SOME CURIOUS HORSES

BY CAPTAIN R. BIRD THOMPSON

I fancy that I must have possessed as curious a lot of horses as has fallen to the lot of most men—occasioned partly by the fact that friends who, whenever they had a particularly queer-tempered or vicious brute, were in the habit of either presenting it to me as a gift, or offering it for a mere song; partly through my having bought several with peculiar reputations; and, lastly, I think that it must have been predestined that I was to be the owner of these sort of animals. My first pony, which my father bought for me when I was six years old, was purchased from a gentleman who parted with it because it always ran away with his children and kicked them off. The pony, however, never did this with me, although playing the same trick with almost everyone else. One thing, I petted it very much, and it really was fond of me.

It was a wonderful pony. What its age was I do not know, but it was in my possession for twenty-two years, and was said to be an old one when my father bought it. Its death at last was brought on by eating a quantity of half-ripe apples. Having been turned out into an orchard, a sudden gale in the night knocked down a great many of them, and the old fellow ate such a lot that they brought on an attack in his stomach, which killed him in a few hours.

I had one very queer-tempered horse given to me. A friend, a great hunting man, wrote and asked me to come up and lunch with him and talk over some intended "meets." I accepted the invitation, and went up to his house. After lunch he proposed a stroll over his stables. As we were going over them we came to a horse in a stall quite away from the rest of the stud. My friend asked me if I did not know it. I, however, did not recognise the horse, as it had a longish coat on, and he then told me that it was one that a Mr Goldsmidt had given 500 guineas for about a year previously, and, finding it too much for him, had presented it to my friend. "Now," said he, "I will give it to you, and if you will not have the animal I shall send it to the kennel to-morrow." I, as may be imagined, was greatly surprised, as the horse was considered to be one of the best hunters in England. Its legs seemed quite fresh and generally all right, so far as I could see. Thinking that I could send it to the kennel as well as he could, if it turned out useless, I accepted the gift with thanks.

Just as we were leaving the stables, my friend dropped back, and I overheard him say to a groom, "Take that horse down to Captain T——'s stables at once." Well, thought I, there is some screw loose—and a pretty big one I fancy.

On reaching home, late in the afternoon, my groom met me and said, "The new horse has come, sir; but he seems a pretty queer one." I went round to the stables at once, and there I found the horse looking very wild, his eyes almost standing out of his head, and he himself as far back out of his stall as his halter-rein would allow, though not hanging on it. I went up and began to talk to him, and at length he seemed quieter, and his eye did not look so wild; at last he let me hold his head-stall. I then patted and coaxed him as much as possible, and gradually got him up into his stall. Just as I had succeeded in this, the groom came with the evening feed. Directly the horse saw him, he began to make a roaring noise, more like a bull than anything else. Fortunately I had hold of his head-stall, or I think he would have damaged the man. On loosening his head, thinking he would feed quietly, he snapped at the corn just as a terrier does at a rat, catching up a mouthful and then dropping it. I at last managed to slide slowly out of his stall, and left him for the night.

The next day I sent for some men to clip him. They did their work very well, but I subsequently heard that they declared they would never touch him again; they would as soon clip a Bengal tiger.

Soon after this I had him out for a ride and discovered another of his amiable peculiarities. Whenever he met or passed a conveyance of any sort, he kicked out at it most furiously; I suppose that some time or other he had been struck when passing something. It was a most dangerous trick, and took a very long time and great patience to overcome. However, at last I cured him.

Another peculiarity that he had was his great objection to my mounting him when in uniform. He did not mind it in the least when I was once in the saddle, and took not the slightest notice of my sword rattling against his ribs; but he could not bear the act of mounting. I used to have him blindfolded at first, but afterwards, by always petting him, giving him sugar, &c., he lost his dislike to being mounted.

