The Fifth Ballyloch Story – The Perfect Horse
It’s time for another Ballyloch story! This one is kind of special to me – those who know me know why. Here’s the first few pages. Go on – have a read!
The Perfect Horse
A Ballyloch Story
“Oh blast! So he’s sold then. What a shame. He sounds just like what I’m looking for. All right. Thank you. Bye bye now.”
I put down the phone and drew a line through the first entry in my notebook, an ad I had carefully copied from The Irish Horse magazine. There was one other that sounded like a possibility, despite what I assumed was a typo.
Gelding. Six years old. Very quiet and will jump a poll. County Cork.
They weren’t giving much away, but I dialled the number anyway. A man answered.
“Hello? I’m calling about the horse you have for sale. Could you tell me a bit about him? How big is he?”
“Sixteen hands, he is. He’s a fine horse. A great jumper.”
16hh great jumper, I wrote on the notebook.
“Oh right. Is he quiet? I’m looking for a nice steady horse.”
“Oh, he’s the quietest horse in the yard! Grand and safe. Takes a pull out hunting, but at home you could put your mother up on him!”
“Well now, my mother’s eighty-five. I don’t think I’d be putting her up on any horse!” I joked.
“Ah, you could put her up on this guy. Safe as houses, he is.”
This horse sounded ideal! I arranged to go and see him the next day and hung up the phone, delighted with myself. I jotted down safe as houses underneath 16hh great jumper, took my glasses off and went out to the sitting room where my wife, Clare, was watching TV.
“I’m going to see a horse tomorrow,” I said.
“That’s good,” she replied, forcing the words out. “Where?”
“Lismore,” I replied. “I’ll go in the morning while Sheila is here with you. I’ll be back by lunchtime.”
She nodded and turned back to the quiz show on the television. I went back to my little office and started to browse horses for sale on the internet. The hunt was on. I was about to buy my first horse.
All my life, I’ve been fascinated with horses. Growing up in the suburbs of Dublin meant that I never had any direct contact with them but, when I was a lad, I watched every cowboy movie that was shown in the local cinema and I read every horsey book I could get my hands on. Twice a year, I’d take the bus over to Ballsbridge and watch all the equine comings and goings at the Royal Dublin Society grounds, first in May for the Spring Show and then again in August for the Dublin Horse Show. I loved the excitement and the bustle and the smells and the sounds. Sometimes I’d even catch the occasional glimpse of a gleaming equine superstar being exercised in Simmonscourt and I’d stand and stare until I was moved on by the security guard. These shows caught my imagination like nothing else, but I only ever managed to get into the showgrounds once, with my friend Dessie Daly.
Dessie’s da was a bank manager, so he’d often get free tickets for whatever big events were on in Dublin. That time, he had been given tickets for the Spring Show and he had brought Dessie and me along. I couldn’t believe my luck as I wandered around the trade stands and show rings, admiring the fine horseflesh on display. Late in the day, I spotted a thick, handsomely illustrated book, all about horse care. Oh, how I wanted it! But that book cost half a crown and all I had was sixpence…
“Look at this,” I had said to Dessie. He had flicked through the pages and admired the pictures, too.
“What if you get your Da to buy it for us,” I had suggested. “We can take it in turns to have it. I’ll take it home first and then you can have it next.”
Well, his father was persuaded to buy the book but, somehow, Dessie’s turn never came round and I have to confess that The Complete Guide to Horses and their Care is still sitting on my shelf, many years later. As a lad, I read and re-read it and, by the time I was fourteen, I was certain that I knew everything I would need when the time finally came for me to have my own horse.
Life took over, as it does, and I was in my mid-forties when I finally started to have riding lessons. I went to a riding school with the very best reputation in the area. “If you want to learn to ride right, that’s the place to go,” I was told, and I had learned a huge amount from Liz at Ballyloch Riding School.
Now, seven years later, I’d taken early retirement to look after Clare. Clare has Huntington’s Disease. It’s the family curse, a genetic disease that she inherited from her mother. We had watched her Mam slowly fade away from it thirty years earlier and now it was taking its cruel hold on Clare and her sister. But we made the best of things, and I did everything I could to keep Clare active and healthy.
