Monday, 10 March 2014

Guest post - Janet Rising: The Colour of Horses

Janet Rising's guest posts are always popular here, and I'm delighted that she's written another. Janet is the editor of PONY Magazine, and is the author of the excellent Pony Whisperer series. The books are all still in print, and you can buy them now as ebooks. In today's blog, Janet addresses something on which everybody has an opinion (chestnut mare anyone?) - the colour of horses.

The Colour of Horses

What’s your favourite colour? I’m talking horses, of course. A good horse cannot be of bad colour, the saying goes, but that doesn’t mean one can’t if not exactly favour a single colour, certainly lean towards one or two. Or maybe three or four… or seventy-three… because the trouble is, there are so many lovely equine colours from which to choose. For me, that’s one of the big pulls of The Horse. I’m baffled by those who own more than one dog or horse of the same colour. Weimaraners, for example: Nice dogs – but a bit, dare one suggest… same-y. For me, the joy is to mix it up a bit and surround oneself with a variety of shapes, personalities and, above all, colours. I’ve never been one to go for a certain ‘type’ of man, either. Where’s the fun in that?

Janet on Texas
When one first starts this love affair with The Horse at a tender age, colour tends to top the shopping list. A dappled grey, a palomino or in my case I’d like a piebald, please, because Little Joe Cartwright rode one all over the Ponderosa, which was endorsement enough for me. As we only had a black-and-white telly, it could have been skewbald for all I knew, but it turned out I was right, and piebald it was. Of course it didn’t matter what bloody colour I wanted, a pony wasn’t on the cards so I could indulge my dream, secure in the knowledge that it wouldn’t budge. If you’re going to limit your dreams to what might actually happen you’re wasting your time really.

So what’s your favourite? Because mine changes all the time, depending on what sweeps past my line of vision. Promiscuous shopper? I’m afraid so. A visit to a show is quite spoiled by my constant indecision. That’s the horse I would own, that black one. No, hold on, I forgot how much I loved Appaloosas. But look at that dreamy piebald… not to mention the dun (I went through a dun-obsession phase because Trampas rode one; you can see a pattern emerging, here). It’s a good job I’m not a millionaire, I’d collect horses like some people collect horse books, and build a model stables where I could wander around, stroke the odd velvet nose and gaze upon them in awe. We used to have an amazing book in the PONY offices all about horse colour, with images to die for. Brindle, taffy, medicine hat, all catnip to me. Since we’ve moved offices it’s nowhere to be found and I am bereft. So sometimes, when the urge rises, I go on the net and trawl different horse colour images.

My name is Janet Rising, and I’m addicted to equine pigmentation porn.

Texas was a small skewbald pony whose occupation was to give pony rides at Rockley Sands Holiday Park. It was love at first sight. Holiday money, saved specifically for the purpose, was budgeted throughout the fortnight to spread the joy of a five-minute amble. I’d stand with a sweaty sixpence gripped in my hand, passing up and waving on chestnuts and greys, waiting for Tex to head the line. Can anyone who has always had their own pony ever understand the fluttering inside as the few moments of blissful destiny creeps ever closer in the form of a small skewbald pony? The urgency of snatched moments in the saddle, the desperation of absorbing the sight, the smell, the touch of the reins, the coarseness of the mane, drinking in the smell of the leather saddle, the sound of the hooves beating out their rhythm as Texas trod his route? I can feel the excitement beating in my breast as the flashbacks hit.

Much later, I worked on a donkey stud – helping to breed and show stallions, mares, geldings and youngstock. One day, my employer answered the phone to a woman claiming that one of her donkeys was in her garden, enjoying her roses – although not in the same way we might.

“What colour is it?” asked Rosemary, mentally selecting a headcollar in order to retrieve it.

“Green!” came the reply, deadpan. Not everyone recognizes a turnout rug when they see it.

But donkeys come in a spectrum of colours, too. The Donkey Breed Society lists 23 recognised colours. We’re all familiar with the browns, the greys, the whites – even the broken-coloured, but unlike elephants which haunt the intoxicated, pink donkeys do exist – pale strawberry roans with white faces, legs and manes. There are beautiful black roans, too, again with snowy points, the opposite combination to a horse, and stunning reds, the hue of the tough, wild Kiangs roaming Asia, rouge with orange highlights. Donkeys can be dappled, and there is even a gene which carries a white facial star, rarely seen. They have their Biblical cross, of course, and almost all have that trademark of the ass, the mealy muzzle – but even that’s not guaranteed. Sooty-nosed donkeys exist, too.

