Long before I found alcohol, boy bands and boys, I found horses. And for a number of decades, they were my passion. Sadly, my enthusiasm was not matched by either a natural talent or much ability and what I learnt over the years, is that I’m slow to realise when I should give something up!
Not on my gallop
My love affair began in a small yard run by a Mrs Gamon just outside Maplehurst in West Sussex. Mrs Gamon was diminutive, well-bred and not to be messed with. She had a yard full of ponies, a head full of enthusiasm and a tack room full of leather which was any pony lovers dream! Her husband, Todd, a retired teacher, pottered around the yard and tinkered with a very old tractor more or less endlessly.
Determined that they weren’t going to buy me a horse, every weekend (and in between in the holidays) my parents would drop me off at the yard just after 7am. A flask full of soup, and a Mars Bar for lunch. This was the 1970s, and that was a healthy feast. Along with a band of other waifs and strays from the surrounding villages, I’d throw my lot in with the ponies and mud. There were a couple of older kids (I won’t name them because I hope they’re still alive) who kept us broadly in check but we were a pretty untamed bunch. That said, my heart was lost to Joey, a bad-tempered, foul-mouthed Dartmoor pony with laminitis. Somewhere I still have a necklace that I made in his honour and wore with much pride during those years.
Mrs Gamon herself always rode Toby, a huge bay hunter – although maybe he wasn’t huge, and maybe I was just very small. She’d climb up on a mounting block, jodhpurs on, crop in hand, and somehow managed to throw herself up on to his back, while the rest of us would slowly emerge from a selection of stables on an assortment of shaggy and well-fed ponies, to clip-clop along behind her, all in a row, along the sleepy lanes of Maplehurst and Nuthurst. On the days she didn’t ride, over the road we’d stagger to an assortment of jumps and what would probably be laughingly called a sand school these days. Here is where I learnt the basics of riding: cantering without stirrups (or even hands sometimes), figure of eights in the saddle at a trot and touching your toes while staying on the correct leg. And here I also learnt that Joey wanted to kill me and my dream of becoming a showjumper might be sadly short-lived!
Around the grassy field that served as a sand school were a series of little jumps. I know they were little now, looking back but at the time they were large and terrifying! Every week, I’d kick, cajole, persuade and beg little Joey to get me round in one piece. Every week, I’d sail through the air at jump after jump as he put in a last-minute hesitation, only to ping on over after me and invariably land on my legs.
I drove past Mrs Gamon’s yard recently and see that the sand school has grown over and the stable yard has been converted into a house. But I can still hear the clatter of hooves and her definitive saying (often said to my mother), “Not on my gallop, Mrs Benner, not on my gallop”. I wonder what happened to the rest of the gang.
Revived dreams of a showjumping career
Boarding school put paid to my equine endeavours at Mrs G’s, but after doing the rounds at a couple of schools, I found myself at St Bede’s, near Hailsham. For reasons best known to the head, at the time the school had its own stable block, aptly known as The Stud and later converted into boys dorms. But at the time, and with their stud block in mind, the school decided to give me a pony called Perry!
It’s fair to say, I was the only pupil in the school at that time who was remotely interested in horses, and sadly I suspect, Perry was not remotely interested in me, or my showjumping ambitions. Looking back, I have a firm suspicion that he hated me, but for the best part of a year, together, Perry and I were driven around the county to various shows where once again, my mount tried to kill me. Every now and then, my parents would give up a weekend to drive across the county and watch me as I flew through the air unceremoniously leaving my pony behind me! Happy days they were, my parents must have been proud. Or not.
The chaps of Ashdown
After a short teenage interlude with boys (which turned out to be disappointing) by the early 1990s, I found myself back in the saddle. This time on Ashdown Forest. I can’t remember much about these years other than the yard was run by a John Wayne like figure who was clearly very attractive to a lot of women and always seemed to be dressed in full-length leather chaps. At the time, he seemed terribly old, but I’m guessing he wasn’t, more weatherbeaten I suspect. But when he rode, it was difficult to tell where man ended and horse began.
For my part, I took up where I’d left off. Riding on Ashdown Forest was a lot of fun but left me with two broken cheekbones, a couple of black eyes and I even turned up to my own hen night quite badly injured. I really can’t remember if it was just one, or the whole darn pack of horses that had it in for me back then, but I was young, and broken bones seemed to recover well back then!
Perhaps I should have tried dragons
For reasons that are still unclear, my equine interests then took me to St Leonard’s Forest near Horsham where I washed up in a yard that’s still there as far as I know and took on a horse called Blandy. Blandy was large and had well-disguised mental health issues. Well disguised in that she kept them well-hidden from all except me and then just when I found myself at a point of no return (going over a jump, committed to a hearty gallop), she’d put in a strange twist and a buck and yes, you guessed it, off I’d go.
Still determined at this point to master the equine world, a friend and I decided that the time had come to acquire our own horses, so we set off to see a well known, Irish horse dealer based in Sussex who shall remain totally anonymous (because I know he’s still alive). We went with a mission to buy a 12-year-old gelding. We came home with a barely backed, 3-year-old Irish mare. Sasha was stunning. But she was also bloody-minded, bad-tempered, short-tempered and at times, darn right evil. She’d stamp on your toes, buck you off, bite you, drag you across the yard and squash you against the stable wall but how we loved her.
We got her a series of three-legged companions and stabled her at a number of West Sussex yards as well as enjoying a foray into Surrey to the well-known Benbow Stables run by the terrifyingly strict Beryl Hare. The three-legged companions included at least two pin fired and broken-winded ex-racehorses, and a wonderful cob (the only horse kind enough to keep me on board). During our time with Sasha, I rode head first into a tree, landed on a rock, broke all the fingers in my right hand, took all the skin of my knees, fractured my tail bone, and took all the skin off the right side of my face in an unfortunate altercation with a pavement. I was bucked off, chucked off, slid off, flew off, got trampled and one occasion (I am ashamed to admit) got so drunk, I rode home, hanging around Sasha’s neck clinging on to the martingale. But she never managed to kill me!
These days, I pursue more gentle hobbies but I’ve never forgotten the sight of a grown man crying at the sight of my broken face, covered in Germolene! I like to think that over the decades I looked the epitome of horsey style, as I charged around the county on my various steeds. The reality is, however, that I now know with the benefit of hindsight that for some unfathomable reason, every horse I’ve ever met has an uncontrollable urge to kill me!