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The Old Rugged Horse

by Arthur.Greenan 

Posted: 14 October 2005
Word Count: 4161
Summary: 1955 Spent year as a 16 years old working on the farm

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Rugged Horse’

To know him was to love him.

By 1955, the year I started to work with Bobby at Windygoul, the twelve-horse stable was down to five. The two old Fordson tractors had gleaming new companions. Little did I realise then that the farming communities were in the midst of a great exodus from the land. Little did I know that I would have only one magnificent year before the onward march of machinery would change country life forever!

To the north, the green and pleasant slopes of the county of East Lothian cascaded slowly to the sea; in the south they rose gently towards the Lammermuir Hills.
The farm of Windygoul lay on the southern perimeter of the small mining town of Tranent. Local farmland, since the Second World War, had been greatly reduced in answer to the great social cry of, “hooses, hooses and mair hooses”.
Only two hundred of its black fertile acres remained. The traditional grey sandstone and pantiled farm buildings, the stables, the cattle courts, the piggery, the hayshed and granary were all inward facing; thus, in winter, all the animals were sheltered from the cold blasts but also shared their common warmth.

Bobby was a gentle, dapple-grey Irish draft gelding with wide intelligent eyes set within a finely sculpted head. He was rising sixteen years of age, as indeed was I. He stood at sixteen hands to his withers. He had a deeply set chest, well-sprung ribs and neatly rounded hips, all set upon clean legs and small feet.

Our partnership began in bewildering fashion. I walked into his stall that first morning to be met with two flashing rear hooves. When fitting his collar he sought to sink his teeth into my shoulder. Enough was enough for any man. In fear and in anger I snatched his upper lip, twisting it ’till he arched his back in cringing pain. Raising my fist to his face, spluttering through clenched teeth I said,

“Do that to me again and you’re a f*****g goner, son!”

His ears went horizontal with hurt.

Slowly I eased my grip. His ears pricked forward. His head dropped. His nose muzzled into my dungarees. He was sorry. I was sorry. Putting my arm around his neck I whispered,

“Bobby, this isn’t you, it isn’t me! Bobby. This is not us, son!”
In that moment of tenderness I felt a great rage welling within me.
Bobby’s mane was laden with lice. His hips were blistered like a field peppered with molehills. The horse was demented; his temper was little short of breaking. Someone had been repeatedly pricking his buttocks with the sharp tines of a hayfork. Tied up in his stall he was completely cornered. His only recourse was to lash out with his rear hooves in petrified anguish.

I was to find out later of another wicked deed to which Bobby had been subjected. When yoked in the box-cart, the driver had pricked his hips with a darning needle. Bobby would rear up at the front and clatter the bottom of the cart with his hind feet, bruising his hocks in his desperate flight from torture. To have witnessed, as I had, this hitherto mild and diligent horse become a tormented beast would have made any decent man weep, not to say a simple, growing country laddie.

For four days and nights I resorted to shampooing, creaming and powdering. This brought peace to his body and soul. His head lifted, his eyes shone. His temper settled. His gait steadied. In time, his mane grew in, his tail filled out and his good looks and open heart returned. Bobby was back in business!

On every Scottish farm there was a clearly defined pecking order of authority. The farmer would discuss the day’s work with the farm grieve.
He would give the orders for the day to the foreman who drove the first pair of horses. In turn, he advised the horsemen who drove the second, third, or fourth pairs of horses and so on down the stable until he came to the odd laddie who drove the odd or single horse, which, by tradition, was stabled in the bottom stall of the stable. That was Bobby and I.

It was the foreman who kept the key to the medicine chest and the corn kist. It was he who rang the bell signalling the start of the day. On that tinkle, all the harnessed horses would, like clockwork toys, slowly reverse from their stalls and head for the door. They found comfort in their routine. The horses would assemble in the same ranks at the watering trough then hold their respective positions as they marched, perhaps four pairs in a row, to a particular field. Even here, such as in a day’s ploughing, the four pairs were yoked to the plough but moved off only on a signal from the foreman. This ritual was repeated in reverse at lunchtime and also when they loused at the end of their working day.

