We all have our dreams. Mine was that I would have a horse of my own and one day we would ride out together on a great adventure.
I suppose my affection for horses began at a very tender age. My earliest memories take me back to the farm where I was born. It was a small hill farm on the edge of the North York Moors, situated in a quiet little valley with a stream running through that eventually joined the River Esk. I was the fifth child of seven, and my father was still using cart-horses for work on the farm. Tractors had appeared on some farms in the neighborhood, but it was a few years before Dad could afford one.
I must have been only a toddler, not much more than a year old, but I remember Dad carrying me on his shoulders down the pasture in the early morning to bring up Bonny, our cart-horse, ready for work. He would sit me on top of that huge, flat back, so soft and warm, and I would grasp hold of some of her mane with my chubby little hands while Dad led her back to the stable. She was a dark bay with a big white blaze down her face and huge feet, but she was so gentle. I vaguely remember her companion, Blossom, who had passed away. He was a black horse with white markings, and when he died my mother wrote a poem. As I grew older, I used to love to read this poem, although it always made me cry, and even today it has the same effect on me. This is the poem my mother wrote:
On Our Mare Losing Her Mate
Ah, dear old horse in grief so dumbly pleading,
Bewildered there, you watched where we would go,
And wondered where your team-mate we were leading,
His heavy body dragging thro’ the snow.
You followed slowly, ponderous, sombre-eyed,
How could you know our faithful friend had died?
And since that day, not really understanding,
But with an instinct, making no mistake
You’ve wandered there; I’ve watched you sadly standing
Beside his grave. I’ve felt my own heart ache,
But helpless stood and heard you whinny till
The echoes only answered. All was still.
Ah yes, he’s gone; in vain you go to find him,
No more he’ll pull the wagonload with you,
No more he’ll canter home with you behind him,
We’ve lost a friend – a trusty one and true,
So let him lie, his bed beneath the sky,
Old faithful horse, he’s said his last goodbye.
I am sure from those first early rides in my life that the seed of “loving to ride” had been sown. It was to be many years before that seed would grow and flourish.
My childhood years were happy, wild, and free. The poverty that existed during those post-war years in so many small farming families like ours had little effect on me. By the time I started school, Bonny had been replaced with a tractor, but horses never left my childhood mind. I loved the days when one of our neighboring farmers, who kept sheep on land adjoining ours, would ride down on his horse to visit Dad. This horse was not like the cart-horses we had. She was more finely built, so shiny and such a beautiful bright bay color. I used to just stand near her, stroking that lovely smooth coat. I loved the wonderful smell and feel of her, and hoped Dad would go on talking all day. If only I could have had a smaller version for myself.
My oldest brother was away at college, and both my older sisters were away too, one married and the other at boarding school, but there were still two brothers at home; Mike, who was a few years older, and Jimmy, a few years younger, than me. We each had our daily jobs to do around the farm, like feeding the hens and gathering the eggs. We fed and watered the pigs and bucket-fed the calves with milk. On Saturdays we cleaned the pig-sty out into a barrow, and collected kindling for lighting the fire. One job I loved to do on a summer’s evening was to take the sheep dog and go and bring the cows home for milking.
In my spare time, I roamed freely with my brothers. I loved climbing trees and building dams in Broomhill Beck, the small stream at the bottom of the cow pasture. We stamped sods of earth off the bank sides with our heels, and laid them with stones across the water. When it was hot and sunny, we would take off our socks and shoes and splash about among the rocks and stones. We learned to tickle trout in the streams by lying flat on our tummies, and gently reaching down into the cool water below. Sometimes, if we were really quiet, we were lucky enough to catch one, and once or twice we managed to capture an eel. We always took our successes home and, after Dad had cleaned them, our mother would dutifully cook them.
My favorite times were when we went to the woods to collect the kindling. After filling our bags with sticks, we could have fun until we thought it was time to go home. We played hide-and-seek, and sometimes we played cowboys and Indians, making bows and arrows with wood cut from the hazel trees. I knew how to find the best shoots for the arrows without any knots in them. I would run along the sheep tracks, through bracken and heather, jumping over little gullies and rocks, and always riding my pretend pony, happy in my childhood dreams that one day I would have a real pony of my own.
