Not just for girls: the past – and future – of the pony book

Aside

ImageThe pony book, its cover frequently evoking sunny gymkhana summers, rosettes and pony-mad girls, is a standard of children’s fiction. However, there’s more to it than that.  When Jane Badger, already an experienced writer, blogger and researcher of the genre, set out to write Heroines on Horseback – The Pony Book in Children’s Fiction, she had little idea of just “how many more titles I would uncover.”  The books are not only about wish-fulfilment and ambition, but also about dedication, loss and the cost, in every sense of the word, of turning a dream into reality. I talked to Jane about her work and the history and influence of the pony book.

Miriam Bibby: First of all, welcome to History on Horseback, Jane.  The pony book has been a popular genre for young people (and girls in particular) for decades.  It’s likely to have played some part in the formative reading of anyone with an interest in the history of the horse and I’m sure that many of us recall the experience of our first pony book. Tell me about yours. How did you respond to it at the time?

Jane Badger: Thank you for having me on your blog!  I read anything and everything as a child, so in the scramble to cram in as much as possible, I’m not 100% sure what my first pony book was. I’m fairly certain it was Diana Pullein-Thompson’s Riding with the Lyntons, which is certainly the first pony book I owned. It was the Armada edition with the Mary Gernat illustration and the dung brown cover. In retrospect, it’s an odd book to be completely hooked by, as it launches fairly early on into the death of a pony in the road, and the ostracism of the heroine by her new found friends, but I didn’t care. I read it, and re-read it. My father died when I was small, and I can’t ever remember not knowing that, so death had always been part of my world and so didn’t disturb me. I knew it happened. What I do remember being absolutely enchanted by was this marvellous world where people actually had a pony of their own. I didn’t know anyone who had a pony of their own, so to step into the world of someone who did was heaven.

MB: Your book Heroines on Horseback – The Pony Book in Children’s Fiction traces the development of the pony book from 18th century animal story precursors, with the first “pony-narrated” text that you’ve found dating to 1800, long before Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877). Some recognisable pony book themes began to emerge in this early book, The Memoirs of Dick, the Little Poney (Supposed to be written by himself…)  Can you outline a few of these?

JB: Ah Dick. I can recommend reading Dick, who’s freely available on the internet. He has a voice all his own. Dick starts his story from foalhood, through his capture and breaking in, and then on through several different owners (some good, some not) until he ends up as a happy child’s pony. There’s a strong moral bent in a lot of animal literature: its aim is didactic. It wants to teach the reader how to treat the narrator animal well, and that certainly happens with Dick, who has some fairly grim experiences at the hands of a young and selfish master. Dick is of course saved by the good graces of humanity, as many pony-book ponies after him were. It’s something that’s remained true of most pony literature; the power of humanity over the horse’s fate. Interestingly in the 20th  century you do get the odd story where the horse breaks free and forges its own way (H M Peel’s Jago for one), but it’s rare. Dick’s experience,  where it’s humanity’s responsibility to care, is the norm.

MB: People with a little knowledge of the pony book might think that the books are about upper crust gels who go to boarding school and attend gymkhanas. In fact, as your book clearly shows, that’s simply the over-worked – hackneyed – end of the genre. Themes of class, money and status are, in fact, often developed in ways that people might not expect.

Archetypal

An archetypal image? Illustrator Geoffrey Whittam specialised in pony books. His work extends from the idyllic, such as this, to the dramatic and adventurous.

JB: Yes, that’s true. Diana Pullein-Thompson was particularly keen on showing characters who had money but were still human beings, who didn’t deserve the opprobrium thrown at them because they were wealthy. Her Christina, in Three Ponies and Shannan, has stacks of money; large, beautifully done house, three lovely ponies, a groom, and anything material she wants. It’s Christina though, who’s the heroine;  the poverty-struck child, Charlie, child of the vicarage is unkind, thoughtless and a bully. As well as subverting the accepted mores, you get authors who take a good look at what it’s actually like to have very little money and to try and get a pony. There’s Veronica Westlake’s Ten Pound Pony where the children have a real, hard, slog to get a pony, and probably best of all, K M Peyton’s Fly-by-Night. Her heroine Ruth lives in a family where there is no spare money whatsover, but Ruth buys a pony with her sparse savings and then tries to keep it in her back garden. It’s the best of the books which aims to show that the pony book dream may be achievable, but it won’t be without a cost.

MB: I must say the matter of “pony book poor”, discussed in your book, did make me laugh out loud. It seemed to be a case of: “Down to our last pony and we have to move to a draughty rectory with only three acres on the edge of town – poor us!” That’s definitely not the whole story though. Which writers do you think stand out in the development of the pony book in unique and challenging ways?

JB: K M Peyton and Patricia Leitch. Patricia Leitch is a much under rated author. Her The Magic Pony, reissued last year by Catnip can be read as a (very good) straightforward pony story and a study of what it’s like to die in today’s society. K M Peyton’s characters are always arrestingly real.

MB: I’ve always thought that two important – and undervalued – themes of pony books are egalitarianism and feminism, though that’s perhaps not a word the protagonists would use. They simply get on with what they want to do. However, in your book, Stacey Gregg, successful 21st century pony book author, describes Ruby Ferguson’s heroine Jill Crewe as “funny, feisty and unapologetically feminist.” We can learn a lot from our horseback heroines about independence, responsibility and resourcefulness, amongst other qualities. Are horseback heroines feminists? What else do the books (and the ponies in them) teach us?

JB: I suppose that depends on what your definition of feminism is: if your definition of it is that you get on and do what you want to do, and don’t let yourself be defined by stereotypical ideas, then yes, a lot of them are. I’ve already mentioned the strong thread of morality that’s present in most horse literature: indeed in most animal literature. Caring for the animal properly is paramount; unselfishness – putting the animal’s needs before your own – is key.

MB: Many avid followers of Ruby Ferguson’s “Jill” felt seriously let down by the disappointing end to the series, when, at the end of the book, Jill apparently gives up her dreams and ambitions to work with horses, and to write, in order to become a secretary. Despite the fact that she’s been successfully doing both as a younger teenager, neither is seen as appropriate for her as an adult. Even after fifty or sixty years, it’s clearly something that still rankles with many readers. Why do you think Ferguson took this final course for her upbeat and inspiring heroine?

caney

Jill, Ruby Ferguson’s heroine on horseback, was an inspiration to many; but ultimately the disappointing ending to an otherwise satisfying series is “a puzzle”, says Jane Badger. Illustration by Clifford Caney.

JB: Jill’s a puzzle, or at any rate the situation Jill ends the series in is a puzzle. All through the series, Jill is the girl most pony mad girls want to be. I think it’s because Jill is the quintessential wish-fulfilment figure that it’s such a shocking blow when she gives it all up to become a secretary. Yes, I know you can say that she’s an author, as she’s nominally writing the books, but that’s not the point of the scene in Pony Jobs for Jill when Captain CC tells Jill and Ann it’s time to stop mucking about with horses and buckle down to real life and train as secretaries. It’s the sensible career that’s the focus. No one says to Jill “Oh, and of course you can continue your writing and your job will help you survive.” It’s the conventional job that is the whole point of that last scene. Writing, and indeed working with horses are entirely left behind.

Whilst I can see something in the argument that this might have led some readers to question the beliefs that made Jill act the way she did, I think readers react to Jill too personally to start questioning her actions in that way. For them, she’s not a symbol of oppression, or otherwise: she’s a character for whom the reader cares. It’s astonishing to the reader when Jill happily agrees with the plan of doing a secretarial course. Secretary to the PM! says Jill, in a rather pathetic echo of her earlier career aspirations: a few books earlier she wanted to be an MP.

