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A Wild Horse Fantasy

My obsession with horses apparently began at a very early age. There was absolutely no family background for this obsession to occur. My mother and father had never even been close to a horse, other than those which featured in their lives as working animals. They were city folk.

I was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and we lived there, in safer times. The front door was always open if the weather was kind. One morning my mother couldn’t find me and ran out the front door to see me sitting cross-legged among the four great feathered hooves of the milkman’s delivery horse, goo-ing and giggling and stroking those feathers. I was about 18 months old, and my horse-obsessed journey has never faltered since.

I cannot now remember when I first read a horsey book, although I was apparently a precocious reader. Even if I cannot recall the precise moments of entering the world of fictional horses and riders, I know that my childhood was infused with the characters from this horsey world:

Black Beauty and Ginger (Black Beauty, Anna Sewell, 1877); Velvet and The Pie (National Velvet, Enid Bagnold, 1935); Alec and The Black (The Black Stallion, Walter Farley, 1941); Ken and Flicka (My Friend Flicka, Mary O’Hara, 1941); Ken and Flicka’s son, Thunderhead (Thunderhead, Mary O’Hara, 1943 – I still have a movie tie-in edition of Thunderhead, with great stills from the Roddy McDowell movie); Jill and her Black Boy (Jill’s Gymkhana, Ruby Ferguson, 1949), more recently politically corrected to Danny Boy; Darren and his Snow Cloud (Snow Cloud Stallion, Gerard Raftery, 1953).

I spent my childhood and early adulthood yearning for a horse of my own, finally achieving that goal only at the advanced age of 26. Until then, I had spent my life immersed in horsey books, elaborate fantasies, wishful thinking, and riding other peoples’ horses with varying degrees of success. Somehow it never felt the same as it did in the books.

My most elaborate – and most heart-breaking – fantasy came from a competition being run by the UK’s Daily Mail, when I was an 8-year-old child in England in 1958.  Somehow or other, the prize was a pony.

I can only imagine the panic such a competition must have engendered in the parents of pony-mad children, no doubt involving hiding the paper from yearning eyes, and other clever strategies.

I saw the ad for the competition and entered. I was convinced that I was going to win this pony. He was already mine as soon as I entered the competition. I saw myself leading him into the garden of our tiny (rented) cottage in Berkshire, putting him to bed in his (non-existent) stable, riding him around the lanes, all tacked up in his (non-existent) gear, transporting him to Miss Smith’s riding school on the weekends in his (non-existent) float, drawn by my father’s real (and miniscule) Austin A35.

I lived deep within this fantasy for weeks, waiting for the announcement that the pony was being delivered to me. So real was this that 60 years later, I can still recall almost all its details; however, that reality is nowhere near as vivid as my heartbreak when the winner was announced, and it wasn’t me.

I demanded that my mother write to the editor and check that he hadn’t made a mistake. It may not be too long a reach to state that this disappointment and sense of loss underlay my lifelong yearnings to own my own horse, and may also be a link to another of my extended and elaborate fantasies as a child, one which I dangerously acted out.

Darren, the hero of Snow Cloud Stallion (1953) comes across a magnificent white stallion in the woods, which of course bolts off when sighted. Darren returns, riding his mare Goldilocks, with a halter and some pellets.

The stallion reappears, demonstrates that he was once at least tractable, so Darren slips off his mare (yes, mare), places the halter on Snow Cloud, and starts riding him bareback. I think Goldilocks obligingly takes herself home.

He eventually ‘tames’ the stallion, but of course, trouble is looming. Trouble always looms in horse books; in fact, it looms in all animal stories, I believe.

I can’t find my copy of Snow Cloud Stallion now and cannot remember the ending, but I do remember the cover illustration, of a superb white stallion, with flowing mane and tail, propping hard on the back legs, ears pinned.

Snow Cloud inspired a new fantasy for me: I would find a wild horse, tame it, and ride on to fame and glory.

We lived in the Berkshire countryside by this time and I was at boarding school, coming home only for the occasional weekend and the school holidays.

