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Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Age of the Horse

     "Isn't anybody interested in the horses?" We were sitting in the restaurant in the local tavern, when the question was raised, for while my wife and I had been consulting the menu, my mother, who was already suffering from dementia, had been watching the races on the tavern television.
      Mum grew up with horses, and they remained a passion all her life. Indeed, in the months before she went into the nursing home, she used to leave on the table a copy of Desmond Morris's book, Horse Watching, and would thumb her way through the illustrations, although she could no longer read the text. In fact, although she rarely had the opportunity to mount one after she left home at the age of 22, she nevertheless took her last ride in Mexico, at the age of 83.
Photo from a family friend, marked "From Walter to Uncle Tom".
     In the early days, at one point, she estimated they had 60 horses in the stable yard, mostly draught horses - essential precursors to tractors and trucks. As the above photo illustrates, a double team with six to eight horses in each might be required to move the harvest. Here's another example. (I told you the photographs of those days were not particularly good.)
     Apart from the plough and the harvest, human beings required transport. At any one time there would be only one "sulky horse" for the adults, and one for taking the children to school. In addition, there was the quota of riding horses.
     In the midst of this equine family stood a rather colourful  character named Major, a draught horse gelding with an interesting passion. He just loved foals. If a mare had a foal in a neighbouring paddock, he would find his way in to be with it. Later on, he wanted to go into the crops. Fences were no obstacle, since barbed wire was present only on the external fences. The internal ones he simply climbed over. To cramp his style, they put side-lines on him: chains running between the front and back legs on either side. Even then, he would often work his way through the wire. Eventually, Mum thinks, he died of old age.
     As a general rule, they kept mares and geldings. During the war, when Charlie had a place of his own, he would keep stallions, and Mum attempted to ride one, but found it too spirited, and intent on returning home, so she jumped off. It must have been something of a let-down, because walking was not something a human being would sink to except in unusual circumstances. To cover any distance, you first went out and caught a horse - even, as Mum humorously used to add, if it meant walking farther than than if you had elected to use shank's pony in the first place. Some horses got ridden all the time because they were easy to catch, for not every horse was co-operative. Some would hurry out of the way when they saw someone approach carrying a bridle.  Once Uncle Alf once went to school with an otherwise quiet horse which just happened to have the bad habit of biting people. He came home with his arms all chewed up.Others tried a more subtle approach; they would attempt to puff themselves up in order to make it difficult to attach the saddle girths - that's on the rare occasion anyone used a saddle.
     Grandpa had a serious objection to children using saddles. When they fell off, they might get dragged along the ground at speed with a foot caught in the stirrup. And fall they would. According to his maxim, you had to fall off 300 times before you properly knew how to ride. ("How many time is that, Daddy?" asked little Lil after one tumble. "It's not far off 300," he reassured her.) What about a helmet? I hear you ask. Forgetaboutit! Never heard of such a thing in those days! Have a look at this photo. That's Mum on the horse at right, with her aunt on the other. Does either of them look like she is wearing a helmet?
Left to right: Olga, Hilda, Marion McGovern, Alf Dennis, and Margaret
     So how, you might ask, did they mount the horse without a stirrup? Well, when the child was very small, a parent or older sibling would set him/her on a post and bring the horse over. As they grew older, they became very adept at placing a foot on the animal's knee- which is the middle joint of the front leg - grasping the mane, and heaving themselves up. And, of course, the Dennis kids, like modern children racing their bicycles downhill, believed that a horse shouldn't be ridden unless it was ridden fast. They envied their neighbours, the Macks, for they had beautiful whips made from river saplings. The Dennises were never allowed to hit a horse. Considering some of the other things they did, perhaps this was just as well.
    Riding was a skill acquired only slightly later than that of walking. As you are aware, very few of us can remember events earlier than our third birthday and, if we are honest, we would admit that we have only fragmentary memories of the period prior to starting school, which is the first big change in our lives. Thus, Mum had no recollection of learning to ride. It was something she had always done. She did remember simply sliding off the McQueeny's pony, which was slightly taller than a Shetland pony: about 10 hands, or 40 inches [101 cm] at the shoulder.
      But she did remember training the younger children in horsemanship. Charlie, ten years her junior, was a case in point. "I couldn't get out of taking that confounded kid," she moaned. She would pick him up and place him in front of her, on the horse's withers, and expect him to hold on with his legs (and presumably, cling to the mane with his hands). After a short while, he was expected to ride behind her and hang on tight. However, this was not necessary comfortable for a small child. "You get very hurt on the back of a horse, bareback, going like mad", to quote my mother. He would complain she was going too fast. "Listen," was her unkind reply, "if you come with me, you'll ride at my pace." Besides, by the age of three (three!) a child should be riding alone, and she told him so. But Charlie definitely did not like the idea. He attached himself to Halley, who was only six years older, even then he was told, "If you come with me, you'll go at my pace."
