EVERY morning at 7am, whether there is early summer sunshine or spitting winter rain, Aileen Allan crawls from her warm Ayrshire bed and pulls on scruffy clothes or a boiler-suit before heading outside. She does this just about 365 days a year, all because she loves her horses.
Last week I got to know Jack, a 26-year-old Clydesdale cross and his two companions, a pair of Shetland ponies called Hector and Sunflower, as they stamped about in the stable anticipating Aileen’s arrival. It is a beautiful scene, witnessing the love and trust that can exist between a human and a horse.
Allan, an inspector for a major British food supplier, has owned a horse since she was 19. “The happiest times of my life have been around horses,” she says. “By nature, a horse is an animal of flight, it is a wary animal, and yet they come to trust you implicitly. I can’t imagine my life without them.”
Jack, something of an old clod-hopping scruff to an equine-layman like me, is a fine beast. He is incredibly friendly, and enjoys that human touch much advocated by the horse whisperers whereby you rub your hand against the grain of his hair on that long neb between his eyes.
As Allan busies herself around him – cleaning, feeding, mucking out – Jack looks well contented at her familiar presence.
I’ve grown to love the clip-clop companionship of horses since my family and I moved out to the country. They pass by our front door producing their familiar stomping percussion, and my children rush to our window and shout “look, it’s Alfie!” or “hey, there’s Edward!” There are few greater sights than the regal, upright horse out for its daily ride.
All sorts are drawn to horses and their companionship. In Allan’s case, now 20-plus years a horse lover and keeper, there was no early farm-life which imbued in her a love of the creatures.
“I grew up in Paisley,” she says. “When I was a kid there were always horses in the outlying fields, and my dad and I would cycle out to see them and feed them. It was my dad’s Saturday and Sunday chore for me.
“There was something about horses that I really enjoyed. I started going pony-trekking, and I asked for a horse at every Christmas and every birthday of my youth – but I never got one. I was one of four kids and my parents felt it would be unfair to lavish such an expense on me.
“So when I started working, I saved up and bought my first horse when I was 19. She was a black Shetland pony called Pepsi because she was dark and full of fizz.”
Today Allan’s life is woven around her horses, and the time and cost can be expensive. She has to rent a local stable near Dunlop and she sees Jack, Hector and Sunflower first thing in the morning and last thing before dusk, and often in between. Her devotion to them, it seems to me, is some sort of amalgam of joy, labour of love, and mucky necessity.
“It is exceptionally hard work, and it is 365 days a year. Horses don’t take days off. Some days you wake up and you are warm and snug in bed, but you know you’ve got to get up at 6.30am to go and tend to your horse. It can be tough.
“It can also be an expensive hobby. Once you’ve bought the horse, you have to insure it, pay for livery, pay for feed, for vets fees, for annual vaccinations, for blacksmiths, for saddle, for bridle… the list goes on and on.
“Every six weeks a blacksmith costs me £60. I’ve just bought hay for about £200 – that might last a few months. My livery costs me £160 a month. My feed for Jack, Hector and Sunflower probably costs £30 a month. Over 12 months it all adds up, plus your vet fees on top.”
But, Allan insists, it is all worth it, for the deep bond that grows between a horse and its keeper. And with that trust comes a heavy human responsibility.
There have been some horrendous cases recently of human abuse of horses, where the RSPCA, acting on tip-offs, have found neglect and dire stable conditions, with horses bleeding or suffering. Owners have been banned from keeping the animals.
Allan says that a caring horse-owner will know and appreciate the vulnerability of the creatures.
“It’s actually against everything in a horse’s nature to allow you to sit on them. But they come to trust you that nothing will go wrong for them – that you will keep them away from danger. On a road your horse learns to trust you, if a car or a van goes past. It’s a special relationship. ”
Sharing the yard with Allan’s beasts are Charlie and Ricki, two horses owned by Rachel McKenzie, an 18-year-old university student who fits her academic life – and everything else – around her love for her animals.
McKenzie has the same outlook as Allan. The weather might be howling, but there she is, at the stables soon after dawn to be met by the excitement of her horses.
To see her lovingly and patiently tend to Charlie and Ricki is to wonder anew at a horse’s ability to capture the human heart. The lowest estimate of the number of horses in the UK is 600,000 so there’s a lot of love out there.
Ricki is a Shetland pony who, in the muck of the field, sometimes looks a tad drookit, with his wet hair slapped over his eyes. Years ago he was swapped for a dining room table by McKenzie’s parents when, as she put it herself, he seemed unwanted and was on the verge of being turned into dog food.
Charlie, a thoroughbred, is a former jump-horse, with quite a bit of cheek about him. McKenzie is smitten, as she has been by horses since she was a toddler. Her horses are certainly smitten by her.
“I’ve had opportunities to turn my back on horses, but I never have, and never could,” she says. “You build a relationship with a horse. You get to understand it, and it gets to understand you. I agree with Aileen – horses have a live-in-the-wild instinct and are easily spooked, so you have to calm them and look out for them. If a tree rustles, a horse can get spooked.
McKenzie almost speaks of a horse in a way that a man or a woman might refer back to a long-gone amoureuse.
“The love of my life was Beau, my pony who died a few years back,” she says. “We had a great time together, a great trust in each other. He gave me so much confidence. It took me two years to find another horse – in terms of me feeling the same way towards him – before I finally got Charlie.
“It sounds a bit ridiculous, but that’s how you are with your horse.”
So what is it like being the spouse or partner of someone so devoted to their horse? Well, to a degree you need to buy into it. It is impossible to imagine one half of a relationship being so devoted to a horse while the other remains uninterested, especially when a significant chunk of a family budget is set apart for them.
In Allan’s case, her partner Stephen has gradually come round, not just to accepting them, but also to being moved by them as well.
“Stephen isn’t really into horses – he doesn’t get it,” she says. “A while back one of my horses was really quite ill and I told him, ‘it’s going to cost £1,000 to get him booked into the vet hospital.’ Stephen said to me, ‘no way, we can’t do that’. But then when he saw the horse and its distress he said, ‘I don’t care what this costs… we’ll pay whatever it is to put him right.’
“Once you get involved with a horse, and you come to love it, you come to accept the costs.”
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West