It was only as I grew older and appreciated the value of money that I understood Dad’s explanation for his refusal to let me have a pony. He could keep a cow on the grass and fodder that a pony would eat, but it was still a hard fact to face at that young age. I wondered if the day would ever come when I could have a pony. I did have the company of the sheep dogs to enjoy, and frequently took one with me on my walks. Sometimes I went alone, looking for birds’ nests or watching the trout darting about in the shallow, sunlit pools.
I was never lonely on my own. There was always so much happening all around; rabbits scurrying away down their burrows and hares bounding across the fields. The birds would be singing and calling to each other, occasionally warning calls when they were rearing their young, but often just “happy to be alive” tunes. I learned to recognize the sounds of different birds, and one of my favorites was the skylark. I would try to watch it as it soared higher and higher into the sky, but I could always hear its song long after it left my sight. Sometimes, if I was lucky, when I walked by the stream where it ran close to the edge of the wood, I would see a deer taking a drink. Always alert, it would dart back into the cover of the trees when it saw me.
Time had little meaning for me as I reveled in the wonders of nature. I was often reprimanded for being late, as mother would soon start to worry and imagine something terrible had happened to me―like falling out of a tree and breaking a leg, or slipping in the beck. Mom wasn’t country born and saw danger round every corner. I tumbled head first into a feed barrel one day, cutting my ear on the sharp metal rim. I went into the house with blood streaming down the side of my face, as ears tend to bleed profusely. Poor Mom nearly fainted. She thought I had split my head open! I still had my jobs to do when I returned home from my walks, even if it was dark, but I was never afraid of the dark, the animals weren’t, so why should I be?
Dad did eventually let me have a young nanny-goat, which was not quite the same as a pony, but it was lovely to have something that was just mine. I called her Karen, and was allowed to have her, because Dad thought she would be useful for rearing pet lambs, once she had kidded. I had by now learned to milk the cows by hand, and quite enjoyed milking my goat. I didn’t need a milking stool to sit on when I milked Karen. I would just give her some food in a bowl out in the stack-yard, and then I would sit on the grass next to her with my pail. She stood very still and never kicked like some of the cows did. She was a real pet, and followed me around everywhere when I let her off her tethering rope. She was a bit mischievous, too, and liked to pull the washing off the line, so I had to tie her up on washing days. When she started following me right into the house, she wasn’t allowed off her rope any more.
I have only happy memories of those years, and I lived wild and free in the beautiful countryside around our farm.
A DREAM COME TRUE
When I was eleven, my life changed. I passed a compulsory examination, which qualified me for a place in a selective high school. This was the Convent of the Ladies of Mary Grammar School which was run by nuns, and I was a boarder there. It was a complete shock to me, leaving home, and those happy, carefree days of my childhood never returned. I made many friends during my five years at the convent, and the schooling itself was bearable, but I hated the long hours of confinement. The house rules were very strict and we were not allowed off the premises. Everyone was in bed and lights out by nine o’clock. I was often homesick, and really missed my brothers, my home and all the animals.
My favorite lessons were music, math and P.E. I loved to sing, and was delighted when I was accepted into both the boarders’ and the school choirs. I enjoyed all the sports we played and represented my school at netball. Gym was a great favorite, too, and my ability to climb trees came in useful, as I quickly learned to climb the ropes in the sports hall. My teacher was so impressed that I had to demonstrate to the whole class how it was done.
Some of the girls, whose parents were obviously quite well off, went to a local riding school in the town for lessons on Saturday mornings. How I envied them, all dressed up in their smart cream jodhpurs and yellow polo neck sweaters. It was the first time I had ever seen real riding hats and long, black riding boots. One day, I told myself, I would have some just like theirs.
I found the summer evenings the hardest to cope with. Being kept inside so much made me feel like a caged animal. I longed for the holidays when I could go home to the wide, open spaces, the sights and smells of the farm, and the freedom to go where I wanted. My goat had been sold when I went away to school, but I still loved to be back home, helping Dad with the milking, and all the many other jobs on the farm. It was great to be back with my brothers, teasing them, playing football or cricket, and going hunting for rabbits, when I always had to carry the bag of nets for them. They didn’t trust me to carry the ferrets. We still went down to the beck to catch trout and the occasional eel.
