It was a safer world when only the horses had horse-power

Back in the day... Duke Sayer of Hingham with his hard-working pair, Peggy and Bewty.

Back in the day... Duke Sayer of Hingham with his hard-working pair, Peggy and Bewty. - Credit: Archant

Keith Skipper recalls the days when horses were the most important creatures in East Anglia.

I thought about horses a lot recently while bleak weather piled up outside. No, not the likes of Pest From The West going for the Medium Rare Stakes at Great Yarmouth or Dumpling Dasher in the Look Yeast Handicap Chase at Fakenham.

My equine ponderings had much more to do with steady furrows than storming furlongs. I always felt sorry for those gentle giants tied up with winter's main dirty jobs, knockin' and toppin' sugar beet and carting mountains of fresh muck from one fragrant spot to another.

Such tender compassion down on the farm in boyhood days rarely stretched to my obvious lack of staying power and failure to back a fundamental belief that getting close to nature meant being covered in mud and anything else arriving in big dollops on a desolate winter morning.

My interest in strange rural rituals did not extend to becoming part of them while wind, frost, sleet, snow and the occasional mocking finger of sunlight chased across the landscape. I pin up that compelling picture for fresh inspection whenever confronted by too much gilding of the 1950s lily.

With a couple of majestic beasts still nodding their way through all seasons on the farm where my father worked, and a riding school at full canter just up the road, I did accept horses as an integral part of my young world.

Even as full-scale mechanisation revved up on the headlands, and our pretty, twisty lanes waited for a trickle of traffic to turn into a roaring torrent, our four-legged friends whinnied and snorted at such mundane progress. I sensed their defiance might carry more than a nosebag of nostalgia, although limited experience told me to maintain a respectful distance.

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My first corn harvest adventure saw me tossed like a small wheatsheaf onto Snowball's back for a dramatic finale, a triumphant trek to the stack with the last load of summer. I clung on for dear life, frightened of banging my head against the clouds or suffering an ignominious slide into pointed stubble.

Bigger boys and seasoned men chuckled at my discomfort before they formed a twitching human ladder to deliver me back to earth. I have shied away from heights ever since.

A short but colourful career as a 'howd gee' boy suited my low-level temperament down to the ground, leading the horse as a harvest wagon trembled with sheaves and yelling a warning to men balanced precariously on top to hold tight.

Sadly, the art of doing two things at once proved beyond me. There were times when a lofty hideaway would have been useful as protection against retribution doled out at refreshment breaks. Even so, it wasn't long before I teamed up with some of the most fleet-footed animals going in the school playground …

The frantic riding routine ruled after cheering through another epic western at the Friday night village hall picture show. A smart smack on the backside, excited cries of 'giddyup!' and 'Race you to the sheriff's office' and we went full gallop through Hopalong Cassidy's latest adventure.

When we were deemed bright enough to make comparisons between what had been and what was replacing it, older workers on farms around us often pointed to the special relationship enjoyed by man and horse as they struggled together through all weathers.

Horses were the most important creatures in East Anglia up to the last war. 'Good horses, good farm' is a saying that rang true across the acres. The men and women looked after the horses as well as worked with them and took great pride in the appearance and standard of their teams.

There was keen competition among the farms... braid and ribbons, shining coats and harnesses in perfect condition. For all my misgivings about getting too close to the saddle, I could understand why rosettes were handed out to mark that proud partnership.

I have long held the view that horse power was much safer when the horses had it. One of the best books to reinforce a 'noble creatures' sentiment came from George Ewart Evans, father of the East Anglian oral history movement and doyen of its development throughout the country.

Horse Power and Magic, first published in 1979, pleads for conserving and increasing the stock of working horses and for recording traditional lore connected with them. A song of hope and praise still ringing along the furrows.