One morning, sometime after I had had him, my groom sent in word that the new horse had kicked his stall all to pieces, and, on going into the stable, I found he had done it and no mistake. There was scarcely a piece of the strong oak partitions bigger than one's hand; they were literally smashed. What made him do it I cannot imagine; he never tried it again. Strangely enough, after all this violent kicking, the only place where he had marked himself was a little bit not bigger than a florin on his near fetlock, where he had knocked off the hair.

One trick he had of which I never cured him. This was when out hunting. When taking the first fence, on landing he invariably kicked up as high as he could. Often and often when he seemed particularly quiet I thought, "Well, old fellow, you surely won't kick to-day": but, as certainly as the fence came, so surely did he kick—but never except at the first fence.

As a hunter he was perfection, and never, with one exception, refused a fence with me. On that occasion I felt that I was not certain about taking it. I was late at the meet, and the hounds had slipped off down-wind, so my only chance of getting the run was by a lucky nick in. I was riding to a point that I thought they would make to, and had just jumped over into a lane and was riding at the fence on the opposite side, when I caught sight of a man in pink riding down the lane. I turned my head quickly to look at him, and the horse feeling the slight motion I suppose, and thinking that I was going to join the man swerved round, but, on my turning his head to the fence again, he took it at once. This was the only time he ever swerved at or refused a fence.

I lost him in a very curious way. I was out hunting one day when the going was very deep and bad, and we were galloping through a piece of plough. At the top of the field was a cut quickset hedge and a gate. I rode at the latter, thinking that the ground would be sounder there, and the jump would not take so much out of my horse. When I got to the gate, he rose at it, and then made a tremendous effort to draw his hind-legs out of the deep mud. Not meeting the resistance he expected, his hind-legs flew up so that he landed on the other side almost in a perpendicular position, his tail brushing my hat, and for a moment I really thought he would fall over on me. However he came down apparently all right and cantered a few yards into the next field, when he made a most extraordinary flounder and stopped. I jumped off at once, and found him sitting up, just as you often see a dog, with his fore-legs straight out and his hind ones at right angles to his body. In a minute or so he rolled over on his side. I tried to get him up, but he did not move. A veterinary surgeon who was out, seeing that something was wrong, came up, and, on examining him, declared that his back was broken. And so it proved to be: the violent jerk of his hind-legs had done it. Of course I had to have him shot at once. I was very sorry to lose him, as he was such a perfect hunter.

Another of my horses I bought from the farmer who bred him; he was a black, nearly thoroughbred, and a very fine-looking animal. I had often seen his owner riding him to market and other places, nearly always at a hand-gallop, and the horse never appeared heated or even blown. I had also seen him in the hunting field. After purchasing him, I tried him over some fences that had been made for the purpose in one of my fields, and he jumped fairly for a young one, so I took him out with the hounds when they met in an easy country. The first thing I put him at was a small gate; but this he would not have, so I set him at a low, dry stone wall, which he cleared well. So he did also the next two or three fences; but on coming to another he did not make the slightest effort to jump—simply ran at it, and blundered through it somehow. The next fence, in spite of my shaking him up and letting him have the spurs pretty smartly, he did in the same way, then cleared one fairly; but on my putting him at a bar-way he never rose at all, but went full tilt at it and smashed it to bits. I was a good deal disgusted at these performances, but tried him another day, a friend saying I did not rouse him sufficiently. Anyhow, this next time I did so, but it had no effect. He scrambled his fences in just the same way, never, however, coming down. After this I lent him to my friend (who thought I did not ride him with sufficient resolution) for a day's hunting by way of a trial; and the horse signalised himself so that I determined to part with him. He had gone on in his usual way until we came to a brook about twelve feet wide, but deep. I jumped it all right, and looked back to see how my friend fared. The brute of a horse did not attempt to clear it, but actually galloped into it, turning a complete somersault, so that he actually scrambled out on the same bank he came from. Fortunately my friend got his feet out of the stirrups, feeling that the animal would not clear it, and was flung on the opposite bank, merely getting his legs wet. After this I sent the brute to Tattersall's, and got a very good price for him on account of his make and shape; in fact, you could not see a finer-looking hunter nor ride a greater impostor.

