Of Parents and Children and Horses

A Father’s Day meditation from the Louw Flyer

If there is a worse punishment in life than marrying a horse mad girl, it must be having a horse mad daughter

If there is a worse punishment in life than marrying a horse mad girl, it must be having a horse mad daughter

I’m jumping on the bandwagon a little late, but happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there.

Whether one believes these holidays have a legitimate place, or think they are just an excuse for Hallmark to print more money, if nothing else, they serve as a reminder to reflect on our relationships and also to say thank you. Ok, me, they serve as a reminder to me to say thank you.

Firstly to my folks for introducing me to horses in the first place and secondly for putting up with me ever since. If there is a worse punishment in life than marrying a horse mad girl, it must be having a horse mad daughter.

It’s not too difficult to sell little girls on horses and being lucky enough to grow up on a farm, I was probably easier than most. Racing was another kettle of fish though. Fortunately those were the days before the electronic media and also before I could read and so racing was never something I judged, it was just something we did.

How to raise a racing fan

Cape Hunt

Dad doing the Cape Hunt thing

We lived on a smallholding in the Western Cape in an area where a lot of our neighbours were members of the Cape Hunt & Polo Club. And so we got into hunting and as our hunters were Thoroughbreds, from there it was a natural progression to Cape Hunt racing. A little further afield lay Rondeberg with the likes of Loretta Krein’s Windy Way Stud, Brian Schonwald at Klein Dassenberg Stud, Pine Ranch Stud, the Hass family at Reinels Stud, the Ciolli Bros, Highflyer Stud and Harold Siren’s Green Gold Stud where my dad rode work alongside the Puller brothers. Horses like I’m Exclusive, Rainbow Dream, Lady Wilma and Golden Legacy were part of everyday conversation and weekends were split between going racing on a Saturday and shows or hunts on a Sunday like it was the most natural thing on earth. From there it was just a small hop, skip and a jump to becoming involved on a more serious level, which we duly did.

From two horses (and a succession of ponies for me), more paddocks were laid on, we cut a formal track around our property and put up a ‘posh’ brick stable block (the hacks had to make do with wood stables) and soon the place was full of gleaming, snorting residents. My dad became the Assistant GM at Milnerton (yes, I am THAT old!) and as soon as we were old enough, my sister and I got weekend jobs at the track, helping out in the TV studio.

Racing wasn’t something done separately from normal, it was part and parcel of everyday life and it wasn’t until later – much later, when it was really too late, that I learnt racing had all sorts of negative connotations to it. Yes, I was aware of ups and downs and that some people were a little more, shall we say colourful than others, but alongside the ups, downs and WTF’s of the rest of life, I just accepted them as normal and it didn’t seem anything terribly out of the ordinary.

A team sport

If there is a worse punishment in life than marrying a horse mad girl, it must be having a horse mad daughter

It takes a good deal of courage – but smoking helps (apparently!)

But getting back to Father’s Day. I have explained before that horses are great joiners, because horsey pursuits are seldom things one can do on your own and if you are not born with the virus, the first people to help infect you are usually your parents. As a kid you need help catching your pony and tacking it up. You need help being put onto your horse and, occasionally, dusting off and help being put back into the saddle. While your memory tends to focus in on the horses and what you did with them, if you zoom out a little, the picture usually shows a parent hovering nearby.

Later there are trips to lessons and shows and all manner of crazy outings that only horse people can dream up. While one easily remembers the difficulties in talking your parents into letting you go chasing at breakneck speed across country, it’s taken a good deal longer to appreciate the courage it took for them to stand back and let you go.

Learning to race

Cape Hunt

Following in Dad’s footsteps

Most little girls grow up idolising their fathers and accordingly, we want to try everything they do. In my case, that meant riding racehorses. My dad, sensibly, did everything he could to put me off, but finally, after years of nagging, he eventually relented and agreed to let me take over one of his Cape Hunt mares who was barren for a season. He even generously agreed to lend a hand, although matters were left reassuringly vague enough for me not to worry much. And so, one damp and misty Saturday morning, I was unceremoniously dragged out of bed with the command, ‘get dressed, we’re going riding.’ I scrambled into my jods as fast as I could, grabbed a hat and ran down to the stables to find that the normally placid mare was as excited and nervous about our morning outing as I was. She was a big, plain bay who had come to us with something of a reputation for being disagreeable. In fact, I had once witnessed my dad flying out of a stable, in the best cartoon style, after she had taken exception to something he did. And now all 17hh of her was plunging around our ringing area, while several pairs of eyes looked at me expectantly.

I fastened my chin strap resolutely and my dad legged me up into the saddle. Well, near the saddle, as he’d tacked her up in racing kit. The next challenge was trying to get my feet into the stirrups as even on the longest hole my knees still seemed to be around my ears. That first experience of sitting perched on a racing saddle has got to be the most vulnerable feeling in the world. Things were definitely not panning out the way I had envisaged. I had a quick tutorial on how to bridge my reins and as I was about to set off, my dad demanded that I take off my glasses. Given that I am blind as a bat without them, this did nothing to add to my comfort, but as he was clearly not in the mood for arguments, I handed them over obediently. Blinking myopically into the gloom, my new friend and I headed off to the track. It is worth explaining that our track was a 1,000m straight sand track with loop at the bottom that we used as a warm up – if you imagine a sort of ‘P’ shape you get the general idea. So from the stables you walked about 50m or so through the fynbos until you met the track. Then you turned right and walked a short way down the main track until you reached the top of the little loop. There you turned right again and then trotted 3 sides of the loop as a little warm-up lap. Most of the horses knew the routine well enough so that when you reached that last corner and re-joined the track at the bottom of the straight, they knew it was time to get down to business. And so it was with my big bay friend and off we took at what felt like the speed of sound.

Suddenly, the awkwardness of the short stirrups and the bridged reins vanished. I was pitched forward into perfect balance to allow the mare to gallop underneath me. There was a curious silence in that thick mist and all I remember hearing through the wetness was the sound of her hooves as we galloped to the end of the track. I understand academically that horses gallop at around 60km an hour, but on that morning, on that horse, it was the fastest I’d ever travelled in my life. My eyes streamed and my lungs screamed and it was the most knee-meltingly exhilarating feeling I’d ever had. When we got back to the stables my face hurt from grinning so much. Signed, sealed, delivered.

While I’m not advocating throwing children onto the backs of fresh racehorses as responsible parenting, no children or animals were harmed in the writing of this column, so all’s well that ends well.

That old fashioned magic

Staying with the theme of horses being connecting agents, life takes one on strange and unexpected journeys and the worlds of child and adult don’t always align, but no matter how the world changed, the horses stayed the same and always gave us a bridge back home – even when we didn’t always know where that was. It’s an extraordinary thing, really.

And here I am, all these years later, and here, despite what life and circumstances have thrown at us, is my dad. And still we have the horses.

Happy Father’s Day.

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