Nicky Chalk on busy Saturdays, old-fashioned values and accidental horse-swapping
I started learning to ride at the local riding school when I was 10. A couple of years later a friend lent me a pony and I went out with the South and West Wilts and caught the bug. Once I had my own pony, I used to skive off school to go hunting.
I started doing a few hunter liveries alongside my freelance jobs when I was 19, before setting up my own yard 16 years ago.
I have been working with hunters for 28 years and it has got harder. Owners are more demanding, staff are harder to source and the horses are more difficult. Many horses that arrive from Ireland have had a poor start, so it takes longer to put them right.
A normal day in late summer starts at 6.30am. The horses come in and are fed and exercised. I have 17 at the moment; 15 of them are liveries. My helpers include several retired people who enjoy riding and come to exercise for me. I also have a part-time girl, a couple of Sunday girls and three schoolgirls who hunt on Saturday.
On a hunting day I start at 5.30am. The first job is the main barn; every horse is mucked out, hayed and watered before we leave. There are normally 12 at most going out on a Saturday. Tack cleaning and plaiting is done the night before so in the morning we just have to oil their hooves and put a hot cloth over them before tacking up. I hunt every Saturday and take five on the lorry – most of my clients collect their horses.
On two occasions my owners have taken the wrong horses. One came back saying, “You haven’t put Rupert’s flash on, he doesn’t have a neck strap on.” Another took a horse and was about to leave with it, when the real owner arrived asking, “Where’s my horse?”
When we get back, the girls strip the horses and I wash them and look them over. I am home by about 9.30pm, and if I’m lucky someone will order some pizzas.
People are much softer with their horses than they used to be. I say: “The only time your horse has to behave is when you are riding it. That is only a small proportion of a horse’s week.” I also insist that all my clients have regular lessons, flat and jumping.
Turning a difficult horse around is the most satisfying part of my job. You work them hard, give them lots of autumn hunting, get them into a routine and they soon look a different horse. Most respond well to the routine of a big yard and can chill out.
Sometimes a client will bring one in and I think, “Oh my God, what have you brought?” but we’ve never failed to turn them around after a few months.
My favourite horse on the yard is my own horse Jasper. We bought a lorry online from Newcastle and he came as part of the deal, arriving in the middle of the night with the lorry. At first I couldn’t clip or shoe him, or lead him in from the field, and he would barge out of the stable. Out hunting, he’d stand on his hindlegs when you got on. I’ve had him for two-and-a-half seasons and he has become the best and bravest hunter – he loves and appreciates his life.
The best lesson I’ve learnt is to go with your instincts. A lot of the old values and methods still work, such as walking a horse for six weeks when it comes up from grass. We still do that.
Ref Horse & Hound; 29 October 2020