Sicklejay entered our lives when I was about twelve. He was a beautiful, dapple grey Connemara, with a white mane and tail and would have looked perfect on a set of rockers. Our kindly Uncle thought he would be just the thing to help us kids take our minds from the recent loss of our Mum. He certainly did just that!
At 14.3 hands high, the horse towered over me like a wall of compressed muscle (I was four foot six in my wellies). He was the utter personification of all that is evil in a horse! I knew it from the minute he was delivered, kicking at the sides of the horse box, and this was before he dragged me from the garden over the fence, via the rose bush, while I clung on to his reins. The jerky cine-film, that my Uncle took of the event, shows the silent but still uproarious delight, of the rest of my family and the various neighbours and farmworkers who had gathered around to feel his withers and fetlocks, and try to determine his age by looking at his teeth. I seem to be doing some silent crying.
My Dad, who had run away to become a Jockey in his youth, believed himself to be the fount of all knowledge when it came to horses. He yelled things like “horses know when you’re frightened of them” and “you have to show them who’s in charge”, which was a bit difficult under the given circumstances and when the line had already been drawn.
I was shown how to feed an apple to him by holding my fingers flat, to avoid being bitten in the process. Unfortunately, that didn’t take account this horse’s ability to suck up like a hoover as well. No matter how flat I held my fingers, my hand would disappear up to the wrist into his maw and be savagely nipped in the process, and so I would do some crying when I was told to “do it again but this time properly.”
This was the start of a hate hate relationship. We lived very close to a racing stables where “the fount of all horse knowledge” had somehow managed to get stabling for “Sick” (as we fondly called him). His stable was right in the entrance to the yard, which was of course an honour, but also meant that my horse wrangling skills were under the constant observation and ribald commentary of the passing. Strings of diminutive professionals, astride their colossal, glossy coated and impeccably controlled, thoroughbreds.
I would try and sneak into the stables at four o’clock in the morning, to muck him out before I had to do my five mile paper round in the hope of avoiding the daily hoots of derision from the Jockeys. Unfortunately, the owner of the stables was an even earlier riser and he usually met me, red faced, with demands that my Father “get up to date with the rent” and “why the hell had I put that horse muck where I had”. I swear, that dung heap was never in the same place that it had been the day before!
It goes without saying, that horses, no matter how evil, need exercise. I’d been shown how to saddle him up, but he had more nasty tricks up his fetlocks! I’d put his saddle on his back, then crawl underneath him trying to catch hold of the girth strap and avoid his flailing hooves, which he could spark against the floor for added effect (I don’t recommend doing this while wearing flip flops). After managing to catch hold of the strap, I then had to marry it up with the buckle, while the horse leant on me, against the stable wall. So far so good, I was showing him who was boss! I then attempted to tighten the girth, which must be a bit like getting a Victorian lady into a corset, but using knees, shoulders and teeth I managed to achieve the required degree of torque. What I hadn’t appreciated was that the horse had been breathing in as I had done this. The knock on effect was, as I bounced, nay bucked, out of the stable, on the horses back, he had breathed out and now the saddle, with me on it, was slowly sliding around and underneath him, with a now flapping girth strap. The Jockeys at that point, of course, were all to a man, out on a smoking break. It is impossible to maintain any form of dignity, in front of a crowd of professionals when you are hanging upside down from a horse’s belly and trying to hold on with your knees. The Jockeys were now rolling around slapping each other on the back because they cannot breathe for laughing. I did a bit of crying.
The halcyon days of boy and his horse were numbered. I had had visions of riding along a sunny shoreline to the strains of “on white horses” but I had proved to be totally useless and inept in the saddle. Eric from the pub, who was a year older than me, and could control his own horse “very easily”, rode up, in his immaculate boots, jodhpurs and hacking jacket to ride out with me and show me how it ought to be done. Scorn poured on humiliation again, when he spotted my riding hat which was my Dad’s old white scooter helmet, complete with goggles. For some reason he changed his mind about the ride, but it got around school.
I was relegated to “lunging” the horse to exercise and train him. To lunge effectively, one is supposed to stand in the middle of a field with the horse on a long rope, letting it run in an elegant circle around one, until the horse gets tired and submits to one’s control. In our case we managed a few jerky circles, before I discovered that the rope was getting substantially shorter each turn the horse took and that he had effectively bound me up, to the point that he had managed to come within biting distance. I was kicked sharply in the ribs and painfully winded, before he ran off at full pelt and I was suddenly shot across the field, like a top from a whip. Fortunately, or rather unfortunately, as it turned out, letting go of the rope.
The horse was last seen heading towards the allotments. I did a lot of crying, but that was from the clip around the ear I got from the “fount of all horse knowledge”, because I had let Sicklejay run off and Basil from the Bag Wash had phoned from the pub to tell him the horse had overtaken his laundry van on the way to Leeds.
To everyone’s enormous relief, a new home had to found for the horse. I think he was described as “free from vice and good with children” and by all accounts he subsequently turned out to be just that!
I did some more crying… but this time for joy!
Find out about Mel’s exhibition here.
TagsArts & Culture General