Ever since my imagination was captured by a children’s western running on Irish TV in the early eighties, I wanted to be a cowboy. It was also when I began to think being a boy might have been more convenient – my first dressing-up costume was a nurse’s uniform my mother chose in a cutesy nod to her pre-marital career. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; that the person seeking the flattery dressed the imitator was just a minor detail. It’s a moot point now anyway. The stories of tending patients in the privations of the Congo were just that… stories. Thirty years later I discovered my mother never even held a nursing qualification, but that’s a whole other story.
I got luckier second time around, I don’t mean with mothers but with costumes: a proper straw-woven, wide-brimmed cowboy hat with leather trim, a pair of fringed chaps and a two-pistol holster. My sister and I spent hours outdoors, method-acting all aspects of cowboy life from campfire dining to manfully powering through a broken limb.
Our farm was home to two ponies, Twinkle, a gentle skewbald mare, and Tiny a cheeky little Shetland, but though I ached to learn to ride no one ever taught me. The best I could hope was that my father could catch the skittish pair after Sunday lunch as we watched, breathless with anticipation, from the kitchen window. The longer it took, the greater the chance it would end in disappointment as exhaustion (or indigestion) got the better of him, but if we were lucky, my sister and I were sat atop our stroppy steeds and led down the lane for a mile or two. About midway, the ponies ears would swivel, our first indication we had company, and the sound of hooves travelling on tarmac at a swifter clip than us reached our ears. The goat shared the ponies’ paddock and didn’t like to be left alone.
At eight, this pastoral life was consigned to memory when my parents moved to British suburbia. The ponies were sold, along with the rest of my world. I took refuge in the sea of horsey literature that fuels the dreams of countless young girls with pony-mania: anything by the famous pony-book dynasty, the Pullen-Thompson sisters, Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series and Patricia Leach’s “Jinny” books were just a few of the alternate worlds I favoured over reality. In those days nobody worried about preparing children for change or helping them adjust – you were expected to continue without breaking stride. Or perhaps that was just my family. I led such a sheltered existence it’s hard to know. Either way, dirt lanes and barns were replaced with kerbed streets and playing fields, and my sister and I found ourselves with a motley bunch of village kids for company. Learning to barrel roll on empty oil drums and building a sizeable vocabulary of swearwords quickly superseded our old cowboy games.
I was eleven before I got the opportunity to learn to ride. Pocket money combined with a Sunday afternoon riding club organised through school meant an hour of complete, untarnished bliss every Sunday. It was the zenith of my week. A reading of my polka-dot, padlocked diary at the time reveals gushing detailed descriptions of each lesson partnered with Taffy or Prince. My drawing-books held page upon page of pencil sketches of horses wheeling, rearing and twisting in various snapshots of balletic beauty, manes and tails framing their muscled physicality like the robes of anime ninjas.
Horses and equestrian ephemera were the focal point of my existence. I could reel off over a hundred breeds off the top of my head or cure insomnia with my descriptions of the difference between a Kimblewick, a Pelham, or a Liverpool bit. Gag Snaffles and Running Martingales were part of my vocabulary.
In time I graduated from lessons, going out on group rides in the surrounding countryside, so my despair at my parents’ sudden decision to send me to boarding school in the Midlands was overwhelming. Worse, when I arrived there, it was instantly clear I was infiltrating the higher echelons of society without the proper qualifications. Bentleys and Beamers filled the car park as the wealthy elite settled their heirs into scholastic/monastic cells and dormitories. Some even arrived by helicopter, landing on the sports field in a storm of spinning-rotors and downdraft.
Plunged into an alien world, I had to come up with a currency of acceptability. I witnessed the wrath the clique visited on those they took a dislike to: forced immersion in cold baths, being made to eat soap, the collective cold-shoulder of social ostracism. Popularity was the key. In an environment where everyone lived somewhere else (many had fathers in the forces or diplomatic corps posted in the Bahamas, Oman, Zaire or Hong Kong) it made sense to play up my foreign background and craft a compelling alternative to my nondescript suburban existence. I merged fact with fiction, describing my old life on the farm in Ireland spiced with artfully conjured scenes of herding cattle with my father on horseback in swirling clouds of dust-coloured, cloven-hoofed chaos. I bought the dream alive again and it imbued my narratives with the zest of plausibility. I stopped short of twirling lariats but it was enough. Coupled with a picture of an Elizabethan manor house pinned to my wall as my family home, what would have sounded absurd to many bought me inclusion in this crowd.
