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U3A Writing: My Life With Horses

...I've had a lifetime with horses and am still enjoying it. I have had several accidents along the way, one very serious one on the road when the horse was hit by a car and was so badly injured it was put down on the spot and I was in hospital with a fractured skull and other injuries. Even this has never deterred me, but I am very wary in traffic.

Please, all you drivers, do take care when you meet horses on the road. Please slow down and give them a wide berth. We need much more off-the-road riding, more bridleways...

Eileen Lester introduces us to her four-legged friends.

Why do so many little girls love ponies? No one seems to be able to answer that satisfactorily. I was one of them and don't know where it came from.

I was born in Oldham and lived there until the age of seven, where the only pony I ever saw was the one which pulled the rag-and-bone cart, whose owner used to give my mother donkey stones (to do the door step) in return for any old clothes.
My parents both worked in the cotton mills, so there was definitely no horsey background.

We then moved to Morecambe, where my mother took a boarding house. She was always busy and I had lots of free time to roam (in the days when children could do so, safely). I discovered the ponies on the beach which gave rides to visitors. I would spend all day leading the sixpenny rides up and down the beach with the reward of being able to ride one of the ponies back to their field when their work was over for the day.

At 16 I did my O-levels and left school. I helped my mother in the boarding house for that summer, so didn't have to get a proper job straight away. So I worked evenings at the Winter Gardens (in its hey-day), first as an ice cream seller, then as an usherette. I saved all my wages and at the end of the season went to Kendal Horse Sales and bought an unbroken two-year-old Dales pony for 21 guineas. I called him Mac.

I had arranged to rent a field locally. I broke him in, in spite of having no previous experience, and started riding him. Luckily he was very placid. I even bought a second-hand trap and had him broken to harness. We had many happy hours together.

At last I had my own pony. Unfortunately, about 18 months later, he developed severe inflammation in his feet, something called laminitis, and in spite of veterinary care, he had to be put down. I was heartbroken and wrote his story, which was published in the I.C.I magazine, whose company I was then working for. I received 12 guineas! Fame! I still have that magazine, rather tatty now.

At the age of 19 I married a farmer's son who was also a horse dealer and we lived in rural part of the Fylde. Sadly the marriage ended after 13 years. Perhaps the original attraction had been the horsey connection.

But I learnt an awful lot during that time, having to ride so may different horses that passed through our hands. I learnt how to trim them up to greatly improve their appearance in order to help to sell them. I still love to have my horses beautifully turned out, even though not for sale purposes.

I competed in showing, jumping, eventing and even in point-to-point races, all with considerable success. Eventing was the best, where you have to do dressage, cross-country and show-jumping. The cross-country was my favourite phase. I would relive it afterwards, fence by fence.

My daughter rode from the age of four and has never stopped. She prefers showing and has taken part in the Horse of the Year Show several times. I, too, qualified for Wembley in 1969 in what is called 'Working Hunter', where the horse has to jump a course of natural looking fences. Unfortunately I was eliminated when it refused three times! But at least I had qualified to get there (by winning at the Royal Lancashire Show when it was at Blackpool).

After my divorce I went to work with hunters and point-to-point horses in the Vale of Lune, a small village called Wennington. After two years I decided there was no future doing that, so moved to Chorley and spent four years at the Teacher Training College, where the Library is now, then taught at St. Michael's School.

Since then I have remarried and am lucky enough to have my own land and stables at home. I have had several different horses, many I would buy unbroken and break them in myself

They are all so different. I had Adam Bede, a nice black horse who was good to break and could jump well. But he would not jump ditches or go through water. So he moved on!

I then had Paddy McEnroe who jumped well (including ditches and water) and who started my interest in dressage. Until then I had regarded dressage as something you had to do as the first phase of eventing, but which I had never enjoyed. With Paddy I began to enjoy it and joined a Dressage Group to do pure dressage. Paddy did very well for me, but he was only a pony, 14-2 hands, so I sold him to a young girl who wanted to do Pony Dressage.

