THE RALLY was over. The Pony Club members rode down the two long gravelled drives away from Folly Court. The five red-headed Radcliffes, the three Minton boys — two on ponies and one riding a bicycle — and June Cresswell, were the only members to take the drive which led to the Hogshill road. The Radcliffes, all talking at the tops of their voices, were in front.
“I thought it was a jolly good rally,” said James, the youngest Radcliffe present.
“Well, you haven’t been to as many as we have,” said Evelyn, one of the fourteen year old twins. “When you have you won’t be so keen on them; all this schooling gets jolly boring, I can tell you.”
“I hate it,” said Margaret, “and so does Pixie. I do think Major Holbrooke might let us have some races for a change.”
“Oh, you’re never satisfied,” said Hilary, the other twin. “Surely we did enough jumping to please you to-day?”
“It wasn’t bad,” answered Margaret. “But he never lets us have a jumping competition; you just go on and on going over the same potty little jumps.”
“If you jumped them decently he might let you try something higher,” Roger, the eldest of the Radcliffes, told her.
“Well, at least I don’t fall off all the time like the Mintons,” answered Margaret.
“Ssh,” said James, for the Mintons were close behind.
“You would if you had to ride Fireworks or Mousie,” said Hilary.
“And it’s better to fall off than to look like a windmill,” added Roger.
“All the same I agree with Marga,” said Evelyn. “It’s time Georgie Holbrooke thought of something besides this eternal schooling — it’s all right for the little ones, but the rest of us know the whole business by heart.”
“I disgraced myself to-day,” said Christopher Minton to his two brothers, David and Martin. “Three times is a record for one rally, I should think. You are an old devil,” he added, patting Fireworks, a black gelding of about fourteen hands.
“Mousie was pretty good for her,” said David, “and Major Holbrooke said that her backing had improved.”
“She jumped well too,” said Martin.
“A lot of people fell off, didn’t they?” said Christopher. “Noel Kettering and Pat French and me and Simon and that new girl on the big brown horse.”
“And Virginia Freeman,” said David.
“Do get that bicycle out of the way,” interrupted a peevish voice from behind them. “I know Golden Glory’s going to tread on it if you keep twisting about in front of her and I don’t want her blemished.”
“Look out David; you’d better let June come past,” said Christopher to his younger brother.
“Your horse walks too fast for us,” he said politely to June.
“Of course she does,” answered June. “Any decent horse can walk faster than a pony and one of the judges at the Barsetshire Agricultural Show said that Glory had an exceptionally long stride, even for a thoroughbred.”
“That girl gets me down,” remarked Christopher when June was out of hearing.
Four of the pupils from the Basset Riding School led the way down the drive to the Brampton-Lower Basset road. They were clattering along at a fast trot, which would have horrified Mrs. Maxton — the owner of the school — had she seen them, and which shocked Noel Kettering, John Manners and Susan Barington-Brown, who followed some distance behind.
“Gosh, what a pace!” said John. “Are they trying to catch a train?”
“Poor ponies,” said Susan. “What can their legs be like?”
“The Frenches have no imagination,” said Noel. “They think ponies are soulless objects like bicycles, and Virginia and Jean copy them like sheep.”
“Well, no one with any sense rides a bicycle full speed over sharp stones,” said John.
“The Major wasn’t in a very good temper to-day, was he?” said Susan.
“No, filthy,” agreed John. “Every one was being ticked off right and left.”
“I’m not surprised considering the crowd we had to-day,” said Noel. “There were more than twenty people and it must be awfully difficult when they range from Martin Minton and James Radcliffe to Anthony Rate and that new girl, who are practically grown up. It’s not like it was last summer when none of us knew anything, now we’re all at different stages.”
“It’s quite true,” said John, “and it would be much more fun without all these little ones; like it was in the days of the horse-breakers.” Noel thought of the summer holidays the year before when she and John and Susan had been breaking in three of Major Holbrooke’s cousin’s New Forest ponies. She patted her grey pony Sonnet, which had been her prize as the best horse-breaker. “That was fun,” she said, “but of course there were only six of us.”
“I wish we could do something like that again,” said John.
“I wish we could have a Pony Club camp,” said Susan, “other branches do.”
