A heart warming story of a family of horse lovers, who volunteer at some riding stables where they first learnt to ride; and through their work, and the father who fought for justice, had the dream the mother always wanted, come true.
Enthralled as a child by Anna Sewell's heartfelt book “Black Beauty” I had always longed for a horse of my own, but never had enough money. I had memorised that book cover to cover, and dreamt of riding the gentle Black Beauty, as well as being the caring owner of the same. Even as a mother, driving past the stables on our local main road brought feelings of compassion and longing for the horses which I so well understood. From time to time we used to drive around the hills of the countryside in search of horses, then get out of the car and feed the beautiful animals by hand across their rugged field walls hoping that the owner didn’t mind. The horses within minutes were feeding out of my hands the long grass I had picked from the roadside, and standing close to me as though sensing my longing for them. One sunny day my family and I were out for a drive, and once more passed the stables I so yearned after, which were one day going to change my life.
Gazing across the road at them I saw a bill board placed next to the road inscribed “Trial riding lesson for £5.” I knew riding lessons were about £25 a lesson average, but seeing the people from the stables cantering along the main road tentatively, had set me yearning to be doing the same. Some were hunch and opened mouthed, so obviously new riders, and some bouncing in rhythm to the horses stride, chattering happily with contentment and confidence. These made me decide to turn in and ask when the lessons were, and if they had any family discounts. Leaving my family in the car for quickness, I was taken on a tour of the stables and pasture while discussing the various package offers. I came away with some paperwork and contentment of having visited there.
Once home, around the dinner table we all discussed the various lesson offers that were in my hands. My eldest Amy piped up quickly “mummy, can I have lessons too?” afraid to be left out while her younger brother James just sat there filling his mouth but absorbing everything that was discussed in silence.
“Of course my dear, once I’ve talked it through with your dad” I said.
“Thanks mum. I can’t wait to have my first lesson” Amy boomed, bouncing up and down on her chair.
“I will discuss it later with your dad tonight and will let you know what we have decided tomorrow. So calm down and finish your dinner.” I reminded her bringing back to the present firmly.
The next few days were busy with work and school, but the weekend arrived and finally we all visited the stables once more.
We chose a package that enabled us to spread the cost over the year, as it cost a lot for the four of us after the first lesson. The first lesson was spent terrified as we all felt we were going to fall off the horses, looking at each other in competition of who could ride the best as first timers. Especially Amy, who ended up with one leg and one arm in the air, much to everyone’s amusement, on the edge of her saddle, half way along the busy road. Her brother was calling out “Wobbly bum! Wobbly bum!” repeatedly, causing her eyes to fill up, until he was reprimanded by his dad. He sulked, as was his habit after being told off, all the rest of the lesson. More so when he noticed we ignored it.
My husband came home from work one afternoon looking thoughtful and distant; unusual as he usually came home bubbling with talk of what he did at work, so I knew something was up. It was after the children had gone to bed that I presented him with a cup of tea and asked what the problem was.
“I’ve been made redundant due to health reasons” he said shakily.
I was shocked. He really loved his work in the lab. As I held him close the story unfolded. The next day he had found through various solicitors he had the right to sue, and started the ball rolling, as the illness had been caused by the company not providing the right equipment to a previously very healthy young man. He was determined to punish them for losing his career.
Even though at the back of my mind was my husband Michael sat at home enveloped in depression, having trouble deciding how to start again in the career world, I was so glad that I was already helping out at the stables while the rest of the family were at school. I’d got to know the staff very well, especially the owner as she was as horsey minded as I. We spent many a lunch time talking about the horses and their history. She taught me so much, and I felt like the stables were my second home. One day as I walked into her office next to the car park, she smiled at me warmly. I had previously confided in her the problem that had hit my family and as I had been working a couple of years for her voluntarily, she was offering me a paid position which I gladly accepted as the pay was more than I had expected along with free riding for my family. I fell into the leather chair facing her, surprised as not expecting it. “Are you for real?” I blurted out, but she understood and replied gently from across her desk “yes Mary. I was in the same situation until I inherited, and you have helped me so much, and that I feel you are my closest friend. Please accept. I will be glad to have you.” So I went from the office with spring in my steps to bubble over to the horses about my piece of luck. The free rides made things much easier as did the pay.