He went down to Kent and is still there, aged about 27. His owner, Fiona Bigwood, went on to represent Britain in top class dressage on top class horses. She was reserve for this year's Olympic dressage team in Athens, so Paddy gave her a good start.

Then came Shayne, much loved. He was older than horses I usually bought, about 12, but I had such fun with him. He was only 15 hands but would jump anything. I did a lot of eventing with him and then as he got older, concentrated on dressage. He retired with us and then very sadly had to be put down because of a twisted bowel. I was devastated. He wasn't a particularly good looking horse and had a split ear (apparently bitten by a dog when grazing as a foal) and people used to refer to him as "the little horse with the split ear". His portrait hangs above our fireplace, so lifelike.

While Shayne was in retirement I bought an unbroken grey mare in Kendal and called her Kendal Mint Cake, Mint for short. I broke her in, started jumping her and was very successful in both eventing and dressage. I got her to a fairly high level in dressage by the time she was ten, but felt I, personally, could not go any further, so sold her to a lovely home in Wales.

I then had Dan Archer, bought as a yearling, whom I broke in when he was three and later started competing. Although I still did some jumping I was concentrating more on dressage and started doing Dressage to Music. In this you have to make up your own freestyle test and put music to it to suit the horse's different paces. Dan proved to be quite good at this.

I used to enter the arena to 'The Archers' signature tune (Radio 4),which always caused amusement among the spectators. For the rest of the test I used mainly military music.

Dan was quite a character, but rather small for me. I had expected him to grow taller than he did. So when a friend and near neighbour expressed an interest in him I let him go to her. She loves him and I see him regularly

I now have a Welsh cob, which I bought in Anglesey. He was four years old, broken, but had only been ridden round the lanes and on the beach, so I had to start schooling him. At first he was very anxious and got terribly worried when he didn't understand what he was supposed to be doing. But with time and patience he has become quite a star.

He is very handsome , bigger than most Welsh cobs and full of character; in fact he can be quite cheeky at times. He goes into a spare stable for his breakfast while I muck out his proper stable. In there is a double light switch. One switch puts on the stable light, the other puts on a string of Christmas lights which run along the edge of the roof outside. When he has finished eating he decides to play with the switch and I suddenly see all the coloured lights flashing on and off. I keep telling him it isn't Christmas yet!

His stable name is Sionyn, which is Welsh for Johnny (Sion is John), but his registered name is Marchell Mab y Dewin. Marchell is the prefix of the stud where he was bred and the rest means "Son of the Magician". He is now seven, and he too has been successful in dressage, particularly to music.

With him, I enter the arena to God Bless the Prince of Wales. My trot music is Victor Silvester playing Everybody's Doing It, Doing It, Doing It. My walk music is the theme from 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' and the canter music is the theme from 'The Longest Day'. It all suits him very well, and the judges have always given me good marks for the music.

Last year we qualified for the National Dressage to Music Championships held in Buckinghamshire, and were delighted to be 4th in a class of 45 entries from all over the country.

Sionyn has also won what is known as Combined Training (a dressage test followed by show-jumping) but is sometimes very wary of spooky-looking jumps. Other things we enjoy are Pleasure Rides, and Trail Rides, where farmers have diversified and made long rides with jumps across their land. These are great fun, especially with a small group. Horses love the company of other horses, being herd animals.

So, I've had a lifetime with horses and am still enjoying it. I have had several accidents along the way, one very serious one on the road when the horse was hit by a car and was so badly injured it was put down on the spot and I was in hospital with a fractured skull and other injuries. Even this has never deterred me, but I am very wary in traffic.

Please, all you drivers, do take care when you meet horses on the road. Please slow down and give them a wide berth. We need much more off-the-road riding, more bridleways.

I hope to carry on riding for as long as I can. It is hard work when you look after the horse yourself, especially when it is stabled. There is no having a lie-in; he has to be fed. He then has to be mucked out, groomed, exercised and trained for any competition. And all this in all weathers.

But, as I said at the beginning, so many little girls develop this love for ponies, and in very many cases it never leaves them. It certainly never left me.

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