“The Radcliffes asked the Major,” said John, pulling up Dick Turpin, his roan cob, for now they had reached the road, “and he said that they could have as many camps as they liked if they found someone to organise them, but that he wasn’t qualified to see that we cleaned our teeth and changed our wet socks and that when he put up tents they always fell down.”
“He is a defeatist,” said Noel.
“I do wish there was someone nice who would run a camp,” said Susan. “I should love to sleep out and I’m never allowed to at home.”
“Why on earth not?” asked John.
“Oh, Mummy’s fussy,” answered Susan.
“Well, good-bye,” said John. “See you at this test day business on Tuesday. I’m sure I shan’t pass ‘B’ but my Father’s promised me ten shillings if I do, so I’m going to make superhuman efforts.”
“Of course you’ll pass,” said Susan, and Noel asked, “Why did you have to remind me? Now I’ve got the needle.”
“Oh, Noel, you can’t have,” said Susan as they turned towards Brampton.
“You always say that,” said Noel, “but I have got it, honestly. Beauty jumped jolly well to-day,” she went on, looking at Susan’s brown pony. “I wish that Sonnet was better, but I do think she’s improving. It takes such ages to school a horse.” She sighed, “I don’t think she’ll be ready for the gymkhana,” she said.
“That’s ages away,” said Susan, “surely she’ll be good enough by then.”
“But I’ve got to go away on this beastly expedition of Daddy’s,” said Noel. “Waste a whole fortnight while he lectures on Egyptian relics or something. I’m fed up, I can tell you.”
“Oh dear,” said Susan, “and Daddy says I’m too big for Beauty. It’s really Mummy’s fault; she’s getting a bit horsy at last and she keeps telling Daddy that I look a sight on Beauty. But I’m not going to sell her, I’ve made that quite clear, I’m going to go on riding her a bit and lend her to friends occasionally and next year I might breed from her.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Noel.
“Are you coming over to school to-morrow?” asked Susan, when she reached the gate of her house — Basset Towers.
“No, I don’t think so,” answered Noel. “Sonnet had better have a rest. She’s had a fairly strenuous time to-day and she’s only a five-year-old and not at all fit.”
“Well, I’ll come over to Russet Cottage then,” said Susan. “I want you to ask me some questions; I’m sure I don’t know enough Stable Management for ‘B’ test.”
“O.K.” said Noel.
A long way behind the other pony club members rode Anthony and Felicity Rate; they were holding Tinker and Topper back on short tight reins and at intervals they tried to persuade the two sweating, sidling animals to walk with sharp cries of “whoa,” “stop it” and “walk can’t you?”
“I could drink six glasses of lemonade,” said Simon Wentwood catching up with Noel.
Major and Mrs. Holbrooke were having tea in the garden at Folly Court. The Major swallowed his fifth egg sandwich and handed his empty cup to his wife for some more tea. “This weather’s far too hot for Pony Club rallies,” he said, “those children have nearly killed me.”
“You had a lot to-day, didn’t you?” asked Mrs. Holbrooke. “I only watched from the windows — I steered clear of the paddock because I felt in no mood for mothers — but there seemed to be dozens of children.”
“Yes, dozens,” agreed the Major, “and all equally hopeless.”
“Oh, George, how can you?” said his wife. “You know that you’ve got a few children who are very good indeed and an extremely high general standard of riding. Your cousin Harry’s always telling you....”
“Harry’s a fool,” interrupted Major Holbrooke. “Just because the standard of riding is higher here than in some Pony Clubs, he thinks we should all pat ourselves on the back and relax. He doesn’t realise that it’s not nearly high enough; that, taking England as a whole, the standard is disgracefully low, especially considering our opportunities. The fact of the matter is that there are far too many mediocre riders about and that, either by having good horses or by rising the smallest fraction above the average, any one can win a quite unwarrantable number of prizes. Then they think ‘I’m wonderful’ and they never bother to improve themselves or their horses any further. Yet half of them haven’t the faintest idea what a well-schooled horse feels like and they simply don’t appreciate the finer points of riding.”
“I’m sure it’s not as bad as that,” said Mrs. Holbrooke.
