Margaret Britt came from England to
Australia in 1951. Wanting work with horses she was first a governess on a
Longreach sheep station, where there was plenty of riding to be had, and then
went to a Camooweal cattle property where she met her future husband
who was head-stockman. After they married they went contract mustering
until, in 1958 Jack Britt was appointed manager of Forestvale, an 1100 square
mile cattle property in the Gulf country. Here they spent twelve years until in
1970, the company transferred Jack to Lyndhurst, where they stayed fourteen
Margaret has had short stories published in various magazines. She now lives in Atherton.
ON A TEETERING Pile of boxes, Miss Norland peered over the nine-foot stone wall.
clear," she said in something supposed to be a conspiratorial whisper,
which could have been heard yards away. "Hand them up."
reached down for the miscellaneous collection of stuff I handed to her - sacks,
boxes and poles. Each item she dropped over the wall and we listened with bated
breath to the thud, expecting the outraged roar of a keeper any time. But the
hush of dawn remained unbroken.
reason for this curious behaviour was not hard to find. "Norly's"
riding was one side of the wall, an extensive and famous park the other, and
Norly saw no reason that the twain should not meet.
had nowhere to practise for a forthcoming gymkhana, the park had hundreds of
acres, the huge area near the stables virtually wild. Riding in the well-known
and beautiful park was restricted to certain areas: the bridle-paths between
glorious chestnut trees planted in the time of Henry VIII, certain parts of open
country, and tracks among the massed rhododendron bushes.
was also restricted in speed, anything beyond a collected canter making one
liable to a lecture from the keepers.
remember after one hilarious gallop down an avenue, a keeper approaching with
you know," he demanded, approaching June's Pony from the near side,
"that galloping in the park is against the law?"
fought to control the curvetting Sprite and bent upon the upholder of the law
her most melting look.
sorry," she said contritely, "I can't stop her this morning, she just
normally well mannered, fumed and danced on the spot, ably bearing out June's
words. No wonder. I was on the off side and could see June's right heel,
invisible to the keeper, prodding and digging at the pony's well‑covered
keeper was impressed at the display and let us off with a reproving word or two.
there it was. We would put the necessary gear for our gymkhana practice over the
wall, take the ponies through the nearest set of deer-gates (strictly forbidden
and rather difficult) fifty yards along the wall, practise and be gone before
the earliest keeper struggled into his uniform. The nearest main gates of the
park, through which we decorously rode to our legitimate riding, were a mile or
more away, and also we should have been bound to meet someone that way.
was tricky getting through the deer-gates, designed to keep in the roe deer
living in the park. Pulling a pony behind, we pushed the gate half open, inched
the pony into the semi-circular cage through which the gate swung, then pushed
the gate back, nearly scraping his side, and led him through.
the sort of thing to attempt with anything but a quiet horse, or more important
still, with a purple-faced keeper in the offing.
we practised in peace in this remote corner for sack races and obstacle races,
and at sun-up, if we didn't exactly fold our tents, we folded our sacks and
stole quietly away.
was a born law-breaker. Had she not had independent means, Fm sure she would
have done admirably for herself in the line of cat-burglar or a sort of female
"Saint" - anything in fact which smacked of adventure.
only for her appearance she was extraordinary. Aged about fifty, she had, in a
fit of joyous abandon, peroxided her hair with more gusto than skill, so that
the mixed, untidy waves of grey and harsh blonde gave her a peculiar piebald
appearance. Furthermore, she was inclined to top it with a rakish red turban,
usually lopsided and only half covering her curious tresses. This set off her
devil-may-care, tanned and even-featured face. She was usually clad in a jumper
of violent hue, a checked hacking-jacket, appalling baggy jodhpurs and old
walking-shoes. I don't think she possessed a pair of riding-boots.
rich as Croesus, a member of a world-famous firm which bore her name, she must
yet eke out a living, as she put it, by doing women's hair for them in their own
homes, plugging around on a rusty old bicycle, the hairdressing kit in a basket
on the front.
gods," she would cry, flinging herself from her bike in the stable yard.
"I've been shampoo-and-setting Mrs. Bing-Huggins. What's more, it was rock
cakes for morning tea again. That's the third time in succession. Still, I
managed to save some for Lily."
she would feel cautiously in the capacious pockets of her jacket, bringing forth
the remains of Mrs. Bing-Huggins' cakes, which she handed to the appreciative
Lily (so-called, incidentally, because she was a jet black mare).
was a very indifferent hair-dresser. Sometimes, we would be cycling off on one
of our errands together, to look at horses for sale, or on some other
expedition, when she would hiss at me: "Quick, down the next turning. I see
Mrs. Deepe-Poole and I made a frightful mush of perming her the other day. She's
sure to be out for blood."
saying, she would swoop around the corner, and I would wobble with surprise for
a few moments before following her.
if appalling hair-dressing was her living, her life was horses. Like me, she
loved them all. Draught horses, race-horses, ponies, or hairy old nondescripts,
sick or well, lame or sound.
I met her first, she had three horses, all of which she had rescued from
unfortunate circumstances - one a chestnut mare of vicious temperament, the said
black Lily and one other pony.
thirst for saving almost derelict horses caused us both concern, as after the
war feed was very scarce and very expensive. Usually, one obtained it by
undercover means and paid more for it.
kept a chestnut mare of mine at her stables, and sometimes we took out riders.
