Horses were always part of my life, and although never owning one until I was earning my living teaching in a school, I learned to ride on various borrowed ponies and with lessons at both my schools. My first proper riding lessons were with Miss Thring, an elderly, somewhat eccentric spinster, who being Irish was steeped in the ways of horses, and who taught countless pupils at The Beehive School. Compared with modern standards in England it was very low key, basic and run on a shoestring, but the lack of facilities was more than made up for by the dedication, knowledge and enthusiasm which were her trademark, and she inspired us all with a deep love of anything to do with horses. Her house and stables were sited conveniently close to the Nanyuki racecourse and were bounded by a neighbour’s ranch land where her ponies grazed. The ponies were a job lot of mixed parentage, mostly crossed with the extremely tough, though not very handsome Somali ponies. One of the better bred horses which adults rode was Christine, who much to our delight one year had a beautiful filly foal, Joanna. Of course we all adored her and couldn’t wait for our riding lessons with even more excitement than usual.
The racecourse provided an exciting schooling and jumping area, though not without its hazards, as I remember to my cost when Timoshenko put his foot in a hole and we both went crashing to the ground at full gallop. Luckily no harm was sustained by either of us, and I was told briskly to get back on board and that you had to fall off seven times before you became a good rider! We children particularly enjoyed going out in the bush, accompanied by the two Doberman dogs, along endless criss-crossing tracks, perfect for endlessly exploring new routes. During the school holidays I spent a great deal of time at the stables – Mother and I would house sit when Miss Thring went on her own holidays, and at other times I was allowed to cycle over there and ride free of charge in exchange for helping out with various jobs, the best of which was to help the syces (grooms) collect the ponies from the paddocks in the morning when they were stabled ready for use, and take them back for the night. This was accomplished bareback and leading one, or sometimes two ponies on halters. The only hazard was the occasional traffic when crossing the scarcely-used dirt road, but as all the ponies were bombproof we had no qualms.
Other highlights were the infrequent Pony Club events and, best of all, a Pony Club camp on a farm 20 miles away. Here we ate, slept and breathed with our ponies for a whole week under canvas, having lectures/demonstrations, schooling lessons and picnic rides. Mercifully accidents were very few and far between, though one small boy had his foot stood on whilst grooming his pony, causing him a great deal of pain, but luckily only resulting in a badly bruised foot with which he carried on manfully for the rest of the camp. One incident which could have been more serious happened on the last day during the highlight of the week, a full-blooded paperchase all around the farm tracks. I was the unlucky one. Rounding a corner flat out on my borrowed pony, Patsy, I failed to notice the low-hanging branch of a tree close ahead and didn’t duck in time. The next thing I remember was coming-to on my camp bed with the anxious organiser hovering over me. Saved from a worse injury by my riding hat, I was merely suffering from mild concussion and able that evening to join in with the last night party. What would Health and Safety have made of all our escapades if they happened these days?| Life was tough, and we were brought up to be tough with no questions asked and no excuses or blame accepted.
At least that was under supervision, but our riding of June was not. June was, we knew, an unbroken yearling Thoroughbred, who was owned by Jack Wright the Nanyuki butcher and was destined to be a racehorse. She lived in a field bordering our school playing fields with her Mum and various other mares and foals. She was extremely friendly and docile, and seemed to enjoy our visits to such an extent that we decided to try riding her. This was accomplished using a length of thin rope, which we had liberated for the purpose, as a headcollar/ bridle, and by riding bareback – a saddle was superfluous as far as we were concerned. June never batted an eyelid at our antics and in no time at all we felt confident enough not only to walk, but trot and canter her round the field. It speaks volumes for her superb temperament that even if we fell off she would just stop and wait for us to climb on board again! No riding hats of course. When it was time to be officially broken in, her owner must have had a pleasant surprise at how easy it was, little knowing that she had done it all before.
Friends’ ponies were always available when we stayed with them, and their great variety of sizes, shapes and temperaments gave us ample scope to be able to cope with almost any pony or situation. As was the norm, once we were considered competent riders we were never supervised, and often took a picnic lunch and headed off for the day exploring the farm, armed with nothing more than a trusty sheath knife for any emergency which might arise – never any worry about meeting dangerous strangers in the pre-Mau Mau days, and in any case we were always accompanied by the farm dogs, mostly German Shepherds or Rhodesian Ridgebacks which would have acted as an effective deterrent in any situation.