The First Pony I Owned

My family wasn’t wealthy so the only way I could ride was to earn free rides or earn money at the stables and spend that on riding.  Horses were my world and now in my retirement it’s almost come full circle as I rediscover what it’s like to love horses of my own.

My friend, who now specialises in tree surgery and has her own website:, was once my partner in crime. She always loved trees and of course we used to jump a lot of hedges in the old days.  I remember a beautiful old walnut tree at school. Such majestic trees and they rewarded us every year with a crop of nuts. Sally and I would scout round the tree at break time and fill our pockets with dropped nuts. I’d take most of them home for my Mum, who remembered them from her own youth and loved walnuts.

There was a particular day when the pickings were especially rich – probably only half a dozen nuts each, but this was good when we had to beat the other kids!  We were feeling especially pleased that the lovely old tree had rewarded us so well when a teacher came along and confiscated them!  I’m still bitter to this day!  Why on earth weren’t we allowed to keep them?  I suspect that teacher took them home and ate them herself!

When I was 17 I though the world was my oyster. I had my own car and was enjoying the world, probably riding a little less as I discovered my newfound freedom. Then came news that could have destroyed my world. Our little stables was closing down and all the horses would be found new homes!  It was devastating. That little herd of fabulous ponies would be split for ever.  And it happened because the land didn’t belong to the stable owner but to her American cousin – who now wanted to sell it for building.

A couple of the older horses had to be put to sleep because they were unsuitable for rehoming so a kind decision was made. Of the rest, Brandy was kept by the owner. He was in his 20s and had been owned by her since a 4-year-old. The little ponies were found new homes, though sadly Farthing was sent to another riding school, where she was unable to cope with the much tougher regime and didn’t live long.

The pony I had ridden a lot and shown for the last couple of years was Shulah. She was a gorgeous fleabitten grey, 14.2hh and really the perfect pony. I still loved Peter Pan but sadly had outgrown him so another girl took him on. I bought Shulah and all her tack for the princely sum of £100.  She was the bargain of my life. She was 17 years old then and I had her for 10 years until she sadly was put to sleep because I was in America and we felt she couldn’t keep condition over the winter.

During those years we did everything together.  We rode all over the place, along the beach, over the downs, saddled and bareback. Non-horsey friends and relatives had a go and she was always perfect. A lovely pony and we had a lot of fun together.

We loved to jump so we did the odd cross-country course and a little bit of dressage. In the right hands that pony could have gone a long way, but I was still really a happy hacker and could only long to be one of those natural riders who look marvellous on a horse and who have an easy way of become one with their steed.  But we both enjoyed ourselves and I loved that old mare.

Learning to Jump

By the time I was 12, I desperately wanted to learn to jump.

It all started when I went on a day ride with Offington Hall. It was a wonderful day, unlike anything I had experienced before. And the lady who took us let us pop over a small pile of logs that a fence repair company had left in the woods.

It was probably only about a foot high but so exhilerating and the ponies loved it. They hadn’t been allowed to jump so it was exciting for them too. But unfortunately the riding school didn’t like their horses to jump and anyway there was nowhere to erect wooden poles so I had to go elsewhere to learn.

That’s when I came across Pat’s riding school for children. It was a small place, run by one lady who had no children and lived for her ponies and her black labrador called Sam. There were only about 10 ponies, but I came to love them all and stayed there for 6 years – which was a lifetime then of course.

My first jumping lesson in the little sand paddock was on Peter Pan and I fell in love with this little 13.2hh hogged bay pony. He was fast, zippy and full of character. He loved to jump – as long as you didn’t take him to a show, when he simply refused to go forward in the ring. So we learned to specialise in Chase-me-Charlie events where you followed each other over an ever-increasing jump. We loved those because he couldn’t wait to fly over a jump when he was following someone else.

What a wonderful time I had at those stables, where I spent every day in the holidays and each Saturday. We’d start off the day by fetching the ponies from the field and riding them back to the stables in a headcollar.  I can’t imagine that being allowed these days!  But we never came to any harm and we learned to ride bareback and stay on.

I used to have Peter on loan during the holidays when I saved up my weekly rides to take them in one go. How wonderful it was to ride every day and to go off as we liked along the beach or on the downs.

Highdown was a lovely ride that took about an hour and a half. We’d ride to the bottom of the hill, go through the gate – and off we went flat-out. Such fun and there was a seat at the top that we’d jump.

And we were only just round the corner from the beach, so whenever the tide was out we’d ride along the sand. Nowadays, of course, that’s not allowed. We even used to take a few small oil cans down and make a school on the beach.

Sometimes we’d go to pony club rallies if they were local. We had no means of travelling other than riding, but we went far and wide, explored the whole area and rode through countryside, town and beach.

And it all started when I wanted to learn to jump

Where it all Started

When I was eight I discovered our local riding school. It was called Offington Hall and was a wonderful Place. I’d had nothing to do with horses until that time, but they were in the blood. My Nan had grown up on a farm with horses and Grandad had ridden horses in the First World War. Horses became a passion for me and I passed that on to my daughter, who rides regularly and loves her pony.

My friend, Ann, and I used to go off on our bikes – like you did in the 1950s when we lived in a freer world. I can’t remember why we decided to cycle down the bumpy track to the stables, but we wandered around and said hello to the ponies and a cheeky chap called William ate a button on Ann’s duffel coat. It didn’t seem to do him much harm, but I’m sure her Mum wasn’t very pleased!

As far as I can remember, we made a couple of trips to see the ponies. We always went in the back entrance up that track, but the front entrance was a five-bar gate with a stern notice stating “No admittance except on Business”. We never dared use that gate. The place was the old coaching stables for Offington Hall. I think the main building was gone by then and bungalows had been built all around on what must have been the grounds, but the stables were still there. I believe they still are. It was all built of flint with a beautiful cobbled yard, which was a nightmare to sweep.

On my 9th birthday I was given a mystery tour and we all set off in the car. We’re a bit early said Mum, so we’ll pop in to the stables and say hello. I was terrified. What about the notice on the gate? No Admittance Except on Business!  It’ll be fine my Mum assured me. And it was.

My present was 6 riding lessons and that first day I got kitted out with second hand riding clothes – those old-fashioned baggy jodhpurs, hat with a piece of thin elastic to keep it on, jodhpur boots and a yellow polo-neck jumper and hacking jacket. No-one left that yard without all the proper riding gear, so we must have looked smart on our rides. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos at all of those early days.

The stables were run by Mrs Francis. I believe she was Polish. An elderly lady who lived in the small house that was part of the yard. She was extremely fierce and had a mynah bird called Monty. Her living room doubled as the tack room and it was a wonderful place full of super-clean tack. Mrs Francis never let anything be put away without being thoroughly cleaned and saddle-soaped so it had that wonderful aroma of leather tack.

Mrs. Francis’ front door was a stable-type door, opposite the entrance to the main stables. Every horse knew she kept treats for them so they wouldn’t pass the door without poking their heads over for a pat and a treat.  I’d love to know her background and how she came to be so fond of horses, but we never thought to ask in those days.

Ann didn’t share my passion for horses so she never came to the stables again, but I spent every spare minute for the next 3 years there. I loved everything about it and horses came to define my childhood.