My new book A Connemara Journey has just been published and I’m awash with nostalgia and memories of those two ponies which took me a thousand miles through western Ireland in 1984.
As the years have passed and we have far more understanding of how horses’ minds work, my appreciation of the efforts that Peggy put into getting me to understand her wishes and needs has grown enormously. I think about all the advantages that dogs have … even to the extent of evolving the ability to raise their eyebrows to look more appealing. A dog can fetch its dinner bowl or lead to make it perfectly obvious what they want us to do. Horses have a far more limited repertoire, and are expected to do what we want, despite their superior strength.
It’s been 37 years since that Irish adventure and I think I needed that elapse of time to fully appreciate just what a special pony Peggy was. What set her apart from any other horse or pony I’ve known was her intensely sociable nature. I took her away from her companions, and even from temporary mates that she shared a field with for occasional nights. Because she was such an extrovert, and needed company as much as rest and food, she eventually bonded with me and gave me my some of my most special animal memories in a lifetime of special animals. Initially I treated her just like any other horse that I had hired for a ride. I imposed my will on her and made little effort to understand her. By the end of the trip, however, Peggy completely had my measure and I reflect with a smile at her success in getting her own way.
It started with the simple expedient of allowing her to stop when she wanted to open her bowels. Fair enough, I thought, I wouldn’t want to continue walking under such circumstances. Within a matter of days she’d learned that whenever she felt like a short break all she had to do was squeeze out a dropping. By the end I feared she’d do herself an internal injury by straining so hard. More important was providing her with enough water in a hot summer. The first time she tried to tell me that she was thirsty I was mystified. She walked slowly along the road, smelling the tarmac and then stopping to scrape it with her hoof. It was only when she spied a woman walking across her garden carrying a pail of water that I understood – Peggy looked at the bucket and gave a little whinny. The woman obligingly brought her some fresh water and after that I got the message.
One lesson I never properly learned, however, was how to recognise The Wrong Sort of Grass. To me if the grass at my chosen campsite was lush and green it was gourmet grass. So I failed to understand Peggy’s eloquent hints when I turned her loose into a lovely enclosed area, bordered by a stream and a high bank, and carpeted in green. Peggy took a mouthful or two of grass, then went and stood by the luggage as though to say ‘OK, I’m ready to go now’. I ignored her and set up the tent and started to cook my dinner. She took an uncharacteristic interest in my soup, and after I’d pushed her away I looked up and found that she’d taken it upon herself to pack up the tent; she was standing with a guy rope in her mouth dangling its tent peg. Still I didn’t understand.
Next morning I was woken at six by Peggy stamping and snorting around the tent until I got fed up and shouted “For heaven’s sake go away!”. She did. An hour later I emerged to find that Peggy had gone. The last time that had happened was with Mollie – and I had found my beloved pony dead at the bottom of a cliff. This time it was two hours of sheer panic before I’d scanned a distant field of cows with my binoculars and spotted one brown one. Yes, it was Peggy.
Peggy put this experience to good use, ensuring that I always took care of her needs before my own. If I tied her up outside a pub so I could enjoy a glass of Guinness she would call me out with heart-rending neighs. She even resented me slipping off for a meal when I could be cooking my soup companionably in her field – I would hear her neigh and have to rejoin her and assure her that I still loved her and would never tell her to go away again.
I’ve never experienced anything like the bond I had with Peggy – not with a horse, and I’ve looked after a fair number in my time. But then I’ve never spent almost every minute of the day and night with a horse. Peggy was exceptional – no wonder I’m smiling as I type this!
To order a copy of A Connemara Journey or sign up for a talk about Mollie and Peggy go to https://www.bradtguides.com/?s=A+connemara+journey&id=45398