Nibbler, the pony with the white eye and bold heart
“Take him back, he’s a wrong ‘un” my Grandpa declared, looking with distaste at the bit of white round the pony’s eye as he walked off the truck. “He’ll never be any good.”
Nibbler came into my life when I was about twelve years old. We’d been looking for a pony 14.2 hands high to replace Gay who was becoming too small for my growing, lengthening body. We went to several places in response to advertisements or to other contacts. One was to the stables of Olympian Dawn Palethorpe who rode Earlsrath Rambler to such success. The pony I tried was a good looking brown gelding that sailed over the large show jumping course which was set up. When my father suggested I should go round over some fences the opposite way the horse showed his disgust by violently rearing several times and almost came over backwards onto me. The trial ended abruptly at that point.
We went onto Don Beard’s stables. Don was another international show jumper, his Nation’s Cup horse being Costa which was owned by the Massarella family, the ice-cream kings. Don had also ridden Swank over 7 feet 6¼ inches to claim the European High Jump record in 1937. He told me the descent was the worst; they seemed to be in the air for ever. He was a good rider and a gentle person. His wife Sylvia and he had met my parents socially at the Forest and Vale.
Don had a pony for us to see but when we arrived the farrier had just left and had cut his feet a bit short so the pony was lame. However Don saddled him up and popped him over the show jumping course, including a five barred gate. The pony cleared it with ease and was then a willing partner to a young, nervous, inexperienced me, in both directions round the course.
We agreed to buy him and Don delivered him on 27 September 1959. He was dark brown, black in summer with an uneven, almost unattractive white blaze down his face. You could see the white of one eye which had prompted Grandpa to suggest the pony went back on the truck he’d just walked off.
But he stayed. The fun began when he was put into a stable … the pony chewed anything and everything. His name quickly extended from Lucky to Lucky Nibbler. He didn’t like being in a stall rather than a loose box, he didn’t care for head-collar ropes or rollers with buckles, he disliked tail bandages; he enjoyed the taste of dangling leather reins; he chewed the lot to a pulp. We tried every anti-nail-chewing-potion available from the Pickering chemist, all to no avail. Much destruction later we discovered that a thick coating of mustard was the answer.
By this time we’d moved from stables at the Forest and Vale down to the new loose boxes at The Ranch. Large and roomy with a hay rack and corner feed trough, the stables had shiny green paint on the doors, louvre windows for extra ventilation and an external light switch at a convenient height outside the door. So convenient that Nibbler could reach it and bathe himself in light at will. I scored several admonishments before my father realised that I was not lazy, incompetent and irresponsible but Nib was the culprit. A lump of strategically placed wood spoiled his subsequent fun.
So began what developed into an idyllic few years of partnership between pony and rider. We both loved hunting and Nib was always at the front of the Field but didn’t pull and reef like so many enthusiastic horses did. His jumping was fearless whether over the towering dry stone walls of the High Side [mainly with the Saltersgate Farmers pack] or the huge hedges and drainage ditches of the Low Side [mainly with the Derwent Hunt]. To get fit we used to gallop along the old railway line down Mill Lane but one of my favourite pre-school rides with Nibby was up through Hagg Wood where we could jump some of the fallen logs. It was very beautiful, especially in spring time when all the wood anemones, bluebells, primroses and later the catkins came out. There was one particular hazel bush I used to keep my eye on till all the nuts were ripe…. they tasted wonderful. I used to ride there most mornings before school as there was a convenient length of ride to half way up the wood and then I could cut across one side and it used to bring me out at the top of Cluntron Lane on Scallamoor, home of John Grayson. It was lovely going quietly through the woods and seeing the late fox on his way home and the squirrels and rabbits and hares. Then the Forestry Commission bought the left side of the valley and cleared it of the native timber, fenced it off and planted pine trees. I was devastated and used to ride up with eyes to the right from then on!
The Derwent met on Tuesday and Saturday; the Saltersgate on Wednesday and Saturday, so I went to whichever meet was within easiest hacking distance. For special days like the Opening Meet, I’d go hack to Snainton the day before hunting and stay with Kay Nevatt and her pony Star, at The Coachman, opposite the Derwent Kennels. We could then hack to the Meet with hounds and Huntsman Frank Turner.
The Master of the Derwent Hounds was Charles Chafer and his two daughters Pamela and Angela were often members of the Field. The Field Master at the time was Colonel Holden who was enthusiastic but not a brilliant rider, his horse often baulking at fences. This was quite a problem as protocol dictated that the rest of the riders in the Field had to stay behind the Field Master. Occasionally Colonel Holden would call me up and send me on ahead to give him a lead over some fences… the odd time I even had to go back to give him a second shot. By this time everyone else was charging at the fence and his horse was carried over by sheer force of will.