Both my parents worked in London and I usually spent the day time at home alone. This was perfectly acceptable then, I promise. While my parents were at work I would happily wander about our village, dressed in my jodhpurs and carrying my crop, in the hope that someone would magically offer me a ride on their pony. They never did.

I was a solitary child, with a vivid imagination. I drove a team of 8 black horses from a fork in the apple tree; I trained one of our cats to compete in Olympic show jumping over an obstacle course made in a trench in the snow; my best school friend and I rehearsed and perfected an elaborate system, complete with reins and bit, in which we would impersonate horse and rider, one behind the other, cantering about the schoolyard, one neighing and snorting, the other shouting ‘Hup!’ as we flew in perfect synchrony over quite large obstacles.

At the time, I was taking riding lessons with Miss Smith, one lesson each school holidays, at 5 guineas each, plus occasional extra lessons at mid-term weekends at home.

My father had foolishly promised me a riding lesson any time I came top of the class. With pride, may I say that this promise cost him a fortune? Miss Smith taught the Queen and her two older children to ride, and had a large plaque in the stable block, confirming her ‘By Royal Appointment’ status.

She was ruthless and unforgiving. In the entire time I had lessons with her, she never once let me off the leading rein. She towered above me on her hunter, clad in a tweed jacket and a bowler hat, armed with a short thick stick, with which she would whack Toby the pony on the head, should he make a grab at passing grass, shouting ‘Come up, sir!’.

Leading rein or not, we walked, trotted, cantered, galloped and jumped small fences, side by side, Toby going flat out to keep up with her giant hunter. Toby wore a double bridle for all these lessons, and I was taught from the outset the correct use of the snaffle and the curb bits, and the reins.

I would have the entire term at school to populate my horsey dreams with what I would do during these one-hour lessons: Miss Smith would be so impressed with my riding skills that she would let me off the leading rein, invite me to jump the course set up in the arena, and then, impressed with my ability, leg me up onto her hunter and send me forth to conquer the equestrian world.

Sadly, in the real world, we trotted along, with me occasionally being smacked on the head when she missed Toby’s. The most exciting things that ever happened were as follows: first, one of the grooms let me ride one of the school horses bareback in his loose box, so enormous in size that we could actually canter round it. The groom was fired.

Second, one day once mounted, we were all issued with pieces of tissue paper and told to keep them between our knees and the saddle, at risk of no longer being able to take part in the lesson should we drop one. I had an itchy ankle, leant down to scratch it and promptly lost my tissue paper. My father also lost his 5 guineas, as this happened before the lesson even started.

Third, Miss Smith invited me to join the riding school in going hunting with the local, very famous hunt club. I could ride Toby, we wouldn’t jump, just gallop with the hunt, still on the leading rein, all for the reasonable cost of 75 guineas. My father earned 5 guineas a week. Needless to say, I never went hunting, on Toby or any other horse.

But to return to my wild horse fantasy: on one of my solitary school holiday meanders, parents safely away at work, I came across a group of horses (probably ponies, really) in a series of connected fields. There were about 7 or 8 of them, good looking, friendly, and always happy to accept a carrot or an apple from me. One in particular I admired, a lovely bay horse with a long mane and a thick tail.

After a few visits, I grew bold and would go into the field with them all, running alongside them as they trotted and cantered about. I felt as though I was one of their herd. In my mind, my little bay friend transformed into Snow Cloud, a glowing smoky grey, huge, wild, both a threat and a challenge.

One day when I was visiting the horses, Snow Cloud was standing conveniently by the gate, so I just slid my leg over his back and grabbed a handful of mane. He walked off, followed by all the others, and then suddenly we were in a wild sideshow alley ride, belting down to a narrow gate into the next part of the field, swinging around the corner and cantering off to the next one. I have no idea how I stuck on, but in my mind Snow Cloud and I were galloping through the wintery pine forest, merging our futures into one superb dream of greatness.

