March 4. I respect but find it difficult to share David Maughan Brown’s reaction to the mis-treatment of a dead race-horse.
Although, unlike my wife, I have never ridden a horse, I am pleased enough by their company. When they are in the field adjacent to our garden, I feed them windfall apples over the fence, carefully halved (under instruction) to prevent choking.
What my sojourn in the countryside has taught me, however, is how unsentimental farmers can be about their livestock. The field next to us was owned by one of the last representatives of the age-old tradition of working the land with horses, a culture celebrated in the books of the oral historian George Ewart Evans.
Tractors were introduced before the First World War but did not become commonplace in agriculture until the 1950s. Jim had started work on a farm at Clun, deep in the Welsh Marches, where there was minimal machinery. As a lad he learned how to plough behind a pair of horses. His employer was also a dealer and one of Jim’s tasks was to break in new animals which could then be sold. The technique was to harness an experienced with a fresh horse, which over time would learn the discipline of drawing a plough. Jim was a short man and these horses were the size of small buses. It was, he said, a dangerous occupation. But as he told me with pride, in a good year he could, plough ninety acres.
In his retirement he kept the seven-acre field next to us, which was the fiefdom of his stallion, a mix of carthorse and hunter. Jim never bothered to name him, at best calling out ‘Jim-boy’ amidst a stream of guttural curses and injunctions. A mare would keep ‘Jim-boy’ company through the year, producing a foal in early summer. So casual was the care of this mare that one June day it was noticed that she had given birth yet there was no sign of a foal. Various theories about predators were rehearsed before a search was organised, assisted by my wife and a couple of neighbours, and eventually it was found, unharmed if unfed, hiding in a copse on the edge of the field.
Other retired horses were put out to graze in the field. In the middle of an afternoon I saw that one of them was lying motionless on the grass. On investigation it evidently had died. Jim was told and came over to inspect it. A heart attack he thought. The next morning a borrowed excavator appeared, and a hole was dug where the horse lay.
This was entirely at variance with veterinary regulations, but for Jim as with many of his colleagues, the law was always a distant obligation. So far as I recall he did not employ the horse as a seat whilst he used a phone, if only because, then in his late eighties, he did not possess such a device. Otherwise the event was conducted with an absolute minimum of respect and feeling.
When Jim himself died a few summers later, his son took over the field. He is a contract farmer, driving large machines to plant and harvest potatoes for crisp manufacturers. ‘Jim-boy’ was sold to a farm in South Wales, where, we were told, he was to have the company of five mares. We hope he is content.