      But don't worry, Uncle Charlie; all is forgiven. When heading south for a family reunion on her 90th birthday, Mum referred to him as "my favourite brother".
     As I have said on more than one occasion, the fact that all nine children survived to adulthood had nothing to do with ingrained caution. Mum remembers an occasion when a horse, while harnessed to a sulky, decided to run off for some reason, and the small child seated on the horse's back was thrown to the ground. He or she was only two or three years old. Another time, when my mother was 10 or 11 years old, her brother, Halley, four younger, had the misfortune to have the school horse tread on his bare foot. Their own mother being absent in Wagga, Mum took him inside and bathed his swollen foot with hot water (which, under current first aid theory is the opposite of what should have been done.) "We were lucky draught horses didn't put their foot on us," said Mum, "because we did the most dreadful things."
     "Like what?" I asked.
     "Walking behind draught horses in the stable. It's a stupid thing to do! But we were young. We could have been kicked or smashed to pieces." (When we visited the homestead as boys, we were firmly instructed by our mother never to walk behind a horse, unless we wanted to be kicked. And, not being experienced enough to be blasé about the beasts, we did what we were told. Well, most of the time.)
     But if you think that was reckless behaviour, try this for size. Despite being seven years her junior, Lil was possibly Mum's favourite sister because she had the same adventurous spirit. She could get her to do anything. So, when Lil was about five or six years old, Mum thought it would be a great idea to teach Lil to swim. Now, during the whole of her 97 years, Mum herself never learned to swim, but that was no reason why her little sister shouldn't learn. They had been told that, if ever they were forced to cross a flooded river, they should dismount and hold onto the horse's tail. She therefore took Lil along to the deep end of the dam, where they weren't supposed to go, and brother Halley, two years older than Lil, came along as unofficial observer.
     I wish there was some way to depict Mum's tone of voice as she related the adventure. She rode into the middle of the dam, then instructed Lil to dismount and grab hold of the horse's tail, which she obediently proceeded to do. Unfortunately, Mum had taken the wrong pony. If it had been her own regular mount, it probably would have gone through, but this one floundered. She tipped sideways, and her tail, which should have streamed out behind her as she swam, simply went down with Lil's weight. Now she was under water, and mixed up with the pony's hindquarters and flailing legs, while Mum was struggling to maintain her bareback balance on the sidewards leaning horse. In her desperation, she called out to Halley. He at least knew how to dog paddle, and managed to bring his little sister safely to shore. "If Halley hadn't been there," said Mum, "I don't know what would have happened." Probably she and the horse would have got out, but Lil would have been kicked, trodden on, and drowned.
     "I'm surprised you kids didn't get killed," I said.
     "I don't know," she replied. "I really and truly don't know."
     As you read in a previous chapter, the long ride to school could be boring to the average active child. Mum was at home when the following event occurred. She thinks it was when she was recovering from pneumonia during her first year. If so, it raises some questions of chronology, for she had already stated that they did not acquire a sulky until two years later, when Aunt Olga went to school. However, we must not assume perfect recollection after a lapse of eight decades. Perhaps before that time, they occasionally used the parents' sulky. Or perhaps they didn't have a "sulky horse" of their own.
     At any rate, she was at home, while her two older brothers, Jack and Alf were using a half-draught horse burrowed from their next door neighbour, Mr Hughes. On the way home, they played a familiar game: driving back and forth in front of the Clothier children's horse. But this time, the sulky shaft broke, and pierced the hindquarters of Hughes' mare- almost up to her "udder". Jack Clothier, who was a much older boy, came to their assistance and stuck a handkerchief into the wound to staunch the bleeding. He must have come home with them. The result was that the boys had to ride the pony the next day. And, of course, the embarrassing thing was that it wasn't their horse. Grandpa had to go over and confess his offspring's misdeeds to Mr Hughes. To make matters worse, he still needed to borrow the horse the following day to use with the orchard sprayer. Oh well, I suppose Mr Hughes had children of his own. If not, he had been a boy himself once.
