She joined me as I leaned on the paddock fence watching the annual Dartmoor pony round-up.
“As a kid I was most at home amongst animals. In fact I sometimes pretended I was a horse,” she said. “I used to trot and gallop around, whinnying and tossing my mane – sometimes shying at imaginary threats.
A sudden move in a hedgerow, a barking dog. I’d walk around on all fours and eat my food from a bowl on the garden bench pretending it was a hay-rack.”
I couldn’t help but smile looking at the sophisticated woman I saw before me.
“Is that true?” I asked, ” I find that hard to imagine.”
“Oh yes. That was me at age four to five years old and it caused a lot of embarrassment for my parents, especially mother who was mortified if I neighed at some innocent passer-by. It drove her mad but dad just ignored it. ‘She’ll grow out of it’ he’d say and change the subject. I did of course, but when I got a little older I learned to ride bareback on ponies which belonged to my best friend’s grandad. He’d been a fairground worker and had ponies and donkeys which he hired out to day trippers on the beach. That often only took them a few metres up and down on a leading rein and cost anything from three to five pounds. Made him quite a good living over a summer – adds a new dimension to ‘taken for a ride’ I suppose.”
“So that’s where you learned to ride, on seaside donkeys?”
She laughed, “Not quite that simple. When Mr Lewis retired he moved in with his daughter’s family in suburbia but he kept his two favourite ponies. They were ‘stabled’ in a shed in their back garden. I’m not at all sure the council regulations were ever consulted about it, but Suzy and I didn’t care. We loved it when he took us up to the Downs with the ponies so we could ride.
They didn’t have enough exercise really and were a bit frisky but he’d get us up on board and teach us the rudiments. How to sit, how to use your leg pressure to guide and instruct. He only had the most basic tack, a couple of halters and bridles, but no saddles, so it was vital to have a ‘good seat’ with a strong grip. This proved mighty important as we’d often find ourselves going home with some colourful bruises – evidence of losing the challenge to stay on board. Eventually I wasn’t allowed to see Suzy again after a one of those occasions.”
“But you were still a horse-mad little girl then?”
“Instead of a ‘mad-horse’ one you mean? I still fantasized about having a pony of my own but it might just as well have been a unicorn.”
“What happened to all those childhood dreams eh?”
“We grow up I suppose and the unicorns fade into the forest of memories.”
“But aren’t you competing in The Horse of the Year Show this time?”
“Yes, yes I am. Maybe all thanks to Mr Lewis and the Unicorns…”