An illustration from The Horsemasters by Don Stanford

‘The Horsemasters’ the book that inspired a way of life

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I was lucky enough to be an only child in a family that had horses. My mother had met my father when she was employed as a groom from the same stable that he bought his best eventer!

Being with horses and riding was how I spent my childhood. When I wasn’t with them, and sometimes when I was, I would be reading a ‘horse’ book. These came in many forms, from talking horses to short stories about heroes on horses.

I didn’t like reading when I was first taught. I have to assume it was the subjects that came in ‘my first reader’ nearly half a century ago. From what I recall, I was capable, but disliked it and saw no point in making the effort.

My parents were avid readers, and thoroughly disappointed that their little girl wouldn’t do it. Until Mum had an idea. She bought a child’s book with lovely and expressive pictures, of a black pony and a chestnut horse with a young boy. And both of my parents categorically refused to read it to me.

The book was “Little Black, a pony” by Walter Farley (1961) who also wrote the “Black Stallion” series. I believe it was solely responsible for my capitulation to agree to read and, ultimately, my understanding that to read was to enter whole new worlds: of horses!

“The Horsemasters” by Don Stanford, published in 1958, had the most influence on my life with horses. The mere smell of its pages brings back so many memories of hours spent with my beloved ponies; or dreaming of a stable with steeds of all colours, adept at all disciplines and producing multiple blue ribbons!

The Horsemasters is a novel about a group of youngsters preparing for the “Horsemastership Certificate”, a British Horse Society examination that was a precursor to one that I took myself at age 15 (which made me the youngest from my area to attempt it). Our Chairman of Pony Club initially refused and only relented after my coach gave testimony of my standard.

There were six of us in our exams, I was the youngest by at least two years and was the only one to pass. I put that pass down partially to the learning I received from The Horsemasters.

I emulated my imaginary friends. I studied beforehand, just as the Horsemasters had in the book. In particular, just like the heroine Dinah, I studied a veterinary journal, but what I remembered most vividly, both in my exam and now, is the description of thrush, “characterised by an offensive smelling discharge and a ragged appearance of the frog”.

This was announced gleefully by one character to the heroine of the book when her horse was found to have it because “it is usually caused by dirty stabling”. This then resulted in a mock argument which taught the reader that this is not the only reason a horse would get the disease and caused the whole exchange to stick in my memory. This is fortunate because the Adelaide Hills are wet, and thrush starts easily here.

As I said, my Mother worked as a groom and I knew she had worked for a chap called “Frenchblake”. Whilst I would have identified with the main character anyway because she was female, I mostly identified with her because her situation had many similarities to Mum.

In my imagination, I went through this book with a young version of my Mother. It was Mum’s trials and tribulations and ultimate success and enjoyment that I was living. For me, the book’s horse characters were those in the black and white photos in Mum’s ‘horses’ album, with names as familiar to me as those of my own ponies.

The human characters too were from her time at “Frenchblake’s” yard, all carefully catalogued in her album. The main character is not the best rider or necessarily the most popular, but she is a worker and a fighter: that was what I looked up to and empathised with.

Dinah was not fond of early rising, with which I identified. However, she was responsible and not only would she get herself out to her morning horse duties, but she would ensure her friend was looked after in the process – the friend being worse than she was.

I think that these older books taught me that honour and helping others is the correct way to be. That responsibility is necessary around animals and that anything less than these is punished. Of course this was then reinforced by the behaviour of my real animals!

And it’s a book about Horsemanship. I read about how to keep a yard full of horses and that it’s very hard work if you do it properly.

I understood that there are standards to uphold and that I didn’t want to be sloppy. To a strong extent it was from this book I decided that whilst I wanted horses as a hobby, I did not want horses as a career and that this is actually ok.

I learnt that the love of horses surpasses race and gender. I noted that although there were youthful boys and girls of multiple nationalities all working alongside each other, there was no time or need for romance and no quarter was given for the ‘weaker’ sex.

Whilst there was some rivalry between the really good riders, this was based on that ability not on their gender. They all muck in together, form strong friendships, laugh at each other, tease each other and help each other out when it’s needed.

The horse sports are the only ones where men and women compete on a level playing field and I think this book started my education in understanding this.

Partway through the book, The Horsemasters are divided into two teams, each team working for the opportunity to go to a special event.

Now I learnt about team work and the importance of a catalyst and a common goal to promote team work. The teams are working for their goal, but they all have one common enemy which unites them and that is the Head Groom with the inapt name of Mercy. We learn to dislike Mercy, but when she has a fall, we are concerned. Then, at the end, when the twist comes, we understand that sometimes it’s a very lonely role to lead others to be their best.

Often, when I am hot, tired and thirsty having worked hard to get everything correct for my animals, I recall a late chapter passage. In it, the Horsemasters are released late on their exam day and realise that they have been so busy they have not looked after their horses. This had been their task every day for thirteen weeks. They race to the stables only to find that Mercy has single-handed completed the work that was usually done by the 14 Horsemasters!

Dinah is doing the certificate in order to realise her dream, not to ride horses, but to attend a particular college with her best friend. The college will take her on if she pays her way through working as assistant riding mistress. To be accepted, she must pass the certificate.

I went to a paid for school and whilst I didn’t have to work my way through, my parents gave me choices. I could either have horses or have all the pretty things my friends had, such as the latest in toys, shoes or whatever fad there was at the time. I never felt that I was left out though, I loved my life with the horses and to be fair, Mum made sure I was never completely without anything.

