According to the old proverb, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. When it comes to training horses, the truth of that was never more clearly shown than by two men I knew who lived on the North Somerset levels. They lived less than two miles apart, but could hardly have been more different in their appearance, their manner, and their methods of horse training. The one thing they had in common was that both were almost monotonously successful at training horses.
Mark, the village where I met them, was an odd sort of place 35 years ago – and, come to that, still was when I last saw it, a couple of years back. When I say that the blacksmith’s shop where I worked was in the middle of the village, most people assume that the village was the usual irregularly shaped cluster of houses, a church, and a pub or two, typical of small English towns and villages. In point of fact, Mark was, and still is, a long, thin line, with its’ houses strung out along the road that runs across the levels from Highbridge to the market town of Wedmore, where Alfred the Great signed a treaty with the Danes to secure peace in Wessex, over a thousand years ago.
The reason for this layout is that the farms which surround Mark are pretty much floating on a partly drained peat bog - and the only solid place to build houses was on top of the dyke built by the Dutch engineers who reclaimed those marshes. Most of it was only drained enough to farm in the 17th and 18th centuries; even now, if you watch a cow running across a field there, you can see the ripples spreading out across the grass from her feet as though she was running across a shallow, green pond. Although Mark is only about twenty miles or so from the centre of Bristol, it felt very remote; not just from Bristol, but even from the 20th century – as though the inhabitants knew there was such a place, and such a time, but didn’t quite feel it was any concern of theirs.
In the middle of Mark stood the church, hard alongside the pub, and directly opposite the blacksmith’s shop – a very traditional English village – and about a mile north was the hamlet of Sheep Street – “notorious as a den of sheep thieves”, according to an old book. That was where Ron Fear lived. And, if any man ever possessed a more inappropriate surname, I’ve yet to meet him – for Ron appeared not to know the meaning of the word.
He looked as hard as nails, and his appearance did not lie. His brother, who farmed a few miles away, where the slopes of the Mendip Hills dive giddily down to the marshes, used to breed thoroughbreds to race in point to points. Until those horses were about four to five years old, they were hardly touched – at best, more or less halter trained, and suffering to have their feet picked up for the attentions of a hoof pick or a farrier’s trimming knife. Finally, when they were at the peak of their adolescent cockiness, absolute in their certainty that nobody could push them around, they were taken to Sheep Street. There they discovered that, whereas they thought they were tough guys, Ron was the genuine article.
Those horses were big and strong, with a fine conceit of their powers, but they could no more barge Ron aside, or haul him round on the end of a lead rope, than they could the Rock of Gibraltar. He showed as much concern as he would if threatened by a goldfish in a bowl.
One day, my boss’s wife was driving along the road near Mark, and saw a horse thundering along the narrow verge with Ron, unconcernedly hunched on top like a sack of spuds – which was how I always saw him. She stopped the car and wound down the window in case Ron called for help – his response was to touch the peak of his flat cap and call out “Morning, Sheila!” as he rocketed past! Some little while later, Sheila was driving back along that same road, when she saw the same horse coming towards her – but this time at a long-striding walk. She stopped the car, and, again, wound down the window. Ron said, as he passed, on a very weary and downcast horse:-
‘’E thought ‘e’d go fer a run; but when ‘e started to slow down, Oi sez to ‘er, “Oh, no, lad! You decoided where you’d start running, but Oi decoide where you’ll stop – an’ we’m not there yet!”
Ron told me later that they often tried tanking off with him once during their training; occasionally twice, but never a third time. There were people, living in the area, who said he was too hard on his horses. Well, judge for yourself.
