At the time of writing the Horse Riding Tourist – Near and Far*, a book about my first four horseback riding travel adventures, there were moments of reflection and I started to piece together how I arrived at where I am today. So where did my equine journey begin? Well, let’s start with a Star.
Star was the first love of my life. She was an adorable bright-bay Dartmoor pony with black points and yes, a star. Star is briefly mentioned in Part 3 of my book: Twenty-seven Miles Southwest where I refer to her as, 'my favourite pony from childhood' and recall the beach rides of my young years while I ride on a Cornish beach for the first time in decades. However, because Star was so special to me, I wanted to honour her memory in more detail in this blog.
I started riding at a local stable when I was about seven years old. To start the stable was a small operation with just five ponies (a Welsh pony, three Welsh Mountain ponies and a Shetland), one donkey and a fiery Thoroughbred mare. One of the Welsh mountains wasn’t ridden due to a back injury, the donkey was near to retirement and the Thoroughbred was the owner’s horse and not used for the riding school. My first lesson was on Phil, a grey Welsh Mountain pony and the sister of the roam gelding who couldn’t be ridden.
From that first lesson, I became a regular at the stable and attended most Saturdays and frequently in the school holidays. The number of regular riders gradually increased and more horses and ponies were brought to accommodate the growing business. Every child had their favourite and soon individuals were requesting named equines for rides. Before Star, I was pretty much a floating rider, who rode whichever mount was chosen for me. I had my preferences but didn’t have a strong pull to any particular horse or pony. I liked them all.
Then, one Saturday morning I turned up for my usual lesson and a new Dartmoor pony had arrived in the week and was tacked up ready for someone to ride. As soon as I saw Star, I thought she was absolutely gorgeous, the cutest pony I had ever seen. But, she came with a history. She had been mistreated and therefore she was difficult to catch and no one could carry a stick when they rode her. As everyone cooed over Star, I knew I didn’t stand a chance of riding her that day as I was convinced one of the more outspoken members of the Saturday gang would be chosen. Therefore, it was a great surprise to me when the owner of the stable turned around and said that I was going to ride her.
Right from the start, Star was the best pony I had ever ridden. She was forward going, responsive (so no need for the absent stick) and an absolute dream to ride. My heart was full of joy and I knew that this gorgeous pony was my favourite and would always be my pick of who to ride, groom, tack-up, feed, catch and generally care for whenever I was at the stable. In fact, it was just the beginning of a special relationship.
As mentioned, Star’s mistreatment by a previous owner had created one particular challenge and that was catching her after she had been turned out. She always had to have a head collar on, so when armed with food, it was easy to reach out and take hold. Yet, now and then she just wouldn’t have it and on the days when I wasn’t due at the stable, she would sometimes get away with not working. On the days I was scheduled in, my first task would be to go and fetch Star from the field after she had evaded all who tried before. It was never a problem for me to catch her and at the worst, all I needed was the age-old trick of rattling a stone in an empty bucket if I didn’t have a titbit to hand.
I can’t remember how long it took me to ride her with a stick. I guess, I just forgot not to take one with me one day and suddenly realized I was carrying a stick as I rode along. She never really needed it and I recall that I was the only rider who could ride her carrying a stick for a very long time. Her nature was willing to please (even if she did avoid being caught now and then) and despite the mistreatment at some point in her past, she was trained to the level where you could ride her without any tack.
Another demonstration of our trust in each other was the almost whitewash at the stable gymkhana. The event was only a small affair put on for the Saturday gang and a couple of similar-aged holidaymakers from Devon. Realistically, there was only going to be about five of us who could win any of the individual events based on the runners and riders. Yet, it was me and Star who stole the show, coming out with the most wins, rosettes and the overall trophy. Star even let me canter her up to the far end of the course, grab a friend off the ground, who swung up behind me and canter her back to the start in first place. The event was completely unrehearsed and was executed perfectly. The many first places were even more impressive based on the fact that every time I asked Star to go, she would always have a little rear in excitement, so would be the last to get off the start line. The holidaymakers from Devon were so impressed with our performance they asked if I belonged to a pony club. I was surprised to hear this as I wasn’t a confident child. I guess Star was just a pony who brought the best out of me.
As with all childhood ponies, the early riding years with Star came to an end by a growth spurt and my arrival into the world of the teenager. The Saturday riding ended and on the much less frequent visits to ride, I would be allocated a horse as I had become too big for ponies; though, Star still got lots of attention, cuddles and the treat I had bought for her.
I was living away and visiting my parents when I got up early one Sunday morning and decided to walk the 12-mile round trip to see Star (I would have been 16 or 17 years old). With my friend’s beautiful Rough Collie in tow, I was full of joy in the anticipation of seeing Star again as it had been some time since I’d had a chance to visit. I was only about halfway down the front drive of the stable, when Star’s owner drove down and stopped her car. As soon as she wound down the window, I knew she had bad news as her face dropped and normally she would be smiling when she greeted me. Star had been found dead in the field a few months back. After she drove off, I didn’t continue on. I cuddled my friend’s dog for a few minutes and sobbed into her long coat. For a teenager to have my friend’s dog there was a comfort and I’m still grateful I had her with me on that long walk that day. Needless to say, it was a somewhat more subdued walk back, but full of many wonderful and pleasurable memories of a bright Star, who gifted me so much happiness in the early part of my life.