After I left school, I took a job in a post office and village store in Rosedale. It was here that I met my husband-to-be, Allan, and he introduced me to a farmer friend of his. I became friends with this farmer and his family, as he often gave me a lift to church on Sundays. He and his wife had three young daughters, for whom they had bought a pony. When this friend became aware of how much I longed to ride, I was invited to take the pony out. Although I stressed to him that I did not know how to ride, he insisted that I would be fine, and sent me on my way.
Misty, as her name implied, was a stocky little grey of Welsh extraction, standing about 13.2 hands. Feeling very excited, I set off from the farm on the road leading down the valley. Although a little apprehensive, I felt elated and ecstatically happy. Could this really be happening? Here I was on a pony, riding out on my own.
It took me a while to get used to the movement in the saddle and when we trotted I am sure I wasn’t doing it as I should have been, but I just loved it. After we had climbed up the steep Rosedale Chimney bank and turned right on to the old disused railway line, I managed, with some energetic kicking of my heels, to persuade Misty to go into a canter. This was much easier, and we galloped along the cindery track, the whole of the dale (valley) spread out before us, until Misty decided she needed a rest, and we had to walk for a while. At the top of the dale I managed to find the track leading down the hillside to the fields, and after negotiating a few gates arrived back at the farm in one piece. Hot and sweaty and covered with horse-hair, I had just enjoyed two of the best hours of my life.
I was still only eighteen when Allan and I were married, and, a year later, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, whom we called Sara. The following year, shortly after the birth of our second child, Michael, Allan was offered a job as a gamekeeper. He was delighted, as this had been his ambition for a while, and we moved to Wensleydale with our two babies. I loved being a mother, caring for my little ones, and horses were temporarily pushed to the back of my mind. A third child arrived, Danny, a brother for Sara and Mike, keeping my life very busy. We lived near the edge of the moor, which I loved, and I spent many happy hours with my young family.
Allan knew, of course, of my love of horses. He had promised me that if ever we were lucky enough to be where we had any land, I would have my horse. Sara was four when Allan was offered the gamekeeper’s job where we now live in Fryup, a dale running into the Esk Valley. This meant that we would be living back nearer to both our families, which was great, but better still, there was a field adjoining the house for our own use. A field of three acres! My heart skipped a beat when I realized what that meant. I would be able to have my horse. What joy! I could barely wait for the weeks to pass when we would be moving to Fairy Cross Plain, our new home in Fryup.
After we were settled into our new house, I started to hunt through the “Horses for Sale” columns in the papers, hoping to find one we could afford. The horse we eventually chose was a large black cob that had been used for pulling a rag-and-bone cart in the towns. He was very quiet and gentle, and we decided to call him Napoleon, but afterwards he was always known as Nap. We knew he would be good in traffic, due to his previous work, but he had not been ridden very much. He was delivered to our house late one evening, and I was so excited I could not wait to sit on him. I had no saddle or bridle, but I just had to get on him. I could not believe that after all these years I really had a horse of my own. The sound of the wagon could still be heard going back down the hill when, leaving Allan looking on with our three little ones, I led my horse proudly from the stable into the field. With only a rope attached to his head-collar, I took hold of his long black mane and jumped up on to his broad back, and off we went up the field. At last, a horse of my own―I was in heaven!
I was determined to ride well, studying many books from the library, and worked hard practicing my skills. There wasn’t a lot of free time for riding, and three years later I had another baby, David, completing my family. As the years passed, my riding improved, and I progressed to other horses. I bought in youngsters, schooled and trained them, and then sold them on. Eventually, I broke horses in, always trying to learn more about them, and continued to read how to work and school them. No two horses are alike. They all have their own individual characters, and I learned from all of them as they learned from me. One day, I hoped I might breed one of my own.
When the children were old enough, I taught each of them to ride and, after much persuading, I even managed to teach Allan. It took him several lessons to master the rising trot. He went to great lengths to explain to me how much easier it was for women. It could, he said, be extremely painful for men if they didn’t do it exactly right. He did eventually become quite a proficient rider, and in the months that followed we used to have a good laugh about his learning experiences.