It was of course the foreman who built the first corn stack at harvest time, led with his first pair when carting, set out the feering poles in the field prior to ploughing, led the squad when singling, sowed the corn seed in springtime and instructed work to cease when the job became untenable due to heavy rain.

I had the privilege of working with three of the finest foremen who ever trod old Scotia’s soil: the late Duncan Jack at Windygoul and Harry Henderson and Jake Hogg at the neighbouring farm of the Myles.
Duncan was a tall silent man with deep brown, thoughtful eyes. Harry, a decade younger was genial and perceptive. Jake was the philosopher. All excelled in the daily craftsmanship of the farm. It was in their horsemanship that they displayed their “touch of the master’s hand”. They read each young horse. They spotted their fears and calmed them. They didn’t ribb, batter or abuse them. They didn’t resort to devious trickery or brutality. They spoke to their young horses. They won their confidence and, in so doing, set up these young animals for life as dependable beasts. They were all Scottish ‘horse-whisperers’.

Men like these could have, strolled through any university with ease. Such was the substance of the Scottish farm-worker of that period. They were artistic artisans.

The array of jobs Bobby and I were called upon to do was dictated by the season of the year. Some jobs were fascinating, a few nauseating, many repetitive but none disinteresting.

In the spring we would cart mangolds for the dairy cattle and hay bales to the grazing followers. The shepherd would slaughter and skin any pining hogs. After assisting him, Bobby and I would cart the carcasses off and toss them down a distant disused airshaft. Perhaps the most frightening job of all was when we had the task of emptying the cottagers’ ash tip. Whilst I was digging, rats would shoot out across my forearm or dive across my shoulder.
In the early summer we trimmed the turnip drills with the scarifier. The offal discarded by the Co-op fleshing department was thrown into a drum-shaped cart known as the “puddin’ cairt”. When full, we took the contents, teeming with maggots, to the rat-infested municipal rubbish tip. The stench of the vile contents would literally have “killed a horse”. It was a nutritious change of diet for the vermin!
No more attractive was when we were sent to empty the farm cottage cesspools. The aroma in the high heat of summer did nothing if it didn’t induce acute pangs of hunger in a growing lad.

Perhaps the most repetitive task of all was the hay pole. The farm workers, when building the large haystacks, erected a thirty-foot pole, the pulley ropes of which were attached to a two-pronged fork; this was thrust into the hayricks which had been carted in from the fields. Bobby was yoked to the ropes and on stepping forward he raised the load of hay to the required height. The stackers would trip the fork, landing the hay precisely where needed. I would then reverse Bobby back a few paces to the starting line. For two long weeks we stepped slowly forward and slowly backwards. The only saving grace was to finally see six massive haystacks built in beautiful symmetry.
Before the corn harvest, Bobby had frequent days of welcome rest. I would then join with the rest of the workers to single the turnips. Thereafter, I had spells with them stooking the sheaves in the corn fields. If the sheep had to dipped, clipped or moved to fresh fields I would assist the shepherd.

Every job, in that first year of working life was a new experience. The shepherd threw me his knife and instructed me to topple a dying sheep and thrust the knife through its throat with a twist and hold it down until it kicked its last. In the piggery the pig-man threw young male piglets at me. I caught them in mid-air and held them upside down by the hind trotters. With two quick flicks of his razor blade they were castrated. I then disinfected their wounds with two quick squirts of pure Detol from an oil pourrie.