Another curious animal I had I bought quite accidentally.

It was at Newmarket during a July Meeting, and one morning I strolled up to the paddocks where the sales were going on, expecting to see there a friend I wished to meet. On walking up to the ring, a very fine horse was being led slowly round; it was evidently quite quiet, went round the ring like any old sheep; but scarcely any bids and those very low ones, were being made for it. Catching the auctioneer's eye, I gave a bid, and, not seeing my friend, walked off. Just as I had got to the gate one of the auctioneer's clerks ran after me and asked where they should take my horse to. I denied having bought one; but the man persisted, so I went back and found the horse had actually been knocked down to me, the auctioneer telling me it was really cheap for dogs'-meat at the price I had given. The horse was sent down to my trainer's, and, meeting him later on in the day on the course, he said, "Well, sir, so you bought Vulcan?" I told him how it occurred, at which he was much amused, and, on my asking him some questions, told me he was a splendid horse—wonderfully bred and looking all over like galloping, but that he never would try. He had no pride, he said, and would lob along in the ruck as happily as possible. He had been in lots of stakes, but no one could do anything with him; he would make a waiting race with a mule they said.

It was a most curious case. The horse seemed to have every requisite of make, shape, and action, and yet could not be induced to try to race. It appeared to make no difference whether the rest of the things were in front of him or if they came up and passed him; he kept on about the same pace, and would not try to race. If punishment was attempted, the horse showed such evident symptoms of temper that it was not safe to continue it.

At last he was used by the trainer as a hack, and, in his absence, taken out by the head lad, when out to superintend the gallops.

I had almost forgotten his existence, when one day I received a letter from my trainer asking me to come down to Newmarket the next day by a mid-day train, when I should find a hack waiting for me at the station, and that he would be at the New Stand, on the race-course side, to meet me, as he wished me to see a trial.

I of course went down and met my trainer at the Stand. After a little conversation, we cantered off to the place where the trial was to come off, and stationed ourselves at the spot fixed for the winning-post. He then gave a signal, and shortly I saw four horses galloping towards us and keeping pretty fairly together until perhaps about two lengths off, when one of them came away from the others, leaving them almost as if they were standing still. "Well," I said, "of course I don't know what the weights are, but that is as hollow a thing as I ever saw. What horse is that?" I asked. To my intense surprise, he said, "Vulcan." "How in the world did you get him to gallop?" said I. "That's rather a curious story," replied the man. "We found it out quite by accident. I was away last week for a day or two looking at some very promising yearlings in Dorsetshire, and Jackson (the head lad) took out the string, riding Vulcan as hack. They were exercising on the Bury side, and a boy who was going rook-tending passed by. Boy-like, when he saw the horses cantering, he blew his horn—to try to give them a start, I suppose. None of them minded it except Vulcan, and he clapped his legs under him and bolted off with Jackson as hard as he could go. When I came back next day he told me about it, but did not seem to think anything of it. However, it struck me differently, so I went and found the boy and told him to come to me the next day with his horn—which he did. I took the string out, and told the boy to blow as we passed him. He did so, and Vulcan again bolted clear away, past all the other horses. So I felt sure I had found out how to make him go, and to-day if you noticed (which I had not) a boy blew a horn as they passed him and the horse again came away, though the others did their best, and he was giving them from 2 lb. to 4 lb."

"You certainly have found out how to make him gallop," I said; "but I don't see how you are always to have a trumpeter about after him." "I think it can be managed," he replied. "I want you to enter him for the Handicap Steeple Stakes at the next meeting. He will only have a feather to carry, and at the time of the race, if you could be with the boy about the T.Y.C. winning-post, and, as the horses come by, tell him to blow, it won't be noticed in the least."

