How horses helped me overcome racism: novelist shares her story

  • Bestselling author Jacqui Rose explains how her journey with horses has helped her overcome the racism she encountered as a child and given her her confidence back

    Having been adopted at an early age, I grew up in a small village in Yorkshire in the 1970s where racial tolerance wasn’t even a concept. My background was Irish and Nigerian and with my mop of curly black hair and almond coloured skin, I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb.

    I suffered racial abuse on a daily basis and at least once a week there was some kind of violence attached to it.

    Often I sat in a bath of bleach and hot water trying to lighten my skin so I could be accepted by children and adults alike, but over time, as the abuse continued, I sank into myself, into a dark sadness and despair.

    In those days most children got themselves around the place on their own, taking the country buses to wherever it was they needed to go. Often the drivers wouldn’t stop for me, or rather they would, just so they could tell me I couldn’t get on the bus. But one day when this happened, a farmer who I often saw but didn’t speak to, was leaning against the fence, smoking his pipe as I sat on the grassy verge crying. Out of the blue, with his thick Yorkshire accent he said: “If thou wants to travel anywhere, thou should try four legs.”

    He nodded to a small, scruffy black cob in one of his fields which I hadn’t noticed before and he said I could come and ride him. I had never ridden before in my life but it didn’t matter, I was so excited, and the kindness of the farmer quelled any fear I had.

    The pony’s name was Wild Sun, though I’m not quite sure why, he was the slowest, steadiest pony you could imagine and the minute I met him, I fell in love with him. There was a quiet, stillness about him and although looking back he was a scruffy, slightly overweight pony, to me he was a king amongst stallions. I certainly needed him more than he needed me.

    He had a homemade bit-less bridle and no saddle and I was naive enough to think that was how it was done – after all I’d watched the movies and seen the native American Indians riding through the plains.

    Wild Sun was so gentle and the first time I got on him, he just stood still before setting off into a steady walk, all the time looking after me and if I slid to the side he would stop and wait for me to get my balance. Over time I learnt to ride and Wild Sun became the first friend I ever had, my best friend. I would tell him my secrets and we would go on journeys, through the woods and along the lanes and it was the first time in my life I had felt at peace.

    Then slowly I stopped hating myself, I stopped trying to wash my skin white and I stopped caring about the bus driver and the kids at school because all that mattered was Wild Sun. My head no longer spun with anxiety and instead of wanting my life to end at the age of just 10, I wanted to live and Wild Sun became the keeper of my peace.

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    I continued to ride for years, feeling more comfortable with horses than humans, which I still do to this day.

    But as sometimes it does, life got in the way and I stopped riding, though I missed it – it felt like a part of me was missing.

    After a very difficult period in my life and suffering from clinical anxiety, I went back to what I knew, to what had healed my mind before. I bought myself two horses and just like when I was a child, it turned out my horses are my medicine, my magic, my peace keepers, the healers of my soul.

    Jacqui Rose’s latest novel Toxic is available now at harpercollins.co.uk

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