Charity and California were two farms below Thornton-le-Dale which had good coverts where foxes lived and which nearly always produced excellent hunting. This agricultural land was what we called the Low Side. It was flat, the whole area was called Marishes, the old word for marshes, and the district was littered with individual place names including ‘Carr’ or ‘Ing’ which imply low lying boggy land or low lying pasture. It was part of the Vale of Pickering and was the site of the former overflow lake when the Newton Dale glacier had melted thousands of years before.
This land was criss-crossed with drainage ditches, often six feet wide and six feet deep with a hedge on one side. You always had to assume that a hedge meant a ditch too and you prayed the horse was bold enough to jump big. Some horse loved it, others didn’t and it was my luck that Nib was fearless and would go where I asked. We witnessed plenty of falls, the worst being when a horse slipped on landing and went over backwards onto his rider. Luckily there were people there to get stirrup leathers under her armpits and pull her out from under the horse. Getting it off its back and onto its legs again was a more difficult problem to solve.
Nib and I only had one bad experience with these ditches. At one we couldn’t get a run at it, so had to stand on the edge and leap. As we were preparing for take-off the ground gave way and we slid down into the bottom of the mud, luckily he went feet first with me still on his back. We trekked for miles before we found the bank shallow enough for him to climb out.
Brompton Beck was always a major problem to riders and we cursed every fox who led us across. It was a steep sided, deep man-made ditch which drained water from this part of the low lying land into the River Derwent. There was a concrete dam or weir at the Derwent end to hold back silt so the beck itself was over horse-belly deep at the only crossing place back near Topping Farm. Lots of horses baulked at the narrow steep drop into the icy cold water. At the River end the only place to cross was to go over the top of the weir with its wet, slimy, slippery concrete. On one side was Brompton Beck, several feet deep; on the other side a drop of at least fifteen feet down into the fast flowing river. Only twice was I induced to cross this slippery suicidal spot and I still shudder at the sheer stupidity.
The High Side saw dry stone walls, large hedges and forestry. I remember one day hounds were in full cry above Snainton. The ground was covered in snow and half a dozen of us followed directly after hounds whilst the rest of the Field peeled away to the left through a gate. We six galloped across a ploughed field and came to a high hedge. I followed a couple of adults on their big horses that just scraped over. For the first time Nib gave the hedge a decent clatter but we stayed upright and no harm was done, but I was concerned as he’d never hit a fence before. A week later I happened to be back in the area and I saw the hedge without the snow. It was huge, over six feet, the highest hedge I’d ever asked Nib to attempt. What a brave, willing pony.
When we went out with the Saltersgate Farmers Hunt it was a much more relaxed affair than with the Derwent. There were fewer followers, there was no Field Master, there were no formal coverts. Saltersgate country was moorland and dale, forest and farm. Stony Moor was just that, very stony, so you needed nimble feet to hop over the boulders as you followed the sheep tracks. Newtondale with its railway line is a classical U shaped glacial valley. Dalby was deep within the Forestry Commission pine forests. The spurs of Lockton Gills are the headwaters of streams, steep sided and bracken covered. Lockton and Levisham Moors are covered with ancient enclosures, tumuli, settlements and dykes. Cawthorne has the Roman Camp and Wheeldale Moor is the site of the old Roman Road. I was aware of all these ancient places as Nib and I rode the tracks and I often imagined what a bleak winter’s life it would have been in those distant times.
The days with the Saltersgate were fun for me as there were fewer riders and as a teenager I was often given a job to do by the Master. I’d be sent to a corner as hounds were drawing through the undergrowth of an area and my responsibility was to watch for a fox breaking cover and then to holler the hounds to the scent. The adrenalin would flow the instant I spotted the fox, then surge as the first notes of the holler emerged and excitement would increase until hounds finally arrived. The leading hounds would cast around until they picked up the scent, then they’d start to speak, the volume increasing as more hounds found the line and then the pack would race away. I learned to recognise some of the older hounds, the ones the huntsman relied on, the ones the young hounds soon learned to notice and follow. Every one responded to its own name and they knew each others names when the huntsman encouraged them to follow a particular one.
The moors could be so very beautiful but also very lonely and frightening when the fog suddenly closed in. Hunting season was winter so night fall was as early as 4.00pm. The prospect of a night lost on the moors was terrifying. The damp air clings to clothes, drips of icy water soon trickle down the inside of collars, sound become muted and muffled and it is easy to become disoriented. My usual ploy was to try and keep track of where I was but if I became lost in fog on the moors I avoided green grassy areas in case they were bogs and then head down the slopes or hills and follow the beck downstream. Usually I reached an area I recognised so I could make my way home.