I think there’s an argument for saying that Pony Jobs for Jill is the rather uneasy intrusion of the authorial voice into a series which was classic wish fulfilment. It’s like Harry Potter giving up defeating Voldomort to be an accountant or going into management at Sainsbury’s. Harry doing a realistic job isn’t the point of the books for the reader, and the same is true for Jill.

MB: It’s interesting that the rise and rise of the pony book heroines paralleled the rise of the motor vehicle and the collapse of the working horse population in general. If Enid Bagnold’s 1935 National Velvet hadn’t “given voice [to].. the great galloping passion” of girls for horses, as you vividly describe it in your book, it might almost appear that girls were inheriting a box of outgrown toys from an older brother who has lost interest, particularly as heroines came to dominate the genre in the 40s and 50s.  However, the only writer to have explored in depth this theme of the rise of the machine versus the fall, or at least diminishing, of the horse – with spectacular success – is K.M. Peyton in her Flambards trilogy. Any thoughts on this?

whittam2

Riding horses is currently seen as a mostly female activity, but there have always been attempts to balance this. Illustration by Geoffrey Whittam.

JB: I’m not sure the horse has diminished: yes, it has as a working animal, but the popularity of riding as a leisure activity has grown and grown. The focus has changed to the horse as a companion in leisure, and pony books reflect that. Your question does raise the issue of the whole position of boys and riding: there are very few, and the number who are members of the Pony Club goes down year by year. Riding’s seen as a feminine activity, though interestingly that very thing is being addressed in Victoria Eveleigh’s latest series, Joe.

MB: Leading on from the last question, there’s a case to be made for the most balanced literature in this genre appealing to both boys and girls. You discuss this balance in Heroines on Horseback through various examples.  My favourite pony book (if that’s an accurate description of it), and one of the first that I read (All Change by Josephine Pullein-Thompson) is written in the first person from the perspective of Douglas, the eldest of five children, whose father’s future employment is uncertain.  I found the combination of well-developed and complex characters with two believable strands dealing with secrecy and deception, interspersed with gripping dramatic episodes, very compelling; and perhaps unusually, the protagonist is male.

JB: All Change is a fine book! Josephine Pullein-Thompson was very keen that boys should have an equal part with girls in her stories. K M Peyton also has characters both male and female: it’s interesting that her heroine Ruth goes on to marry bad boy Patrick and gives up horses, turning her passion and single mindedness on a human. It’s the boys, Jonathan and Peter, who keep up with horses. Is it the same in Europe, I wonder, the pony and the pony book being seen as a girl thing? In America, horse books appeal to a wider audience, possibly because of the USA’s Western and cowboy heritage, which forms the subject for a lot of its equine literature. But yes, to return to your question, the best books show a balance, or else take a good look at why the imbalance is so very marked now.

MB: As with all fiction, pony books deal with the big questions in life: death, loss, love, change, war; and, as also, as you comment, “quite rightly, the normal preoccupations of teenagers”, that’s to say who fancies whom. Riding with the Lyntons includes references to a false murder accusation and many of the books have neglected or challenging children in them – and often these are the children of wealthy parents. I was particularly surprised to read about Dorian Williams’ Wendy trilogy, which I haven’t read, which seems to deal with exploitation and hints at abuse; aspects that are certainly found within the equestrian competitive world but rarely openly discussed.

JB: Sexual abuse I think is only really hinted at in the Wendy books: Wendy’s a young girl working away from home for the first time, and my reading of the books is that Dorian Williams was keen to give starry eyed youngsters whose greatest dream was to work with horses at least some idea of what could go on. Having said that, the starry eyed can be enormously obtuse, and I’m not sure they’d have picked up on it. Glenda Spooner’s The Silk Purse looks at the shenanigans of the showing world head on, and there are American books which take a good look at the nastier side of the horse world too. You’re right that they’re rarely discussed: in a genre which is often straightforward wish fulfilment, the flip side of the dream doesn’t often get the room it ought to.

MB: Do pony books and their heroines influence, or rather reflect, successive generations?

JB: Good question. I think it’s a bit of both. One thing that did surprise me when I started researching horse literature was the very real effect Patricia Leitch’s Jinny books had had on people who read them as a teenager. They felt that for the first time, here was someone who felt and acted as they did. If you did a survey of people who have chestnut Arab mares, I’d bet a good proportion of them read Jinny when young.

MB: The pony book is still alive and well in the 21st century, although there’s some discussion – and even concern – about the “pinkification” of the genre. Can you describe this phenomenon and discuss its implications?

JB: Susanna Forrest is very good on this in her equine memoir, If Wishes Were Horses. Some of it is down to the objectification, or even the commercialisation of the horse. When you look through vintage equestrian magazines there are of course advertisements, and if you wanted to spend shedloads of money you’ve always been able to. What’s different now is the massive, massive range of stuff that horses are supposed to need: wardrobes of rugs, pots of supplements, a thousand different grooming tools… That commercialism reflects society as a whole of course. Besides that, there’s the active decision on the part of toy retailers and publishers to market books for girls in a very specific way: the cover must be pink, the characters on it cartoons, and if you can add some sparkles in, so much the better. Of course what’s inside may not be even remotely pink and fluffy, but it all goes to mark the book out as something not for boys. Besides marking out the horse world as something exclusively for women and girls, I wonder if it also changes the way the horse itself is viewed, so that it becomes an object on which time and money is spent, with perhaps its essential horse-ness being lost.

MB: The pony book authors of my youth that I best remember – to misquote Black Beauty – are the Pullein-Thompsons, K.M. Peyton, Gillian Baxter and the two Monicas (Dickens and Edwards). The Jill books were just slightly too early for me, the Jinny books somewhat too late. However, reading the books of my own generation set me on a search for earlier ones and so I did also discover Ruby Ferguson, Mary Gervaise, “Golden Gorse”, Joanna Cannon and Primrose Cumming, amongst others. And, of course, Bagnold’s magnificent National Velvet must be a book that still has power today. Is there any sign that the current generation of “pink and sparkly” pony book readers are discovering the writers of the past? Or has the world simply changed too much for those early writers to have any relevance for 21st century readers?

JB: Well, Jill’s being republished and is selling well. K M Peyton’s backlist has been bought up by Random  House, who must feel there’s some mileage in it, and of course Jinny’s being republished too. As for the earliest authors, if you have an imagination you can make that leap, and I think most people are able to do it – children in particular, as they’re not necessarily as hide bound as adults can be.  There’s also the element of being able to see that years ago, other people loved the horse just as much as you do, with all the issues of continuity and difference that that throws up.

MB: And hoping for a strong future for the pony book provides a good point to conclude! It’s been great fun finding out more about the history of the genre. Jane’s book is published by Girls Gone By (GGB) Publishers and lively discussions on the topic of pony books and their authors can be found at Jane Badger Books http://www.janebadgerbooks.co.uk/   Backcover

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By yon bonny brays…Donkey Heaven in the Borders

Not just about horses: The Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells in the Borders opened its doors to the public for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

Not just about horses: The Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells in the Borders opened its doors to the public for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

There were donkeys, donkeys everywhere, and also camelids, pigs, goats, chickens and a pony or two, when The Scottish Borders Donkey Sanctuary at St Boswells opened its gates for the Borders Festival of the Horse earlier this year. A good thing too; because donkeys deserve their moment in the sun just as much as horses. They’ve played as important a role in human history, although it might have been frequently overshadowed by their larger and faster cousins. In fact, as I was watching the donkeys watch the humans watching them, I knew that I was going to go home afterwards and ransack the bookshelves in search of donkey related material.

