pic by Jim Champion
Next to my school when I was in my teens were some riding stables where I was welcomed as a free helper and I soon turned into a horse-mad youngster. These days I live near the New Forest, and I found the lovely picture above of new forest ponies at Wikimedia Commons.
In summer the riding school took on the job of providing hacks and children’s pony rides for Barton Hall Hotel, which was about a half hour walk from the stables, on the other side of the Newton Road, the main artery into town. In exchange there was a hut for tack and taking money, plus a vast grazing field. Free helpers like myself had a rota for which venue they would be helping at, and for moving the horses and ponies between the two of them.
One Saturday it was my turn to collect the two smallest ponies from Barton Hall and walk them down the lane to the railway cutting, along the Newton Road and up Shiphay Lane past the front of the school entrance and back to the stables. I agreed to take along my sister who was a novice rider some 18 months younger than me.
We started off ok, me riding Silver, who could be a bit moody, and would grab a piece of your behind as you mounted if you didn’t have her head firmly pulled in the opposite direction, so you invariably started off by going round in circles. Sis was on Smoky, the smallest and quietest, though a bit nervy. She was to follow me down the lane, which was quite a steep downward gradient. When we got to the bottom and turned to walk along to the road beside the railway cutting, I would pick up the leading rein and we could go side by side.
But no sooner had we turned the corner when a great gust of wind blew an old newspaper out of the hedge. Smoky was so startled he reared up and deposited sis on the ground. I heard the crack as she hit arm first. With a bit of help, she was able to get on her feet, but she was sobbing and clutching her arm, and her face was paler than the whitewash on the side of the garage across the railway. There was no way she would get back on that pony.
“I’ll take you to the hospital,” said her big sister. This was not far. All we had to do was turn right over the railway bridge when we reached the road about 50 yards away. The hospital drive turned off the road on the other side of the bridge; then it climbed up from the road and rail valley to the casualty entrance.
We set off on foot, me supporting sis on one side and leading two quarrelling ponies on the other. That few hundred yards seemed like miles and took us about half an hour.
As I was about to tie the ponies to a sturdy wooden seat outside, a man said he would hold them for me. You trusted people then. Anyway I didn’t really have a choice. I had to get sis inside. Once she was being looked after by a starchy staff nurse, I was able to pop back out and check on the ponies. Of course they were the centre of attention and being properly spoiled. I could only hope that Silver would behave and not nip anybody.
Sis didn’t have to wait long for the x-ray which confirmed a nasty fracture. You don’t get service like that in A&E these days. Those were also the days of old money and red telephone boxes that took threepenny bits and actually had phone directories in them. First I rang the stables, then thought about how we were going to get home. We didn’t have our own phone then, but I found the number for the next door neighbours'. Unfortunately noone was in and the phone just rang on and on.
After scratching my head a bit, I suddenly thought of the corner shop about a hundred yards from our house. Sure enough, Mr Loram in the shop had a customer who would be passing our house and could pop in with a message asking my dad to come and fetch us at the hospital. At the time he was a commercial traveller and had a bright red van that could also be used to run the family around when he wasn’t on the road with it. No such thing as seat belts then. One or two of us would be sitting on boxes in the back and sometimes ended up rolling around the floor on the sharper bends.
Next time I went outside, the ponies were gone and so were all the people. I was just a bit worried then, hoping there weren’t any horse-nappers about. So I used my last threepenny bit to call the stables again.
“It’s ok,” I was told. “We came straight over and collected them.” Big sigh of relief. And not long after that, sis was sitting comfortably in the front seat of the red van as I rolled around in the back. I never thought I’d be so glad to be doing that.
It didn’t put me off horse riding, and I think I got some brownie points for looking after sis and making that phone call. But it was almost the first time, and certainly the last time that my sister sat on a horse.