The horse was duly entered and I performed my part, and he won with consummate ease. The scene afterwards in the Birdcage when I went in to see him weighed was most amusing. Everybody was rushing up to me to find out how he had been treated; the most wonderful stories were set about as to the quantity of whisky and port wine that had been administered to the horse, but the facts were as I have stated. He won in the same way and with the same ease in July behind the Ditch. After this we tried him without the horn, and he went fairly, so I put him into a selling race, which he won, and I sold him for a very fair price. I did not hear much of him afterwards, but believe he got back to his old tricks.

Another horse that I bought I knew to be a reprobate when I purchased him. He was a very fine racehorse, and had run well in the Derby—fourth or fifth, I think—and afterwards won several very valuable stakes; but in some of his last races he was severely punished, and this quite upset his temper. He became savage; then he was operated on and turned sulky, and at last developed a curious trick (no one seemed to know exactly how he managed it) of getting rid of his jockeys, nearly causing the death of his rider on two or three occasions. He was sent to Tattersall's to be sold, with various other "weed-outs" from his owner's stable.

I bought him thinking that he might make a steeplechaser, as rogues on the flat often develop into good "'chasers."

Being anxious to find out how he got rid of his riders, a day or so after I had him I ordered him to be saddled, and, mounting him myself, I took him into a thirty-acre field of light plough, thinking, if I got a fall, it would not hurt there. I wanted to find out what he could do, telling my groom to watch carefully and see what his manœuvre was.

Well, I just walked him round the field several times, and he went as quietly as possible; then I trotted him, and still everything was pleasant, and I began to think that the change of scene and course had produced its effect. Next I put him into a canter. At this pace he did not go quite so well, and evidently was looking out for something; but at last he appeared to have settled fairly into his canter. Then, catching hold of his head, I just touched with the spur to make him gallop, when, without a moment's notice, I was sent out of the saddle like a stone from a catapult. When I got up, the brute was trotting away in the opposite direction to that in which I had been riding. I very soon caught him, and going down to my groom, asked him what on earth the horse had done. I need hardly say the man had not seen him. Of course, he said he fancied he heard someone calling just then and looked round; the fact being that, seeing the horse go quietly at first, he thought it was all right, and never took the trouble to watch.

As I was determined to find out the trick, I made my groom mount him. The man rather funked it, and said he had no spurs on; so I gave him mine, and he mounted and went off. However, his reign was not long. Starting in a canter, he tried to gallop the horse, and touched him with the spurs, whereupon the brute shot out a fore-leg and spun round on it just as if he had been a teetotum. Of course, the man flew off, just as I had done. However I saw clearly that he would not bear the spur, and this seemed to be the secret. I mounted him again, without spurs, and rode him round and round for a considerable time, and got him to gallop by degrees, but in a very sulky way. If I attempted to rise in my stirrups, or even move my heel towards his side, I felt he was preparing for his dodge; however, I did not give him a second chance.

After this I rode him regularly every day for an hour or more in the plough, and, finding he was not touched with the spur the horse went fairly freely. Next I took him out with my groom, riding a steady old hunter, and tried him over some small plain fences on a ground I had for schooling horses. He took to the work at once, and became very clever, and, as it was quite clear that his temper would hinder him from being a 'chaser, I rode him with the hounds, and a finer hunter never existed; but I never rode him with spurs, and always had to remember not to touch him with my heels. If I moved them towards him I felt him begin to screw up; but he never required pressing—he was so very free and fast. He never, however, forgot his old tricks, and a very favourite amusement of the youngsters in the district was when they met anyone who was bumptious about his riding to offer to bet him that he would not gallop a certain horse round a paddock three times. Then they got me to lend them my old friend. It is quite needless to say that no one ever did succeed in sitting him three times round, as they were sure to rise in their stirrups and touch him with the spur, with the invariable consequences.

I sold him at last to a man who had often seen me ride him, and who envied him for his great speed, having warned him that he would not bear spurs. However, he would have the horse, and took him into Leicestershire, where he went very well I believe.

The best horse I ever had must have been predestined to become my property, so singularly did I meet it and ultimately purchase it.

