A childhood spent in the saddle sparks special memories. Here’s a snapshot of the halcyon days before busy traffic, health and safety, and comfy girths
Simple but Sparky
I was three years old in 1974, when this photo was taken, at the Mid Surrey branch of the Pony Club under-10 show at Walton-On-The-Hill. I was riding my older sister Clare’s pony, Red Spark (Sparky), who was 12.2hh. He had a huge buck in him when Clare was riding but always looked after me; I used to sit in front of Clare on the pommel while she cantered circles in our field.
My mother had to make the jacket I’m wearing because she couldn’t find one small enough to fit me. The elastic strap holding my hat on wouldn’t pass health and safety tests these days. I love the fact that Sparky’s wearing a simple eggbutt snaffle and cavesson noseband; you so rarely see a pony in such a straightforward combination these days. But I don’t miss the old string girths.
This also reminds me of the wonderful Pony Club shows we used to spend our summers attending. We would compete in such a broad range of activities, from showjumping to showing to gymkhana, and learnt so much along the way.
Annie Assheton (née Grey-Edwards)
A real child’s pony
I believe I am, at 67, the oldest woman still showing regularly at leading shows. Back when I was nine, I had one of the best 12.2hh show ponies in the country, All Springs Gem. When we sold him the people paid in cash; notes and coins were piled up on the table.
The pony pictured is my 12.2hh show pony Bennedon Bambi, in 1959. When we took him to Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) at Wembley, it took two days to drive from Sheffield with no motorways, in a Hillman Imp car towing a canvas-topped trailer.
Bambi looked sparkling. He had been washed with water containing Blue Bag, a blue dye used for white laundry. I too looked very smart in my new jacket and jodhpurs made to measure by Bernard Weatherill of Savile Row.
There were no lead-rein classes at HOYS, so aged six, I was in the 12.2hh class. I had practised my show a million times, but during my figure of eight, Bambi stopped and spent a penny. The judge came over and said not to worry, he was a real child’s pony.
I could never have imagined that I would be a regular competitor at HOYS, that I would have a horse, I’m Blue Chip Too, who would be champion there two years running, or that I would have a horse feed company that would be one of HOYS’ longest-standing sponsors.
Bambi started having skin problems – he was one of the first ponies to be diagnosed with leukaemia. One day, when I was eight, he disappeared; he had been put down. I was inconsolable. Parents then didn’t discuss things with children before they happened.
A timeless jacket
My first pony, Dazzle, was offered as a raffle prize, but when the winner didn’t want him, my great-aunt and uncle generously acquired him for me, though he was not a success. The pony pictured is my 14hh Sovereign, a Welsh cob/Arab who had an incredibly big jump.
I have many happy memories of a childhood riding: taking part in the Pony Club week, when we had lessons in which we had to ride a mile or two to a level field and then a gymkhana at the end. We used hard canvas girths, followed by nylon string girths, later to be followed by the padded girths. We also had heavy canvas New Zealand rugs which went as stiff as a board when wet; the neckline was lined with simulated sheepskin to stop it rubbing. For indoors, there were jute rugs with woollen linings which were impossible to wash. And woollen rugs and bandages for travelling with gamgee underneath.
I remember the disappointment of going to a posh saddlers in Chester in 1979 and trying on a beautifully cut black Melton cloth showing jacket to be told it was over our budget at £32 – and then the joy of being able to have it when the saddler said we could buy it for £28. I still have it today, it still fits and the quality fabric looks like new.
I also recall heavyweight rubberised cotton riding macs with a belt round the middle, and my first pair of elephant-eared jodhpurs in Bedford cord. However, I mainly rode in jeans and jodhpurs or Wellington boots; riding clothes were for special occasions.
And I remember Dad telling me our vet had told him about some brothers near Huddersfield who were winning everything at the local gymkhanas. I have been watching them ever since – they were the Whitakers.
Making the pennies count
This year I will have been riding for over five decades. Fifty-one years ago, I was looking forward with excitement and apprehension to my first riding lesson at Streetly School of Equitation (cost seven shillings and sixpence, stout shoes/boots essential).
A chance purchase by my father of a copy of RS Summerhayes’ Riding on a Small Income, at a jumble sale, provided me with much-needed confidence, coming from a thrifty non-horsey family.
On the appointed Saturday morning, attired in my stout school shoes, borrowed twill jodhpurs, a yellow polo neck and faded second-hand cap (padded around the brim to fit and with the elasticated chinstrap knotted), I waited in the tack room inhaling the sweet aroma of newly soaped leather.
Then, at a brisk walk, came our instructor Gitta Tangye, now remembered for running the Streetly branch of Riding for the Disabled. A crinkly smile and a bright, “Good morning, you must be Wendy, shall we tack your pony up?” and we were off.
