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Our special bond: Three women on their love of horses

Published 18/04/2015

Moyra Donaldson with her horse Skew-Whiff, aged 20
Moyra Donaldson with her horse Skew-Whiff, aged 20
Lorna Doone with her black stud stallion X Rated at her local stables in Nutts Corner, Antrim
Philippa Auret with Sally

Whether it's competing at the top level or going on a hack at the weekend, these women have formed special relationships with their horses. They talk to Una Brankin about their love for all things equestrian.

For many little girls growing up in the 1970s and '80s, Black Beauty was compulsory weekly viewing on TV. The series, based on the Anna Sewell novel about a beautiful young girl and her beloved horse, captured the imagination to such an extent that it helped to produce a generation of budding horsewomen, all dreaming of galloping along on their steeds with the wind in their hair.

Of course, it doesn't take much to encourage a love of ponies and horses in young girls. Long before Black Beauty, the 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor was inspiring similar dreams in the film National Velvet, while the pink and sparkly My Little Pony franchise tapped into the same fascination in a more recent generation of young girls.

Here we talk to three women about the enduring and very special relationship a woman has with her horse.

Poet and social worker Moyra Donaldson (57) was a student Irish National Champion show-jumper in the late Seventies. These days she's content to go for a canter on the beach, although she hasn't ruled out competitive outings in the future. Moyra has two grown-up daughters, Claire and Janna, and lives in Bangor with husband John and her three horses - Skew-Whiff, a skewbald mare, Davy's Lad, a chestnut gelding, and Frenchfort Jackson, a young horse starting his competitive career. Moyra says:

Black Beauty was one of the books my mother read to me at bedtime, a chapter at a time. What I learnt most from the book, without even realising it at the time, was the concept that horses were conscious beings, with feelings. They could feel pain and loss, contentment and pleasure. My life with horses has confirmed that for me.

When I was six or seven, my mother bought a little brown pony called Judy, who had previously pulled a fruit and vegetable cart. She lived in our back garden along with the hens, the banties and a golden pheasant. I spent most of my time on Judy uselessly tugging at the reins while she took me into gardens to crop on rose bushes and neatly mown lawns.

I can't really remember being taught to ride as such. I was put on a pony. Over the years, though, I've had hundreds of lessons from all kinds of trainers and instructors. Learning to ride is never finished, it's a life-long process. There is always something more to learn and quite often the horses themselves are the teachers.

My first proper horse - when I was 15 - was a little three-year-old thoroughbred liver chestnut, Copper Khan. He was half-brother to the 1968 Grand National winner, Red Alligator, but wasn't big enough to race himself. He may have been small in stature, but he had the biggest heart of any horse I've ever met.

On his back, I could fly and he never said 'no' to anything. He was the most generous of souls and together we achieved wonderful things. He gave me confidence and lent me his strength; we trusted each other completely. It is the best feeling in the world, that partnership, at one with another creature. He was definitely my horse of a lifetime.

Horses demand a lot of time and dedication - I can remember rushing home from work at lunchtimes to get them cleaned for evening competitions, and rushing back hoping that I didn't smell too strongly of horse.

I'm not sure that it is a myth that horses are too easily spooked. Horses are prey animals and their first response to anything scary is to run away from it. They have to trust their rider to feel safe. They live on high alert, but sometimes it is the daftest of things that they find frightening. They can walk calmly past a tractor, but find a bird in the hedge or a tiny piece of paper absolutely terrifying. Some are spookier than others; Skew-Whiff had spooking down to a fine art, lulling you into a false sense of security by trotting past something a few times without batting an eyelid and then on the fourth occasion deciding it had turned into a horse-eating dragon. I think she thought it was an amusing thing to do.

Like people, some horses are more intelligent than others, though they can definitely all think for themselves. Ponies are particularly smart. One of Claire's ponies, Periwinkle, could let himself out of a field or stable and let himself into the feed store to scoff everything he could find. Every horse has his or her own personality, quirks, strengths, likes and dislikes.

