Brandysnap was officially listed as a part Thoroughbred in the Jockey Club of Kenya register as Jereñai, by Brandy Sauce out of Spanish Lass, and boasted three Derby winners in his dam’s Thoroughbred pedigree. His Arabian grandsire was bred by one of the top British breeders, Lady Judith Wentworth, at her Crabbet Park Stud in Sussex. By an amazing coincidence I went on a week’s riding course, whilst on a fleeting visit to Britain a couple of years after I bought Brandysnap, at that very stud, which by then had been turned into a high class Equitation Centre and our instructor, John Lasseter, was one of the very few outsiders to have been accepted as a High School dressage student for a year at the world famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna with their spectacular Lipizzaner horses!
Back to the real world. Brandysnap was looking for a new home, as his previous owner had over the years developed an allergy to her beloved horses and could no longer cope with the effects. He was not exactly an oil painting, with the exception of his beautiful Arab-type head, but made up for it by having such a lovely temperament that he was a real gentleman to deal with, settling immediately into school life. He could safely be handled by the pupils – on several occasions even ridden by one of them in the confines of the schooling area. He would stand like a rock whilst I dealt with any incidents out on a school hack with the pupils, could be led anywhere including up and down steps, and was easy to control without a bridle, wearing just a halter when being ridden bareback whilst taking him back to the stables from his grazing in the paddock.
In contrast to this when out for a ride, as soon as the pace increased to a trot or canter he was keen to progress at the maximum speed allowed, true to his racing genes – a slight handicap when constant and instantaneous manoeuvring was involved, such as show jumping and particularly when playing polo, causing a waste of valuable time. Hence we never progressed to playing competitive polo, just enjoyed the weeekly practices, and stuck to novice show jumping classes, dressage and “fun” flat races. These races would be held at the end of an official meeting, and were restricted to horses not on the current Jockey Club register, and were designated as Farm Hacks races. The standard could be quite high, as many racehorses which didn’t make the grade became good general purpose farm work mounts, and so training preparations had to be made and a crash course taken with the help of an excellent handbook on the subject, loaned by a kindly neighbour.
Bernard Mills owned the next-door farm where he had a highly successful herd of pedigree Jersey cattle, and as his sons were also very keen on horses he had constructed a full-sized polo ground for the locals to practice on, and he offered to mow a mile-long strip around the edge of one field especially as a training gallop for me to use. This very kind gesture paid dividends, as Brandysnap was placed on several occasions at the race meetings at Eldoret, 30 miles away. In cross country events and hunter trials we always came to a grinding halt at the obligatory water jump which he flatly refused to negotiate, despite constant practice at home. Too dangerous, he said, not going there. No way! In fact on one notable occasion he stopped so suddenly that he overbalanced and wedged himself into an innocuous dry ditch as he tumbled in. Luckily I was able to slide out before becoming trapped myself, but it took several burly men to persuade him that he could extract himself, and after much huffing and puffing he did emerge unscathed.
There being none of our modern mechanised horse boxes or trailers in those days, in order to get to anywhere other than our local Kitale show we had to transport the horses by goods train in specially constructed boxes with suitable padded partitions, and loading and unloading could prove somewhat difficult. In order to get to one particular racecourse we had to use a railway halt some 17 miles from our destination in order to save another 60 miles on the railway and endless delays and hassle with connecting to the correct train at the nearest junction. The only drawback to this situation was that, being only a halt, there was no proper built-up platform, meaning that there was a drop of about 4 foot from the horsebox level to the ground. When the ramp was lowered, the angle was so steep that we had to encourage the horses to jump down directly onto the ground. This was no major problem, though the reverse was to prove anything but easy on our return journey, when even the unperturbable Brandysnap flatly refused to jump back up into the box. What to do next? Lateral thinking was required. Eventually we constructed an extended ramp making use of some old mabati (corrugated iron sheets) and timbers from a dilapidated shed at the end of the halt which we dismantled, and covered the whole thing with grass hastily cut from the track-side to deaden the sound of the hooves on the metal. Quite a performance you might think, but having to make do in an emergency was a common occurrence. Heath Robinson had nothing on us!
Travelling to events at the local showground was no problem as Joseph, the head syce, was capable of riding any of the horses for short distances, but on the occasions when I boarded out Brandysnap during the summer holidays with friends on their isolated farm I’d think nothing of riding Brandysnap the 18 miles each way. With so little traffic and lack of tarmac roads it was a pleasant enough journey, if a trifle hot and dusty. One major expedition we undertook was to Nairobi, 200 miles away, to compete in the big annual horse show there. And expedition was the right word – all the buckets and bowls, grooming equipment and fodder (including bundles of “elephant” or Napier grass) had to be loaded onto the train along with Brandysnap and a rather fearful Joseph, who had never been to the big city and was not looking forward to being out of his comfort zone. Actually he and his charge soon settled into the stables on the huge showground, a few miles outside Nairobi itself, where all the syces literally slept in the straw on the floor in the spare stables along with their horses’ belongings, much to his relief, and ate in the special communal canteens. Many of us owners camped on the showground in groups to keep an eye on the horses, and so continually caught up with old friends and had a companionable time. One such meeting with the vet from my old haunts upcountry resulted in my being asked to ride his temperamental Thoroughbred stallion, Amos, in one of the show jumping classes. Never having ridden either him or indeed any stallion before I was slightly dubious, but he behaved impeccably, though he persisted in his recently developed habit of refusing to pass the exit on his way to jump the next fence in the middle of the round. I was unceremoniously carted out of the arena to be greeted by his owner guffawing loudly and saying, “Well at least it’s not just me!” The experiment with a female rider hadn’t worked either, so he was sensibly excused jumping duties from then on.
Roulette was my next acquisition as a companion for Brandysnap, though he too was in need of a good home as a result of having had a rather tricky start in life. He was bred on a ranch as a general farm hack and ran out with the herd for the first two years of his life. Unfortunately he was found to be a rig (only one testicle had descended) so he was left to regain his freedom for another two years until he could be properly castrated. As the herd ran completely wild all this time, he was even more of a problem when it came to breaking him in so late in life, and the owner had to dope the water in the drinking trough in order to catch him. Unfortunately he developed a fear of being mounted, shooting forward the minute his rider put a foot in the stirrup. The only way to counter this was for a second person to stand in front of him holding his head tightly until the rider was safely on board, when he calmed down. My problem was that I often rode out alone with no one to help if I had to get off for any reason, or, worse still, if I fell off. After literally hours of endless practice in the paddock he did eventually come to accept the situation if I stood him facing something solid like even a tree or bush and would stand, if a trifle uneasily, until I was properly mounted, but he was never reliable enough with anyone else. He had good paces and luckily took to training well enough to be placed several times in novice dressage tests – an added string to my bow, as Brandysnap was too headstrong to do well in this discipline.
Being a sucker for anything to do with horses, I was lucky enough to be asked to ride friends’ horses at various shows – the crowning glory being winning the pairs competition, followed by the prestigious Grade C championship on a flashy palomino called Nightjar, whose owner was the chairman of that particular show, which made success all the sweeter. With my pupils we had great fun when putting on a musical ride at the local Agricultural Show, and neither ponies nor their riders were in the slightest intimidated by the occasion, and were delighted by the loud applause from the vast crowd at the conclusion.