Gift horses: ‘At 5.45am on Christmas morning, I was on my way to hospital, and all I could say was, ‘I love my pony’’ *H&H Plus*

  • Many children dream of unwrapping a pony at Christmas time – even if they’re in for a rocky ride. Eleanor Jones meets the lucky few whose wishes came true

    When Paula Pearson’s parents planned to buy her a pony for Christmas, they hoped it would be the most magical of mornings. And it was – until the pony threw her into a brick wall. That Christmas Day, also Paula’s fifth birthday, was 61 years ago but Paula remembers every minute, and not just because she was taken straight to hospital.

    Paula explains that she had been “born horse-crazy”, to non-horsey parents. And when her grandfather worked for a local man who bred Welsh ponies, his pay was a stallion.

    “My great-uncle, who would have known better, wasn’t aware,” she said. “A neighbour had delivered the pony in a pick-up truck and by 5.30am, I couldn’t wait any longer.

    “It was dark outside but they put me on the pony and he was fine. Then they wanted a picture. So they took one, with one of those 1950s cameras, which had a flash that would blind you, and as it went off, he threw me into the wall.

    “So at 5.45am on Christmas morning, I was on my way to hospital, and all I could say was, ‘I love my pony; it wasn’t his fault’.”

    Having escaped with bruising, for the next 18 years Paula enjoyed a great relationship with her Christmas present.

    “He was a tough cookie, always pitching me into things; bushes, fences and trees,” she says. “And every time it was the same: ‘He didn’t mean it, Mama!’ But I never looked back, horses were everything to me.”

    Paula named the pony Flicka – she was a fan of the television programme, and “a little too young to understand that Flicka means little girl” – and never looked back, going on to ride and work with horses for years.

    “He was the best present in the whole world; I loved him instantly,” she says. “And it was a Christmas none of us will ever forget.”

    Ellen Pickard also parted company with her equine present hours after she had met him, and was similarly not put off in the slightest.

    “He hadn’t been sat on for a year, but on Christmas Day, I tacked him up, took him into a 10-acre field, and got bucked off,” she says.

    Aged seven, 39 years ago, Ellen had “pestered” her parents continually for a pony of her own, to no avail, so she put her biggest wish in a letter to Father Christmas. Unknown to her, her non-horsey father had bought 11hh part-Shetland Tim over a pint in the pub.

    “I woke up to find a box at the end of my bed, and thought ‘wow’,” Ellen says. “It was stuffed with a lot of newspaper, but as I rummaged down I found a beautiful, tiny pony bridle, with a red and blue velvet browband and a tiny old-fashioned pelham.

    “I ran into the spare room where my granny was lying in bed, saying, ‘Look what I’ve got! There must be a pony somewhere.’ My granny replied: ‘You don’t know, you might get a bridle this year, a saddle next year and a pony the year after.’ My face dropped. Then I looked up and she was smiling.”

    Ellen rushed outside, where the first thing she saw was a pair of small brown ears, just visible over the top of a stable door.

    “Then I made the small error of going in to see him, and leaving the stable door open,” she says. “He shot straight out and made his way back to his old farm, a mile away, over two cattle grids. I had to go back inside and tell my parents he’d gone.”

    Tim and Ellen overcame this inauspicious start, and although it was not long before Ellen grew out of him, he laid the foundations of lifelong horse ownership.

    “My parents said he was my responsibility, and if I didn’t look after him, he goes, and that’s stuck with me,” she says. “He was a beautiful little thing, and became a real pet; I’ve got pictures of him in the sitting room watching Horse of the Year Show.

    “I’d almost given up hope of ever having a pony by that Christmas; for a pony-mad little girl, it was a dream come true.”

    It’s not all Shetlands and Welsh ponies for little girls; showjumper Ben Dalton’s equine Christmas surprise from his wife Charlotte a few years ago was bigger, younger – and possibly less dreamlike at first.

    “We didn’t really have our own horses then, but had talked about buying something for ourselves; or I’d talked and he hadn’t really listened,” Charlotte says. “But he’d seen this mare; an eight-second video of her jumping one fence, and mentioned her to me.

    “Then later, I saw the video again and thought, ‘If I don’t buy her, someone else will.’ So I phoned up the sellers and asked if she had clean X-rays and clinicals and they said yes. So I said on that basis, if you’re sure, I’ll have her.”

    This was just before Christmas and Charlotte could not get hold of her vet to check the X-rays, so taking the risk, she paid for the mare and a friend lent a small lorry to bring her home.