One day, Ron brought one of his youngsters down to the forge to be shod. He said that the horse seemed a bit tender on his feet at times, when they were going over stony ground, so my boss thought it might give the soles a chance to thicken up if he put the new shoes on with a piece of leather over the sole, and left it on there for about a week. Ron said he had an old saddle, and we could cut the pads out of the flap, so he borrowed a push-bike to ride back to his farm, while we carried on making and fitting the shoes. The horse was fine – until the penny dropped that Ron hadn’t just stepped outside, but gone away. He looked for all the world like a lost puppy! He wasn’t even tied up in the corner, so we pushed the door across so that he didn’t wander off to find Ron, and he sadly mooched about, sniffing where Ron had been, and occasionally making little whickering noises.
He heard, and recognised, Ron’s footsteps before we did, and his ears were aimed straight at the door. As soon as Ron stepped inside, he sniffed and nuzzled him, then returned to his corner as though God was back in his heaven, and all was right with the world! I find it hard to believe that a horse would respond like that to someone who treated him cruelly.
If Ron was the Rock of Gibraltar, Ollie Phippen, who lived a mile in the opposite direction, was a bramble and blackthorn hedge, with roots that went half-way to China. Ollie specialised in buying horses which other people knew were mad, bad, or dangerous to know – and then proving that, actually, they were nothing of the sort. But, though his approach was the very opposite of Ron Fear’s, it proved just as effective.
Ollie’s philosophy was simple; like the hedge, he would bend and bend and bend – but never break. If he tried to pick up a horse’s foot, and the horse snatched it away, Ollie would let it go – and then try again. If the horse did the same, a thousand times, he’d find Ollie was still there, and still trying, as patient and remorseless as water dripping on a stone. No matter what that horse did, he couldn’t shake Ollie off. But as soon as the horse accepted, Ollie would stroke him, quietly praise him, and leave him in peace. When you consider that Ollie had been taking this approach as far back as the late 1940s, when other people’s approach was “tell the horse, shout at him, then hit him with a whip”, he was way ahead of his time.
On one occasion, he bought a horse which was a confirmed rearer. This horse, a burly 16.2 hand 5 year old hunter, had been bred by an old man who was clearly frightened by the horse’s strength and bolshy nature. The horse had found that, if he reared up, and went flat on his back, the old man would always let him go. You couldn’t lead him on a rope, nor hold him on a rope – and tying him up was out of the question.
Realising that tying him up to anything solid was a waste of time, as he would just hurl his weight against the rope until it snapped, Ollie took a different approach – he tied him on a long rope to a blackthorn hedge, which had been planted centuries earlier to mark a field boundary. Every time the horse threw his weight against the rope, the hedge sprung, absorbing the shock, and preventing the rope from breaking. It was nineteen long hours before he accepted that he couldn’t get away, and there was Ollie, still patiently waiting, gently rubbing his neck, and telling him what a fine chap he was.
Two weeks later, Ollie rode through Mark on his push-bike, with that same ‘confirmed rearer’ placidly trotting along behind him on a lead rope! Bringing him into the shoeing shed, he tied him up to the loop of string in the corner, and said “Oi’ll be back in an hour for ‘un, Jack”, and cycled back to the farm.
It’s easy, from where we stand now, to criticise Ollie’s approach with that horse – to say that he could have bonded with the horse in a round pen first, and gained his trust that way. But the knowledge of how to do that was not widely available then; Ollie did his best for the horse, as kindly as he knew how. Most other people, at that time, would have tried to beat the horse into submission, or sold him for meat. Without Ollie, it was only a matter of time before the horse killed himself, or someone else, or was sent to the knackers. As it was, he worked in Ollie’s stables for a while, before being sold on as a safe and trustworthy riding horse.
Was it the best way to deal with a dangerous horse? Possibly not – there are other and gentler ways, which might be just as effective as Ollie’s approach, if not more so. But could I have thought of any way, let alone as non-violent a way, of doing the job, all those years ago? No; I could not. Like most others around that time, I would have written the horse off as a hopeless case.
Ollie succeeded with that young horse, as he did with all the 'hopeless cases' that he took on. I don't know if he could always see their potential, or if he just trusted that, if he dug deep enough, he'd find it; he never said. But find it, he always did.
12th January, 2009