I did this day after day, calling the bay horse over to the fence, slinging a leg and careering off around the fields, with the others in joyous pursuit. Until one evening someone knocked on our door, to tell my parents that their wild child had been riding his stallion in a mad scramble around his fields, upsetting his mares, and risking her life. Snow Cloud was real!

I had been riding an unbroken stallion, leading his mares in a wild gallop for minutes at a time – a girl who had never been off a leading rein before. Fantasy became reality for me on that day. How did a timid rider who even into her 30s was nervous about riding anywhere but an indoor school manage to subsume her fears into her fantasies? This remains one of the great questions in my horsey life.

While I may have waited nearly 30 years to achieve my own horse ownership goal, I have never stopped reading books about horses. I have read every word that Dick Francis wrote, all of his books being re-read multiple times.

His capacity to describe horses and the feelings associated with being around horses is unparalleled, in my opinion. (By the way, Dick Francis’ father worked for Miss Smith.)

As an adult I have read some seriously good horse books: Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley; The Horse Whisperer, by Nicholas Evans (the opening sequence is almost unequalled in its descriptive power, resonating kinaesthetically with anyone who has ever ridden a horse); Riders by Jilly Cooper, a horse rider’s secret guilty pleasure; and Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart, written by a supreme story teller who introduces the haunting beauty of the famous Lipizzaner horses into a romantic thriller.

At the moment, I am reading a series of young adult novels by Claire Svendsen, available on Amazon, about a young girl from a troubled and unhappy background who aspires to Olympic show jumping selection and who rides a splendid pony, Bluebird. I recommend these to anyone who yearns for old-fashioned horsey books. I have just finished number 45 in the series, and I am still as thrilled with them as I was at the beginning.

I must also confess that as a child I was an avid collector of ‘how to’ books. I bought them with my own saved pocket money or was given them as gifts by wised-up relatives. They formed the knowledge background to my dreams and fantasies, and introduced in tangible form the horse and rider heroes who peopled my horsey world. I still have these books.

Horses have populated my dreams, my aspirations, and my life. Did my youthful fantasies mould my adult life? Probably so. Was it just good luck that my dream job came up at exactly the right time in my life? Probably not.

As CEO of Equestrian Australia during the 1990s and early 2000s, my tenure included our home-based Sydney Olympic Games, surely every horse-lover’s dream. I had the opportunity to meet many current heroes, people and horses, and one or two childhood heroes as well. Showjumper David Broome, who featured in several of my childhood ‘how to’ books on his amazing horse Wildfire, signed his photo in one of my treasured books when I tracked him down at the Games. ‘What a memory!’, he wrote.

My horsey reading and my horsey experiences have never conspired to provide me with a gendered viewpoint about horses and their role in my life.

While my childhood horse and pony novels may have invented a world in which girls were more likely to be represented, my real-world experience reflected an almost equal representation of both male and female heroes, as well as male and female hero horses, and of course the one hero whose deeds I actually did try to emulate was male: Darren from Snow Cloud Stallion.

As an adult horse owner, I have only ever ‘owned’ geldings, but now as a 70-year-old rider, my current steed is a mare with a difficult temperament on the ground and a firm and abiding hatred of the horse she sees approaching her in the mirrors in the indoor school. The closer she approaches to her own image, the more she pins her ears and moves into attack mode. Sometimes it is interesting when the two actually meet.

On the other hand, she is the first horse I have ever ridden who can piaffe when asked, as against as an evasion from too much pressure. She has given me the best rides of my life, and I am now the best rider I have ever been.

That is all a horse-mad girl could want.

Denzil O'Brien

Denzil O’Brien has worked in several distinct areas over her career: epidemiological research in spinal cord injury and horse-related injury; sports management (including 5 years as CEO of Equestrian Australia); project management with the Sixth World 3DE Championships in Adelaide in 1986; and originally scientific and educational editing. She was Management Committee member and Secretary of the Horse Federation of South Australia (Horse SA). Denzil has published on various topics, including risks in eventing and risks for horses in jumps racing.

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