I normally stayed at arms length from the horse-drawn side of things. It felt right to give the horse-handlers unconditional authority over travel arrangements. I did on occasion help out, and I knew what to do in an emergency. Otherwise my memories of our horses are partial and I’m definitely not the person to provide an overview. But nevertheless I have a ton of memories. Here are a few…
Win moved up from London with her horse, Boot, and Mingus the donkey, early in 1979. Mingus had his own little cart, which was made into a travelling kitchen. I liked Mingus, and spent time with him. He was mellow, gentle and intelligent; a good companion. I felt he was smarter than the horse, maybe because he was considerably older, and I appreciated the devious mind that could work out how to escape from almost any field, though only if it felt moved to do so.
One day, on tour, someone came running up to the fire. Something had happened to Mingus, he was on his back and his eyes were popping out! We ran as fast as we could and there he was, eyes rolling, an enormously bloated belly like a giant hairy balloon. Win immediately realised that he had overdosed on the rich clover. She ran back to her tent, and returned with a bottle of Guinness. Grabbing Mingus’s head and gripping his tongue, she emptied the bottle of stout straight down his throat. Nothing happened for a short time – then an almighty rumbling belch emerged from deep inside the donkeys guts. It lasted perhaps 10 seconds. Then Mingus had a big shake, rolled over and pulled himself to his feet. We took him to a pasture free of clover. Next day he was back to his old self.
Oscar was a stallion, young and wild. We bought him when he was just a two-year old; too young to work, but with the right training he would, we hoped, be perfect for us. My memory is that this was in our second or third year of touring, and we relied a lot on advice from a traveller friend, Bernard Lyle, who knew all the ropes. Laura Barnes, who had joined the company and also had experience with horses, helped Win with his training. Win’s own horse, Boot, was lame and needed a lot of attention, so Laura took on the biggest part of Oscar’s schooling.
Oscar was a beauty, and Laura fell in love with him. I have a print she made from an Oscar-dream. Anyway, Oscar made great progress under Laura – I once even risked trying to ride him, but promptly fell off. Soon Oscar was ready for shafts, and he toured for a year or two, mellowing all the time. But when Laura moved on to college in Wales, we decided to sell him. No one could handle him like Laura. We sold him for more than double what we paid – I remember our accountant, well versed in depreciation of assets, had little understanding of appreciation.
Finding winter quarters for our horses was always a headache. In the summer they needed to be close at hand, so we found grazing up on the moor. But during winter it had to be somewhere with more shelter. In 1982 Moira found a field in West Yorkshire for her pony, Brick, to winter there. It wasn’t easy but Moira could get over to check him every other day, and Sue Day, who lived nearly, would be able to keep an eye on him too. Meanwhile Moira was able to work with us on the Manchester Cathedral Easter project.
The field was by a railway track, and Moira had to lead Brick over the track to enter it. After a few days there, Brick must have tried to find his way back home, he wandered on to the track and got hit by a train. Moira returned that evening, grim faced. She never said much about it, except telling me that she had to collect Brick ‘in buckets’. That image stayed with me. The Good Friday service at the cathedral was dedicated to Brick.
I’ve already said a bit about the horse-handlers who ran the tours, but each tour had one or two members of the cast who also took on responsibility for horses. Some of these were very skilled – Laura, Liz Mather, Sue Goodwin, Sarah Frangleton, Jill Penny spring to mind, but there were many others too. Then there was Barry Lee.
Barry came along with us on several tours. He was Romani, and had been brought up with horses. He was very strong, sound, reliable. But one day someone ran into the Foundry Street workshop and shouted that there was trouble; drop everything, give Barry some help. Barry had taken Be-bop out in a dray. This was usual in the run up to a tour. Our horses were harnessed to a dray or the wagon, and taken out for a few miles walk every day. The load on the carts would slowly be increased until the horse was ready to take on a full touring load.
Foundry Street was only a few hundred yards from the big roundabout at the end of the A56 that poured vehicles into Rawtenstall centre. Barry had been walking Be-bop on the way back when a skip truck had skimmed close by with heavy rattling chains. Something about it had freaked the horse, but Barry somehow managed to keep control of the dray as they careered round the busy roundabout. By the time we arrived Barry was struggling to hold the horse on the quiet road down from our workshop. I think only Barry could have managed this without it causing more damage to himself, Be-bop, the dray, or cars. Quietly Barry asked us to help him hold Be-bop up, while others were to gently undo the harness and remove the shafts. Five or six people desperately trying to stop a horse falling down. If he went down he would never get up. Be-bop’s breath was irregular, his eyes were rolling. We tried and tried and at first it seemed to work, but the weight of the horse was too much. Nothing could stop it; slowly, slowly he slid to the ground. Be-bop was dead, within 2 minutes totally cold. Because of those rattling chains.
Liam Carroll went off to Hungary to look at the route I had planned, and to find us some horses. Taking our own horses was not really an option. There were import/export issues; there was the fact that the animals would have to walk on the other side of the road, and finally, Hungarian harness was very different. No breeching, and a single central pole instead of shafts. I could tell that Liam was worried about it – he had never been to Hungary before; he knew no-one there, and we provided him with an interpreter who knew nothing about horses. But, to my surprise, he quickly phoned to say that a deal had been struck. It was with a horseman from the puszta, the flat plain that spread all the way through to Russia and Asia, where horsemanship was a thing of pride.
When, months later, we arrived at the Ukrainian border, and the horses were delivered to us, Liam’s face fell. Even I could see they were not up to the job – they were boney, half-starved creatures, and worse still, covered in cuts and rubs from having been badly treated. Not at all what he had been promised.
The rather wonderful Mayor of the border town of Kisvarda, where we started our tour, treated us to a great civic reception complete with plentiful local spirits and Cossack dancing. Just as important, he immediately understood our horse problem. He told me he had relatives who were horsemen, and he arranged for me to negotiate with them for fresh horses, tack, and a new Hungarian dray. With Neville Cann, our cellist/translator, I went along to a remote country farmhouse and settled down for a long night of negotiations, accompanied by compulsory glasses of palinka. While Liam had to send back the first lot of pitiful horses, Neville and I slowly agreed to a new deal, and at first light the next morning, hands were shaken and palinka was passed around once more.
The deal was that the Mayor’s relatives would loan us their horses, harness and dray, for a very reasonable fee. But they would need to accompany us for the first week, to check that we were up to the job. They were proper horseman, and at that time, Hungarian horseman wore a kind of uniform. Zoltan was their fiery stallion. It was all rather bizarre, but we got on well with them, and the week passed without incident. They left after the agreed period, clearly convinced that Liam was good enough for their horses. High praise, I would say.