The Story of Leader (so far)

Another good article contributed by Maj. Roger Hannington (Retired).

THE STORY OF LEADER (so far)

If you have ever read Horse Sense and Sensibility written under the nom-de-plume of Crascredo then you are probably showing your age but you may also be aware of a delightful but sorrowful little bit of whimsy within the volume entitled Empty Stables. Well, it all started a bit like that. (I will leave you to look it up! www.abebooks.co.uk  will find it for you.)

I  lay in bed and thought that the stables, which had been built well over a hundred years ago, were,  in the modern parlance, a tip. They were filled with junk. They had been stripped many years ago and turned into a cow byre. Then they had been converted into a pottery; and then a wood turnery. A long strip of floor had been dug up and a concrete sluice constructed for the convenience of  the cows. The doors hung from their hinges, the windows were broken and there was little sign of horse; and there had probably been no horse since the Army took the place over during the war. The Hitler war that is!

Once the place had been emptied, by looking into the light it was possible to see where the wear had taken place on the floor and to deduce where the partitions must have been. Faint rust marks on the walls and floor confirmed it. Careful removal of layers of paint revealed in the corners the curved outline of corner hay racks; clean within and with the greasy marks of the horse’s muzzle still outlining the curve. I had actually found part of the horse! From here enthusiasm took hold. A large sledge hammer and practice for Dartmoor Prison broke up the concrete sluice and uncovered the old drainage system beneath. Visits to older houses in the area indicated the style of stable fittings that had then been in vogue.

The long and the short of it was a restoration of the stable block with all its fittings; a central door opening onto two loose boxes , one at either end with two stalls in between; all lined with wood; and I confess to two brass chandeliers.

It was a fine stables, or Horse House, as it is called, but it was my wife who then said that it was a pity that after so much work there was no horse. I had not ridden for some years but it sparked the idea. I imagined the sound of munching , the shuffling of straw and the occasional snort. At first I thought that it would be a good idea to offer a retirement home to an Army horse or two that would be content to plod around the fields and to be ridden occasionally at a trot along the lanes and bridle paths. A suitable horse was not available and I began to look at the back pages of Horse & Hound for something similar.

Under the circumstances I had not bothered with a veterinary inspection but had backed my own judgment. I bought a tired looking, ex-steeplechaser from a young woman who had in turn bought him not long before from a racing stable after an undistinguished racing career in the hope of having a point-to-point winner.

There had been a sense of exhilaration in clearing the hay barn and stacking bales of hay and straw and of fencing the fields in anticipation of his arrival, in setting out a schooling area and a few poly jumps. I had a horse again! The day came when he arrived – a 16.2hh Thoroughbred bay gelding, eleven years old,  gaunt, very ribby, pelvic bones standing proud, a wispy tail and a short frazzled mane that looked as if it had been burned. His hind quarters had some muscle on the nearside and just sloped off on the right. He had a nasty lesion under the brisket.

After his journey and his change of environment he had a rest day. I walked him in hand around the perimeter of the fields and talked to him and showed him the steep places and the rocks and then turned him loose for the day.

The following day I saddled Leader and mounted him and found myself flat on the ground on the other side. He had moved off very smartly; and I had gone over the top! I was soon to learn that this was his normal practice and  it was also with difficulty that I could persuade him to do other than walk. A new saddle which fitted and was easy on his withers solved much of these  problems. I took him into the fields and found that I had a horse that would not go down a slope and that was very reluctant to turn right.  He showed no reaction to leg pressure at all. He did not favour any pace other than walking or galloping, preferably on a  left hand curve.  It turned out  fortunately that he was brilliant in traffic and treated it with total disdain.

In his box he would not allow any attention in the vicinity of his ears or poll and was very wary of the right hand side of his neck being handled or even of my standing to the right of his neck.  Grooming his underbelly or stifle area would elicit a swipe from a hind foot but apart from this he was an easy friendly boy.

I thought about what I had  and what I should do. The realisation came to me that for the first time I had my own horse in my own stable and that I could put into practice my own ideas about how a horse should be treated, about stable management and equitation.. Well — not all my own ideas because they were based upon what I had learned from the writings of Colonel McTaggart (whose writings I commend to you)  and Waldemar Seunig  , from the instruction of the Army Veterinary establishment at Melton Mowbray and from the none too gentle attentions of the one-time Riding Master of the Life Guards. Nevertheless I imagine that we all evolve our own theories and I was no exception. In essence I believe that a horse responds essentially to kindness,  gentleness and patience coupled with consistency and firmness. Just because a horse shows little facial expression and does not speak English does not mean that he does not think or understand. Always talk to the horse. Show him what you are doing.  (Forgive me; I am preaching).

