Having graduated to the Kenya High School in Nairobi, and living in suburbia as a consequence, it was mainly through weekly riding lessons that I managed to keep up my passion in life. Major Llewellyn ran a riding school in nearby Langata close to the (now) Nairobi National Park main entrance – and had access to acres of open land on which to ride out. The stables were in an extremely poor condition (see photo), though of course this did not worry us in the slightest, nor indeed the ponies, who spent a minimal amount of time in them.
One afternoon we were warned to be very quiet around the stable area as there was a badly injured racehorse which had just been rescued from a horrific train crash nearby. He was still very much in shock, and had to be kept in the dark with sacking over the opening above the half door. His body was covered in deep lacerations and it was difficult to imagine him ever being able to race again. By our next week’s visit he had been strong enough to be collected by his owners and taken by lorry back to their own yard up-country, so we never did find out what the outcome was.
On a lighter note, we revelled in being able to ride the Shetland ponies, bareback and unsupervised if we were not on an official escorted ride. Our two groups took it in turn each time. They were stubborn little monkeys, as Shetlands can be, but we soon learnt the hard way how to stay on board whilst practising our potential polo, tent-pegging, obstacle races and mini jumping skills. The one that we were most proud of was the imported pure-bred Shetland stallion, Logie of Munderno, who we were sometimes allowed to lead out for a walk on foot, and of course his crop of mischievous foals came in for much petting.
Being a competent rider by now, a stout little Somali pony borrowed from Sir Derek Erskine who lived across the valley from us where he had a thriving racing yard and stud, enabled me to attend the occasional Pony Club rally and ride out on my own whenever possible, which was great fun. Life in the yard was always fascinating to watch especially when it involved my favourite horse, Top Hat, a really striking iron grey. Tragically both he and one other horse were unable to be saved when the stables caught fire one night.
During the school holidays, whilst doing my Teacher Training at an up-country school, I was able to keep up my riding activities with the kind assistance of an elderly family friend, Captain Tryon, who ran both a racing yard and had polo ponies close to where we lived in Molo. With the dedicated help of our local horse vet, Charlie Thompson, he attempted and succeeded in rehabilitating one of his best racehorses who unfortunately fell and broke a leg during a flat race. As a valuable brood mare it was well worth the dedicated hard work in caring for the beautiful snow white Floriano. She had to be kept completely immobile whilst the fracture healed, and in order to accomplish this she was literally suspended in a sling around her body from the rafters in her stable with her hooves only just touching the thick bed of straw beneath her. For many weeks she hung there, taking it all in her stride (as it were!) due to her marvellous, relaxed temperament, whereas most highly-strung thoroughbreds would have gone berserk at the inactivity. Eventually released, she endured a long spell of box rest to restrict her movements and then graduated to a small paddock on her own in the centre of the yard, where she continued to be able to watch the comings and goings of the other horses. Finally she made it to the stud paddocks to begin her life successfully producing winning foals. A rare heart-warming success story.
Here I was initiated into the fun and games of playing polo – my teacher being the head polo syce who was a competent player in his own right. My mounts varied between an experienced regular team pony, a stunning looking palomino named Nugget, and one of the retired ex-racehorses now learning a useful second career playing polo.
The local Sports Club boasted a rudimentary racecourse as well as the obligatory tennis courts and hockey pitch, and unofficial races and cross country events were sometimes held for horses belonging to local amateur owners. My link with the Tryon racehorses led to being asked to ride a friend’s horse in one such flat race, though I had never ridden in a race before. Easy, the owner said – just sit there and steer, he’ll do the rest! What he neglected to warn me was the fact that the said horse was unstoppable after his races, hence a new unsuspecting jockey was required. He duly came second, but it took two further laps of the track to pull up and so we held up the proceedings considerably as we had to weigh in before the results could be announced. However, this didn’t deter me from later on riding my own horse several times on a proper racecourse.