Horses pick up immediately on how you are feeling. I have known horses to pick up on the atmosphere of a place and become upset or unsettled in particular places, which leaves you wondering what it is that they sense there, what they know that you don't.

A large part of my income goes towards horses. I work to keep horses. We're lucky enough to have some land and stables, so I don't have to pay livery costs, but there are food, hay, blacksmith and vet costs. Saddles and bridles, rugs for when it is cold, joint supplements, specialist bits of kit, equine dentists and physiotherapists - the list goes on and on. I don't and never have begrudged a penny of it.

The highs of my life with horses have been the wonderful relationships that I've had with each of them individually. The things that they have enabled me to achieve and to be. When things went wrong, at a competition or on a ride, I knew that I needed to understand why and to change and to grow, to develop the communication, the partnership and the skills. This is a good lesson for life in general. The lows are the worry that I feel for them, their delicate legs, the fragility beneath the strength. The worst low of all is losing one of them. The grief is no less than for a person, for to me they are part of my family. In my poetry, horses are sometimes the subject, but also they are my totem animal, my spirit guide.

Moyra's latest collection is The Goose Tree, published by Liberties Press. For further information go to

Hairdresser Lorna Doone (40) owns a black stud stallion, X Rated, which has competed successfully in dressage. Both Lorna and X Rated appeared in the first series of Game of Thrones, a few years after a severe kicking from an acquaintance's horse left Lorna close to death. Lorna lives near Sandy Bay, outside Glenavy with her husband John Fletcher, a courier at Aldergrove Airport. Lorna says:

I found Arnie - as we call X Rated at home - online in Holland and my lovely husband bought him for me as a surprise. Black Beauty is the reason I have this horse. I always imagined myself riding one along the beach and I did - at Tyrella.

When I was wee, my uncle had a pony and I was allowed to sit on it when I was a 'good girl'. Then a local farmer, Hugh, had donkeys and I used to ride them in donkey derbies, which were great craic.

I learned to ride horses the hard way - I was self-taught. But I did take a few lessons when I was older, and when I was 11, I saved up to buy a horse, Dusky, from some people nearby. It was £100 but worth thousands a few years later. I couldn't afford a saddle and bridle so mum bought them for me. I'd been asking Santa for a pony for years. I always got something horsey, like a collar or something, but not the real thing.

Dusky was more than a best friend. He kept me sane through a lot of trauma and rough times when I was younger. Horses can pick up on that. They just know things.

I was always more interested in horses than school, in fact more interested in horses than in anything - even boys. And when it did come to sneaking off to meet a fella down the road at the local pier on Sandy Bay, I'd bring the horse with me.

I'm me when I'm with horses. I'm comfortable with them. We understand each other; there's no nonsense. They're generally very intelligent and they can take the mickey. They know if I'm sending an inexperienced rider up to them and they'll give her the run around for a laugh. They're cute enough.

I think anything that lives and has a brain, has a soul too. There was a priest saying Mass in our house once and I remember asking him to bless my horse and the dog - my mum near had a fit! But the priest said "They're God's creatures too" and went out and blessed them.

As for the cost of keeping a horse, they'll never go without food but our fridge is always empty! They come first. Arnie is here so there's no stable fees but I pay £60 every six weeks to shoe him; £14 a week in bails for bedding and £20 a week for feed. I also have public liability insurance on him.

I know him well enough to diagnose when there's something wrong but if it was serious, the vet's call-out charge is £30. Then there's the treatment and medication on top of that.

But it's simple: I don't have free time: I don't have spare cash, but my horses have never failed to put a smile on my face.