Humans owe a lot to me and my ancestors, you know!

Humans owe a lot to me and my ancestors.

If you were to travel back in time to the end of the last ice age, wherever you went in the northern hemisphere, including America, you’d find equids of one kind or another – horses, zebras or wild asses – roaming free in enormous numbers. Cross from north America into South America, and you’d find horses there too. They have only been hunted to extinction by humans in those two continents since the end of the ice age. It’s perhaps only 8,000 or 9,000 years since the last truly wild indigenous horse in America fell to a hunter’s spear.

At the end of the ice age, various types of wild ass were found across north Africa and parts of Asia (such as Equus africanus in Africa and Arabia, and Equus hemionus and Equus kiang, both onagers, in Asia). The ass extended its range as far as Nubia and Somalia in east Africa, both of which have – or rather had – their own wild versions. After the ice age, as far as humans were concerned, equids of all kinds meant one thing and one thing only – food on the hoof. Masses of skeletal evidence bear witness to this; and so it could be argued that asses, along with other equids, played a part in the inexorable rise of humans long before they were put into service.

Donkeys were domesticated and in the service of man long before horses. This image from an Egyptian 5th dynasty tomb shows a man seated in an unusual carrying chair placed across the back of two donkeys. Image after John Gardiner Wilkinson from Patrick Houlihan's monograph on instances of humour in riding scenes from ancient Egypt, published by Gottinger Miszellen.

Donkeys were domesticated and in the service of man long before horses. This image from an Egyptian 5th dynasty tomb shows a man seated in an unusual carrying chair placed across the back of two donkeys. Image after John Gardiner Wilkinson from Patrick Houlihan’s monograph on instances of humour in riding scenes from ancient Egypt, published by Gottinger Miszellen.

In fact, for various reasons discussed by Juliette Clutton-Brock, Mary Littauer and Joost Crouwel amongst others, equids were domesticated relatively late in human history. The first animals used for drawing vehicles were bovid – ox-type animals – not equid. When – and where – equids were first domesticated is a contentious point amongst researchers, but the strongest claim for the domestication of the horse is Kazakhstan about 7,000 years ago. This appears to have been for meat, milk and skins, and the concept of riding or driving them came much, much later. What we do know is that Mesopotamian cultures such as the Sumerians started to breed onagers and domesticated donkeys together to produce a larger, stronger and more trainable alternative to bovid draught to use in their massive battle cars around 2,800 BCE. Prior to this, they would certainly have used donkeys as pack animals. Donkeys appear in this role in the tombs of Egyptian officials just a little later in time, from the 5th dynasty onwards (about 2,400 BCE). However, Egypt, or rather Nubia, was almost certainly the first place to domesticate the wild ass.

Sadly, it’s around this date that a recurrent theme in the history of the donkey also emerges. In the tomb of the official Ti at Saqqara, for instance, one man is shown in a scene shouting at a group of donkeys that he is going to “beat you on the bum!” Bullying, threats and beatings have all too often been the patient donkey’s lot in life. Let’s not underestimate the importance of the donkey to the emerging Egyptian pyramid-economy, either; one tomb from the period lists a herd of 2,300 donkeys amongst the owner’s – ahem – assets. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Donkeys still play an important part in the Egyptian economy today. In fact, the history of the donkey and its relationship with humans is important – and clearly one of those neglected areas of  which we need periodic reminders.

One of the earliest images of the people the ancient Egyptians called "rulers of foreign lands", and which historians generally call "The Hyksos" arriving in Egypt, from a tomb at Beni Hassan. Whilst the Hyksos have come to be associated with the arrival of the horse in Egypt, this is only partly true; the horse is particularly associated with one dynasty of the Hyksos AFTER they arrived in Egypt. Most, although not all, equid burials in the delta region of Egypt are of donkeys, which played and still play a vital part in many economies, ancient and modern.

One of the earliest images of the people the ancient Egyptians called “rulers of foreign lands”, and which historians generally call “The Hyksos” arriving in Egypt, from a tomb at Beni Hassan.  The idea that the Hyksos brought the horse to Egypt is only a partial truth. It’s associated with a particular Hyksos dynasty AFTER they arrived in Egypt. Most equid burials in the delta of Egypt from that date are of donkeys which have played a vital role in many economies, ancient and modern.

People have come to associate the Hyksos, often described as “invaders” of Egypt, with the arrival of the horse there. In fact, the horse only came to be associated with a particular dynasty of the Hyksos once they were established in Egypt; and the earliest images of the “Hyksos” in Egypt, from Beni Hassan, show a group of people looking very much like economic migrants arriving with – a donkey.

Whereas the horse is frequently described as “noble”, “spirited”, “powerful” and so on, the donkey has always had to make do with more humble epithets – of which “humble” is used most often. Humble, stubborn, lowly, lazy – the donkey, like the mule, has tended to attract negativity from those who view the horse as obviously superior. But donkeys can often do what horses can’t – and they can do much of what horses do, more cheaply and with less fuss. Encountering a donkey, such as those at the sanctuary, reveals them to be creatures with immense patience and affection; and, strangely given the nature of their interactions with humans over the millennia, they have great curiosity in us and what we do. Stubbornness and difficulty in most equids is a consequence of the need to assert their strong sense of self-preservation.

I'm all ears!

I’m all ears!

The word “ass” betrays its Latin origins – asinus.  Where does the word donkey, in use from the 18th century onwards, come from? Anthony Dent, in his book “Donkey: the Story of the Ass from East to West” speculates that it’s from the Flemish “donnekijn”, meaning “a small, dun-coloured animal”; the same language probably gave us “monkey”, as used for the capuchin ape, from the Flemish “monnekin” or little monk. Originally, donkey would have been pronounced in the same way as monkey – dunkey. In ancient Egypt, however, just as the cat took its name from the noise it made – “miu” – donkeys were called something like “ee-aas”, as they still are in France, to which every child can still relate. Hee-haw, ee-aw, hi-han; unmistakeably the sound of the donkey.  And Doris Rybot suggests in her book “My Kingdom for a Donkey” that “moke”, for a donkey, might be from the Dymoke family crest, which sports a pair of donkey ears. It’s not entirely clear which came first, though – the donkey-moke or the Dy-moke. In Northumberland, Durham and parts of the Borders they are known as cuddies, after Saint Cuthbert. They get a passing defamatory reference – are you surprised? – in the Geordie anthem “Blaydon Races”, in which 19th century bookmaker Coffee Johnnie is accused of stealing white donkeys to make a hat from their skins: “Coffee Johnnie had a white hat on – they yelled ‘Wha’ stole the cuddy?'” This was a notorious trade, as the remark suggests. In other parts of Britain the question “Who stole the donkey?” would inevitably receive the reply “The man with the white hat.”

They talk about me behind my back, you know.

They talk about me behind my back, you know.