An amazing world opened up which has always filled me with a sensory overload of sounds and smells. My first lesson, in which I managed to rise two or three strides to the trot, propelled me into a lifetime of horsey endeavours; looking after horses for friends, Pony Club, as groom on various stages. At the age of 27, finally owning my own horse, and now, delighting in the discovery of trail riding, which I can enjoy with my daughter.
Without doubt, I owe part of my horsey history to Mr Summerhayes – whose charming book I still possess.
The good old days
Around 1954, when I was 10, a friend took me to a riding school and I went on a hack. I had no riding wear and rode in a dress and sandals. Although I bounced about on the poor pony’s back, I got the riding bug.
Soon afterwards my parents bought me a pony and I learned to look after her the hard way. She was a sweet little pony, but so old she had a docked tail. The bridle had no buckles and everything was stitched together. My saddlecloth was a pillowcase I “borrowed” when Mum was not looking. My riding hat was so old it was soft. The only time I wore it was when going to Pony Club and then I had to bake it in the oven to get it hard.
The highlight of the year was Pony Club camp. It was held in Stanley Park, Blackpool, where the Royal Lancashire show was held. Because of the location the ponies had superb accommodation, but we slept on camp beds in an old hangar.
There was no such thing as giving your pony supplements or having your saddle checked, and I can never remember having a vet out. Yes, those were the “good old days”.
This photo was taken at a local gymkhana in Cheshire. I am pictured with my friend Beverley Howlett (née Heath) and her pony Misty. I’m riding Silver, whom my non-horsey parents bought when I was eight and he was three, so it wasn’t ideal, but somehow we managed.
Beverley and I probably hacked there although sometimes we booked a lift in a cattle wagon, which would collect each pony and load them with just a slat between them.
We spent many happy hours hacking for miles – I find it sad that young people and their ponies today are not safe on the roads and miss out on the freedom we had.
Joy Toomer (née Price)
No one-trick pony
I’m one of many riders whose best riding years were in the 1960s and 70s. In the 70s you had one horse and did everything with them; eventing, dressage and showing. My 15.2hh mare, Tearnside Melody, evented when it was called BHS eventing and there were only three categories: novice, intermediate and advanced. She was fab at dressage and a winner in the show ring, too. Most importantly, it was fun.
Fences were huge and nailed together; you didn’t wear back protectors and you had a GP saddle for everything; the only boots you had were felt brushing boots with leather straps that took days to dry, and you only wore two studs, one on each hind foot.
There were no sections for young riders or young horses – simply put, if you were advanced, you were Badminton level.
Horses had no special diets: a few rolled oats to give them a bit of fizz and a bran mash with Guinness was a treat after competing.
The pony pictured is my 13.2hh Steven at the North Shropshire Pony Club branch one-day event. We won our under-12 class and I still have the grooming kit prize.
What is it about me and horses? They have always utterly enthralled me.
When I was a child, all sorts of interesting horse traffic went past our house regularly – rag-and-bone men’s ponies, coal-lorry heavy horses, milk-float horses, and assorted draught and riding horses. Wonderful.
I particularly liked to see one horse – Major – waiting patiently while his owner humped sacks of coal to people’s coal houses. He never moved a muscle until his owner climbed back on to the cart and then off he would go to the next customer, knowing exactly where to stop.
My riding lessons were the pinnacle of my childhood existence. I was allowed one every six weeks when my parents could afford the six shillings.
One particular riding school was run by a woman called Doris, who would ride a large horse to which the ponies were attached on either side, sometimes two at a time. They would be tacked up ready for the riders whom she would collect from their respective homes. When she had a full complement, off we would set at a cracking trot down the main street of St Annes-on-Sea down to the beach.
I often marvel that once life was so free of traffic that ponies with inexperienced little girls on board could rattle through the town unimpeded and vaguely safe. Once on the beach we all went like the clappers – oh the thrill.
A Whitaker leg-up
In the early days of having my own pony, I enjoyed playing cowboys and Indians with friends all atop our hairy little ponies. A tin of soup heated on the Primus stove in the tack room followed, then a hack to nearby woods.
But the one thing I really wanted to do was showjump – like Pat Smythe. Showjumping on TV was everything in those days.
Eventually my wishes came true, and I went from pony showjumpers to horses, under the expert instruction of John Lanni. I was lucky to have a lovely horse, Gilt Edge, who rarely touched a pole and qualified for the Foxhunter final. But he hated water jumps. Once at Lincolnshire Show, he stopped at the water and I sailed “over the handlebars” for a bath. I stood up, emptied my boot, looked up and there was Michael Whitaker leading my horse. He asked if I was OK, and gave me a leg-up. I was so shy I didn’t even say thank you!
My showjumping “career” ended in my early 20s; looking back I’m sorry I stopped. I got back in the saddle three years ago after 30-year break and it was great. The feeling was still there, I still wanted to jump. Thankfully the fences were much smaller this time.
Ref Horse & Hound; 9 July 2020