The following account was typical of one of our school hacks….
The procession set forth with the hot sun blazing down, though mercifully tempered by a delightfully cool breeze from the direction of nearby Mt Elgon. Behind me Ladybird, Saffron, Chutney, Pirate, Twinkle and the diminutive Lucky, all followed sedately. The rear was brought up by Joseph, the syce (groom) on the trustworthy Charlie Boy. Joseph always accompanied the junior rides in case of emergency or accident, or to help with beginners on leading reins. He was no stylist but a quiet, capable rider and excellent at such times as a new pony’s introduction to the weekly spraying against ticks – a delicate operation this, with an understandably suspicious pony gyrating on the end of its halter rope as the hissing spray gun squirted cold, evil-smelling liquid all over him, whilst the old- stagers watched smugly, awaiting their turn with nonchalance.
“Please can we go to the Haunted House?” It was not, in fact haunted, merely uninhabited if you discount the hordes of fruit bats, but I knew the children’s ulterior motive was to see if the mulberry trees had ripe fruit which they could eat. So at the end of the drive we took one of the well-worn tracks on the neighbouring estate between seemingly endless rows of sisal plants with their huge, viciously spiked leaves, and then wended our way over a ploughed field and around the edge of a patch of maize. A feast here for the ponies, who instantly began a competition to see which of them could snatch the most before their unsuspecting riders realised what was happening. Chutney, the fat bay Thelwell mare, won, of course. No matter how hard she was worked or how poor the grass became in a drought, like the zebra, no one ever saw Chutney looking thin. The ponies were never officially fed, existing happily on the plentiful supply of grazing in the surrounding fields. A mouthful of ranch cubes was on offer whenever the ponies were being caught, although this was a highly unnecessary bribe as they practically put their heads into their halters for you anyway. My own horses, Brandysnap (a highly-strung Thoroughbred/Arab) and Roulette (a part bred) were the only exception, and had a daily supplement feed of ranch cubes, bran and boiled barley. Most of the ponies were of dubious ancestry, some part Arab, many part Somali – that unattractive-looking but incredibly hardy local pony originating from over the border in Somalia. A few, like Lucky the Shetland, could boast a pedigree of sorts, but despite this, all seemed to thrive with minimal attention. They were never shod – even my own two only had temporary shoes fitted for racing or show jumping in wet weather to stop them slipping.
“Oh! Look. Some of your favourite flowers. Shall we pick them for you?” A brief halt to collect a huge bunch of wild Gloriosa Lilies, then on over some conveniently placed fallen logs along the edge of a gum tree plantation.
“Don’t forget about Saffron!” No indeed. A warning was duly issued to to the palomino’s anxious new rider to keep her moving at all costs when we cross the swampy area ahead, as she had a passion for emulating the hippo and wallowing in the mud, much to the detriment of her precious tack, let alone her rider.
“Stop! Somebody has fallen off!” Lucky was the culprit. For some reason best known to himself he had apparently stopped dead in his tracks as Fudge, the school yellow Labrador cross, overtook him. Not surprisingly his rider bit the dust, though not very heavily, thank goodness. Lucky stood patiently with a smug look on his face as only a Shetland can, while he was remounted. He was so small that he travelled to and from the school in the back of a Peugeot truck. Some of the ponies were borrowed for the term-time and returned with their owners for the holidays; an excellent arrangement for all concerned.
As we crossed the one and only road (constructed with murram, a type of gritty soil) a battered old farm car trundled past, heavily-laden with sacks of posho (maize meal) and farm workers, driven by Ladybird’s previous owner. She, rather ignominiously, was acquired by him in part payment for a pedigree bull from a neighbouring farmer who had no use for horses. She was then bought by the school for the princely sum of £10, and turned out to be one of the best and most popular ponies.
“There they are!” The two almost tame oribi gazed unconcernedly at us as we passed by. Normally they are shy, wary little buck, but they had become so used to us riding by that they paid little attention. Most wild animals seem to assume that a rider is just part of the horse and so show little fear. That is assuming that they are silent, of course.
“Simu!” (One automatically used certain Swahili words). The warning was uttered instinctively as a gaping hole suddenly appeared in the middle of the track, and my trusty steed rose in an exaggerated leap of amazement and horror. He, as they all were, was very wary of any suspicious-looking holes in the ground, especially those newly-dug by ant-bears in their perpetual quest for food. How they exist on a diet solely of ants is a mystery, considering that they are renowned for their incredibly solidity, and many a car has come off second best after an encounter with an ant-bear on his nocturnal wanderings.
“ Look! There’s a wire noose. Can we collect it?” Oh! Not again. As fast as we removed them they seemed to be replaced. The watu ( farm workers) cunningly concealed them among the overgrown vegetation along a fence line in order to catch unwary small buck or hares. Luckily we never came across a trapped animal, but the mere thought of it made us collect and dispose of all the nooses we could find. Fudge, with more luck than good judgement, always avoided being caught, though it was quite a relief to know that he never went off alone, and stayed within easy reach when he accompanied us on our rides.
One episode nearly ended in tragedy, though, when he was bitten by a puff adder. We rarely came into close contact with snakes, rather surprisingly, even though most of the land over which we rode was rough grass and bush. On this occasion we had almost reached the main school gate when, ahead of us, Fudge came across the snake crossing the narrow path, and on being hissed at he immediately attacked it. The snake slithered off into the undergrowth on hearing us approach, but it was too late. Fudge had two puncture marks high up on one foreleg. As only a hundred yards or so separated us from the tack room and the anti-snake bite kit which we kept for the horses, and the impossible task of carrying such a heavy dog was a reality, we decided it would be quicker to let him follow us rather than wait for the delay in finding someone to fetch the serum. Oh for a mobile phone! The nearest vet lived on a farm ten miles away, but was more than likely to be out on his rounds anywhere within a radius of thirty miles. Fudge was in no pain and stood like a rock while I pumped a guesswork amount of the life-saving fluid into him. By the following morning, however, he was in a bad way with his whole leg and neck terribly swollen, and he lay unable to move for a couple of days. His iron constitution and will to live pulled him through, thank goodness, and before long he was back to his old form. That, incidentally, was the one and only time that the snake serum had to be used. The horses always gave snakes ample warning of their presence and as most snakes, including the slow-moving puff adder, prefer to attack only when provoked, there was little danger of them having a serious encounter.
“Please can we put leaves under our knees?” This strange request was an excellent exercise on the short journey up the drive, as we always walked this last stage back, and it made for a sometimes hilarious competition when on occasions the riders would contort themselves into any position to stop the leaves from falling out. The prize was always in the form of sweets which was much enjoyed after the ride. The long-suffering ponies never turned a hair whilst this was going on as they were so used to peculiar things going on whilst being ridden either in the paddock or out on a hack. They would have made marvellous police horses, if a trifle small. A quick brush over after unsaddling, a few cubes as a reward and the ponies were turned out until the next afternoon’s ride, when who knows what excitement might occur…. like the gymkhana races at the end of term…. like rounding a corner and being suddenly confronted by an escaped Jersey bull on the next-door farm…. like sighting a troop of noisy colobus monkeys clad in their startling black and white long-haired pelts….like taking part in a musical ride at the local Agricultural Show…. or…