Wild Fell ponies are stand-offish as a rule. After all, life out on the margin of the farm business has its own characteristics, mainly involving childcare and feeding; and on the whole it is peaceful. Walkers, on their way to who knows where, may attract the ponies’ interest from time to time, but so long as the ponies are not hand-fed on the common land they don’t expect food. Instead of pestering people, the boss mare generally moves the group steadily away about their own business.
Not all ponies are as distant as Fells though, and the “no hand-feeding” proviso often doesn’t hold good. On the Caldbeck Commons, Shetland type ponies, including stallions, have been turned out for so long, and so petted by visitors, that they are a definite hazard. They shove their heads into open windows of parked cars to demand food in a most ill-mannered fashion and if you deny them, they will snap and kick.
A few years back I heard a story of horses doing serious damage to a car in a similar situation. I happened to be at a friend’s house, when a nervous middle-aged lady came to knock at the door.
“I need to find out who owns the horses on that place called Sunbiggin Tarn Pasture,” she said. “I have to claim compensation through my insurance company, but I can’t find out who owns them.”
This wasn’t a very promising opening, but since she was determined to tell her story, my friend invited her in. She wouldn’t sit down, she was very upset and not at all coherent, and she didn’t have a clue about horses; but she was one of those people who feel they haven’t told a story until they have repeated everything twice, so one way and another we got a good feel for what had really happened.
There are two cattle grids that secure the road, onto and off the Tarn Pasture. The lady, driving alone in a small and immaculately kept car, came gently across the Pasture up to the cattle grid, and there she paused in the face of the mixed group of horses and ponies. They stood completely blocking her way over the cattle grid. She was afraid to get out and chase them, because there were so many of them – and from where she was sitting inside the car they all looked rather big. The horses, in their turn, thought the stationary car would contain people, who would give them food. This is not as silly as it might sound, because that end of Tarn Pasture is a picnic place where they had been given titbits before. Horses, like elephants, never forget, especially food. So there was one frightened lady inside, and a dozen greedy horses outside.
The leading horse stepped forward and began to bite at the car. So did some of the others. The ones behind believed the ones in front were getting something good to eat, so they began biting and kicking each other. The ones in front kicked back, no doubt with added spite at having been cheated, as they saw it, of their expected treat. Soon there was a noisy, dangerous melee going on round the immaculately kept little car.
“I was screaming by then,” she said. “They bit off the wing mirrors and the door trims, and they mashed the front wings, and the radiator grille, and the bonnet. It’s going to cost me over a thousand pounds to get the damage put right!”
My friend clucked and made sympathetic noises. “And were you all right? did you manage to chase them off in the end?”
“No, somebody, a farmer, came along from the other direction. He chased them off for me so I could drive over the cattle grid and get away. Oh I was in a state. And my car!” She trembled over the memory; but then perhaps she noticed us looking at the evidently undamaged car out in the street. “I’ve had to borrow one from the garage, mine just isn’t fit to drive.” She stiffened suddenly and went onto the offensive. “So I need to find out whose horses they are, don’t I? My insurance company says it has to deal with the owners to get my costs paid for.”
He shook his head. “Well, they’re not my horses,” he said; “you see the landowner just lets the Paster off for the summer. It goes to the highest bidder through the Auction, so it’s not always the same person each year.”
“Mr So-and-So said they would be yours,” she insisted.
“No,” he said perfectly calmly, “I don’t use Tarn Paster, I never have done. I have rights on Tebay Fell, do you see? So I wouldn’t need it. I’m very sorry to hear of all that damage, but I don’t know whose horses they would be.”
I think she was about to launch into the tale a third time, as though that would convince him of her urgent need for information, but he managed gently to edge her to the door. Eventually, still gritting her teeth bitterly over her terrible ordeal, she got into her courtesy car and drove away. My friend stood quietly at the closed door for a moment, then he dropped heavily into his armchair and he began to laugh. We both did, we couldn’t help it. The picture of the town-bred driver and the greedy posse of horses was just too silly to resist.
At last he wiped his face with his hand and said, “I suppose somebody eventually will know whose horses they are, but I don’t, and if I did I wouldn’t tell. Well, let that be a lesson to her. If you’re going into horse country, don’t feed the natives. Walk firmly, and carry a big stick.”