. I began to look out for the pony every day, to see what he’d been up to the night before. He’d make skittish circles outside a coffee shop, or hobble across Stargarderstrasse like a deer with all four legs roped together.

I couldn’t predict where he would appear next, so I just had to go out and walk, covering miles of Berlin’s broad, grey pavements in the pursuit of the invisible ponies. My friends reported sightings, which I mapped. One horse crossed through the dingy, red-brick cloisters of the Oberbaum bridge, which linked Friedrichshain in the east to Kreuzberg in the west, while another pranced down the red carpet before the stars at the Berlinale. A third pegged across Alexanderplatz and a fourth propped up the counter at a sausage stand, resting one hind hoof.

It was as though a herd of those elusive, magical horses from the pony books I’d read in my childhood had somehow slipped through into my grown-up, urban life. Now they flickered in and out of view, for ever on the next page, like the mysterious Water Horse in Patricia Leitch’s The Black Loch, which surges out of a dark lake at midnight, or golden Flicka, always disappearing over the Wyoming hills, escaping the whirl of a lasso. The spray-painted spoor was the only clue that they had been there.

One night, on the trail of a set of hoof prints on Christinenstrasse, I passed an empty office filled with blue light. There, behind dirty windows and under a bare wire that dangled from the ceiling, was a life-size model of a black horse, who looked out into the street with ears pricked. Behind the rain-streaked glass he seemed absolutely real. I thought he might flare his nostrils and sigh, his sides rising and falling, then turn back to pace the room.

The Language of Riding: A piece for the New York Times’ Menagerie Blog

Sasa’s name means “so-so” in Portuguese. It’s a little joke, because the gray lusitano gelding is anything but — he’s a beautiful horse who can, like many Iberian equines, claim descent from the war horses of the Renaissance. Look at Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano” and there’s Sasa’s likeness carrying a Florentine general: compact as a rubber ball, strong enough to balance on his hinds, and with a crested neck that ends in ears tilting forward like his rider’s lance.

This a piece I’ve written for the New York Times‘ Menagerie blog and horses and how we communicate with them. When I publish something I like to provide a little cheat sheet and some links to source material, because most of the readers who like this blog also want to do their own investigating and reading around.

Here’s the paper on horses and heart rates.  This is the Uccello painting, The Battle of San Romano, which is at the National Gallery in London.

People have (rightly) wanted to know how on earth a horse could realise that its rider was pregnant. Here is the anecdote behind it, from the Horse and Hound Forum. The horse in question was a challenging ride for its owner. One day, its behaviour changed, and it was good as gold. This was odd, and odder still when the good spell went on for weeks. The owner happened to take a pregnancy test after a while, and had a positive result. The horse (a mare, if that’s relevant) continued to be biddable and obedient until the owner’s baby was born, at which point it reverted to its old, challenging behaviour.

What this doesn’t tell us, of course, is HOW the mare knew, and WHY she acted differently. But if there are dogs and other service animals that can detect an oncoming epileptic fit or a cancerous tumour, I see no reason why a horse should not.

A little “unpacking” for the term sprezzatura, as some of the sense of the piece got lost in a series of last minute additions and edits. There’s a line missing before that sentence, which is, “My instructor calls this the art of doing bugger all.” Sprezzatura is indeed a Renaissance term, but I’m not sure if it was directly applied to riding by contemporaries. It’s championed by Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier, and there’s a little explanation here. My source/inspiration was a really excellent thesis on riding, the Renaissance and sprezzatura by Treva Tucker, called Destrier to Danseur: The Role of the Horse in Early Modern French Noble Identity. She unpacks it far better than I can in my wee NYT piece, so hunt it out.

This is the page for my memoir, If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession, and some more photos of Tav. You can get a US Kindle edition here.

Here’s a couple of videos of Sasa in action with a much better rider than I (he and Holly Barber are currently ranked 10th in the world in Working Equitation). And here’s the school that owns him: Pine Lodge in Norfolk, UK.

Loved by Jilly Cooper, K M Peyton and Melanie Reid – and currently just 99p for a Kindle edition

Yep, Amazon have put If Wishes Were Horses on special offer. I have no idea for how long, but here it is if you fancy snapping up a virtual copy. If you are interested in horses and history – and especially women’s history – I think you’ll find something to enjoy, as well as a nostalgia trip into everything from Black Beauty to Horse and Pony magazine, Jinny and Shantih and the W H Smiths’ Win a Pony competition.

Christmas Confessions of the Ponymad but Ponyless

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.

Christina Wilsdon

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.

Helen Collard

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.

Sue Howes

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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…

Jane Badger

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!

Christmas Confessions Competition: What Did You Do When You Were Pony-mad But Ponyless?

Are you an adult recovering from a deprived, pony-mad but ponyless childhood?

Did you always enter Win a Pony competitions and somehow never win even though you spent weeks swotting for the quiz answers? Does it still rankle?

Did you gallop around the garden jumping over fences made from bamboo canes and flowerpots? Or eat raw oats to see what they tasted like? Was your school nickname “Horsey”?

Did you pride yourself on the verisimilitude of your whinny? Have you still not recovered from reading that scene in Black Beauty where Ginger [SPOILER] ends up on the knacker’s cart? Did you cycle for miles in the rain to hang over the ropes at a horse show?

Did you ever attempt to blackmail your parents into buying you a pony, because you knew that ponies only cost £10 and you could easily keep one in the garage if your dad only got rid of that stupid car?

If you answered yes to any or all of these questions I think it would be therapeutically advantageous for you to take part in the If Wishes Were Horses Christmas Confessions Competition. I’m looking for a story or an image that sums up the goofy glory of being pony-mad but ponyless: the passion; the dedication; the compulsive collecting of model horses; the extremely detailed descriptions of imaginary Arabian steeds; the time you stole and sold your mum’s jewellery for your pony fund; the time your favourite riding school mount kicked your teeth out and you didn’t mind… I even want to hear from you if you eventually did get that magic pony. You jammy swine. Ahem. No, I’m FINE now, not jealous at all. Really. In that case, tell me about that pony and what he taught you by dragging you through hedges and standing on your toe while being adorable.

So send your stories (250 words or there about) or photos to the email link at top right of the blog by December 15th and then we’ll have a vote. The top five get a copy of If Wishes Were Horses and everlasting glory. But sadly not a pony, because I’m still saving for one of those.

PS. examples listed above are all tragically true…

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Looking For Stories About Women and Horses in the Nineteenth Century?

From Riding For Ladies by Nannie Power O'Donoghue

From Riding For Ladies by Nannie Power O’Donoghue

Here’s a selection from the archives – a little bit of everything from balloonists to tragic heroines, scandalous females and zebras ridden sidesaddle. I also wrote in detail about women and girls who rode in Britain and Ireland in If Wishes Were Horses: A Memoir of Equine Obsession.

    • Women who defied the classic stereotype of Victorian invalid lady, a-fainting on the sofa: Para-Hunting.

Shout Out to Ullapool Bookshop

photo-1If Wishes Were Horses’ number one saleswoman – my mum – is in Ullapool making sure the local independent is stocking copies (well, actually she’s there to watch my dad in the St Ayles Skiff World Championships but never let it be said that she can’t multi-task when family interests are concerned). As you can see The Ullapool Bookshop are exactly the kind of bookshop that anyone in their right mind would want to move into, skiff or no skiff. They’re closely involved with the Ullapool Book Festival and are open a whopping seven days a week for customers coming in from the Isles.