For stud covering, Lorna can be contacted on tel: 079 8445 8583

Philippa Auret (52) is a former competitive rider who began riding at the age of four. Her popular riding school, Lessans in Saintfield, Co Down, closed down last week after almost 40 years, but the Belfast-born mother-of-one is planning to use her fields, stables, barns, outbuildings, indoor arena and outdoor arenas to for a livery service, including training in all disciplines for clients who own their own horses. Philippa's late father, Lt-Colonel Geoffrey Auret, was secretary to the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and helped run North Down Pony Club. Philippa says:

I was five when I got my first pony, Robin, from Millbrook Riding Centre. My parents met on horseback, in the army in India, and we had a huge garden at our house on the Malone Road, with four stables. Horses were always part of the family.

I went to a pony club for lessons and that was great fun. I used to ride along Malone and down the Lagan towpath. If you want to go deeper with this, I wasn't very good at school or mixing with people. I was dyslexic and being with the pony gave me a lot of confidence I didn't feel elsewhere. Robin was very much my friend.

He was a very nice pony but he couldn't jump. I remember we went to the jumps at Iveagh Park and instead of jumping over a rail, he went under it and left me 'decapitated' on it! He was lovely though; we kept him to the day he died, in his 30s. That's quite old - they do well to get to 25.

Then I got another one, Grey Prince, and then Houdini, who became a very well-known horse. I had a lot of success eventing with him.

Because I wasn't good at school, I started teaching horse-riding full time at 14 and started my own small riding school. We'd moved to Saintfield at that stage. I taught hundreds of riders; horses have been my entire life, my social life, my job.

With the people I meet in the horse world, it doesn't matter what religion or background you have. Horses are a great leveller in life.

You have to work as a team with a horse. You have to look after them when you're feeling ill; you have to feed them. But the amount of pleasure the give you back is 100 per cent.

I lost a horse who was a great friend last week, but if there's an afterlife, I think he's there. What would heaven be without animals anyway?

They know when you're feeling sad or something's not right, or you're in bad form - even dogs do. When we did the Special Olympics years ago, all my horses knew they had very special people on their backs and knew they had to look after them ever so carefully.

We do RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) twice a week and the horses know how to look after those kids. And there's a man who had rehab for a stroke, who says one of our horses saved his life.

There is a difference in their reaction to men and women. Some ponies are more wary of men. Women are calmer in general; men are more abrupt and have a different attitude to them - seeing them as working animals or whatever. Girls really love their ponies, even if they're naughty. Boys get more frustrated with them.

I have one client who works full-time in Queen's University but sees her two horses here six days a week, Sevie and Marley.

It does cost as a hobby but you get hours of pleasure in return - you take your child to the cinema and spend 40 or 50 quid, and it's over in a couple of hours. You take a horse out for that and you and the kid have a whole day with him, grooming and riding and having fun outdoors - you meet other people and it's good for your body and mind.

I've had a lot of horses staying here; some will stay on and I'll miss the rest of them, but I'm very excited to be changing direction towards a high-class livery.

​The stars who like to saddle up on their steeds

Ever youthful model Christie Brinkley is a champion 'cutting horse' rider - cutting horses are used to herd cattle on large ranches. Said to be fearless on a horseback, the Uptown Girl became interested in the American sport in the early Nineties. 

Actress Bo Derek credits her horses for helping her to get over the death of the love of her life, director John Derek. Horse-riding has also helped the gorgeous '10' pin-up to keep her legendary figure. She once acted as a consultant on fellow horse-owner Shania Twain's video featuring some beautiful thoroughbreds, for her song Love of Horses.

Elizabeth Taylor began riding lessons when she was four years old, when her doting father bought her a pony. Her horse-riding skills helped win her the coveted starring role in the 1944 film National Velvet, and came in handy when she appeared opposite James Dean and Rock Hudson in the oil saga western, Giant.

As well as having a good eye for business, Katie Price is quite an accomplished horsewoman. Riding since she was a child, the glamour woman has stables at her country mansion and has her own range of horse-riding gear and accessories.

Princess Anne is said to prefer the company of horses to people. An excellent rider, Anne always mixed in horsey circles and taught her children equestrian skills from an early age. Zara followed in her mother's horsey footsteps, competing at the Olympics like mum, and always looks happy when there's a horse nearby.

Belfast Telegraph

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