The donkey appears in many legends, reaching his finest hour in Christian belief with the Nativity and the humbleness – humility again – of the ox and ass. A donkey is supposed to have carried the holy family into Egypt. Also, there’s the arrival in Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, with Jesus riding on a donkey, although it’s not actually entirely clear in all English versions that a donkey – as distinct from a horse – was intended. However, that, in Christian tradition, is why many donkeys have a cross formed from a dorsal stripe and lines going down over their shoulders. Scientifically, however, it’s likely that it simply indicates their descent from the Nubian wild ass which has similar markings, suggesting that upper Egypt is the likeliest place for the earliest domestication of asses. Darker strands run through the mythology of the donkey, with a possible association with the Egyptian god Set, or Sutekh, and his link to the forces of chaos. Anthony Dent mentions the use of the donkey as an anti-Christian and anti-Jewish symbol in graffiti from Roman contexts. And of course, there’s G.K. Chesterton’s famous poem “The Donkey” with its cutting description of the donkey as “the devil’s walking parody on all four-footed things”: “When fishes flew and forests walked/and figs grew upon thorn/one moment when the moon was blood/then surely I was born.” Then there’s Midas, with the ears of an ass; not to mention infamous Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In fact, the more you examine the history of the donkey, the more you find projections of human fears and foibles onto this unsuspecting animal.

Open wide and say ee-aah. Donkey feet and teeth, like those of horses,  need regular treatment.

Open wide and say ee-aah. Donkey feet and teeth, like those of horses, need regular treatment.

Mini-moke...miniature Mediterranean donkey Basil.

Mini-moke…miniature Mediterranean donkey Basil.

The sanctuary at St Boswells is also called Donkey Heaven, and it’s easy to see why. Beautiful, sheltered paddocks offer a safe haven away from those human fears and foibles. Sadly, abuse and neglect still play a part in donkey rescue, but that’s not the whole story.  When people buy a donkey they might simply find they’ve taken on more than they realised; or as they age or their needs change, the responsibility becomes too much for them. Keeping a donkey is no less expensive or time-consuming than keeping a horse or pony. They need time, attention, footcare, dentistry and veterinary treatment as required. During the course of the day, we are educated in the grooming and coat care required for a donkey as well as watching the sanctuary vets at work on an elderly donkey’s teeth. With over 70 donkeys currently in the sanctuary, there’s a lot of teeth and feet to look after.  Donkeys are affectionate and need companionship and specialised winter care, too, as unlike that of the horse, the ancestor of the domesticated donkey did not come from a continental climate zone with extremes of cold and heat. Whilst they have adapted to other climates, their bodies were originally intended to cope with hot, dry conditions.

To find out more about the Scottish Borders Donkey Sanctuary, visit http://www.donkeyheaven.org/ and for more information about donkeys in general, http://www.donkeybreedsociety.co.uk/

Donkey heaven.

Donkey heaven.

Timbah! Forestry offers working horses room for growth

It's no teddy bear's picnic down in the woods; it's a working day for Caitlin Erskine and her pony Angel.

It’s no teddy bear’s picnic down in the woods; it’s a working day for Caitlin Erskine and her pony Angel.

It’s a gloomy and slightly wet day in the Borders, but the new leaves and grass are glowing with an intensity that is only seen in spring. Despite the weather, people and trailers are gathering in a small car park over the road from the impressive new visitor centre at Abbotsford, the former home of Sir Walter Scott. We’re here for a demonstration of horse logging, organised by the British Horse Loggers for the Borders Festival of the Horse.

There goes one fast pony!

There goes one fast pony!

Timber extraction by horses is an unusual phenomenon: a growth area for working horses offering opportunities for new businesses. Forestry is an important activity throughout the Borders, and on both sides of the border. Mostly it’s carried out by extremely large machinery. Areas are clear-felled by harvesters and the timber stacked by forwarders. It’s then transported for various industrial and commercial uses and the ground is picked clean of the remnants (the brash) and eventually replanted. This works well for quick-growing conifers but when it comes to sensitive or protected areas of forest, horses can’t be beaten, as both Iain Laidlaw of the Forestry Commission and Robert Gray, the Woodland Manager for Abbotsford agree.

“Modern horse logging is often a viable option for timber harvesting. Rising fuel costs for mechanised transport are helping to make bio-fuelled horses even more competitive,” says Iain. Robert agrees, commenting that “We are keen to try horses rather than machines for timber harvesting on what is a fairly sensitive site. Whilst it may be slightly more expensive than the most efficient modern machines, we think it would be worth paying a premium to minimise disturbance, for example around streams, footpaths and roadside verges. We are aiming to make the woods more attractive by selectively thinning out some of the trees and we hope to make a small profit from the sale of timber to a local sawmill.”

Only the second time out in the woods for Katie but she's soon in the swing of it.

Only the second time out in the woods for Katie but she’s soon in the swing of it.

Nor is a mighty heavy horse necessarily required. All the horses working today are 15 hh or under. Scout, a blue roan coloured horse owned by Danny McNeil, is 22 and about to retire. Danny’s new mare, 9 year old Katie, is just learning the ropes. “It’s only her second time in the woods,” explains Danny. He goes on to tell us that she was nervous and inexperienced when he acquired her. She’s clearly a little uncertain at the start, but by the end of the afternoon has settled into the working routine and even looks as though she’s enjoying herself.  Danny is involved in conventional forestry using large harvesters as well as using horses so he can provide a range of  flexible options suited to individual needs.

Caitlin and Angel carry down timber quickly and efficiently for her father Rab to stack.

Caitlin and Angel carry down timber quickly and efficiently for her father Rab to stack.

Caitlin Erskine is moving logs of trimmed timber quickly and efficiently into place with her pony Angel, whilst her father Rab stacks it neatly. Angel is just 14.2 hh and she is fast. It’s pretty hard to get an action shot of her as she nips competently through the leaves and under the boughs of trees. All the horses in use today wear open bridles. It might seem logical to provide some cover for their eyes against the whipping branches, but in fact it makes more sense to give the horses the freedom to make their own judgements once they’ve learned the ropes. It’s not a job where horses can be micromanaged all the time. They need to work as part of a team.

Caitlin and Angel have really grown up together since the mare joined the family when they were both quite young. Angel is a good all-rounder, her owner advises me, having tried a bit of everything from cross-country to dressage before starting in forestry work two years ago. Caitlin has nothing but praise for the good reliable type of cob that Angel represents, especially having also had experience of high-maintenance thoroughbreds.

Julian Philipson, treasurer of the British Horse Loggers Association, is quick to comment when I tell him I’m doing a piece for my web site on the event.

Not the past, but part of the future of forestry: logging with horses is perfect for sensitive sites.

Not the past, but part of the future of forestry: logging with horses is perfect for sensitive sites.

“History on Horseback? We don’t want any of that history and heritage stuff,” he warns me sternly. “This is about what’s happening NOW and the economic contribution that horses can make in the future. And horses work alongside the most modern forestry equipment.”

“Quite right too,” I respond. “I’m all in favour of that – it’s not just about what horses have done for us, it’s what they can do for us – what we can do together.”

“That’s all right then,” he says, going on to explain the finer details of the specialist harness in use today. “You see the collars? They are made to an Amish design and much of the rest is Swedish in origin. Can you see the wooden peg there? That will provide a quick release if the horse gets into trouble or falls down in the woods.”

Open bridles, Amish collars and Swedish harness; a typical mix for a logging horse.

Open bridles, Amish collars and Swedish harness; a typical mix for a logging horse.

I observe the collars closely, as they are unlike anything I’ve seen before. The Amish are members of a chiefly north American religious and social community which has never moved beyond horse traction. This unbroken tradition, and their adherence to traditional pre-mechanised farming methods, clothing and so on, is seen as odd by many but is in fact an invaluable resource and example for those who wish to return to equine power. Sweden is another source for experience, knowledge and equipment in this field.