Thanks to Sheila, the home help who came to our house every day, my mornings were usually free and I had started helping Liz at the stables five mornings a week, in exchange for cups of tea and lessons. Liz had another helper from time to time, too, a woman called Marie who kept a horse at Ballyloch. Some mornings, the three of us would sit and chat and put the world to rights over our tea and scones! I enjoyed the company, I loved being around the horses and I loved learning about their day-to-day care. I soon found out that I hadn’t learned as much as I thought from The Complete Guide to Horses and their Care after all.
Then my eighty-five year old mother, using that intuition that women are blessed with, realised that I needed something to take my mind off the daily routine of caring for a loved one who was slowly and painfully deteriorating.
“You should have a horse of your own, Colm,” she had said, and she had written a cheque on the spot.
And here I was now, looking for a nice, steady horse, not too big and not too small, who would be happy to carry a mature gentleman into his later years. Surely this wouldn’t be difficult. I’d have my horse installed at Ballyloch within the month. I looked at my bookshelf, pulled out The Complete Guide to Horses and their Care and turned to Chapter 10 – “Purchasing a Horse.”
At ten o clock the next morning, I was pulling into the drive of a small farm just outside of Lismore, looking forward to seeing Gelding. Six years old. A small, yellow-painted bungalow was partially hidden behind a group of chestnut trees to one side. I continued past the gravelled drive that led to the house, as per instructions, and drove through a sagging metal gate into an untidy yard with four stables on one side and a tumbledown barn on the other. There was the rusted hulk of a tractor in a corner of the yard and a battered old jeep parked in the middle. Empty plastic drums and torn, rotted silage bales littered the yard and there were weeds pushing through the gravel everywhere. I’m not one to judge, but I already had a bad feeling about this place.
A small man with one of those ageless faces – thirty-five? Forty? Forty-five? – emerged from a stable as I parked. We shook hands and he introduced himself as John. As we spoke, a sulky-looking teenage girl slithered out of the jeep and joined us.
“My daughter Jennifer,” said John, walking towards the only occupied stable. “Here’s the horse. Billy, he’s called.”
A plain dark bay horse looked at us as we entered. He was fully clipped and he seemed fit – there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him. He was already tacked up, and he stood quietly while John took his reins. I ran my hand down his legs and felt a couple of lumps and bumps, but I had no idea what I was feeling. Were they splints? Old scars? Injured tendons?
“He’s hunted two seasons now,” said John. “He takes a hold, but he’ll jump anything he comes to.”
“I’m not really interested in hunting,” I confessed. “I’m just looking for nice quiet horse, for a bit of hacking around and maybe some riding club competitions. Is it mostly hunters you sell?”
“Yes, yes, mostly hunters. But this lad is dead quiet. He’ll ride away out the roads not a bother. Safe as houses. Sure, an’ I’d put my grandmother up on him an’ he’d look after her.”
Despite my misgivings about the yard, I liked the sound of this horse. Still, only the previous evening, I had read ‘The buyer should always ask to see the horse ridden.’ I cleared my throat.
“Could I see him ridden, please,” I said.
“Not a bother, not a bother. Jen, will you hop up on him there now.”
Jennifer scowled at him.
“I’ll just get my hat,’ she muttered.
“Yerra, sure you know well you don’t need a hat on this lad,” laughed John. “You’ll be grand.”
“No, Da, I’ll just get my hat,” said Jennifer, and she walked over to the jeep.
“Pony club!” said John, raising his eyes to heaven. “Telling them to always make sure they wear their helmets. No helmets in our day, and we were all grand, weren’t we!”
Billy was led into the yard and stood quietly while Jennifer approached, doing up her chin strap as she walked slowly towards us. She stood beside him, on the left hand side. He suddenly seemed bigger. Strange…
She gathered up the reins and lifted her left leg, waiting for John to leg her up. He held the reins near the bit, caught her leg, said “Up you go,” and threw her into the saddle.