The love of freedom and wild places was always with me, and now I could enjoy these things with my horses. I became familiar with all the tracks and bridleways in this beautiful part of Yorkshire by the Esk Valley. I loved riding through the hills and galloping over the moors, feeling the cold wind or the gentle rain on my face. Every season has its special delights. There is nothing sweeter than the wonderful fragrance of blossom on the trees in springtime, the pungent smell of bluebells carpeting the earth in June, or the rich swathes of purple heather, with its intoxicating honeyed perfume, which blankets the moors in late summer. I thrilled to the calls of the birds, each recognizable by its own individual sound, as I rode quietly through tree-lined tracks beneath the craggy rock faces. I once came across two fox cubs in a clearing among the trees. I stood my horse still as I sat and watched them playing in the sunshine. Unafraid of the horse, they were completely unaware of the silent onlooker sitting quietly watching their antics. When I am riding up on the moors, I feel at peace with the world. When problems or stresses enter my life, I find the best remedy is to saddle up my horse and go for a ride. The tranquility and vastness of the moors seem to put life back into perspective.
If only a remedy for the problems of life could always be so simple, but life is never easy, as I was to realize only too soon.
TEARS OF SADNESS, TEARS OF JOY
When my youngest son left school and started work, I felt a sense of hopelessness and sadness that was difficult to explain. It was as if I had been made redundant. I was still a housewife, running a home and taking care of my family. I had a part-time job as a waitress, worked hard in my garden, and looked after the dog kennels for Allan, but I no longer felt needed in the same way. I thought long and hard, and wondered what to do. One of my older sisters suggested I think of something where I would feel really needed. Maybe charity work or something to do with horses.
In the days that followed, I did think of something. About twenty miles away there was a school that catered for disabled children, and I knew they gave riding lessons to their pupils. Maybe that’s what I could do. I had received so much pleasure from horses, and now I could help children less fortunate than me to have that pleasure too.
I rang the school and was invited along to their next riding lesson. The group was a member of the Riding for the Disabled Association (R.D.A.), so it had a qualified physiotherapist and riding instructor, but they still required helpers. Assistants were needed to lead the ponies and also to walk by their sides, to aid and support the children.
I will never forget the look on the face of one little girl, who was wheelchair bound, the day she actually sat on a pony for the very first time. She had overcome great fear and apprehension to do this, but her smile of sheer joy and disbelief brought tears to my eyes. Sitting on that pony she was now just like any normal child, and it wasn’t important that her legs didn’t work properly. She didn’t need them when she was riding. At the end of her lesson she was lifted off the pony, bursting with pride and happiness, saying that her parents would never believe what she had just done. That little girl continued with her lessons and became a confident young rider, learning to trot and control her pony with the limited use she had in her arms. I felt privileged to have been her helper. There were many other such children, and doing this work each week helped fill a need in me.
This branch of the R.D.A. was independent from the school and had to fund itself, so they constantly needed to raise money. I wanted to help with this and so, at our next fund-raising meeting, I agreed to hold a coffee evening in my garden. I had held similar events before, such as dances and domino drives in the village hall, to raise money for clubs connected with my children, like the tennis and cricket clubs. The coffee evening went very well. It was a beautiful summer evening, and as the sun went down it cast long clear shadows across the hills in the dale head. Many of my new friends from the riding school came to support me, as well as local people, and it was a great success. Raising money for the R.D.A. was different from what I had done in the past, and gave me a warm feeling inside. I continued to support them for many years.
In the spring of 1993 I discussed with Allan the possibility of putting my mare in foal. Ruby, as she was called, was a super little horse―a chestnut thoroughbred, very intelligent and gentle. She was only 15.1 hands but had loads of stamina and was lovely to ride. We had bought her six years earlier and soon discovered that she had, in the past, been terribly ill-treated. She was terrified of being tied up, and could not be caught out in the field. It took me several months of kindness and patience before she would tolerate being stalled in the stable without trying frantically to break free. She never did accept being tied up outside, all the years that I had owned her.
She was now twelve years old, and Allan consented to putting her with foal. We made enquiries about a suitable stallion, finally deciding on an Irish Draught/Thoroughbred cross, and arrangements were made. When the time was right for Ruby we loaded her into the trailer, and set off with hopes held high. Everything went smoothly, and I was very excited at the prospect of breeding my own foal in eleven months time.
