Horse-drawn touring would not have worked without having experienced horse-handlers. For over 20 years this was a vital role at Horse + Bamboo. As well as managing the horses and tours they would also play a big part in giving the company its particular style; its spirit.
The idea of touring theatre using horse-drawn transport was initially an abstract one, based on an instinct of mine that it would be worth a try. I had absolutely no experience with horses and the idea would probably have quickly come to nothing if Max Bullock, a mature student (and great bop trumpeter) at Manchester School of Art (where I was teaching) had not put me in touch with an old friend of his who owned horses. Win Hunt was living in London but was anxious to leave, not least because finding grazing and stabling for her horse and donkey was a becoming a problem.
Win became our first horse-handler, and she set up many of the routines and practices that stayed with us. Win was methodical, measured, unflappable. All of these were, in hindsight, necessary virtues when establishing a horse-drawn theatre company, especially one made up of a combination of young visual artists, assorted musicians, students and an anarchic group of Dutch performers. Win took on a lot of the background work during the first years of touring, when our tours tended to be local, in the North-West of England.
Then horse-drawn tours became more widely known, and we were asked to travel further afield. Win decided to move on – although she continued to be based in Rossendale. It left us with a difficult but crucial role to fill. We auditioned a few people, some ending in near-catastrophe. But eventually we found Jay Venn, who guided us with great care through an epic horse-drawn journey from Lancashire to Welwyn, close to London.
Jay never planned to stay for more than that year, so once again we needed a horse-handler. After the previous experience I felt that this was going to be a hard ask, but one evening, as if by magic, Moira Hirst knocked on the door. Moira had the credentials – she had been working in the States with long-horn cattle, and had just kayaked down the Yukon, through Alaska. She looked as if she had just moored that same kayak on the Irwell – a large knife in her belt, a gap in her smile from a broken tooth, and a tangled mass of hair.
Moira kicked off a new regime at Horse and Bamboo, and then stayed with us for several years. She was a tough young woman, at first insisting on sleeping on the ground under the wagons. Moira once had to shoe a horse at some very remote location and the nail got shoved right through the palm of her hand, emerging from the back. She hardly flinched, just swore, then pulled it our with her teeth and continued with the job. Moira’s fierce personality had a big influence on the company. Nothing seemed too daunting; nothing was impossible. On top of it all, Moira also became part of the performing company, managing to balance the horse work with that of performer – until one night her back locked on stage. It turned out that she had fallen off a ladder a few years earlier and her back had broken.
Moira overlapped with Ele Wood, another very experienced horse-woman. I had known Ele some years back when she was a student at the art college. Luckily, she and Moira quickly developed a good working relationship, and for the next few years Ele took over the role. By this time some of our regular performers had learned enough about our horses and the requirements of touring to provide strong support to the horse-handlers.
Ele continued to develop friendships with Roma and travelling communities. This had started in the early days, when we began buying our own horses. Travellers were the main source of knowledge about working horses, and it was natural for us to learn from them. Moira also made connections with the sea-coaling community of the North East, who used horses to dredge coal from the sea, and these contacts helped us with access to horses, harness and wagons. We became frequent visitors to horse-fairs, notably Appleby, and it was usually the same travelling people who transported our animals, equipment and wagons to the start of a tour when it wasn’t practical to begin at our Lancashire base. Their support and encouragement was an important part of keeping the company on the road. Ele’s interest in horse-drawn touring culminated in her building our own wagon by hand, complete with a Mollicroft, kitted out for our own particular touring requirements.
Every horse-handler stamped their own style on our touring. Win had been fastidious about certain things – she had a hatred of ragwort for example, and insisted that any grazing was clear of it before horses could enter a field. Moira and Ele were both equally committed to their work, and assumed everyone else to be the same; but they tended to feel that mature horses would know to leave ragwort well alone. Both encouraged other members of the group to take the reins, and by doing this the horses gradually became the concern of the whole company.
After Ele, we were joined by Liam Carroll. Liam took the process further and encouraged everyone to help out with all aspects of working with the horses. Liam didn’t perform in the shows, but his upbeat, open, questioning but personable manner made a big impact. He took on the huge challenge of touring in Hungary and Slovakia, where horses walked on the other side of the road and used an entirely different harnessing system. After several years Liam also decided to move on, and for one year his close friend, Graham Fell, helped us out alongside a local horse-woman, Sue Day. Soon afterwards, Glen Wilson turned up. Glen had many of the same qualities as Liam – an immediately likeable, idiosyncratic character who fitted the company like a glove.
Glen saw us through our last few tours, when traffic conditions were becoming an increasing headache. Funding was getting tighter too, reducing the number of performers we could afford to employ. Glen helped make these tours as enjoyable and effective as any, and he stuck around for other theatre events, too. Our very last horse-drawn tour, in Ireland during 2000, continued in much the same way as those of earlier years.
Eventually, with heavy hearts, the horse-drawn side of things was wound up. At least Glen was able to take our horses and wagons with him to his smallholding in the Scottish Borders, where we knew there was a good home for them. But for the company, horses and their handlers would no longer be part of our day-to-day working lives.