From contributing to the war effort and transporting horses by train to learning the hard way – H&H readers remember the way things used to be
A royal rally
I have often felt the young of today have no idea what it was like living before and during the war on a farm without today’s “toys”!
I was 10 when the war was declared and virtually an only child with two brothers far older than me. I was reared on a huge farm which was geared to produce food.
“Dig for Victory” was the 1939 slogan and every acre was utilised to do just that, whether in animal or vegetable form.
My entertainment came from 24 Suffolk working horses, a pony and a few tame rabbits. There was the very occasional Pony Club rally in the summer holidays, and Battle of Britain gymkhanas held on a Saturday afternoon in the early 1940s on various local village greens to make a few pennies – for charity of course.
All else came from the wireless, books, or varying degrees of awful events which went with a county covered in air fields erected at speed to help win that wicked war. Blackouts, food rationing and no petrol was the order of the day, and a gas mask was one’s night and day companion.
An awful lot happened in a quiet way during that 1939–45 period. Today’s youngsters would be amazed, and that goes for my great-grandchildren (Piggy March’s nieces), aged 10 and 12.
This photo shows the occasion when Queen Mary requested a private viewing of the West Norfolk Hunt branch of the Pony Club at Sandringham, in the last year of the war. There were about 30 riding members, and we jumped a course and played games for her. Here she is inspecting us after our performance – it was frightening but fun.
Bring back the sport I love
Sadly, endurance is now a dirty word, but it was not always so. I was a founder member of Long Distance Riding (now Endurance GB) as it was then called by the British Horse Society (BHS) in 1975 because they were concerned about the welfare of the horse in this emerging sport. The only ride at that time was the Golden Horseshoe, which the BHS later took over. There were strict qualifying rides of 40 rides before you could enter.
At the pre-ride vetting inspection, the standard of the shoeing was checked, the condition and the fit of the tack was looked at and the vetting was very strict. Penalties were awarded if anything was not up to standard.
I well remember an occasion at the vetting in the yard at the White Horse, Exford. A horse was brought out to be vetted and a clod of straw fell from its foot. “Hasn’t picked its feet out, give it a penalty,” said the vet.
Endurance riding was such a lovely sport, it gave you the opportunity to test your horse’s fitness and your riding ability to complete over tough country like Exmoor, the Black Mountains and the Pennines. It was also an opportunity to ride in beautiful parts of the country not always available to the public.
Sadly endurance racing was introduced to the detriment of the sport as is evident today. There is a move to bring it back to endurance riding again – I hope it is successful so people can enjoy it as I did all those years ago.
A proper education
After I left school in the 1970s I started taking the rides at the local riding stables. No one taught anyone, but I did always have a lead-rein on me and did my best teaching the riders (who were hatless) while we trotted up the bridleway.
I remember an especially big ride I took once. We had run out of string girths so I was happily legged up on a horse with a saddle and no girth and proceeded to ride for an hour – that sorted my balance.
The feed consisted of oats and chaff sourced from the local farmer. It was late 1970s when those odd “pony nut” things arrived on the scene, my boss wouldn’t use them though. The horses were all stall-kept and brought out twice daily for water. They were mostly trace-clipped and even in the coldest winters none wore rugs.
Bright yellow proflavine cream was used for all wounds and I would love to have it again. The horses all had tetanus jabs yearly and wormed twice a year with the only wormer that was available. Nobody had heard of flu jabs and coughing horses were steamed with a nosebag of hay, hot water and eucalyptus. Laminitis wasn’t heard of either.
I progressed to running my own yards and have spent my life teaching. I have several pupils who have gone on to be stars over the years. I wouldn’t change it for the world as it was a far better education than any get these days!
Hacking to the station
Despite being born into a non-horsey family in 1934, I was horse-mad from day one.
I used to get the H&H for sixpence. Around 1947, I discovered a riding school had opened nearby in a suburb of Leeds, which was manna from heaven to me. All my spare time was spent working there for a free weekly ride.
One day the owner asked if I would like to take a thoroughbred called Priory Hill to York Sales. In a flash I said yes. I had to ride him to Leeds city station, where there was a rail box booked, and once there the porters would deal with him.
On the morning of the sale I arrived at the stables at about 6am, where Priory Hill was tacked up in snaffle bridle and no saddle, just a saddle blanket with surcingle.
How I got to Leeds city station in rush hour, through tramlines and traffic lights, was more by luck than anything. As I rode into the station I was met by a flurry of porters wanting to know what I was doing there. The horse carriage was already attached to the passenger train, and he loaded like a saint from the platform as the train smoked and steamed.
The owner was at York to meet us and sadly I never heard of Priory Hill again. My return home was not without incident but that is another story.
A wartime memento
From ploughing to being a pony granny, horses have always been part of my life.
I left school in 1940 age 14 and went straight into working on the farm, having been around horses with my dad from an early age. Ploughing was a favourite – the horses did all the work, you just had to walk behind. I always regret I never learned to ride when I was young but I wasn’t allowed to ride the work horses.
This photo shows me sitting on Billy in the hay field with a friend’s baby. The picture was taken to send to the baby’s father, who was away at war.
When I married, we had a hill farm, and we always kept a horse in case we needed to get out in the snow as we didn’t have a phone – a good excuse!
Ref Horse & Hound; 9 July 2020