Mr Munch  (That is not his name but that is how he came to be addressed in the stable) had been ridden in a Pelham with roundings and I was never sure about those things so I put  an egg-butt Mullen Mouth in his mouth with the thought that if he carted me into the next county I could always move up to a jointed snaffle or back to a Pelham. We walked each day this way and that way and round about.   Then we progressed to the trot. Always there was exactly the same amount of work on one rein as the other. This was an intelligent horse who learned fast. He had had no idea about opening and closing gates but at the third attempt he had got it.

I came to realise that as long as I was meticulous about using the body brush in the direction of hair growth my boy  became  more relaxed and with the reward of a piece of carrot whenever he behaved well he learned fast. Always I talked to the horse and he was never patted vigorously, just stroked and caressed..  He did not like fingers near his face but with the fingers folded in he could be stroked.

The months passed  and by last autumn he was a fit active horse. He stood to be mounted. He had put on muscle in all the right places. The high points of his pelvis had almost disappeared. His coat was glossy and his mane and tail were silken.  He responded to light pressure from the fingers or the leg. I still rode him in the Mullen Mouth at all paces. He could perform a half-pass and I could ride him in a figure of eight without reins. He was a joy;  and I realised that he was one of the finest horses it had been my privilege to ride; and over the years I have ridden a few. We had such plans. He has a sweet and gentle nature, he would greet me with licks and hold me by the sleeve when he was led. He would come from the field when called and walk at my elbow without a headcollar. He would lower his head to have his ears stroked. We had become great friends. So often after we had ridden my wife would ask me how he had gone and my reply would be that he is the perfect horse.

My time with Leader had been busy and it was not until later that I took much interest in his background. His sire was Supreme Leader. His dam was West Run by Deep Run who also sired Dawn Run. If I had been a racing man perhaps I would have discovered the significance of this earlier.

Now we come to the difficult  part.

Where I live is very hilly and the climate has recently  become very wet. For several months of the year the fields became too wet for a vigorous horse.  I was to discover that there were no usable bridle paths. When it is wet one is confined to road work on steep hills or the main road; and the local drivers have no manners.  Leader did not mind but they frighten me. When it is dry the fields all slope with only one level stretch  where one could let the horse go for a quarter of a mile or so, and in places just beneath the surface are smooth boulders or slippery clay. He could fall.

Leader is a fit active horse, now only 12 years old, who enjoys his exercise and likes to gallop when turned out.  I was forced to recognise that he was just too good for the terrain in which I was keeping him. This was not an old  retired cavalry horse.  It was not fair to expect him to go up and down the same steep lane and along the same stretch of main road day after day or in the drier months to be confined to the same fields with the ever present danger of a fall. I knew that I had to find him a new home. When he had first come to me I had promised him aloud to his face that I would never sell him and that he had a good home for life. This horse had given me his trust and more than that, his friendship,  and now I faced this new decision with the guilt of having betrayed him. Since then, I admit, I have sat in his straw in his box with him and wept like a child.– for him. for inflicting yet another change upon him and for my own loss.

I had previously consulted  HEROS, (the charity run for the homing of ex-racehorses – they dealing exclusively with thoroughbreds) about a minor aspect of  Leader’s  behaviour. This led to my arranging for Leader to go to HEROS. At least I kept part of my promise to him — I would  not sell him.  I gave him away —  the finest horse I have known and my great friend. I feel a total heel.

.It did not help that one of the dogs had formed a great attachment to Leader. For six weeks each morning he lay outside the stable waiting for him to return.

My wife sought to reassure me that if I had not bought him he would have been bought by some didicoit or finished on a Belgian dinner plate. That does not relieve the anguish of the decision. The Horse House is silent again now;  but my boy is back in the mainstream of the horse world in good hands.

FAREWELL to LEADER

When I left you there I could hardly speak
    For the anguish clutching my wretched heart,
    And I cursed the fate which could cruelly seek
    That  you and I should have to part;
    After all the days you’d carried me,
    And the joys and sorrows we’d gaily shared
    In Dafydd’s fields; which shall always be
    A sweetest memory, unimpaired
    By the passing years or the hand of Time.
    But the only thing that can comfort me,
    Now you’re far away in some distant clime,
    Is the thought that you will surely be
    As content, no doubt, as in older days,
    For the home you’ve gone to is good, I know,
    And you’ll still be riding in the same old ways,
    And hearing again  that “Come My Boy!”
    Which we’ve often started to, you and I;
    And that thrill of harmony when as one
    In accord, together, we ride and fly
    And  waken the echoes like a sounding drum.

    But I hope, sometimes, you will think of me,
    And remember days which we both enjoyed,
    For  there’ re good  wide grass-lands where you will be,
    Not  rocks and stones or gaping void.

    At some future time we may ride again,
    Although no one knows what the fates may send;
    But we’ll go on hoping, and so, till then,
    I must say ‘Good-bye, Good luck, my dear dear friend.’

                    ——-RH  after Roberts

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