I went one day to St Pancras terminus to meet a friend who was coming up by one of the Midland trains. Getting there before the train had arrived, I was wandering about the station, to pass away the time, when I saw a string of horses being unloaded, and amongst them there was one that had been unboxed and was standing as quietly as possible by itself not the least startled by all the noise and clatter. I glanced at it, and thought it a fine-looking animal; but just then, my friend's train coming in, I joined him, and we went off together.

In the afternoon I was going down by a train from London Bridge, and when I walked out on to the platform, curiously enough there was the same string of horses being boxed to go down to a large firm of dealers in the South; there too was the same horse that I had seen at St Pancras, standing as quietly as possible waiting her turn to be boxed. I went up to look at her, and admired her very much. She was a dark-brown, and seemed to have very good legs and feet, though I could not see much of her, as she was all clothed up and legs bandaged; but I had not much time to look over her, as my train was ready, so I got in, and, for the moment, never thought anything more about her.

Some short time after this I had a letter from a large firm of horse-dealers, telling me that their "show day" was to come off next week, and asking me to come and look through their stables. I did not want another horse, but thought I should like to go, and, on the fixed day, went. On getting to their place, after a very good lunch, they asked me to come out and go over the stud. When they opened the door of the first stable, strangely enough there stood, just opposite the door, the identical brown mare I had so admired on her journey through town. The dealer, seeing I was struck with her, insisted on her being stripped and brought out, in spite of my telling them that I did not want a horse, and that it was no use taking the trouble to bring her out. However, out she came, and I certainly admired her very much. To my surprise, she stood 15 h. 3 in., though until you went close to her you would not have thought her more than 15 hands; had four splendid flat black legs, well ribbed up, with a very nice head and well-laid shoulders and neck; her paces and action were excellent, and the dealers said if I could find a fault in her they would give her to me. I told them I did not want her, but as they were taking her in, thought I would just ask her price. Now, horses were very dear that season, and, as she was warranted a good hunter, excellent in harness and to carry a lady, and only four years old, I expected that at least £100 would be asked. To my great surprise, they said £40. This, of course, choked me off at once, as I felt sure that at that price there must be some very "loose screw." Refusing all offers of her, I drove home.

In a few days after this I had a letter from the dealers begging me to have her, saying they would distinctly warrant her in every way, and that she would (of course) exactly suit me. I, however, again declined her.

A week or so after this I was told that a man was at my stables and wanted to see me, and, on going out, found that these dealers had actually sent the mare over for me to try. Well, they gave me a written warranty of the strongest kind, engaging, amongst other things, either to give me another horse or return the price if she did not suit me; and the end was I bought her.

Well, I had her out the next day and tried her, and found her as good as they said her to be—rather too high action for a hack, but very showy and perfect in harness; did not seem to know what shying meant; a most beautiful light hunter, and a very free goer. I thought I had found perfection, and everything went on well for more than a week, until one day, when I had come back from a drive, my groom sent in word to say that he wanted to see me at the stables. On getting there, he told me that the mare would not go into the stable, and, sure enough, whenever he tried to lead her in she placed herself flat against the wall, and refused to move. We got her to the door at last, and she stood with her head just inside; and, though I tried to tempt her with corn, green-meat, sugar, &c., she absolutely refused to go farther.

At length, without any warning, she suddenly rushed in and round into her stall, with such violence that she nearly slipped up against her manger, and only recovered herself after a great struggle; and on the next day, when they tried to bring her out, she rushed out just in the same violent way. Here was the "loose screw" with a vengeance! but as I did not wish to part with her (for she was perfection with the exception of this trick), I set to work to try how to cure her of it. After some time we found that we could get her in and out of the stable by backing her, and this, though a rather awkward plan, was quite successful. I may say that after some years we got her to walk in quietly. The dealers had evidently kept an eye on her, for when they found out that I had hit on a plan by which I could get her into and out of a stable without danger they had the impudence to write and offer me £60 and another horse if I would let them have her back; and, on my taking no notice of this, actually wrote again and offered me £100.