Part of the autumn was spent in the potato fields. The tractor would spin the potatoes from the drills with the rotating digger; the potato pickers would then lift them along the length of their “stent”. Bobby and I would then rake across the ground with a single harrow to uncover those potatoes which had been trampled underfoot. It was at that time we saw the first signs of frost, which heralded the winter.
The cattle courts were then stocked with fattening cattle, which Bobby and I had to bed on the Saturday mornings. The courts had low pantiled roofs supported by cast iron pillars in an odd assortment of places. To manoeuvre a long-cart laden with straw in and around these bullock-filled courts demanded a skill, from Bobby, comparable to the drivers of those low-loader lorries which they pirouette in the streets of our major cities — but it was fun!

With winter came the snow. The pairs of horses were confined to the stable when the land was frozen. There was no such respite for Bobby. We fitted pointed studs to his shoes which bit into the ice and helped Bobby from slipping on the treacherous roadways. We were, at times such as these, the only lifeline, which kept all the farm stock fed.

With a few days of enforced rest the other horses became fresh; their sheaths and hocks would swell and their heels became quite itchy. The solution was in my hands. After an early trip round the fields to feed the stock I would quickly stable Bobby. I took the five horses, one at a time, out into the snow-covered fields.
Fitted only with a bridle and short rein I mounted them bareback and would egg them into a gallop. With my knees implanted in their withers they would romp around the field until each horse had had enough. To ride a one ton, six foot high Clydesdale horse at full gallop is smoother than the carousel at a fair.

There were of course lighthearted moments whilst working with Bobby. In the late spring, his white coat turned to a deep dappled grey. I had fitted him with an open bridle which, set off with blue rosettes, gave a rather regal touch to his finely cast head. Riding bareback through town on this stylish steed I was subjected to calls of “Wee Lord Godiva”. Trust the miners to burst my bubble!

In that scorching June of 1955, Bobby and I were at the haymaking. The sun was high, the work heavy, the hours long, and I a growing lad. At three-thirty in the afternoon we stopped for a welcome break. I took Bobby to the shady side of the hayricks where I sat down to have my snack. Two hours later I woke with alarm to find Bobby had gone. The wise old horse had gone no further than the other side of the ruck. He had followed the shade. Going home that evening, apart from a smiling rebuke from the farm grieve, I felt it had been a good day. I knew I wasn’t really “Rip Van Winkle”. After all he hadn’t spent two hours dreaming of Ingrid Bergman, as I had — and got paid for it!

That was not my first aberration. There were five farms in the group between which Bobby and I regularly plied. After lunch one day we were taking a long cart down the narrow road. I was lulled by Bobby’s rhythmic sway. Luckily, I didn’t fall off the cart and under its wheel. Rather, I fell backwards into the cart and slept an unstoppable sleep. Bobby plodded on.

Suddenly all Hell was let loose. I started from my sleep to the thunderous noise of shattering glass and the blasphemous tones of Willie, the travelling Co-op butcher. The poor man was pinned to the back of his driver’s seat by our cart shaft, which had crashed, through his windscreen. One cannot imagine the fear in his heart when he saw this driverless horse descend upon him. I’ve no doubt that he prayed!
He certainly questioned the legality of my birth!

At the potato planting in the spring, all the resources of the farm were thrown into one field. It was mesmeric to watch man, machine and horse so synchronised. Once the tilth was worked and the drills drawn, Bobby and I would precede the potato planters with our cartload of seed potatoes, which we dispensed into their hessian brats.
The ladies of the land were middle-aged and ever ready to offer their best advice to a witless stripling such as me. One of my enjoyable little ploys was to quietly whistle a well-loved tune. The choir of angels never failed to respond. They sang the classic hymns, gave vent to the popular “Rock ’n Roll Waltz” and warmed to “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, and all without missing one seed potato! With Mima the soprano, Meg the alto, Bessie deep and mellifluous, they sang in perfect unison. The gentle tones and spirit of their pleasant voices wafted sweetly across the tattie drills.