DSCF3311Gratifyingly, there’s a good turnout today despite the weather, and, perhaps amongst the visitors watching the horses at work under the dripping leaves, there’ll be someone who will seriously consider horse logging as a business option. The British Horse Loggers organisation is not just an industry support group; under the patronage of Prince Charles, it’s also a charitable organisation via its trust which has been set up to encourage and assist in training “new growth” for the future. It’s important that apprentices learn to do the job the right way and have a good understanding of health and safety principles. As well as working with timber, horses can be used very effectively in bracken and weed control as well as many other areas of general transport in forestry.

Most horse loggers are private contractors although some are on semi-permanent contracts to major landowners and estates. “It is the ultimate low impact extraction system and out performs all other small scale systems including quad bikes and mini forwarders,” maintain the British Horse Loggers. “Horse logging allows for a highly selective silvicultural management of our woodlands resulting in a quality of woodland management and care that cannot be equalled by any other system.”

And, of course, there’s always public interest and appeal in watching horses at work. The PR aspects though, are definitely secondary to the practical and economic ones; and it’s encouraging and exciting to think that this is one area where working horses might genuinely make a major return.

To find out more about forestry work using horses, contact The British Horseloggers via their web sites, http://www.britishhorseloggers.org or http://www.britishhorseloggerscharitabletrust.org

To discuss forestry requirements in Borders region and northern England, visit the Erskine’s web site http://www.homestead-horselogging-company.co.uk or telephone Danny MacNeil on 01830 520457 & 07774 616576.

The Ancient and Royal Order of Poop and Scoop

For research purposes, I’ve recently found myself reading a number of non-fiction books about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her “Sweet Robin”, with whom she carried on a long and flirtatious relationship. They had known each other most of their lives and had both been incarcerated in the Tower of London at the same time whilst young. They each had a parent who had died as a traitor under the blow of the headsman’s axe. Their support for each other through the stress and trauma of their early lives undoubtedly contributed to the length, and indeed success, of their unconventional friendship, or love affair – however you want to view it.

Dudley was Elizabeth’s Master of the Horse; and the interesting thing about that is how few historians comment on the significance of it. Biographers are happy to discuss whether the relationship between the two of them was sexual; whether or not they were complicit in the death of Dudley’s wife; whether or not a certain portrait depicts Elizabeth and Leicester apparently doing the “Volta”, which looks like an early version of the jive. Whoever they are, the man has his hand on an intimate part of the woman’s anatomy as he throws her into the air and the woman doesn’t look in the least offended. Far from it.

Being Master of the Horse to a monarch means taking on a historically powerful role along with the title. When the ancient kings of Egypt, their courtiers and military leaders adopted the use of the horse and chariot, there was not only a requirement for a “Master of the Horse”, but also a pre-eminence and importance conveyed by the title to its holders. One of the best known of these was Ay, Master of the Horse at the court of King Akhenaten. Sadly, no manual of responsibilities or training, horse care and management has yet been found in ancient Egypt, although we can reconstruct a certain amount of knowledge from one or two remaining stable block foundations and other archaeological remains, from chariotry and equipment, mainly from Tutankhamun’s tomb, and from some royal inscriptions, particularly those of Amenhotep II and Ramesses II.

What we don’t know is how much of the ancient role required a hands on approach. It seems unlikely to have simply been a status title. Some knowledge of horse care and management would be required, but possibly that wasn’t the key skill in acquiring the title. The author of the most ancient treatise on horse training, the Mitannian Kikkuli, was neither royal nor a courtier. He was a practical trainer recruited to impart his knowledge to what author and hippologist Anthony Dent calls, with his usual forthrightness, “the thickear squadron-leaders of the Hittite Chariotry Corps.” From the beginning of the relationship between horses and humans, horses have conveyed status to those who could understand their natures and make use of them for display, in warfare and in hunting. Mostly, though, the trainers and grooms could probably only bask in reflective glory as they watched the cream of their various national elites claim the horsemanship credits. King Amenhotep II of Egypt claimed that he was given the best horses from his father’s stable and that he understood their nature and behaviour better than anyone else; Ramesses II said that after the Battle of Kadesh he would visit his stables every day to feed his horses, Victory-in-Thebes and Mut-is-Content, with his own hands, so valiantly had they performed on the battlefield. Thanks to him – and the unseen, unacknowledged army of trainers, handlers, veterinary specialists, water and fodder carrying grooms and underlings, of course. Many of the grooms appear to have been Nubians and it’s highly likely that Nubia had its own extremely knowledgeable horse culture before that of Egypt. They were specialists, specially recruited for the job; but most of the status-bearing roles went to Egyptians.

And so, through the ages, from the wily old courtier Ay, through the dashing Duke of Buckingham in the reign of James VI/I, right up to modern times, rulers and their Masters of the Horse go together like a – well, like a horse and chariot. Or two horses and a chariot. So, what do you think Elizabeth and Robert talked about when they got together? Did they share sweet flirtatious nothings or discuss the Spanish situation or laugh over a scandalous poem about the court? Of course they didn’t! They talked about HORSES, for goodness’ sake. And where there are horses, one thing predominates, the most significant and difficult part of horse-keeping. A stable of 200 horses produces a LOT of muck. It is either a useful by-product or a damn problem. If you can’t manage muck, you can’t manage a stable. A modern day riding stable near the Giza pyramids took its muck out to the desert for years, resulting in interesting stratigraphy that archaeologists have come to call the “HSS layer”. One of the “s’s” stands for “sand”. You can guess the rest. Meanwhile, back in Elizabethan England…

“Robin!”

“Yes, my liege, my most adorable Gloriana, what is it?”

“Grey Tilbury refused his breakfast this morning! Even though I offered it to him with my own fair hands! Robin, what is amiss with him? Is it colic, think ye?”

“Nay, most supreme monarch, it is simply the fresh spring grass. That is the only thing that tempteth him…”

“Oh. Have a care, Robin, that he overindulgeth not. For the pony gout is a terrible scourge. Why, only yesterday I was reading in the “Proclamation of Ye Oddfellows of Ye Noble Horse” that – ”

“Fear not, Ma’am, for I will restrict him to but a few hours in the forenoon.”

“Two hours, Robin! But two hours, for according to the Proclamation…”

“Aye, Ma’am. As Your Majesty wills. And, if you would care to cast the Royal gaze upon this?”

“What is it?”

“It is the proposed arms for the collectors of dung from ye royal paddocks. A crossed shovel and broom argent, over bucket or, from which steam is rising, with the motto “ordure et endure” on field vert…”

Queen (clapping hands with joy): “Just the job, Robin! Just the job.”

From Skyros to Scottish skies

Last spring, I met some unusual and really delightful ponies. I’d read about them in one of the local papers in south west Scotland and was curious to find out more. They certainly looked right at home in the Scottish Borders, in the fields belonging to vet Sheilagh Brown where they live. However, their ancestors were used to the much hotter and drier, although equally challenging, environment on the Greek island of Skyros.  I discovered that the Skyros ponies I went to see have a long and interesting history.

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Affectionate and curious, the Skyros ponies seek out the company of humans

The origins of the Skyrians and how they came to be associated with the island are lost in the mists of time, but they are certainly ancient. They are one of the breeds included in Elwyn Hartley-Edwards’ “Standard Guide to Horse and Pony Breeds” in which he mentions that parallels have been drawn with the horses of the Parthenon. The small horses on the famous frieze are clearly tough, fiery little animals. Looking at Sheilagh’s Skyros ponies, it seemed to me that there were certainly similarities; but the most striking thing about the Skyrians was their fineness. Their legs were clean and straight, their feet strong, dark and hard and the quality of their limbs would have graced any ridden show pony. I could also see similarities with the Caspian type of pony (or small horse).