“Well, look at our Pony Club,” said the Major. “Just because those children can pass and back rein and turn from the halt, make their ponies canter on a given leg and do what they think is changing legs, you and Harry and all of them think they can ride. None of you realise the enormous difference between executing these few simple movements and executing them with the precision and accuracy and the science and the skill which constitutes horsemanship. Half the world can draw but how many of them are artists? What these children don’t realise,” he went on, “is that any one, who is properly taught, can reach the stage which they have, but that it is only by their own effort and energy that they will go beyond it.”
“But you can’t expect every one to take riding as seriously as you do,” said Mrs. Holbrooke. “After all, there are tennis and swimming and team games, there are the theatre and the cinema and a hundred other amusements to fill the meagre time left to the modern child by school and homework.”
“Well, there’s a certain responsibility in having a horse or pony,” said the Major. “You can’t treat it like a tennis racket and if they’re going to ride they must leave out a few of the other amusements and take it seriously.”
“I don’t see how you’re going to persuade them to do that,” said Mrs. Holbrooke. The Major helped himself to a slice of chocolate cake.
“If I could get hold of a few of the very keen ones,” he said thoughtfully, “and give them some really concentrated instruction for about a week or ten days, I believe that I could show them what real riding is like and then, afterwards, they would always have something at which to aim.”
“Well, if it’s only a week or ten days you want them for, why on earth don’t you have them?” asked Mrs. Holbrooke.
“Have them?” said the Major. “But my dear Carol, the keen members are scattered all over Barsetshire and I can’t teach dressage to children mounted on unfit ponies, which have already hacked seven or eight miles.”
“Can’t we have the ponies to stay?” suggested Mrs. Holbrooke. “And the children, too, for that matter. It would be rather fun; this place has been much too quiet lately.”
“There certainly wouldn’t be any quiet if we had half the Pony Club staying here,” said the Major, “and I don’t suppose much of the place would be left standing either.”
“They’d be nice friends for Henry,” said Mrs. Holbrooke. “I suppose that you’ve forgotten that your nephew is coming to stay for three weeks?”
“Oh heavens! I had forgotten,” said the Major. “I suppose I shall have to find something for him to ride. Well, I’ll think over this mad scheme of yours and I might sound the members at the test day next week.”
The industry among the members of the West Barsetshire Pony Club was quite exceptional during the week-end before test day. Every one seemed to be borrowing books on stable management from every one else and then persuading their brothers, sisters, friends or parents to ask them the points of the horse or questions about splints and spavins.
“A horse’s temperature in health is between 99 degrees and 101 degrees,” muttered Noel as she collected an apple and a halter with which to catch Sonnet. “Young horses and thoroughbreds have higher temperatures than ordinary horses. There are two kinds of colic; spasmodic and flatulent,” she murmured as she climbed the gate into Farmer Trent’s forty-acre meadow where Sonnet was turned out. I’m sure I shall fail, she thought, as she walked towards the four chestnut trees, under which Sonnet always sheltered on hot days.
Noel’s heart filled, as always, with love and pride when her little grey mare whinnied and appeared from the shadow of the trees. Sonnet might not be a show pony but with her finely made head, which had a faintly Arabian look about it, her kind eye, dappled coat and darker mane and tail, she was everything that Noel desired. One day she would be a good jumper and really well-schooled, but at the moment life was rather disheartening; it seemed that when at last the term with its prep and netball matches was over, one’s parents merely dragged one away from one’s pony to go on a beastly lecturing tour. Noel rode Sonnet back across the field and put her into the portable loose-box, which Professor Kettering had bought for her when he had been paid the royalties on his book about Egypt. Then fetching The Complete Horsemaster, which John Manners had loaned her, Noel settled down under an apple tree in the garden. “Laminitis or fever of the feet is an inflamed condition of the fleshy leaves beneath the wall of the hoof and covering the coffin bone,” read Noel.
Down at Lower Basset Farm John Manners shut his book with an angry bang. He was fed up with buffers and rasps and pincers and pritchels; his head felt stuffy and his eyes ached; he was sure that he knew less about shoeing than when he had begun to swot it up. He would take Turpin for a ride before lunch, he decided, a ride with a gallop so that he could forget all about test day. After all it would be quite bad enough when he failed the exam, without ruining his life beforehand. For once Turpin was in a field close to the farm so it didn’t take long to bring him into the stable, which he shared with two cart horses. No risen clenches, thought John, looking at his shoes, and I see Hodges shod you with rolled toes behind.
