The Old Rugged Horse
By Arthur Greenan, East Linton, Scotland
Photo: Bobby, courtesy of Arthur Greenan
By 1955, the year I started to work with Bobby at East Windygoul farm, the twelve-horse stable had withered to five. The two old green Fordson tractors had new bright blue 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 with the farm horses 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 folded slowly towards the sea, in the south they rose gently towards the Lammermuir Hills. The farm of East Windygoul lay on the flat southern perimeter of the small mining town of Tranent.
Much local farmland, since the Second World War, had been consumed in answer to the great social demand of, ‘Hooses, hooses and mair hooses.’
Only two hundred of Windygoul’s black fertile acres now remained. The traditional grey sandstone walls and orange pantiled roofs gave shape to the stables, the cattle courts, the piggery, the hayshed and granary and were all inward facing; thus, in winter, all the animals were sheltered from the cold blasts but also shared their own warmth.
Bobby was a gentle, dapple-grey Irish draft cross Percheron 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 his 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 my bonnie laddie!’
In that moment of tenderness I felt an awful rage well within me. Bobby’s mane was laden with lice. His buttocks had been repeatedly pricked with the sharp steel tines of a hayfork.
His hips were blistered like a field of molehills. The horse was demented; his temper was little short of breaking. Tied up in his stall he was completely cornered. In petrified anguish his only defence was to lash out with his rear hooves.
For four days and nights I resorted to shampooing, creaming and powdering. This brought peace to his body and soul. His head lifted, eyes shone, temper settled and his gait steadied. In time, his mane grew in, his tail filled out and his good looks and open heart returned!
I was to find out later of another wicked deed to which Bobby had been subjected. When yoked in the box-cart, his driver had pricked his hips with a darning needle.
Bobby would rear up at the front and then clatter the bottom of the cart with his hind feet, bruising his hochs 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.
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 who would give the orders for the day to the foreman who drove the first pair of horses.
In turn, he advised the other 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 did odd the jobs with 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 slowly reversed from their stalls like clockwork toys and headed for the door. They found comfort in this routine. The horses assembled in the same ranks at the watering trough then held 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 their ploughs 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 red and white feering poles in the field to ensure straight ploughing, led the squad when singling the turnips and sugar beet, 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 learning from three foremen: Duncan Jack at East 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 were highly intelligent and excelled in the daily craftsmanship of the farm. It was in their horsemanship that they truly displayed their ‘touch of the master’s hand.’
They read each young horse. They understood 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 creative, artistic, artisans.
The array of jobs that 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 spring we carted mangolds for the dairy cows and hay bales to the grazing fields of following heifers. After assisting the shepherd with the slaughter and skinning of the few hoggs that lay dying at the hedge backs, Bobby and I would cart the carcasses away and toss them down an airshaft which, at one time, had provided air to the miners working coal seams beneath our fields but at a great distance from the pit bottom.
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 skiff across my shoulder. We trimmed the turnip drills for singling with the scarifier in early summer.
It was then too that we took the drum-shaped Pudding Cart which was full of rancid offal, discarded by the Co-op butcher shops and fleshing department, to the rat-infested municipal tip. The stench of the vile contents would literally have killed a horse but 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 smell 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 stored the loose hay for use in winter by building it into large haystacks in the farmyard. They 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 from that job was to finally see six massive haystacks built in beautiful symmetry.
Before the corn harvest, Bobby had frequent days of well deserved rest when I joined the other 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 once threw me his knife and instructed me to topple a dying sheep by thrusting his 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 Dettol 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 lifted them along the length of their stent. Bobby and I would then rake that 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 bullocks, 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 low-loader lorry drivers in the narrow streets of our historic cities.
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 sharp 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 animals fed. I took Bobby from Muirpark farm along Lover’s Lane towards the Winton village road with a cart load of hay bales.
At the junction, I turned him into the Balderstrip field, but as I nudged him and the long-cart through the gate the young heifers stampeded towards us desperate for a bite. Intent on keeping them in the field I walked backwards as Bobby shuffled forwards.
As the cows surrounded us Bobby accidentally laid both his front feet on top of mine. I flopped backwards and as I lay anchored to the frosted field the cows saw me as a tasty bit too.
With their long course tongues they licked at my beret, chewed at my hair, shaved my face, undid my jacket, pulled up my shirt and sucked at my vest. Bobby stood stock still looking down upon me. As I peered up his nostrils I could read thoughts.
‘You stupid boy!’ I froze then prayed then bawled. Bobby, in time, lifted one hoof then the other and I was free to spread the hay. After a few days of enforced rest the other horses became fresh; their sheaths and rear hochs would swell and their heels became itchy.
The solution was in my hands. When I was finished with the early trip round the fields to feed the stock I quickly stabled Bobby then took the other four 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 on into a gallop. With my knees implanted in their withers they would romp around the field until each of the horses, Billy, Jock, Wull and Sandy, had had enough.
