Friday, 24 May 2013

A horse for Sarah: The story of Robin, Sombra, and a maths lesson

Hi everyone; meet Sombra, my sabbatical horse!

As soon as we arrived  in Santander, at the end of January, I started looking for a horse to ride.  After a couple of wild goose chases looking for riding stables that didn't exist, one day in March I met  a man in the elevator with a huge basket of bread.  I asked him who it was for,  expecting to hear 'the ducks',  but instead he said 'the horses.'  I responded the way I've always done when anyone mentions horses.   What horses?   Where are they?  And, Can I ride them?  It turned out to be my lucky day: The horses belonged to his friend, Astrid, they were close, and yes, I could.  
with Sombra, May 23, 2013

The riding stable is in Mortera, a 10 minute train ride from Santander, out in the beautiful Cantabrian countryside.  Astrid is a lovely lady from Holland of about my age.  She speaks four languages fluently, breeds Welsh mountain ponies, and owns a stable of show jumpers that compete all around Cantabria.  One of them is 'my' horse; Sombra.  She's a beautiful dappled grey mare, 15.2, and perfect for me.  (At the official Cantabria showjumping website you can see pictures from the latest show jumping competitions.  You might even spot Sombra!)

Having a horse to ride makes me think about Robin, a pony I used to ride in the 1970s, my 'golden age' of riding.  He wasn't mine, but I rode him in the summer holidays at The Gilberts, South Trew Farm, Highampton, Devon. He was only 14 hands, but he could keep up with all the big horses galloping across Dartmoor.  (As Mr. Gilbert said, 'he thinks he is one of the big horses').  When we weren't out riding, I spent hours with him in the stable or in the field, grooming him and talking to him.  I wanted to take him home -- was he for sale? I asked.  'They're all for sale for the right price', replied Mr. Gilbert.  My heart leapt!  It turned out the price for Robin was 180 pounds.  That was a fortune for an 11 year old in 1971, but I wasn't deterred.  I asked around to see what type of work a person my age could do, and found a paper round that paid two pounds a week. 

With Robin, summer 1971

A few months later, it became clear that the two pounds a week wasn't accumulating quickly enough, and access to larger amounts of money remained stubbornly out of reach.  However,  I had confidence that 'where there's a will, there's a way.'  I formed a club, the sole purpose of which was to raise money to buy Robin, and enlisted my 7-year-old sister Caroline to join.  The name of the club was, predictably enough, The Robin Club.  Despite my best efforts with the rest of the family, the club membership remained at two.  In our meetings, we designed a top secret code in which every letter of the alphabet was represented by a horse related symbol (for example, a sideways horseshoe was C, and a riding hat was S).  We made a banner, and using colored pieces of felt, glue, and scissors, we 'wrote' The Robin Club on it using the symbols.  Unfortunately, impressive as this banner was as a work of art, it didn't do much to advance the goals of the club.  

The first fundraising scheme of the R.C. was selling all our books.  Caroline was reluctant, so I had to explain that membership in the club, while a great privilege, came with certain responsibilities.   Sacrifices would sometimes be needed.  We wouldn't have time to read anyway once we got Robin, I reasoned.  It would all be worth it in the end, I assured her.  So one Saturday morning we took all our books -- representing years of Christmas and birthday presents from our many relatives -- put them in a wheelbarrow, and wheeled them down to the second-hand bookseller in the Wells market.  He gave us 3 pounds for the lot of them.  Disappointing, because we had a lot of good ones, but there it was.  I would have to come up with another idea.  (The books mysteriously re-appeared in our house later that weekend.  My mother never said a word about it, but I suspect she had given the bookseller a piece of her mind).  

40 years later, Dad and me, 2011
Time passed, I was 14, and we were still a long way from the goal.  I remained optimistic, but my level of commitment was perhaps no longer quite 100%;  in fact, I'd spent some of my paper round money on Beatles LPs from the EMI staff shop (my Dad worked for EMI).  Clearly a radical change of tactics was needed, so I abandoned the Robin Club and, instead, tried to persuade my Dad to lend me the money to buy Robin.  I spent hours working on calculations to show him how I would pay him back by giving pony rides to children once Robin was mine.  He remained unconvinced.  He would harp on about pesky little details like how are you going to feed him?  Where is he going to live?  (there was a field behind our house; it didn't belong to us, but I was optimistic that I'd be able to persuade the owner that it would be good for the field to have a horse eating the grass in there).  What about vet bills?  persisted my Dad.  What about the blacksmith?  I was getting quite annoyed with him for being so bogged down in trivialities that he was unable to appreciate the genius of my vision of horse ownership.  With a resigned sigh, I returned to my room to do more maths (if only we'd had excel in the 1970s!)  When I presented my Dad with the final result, a complex, color-coded chart showing predicted expenses and revenues, he took it and studied it carefully.  That's when it dawned on me that he was taking all of this dead seriously; he had been all along, and suddenly this realization was more important than whether or not I got the horse.  

First, he noted that I had added in all of his additional costs, and approved my estimated totals in the expenses column.  Then we looked at revenue.  I had three columns.  The first was my paper round earnings.  The second was projected income from giving pony rides.  The third  revenue column I had titled 'DSD.'  What's this? he asked.  Ah, I said.  Well, I said, 'DSD' means 'Dear Sweet Dad.'  He smiled, but I knew It was no good; I knew I was doomed.  I realized that I had always known it.  Yet, somehow I was smiling too because suddenly I had started to feel like a grown up.  My Dad may not have known much about horses, but it turns out he knew a thing or two about being a Dad.  

With Nipper, Sonky, and Domino, 1973

So, I didn't get a horse of my own, but I was lucky to be able to ride Robin in the summers, and the rest of the time I often went riding with my friend, Karen Wicksteed, and her two ponies Nipper and Sonky (see right).  Some days we went riding out in the countryside, and others we cantered around the fields bareback doing circus tricks. Sometimes my Dad came and took videos of these hilarious antics.     

Christine, summer 1994, Camp Dovewood, Florida

Since then, (i.e. over the last 40 years or so) I've done hardly any riding, although I've tried to introduce my children to the love of horses when I could.  Left is a picture of Christine, age 11, at a Florida summer camp which I chose for her specifically because it had riding.  She looks pretty happy with her horse!  

So, back to 2013 . . . I've been riding Sombra twice a week for two months now, and this week when Christine was visiting us in Santander, we went riding together.  She rode Sombra's friend, Vega.  Here we all are ...

Me and Sombra, Astrid, Christine and Vega

Mortera, near Santander; May 23, 2013

Fun with Sombra


  1. Astrid ten Zeldam9 June 2013 at 14:11

    I'm so pleased that you've enjoyed your riding with Sombra. It was a great pleasure having you,your daughter Christine and your son Corin. I hope we'll stay in contact after you've gone back to Florida.