     How did the younger children fare? Well, Aunt Hilda distinctly remembers the episode of the race with the Bertrams. She remembers the names of four of them: Eric, Nancy, Tom, and Lil; perhaps there were more. Living about three miles [5 km] down the road from the Dennises, their paths crossed on the return route from school, and apparently the horse drawing the two oldest girls was incredibly slow. On the Dennis side, the three youngest, Charlie, Doug, and Hilda had a sulky to themselves. Boys being what they are, they started to make fun of the slowness of the rival horse. "Why, we can run faster than him ourselves!" they skited. And, leaving their little sister holding the reins, they dismounted and set about proving their point.
     The Bertram girls were humiliated. Unfortunately for them, there was not much revenge they could wreak on Charlie and Doug, so they decided to take it out on poor Hilda. At the time, Malebo school held 26 pupils, of which I suppose half were girls. The Bertram girls persuaded their female schoolmates to cold shoulder Hilda the next morning. No-one would talk to her - except the two oldest girls, who considered themselves above such pettiness. (On second thoughts, Aunt Hilda thinks they may have been the Mullins girls.)
     Aunt Hilda also narrated the occasion when Doug, having opened a gate, somehow fell under the sulky's wheels as it moved forwards. His sister remembers that bump as the vehicle drove over his back. However, he eventually lived to celebrate his 90th birthday, so it didn't do him too much harm. Once a draught horse mare died giving birth to twins, and Aunt Olga hand reared the two foals, feeding them cow's milk.

     No doubt you have watched lots of movies about the days before the motor car. It probably never registers with you that the streets appear unnaturally clean. Well, here is something the movie makers seldom emphasize. No-one has ever learnt how to toilet train a horse. In the days when the horse was king, His Majesty's residue tended to be scattered at irregular intervals over the public thoroughfares, to the delight of the nation's flies and the dismay of fastidious male pedestrians and women with long, trailing skirts. In zones of heavy traffic, this odoriferous residue was liable to be accumulate so abundantly that some people earned a precarious living from tips by wielding a broom for the benefit of street-crossers, or even carrying ladies across in their strong hands. I say nothing about the morning after the ball, when all the horses and carriages of the gentry had departed from the elegant dance hall.
     Well, one day Mum had been left in charge of the sulky in Wagga Wagga. I suppose her mother or father had business in the town and she had accompanied them. In any case, the sulky in which she was waiting was parked on some sort of hill or rise. Also, the camber of the street was such that it sloped slightly downwards from the side on which she was parked. Now, at last, the horse was at rest, and it decided that this would be an ideal time to empty its bladder. Now a horse, particularly one which draws a sulky, is a big animal, and its bladder is correspondingly copious. To her horror, and acute embarrassment, my mother watched as a broad yellow stream flowed across the street, reached the gutter on the opposite side, and continue its course down the hill. And there she sat, praying that her parent(s) would soon return, or else the ground would open up and hide her.
     That might have been the most embarrassing event, but it was not the only one. Once, when she was in her early to mid-teens, she rode down to collect the mail. Now, at that time, her own mother had ordered a set of wheels for one of the younger children's trolley, and there, address to "A. A. Dennis" was an "enormous parcel", as big as a chaff bag. Hello, thought Mum, this must be the wheels, even though it was addressed to her father rather than her mother. It was not heavy and, somehow, she managed to get it up, despite the fact that she had no stirrup to assist her, and placed it right across the mare's withers before setting off for home "bareback, hell for leather" (naturally!). And, as she explained, "it isn't easy to get a horse to canter when you have an enormous bag of feathers on her." Because that's what it turned out to be. They had been ordered by her Uncle Arnold of Coolamon, but because he bore the same initial as her father, it had gone to the wrong address.
     Another time, again at the age of fourteen or fifteen, she rode out to take lunch to her father and brothers working in a paddock perhaps a mile and a half [2½ km] away, and she was rewarded by being handed an "enormous box" two or three feet across, containing surplus crockery (presumably of the metal variety). Getting it up on the horse's withers would not have been as awkward as the bag of feathers; she could have simply remained on the mount and allowed the menfolk to lift it up. Between them and the homestead stood two gates, and it is an invariable rule in the country that you leave a gate as you found it: open if it were already open, closed if it were closed. The first gate she opened and reclosed without dismounting; no problem. The real trouble was that the best of horses is a skittish animal. In this case, it touched a bit of wire, and reacted. She reared up in fright, and the reins broke as Mum tumbled backwards. She fell onto a rotten pine pole, which shattered on impact, leaving a plethora of splinters in her left buttock. Meanwhile, the horse had bolted, but fortunately, gate number 2 barred its way. Mum felt absolutely humiliated. There was the possibility that the neighbour she could see on the roadside a long way off may have witnessed the accident. The last thing she wanted was for him to wonder why she wasn't riding, so she recaptured the horse and remounted, box and all.
