My life with horses: Dickie Jeffreys — ‘it’s quite right that eccentrics like me are a bit more regulated now!’

The equestrian world is full of unsung equestrian heroes, working with equine charities, teaching, training, breaking and schooling and generally devoting their lives to horses. Sara Walker talks to Northumberland-based Dickie Jeffreys, who runs Kimmerston Riding Centre with his wife Jane, about hunting, running the centre and the horse who ‘swam to Norway’.

“Horses are in my family,” says Dickie. “My father hunted the Milvain hounds, and in the 1950s and 60s I used to hunt in the mornings then my mother would come and get me in the car, drop me off at Alnwick to play rugby then carry on hunting my horse the afternoon. My uncle hunted too, in the New Forest, and he later gave my father a hunter mare. My father bred Shamfight from her, who went on to win the Scottish Grand National in 1962. He had another winner in 1977 with Sebastian V.

“Jane and I first started the riding centre in the early 1980s. We had a couple of holiday cottages on the farm and the guests asked if they could ride our hunters and ponies. We said it would be alright, but after a couple of them had fallen off, we decided it would be safer and better to escort them! We bought a fantastic cob called Trooper from a neighbour who started us off with the riding centre, and we put out hand-written flyers in local hotels and caravan parks.

“After a while, we started the beach and hill rides. We have a big castle near us that used to take children from inner cities to teach them about wildlife and the countryside. We would put them on their ponies — a lot of them had never seen an animal before, let alone touched one. Back at the stables we would get them to do their exercises, touch the horse’s ears, touch the tail, touch their own toes and then do round the world.

“For the beach rides, I used to drive the horses down to Holy Island. We used to gallop along the sands and paddle in the water and then I would take them in for a swim. Everyone loved it and sometimes if we ended up 100 yards or so down the beach I would get them all to gallop bareback back to the saddles. We would only walk or canter and if I said ‘we’ll have a little canter now,’ all the horses would take off! So I leant that I had to talk very quietly to anybody and give them all notice of what I was going to say before I did it. My favourite horses were Shannon, Blue Moon, Emma Jones, Big Charlie, Black Knight, Bob, Kilarney, Bramble, Simpson, Chester, Biggles, Warrier, Golden Eye and Mac. I could write a story about each of them.

“On one beach ride, a horse called Bentley lost his rider. We’d only had him a few days and he didn’t like the water on his tail. I set off in hot pursuit with a couple of other riders but we couldn’t catch him, instead he plunged into the sea. I rang the coastguard and asked for a lifeboat, but he refused to send one until he’d seen the situation for himself. Bentley was still heading in the direction of Norway, but suddenly, from nowhere, a little 12-foot dinghy appeared, and he turned the horse back and we got hold of him. I looked up to thank the dinghy man but he had disappeared — seemingly impossible in a flat landscape. I still say he must have been my Guardian Angel. The coastguard did eventually turn up too late!

“I also took people out hunting. There are six packs within driving distance and I regularly visited them all, sometimes hunting five or six days a week. We used to cover miles and miles and finish in the dark quite often. We also provided horses for the common ride outs. A historic tradition in the Borders here is for every Border town to commemorate their heroic ancestors in the old battles between the English and the Scots. The ride outs can start any time of the day and we would provide up to 30 horses for each of them. Some of our horses carried the flag, a great honour.

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“Our film work was quite fun, we supplied horses for the film Henry VIII. I was in the film too — I rode a horse called Matilda coming off the mountain on my way to tell the King his daughter Mary had been born! We did other film work as well, including an advert which involved me riding my horse, Larry, in a full suit of armour. He was not impressed, and promptly shot me off into a peat bog!

“I have had a wonderful life with horses but I also had Jane by my side, who is horse minded. I think everyone should ride and work with horses at some point. We were so lucky that we have always had people queuing up to work here, but it’s difficult to make it pay. My son, David, has a stud farm and has just got his trainer’s license, it must be in the blood – in fact, he’s just had his first winner, having only had his licence a few weeks.

“I’m lucky to have had my life with horses when I did. Health and safety are important and it’s quite right that eccentrics like me are a bit more regulated now!”

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