Clare Mackintosh: Horsing around
PUBLISHED: 11:16 09 May 2017
'Our nearest riding stables are almost an hour away, and aimed firmly at the bounce-in-the-saddle-with-a-borrowed-hat holiday brigade'
Where does North Wales hide its horses? In six months here I haven’t once encountered a horse and rider on the roads, and our daily dog walks yield nothing but sheep, sheep, and more sheep.
Coming from the Cotswolds, where you’d be wise to anticipate equines around every blind bend, this is quite an adjustment. Nine-year-old Evie is distraught. A year of riding lessons in Hook Norton saw her taking to the saddle like the proverbial duck to water, with a natural seat and an affinity with her steed that I’m not sure I ever had. When the big move to Wales was mooted I confess I didn’t give a thought to the proximity of stables, assuming that - as in the Cotswolds - we’d be spoiled for choice. It is the countryside after all, and for me the countryside means horses. Alas, not so in Snowdonia, where our nearest riding stables are almost an hour away, and aimed firmly at the bounce-in-the-saddle-with-a-borrowed-hat holiday brigade.
Evie’s blossoming hobby has thus ground to a halt as abruptly as a refusal at Becher’s Brook; her jodhpurs and silk lying dormant in a drawer. Long promised gymnastics has provided a useful distraction, but neither of us is quite ready to give up on riding altogether. I thought perhaps the answer was to be self-sufficient. A pony of our own. Something small, at first; and then an upgrade to something big enough that Evie and I could share the exercising load. I thought back to the halcyon days of my Pony Club childhood, and imagined how wonderful it would be to look out of the kitchen window and see a horse in the field beyond the garden. A glance at the Horse & Hound message board, however, prompted a refusal at the first.
As children we kept our horses in a farmer’s field, paying peppercorn rent in exchange for accepting the more¬wire¬than¬post fencing, the lack of proper stables, and a muck¬heap that was less banked and more dumped. We rode tubby, hardy ponies who turned their noses up at shoes, ate nothing but grass and the occasional slice of winter hay, and bounded happily over a motley collection of straw bales and broom handles. There was, of course, a cost (not least to my mother, who valiantly drove to the field each morning in the winter before school, to break the ice on the water trough) but it was manageable. Now? Now it seems impossible to keep a horse without shelling out as much each month as one’s mortgage payment. Ongoing field management, six weekly farrier visits, insurance, dental checks, innoculations, tack, rugs, feed, vet fees, bedding, worming...I could put one of the children through private school for the same money, without the need to check for ragwort. “I’m sorry,” I tell Evie, on our way to gymnastics, “we just can’t afford it.”
I don’t add that - even if we did have the money - the additional knowledge gleaned from my Horse & Hound research means that the prospect of keeping horses now fills me with horror. Moving from accidental pony ownership to well-informed horse-husbandry weighs heavy not only on the pocket, but on one’s paranoia. There’s so much to go wrong it seems a miracle that my childhood ponies survived to complete as many clear rounds as they did, given our family’s reliance on common sense, an ancient copy of Keeping a Pony at Grass, and a trusted friend who knew slightly more about horses than we did.
At my declaration Evie’s bottom lip quivers. She reminds me how our relocation happened just as she’d been about to start jumping; I head off the tears and chivvy her out of the car towards the gymnastics hall.
“Anyway,” I say brightly, pointing at the equipment laid out in the hall. “You’ve got a horse here.” Evie gives me a withering look worthy of a woman twice her age.
I contemplate asking her why the long face, but decide against it. There’s only so much horsing around a mother can get away with.