In the schoolroom at Fenchurch House, David was testing Christopher. “Another name for the second thigh?” he asked.
“Oh gosh,” said Christopher, who was sitting on the big scrubbed deal table, “don’t say I’ve forgotten that again. Oh gosh,” he went on, hunching himself up and resting his head on his knees, “you know, I have.”
“Gaskin, you fathead,” said David, and Martin who was crawling about on the floor setting out their jointly owned railway said, “You’ll never pass B.’ ”
“No, I haven’t the ghost of a chance,” agreed Christopher, “but I expect I shall get ‘C’, every one says that it’s superly easy; anyway, I may as well have a shot at ‘B’, after all the examiners might be mad.”
“They might,” said Martin sceptically.
“Ssh,” said David, “I’m going to ask you another; what is a stargazer?”
“Oh, I know that,” said Christopher. “It’s a horse which sticks its head in the air and looks at the sky. They’re awfully difficult to stop; they bang you on the nose and you have to ride them in martingales.”
“Good,” said David.
“Come on,” said Martin. “Surely that’s enough; the trains are all ready and the eleven-two is getting up steam.”
“One more question,” said David, turning over several pages at once. “How many pounds of oats does a fourteen hand pony, doing regular work, need a day?”
“Oh gosh, a bucketful,” said Christopher, “but I haven’t an idea how many pounds that would be.”
“Well, guess,” said David.
“Hurry up,” added Martin.
“Three pounds,” guessed Christopher.
“No,” said David, “this book says, ‘a fourteen-hand pony which is being worked regularly may have from five to eight pounds of oats daily.’ Still I suppose three is better than nothing.”
“I wonder how many oats Fireworks and Mousie have?” said Christopher. “Not nearly as much as that I’m sure.”
“We might borrow the kitchen scales and weigh them to-night,” suggested David.
“Oh, do stop bothering me about that stupid test, Mummy,” said June Cresswell. “I’m sure that I know enough for it since Major Holbrooke said that Noel and Susan and John were good enough to try.”
“Now, June dear, do listen a moment to what I have to say,” said Mrs. Cresswell, a sharp-featured woman with severely waved iron-grey hair. “I’m quite satisfied that your riding is well above the standard required; you know more about hunting than most of the Associates, whatever airs they may put on, but it’s your stable management, my pet, that worries me, for Wilson does the greater part of your stable work, but some of those children have to do every bit themselves and that gives them an advantage.”
“Oh, Mummy, how can you be so silly?” asked June. “What they do isn’t stable management. They just drag their common muddy animals in and out of the field, brush them with a dandy brush and throw them a bit of hay in the winter. They don’t know anything about looking after a pony properly; they’ve hardly ever seen rugs and bandages.”
“Well, perhaps you’re right, my dear,” said Mrs. Creswell, “but you can’t trust them; you know how they tried to do you down at the gymkhana last year; I really think that you should read the chapter on first aid in the veterinary book and ask Hodges to give you a few tips on shoeing.”
“Hodges doesn’t know anything,” replied June. “You know he said that Glory had thin soles and flat feet.”
“I don’t think our theory’s too bad,” said Roger Radcliffe, sitting on the edge of the stable water butt, “but has any one an idea how to put on leg bandages?”
“Not a clue,” replied Evelyn, who was lying on a patch of grass nearby. “Anyway I think it’s a jolly silly thing to ask Pony Club members to do, because ponies never need their legs bandaged — it’s only thoroughbred weeds with no bone.”
“Oh, Evelyn,” said Hilary, “don’t you remember the rally at the end of the Christmas holidays after Roger had gone back to school? Blake — you know, the Major’s stud groom — showed us how to put them on and explained their different uses.”
“1 remember the rally vaguely,” said Evelyn, rolling over on her back, “it was frightfully dull; only the earnest people like you and Noel listened, Christopher stuck a pin into Susan and the Frenches were fooling about; they always do of course, unless the Major’s there to keep them in order.”