The horsemanship in that potato field was of the finest. The real skill of the horseman, especially when splitting the drills so as to cover the seed potatoes was in the method by which he tied his two horses together, thus ensuring that they sure-footedly tread on the pinnacle of the drill without damaging the seed potatoes below. It was rewarding to watch these massive Clydesdales and Percherons with their harness shining and buckles glinting, with necks arched and every sinew smoothly pulling, with assurance and intelligence, with gentle obedience and every step measured. They, with power and style, secured that future crop. They were, as they had been for one hundred years, the bedrock of Scotland’s economic destiny.

The grieve sent Bobby and I on the long trip to the coal depot. It was a pleasant afternoon. The sky was clear. The Lammermuir hills, by late August, had taken on a bonnie purple hue. That day the countryside seemed quieter, the birds screeched louder, the grass was greener, the trees stood taller, the miles seemed longer. As I absorbed that breathtaking panorama from the height of the cart it seemed a perfect day.
By nightfall, it would be for Bobby and I, a day not readily forgotten.

On reaching the coal depot I reversed the cart into a sixteen-ton wagon. For the next hour it would be ‘heads down, tails up, shovel swinging’. As the shunting engine belched out black smoke and hissed white steam I felt that something was adrift. Bobby had taken fright and shot off down the railway line. I retrieved him and settled him in at the wagon. With twenty-five hundredweight in the cart we set off for home.

Travelling through the tree-lined avenue of Ormiston village, I sensed of a change in tone. Leaping from the cart, I discovered that the pin, which retained the nearside wheel, had fallen out. Wisdom had it that cartwheels were so designed that only if reversed would the wheel run off the axle. I borrowed a piece of fence wire and formed a makeshift pin which held until we arrived home late at Windygoul farm.

The row of piggery buildings were parallel to the farm track but were set lower. The pigman, now late for his tea, begged me to reverse the cart into the main piggery building where it could be tipped up. This would save him barrowing it in.

I set Bobby at right angles to the piggery door. This lay down a short decline. The piggery floor was up a short, steep incline. It wasn’t going to be easy on the horse.

I spoke to Bobby and told him what I expected of him. With that, I grabbed his bridle and thrust him back down the slope. He poured all his honest might into the task. His front legs were straining at forty-five degrees His hind legs, with sparks flying from his shoes, were level with the ground. Yet the cart stuck firm!

I hauled him back up the incline and thrust him down again but at an angle, in the hope we could at least get the nearside wheel into the building then immediately swing him to the left and get both wheels in. Despite the grunts and snorts the cart refused to budge.

Yet again we scrambled up the bank. By now Bobby was hot, agitated, lathered and pretty well spent. I had a quiet word with him and, once he had gathered his breath, we charged backwards in a final attempt. He pushed with all he had. His tail was touching the ground when suddenly his leather bellyband snapped!

The weight of the coal in the cart swung the shafts up into the air. Bobby shot up with them, hanging by his collar with his feet flailing in mid-air. I too was up in the air with one hand clutching his bridle and the other clinging to his hames.

The pig man smashed the back door of the cart with a large hammer. The coal fell out. The horse came down. I came down. The cart came down. With one shaft lying over his back and shoulders Bobby took off in a blind gallop.

Still holding onto his bridle and hames, with Bobby in full flight I was being dragged backwards. He trampled my feet with his clattering hooves. I swung my feet criss-cross around his knee. With every stride his great knee dealt a sickening thud between my legs. The pain was so excruciating that my hold on the horse was slowly slipping — and still he thundered on!

Two hundred yards down the farm road I finally got him stopped. The temporary pin had sheared. The wheel was off the cart. One shaft lay along his back and the other down his side. His saddle was under his belly and his breeching around his hind feet.
I tried to stand, but slumped semi-consciously at his feet. Bobby trembled from tip to toe. The lather dripped from his belly. The sweat poured down the insides of his rear legs. The froth snorting from his mouth fell upon my head.

By the time the pig man had cut Bobby from the cart I had gathered myself sufficiently to walk him back to the stable. As that elderly horse and I staggered home together we were, that evening, a pitiful sight.

