The Grand National is one of those institutions of British sport, and coming in the early part of April like it does, it’s one of those events that herald the gradual warming of the days, the better weather and the move into the summer. It also heralds, at least where I work, someone going round with a card asking for money to enter the office sweepstake. Pay a pound, choose a horse at random and hope you are going to win some money. The National itself is pretty random. The nature of the event with its long course and numerous fences mean a huge amount of luck is involved. Maybe that’s why it’s so popular with the betting public. Anyway, it made me think about horses and their connection with my family which, when it comes down to it, is more considerable than I had originally thought.
My Grandfather, George Higgins fought in the First World War with the Royal Horse Artillery and this is him in this splendid picture with his horse, Prince. My Dad had the picture with him in his wallet when he was in the forces and as time went on it got a little torn and tatty and somewhere, I suppose it must have been in Hong Kong where he was stationed for a while, he found a little photographic shop that specialised in rescuing old pictures. The background of the picture was originally a forest but the rescue work removed them in order to make the picture good.
Both sides of my family, my father’s people and my mother’s, came from the back to back terraced houses of Salford. They moved to Wythenshawe in the early 1940s. Wythenshawe was known as the ‘garden estate’ because instead of small terraced houses, here were bigger and better houses with front and back gardens. The estate was built on land purchased by Manchester City Council from the Tatton family. It was originally rustic countryside full of farms. My Dad worked on quite a few of them and my Mum tells me stories of getting milk from Potts Dairy farm which stood apparently just across from my old junior school. You’d never know because no trace of it remains today, just a row of council houses.
One of my Dad’s early jobs was as a milkman but not for him the electric milk van. No, he had a horse drawn milk trolley and he told me with pride how, as he ran up and down through the gates of the various houses dropping off milk on doorsteps, he didn’t have to run back and move his trolley up. No, just a whistle was all it took and his horse would trot quietly forward to my Dad and he would replace the empties and take out fresh bottles for the next house. My Dad was pretty attached to that horse. It was stabled not far away in Northenden. Once his father, my grandfather, the WW1 Veteran came to see the horse. He checked the horse’s teeth, apparently a good indicator of equine health and pronounced himself satisfied.
On another occasion, my Dad rode the horse to a nearby fair in Northenden. It was a bank holiday weekend and my Dad rode his horse bareback. For a joke, some comedian decided to whack the horse and it rose up and galloped off at a great rate, my Dad hanging on for grim life. After a short sprint, the horse spied its own field, hit the brakes and ducked into the field for a quiet grass chewing session. My Dad hopped down, closed the gate and walked back to the fair. Numerous people congratulated him on his riding skills and horse control!
In the 1990’s I took some horse riding lessons myself. I went to a small riding school run by a young girl who looked to me to be nothing more than a schoolgirl but she told me with great pride how she had started the school from scratch and made it into a good business. She gave me a horse called Granite, a huge grey horse who was that tall it was not that easy to mount him. The first strange thing for a new rider on a horse is ‘what do I hold on to?’ On a motorbike or a bicycle, you have your handle bars but not of course on a horse. OK you have the reins but if you pull back on the reins you’re send a signal to the horse to stop. It took me a heck of a long time to get used to just sitting atop my horse. The other thing is that as you trot around, I always thought the rider would just be sitting there. Oh no. You have to learn to go up and down with the horse as you bob along. The thighs certainly get a good workout!
I thought it was important to get along with Granite so I made a point of bringing him a juicy carrot every week. Granite loved that carrot and he would frisk me with his nose every time we met. One day, Vanessa, the young girl trainer spied me and told me in no uncertain terms not to feed her horse! Why not? I asked. Well, she didn’t want strange substances going inside her horses she said. What exactly she meant by that I really don’t know but she was in earnest and kept a close eye on Granite and myself for any signs of contraband carrot!
Granite of course was not happy. After our lesson, the last of the day, we trainee riders unsaddled our mounts, brushed them down and popped then into their stable. The first day without a carrot Granite showed in no uncertain terms he was not happy and tried to pin me against the stable wall to let me know.
Next lesson, I brought a carrot, cut into a number of bite sized pieces and slipped them to my horse surreptitiously. Once again, my horse was a happy horse.
Just to finish, here is another happy horse, well, for me at any rate. Rule the World was the winner of the 2016 National and it just so happened that he was the horse I pulled out in the draw. Happy days!