“Well, there were exercise bandages,” said Hilary. “Those were for support, rather the same idea as wearing a strap round one’s wrist for tennis. The actual bandages were the same as tail bandages and one put them on as tightly as possible over cotton wool. They only covered the cannon bone, but the stable bandages — which were made of a sort of woolly flannel, as far as I remember — were put on very loosely with no cotton wool and they began right up by the knee or hock and went right over the fetlock and back up the leg again. They were to be used on horses with clipped legs, for drying wet legs after hunting and on horses that were ill. There’s probably lots more that I’ve forgotten,” she went on, “so we’d better look it up somewhere.”
“I suppose that we could practise both kinds with tail bandages,” said Roger, “unless Doc’s got a flannel bandage that would do in the surgery. I’ll go and try for cotton wool anyway. I’m frightfully hungry,” he went on as he got down from the water butt. “You might see if you can persuade Hunty to give us some ‘elevenses,’ Jim; you know you’re the best at managing her.”
“O.K.,” said James. “What does every one want? Bread and cheese?”
Dick Hayward, brown-haired and brown-eyed and small for his age, which was sixteen, walked out of his black and white Elizabethan house and down a gravelled path between clipped yew hedges, to the field where Crispin, his seventeen-year-old pony, was turned out. Dick wasn’t bothering about “B” test because he had passed it the summer holidays before last, when Miss Mitchell had been running the pony club; but, he decided, he might as well ride over to Folly Court on Tuesday. Pony Club rallies were always good value and he had missed the last one because it had been his coaching day. If he ever finished being crammed for the school certificate, thought Dick, he would re-read all his horsy books and have a shot at ‘A’ test. As he crossed the field he decided that now he would put Crispin in the stable, away from the flies, and after tea, when it would be cooler, he would go for his favourite ride; along the Roman road, down Stark Dyke and home by the Hogshill bridle path and the main road.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Brigadier Hemlock-Jones angrily, “I don’t know what this fella Holbrooke’s thinking of. I don’t pay a man so that you shall spend your time looking after those horses, bandaging and tack cleaning and the whole bally business. How’s White to occupy himself while you’re doing all the work, may I ask?”
“But, Daddy darling,” said Merry in her most soothing voice, “it isn’t Major Holbrooke, it’s the Pony Club, which sets the tests, and only the weeniest bit of it’s on stable management; the rest’s riding and how to behave in the hunting field.”
“Well, they ought to fail the lot on their hunting manners,” said the Brigadier firmly. “I’ve never seen such a lot of wretched little thrusters, never in my life; can’t move for ‘em.”
“Oh, Daddy, you know you said that John Manners opened three gates for you when they met at Sledgers last season.”
“And so he ought, so he ought,” answered the Brigadier, slightly squashed.
“Well, darling, if I ever have a groom of my own I shan’t be able to tell him where he’s wrong if I don’t know how things should be done.”
“Always employ a first-class man and trust him implicitly,” answered the Brigadier and then he added, “Well, run along and play at stable boy, if you must, my dear; I’ve got some important letters to write.”
“Thank you, Daddy,” said Merry, as she left the room. She changed her shoes for jodhpur boots and put on her perfectly tailored second best riding coat and then she hurried out to the stables.
“Hullo, darlings,” she said to Quaver, her brown half-bred gelding and Crotchet, her chestnut three-quarter-bred mare. “Good morning, White,” she said to her father’s groom. “I want you to teach me how to rug up, bandage and clean tack; I’m going to take the pony club ‘B’ test next week.”
“Pass?” said Mr. Barington-Brown to Susan, “not likely. You’ve got a head like a sieve, you have, in one ear — out the other; you’ll be bottom, that’s where you’ll be.”
“Oh, Daddy, how can you?” said Susan. “I’ve got the needle badly enough now, without you making me worse. Anyway, I don’t think that I shall quite be bottom because Christopher Minton’s going in for it and he hasn’t even taken ‘C’ yet.”
“Well, I tell you what,” said Mr. Barington-Brown, “if you pass this test I’ll get you a couple of them posh rugs with your initials in the corner — like the Major has. One for Beauty and one for this new pony.”
“Oh goody,” said Susan and then she added, “Oh dear, but I’m sure that I shan’t pass.”