My diaries of those years are peppered with mentions of hunting. “Hounds met School House Hill, Howe Bridge, 8 mile point.” “Abbey Whin to Allerston Road, 10 ditches.” It was my life during winter months, from cubbing starting in October, the Opening Meet in November through until the May fox at the end of the season. Christmas Holidays saw the Boxing and New Years meets which, along with the Opening Meet, eventually required that I wear a black jacket rather than my usual tweed hacking jacket. Grandpa bought it for me as a present one year. He’d come round to knowing that Nibby was not a ‘Wrong ‘un’ and he was so encouraging.
There were several local Shows, at Thornton-le-Dale, Rosedale and the Ryedale Show, but I was never a show rider and Nibby was never a show pony … we were not elegant enough and much too workmanlike for the show circuit, so we didn’t attend very often. It was summer time and Nib enjoyed a well earned break out in the field … but all I had to do was stand at the gate and holler and up would come the head and he’d be looking and listening for hounds.
We also discovered that for some reason Nib was not happy jumping when there was a crowd of people round a fence. Even at Hunter Trials, the fence with spectators was the one where I had to push him hardest. He didn’t mind water jumps, or any style of fence, it was the people. We wondered if there had been a problem in his past and that was why his previous owner had parted with him and we’d been lucky enough to be on the lookout for a pony at that time.
One of the spin-offs from being involved with hunting was to also be involved with the Pony Clubs which were run under the auspices of the Hunt. Initially I was a member of the Sinnington Pony Club as it covered the whole Ryedale area. The Sinnington’s hunting days were Monday and Thursday, so once I started school I was unable to go to their meets which were also a bit too far away for me to reach by hacking. But my first ride sitting side saddle was with the Sinnington, as a youngster following in the car. Mrs Holt’s groom sat me onto the side saddle on her second horse. What a thrill.
Initially the Pony Club camps were held at Major Richard Dymock’s farm in Cropton. By the time I owned Nibbler the PC camps had moved to Duncombe Park which at that time was still home to Queen Mary’s School for girls. We camped in some buildings in the park and it was here we learned to enjoy chops which were charcoal on the outside but still raw in the middle. We were able to make use of the school’s swimming pool, the change rooms were in the former stables of the beautiful old building. There were also plenty of yards for the ponies’ accommodation.
We had plenty of lessons in grooming and caring for our ponies and tack. There were demonstrations by the farrier. We did lots of dressage, learning to keep the correct distance from the horse in front and learning all the instructions to number off, go across the diagonal in between alternate horses and all the moves to do musical rides. There was a lane down which we could set up jumps, the ponies not being able to run out so we learned how to ride different strides. I remember in one class Caroline Shaw’s pony trotted up to the row of cavelletti through which he was meant to trot, but he took one casual leap over the whole lot, showing us that galloping at a wide ditch was not necessarily the best way to clear it. We had lessons in show jumping and cross country riding, a very thorough equestrian education.
Most of our instructors were brigadiers and other army officers; all with the excellent training from the British Army School of Equitation at Weeden in Northamptonshire. This web site shows where some of their weird and wonderful ideas came from and it truly was an excellent education in both riding and caring for horses…
Familiar names were Swetenham, Heathcote-Amory, Tetley, Dymock, Edgerton, Wilson and Bethall. There were also some excellent lady instructors, Mrs Swetenham and Mrs Sturrock are two I can remember. Some brought their own horses; Kit Edgerton’s horse was a rich chestnut called Red Herring which we kids cheekily nicknamed Kipper.
Brigadier Wilson organised a week long trek for a group of us. It proved to be quite eventful. One day Bunny Bryant was carted off to hospital with appendicitis. Another night we stayed at Howlett Hall, Sleights, home of the Weston’s and Andy Weston appeared to tell us the hay-shed was on fire… we set up a bucket chain to get water and put it out before the Fire Brigade arrived. We received a heap of praise!
Most Pony Clubs organised Gymkhanas and Hunter Trials and sometimes Bridget Heathcote-Amory was my partner in the Pairs Class. She rode a skewbald gelding with an unpleasant nature; I remember at the Cleveland Hunter Trials he was tied to the side of the horse trailer and, as I walked past he waited until I was moving away then he lashed out at full stretch, missing my head by ½ inch. Bridget’s father became MFH of the Sinnington when Lord Feversham died. They lived in Oswaldkirk and his brother was a Tory Minister.
I also rode in pairs classes with Kay Nevatt and her pony Star. He was a mealy-mouthed bay Exmoor, a great little pony. One time when he was lame, Kay rode Nib in her class at the Sinnington Hunter Trials and she won her class, I won mine, also on Nib, so he scored both blue rosettes.
The Sinnington course was in the magnificent grounds of Duncombe Park, beautiful parklands which contained the tallest lime tree in England and pollarded Quercus oak trees planted by William the Conqueror’s half brother.