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A soft grey coat, which grows very quickly in winter, is typical of the ponies.

They are typically grey in colour, a rather warm-coloured grey with rose or dun tones. True dun is also frequently seen, and also a rich dark brown and a red bay, often with mealy muzzles. The breed description mentions a tendency to cow hocks but that wasn’t obvious in most of the ponies. In profile, their noses are straight and distinctive without any trace of concavity. They have broad foreheads and calm, curious eyes. From the start, they showed an interest in our arrival but they were neither pushy nor alarmed.

“That is one of the most noticeable things about the Skyros ponies,” explained Sheilagh as her gelding Danila (Danny) gave her an affectionate nuzzle. “They are very curious about humans and actively seek them out.  They are known for this sociability on the island.”

I soon learned that they are exceptionally docile and relaxed. The mares in particular realised very quickly that we were harmless and carried on grazing whilst one foal came right up to investigate us. Just as Sheilagh’s gelding Danila had done, the foal put his nose up towards Sheilagh in friendly enquiry. I was rapidly gaining the impression that the Skyrians bond quickly and their temperaments struck me as being ideal for ponies for small children.

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Looking right at home in the Scottish Borders – a Skyros foal and his mummy

Although the very early history of the Skyros ponies may prove difficult to discover, their more recent history is much better known. They were used for centuries in an unusual agricultural role. For most of the year they lived freely on the island, being brought in only during harvest when they were harnessed up to three or four together and used for threshing the corn. They would receive additional feed during the winter to help them survive. As in other places, when mechanisation took over, the ponies ceased to have a function and their future became very uncertain. As tourism began to flourish in the 1970s, various options, including racing, were attempted to ensure the continuity of the ponies of Skyros. However, as the 20th century drew to a close, it was clear that they were endangered and serious action would be required if they were to survive.

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The foals are affectionate and curious, their dams calm and trusting.

And that is where the connection with Scottish Borders region comes in. Steps were taken on Skyros and on the Greek mainland to ensure the survival of the ponies and in 2005 five animals – three fillies and two colts – were brought over to Scotland by veterinary surgeon Alec Copeland who had a long-standing personal and professional interest in the Skyrians and other endangered ancient types such as the Exmoor pony. By 2010, when the Skyros ponies came into the care of Sheilagh so that Alec could concentrate on some of the other endangered breeds, their numbers had grown to 14. A further eight foals were born in Scotland in 2011. In 2012 there were another four births, but one foal sadly died. Two surviving colt foals are those featured in the photographs accompanying this blog.

I wondered how the ponies coped with the Scottish winter. The season can be harsh in their homeland too, of course, but the recent bitter winters with deep, long-lasting snow that we’ve seen in the UK have been exceptional even for Britain.

“They do grow a thick coat,” said Sheilagh (and the remnants were still visible when I went to see them in May last year). “They also need a lot of supplementary feeding in the winter. I’ve found that Dodson and Horrell stud cubes provide the best all round nutritional support for them.”

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This colt foal shows the mealy muzzle that some of the Skyros ponies have

Sheilagh advised me that the Skyros ponies have been the subject of several scientific papers and were believed to be entirely separate from the seven known breeds of the Greek mainland. It has been concluded that they are phenotypically unique, and of course equids that have lived for centuries – possibly even millennia – literally in isolation on an island provide a very rich subject for investigation. However, funding that was provided for a time by the Greek government in order to support this endangered breed is now no longer available and the few projects, such as the Silva Project, that were attempting to ensure its survival now have to be self-sustaining.

These are uncertain times for all horses and ponies and in parts of Britain there is a serious equine welfare crisis. Sheilagh is aware that the horses and ponies with the best chance of survival will be those for which there is a genuine requirement. Clearly these unusual and little-known ponies don’t fit into any of the standard classes of use in the UK. There are no showing classes for them and their size at maturity (around 11 hands) means they are only suitable as ridden ponies for small, lightweight children. However, their outstandingly amiable natures are a real plus and I am sure they would make excellent, sensible driving ponies. There is one equine growth area where they are proving to excel, too: that is in the emerging field of equine assisted therapy and riding therapy. Shortly after my visit, Danny was off to his new home and his new role with an organisation called Festina Lente in Ireland. I wish Sheilagh, Danny, and the rest of the Skyros ponies all the best for the future.

Miriam Bibby

Harvey, Nero, Mr Allan Thomson and friends

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The ploughman (Mr Allan Thomson) and his commentator!

Pale golden stubble gleams under a blue November sky. A man is following two horses as they draw a plough steadily up the gentle slope of a hill towards a line of trees, sharp-cut and leafless on the horizon. Rooks and a gull or two pick insects from the black earth turned over by the ploughshare. This apparently timeless scene could be seen right across the British Isles from Domesday until the 1930s. Then, came the great change. Within a decade, the majority of horses had been replaced by tractors and the skills accrued over centuries by the teams who worked the land began to be forgotten.

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A classic scene; harrowing the land with a pair of workhorses

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Setting up the plough ready for that all important first cut…

The ploughman and his horses would once have worked silently and in isolation in this landscape, moving back and forth steadily and slowly in march with the seasons. Today, though, he is accompanied by a lively and informative commentary coming over a speaker system to an enthusiastic crowd who are watching him at work. It’s the 17th of November 2012 and we’ve come from all over Scotland to observe, learn and perhaps apply some of the knowledge and skills that are on display here at this Working Horse Day organised by the British Horse Society (BHS Scotland).

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Straight as a die…

What’s encouraging about this event is that it has not arisen from a nostalgic desire to revisit the past. It’s been organised because a substantial number of people have requested it. They want to learn about working horses because they are considering using them on smallholdings, market gardens and farms. They see a future for the working horse, not just a past.

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Turning the plough…

Whilst Mr Allan Thomson and his son adjust the ploughshare ready for their team to begin, another pair of horses are drawing a harrow across the field. The day provides a glimpse into the immense range of specialised horse-drawn equipment that was available to the pre-1930s farmer. Ploughs and harrows are core implements of course, but there were many ingenious individual engineering companies producing seed distribution boxes, muck and fertiliser spreaders, mowers, cutters, reapers and hay-rakes. And, appropriately for a country whose national bard is the ploughman-poet Robert Burns, Scotland led the way in a farming revolution for nearly 150 years. Burns witnessed the start of this revolution, but in his day following the plough was still largely a communal affair, with several people required to lend their weight to a massive iron-edged wooden implement drawn by teams of four oxen, up to six horses, or a mixture of both. Some younger members of the family would be needed to pick up stones from the path of the plough, whilst others would crumble the larger clods of earth manually and everyone would help in the pulling up of tough weeds and grasses.

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In the heyday of the working horse, an immense range of equipment was available to the farmer. This long seed box is an example of the skill and ingenuity of the engineers of the period – and a tribute to the steadiness of the Clydesdale drawing it.

Iron was used sparingly in the production of the cutting parts of the plough until late 18th century developments resulted in the first entirely iron-framed plough, made by William Penny in 1800. It wasn’t just the expense and difficulty of the production of iron that had held back this development. There were superstitions about cutting the earth with metal and some believed that too much ironwork in a plough, other than the share, would poison the ground and affect the crops that were grown in it. Then, of course, there was the issue of keeping the ploughshare sharp.