Before she even had time to settle her behind into the saddle, Billy exploded in a blur of head shaking and stamping legs as he reversed at speed across the yard. John hung onto the reins for a couple of steps but had to let go when Billy spun sharply to the right. Once his head was free, he literally put it between his front hooves, and he bucked and bucked, just like a bronco in the Wild West. Once, twice and on the third one, poor Jennifer flew through the air and landed awkwardly on her left shoulder. Freed of his burden, Billy shook his head and trotted across the yard. He broke into a canter as he went through the gate and by the time he disappeared down the drive, he was at a flat-out gallop.
John was suddenly hit with fatherly concern.
“Are you all right, lovie?” he asked helping Jennifer to her feet. Anyone with two eyes could see that she wasn’t. She was as white as a sheet and her left arm dangled uselessly.
“She might have broken her collarbone,” I suggested. “I broke mine years ago and it looked like that.”
With some tears and a lot of complaints, Jennifer was helped into the jeep and a younger brother was called for and sent in pursuit of the horse. John stood and looked up at me before getting into his jeep.
“He’s never done that before,” he began, but I cut him off.
“Well I have to say, John, I don’t think he’s the horse for me,” I said. “I’ll leave you to it” and I nodded sympathetically at Jennifer. “Good luck in the hospital,” I called, as I turned and walked back to my car.
Liz told me afterwards that I should have been forewarned. The horse already tacked up, the girl insisting on her hat were all warning signs, as was the way the horse seemed to grow before she mounted. Tension, she said, like a coiled spring.
“You can bet your life he’s done that before. And they probably lunged the hell out of him earlier to try and calm him down for you, too.”
“But why would people do that?” I asked. I’m an innocent. I believe the best of everyone. Unfortunately, I’m often caught out.
Liz shrugged. “He’s a dealer,” she said. “You can never trust a dealer. All he cares about is making his sale.”
I shook my head.
“Well, I don’t think he likes his grandmother very much,” I said. “He said he’d put her up on the horse and he’d look after her!”
Liz sniffed. “They’ll all say that,” she scoffed. “You can’t believe anything you’re told.”
I think Liz was worried about my safety. Without me asking, she offered to come along the next time I went to see a horse. I gladly agreed. After all, The Complete Guide to Horses and their Care says ‘If possible, you should bring an expert along with you when you’re looking for a new horse.’
There are hundreds of horses on the Sell-ur-Stuff website. Narrowing them down is difficult. I set out strict criteria. I would only look at ads from Cork and the surrounding counties, within a two-hour drive. Mares or geldings – no stallions. 15.1 to 16 hands – that’s 155cm to 163cm in new money! Six to ten years old. The ad should use expressions like ‘bombproof’ or ‘very quiet’ or ‘suitable for beginner.’ I should avoid ads that said things like ‘not a novice ride’ or ‘strong’ or ‘needs confident rider.’
Out of hundreds, I was left with ten likely candidates jotted down in my notebook. Liz had told me to be honest about my own abilities on the phone – specifically, to say that I was an older man, not riding very long, looking for my first horse. Two of the sellers paused on hearing this and, very honestly, said “No, I don’t think he’d suit you.” Two of them turned out to be too far away. Of the remaining six, two were sold and I ruled out two more because, although they were six year olds, they had done nothing but hunting. After Billy, I decided I would avoid hunting horses for a while. I was left with two.
Piebald mare, 7 years old, 15.1 hands. Very quiet. Ridden and driven. Had two foals.
Driving might be a bit of fun, I thought. There was one blurry photo on the website, of a fat gypsy cob standing in long grass. There’s nothing wrong with gypsy cobs, I thought. They’re always very quiet. This one was a definite possibility.
The other horse was very different.
10yo bay sport horse gelding, 16hh. Absolute gentleman. Competed in pony club and riding club dressage and eventing at intermediate level. Easy to box, shoe and clip. Very quiet, suitable for any level rider.
The picture showed a very nice bright bay horse in the air over what looked to me like quite a substantial jump. He was clearing it with room to spare, although his dangling front hooves did seem a bit close to the top pole. Wow, I thought. Very nice. With visions of myself clearing fences with the same effortless ease as the young lady on his back, I called Liz and told her I had arranged to see two horses the following week…
Like what you’ve read so far? You can found out how Colm finds his perfect horse by downloading ‘The Perfect Horse” from Amazon.