Curiously enough, the mare would go into and out of a strange stable quite quietly, but directly she got accustomed to it began the rushing game.

This mare was perfect with that one exception, and did not know what fear was. If a gun was fired close to her, she would not take the least notice, and would allow a rifle to be fired under her nose, with the reins on her neck, and not even move her head.

I always believe that shying and all that kind of trick in a horse is the fault, in nearly every case, of the rider. Of course there are differences of temperament in horses as in men, but as a rule, what I have stated is the case, and I once had what I consider a remarkable illustration of it.

I was on the staff at the first autumn manœuvres in the Aldershot district in 1871, and one day I was riding back to camp after a heavy day, when I met a friend—a cavalry officer. We stopped to talk over the day, and just as we were parting he said to me, "Oh, I have a lot of horses eating their heads off; if you would take one and ride it, it would save yours and do mine good." I of course accepted the offer with thanks, saying at the same time, "I suppose it is a charger," and received (as I thought) an answer in the affirmative.

The horse was sent over to my stables that evening, and the next morning at 4 A.M., on going out of my tent, I found a very fine bright chestnut horse, evidently nearly thoroughbred, being led about by my groom. Well, I mounted him and rode off, and after duly inspecting the pickets and outposts, rode on to join the general staff. As I was going along I suddenly found myself on one of those dangerous pieces of ground that are to be often met with in the Aldershot district—all seamed with cart-ruts worn into the sand, varying from 2 to 4 feet in depth, and overgrown with heather, so that you cannot detect them until you are actually amongst them. Finally, finding where I was, I took my legs out of the stirrups, and put the reins on the horse's neck, knowing that I could not help him, and let him pick his way as best he could. He was doing this very cleverly, when suddenly a gun from a battery, concealed in a hollow close by, was fired (it was, in fact, the gun to tell the troops to be ready to move). My horse did not take the slightest notice of it, not even pricking his ears. Of course I thought that as he took no sort of notice of big guns he must be thoroughly broken, and used him as if he was—riding him with cavalry, artillery, and infantry, taking points, and doing everything that pertains to a staff officer's duties; and no horse could have done better or been more thoroughly steady.

At the end of the manœuvres I returned him to my friend with many thanks, and he very soon sold him as a broke charger for a long price.

Shortly after this I was dining with my friend at the mess of his regiment, and, after dinner, in the ante-room, I happened to remark to an officer, "What a very good riding-master and staff they must have to break in so young a horse so thoroughly." He looked rather amused, and replied, "I suppose you refer to Red Rover?" (the name of the horse). I said, "Yes." "Well," he answered, "you broke him!" I was, of course, greatly surprised, but found it was actually the case. The horse had never been ridden with troops until he was lent to me, and I feel not the slightest doubt that it was the fact of his being on that dangerous piece of ground, and my having my feet and hands both loose when the gun was fired so unexpectedly, that gave him confidence. I could not have influenced him in the slightest degree. Of course, if I had been on ordinary ground, and had seen that a gun was going to be fired, I should, naturally enough, have slightly tightened the reins and felt his mouth and pressed my legs to his side, and thus have drawn his attention to the fact that something was going to take place. As I did not, he took the noise as a matter of course, and did not notice it; and so, through mutual ignorance, we had perfect confidence in one another. But there is a sequel to this. Some months later I had a letter from my friend, telling me that if I wished to buy the horse I might get him for almost nothing, as the man he sold him to gave an awful character of him as a charger. As the horse was in the same district I happened to be in, I went to see him, and certainly the groom gave him a bad character. I got leave to try him, and very soon found that his present owner must be a very irritable, nervous man. The horse had had his mouth so jagged about with the bit that he never kept his head still for a minute, and, if you told him to mark a flank, directly it approached began to switch his tail and tried to kick, having evidently had frequent digs with the spur to make him steady. Altogether the horse was quite spoiled for a charger through his rider's fidgets; and, as I did not care to take the trouble to try and break him again, I did not have anything more to do with him. But I think this was a striking proof of how a horse can be made and unmade.