Whilst Penny is credited with the production of the first entirely metal-framed plough, James Small, who preceeded him, was one of the most significant contributors to its development and is a major figure in the history of agriculture. Small, a Berwickshire man, devised a one-piece iron mouldboard and share that would create a much deeper slice and turn over the earth from the furrow onto the land beside it, which successfully suppressed the weeds and turned them into additional fertiliser. Crucially, this new design could be drawn by a pair of horses; at which point, also in the late 18th century, enter that legendary working breed, the Clydesdale. The image of the ploughman, his team and the ploughshare seemed indelibly impressed on the Scottish agricultural landscape. And the Clydesdale, that powerful, willing giant of the lowlands, not only worked the land, but was ubiquitous in the cities, delivering goods, drawing corporation and council vehicles, carrying items to the docks and railway stations for transport all over Scotland and “down south”.

It was not indelible, of course. The day of the working horse was drawing to an end in the 1930s and was virtually over by the 1950s. Certainly, one or two councils and larger companies – mainly breweries – held on to a pair or two, conscious of the eye-catching appeal of their magnificent turnouts – and, perhaps, conscious that there was an environmental aspect to it too. Horses could still hold their own in deliveries over short distances, but by the 1970s the sheer quantity of motorised vehicles on the roads made it dangerous and difficult for them to do so. Those were the years when we came closest to losing the working horse tradition altogether. The few members of the working horse breeds that survived seemed fated to a life as show-ring exhibits and little else.

“If it hadn’t been for the Co-operative – and Irish horse breeders,” says Mr Thomson, “there would have been no working horses at all.” At that time, he was involved in forestry work using horses and was finding it extremely difficult to find any suitable workhorses. Finding equipment was difficult too. “Things are a lot better now,” he continues. And, certainly, the day proves that there are some excellent working horses about, including those showing off their skills today. There are several fine Clydesdales present but a working horse can also be just a good ‘type’. For the work of the smallholding or garden centre, there’s no reason why a good working pony should not excel.

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Harvey – clearly a character – on the left and Nero on the right.

Harvey, one of the pair that Mr Thomson and his son are using today, is Irish-bred and started out as a trekking pony. He’s clearly a character and has taken well to his job as a plough horse. Mr Thomson explains that both he and his ploughing partner Nero are now in their early twenties and “we’re just getting them the way we want them.” This is, without a doubt, the greatest thing I have ever heard from a horseman. It takes time and patience to build the relationship, whether you are teaching a horse to draw a plough or perform in the Spanish Riding School, whose horses are also often in their prime in their teens and twenties. Be ready for the long haul, put in the effort and you’ll be rewarded with long term success. And treat your horses kindly, as partners, not slaves or machines. That was the message of the old horsemen, who believed they and their horses were one.

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Traditional hopper style feeder, useful for a variety of tasks on the land.

Allan Thomson gives us a quick overview of the harness, including the blinkerless bridles  – “I use open bridles, I prefer them” – and the plain, thin snaffles that are attached to them. Chains are used to link the collars to the swingle-type attachments in front of the plough and the thin ropes used for guiding are known as ‘lines’. A rope is laid on the ground to mark out that very important first cut and the pair are off. We watch as the cut opens neatly and earth turns over onto the land, as cleanly and impressively as slicing a well-baked loaf. As the plough swings round and returns, there is one horse in the furrow and one on the land. Mr Thomson explains that during the first world war, with man – and horse – power in short supply at home, the two-furrow plough, drawn by three horses but needing only one ploughman, became popular.

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The magnificent traditional chrome and leather harness, with its blue, white and red decoration, takes hundreds of hours to prepare.

On the rare occasions when farm horsemen had time off, their horses were still involved in their lives. Beautifully turned-out individuals and pairs of working horses were popular exhibits at agricultural shows and there was a great deal of rivalry in the show ring. Undoubtedly one of the most popular sights of the Working Horse Day is a magnificently turned out young Clydesdale, decked in traditional manner in chrome, blue, white and red.  He is wearing the high, pointed collar with gleaming chrome hames that is associated with Scottish tradition. The commentary explains that originally the intricate harness decoration was coloured blue and white for the Saltire of Scotland; and that red was added after the coronation of the current monarch. A crown is now one of the symbols included in the decoration. We learn that it takes hundreds of hours to complete the decoration on the harness and that there is now only one man in Scotland with the knowledge to do the complete turnout.

And this becomes the lasting legacy of the day, for some of us. Let us not let this working horse knowledge and experience disappear. It deserves not only to be remembered, but also to be practised. Let’s make sure that the working horse tradition continues, in the hope that in the future our horses can work alongside us as partners, in the methods of the best of the horsemen of the past – and present.

Horseback Historian would like to thank Mr Allan Thomson and friends (and horses) for sharing their knowledge and experience during the course of a very memorable day; and thank you to BHS Scotland for organising the event. I hope that there will be more.

Equine boom – and bust

When I was very young, I lived in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne in north east England. Newcastle lies at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall and it has a long and interesting history. It has always been an industrial – and industrious – place. In Tudor times, coal from Durham and Northumberland – a major national commodity – was shipped  from Newcastle to London. Newcastle flourished during the 19th and early 20th century; and like all major cities, part of the reason for its success was the labour provided by thousands of work horses.

Whenever we drove through one particular part of the city, there was an appalling stench.

“That’s the glue factory. It’s where they send all the horses when they die,” said my father, glancing across at me slightly anxiously. He knew I loved horses.

“That’s horrible!” I said. I think I was pragmatic about it, though; I understood that horses grew old and died and that something would have to be done with their remains.

The full significance of what he was saying did not really strike me for decades.

A world of horses

Horses were part of my life. There were always horses; ponies in the riding school whose customers trotted over Newcastle’s Town Moor, the city’s green lung; ponies on the beaches of the seaside resorts along the coast of Northumberland where we went at weekends; ponies tied up by travellers on patches of common land – the sweetest, most well-behaved ponies I have ever known – and, yes, even a few horses that still pulled vehicles around the city streets, mostly belonging to the “rag and bone men”, the urban recyclers of the mid-twentieth century. At that point, a few ponies were still in use in the mines of the north, Scotland and Wales. Even the shepherds on farms along the Border used horses or ponies, not quad bikes.

Our coal was brought for a time by horse and cart. The old horse, named Cassius (probably after the boxing legend rather than the character in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”), had a bad temper but still received an apple or some sugar from me. Whenever we went to a cafe, I would raid the sugar bowl for paper-wrapped sugar cubes, taking as many as I dared, because I knew there would always be another horse to feed. The story of the first time I’d been on a horse’s back – that of the milkman’s horse, Spot, when I was a toddler – had become family legend. As late as the 1970s people could still relate to Benny Hill’s ludicrous ditty about the showdown between Ernie the milkman “who drove the fastest milk-cart in the West” and his rival “Two-Ton Ted from Teddington” who drove the baker’s van. Horse-drawn in both cases, of course. Did you know it’s one of the favourite songs of both David Cameron and Earl Spencer, the brother of Princess Diana? They both included it in their “Desert Island Discs” selections. Bizarre but true; and it shows how deeply the tradition of the working horse is still embedded in the British psyche.

There were showjumpers on the telly and horses in westerns. There were books about ponies and gymkhanas – a world away from the one I lived in, but one I always envied and to which I aspired. There was televised racing from Sandown and Uttoxeter and elsewhere and I couldn’t understand why one horse called “Bar” seemed to be in every race until it was explained to me. There had always been horses. There always would be horses…

In fact, during the 1960s and 70s, there was serious, pessimistic talk about the forthcoming “extinction” of the horse. Those rag and bone men still jogging round the cities of Britain on their worn-out old carts, with their strangled, almost incomprehensible street cries “Raaaaa-aaa-booooone!” were just about all that remained of the working horse tradition. The desire of the young to escape the shackles of the past was encapsulated in the well-observed television comedy, “Steptoe and Son”. Aged dad Albert, with his fingerless gloves, junk-filled house, horse-drawn rag and bone cart and memories of World War I, symbolised everything that his aspirational son Harold wanted to escape – or even bury. However, Harold was fond of Hercules, the horse; and the references to him were always filled with warmth and humour. The scenes with Hercules were touching and sometimes moving.