I put Bobby in the loosebox to let him settle then walked home. On sitting down to tea, I raised my soup spoon; my arm began to shake uncontrollably; the spoon rattled between my teeth. Moments later I was violently sick. After a short rest I returned to the stable and a neighing welcome from Bobby.

With buckets of warm water I shampooed him from head to foot. I then used a barrel hoop to draw the surplus water from his coat. After giving him a respectable bucket of bruised oats, a few new potatoes and a handful of mint sweets, I left him to dry out.

In the cool of the evening I returned to the farm. I opened the loosebox and stable doors, called on Bobby and we made our way down the half-mile to the grass field where, with the other horses, he spent the summer nights. Leaving the stable without a halter as we always did, he pranced behind me giving me the occasional playful nudge. I leapt upon his back then spun myself completely around and lay with my head on his neck and my feet along his hips as he meandered towards the field. He had recovered from the earlier shock and felt refreshed after his wash. His grey dappled summer coat was clean and shining. Turning him out into the field, Bobby gave a gleeful little fling, bent his knees and proceeded to roll over and over on his back with all fours punching the sky. Then, with a quick shoogle, he dusted the stour from his coat and galloped off, tail whisking, mane flowing, to join the other horses.

The next morning I waited in the stable with trepidation. The grieve approached. I was convinced my end was nigh. But, to my complete surprise, big Geordie Smith, a stout man with a glowering cherubic face, put his arm around my shoulder and said,

“Well son, you did right to hold on to the horse.”

I was greatly relieved. Indeed, in those few seconds I grew ten feet tall. He then gave me a gift of a new rope bellyband which, as an old seaman, he had spliced and bound with pride. That day began a friendship, which was to last to the end of his life.

In the autumn of 1955, the second pair of horses, Sandy and Wull was sold. In the spring of 1956, the first pair, Billy and Jock, were also sold. That left only Bobby. It became evident to me that it was only a matter of months before Bobby would go as well and, in truth, I felt that the attraction to the farm had always been in the horses and thus I did not relish the prospect of life on a soulless tractor. I therefore decided with some sadness to embark on a new career in the electrical industry. This in turn led me into the electronics industry.

That autumn, a cattle float emerged slowly from the farm. I spotted Bobby’s head swaying frantically out of the top. His neighing, his helpless pleading, as the lorry approached was heart-rending. I whistled and called out, “Bobby! Bobby!” He swung his head round and nickered. The lorry slowly trundled over the hill and disappeared from sight. It was on its way to the slaughterhouse. I was mortified! I loved him but I could not save him.

That was the last time I saw Bobby.

I knew that within an hour and a half that Bobby, who had given his all in this life, would be winging his way to that great stable in the sky. Perhaps he did meet again with his other memorable contemporaries — Wull and Sandy, Hector and Victor, Sandy and Star, Prince and Paddy, Donald and Clyde, Jean and Mary, all of whom, with great credit, had ploughed old Scotland’s lands.

Perhaps, too, the good Lord may reserve a place for me as their groom.

It will be a noble eternity.

This is a true story. I wrote it originally for the East Lothian District Council Short Story Competition of 1989.

For close on fifty years I despaired about the loss Bobby.

In 2003 I found a chestnut filly with flaxen mane and tail running on the bleak windswept moors of Aberdeenshire. That is Jenny.
In the spring of 2005 I found a black filly with a white face and four white socks on the blustery coast of Northumberland. That is Bess. She. was about to be sold at Appleby
On instinct, I had purchased them both.

My life as a schoolboy and young teenager was enhanced by the Clydesdale farm horses and Bobby.
Only tonight as I write do I realize that Jenny, the chestnut Irish Draft, is exactly the regal stamp of Bobby and Bess, the black Clydesdale filly is the spitting likeness to Prince who came to the farm, from Glasgow, decimated with disease. A year later we had him in his show harness!

There are no real coincidences in life. Just the hand of God.

©Arthur Greenan. Wednesday, September 07, 2005 (Words 4172)

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