Riding a one ton, six foot high Clydesdale horse at full gallop was as smooth as a 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 royal 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 Napoleon and Lord Godiva from the townsfolk.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 our break. I took Bobby to the shady side of the hayricks where I sat down to have my snack. Two hours later I woke to find Bobby had gone.
The wise old horse had gone no further than the other side of the rick. 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 had spent two hours dreaming of Ingrid Bergman— 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 to Kingslaw farm, I was lulled by Bobby’s rhythmic walk.
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 blasphemy of Willie Colquhoun, 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 the windscreen of his van.
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 swore!
Willie kindly told his boss that a passing Field Marshall tractor pulling a threshing mill and baler had thrown up a muckle stone which broke his windscreen.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 preceded the potato planters with our cart loaded with the seed potatoes which we poured out into their hessian brats.
The ladies of the land were mainly middle-aged and ever ready to offer their best advice to a callow 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.
With Mima Kerr, Annie Cross and Jenny Wilson the sopranos, Meg Jack and Bessie Bathgate and Kate Clapperton the falsettos and Margaret Riley and Mary Ross the mezzo sopranos, all sang in perfect unison.
The gentle tones and spirit of their sweet voices wafted across the tattie drills.They sang the classic hymns, Abide with Me and All in an April Evening. They gave vent too to the then popular Rock ’n Roll Waltz and warmed to A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and all without missing one seed potato!
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 tread along the pinnacle of the drills without damaging the seed potatoes below.
It was rewarding to watch these Clydesdales, Percherons and Suffolk Punch horses with their harness shining and buckles glinting, necks arched and every sinew pulling with confidence, intelligence and gentle obedience and their every step carefully measured: with power and style they secured that future crop.
They were then, but alas no more, the bedrock of Scotland’s productive economy.One day the farm steward sent Bobby and I on the long trip to the coal depot at Tynemount.
It was a pleasant afternoon, the sky was clear and the Lammermuir hills, by late August were aglow with the purple hue of the heather. That day the countryside seemed quieter, the birds screeched louder, the grass was greener, the trees stood taller, the miles seemed longer. Absorbing that breathtaking panorama from the height of the box cart, it seemed a perfect day.
By nightfall, it would be for Bobby and me, a day not readily forgotten.On reaching the coal depot I reversed the cart into the door of a sixteen-ton steel wagon.
For the next hour it was heads down, tails up, shovel swinging.
Suddenly I knew something was adrift. As the shunting engine passed it belched out black smoke and hissed white steam. Bobby had taken fright and shot off down the railway line.
I whispered to him then teased him and the cart back across a few rails until we were clear of them then I reversed him into the coal wagon. With twenty-five hundredweights of coal in the cart we set off for home.
Travelling through the tree-lined avenue of Ormiston village, I sensed a change in sound again but did not know from what. Leaping from the cart, I discovered that the pin holding 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 East Windygoul farm.
Carter McNeill, the pig man, begged me to reverse the horse up into the main piggery building where the coal could be tipped out. This would save him barrowing it in.
The row of piggery buildings were parallel to the farm track but were set at a lower level. I put Bobby at right angles to the piggery door which lay down a short decline and from where the piggery floor rose up a short, steep incline.
This wasn’t going to be easy on the horse. I whispered to Bobby and told him what I expected of him. With that, I grabbed his bridle and thrust him backwards 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 then thrust him back 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 his grunts and snorts the cart refused to budge. 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 brushing the ground when suddenly his leather bellyband snapped!
The weight of the coal swung the cart shafts up into the air yanking Bobby up with them. He was 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.In a second 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 but with one shaft lying over his back and shoulders. Bobby took off in a blind gallop. Still holding onto his bridle and hames I was being dragged backwards as Bobby was trampled my feet with his clattering hooves. I swung my feet crises-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 slipping fast — and still he thundered on! If I had let go he would have trodden over the top of me and the cart would have finished me off.
Two hundred yards down the farm road I finally got him stopped. The temporary pin had sheared. One 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 as the lather dripped from his belly and sweat poured down the insides of his rear legs.
The froth snorting from his mouth fell upon my head and down inside my shirt. 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 old horse and this young laddie staggered home up the brae 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 cheese 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. Bobby nickered.
I opened the loosebox and stable doors, called on him 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 a 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 stoor from his coat and galloped off, tail whisking, mane flowing, to join the other horses.Next morning I waited in the stable with trepidation.
The steward approached. I was convinced my end was nigh. But, to my complete surprise, Geordie Smith, a stout man with a glowering but cherubic face, put his arm across my shoulder and said, ‘Well, Arthur, son, you did right to hold on to the horse.’Greatly relieved, in those few seconds I grew ten feet tall.
He then gave me a gift of a new rope bellyband which, as an old sailor, 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 at Lanark horse market. In the spring of 1956, the first pair, Billy and Jock was 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 my attraction to the farm had always been the horses and thus I did not relish the prospect of life on a soulless tractor.
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, 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.
Return from The Old Rugged Horse to Home page