Dorothy Bowes was another Pony Club and show jumping friend. Her father Norman farmed Manor Farm in Beadlam. Her mother Annie made the most delicious grilled bacon breakfast. Dorothy had a headstrong bay gelding called Tim who went like a train over the show jumps. He desperately needed to be re-trained not to rush his fences.
I remember a number of other Pony Clubbers: Christopher Tetley from Habton, Caroline Shaw from Hutton-le-Hole, Robert Churton of Elleran Lodge, the Coopers from Low Askew, Daphne and Anthony Dymock from Cropton, their cousin Caroline Weston from Sleights, Annabel Holt from Kirbymoorside, and just round the corner from Annabel there was a girl who used to live at Kirby Mills near the road bridge, [she eventually married Piers and that was the first time I’d heard that Christian name]. The Heathcote-Amorys were from Oswaldkirk; the Bethalls, son of Captain David, later Lord Westbury were from the Wolds and the Bryant girls, Elizabeth, Felicity and Bernadette, daughter of the local MP Paul Bryant were from the Snainton area. From Pickering there was Isobel Heap, daughter of Dr Ken Heap and Billy Ellerby’s children Michael, Peter and Judith.
In 1963 I was invited to be an assistant instructor at the Pony Club camp back at Duncombe Park with Mrs Sturrock as my supervisor. One of those days we were both horrified when we found out that Billy Ellerby had been killed by a stallion.
It was a thoroughbred stallion that Billy had turned out for a spell. He put the horse in a field down Westgate Carr, near the end of the disused railway line, one of my favourite rides. Doris Frank had ridden her chestnut thoroughbred gelding Kirmy along the track and past the field. The stallion jumped the hedge and attacked Kirmy. Fortunately Doris was able to scramble off and roll under the Gate House fence into the garden. Kirmy fled up the road with the stallion in hot pursuit, teeth tearing at the terrified gelding. At Keld Head the horses had turned into Westgate, heading for the centre of town. Kirmy’s brilliant copper coloured coat was drenched in sweat and blood and he looked black. Someone rang my parents to tell them that Nib and I were the ones who’d been attacked.
Some brave soul managed to turn the horses into one of the farm yards leading off Westgate and so spared the residents of the town centre from serious injury. I don’t know how they managed to get the exhausted and terrified Kirmy away from the vicious attacking stallion.
Sensibly Billy Ellerby decided the stallion had to go; he was too dangerous and unsafe to keep. He took the horse to their Fell monger’s knackery on the Malton Road to put the animal down. As he placed the gun against the stallion’s head the horse reared up and knocked it out of Billy’s hand. It fell to the floor, landing on the pin which caused the bullet to discharge. By some dreadful fluke it entered Billy’s body at the one angle which would kill him… the whole town was in shock. I remember my father was on the ‘jury’ at the Coroner’s Inquest and so he’d had to listen to all the details and came home dreadfully upset.
I eventually outgrew Nibby…. my legs were so long that I was knocking the fences which he was clearing. Apart from that I was now 16 and, under the British system of only have children ride ponies (12.2hh under 12years, 13.2hh under 14years and 14.2hh under 16 years) it was time for me to move to a horse and to pass the pony onto another younger rider. It was with heavy heart that he went to another family… they used to ring and tell me what a wonderful day of hunting they had had until Mum asked them not to any more, I was always in tears after their phone calls. Nibby had been the best pony I could have ever wished for.
But I had to move on and by now I had a new horse to train… a bay thoroughbred mare called Copey, who was proving to be quite a challenge.
Our Pony Club diary for every year had a verse from an Ogilvie poem at the end of each week. I used to love them. Here is the full poem relating to hunting, very appropriate when I think of Nibbler.
‘ He’s away ! ‘- With a quickened wild beat of the heart
Every horseman responds, riding hard for a start,
While back on the breeze with insistence is borne
The clamour of hounds and the call of the horn.
What crowding and crossing! What foaming and fret!
‘Don’t pull, you old duffer, we’ll get to them yet ‘-
‘ Confound that slow tailor up there on the bay!
Does the fellow not know that a fox is away? ‘
Hark! Something like music! Ye gods, how they chime !
‘Excuse me ! ‘_ ‘ Go on, then ! ‘ ‘Oh, dash it, take time ! ‘
Don’t cross me, confound you! ‘-‘ They’re running some clip ! ‘-
‘Look out for that pony ! ‘-‘ Way, there, for the Whip ! ‘
There’s someone got kicked, and he’s stopping to curse;
But we’re clear of the crowd and it might have been worse.
The pick of the vale is the line he has gone.
‘ Gar’r away on to him ! Gar’ away on !’
William Henry Ogilvie