Isn’t it just a horse? Ode to a Hobo

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Before and whilst I had Rossvean (above) I must have had 20 or 30 other horses. I was only a kid but I rode for competition yards, I rode for private owners, I rode for myself. Rossvean was my first real rescue horse, others were more scopey and more straightforward but he had a brave heart and I trusted him completely. Ross’ was the mane I cried into when my parents left. Eventually I sold him and my heart broke. I found the next horse, and the next. I asked my trainer (Karen Gibson) for help as something about these horses just did not work any more. She looked at me very sternly and explained that “there’s never going to be another Rossvean”.

I have an excellent memory, I don’t forget words, sometimes I wish I could. The feeling of being metaphorically punched never left me either. I sold up and I quit. For over a decade I quit. Eventually I started to ride again, very occasionally and only for other people. Don’t you miss it? they’d ask. Every day, I’d say. Then one day I fell in love with a horse. Hobo was exactly what I look for, a horse worth coming out of retirement for. Big floaty uphill paces and a jump that defined perfect. I used his photo in lectures on conformation. I studied his jump for research papers. Like Ross he was a little psychotic but when he trusted you he would overcome his own nature. Horses that can take on a 1.50m track are hard enough to find, here was a proper 1.60m horse and I loved his every quirk.

Hobo got his name by being chucked off yard after yard for being dangerous, and he was, he had a tendency to panic with no self-preservation, and an exceptional talent for putting people in hospital, but this was never a horse who was nasty, just very afraid. 1.60m horses are not just bred, they are made. Everything must go well in training and then you still have to be lucky. Hobo was big, nervous and slow to mature. To go with his talent he needed big track rideability: my mantra became “for him I have time”. Eventually the offers started coming in and under pressure to sell I bought Sox the stallion to ease the transition. Still I could not bear to part with him and now I had two (albeit one who was intended for stud). Sox is a great horse, turns his hoof to anything, never lame, affiliated dressage and jumping, safe to hack and easy to handle. Next week I’ll go and collect a championship trophy from his only ever shot at showing. But Sox is not Hobo, Sox is a riding club horse and I never wanted to be a riding club rider. I’ve ridden him with a broken wrist, with one side limp, post-caesarian, and, I now know, with a wolf tooth fragment stuck in his jaw. He’s a grumpy old git, but I trust him with my kids and he’ll never hurt them. He doesn’t owe me anything but the world will manage without his genes and he is now gelded.

More pressure to sell came and went. I turned down big money offers for both horses, met a “them or me” ultimatum from the husband and he became an ex-husband. For years the divorce went on and the horses stood stabled, in divorce limbo, going round a horse-walker and losing health. By the time it was over Hobo never made it fully back into work. This year I retired him, which is an odd expression for a horse that hasn’t really started his career, but I can’t keep bringing him into work and watching him go lame, I have to let him go.

Hobo is not dead. Every morning I lead him out of his stable he comes out in a big uphill march of a walk. I spent years on ground work with this horse, he leads beautifully, but most of all he moves beautifully. He has presence: he comes out of the stable roughed off and covered in mud and fur and I still think here is a horse. Here is what all horses should look like. I lead him up to the field and every time I watch his hooves – do they land heel first? Are they even? I fantasize that months of leading him up and down our stony path will harden his legs and he will come back, and I will feel that amazing jump, and the fences will be enormous and I will take photos to replace those lost to divorce, photos and memories which I can keep forever. Then we reach the field and I send him off and he hobbles, and I remember that I am an idiot, and I have to let him go.

As a child at this time of year I read an issue of Horse and Hound where the equine stars of the day listed what they’d want for their dream Christmas, and adverts ran alongside. I don’t remember what most people wanted. I think Mary King wanted an equine swimming pool and a new set of jumps. When they came to Eddie Macken he only had one sentence: “I just want Boomerang back”. Suddenly I saw capitalism and advertorials through the eyes of this man who didn’t know what we’re talking about. His heart is broken and seemingly his career with it, and we understood, because we all wanted Boomerang back.

I am very lucky and I know that. Pining over a (still-living) horse smacks of white, middle-class privilege, and hell yeah, I’m rich and thin. My Christmas list is ridiculously hopeful and contains saddles and bridles because I have four wonderful horses: Sox, Hobo, Denim (Hobo’s companion pony) and now the lovely Remus, a four year old. People are always asking how Remus is going, excited that for the first time in nearly a decade I’ve bought another horse. He’s going great I say, and he is. Better than I ever imagined, I say, because it’s true. Remus is exceptional, I hope one day he’ll be international. Maybe he’s even a 1.50m track horse and they’re hard to find. Certainly enough scope for me, don’t get the wrong idea – I’m no olympic rider. What I can’t politely say is he’s not Hobo, he’s not even in Hobo’s league. He’s lovely, I’m fond of him, I’m impressed with him, but like people horses don’t replace each other. So Dear Santa, come on, this year, even if only for one day, I just want my Hobo back.

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