In May of the following year, when Ruby was close to foaling, something happened in our family which was to have a devastating effect on all our lives. Our second son Dan, then aged 25, was tragically drowned. The pain was unbearable and Allan was inconsolable. Sara, now married with two children of her own, and the two lads, Mike and Dave, were deeply affected, suffering greatly for a long time. In my own deep grief I had to try and comfort each of them. As for me, it felt as though a part of me had been torn away from within, leaving a great empty wound inside that would never heal. Sometimes the pain was so intense I wished that I would not wake up the next day. I don’t know how I lived through those terrible black days. Life could never be the same again.
Dan built dry-stone walls, and was well known and liked in the hamlets and villages in our dales. He had inherited the great love and understanding of the countryside that Allan and I shared. He had roamed the hills and valleys since he’d been a little boy, always taking a dog as his companion. Most people knew Scruff, his terrier, who accompanied him to work each day. Everyone he met was greeted with friendliness and a big happy smile.
He was drowned in a terrible accident one dark, foggy night when his car was washed over a newly-built high-level ford. Heavy rain had flooded the river causing the water to rise rapidly. In later weeks, after many protestations from local people, a safety barrier was built on the downstream side of the ford, to prevent such an accident ever happening again. The pain was immense and for a time life had little meaning. It was just the support and comfort from friends and family that helped us through those dark days. They all shared with us our heavy burden of grief.
There was just one ray of sunshine in all my darkness. Three weeks after we lost Dan, Ruby gave birth to a beautiful, healthy, colt foal. I was awakened in the night by frantic whinnying. I had checked on Ruby at two o’clock in the morning and she’d been grazing contentedly. I hurriedly pulled on some clothes and ran outside into the field. There, as dawn was breaking, sitting all alone, seemingly without a care in the world, was this handsome, chestnut foal. Tears of joy filled my eyes as I beheld the marvelous sight. I was overcome with awe that the miracle of new birth brings.
As I ran across the field, I could make out the form of Ruby in the next field, running up and down behind the stone wall. I could only assume that she had been terrified by the afterbirth, swinging behind her as it came away, and, in fleeing from it, had jumped the wall. The reason for the frantic calling was that she didn’t know how to get back again to her newborn baby. I ran to the hand gate to let her through.
My joy turned to horror when I saw, in the breaking light of day, blood oozing from an ugly wound in her chest. As she rushed past me towards her baby, I noticed cuts and blood on all her legs. I ran back to the house to get Allan, to help me get them both into the stable.
Once inside, with a better light, we could see the true extent of Ruby’s injuries. The chest wound looked deep, and there were several tears and cuts on all four legs. The worst of these was on her near foreleg. Ruby herself seemed unperturbed, and was gently licking and nuzzling her newborn, all the time nickering softly to him. The foal was trying to suckle but did not seem to be having much success. Knowing how important the first milk is to any newborn, I decided to call my neighbor John, who runs a stud farm. I also telephoned our veterinarian.
When John arrived he was horrified at the state Ruby was in, but his main concern was for the foal. Fortunately, one of his Cleveland Bay mares had foaled a day earlier and, hoping her milk would still contain enough of the antibodies vital to any newborn animal, he rushed back home. He soon returned with a full bottle of the vital milk, and while Allan held the foal, John succeeded in getting half of the nutritional liquid down the little fellow. In the meantime, as is nature’s way, the foal would continue to suckle his mother, which would encourage the milk to eventually flow. After what seemed like an age the vet arrived, and injected the injured leg with an anaesthetic. After examining my foal, he declared that he was a grand little fellow and in perfect health. He then tended all Ruby’s wounds and gave her a long-lasting antibiotic injection.
By the next day, Ruby had come to her milk, and two days later, with her foal, I turned her back out into the field. Apart from being stiff and sore, there was, hopefully, no lasting damage. Each day I brought her in to the stable and tended her wounds, which slowly began to heal.
Since the tragedy of losing Dan there had been one name in my mind for the unborn foal. We called him Danny-Boy. He brought new life and a reason to live. To help combat the pain of my grief and face up to the future, I threw myself into my charity work, and started to organise an Open Garden day. It was to be the first of many such days.