     Her mother's assistance was required to remove the splinters from her derrière, and she was unable to sleep that night. Don't expect sympathy in a big family. Her brothers thought it was a great joke.
     Mum estimates she was about ten, eleven, or twelve when the following tragedy occurred, because Jack was at school and four or five of the children were involved. Judging from their birthdates, I deduce that the culprits were Jack, Alf, Margaret, and Olga. Their neighbours, the Macks (the daughter of whom was to later become my godmother) had put in a new well about four miles [6½ km] away, so they decided to investigate. (It must have been pretty darn boring down at the farm if that was their idea of excitement.) "We had no right looking at the Macks' well," she said. Just the same, they got out the sulky and harnessed up Darkie, the slow old horse which used to take them to school. The two boys got out to look at the well, so the girls did likewise - and they secured the horse by tying the reins to the spokes of the sulky wheel. "No-one's supposed to tie a horse's reins to the spokes."
     What do you expect? "Poor old Darkie" went to get a bit of grass, and the wheel pulled him back. He fell over and broke the shaft. Disaster! Somehow or other the boys fixed it up with a paling or something. Now the childhood code of omertà came into effect. The boys swore the girls to secrecy. They merely told their father than Darkie had fallen over.
     "Dad took him down that night and shot him - he and Larry O'Shannessy. Shot the poor old thing. Because he would not have a stumbling horse. Too dangerous for kids. No, we never told Dad [the truth] because the boys said we mustn't tell. We never thought to tell. Don't trust kids!"
     I've always felt terribly sad every time I heard that story. Mum couldn't say how many horses they went through. "We just wore them out." Their father came from a large family himself. He "couldn't give his own good horses. He didn't trust kids. He knew they'd fight. He knew they's run it into the gutter. But he didn't think they'd do what they weren't supposed to do."
     Finally, there was the sad story of Charlie, a great big horse owned by the Richards. The eldest child, Dora was not so bad, but the Richards boys were pigs, in my mother's assessment. In the winter time, for example, when it was wet, and Charlie was tied up in the school paddock, they would shake the pine tree to make the drops fall on poor Charlie. Also, they gave reckless driving a whole new meaning. The youngest boy, aged perhaps about seven, was so scared of their antics that he would never ride in the sulky with them. Instead, he used to stand on the spring at the back, holding on to the seat, so that he could easily be thrown off in case of an accident. This behaviour was a great source of merriment to the Dennises, but it turned out to be a sensible precaution after all.
     Outside the school gate lay a gutter, which the Dennis children were supposed to go around, and usually they did so. Not so the Richards boys. Gutters were for driving through, and sticks were for poking the rear end of the hapless Charlie to make him go fast. This time, the two peccadilloes combined to produce a disaster. They crashed through the gutter at speed, and something happened. Perhaps they overturned, and probably the shaft broke. The traces broke, and Charlie tore across the road, and ripped a hole in the fence on the other side.
     Out stormed the teacher in a rage, and instructed the laughing Dennis kids to return home via the Richards' homestead and inform the father of what had happened, and that he, the teacher, would be bringing his offspring home. When the Dennises arrived, there was Charlie, "a rangy white horse" with half his harness still dangling from him. "Well, next day, poor old Charlie was shot. Well, it wasn't his fault. Wretched kids! You can't have a bolting horse. He didn't bolt. They made him. Kids are terrible!"
     Next day, the Richards kids had to walk to school. That'd teach them! Some time later, my grandfather purchased their property, so that was that.

     Now, one final revelation. "You can't make money owning a race horse" is a popular adage; the cost of maintenance, training, and so forth will dwarf any winning you may gain. However, when I made the comment to a taxi driver who owned a few, he replied that it was true only of thoroughbreds. Trotting horses, as he knew from experience, can make a profit. As long as Mum could remember, her father always had trotting horses. You may remember from the second chapter how he was regularly advertising a stud trotting horse at Currawarna. His older sister Martha Dennis was also well known in harness racing circles. In Mum's time her father used to stable them in Wagga Wagga, and when they ceased to win races, they would be brought home to use for riding. During the Second World War, he graduated to race horses ie thoroughbreds. This bring me to the last anecdote, told by Uncle Alf, the second son.
    A woman said to him: "When a man gets middle aged and prosperous, he does one of three things: gets himself a mistress, falls in love with his wife again, or buys a race horse. My father fell in love with his wife again."
     "And mine," said Alf, "bought a race horse."

Read more about animals in the next chapter, or go back to the index.