I didn’t understand at the time, but my father had been telling me that the stink from the glue factory was the stench accompanying the last gasp of the working horse tradition; the betrayal of centuries, millennia in fact, of human dependence on equine power.

Horsemeat: by-product of technological change

When little Miss Combustion Engine, wiggling her sexy exhaust, walks onto the block with all her family – the juggernauts, the 4W-Ds, the vans, the limousines – humans can’t move fast enough to send their loyal horses to the knackers. Horses become an embarrassment, like an aged relative drooling dementedly in the attic. In  Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years, Dublin’s famous horse market at Smithfield was quickly moved out of the city centre. Horses are dirty and demanding. They are too slow. They aren’t powerful enough. They are expensive. They are dangerous and a nuisance. Logically it could be said that cars are also expensive, dirty, demanding, dangerous nuisances; and if you’re stuck in city traffic or a motorway jam it doesn’t really matter how fast or powerful your car is. And there’s many a farmer who is overwhelmed by the debts accrued from purchasing and maintaining tractors and other equipment. However, this isn’t about “logic”. It’s about “progress” and “convenience”.

The change from equine to motorised power (and the resulting collapse of established industries, to be replaced by new ones) provided an important example for the work of the economist Schumpeter, whose theory of “creative destruction” described the consequences of rapid and extensive technological change. Old industries collapse, but others arise from the ruins.

The most important aspect, for me, of the recent “scandal” over horsemeat in the UK came to light during investigations into the origins of the meat. It appears that the sudden influx of horsemeat on the market is due to horse-drawn vehicles being banned from main roads in Romania. In other words, it marks the the end of another working horse tradition, in this case in eastern Europe. When the tradition came to an end in the USA and UK, the carcasses of the slaughtered horses were used for pet food and the remnants were rendered – hence the glue factory.  Now, in a global economy, the end of the working horse means the production of a commodity – horsemeat “stuff” – that has the potential to end up anywhere.

I don’t eat meat but I’m not being smug about this. If you eat meat, I don’t see why eating horse is different from eating any other kind of meat. What I don’t understand is how unconcerned some people are about what they are eating; and that somewhere along the way, someone has lied. There is a difference between eating meat that has lived in the wild, or originated from well-documented sources which show the treatment, food and medicine that animal has received – and eating meat stuff that is just that – “stuff” – without knowing – or caring – what it really is or where it came from.

The equine boom…

The horse didn’t become extinct, of course. What saved the horse in several parts of the world was the rapid emergence of the predominantly female leisure rider. For some, aspiration didn’t consist of getting rid of a horse, but was expressed through acquiring one. The boom years of the leisure rider (in the UK) began in the 1960s and probably peaked in the 1980s, when women (and men) from many different backgrounds started to keep horses simply because they wanted horses in their lives. They weren’t necessarily wealthy. They didn’t necessarily come from families with a long tradition of equestrianism. They just had a bit of money and some leisure and they intended to spend both on horses and with horses. And boy, did it boom!

Equestrian clothing manufacturers, saddlers, rug makers, horse breeders, show and event organisers, horse trainers, riding schools, livery yards, magazines, specialist publishers and authors, societies, farriers; horse feed, hay and haylage producers; vets and veterinary products: all benefited from the boom. In the mid 1990s, it was estimated that the equestrian “industry” in the USA was worth 15 billion dollars annually.

I was part of the boom. I bought my first pony, became a journalist specialising in equestrian subjects and spent a lot of my time participating in, observing and commenting on the equestrian leisure boom. Some of its aspects were a bit silly, it seemed to me. I called it the “pink bucket” phenomenon, as a range of supposedly girly equestrian accessories hit the market. Horses hadn’t become extinct, but they had certainly changed. The working horse tradition had been largely, if not exclusively, a male world. Now, horses and ponies were mainly kept by women and girls. Along with the silly accessories and over-emphasis on performance in the showring, there were some good times and indeed some great times. And when all is said and done, it was mainly women who kept equestrian traditions alive and supported the “industry” through that time. Horses survived, thanks mainly to the money and energy of women. Also, to those who were dedicated to horses for other reasons, some horse breeders and working horse centres for instance.

…and bust

In 2013, the equine boom in the UK is clearly at an end. There is a welfare crisis as people desperately try to find homes for horses and ponies they can’t keep. For some, it’s a cost they can simply no longer afford. Others perhaps feel older and wiser after years of horse keeping and just want a change. They don’t want to spend their time and energy on horses any more but on something else instead. Riding schools are closing because of the costs; and, allegedly, because of the risk of hefty insurance claims and the restrictions of health and safety rulings. In Egypt, too, there’s an equine welfare crisis, for different reasons. The collapse of tourism after the Egyptian revolution means that many of the small businesses in Egypt depending on horses – particularly the ubiquitous tourist site carriage drivers – are in dire straits. In the 1960s, people were saying that the horse would be extinct by the year 2000. Did the equine boom simply delay it by another decade or so?

I don’t think the horse will disappear entirely. There will always be some people who will dedicate themselves to horses despite the costs in terms of time and money (and the emotional cost, too). They’ll take the odd looks and the critical or joking comments about horses being a waste of space, grit their teeth and carry on, because horses are what they do and horses are part of who they are. Sometimes they’ll wonder why the hell they’re doing it and then, on a bright day in summer, their horse will come cantering across the paddock towards them and they’ll remember.

A future?

Throughout my life, for as long as I can remember, people have been talking about the possible return of the working horse. That’s what it’s been mostly – talk; but not entirely. In the 1970s, television director and producer Barry Cockcroft made his famous documentary about Geoff Morton, one of the few remaining people in Britain to still use horses on the farm. A book, “Princes of the Plough” further chronicled Morton’s life and that of some of his contemporaries. It spoke optimistically about a future for working horses. A few councils and large commercial organisations used – and continue to use – working horses for deliveries; and to turn them out impeccably for shows. Sometimes this is because they are aware of the promotional opportunities horses provide, but in some cases the organisations simply never stopped using them. And there are others; the journalist Paul Heiney, having learned about working Suffolk Punches for a 1980s reality TV show, decided to buy some working horses of his own. Working horses are still used by the British Horse Logging Society. There are a few individuals, both men and women, still using horses in farming and in other businesses. Carriages for weddings are particularly in demand. Horses are used in television and film work – where would a Jane Austen series be without a carriage and pair? How would the “Lord of the Rings” movies managed without Shadowfax? Gimli walking along behind Gandalf making clippety-clop noises with some coconut shells, Monty Python style – that’s how; though I suppose CGI could fill the gap.

Ought there to be a major return to working horses, anyway? After all, when they did all the “lugging and dragging and straining”, to quote H.G. Wells, their lives were often nasty and short. I suppose I’m still pragmatic about this, because it seems to me that when humans don’t have a need for something, they don’t care much about it: therefore the best future for horses might be as working animals. And perhaps, there are reasons to be “cautiously optimistic” about this future, as I’ll discuss in the next blog. “Cautious optimism” seems to me to be better than boom and bust, anyway.

Miriam Bibby