Travelling salesman to Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor, 1851, describing sleeping arrangements at The Castle beer shop in Braintree:
I was a muck-snipe when I was there – why, a muck-snipe, sir, is a man regularly done up, coopered, and humped altogether – and it was a busyish time, and when the deputy paired off the single men, I didn’t much like my bed-mate. He was shabby-genteel, buttoned up to the chin, and in the tract line [i.e., religious]. . . . I tipped the wink to an acquaintance there, and told him I thought my old complaint was coming on. That was, to kick and bite like a horse, in my sleep, a’cause my mother was terrified by a wicious horse not werry long afore I was born. So I dozed on the bed-side, and began to whinny; and my bed-mate jumped up frightened, and slept on the floor.
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!
Those of you who were pony-mad but ponyless as children and forced to gallop alone will be delighted with Prancercise:
Do enjoy the Amazon reviews of the book, too.
Thank you to Karen for sending me this Wall Street Journal film of a horseless horse show: imaginary horse showjumping! What I would have given for those showjumps to replace my bamboo canes and flower pots! Wahnsinn!
I was away! Things happened! But first – a round up of curious happenings in the horse world!
- Looks like I got rid of the virtual racing stable I ran in the early 1990s far too early. An unraced imaginary horse from the Digiturf game has just been sold for $5,225. Yes, not only is it nonexistent, it’s also unproven. $5,225. You could get a real racehorse for a lot less. ESPN reports.
- The Guardian’s dance critic was dispatched to review para-dressage: “With their tightly plaited manes and long ballerina necks, they perform tightly controlled pirouettes and piaffes with impressive finesse; they float across the arena with a silken stride that is like a horsey grand jeté.”
- An Australian study suggests that Monty Roberts’ methods should be re-assessed. (Horse Talk). UPDATE: Monty responds with a link to an earlier peer-reviewed study of his methods from Anthrozoology.
- A riding school in Kenya thrives, thanks to its enterprising owner. (BBC).
- Yahoo has a mighty fine photo gallery of an Icelandic horse round up. Iceland: a nation where horse shoes are sold at garages. MSNBC has sulky racing on the north German coast.
- The Bloggess brings us the worst example of equine taxidermy I’ve yet seen – and I love bad taxidermy. It’s meant to be a falabella.
- Kazakhstan is shipping its own horse-meat sausages to London for its Olympic Team. (The Atlantic)
- As a US Senate hearing calls for stricter rules concerning drug use in horse racing, the New York Times gets hold of Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another’s vet sheet. The colt had been battling tendon problems and osteoarthritis for some time before he even began his Triple Crown bid. That’s an unsound horse, racing on dirt at the highest level. Since the NYT’s report, other racing figures have come forward to say this is no big deal and in fact, common and legitimate. (New York Times).
- Meanwhile, here’s a less depressing NYT blog post on using dressage to train both competing and retired racehorses. (NYT)
- Riding school ponies stolen in area of Florida notorious for blackmarket horse-meat slaughters. (CBS Local).
- And so that we don’t end on a bum note, here’s North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s girlfriend, Hyon Song-Wol, singing her smash hit “Excellent Horse-like Lady” or “A Girl In The Saddle Of A Steed”. Enjoy.
- Carol sent me a blogpost about a herd of Arizona horses who have been reclassified from “wild” to “feral” and now face a round up, which some suspect will result in their eventual slaughter. The leader of the band, Champ, was an internet hit last year when he was pictured rescuing a filly from the Salt River. Supporters of the Salt River horses say that they can produce evidence that the horses have roamed the area since the 17th century. If they can be reclassified as feral and not wild, could this have implications for all US mustangs?
- The Washington Post argues that the US no longer breeds Derby winners with the stamina to win the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes. Is this true? Back in my racing-mad teens I looked on the US as an influence for speed over stamina because of the narrow range of distances in their triple crown, and thought I’d never see a British triple crown winner to match Nijinsky because the St Leger had become “too long” for the best stallion prospects with their North American pedigrees, who went straight for the 12-furlong Arc instead. Not much has changed since then: no Epsom Derby winner has contested the Leger since Reference Point in 1987 (he won). Interestingly, though the WaPo doesn’t mention it, the Breeders’ Cup introduced a “Marathon” race in 2008 at a puny 12 furlongs before later extending to 14 – the distance of the St Leger (but almost half the length of the group one Ascot Gold Cup). Could this be an effort to reverse the drift?
- The US Department of Agriculture wants to create mandatory penalities for people found guilty of “soring” Tennessee Walking horses to force a “big lick” gait. “Under the tougher rules, suspensions for one week to three years would bar show participation for violators and would apply not just to trainers, but also to horse owners, transporters and others associated with the horses’ abuse,” this AP piece says. But why is this kind of cruelty not a criminal offence?
- Symbols of new wealth in China: a horse and a Ferrari. Horse kicks Ferrari. Incidentally, here’s a wee history of the Ferrari “rearing black stallion” logo.
- Equine therapy in Galshiels, Scotland helps a teenager overcome her panic attacks. She had the opportunity to learn to ride via the Stable Life project, which you can read about here.
- A nice TIME piece on the Queen’s love of horses, although it doesn’t mention the imaginary ones she maintained, despite having her own pony.
- Three-day-eventer turned course designer Ian Stark has purchased seven of the semi-feral Highland-cross ponies from a 93-strong herd which made news on horsey sites last year (see the round up here) . NVQ students from a local college are helping break in the ponies for use in Stark’s riding school.
- Soviet Propaganda ponies. My favourite MLP mash-up so far.