The single glimmer of real joy in my lonely endurance test was the discovery, two weeks in, that my parents had signed me up for riding lessons as part of my extra-curricular activities. Every Wednesday, I boarded a coach and was handed a juice carton and a pack of three Jaffa cakes to sustain me on the forty-minute drive to the stables. The new riding school made my old one look amateurish. It had three huge indoor arenas and over sixty horses. I soon rose through the groups to the top one, where we spent hours cantering around the perimeter of the arena in posting position while my thigh muscles screamed. The only sounds were the rhythmic thud of hooves on the dirt floor, the jingle of tack and the occasional bark of the instructor to “Push those heels down!” or “Straighten those backs!”
When I was riding I could tune out all the other worries and pressures. I was in my “flow”, conscious only of the moment and the synchronized movement of myself and my mount. I discovered a flair for showjumping, practising jumps without a saddle to improve my “seat”, or without reins, gripping with my legs to avoid see-sawing the bit against the horse’s sensitive muzzle which, over time, would harden his mouth and make him less responsive.
The joyriding gave me, as ever, was limitless, even when Timber, a huge chestnut gelding planted his dinner-plate hoof on top of my foot and wasn’t in the mood to move it. By the time I hefted him off he’d left me with a crescent-shaped bruise that made me suspect broken bones for a week. I didn’t care. Bursting with pride I relayed my instructor’s recommendation that I train for a career in professional showjumping to my parents down the phone. My happiness stopped me from registering their non-committal response.
A year passed and we moved again, back to the southeast. I picked up the reins at my old riding school and was soon teaching there in the summer holidays in exchange for rides, but my father’s manic-depression grew ever worse and his behaviour became increasingly controlling and erratic. After a humiliating incident where he turned up at the stables demanding I come home, scuppering a two-hour ride I’d been looking forward to for weeks and shocking the staff with his anger and treatment of me, I had to look for an alternative.
By sheer good fortune, the farm at the top of our road had a couple of ponies so my sister and I knocked on the door, introduced ourselves and with all the brazenness our ten and thirteen years afforded us, asked if we could exercise them. Amazingly, the farmer’s wife agreed and showed us the tack room where she said we’d find everything we needed.
Rosie and Christie often displayed the same attitude to being caught that Twinkle and Tiny had years before, and there were days filled with crushing disappointment when we’d have to admit defeat, but we did come up with a few ways to out-fox those work-shy ponies. I’ll never forget their shock when we laid a rope across the width of the field, herded them onto one side of it and, each taking an end, lifted it, effectively corralling them. That worked for a while until they learnt to jump the rope and we were back to square one.
We spent summer holidays riding the bridleways between villages and swimming the ponies in the River Thames, which wound through the fields behind our house. Then the future gatecrashed our idyll as news of another move appeared like a storm cloud on the horizon. My father was obsessed with the idea of owning a guesthouse in Oxford and the fact that he was the only one up for it was not going to stand in his way.
For a while after we moved, I continued to ride the ponies at the farm, cycling eight miles out of the city to school, then a further four miles out to our old home to ride for a couple of hours before making the twelve-mile ride back to Oxford. I did this twice weekly, But gradually, my father’s unpredictable rages at home wore me down. My confidence deserted me, joy became a fleeting mirage and life became purely about survival. My mother made fey, meaningless promises about buying a horse but I knew from experience it was better not to be taken in by her – the disappointment was too painful.
After a year and a half of misery in the guesthouse that saw my father value a sinking ship above the happiness of his family, my parents finally separated and my sisters and I moved with our mother to another small Oxfordshire village. There, the final nail was driven into the coffin of my horse-riding dreams. After years of citing cost as the barrier to my owning a horse of my own, with her finances more precarious than they’d ever been, my mother bought my sister a pony – too small for me to ride.
That day I chose to forget about horses – the painful associations were buried deep and I’ve only ridden once in twenty years.
Maybe it’s finally time to unpack the dream and shake out the creases. I’ve been looking at riding schools in the area, but… I don’t know… fear holds me back. What if it’s not how I remember it? What if I no longer get that same euphoric high? I know I usually accompany my posts with photographs but, to my knowledge, there are no pictures of me on horseback. My parents never showed any interest in my passion and certainly never came to watch me ride. It’s strangely easy to erase something from your life when it was only ever your reality in the first place.
Parents, tread softly, for you tread on your children’s dreams.