As for the horses, they also became very close friends, as I looked after their glossy coats, forelocks, tails and hooves as carefully as though grooming myself, while they stood patiently, and mucked out their stalls and replacing their mess with fresh straw while they were out riding. I fed them according to their dietary requirements, cutting down on the oats when they got too frisky and adding the occasional horse vitamin when needed, leaving their troughs constantly full of fresh water. They knew my sad and happy moods as the days passed and responded comfortingly by nuzzling me as I worked. They loved me so much that they snorted and pawed the ground in welcome every time they heard me approach their stable block.
One horse in particular took a special liking to me from the day I brought it into the stables, a neglected, tall lonesome mare. Her reddish brown coat so thin you could see her ribs. Her white socked feet were sore with standing long in filth, her tail had not seen a brush in days and the weariness in her eyes said it all. She had been over worked and neglected, and needed rest, food and love. Jackie the owner had named her “Chestnut” as she was found under a tree in a muddy confined yard. I spent more time with her than the others as I felt she had an unlucky start to life, and brought for her little treats of raisins, apples and carrots from time to time. Eventually her physical appearance improved as did her health, and she was able to be ridden out by children due to the love and attention given to her. Sometimes I would after a long hard day, sit on a blanket next to her, telling her what I was feeling about the day as she snuffled me waiting for her treat. She became pregnant one day.
Things were now going well for Michael. He had decided not to work for anyone anymore fearing he would be mistreated again by future employers. He eventually took up interpreting as his career. He already was fluent in four languages and had been helping people in the community with their forms and interviews for the past four years. His case against the company was very solid and they had started to make offers, although very small for what was owed him. His barrister advised him how much was due to him and his solicitor advised him how to get the most from them and what it was for. The court had set a date in readiness if the company didn’t settle beforehand. He was happier in himself as he had something to look forward to each day, and the potential chance of some extra money in the offing, as at home, things were still fairly tight in comparison to what we were previously used to from his lab work.
By the time I had been working at the stables for four years, my children had become as passionate about looking after the horses as I, due to me bubbling over in excitement as I told them about each day there. Jackie was glad they could help, as the stables were very popular. It had 30 comfortable flat floored stalls in the stable across the courtyard from the office. We all worked to a routine and had our own specified horses which the children soon got attached to as I had, for they now knew as much as I in caring for them and did so willingly every day we were there, even stabling the horses in the severe weather that horses feared. They were trustworthy and reliable workers. They came to help me with Chestnut after they had finished their duties. Chestnut’s belly was very big and I knew she was about to foul.
The day arrived when she was stamping and pawing more restlessly than usual that I knew it was time, so I dressed in working clothes, tied my long hair in a scarf and went to gather a bucket of warm water, gloves, blankets and other equipment from the tack room adjoining the stable and hurried to her side. She was standing in the empty stable, for the other horses were out riding. I said “Come on Chestnut. There’s a good girl.” and squatted next to her as her waters broke. The wet black calf struggled to its feet on its slender legs while its mother nuzzled it encouragingly then lay down to rest. I washed it down with warm water while Chestnut lay in the extra hay I had laid down for her and her new foal. After cleaning her down, I covered her and her foal with warm cloths then left the two to bond while I went and told Jackie the good news and got cleaned up.
After work that day, Jackie called me and my family for dinner at her cottage, which was next to the office of the stables. While we were waiting for the children to sit down at the loaded decorated table in the large well lit traditional dining room, we chatted about the new foal and decided to name it “Hazelnut” after a tree like its mother. Although I thought something was worrying Jackie she never let on. She smiled her way throughout the conversation, yet a great frown creased her forehead.
It was only when my husband told about his plans for the future she opened up about her problem. She needed bigger premises and more stables as the business was growing rapidly yet she didn’t have the extra money to do all this. I remembered how much she had helped us as a family over the years and looked across the table at Michael sat opposite. He also had an idea, as he looked as he was holding back some excitement. He knew I dreamt of owning my own horse; he had the previous week spoken with Jackie about this over the phone, and had already arrange something, although this was unknown to me.
She turned to me meaningfully and asked me “Do you and your family want to be partners in the business of the stables?” while glancing with a knowing smile at my husband opposite, who winked back. The frown had been pretence.
They and the children, now seated, laughed till their sides ached at the expression on my face. They also were in on the surprise. “I’d love to!” I murmured with tears of passion spilling on to my chiffon evening dress. “I’ve always wanted to own my own horse since a child.”
“I know.” Jackie responded happily, “Michael told me. Welcome on board all of you” and we drank fruit punch in celebration.