April 28, 2017
The Horseman by Tim Pears is one of the best novels I”ve read in a long time. The first part of a projected trilogy, it is set in rural England before the 1914″18 war, and is partly the story of an inarticulate young boy’s development, partly an evocation or, better, re-creation of a now-vanished way of life on the farms of an aristocratic estate. The boy, Leo, communicates more easily with the great Shire horses than with other people, and the relationship between men and horses is at the heart of the novel.
It’s thoroughly researched, and the research has been absorbed; it’s as if Pears had been sitting in the hayloft above the stable, watching and listening to everything. The novel is also beautifully written. I loved it for all these reasons, but also because it brought back to me remembrance of a world I just touched in its dying years.
One of my first visual memories is of holding my grandfather’s hand in the stable of his Aberdeenshire farm and gazing awestruck at the hairy-heeled, huge-hooved Clydesdales munching their midday meal of bruised corn, reward for their morning’s work, fuel for the afternoon’s. My grandfather was famed for the quality of his horses, and when they were brushed their coats shone like a guardsman’s boots.
Half a dozen years later, 1946, I remember my father, whom I scarcely knew then because he had spent the war years in a Japanese POW camp, saying that soon there would be no more horses. In one sense, of course, he was wrong, because there are still, happily, lots of horses and ponies, but they are kept to be ridden, for pleasure and recreation, not for work, certainly not for the heavy labor performed by the Clydes, Shires, and Suffolk Punches. As it happens we still had three Clydes”Sally, Queen, and Kate”on the smaller of his farms, which my grandfather had left to my mother. Even then most farms had gone over to tractors, and I daresay ours would have done so sooner if my father had stayed to run it instead of returning to Malaya. So I can remember the beautiful sight of the Clydes yoked in harness to pull the binder at harvesttime while men and older boys followed behind, stooking the field, and I can remember being hoisted, somewhat nervous, onto Sally’s back as she returned from field to stable at “lowsing time.”
It’s all gone now. The reign of the Clydes lasted a little over a hundred years from the stabilization of the breed, around 1830. They were big beasts, mostly bays and browns (though Sally was a chestnut), often with a white blaze on the face; they were usually white about the legs, which were feathered with a silky sort of hair. They stood on average a bit over sixteen hands, and the stallions and geldings would weight about a ton, mares a bit less. The Clyde had a briskness of step that in the opinion of devotees like my grandfather gave it the edge over other breeds. They would be broken for work at the age of 3, and their working life would last twelve to fifteen years. In memory, one marvels at their patience and gentleness.
In the 1930s there were some 17,000 farm horses, most of them Clydes, in Aberdeenshire, more than in any other county in Scotland, and some fifty of them were stallions. The stallions, known there as “staigs,” would travel the country serving mares from late April after the spring sowing was done. Some of them were wild-eyed, dangerous beasts, and their handlers canny men who, it was said, did their own bit of impregnation of maids in the farms they visited in the line of business. The staigs themselves went at their work with a will. One called Dunmore Footprint could sell his services every two hours of day and night, at a fee of £60, with the same due when the mare was pregnant. Less potent staigs might manage only eighty mares a season, but a good stallion might keep at it for twenty years. The staig was, understandably, excused more menial work. As the Borders poet Will Ogilvie wrote:
For all the splendour of his bone and thew
He travels burdenless along the track,
Yet shall he give a hundred hefty sons
The strength to carry what his kingship shuns.