‘I’m going to get a pony,’ I announced eighteen months ago. The eucalyptus and cork-oak covered mountains of Monchique are criss-crossed by hundreds of kilometres of off-road tracks, just waiting to be explored on horseback. From my house, it is possible to get to Aljezur (a west coast town) without hardly touching tarmac, as well as up to Foía, the highest point of the Algarve. It had long been a dream to ride around here and I’d just inherited a few thousand pounds from my grandmother, Winnie. Rather than it evaporate on the house, or in Intermarché, I decided that I wanted something, something memorable. Leo was nearly six and settled in at his first year at school and working hard.
‘I think you should wait ten years,’ my ever-practical boyfriend, Paul, suggested. ‘At least until Leo finishes school.’
I totted up the years and, even with my bad maths, concluded that over sixty would not be a great time to start galloping around the mountains. Another donkey was a
possibility. But no donkey could replace Chipeto. He had been put down in January 2016, almost four years ago. The vet had told me if only I could keep him on his legs I could save him. But holding up a donkey is not easy. And every time he went down I needed at least six people to get him back up – not easy to arrange in the middle of nowhere. We even made a harness attached to the stable roof and strung him up so that he would stay on his feet but, come night time, I couldn’t leave him dangling and I had a then five-year-old to look after. I had to take it off and, sure enough, in the morning, he was down again. He was old, much loved and infamous. Everyone has a story to tell about him. A neighbour came with a JCB and buried him. Leo tried to dig him up. I vowed then to get another one – or a pony – one day.
As a child, I had lived with horses galloping around me. They were in my dreams. They trotted to school with me. I rode them around the playground. I raided the library of horse stories and would hang around book stores hoping my mum would buy me one. I even had a Barbie (dark-haired and in jodhpurs, in my defence) and her horse, a bay mare. I had plastic farmyard horses. I had fuzzy felt horse scenes. I used to draw and colour in horses, cut them out and then make a little figure with red hair (me) and play with them for hours and hours. On my own. Horses were my imaginary friends. Together with Jesus in the wardrobe. But that’s another story.
‘Please can I have a pony?’ I used to ask my mum.
‘Don’t be silly.’
Then, when I was eleven, I got Lucky. My mother and grandfather paid 150 pounds for him – guilt, I think, from my parents’ divorce. But the responsibility was mine. I did everything myself. I rode out on my own, sometimes along quite busy roads. It was the late 1970s in Leicestershire. I often rode to Swithland Woods, and sometimes to Bradgate Park (which must have been about five or six miles). I have no idea how I found the way. I would take him to the blacksmith, clean the tack, worm him, bandage him, plait him, rug him up in winter, save up and buy everything I needed from a tack shop in Mountsorrel. Tack shops were like sweet shops to me. The smell of the leather, the oil, the horse feed, the shiny stirrups, the red halters and lead ropes, the glittering bridles and elegant saddles, the boots, the velvet hats.
Not long after my mother and her boyfriend moved from Leicester to Kent and Lucky came with us. My grandfather drove through central London with a borrowed horse trailer. Once settled at a riding stables in Westerham, I began to showjump. Lucky and I started to win rosettes. I got a Saturday job washing up in a café, then waitressing. I was twelve. I grew and outgrew Lucky so I sold him to a younger girl and bought the most stunning Palomino, Jupiter. He was 14.2hh. We jumped higher and higher and the box of rosettes got fuller. I started skiving from school and forging sick notes so I could spend more time with Jupiter. At school I was bullied. At the stables, Jupiter and I were stars. After being punched against a tennis court wire fence I stopped forging sick notes and simply stopped going. The school caught up with me and life turned messy. I left home and went to live with my grandfather – who drove Jupiter this time through central London back to Leicester. I was fourteen.
A friend, Tracy (or rather her parents) had a big horsebox and we would often go to shows together, travelling in the back with the horses, singing Boy George songs. Several years later when I was living in Berlin, Tracy was shot dead, aged nineteen, under that same horsebox by a jealous boyfriend. Her earrings had been ripped out. ‘She put up a fight,’ her mother said, her voice empty, when I went to visit six months later. She would have. All girls with horses are strong (they have to be) but Tracy was one of the strongest. She would take no shit from anyone. Once when I visited her (for the last time as it turned out) she asked me what I was doing in Berlin. I was doing a lot of tequila and speed. ‘Living life,’ I said. I explained that I wanted to be a writer so I needed to have things to write about. She didn’t look impressed.
‘If you wanna be a writer, why don’t you write stories about ’orses, like?’ she said. ‘Then you could ’ave an ’orse again.’
The simplicity slapped me round the face. But I ignored my burning cheeks. Great literature wasn’t about horses. Deep down I also knew I had a lot to learn. In those days I probably didn’t know the difference between a verb and an adjective. Anyway I’d had enough of horses. When I first left England at seventeen I’d worked with racehorses in Switzerland for six months. Jean-Claude had shouted at me every day: ‘Leeza, it take me eight minute to clean each stable. Why it take you fifteen? Eez not posseeble.’ The end came when a champagne-swigging jockey rode my little mare. She fell and had to be shot. I packed my bags and headed to Germany. I would not ride again for twenty-five years.
I grew up. Slowly. In many countries. I finally went to university in London. After four years I knew what verbs and adjectives were, even verbal adjectives: in fact, I could name every part of a sentence in Russian and English. I went back to Japan to teach (where I’d moved to at nineteen after extricating myself from a tequila bottle in Berlin) and two years later I did a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Then began ten years of twelve-hour days teaching and writing. Horses were a world away from me. I couldn’t even afford a bike. Yet I was haunted by Lucky and Jupiter. I had callously sold them. At night Lucky and I would gallop through the forests in my dreams.
When I set eyes on Winnie (who I named after my grandmother) I knew she was the one. I felt honoured when this beautiful bay mare came to live with me in the middle of nowhere. Together we began to explore the eucalyptus forested mountains, inhaling mint and sage, grabbing the occasional medronho from a bush. It was almost perfect. Except Winnie hated being on her own. Neither Lucky or Jupiter (both geldings) had minded, but I could hear Winnie’s foothooves in the night pacing the fence.
‘I need to get another pony,’ I announced.
‘No!’ said Paul. ‘You’ll never have any time.’
So I moved her to stay with a little Shetland, Bianca, up on Foía. A few months later the fires raged and billowed around Monchique. The ponies were saved, thanks to my friends, but the land and fencing burned. So we rode them to my house. And now I have two ponies.
Every day I feed them, I clean the stable, and Winnie and I gallop around the forests and mountains. I am my younger self again, living my dreams with my little pony. A friend from Leo’s school comes to ride Bianca to live her dreams and Leo enjoys being with the ponies (although I suspect the motorised version are more his dream). They have come part of our little family. Occasionally, Winnie jumps off a terrace or bolts from some wild boar or motorbikes and I am glad I didn’t wait until I am sixty.
Recently, several people have emailed me to see if I’m still alive. Apparently, I haven’t posted anything for two years. Ah. Paul was right. But I now have a renovated studio that sleeps two. If anyone reading this loves ponies and Portugal, I would like to invite you to stay in return for a little help. Not more than two hours a day. If you can ride, and are not too heavy, you are welcome to ride Winnie, or feel free to just come on holiday and explore the mountains of Monchique on foot or by bike.
While I get on with the stories, like.