I had to work with my current pony to improve his schooling in order to better him for sale for when I outgrew him – so I could buy the next sized horse. From the  book, I got a sense of what in adulthood we all learn: that we must sacrifice in order to get what we think important. This value driven thread reinforced that bravery and doing what is morally right, is not just necessary but normal.

My father was a solicitor by profession and has published multiple second world war history books. As a child, I was taught that honesty and responsibility are essential to how I conduct myself. The real life heroes about whom Dad writes are often characters of outstanding bravery, with strong leadership skills, but they retain empathy for others. Luck also plays its part.

In The Horsemasters, the characters that stand out for me are those who display some of these traits. Dinah the main character of course, but also David, who was bucked off his horse and bravely remounted until he was able to get it right. Mercy I have already discussed, and the Polish Captain Pinski who was cheated in his riding ambitions by the war but has settled into his role of Instructor with a cheerful heart.

My personal beliefs include being fair; hard work can expect reward; and hope for the element of good luck. My career successes have been influenced by my values. As a successful leader I am told I am ‘firm but fair’, as an employee I am rewarded because I am honest and forthright, but will still toe the line.

I have remained with one company for 25 years, through three distinct career paths. I hope to remain with the company for as long as it has clear values which are in tune with my own. When I review this book I can see that much of the influence it had on me was as a reinforcement of what I hold to be important.

In this book I learnt about some of the basic horse husbandry requirements. The disease colic was discussed because the Horsemasters had lessons with Mr Ffolliott a retired vet. Colic is a horrid disease and quite common in horses, I have dealt with it myself since and having an introduction was very useful.

Often, when I make hay nets for my horses, I have a vivid picture of a passage in the book where two of the boys made a wisp out of hay. The girls watch the twisting of hay into a rope and the weaving of the wisp and then decide to have a go for themselves: without great success. I myself tried years ago to replicate this using baling twine, also without success, and these days I can’t remember the last time I saw, let alone used one.

In the book we meet all the different types of instructors that one meets in the course of a lifetime with horses. There’s the furious, then the calm and knowledgeable; the one that makes you feel like a disappointment and the one who makes you feel like you are gifted.

And we learn that each has something useful to impart, that we can take parts from each to make our own truth bound together by a single thread. That horses are “all such individuals” and we must ride in a way suitable to the individual we are on, and with empathy and kindness. I learnt some of the subtleties of riding with these imaginary instructors on the imaginary horses in the book. I learnt that my horse would listen to the instructor’s command rather than my own if I did not keep her engaged, and that my heel may lift in rising trot.

I learned that to fall is a part of riding and whilst preferably avoided, it is inevitable.

This book taught me about using a “grid” for inexperienced horses and/ or riders. I gather from a retired mounted policeman friend that he was put through a grid just as described in the book.

I myself have used a less intimidating version when training children on ponies, or my own young horses. With the former so they can feel the rhythm of the horse’s movement through a jump and with the latter to teach them to go forward and to ‘see the stride’ for themselves.

With the benefit of hindsight, possibly the most influential passages for my later life decisions were the two descriptions of Hunter Trials.

In the first, Dinah rides a fair sized course on the horse she has been responsible for grooming throughout her study. He’s an old and clumsy fellow and she has wondered aloud more than once why he is kept by such a prestigious school. When she takes him around the course she discovers why! He was born to hounds and cross country is what he loves and knows best.

Many years later when I re-read the book, my imagination swapped my own dear eventer into the frame of ‘Cornish Pasty’ and we were at Mt Gambier charging around the course there. Such memories are triggered by the vivid writing of each fence and the feelings of Dinah, which mirror real life.

Next we go to a big local event and watch the instructors ride the horses there with aplomb. We learn how to follow a class in such a way as to see as much as possible. Now I see my parents and I walking around Badminton in the United Kingdom or my husband and I walking around Adelaide International, the description is vivid and realistic.

Growing up I was only very rarely allowed to take on the fixed fences of cross country as Mum said she couldn’t bear to watch another family member take on the danger as Dad had. Instead, I competed in higher level affiliated show jumping. But my imagination was fired by the realistic descriptions in the book.

I had the knowledge, from the rare occasions I had been allowed to try, that the descriptions, whilst excellent, were still outstripped by the real thing. Had I not read the book (and read it repeatedly) would I have evented anyway? Given that was what my Dad did very successfully on horseback, maybe. But I lost interest in riding horses whilst still in the UK after a couple of serious accidents.

Several years later in Australia, when the opportunity arose to spend time with horses, the bug bit me again: ultimately leading me past my familiar show jumping discipline into the three phase competition because I desperately wanted to do the cross country!

Eventing is now my sport, it is why I get up early and work late, what I train my horses for and spend my money on. This is my raison d’etre and The Horsemasters inspired that passion in me which was nurtured through real life until it became my life. It wasn’t about gender or romance, it was about working hard for a goal, enjoying the journey, relishing the teamwork and the friendships that are forged within the sport and realising that living life with horses can make it as idyllic as a thoroughly splendid novel.

Judith Newton
Judith Newton

Born in the UK, Judith came to Australia, aged 21, for a holiday. She fell in love with the country and way of life and settled in South Australia. Married to Craig, Judith lives with him, one cat, two miniature show ponies and two, home trained, full sized competition horses on a small property. Professionally Judith is an incentives specialist, personally Judith is known in the local horse eventing scene both as a volunteer and as a rider with a smile on her face whenever she is in the saddle.

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