My mother, who was born in 1908, learned to ride on cavalry horses, as the man in charge of them at the local barracks was sweet on her. When I was 11, my Auntie Edie gave me the money for ten riding lessons, and my mount was a grey cob called Bob, an ex-cavalry horse who, on decomission, had been bought for the local riding stable, which was run by hatchet-faced Miss Fitzpatrick, who wore her black hair scraped severely back into a hairnet and was always immaculately turned out in a well-fitting black riding jacket, cream twill britches and spotless boots.
Bob was by then in his thirties, quite old in horse years but he still had a gallop or two left in him. Somewhere in my storage unit I have a photograph of me riding him in Sefton Park, Liverpool, accompanied by Miss F on 16-hand-high Patch and another pupil on little 13hh Sugar Puff, which was published in the Liverpool Echo newspaper. If I ever find it, I shall show you. The riding school horses and ponies were all greys. I fell in love with horses, but was always a little scared of them and lacked the talent of my sister, who occasionally comments on this blog under the name of Merrylegs. As soon as she had somewhere to keep one, she bought her own horse and currently rides a gorgeous mare called Millie. Who, coincidentally, is grey. The equine wheel comes full circle.
The reason I was searching for the book was because I felt sure I had written a poem about Bob the cavalry horse, and indeed I had done, when I was 15. Here it is.
Does he ever think back to the days of old,
The old grey cob in the cobwebbed stall?
Can his eyes recollect all the scarlet and gold?
Do his ears still ring to the bugle's call?
He blows at the oats and he lips at the hay.
His tail flicks idly, his eyes half-close.
The white-haired cob, once iron grey,
Sways in a memory-clouded doze.
Saddle-less, riderless, galloping hard,
The grey cob joins in the victory ride.
Faintly through memory, battle-scarred,
The ones who lived and the ones who died,
Dream-hazed horses come cantering back.
The silver bugle rings strident and clear
O'er the scarlet-rimed field. Rifles, whiplashes crack
And the thundering cannons boom loud in his ear.
His head droops lower, his nostrils twitch
And a restless hoof stirs up dust in the straw...
But the sound of footsteps and swish of a switch
Blot out his dreams of the years before.
Saddled and bridled he stands in the yard
While the tight strap wrinkles his whiskery nose.
The riding instructress, with voice loud and hard,
Shouts out commands and obedient, he goes.