But you probably know all this.

So what’s your favourite equine colour, and why? And which comes first, the colour or the name? At the riding school of my adolescence there was a chestnut Thoroughbred known, you will not be surprised to learn, as The Chestnut. Not groundbreaking, but it fitted the brief. Orange all over, it was rumored that her real name was Anita, which offers us a bit more insight. She was a staff horse, well schooled and polite, although flanked by lead rein ponies on hacks she would forget her manners and snake her head left then right, her teeth snapping like a crocodile, ears flat against her head, pelham chain rattling. Oh, and she was cold-backed. No-one was allowed to mount her in the conventional way but were hoisted aboard by a colleague, or ordered to gingerly lower themselves onto her back via the mounting block. To ride The Chestnut was a huge box ticked on your CV. You weren’t really a member of staff until you’d sat astride her hallowed back.

Horses rarely die of old age. With no predators to pick off the weak and ailing we cheat nature, keeping horses alive far longer than their design intended. For The Chestnut a heart attack decided she had gone past her due date, the vet taking too long to hurry with the humane killer, too late to spare her injuries caused by her agonized thrashing in her stable. When the knackerman came to winch her lifeless and battered body onto the lorry my boss led out tri-coloured Cheyenne, old and frail and getting thinner by the day, and ordered him to be shot on the yard, sparing further suffering to the old horse and those who loved him. Panic gripped the yard’s equine inhabitants when the shot rang out and the old horse’s shoes clattered on the cobbles as he fell, the only one not feeling the pain of loss. There were tears, but you get used to tears with horses.

We also had a lovely big dappled horse with handy heels, relegated to the back of every hack under riders who had the sense to keep his head pointed in the right direction. His name was Shadow, but he was only ever referred to as The Big Grey. There was Polka Dot the piebald, spotted pony Bubbles and Jester, the coloured mare, who was ticklish and hated the mud being brushed from her legs and belly. Essex clay isn’t famed for the ease in which it can be brushed dry from a horse’s coat, and poor Jester suffered during the winter. Washing boxes were yet to be invented. Other names give a clue to the horse’s hue: Amber the light chestnut, Smokey the grey pony whose mission in life was to yank the lead rein from your hand (and the socket from your shoulder) as he stopped dead, turned like a Quarter Horse and headed for home, his wide-eyed beginner rider still aboard and benefitting from a crash course in knee-gripping. But Smokey would settle for pulling you out of the saddle if you chose to challenge him. He became your lead rein by default – no-one volunteered.

Sunny and Star, however, were a joy to lead. How do you picture Sunshine and Starlight. Palominos? Grey? Chestnut with blinding white stars? Well you would, wouldn’t you? Both were the darkest brown, the brown that masquerades as black but is betrayed by a light muzzle.

Don’t ask me.

Both under 12.2hh Sunshine was rotund, high-stepping and hogged (her former occupation had been in the circus and she reared on command). Starlight was the glamorous one, having enjoyed a dazzling career in the show ring. The best of friends, they shared a stable and the only time either was allowed off the lead rein was for the traditional fast ride after Horseman’s Sunday, following a blessing on the village green adjacent to the yard. Then, the lightest of the good riders would be allowed in their saddles, and Sunshine and Starlight shed their everyday working habits and broke out of a trot for a change. Although Sunshine was very good at cantering next to you on the lead rein as you trotted up the Mud Hill on hacks, and you’d beam at her beginner riders in an effort to convince them it was all fun, fun, fun! For some it was but for others… well, it was a bit of a shock, I expect.

My best friend Jan – she of balding-black-Jacatex-jacket fame – looked after and rode a horse called Harlequin. Piebald – but mostly white with a black head and neck and a random black splodge on her quarters. Except that nobody called her Harlequin, or were even aware that it was her real name because everyone, but everyone, knew her as Moo.

Yes, colour, like beauty, is only skin-deep but I can waffle on about it for longer than necessary. I expect everyone has stories, too. Luckily, Jane usually includes a comments box underneath these posts, so why not share yours?

Janet Rising

1 comment:

Sue Howes said...

I'm sure you've heard 'A good horse is never a bad colour' but had you heard the theory about how a horse with a really strong colour will have a strong personality? I'm not sure if that one holds water really.
At the moment my favourite colour is mouse dun. Yoshi is mouse dun, and he is exactly the same colour as our mud. So even during this filthy wet muddy winter he always looks the same colour, no matter how grubby he really is.
I am very glad I don't have a grey!