    “On Christmas Eve, Ben was outside working and Kim, the groom, phoned to say she was five minutes away,” Charlotte says. “Ben saw the lorry and thought it was another livery or one to be backed, and thought, ‘Great, another one to do at Christmas.’ Then the kids came running down saying ‘Daddy, Daddy, it’s Ella; she’s your Christmas present!’ She had tinsel in her mane and a note saying ‘Happy Christmas from your wife’; the kids thought it was brilliant.

    “Ben was really happy, but there were definitely a couple of days of frostiness, because I’d emptied the bank account to buy her.”

    The mare is still with the Daltons and has been showing her class, stepping up to 1.30m level this year.

    “He loves her,” Charlotte says. “Three years on, she’s turned into a wonderful horse.”

    Sam Wren had endured years of dashed hopes by 1981. Aged 16, she had been riding at a local stables and for years, had accepted her equine-themed Christmas presents – brushes, a bridle hook to hang her dressing gown on and a headcollar – with “grace and good humour, although I was dying inside”.

    Then her father gave her a haynet, for her dirty laundry, and that was that.

    “I was so upset I threw it on the floor and ran up to my bedroom; enough was enough!” she says. “‘But no,’ they said, ‘It’s a joke. We HAVE bought you a horse!’

    “I was in shock. After years and years of desperate wanting, and them saying no – I was absolutely thrilled.”

    Sam’s parents had bought Heidi, a thoroughbred yearling, from the stud at which Sam worked at weekends, and who had been left out of the sale catalogue by mistake.

    As Heidi was too young to ride, Sam walked her around everywhere “like a dog”, and the pair had 24 years together, during which both Sam’s children rode her.
    Sam still rides, as does her daughter.

    “I hate to think how much I’ve spent on horses over the years, but it’s such a great pleasure,” she says.

    Jenny Martinez had been riding “since I could sit up” as her mother taught at a riding school, but had never had her own pony, until the Christmas she was 14.

    Her mother had bought liver chestnut Brandy some three months beforehand and kept him a secret, and then gave her daughter a clue as to her present by wrapping up a brandy bottle – possibly having shown even more dedication to the cause by emptying it.

    “I looked at her, puzzled, and she said: ‘You’ve got to guess what your present is,’” Jenny explains. “I was crying hysterically, saying, ‘You’ve bought me a pony!’”

    Brandy bronced his way round the school on that Christmas morning, but he and Jenny shared many happy years together.

    “Then, when I was 17, my parents bought me a battered old Polo,” she adds. “And I think you can guess what they wrapped up.

    “I was lucky to have what I did, and nothing will trump getting a pony for Christmas.”

    Keving Johnson and twin brother Barry were five when they were given Shetland Champ, 54 years ago.

    “We were all up on Christmas morning, and Mum and Dad kept saying there was something moving outside,” Kevin says. “I opened the curtain, and there was this pony, so I opened the door, and he came in the house.”

    Kevin and Barry thought this was hilarious, Mrs Johnson less so, especially when young Champ got hold of the Christmas turkey, sitting in all its glory waiting to feed eight people that dinner time, and threw it to the floor.

    “She was horrified, but Dad was laughing,” Kevin said. “I suppose she washed it off or something, and we went outside with Champ.”

    The boys used to ride up and down the back garden of their terraced house, jumping Champ over telegraph poles.

    “We used to ask for a pony every year after that,” says Kevin, who still exercises his daughter Keeva’s eventers, while Barry is chair of the South Durham hunt. “It was almost a disappointment if we didn’t get one!

    “But you can’t get much better than that, can you? A pony for Christmas.”

    Christmas dream vs. long-term reality

    “The gift of a pony for Christmas is a dream for many children, but the reality can be very different,” says a spokesman for World Horse Welfare.

    “Looking after a pony is a year-round, daily commitment, and winter is often the most difficult time for many owners, with cold, wet conditions making everyday tasks much more challenging and short, dark days allowing far less time to ride and spend getting to know the pony.

    “Owning and looking after a pony or horse, especially if you do not already have horses, is a major commitment and should be carefully considered before any decisions. Making sure you can commit to the ongoing financial and physical demands is essential, and we would also advise that the child has been involved in the choosing of any pony, to help ensure they are compatible.

    “If the right pony has been found with care, thought and full awareness of what looking after it involves, Christmas can be a good time to introduce them into the family, but giving a pony as a surprise Christmas gift on impulse can have disastrous consequences, for both the child and the pony.”

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 24 December 2020

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