Norly would say to me, "Margot, if you don't mind looking after the horses
today, and take out Miss Brown at 10 o'clock, and Miss Potter and young Smith at
three, I think I'll dash over to Northwood and see what's there."
was a horse-market held each week about ten miles away, where every shady
horse-dealer, with every shady trick of making an unsound horse sound for a day
and a lame one go like a two‑year‑old, would ply his trade.
mind you don't buy anything today," I would say, as I said each time she
went. Norly would straighten the old turban and wheel out her bicycle, giving me
a disarming grin.
definitely not today. I'm just going to have a look. I'll be back in time to
help you to bed down." With a wave she would be gone and silence would
descend on the place.
when the time came to feed and bed down, there would be no sign of her. I would
finish the work and wait as dush fell. Then I would hear it faintly, the
long-awaited sound. Clang, clang, squeak - that was the loose, rusty chain on
Norly's bike. Then clip, clop - another orphan of the storm.
she would appear, pedalling along with the horse trotting obediently beside her,
and slither to a halt by the loose-boxes. She never had any brakes.
couldn't resist him," she would say, proudly patting the latest
acquisition. "He looked so sad, and so glad to see me."
mother always visualised me in a nice steady nine till five secretarial post.
But alas! My office jobs were a dismal failure. I was incapable of transcribing
my own shorthand, and I had to disentangle the letters from the sketches of
horses which decorated my notebook.
my father, an architect was a staunch ally. He encouraged me in all my doings
with the noblest of animals, and always with my drawing. He was responsible for
the most exciting times in Scotland when I rode with the mounted regiment
stationed in the town, by introducing me to the Captain, an acquaintance of his,
who put a horse at my disposal whenever I wanted it.
some occasions I went out with the whole troop for early morning exercise,
riding with the officer in charge at the head of the long column going out and
at the rear coming back. What a clatter we made in the hushed streets of the
little town as we made our way to the open country beyond. Early risers would
stop and stare at us, at the lovely horses groomed to perfection, their saddlery
gleaming, bits jingling, and at the khakiclad figures of the men, so many of
them soon to die, for the corps was afterwards sent abroad.
would ride along the paths I so often rode alone, sandy tracks which wound
between the glorious masses of golden broom and gorse, the pine trees standing
black and still on the hillsides, the mingled scents intoxicating my heart,
bound up as they were with the smell of the sea, which appeared before us. There
it lay, grey and cold, shot with a million points of light from the fitful
morning sun, which shone through the drifting misty clouds.
or twice I rode my beloved, dancing Sammy miles along the lonely lanes to the
ancient shell of Rait Castle haunted and desolate. Little remained but the great
tower with walls three feet thick and the outline of the huge courtyard, the
flagstones hidden beneath coarse grass. It was upon these flagstones that a
young girl, hundreds of years ago, flung herself from the tower when shut away
from her lover by her father.
I would sit, with my back against the crumbling stones, and bring the castle
back to life, rebuild the massive walls, listen to the sound of talking and
laughter, the clatter of a horse on the stones, the ring of steel on steel.
soon the watery sun would go in and a chill mist descend, and I would ride Sammy
away, leaving Rait Castle dead once more, the lonely cry of the curlews the only
things come to an end, and the corps moved on. Others came, and I rode with them
too, but it was never the same. Gone was my Sammy, his neck damp with my tears,
gone the stiff and correct corporal who gradually thawed out and became a great
friend, gone the fearsome sergeant who gave me a leather-bound riding stick made
by the troop saddler, before they left. All gone, and for a while I thought the
end of the world had come.
they all, Sammy and the corporal, the sergeant, an elderly friend of my mother's
Lady Payton, and my father started me off on my interesting if not illustrious
the stables in which I worked was the largest racing stable in England, where I
bit the good earth a few times. Fearfully, yet with a kind of fatal fascination,
I went each morning to look at the board in the tackroom, where, the name of
every horse in training was hung on tiny hooks with the name of the person to
ride it opposite.
strapper did not necessarily ride the horses that he or she. looked after. I did
have one, the favourite for a famous race, which I both rode and groomed, but
another, a glorious dark bay mare of docile temperament in the stable, was a
snorting frenzy out of it, and it was a while before I was promoted to riding
her. She demoted me smartly by bolting with me twice up a long slope on the
downs where pace was restricted to a canter - until an old ex-jockey took me in
hand, and taught me how to crouch up her neck and take hold of her properly.
was also the doubtful pleasure of working for a very famous head-lad, who was
about sixty and had an unbounded knowledge of horses. No private ever feared the
sergeant‑major as those lads did old Dick. His scathing comments caused
many scarlet faces, and much work to be done over again. There were only two
girls there beside myself, but we were not spared.
rode our horses out for exercise in a sheet of stable colours. The sheet had to
be adjusted meticulously to a certain number of inches beyond the point of the
hip. One day I was still battling with the sheet when Dick came along. He stood
in the doorway, glared, then ‑roared like a scrub bull.
the bloody hell do you think you're doing? That's a sheet, not a bloody
took the horses out in two strings, one in the early morning and one later on.
It was always a frantic rush to get done in time, each of us with two or three
horses to "muck out", feed, groom and bed down again, with the edges
of the straw meticulously rolled under so that not one straggled out of place.
morning exercise was a mixture of joy and trepidation to me, for I never was a
fearless rider. Some of the finest horses in the world were undoubtedly very,
very lively in the freezing cold of a winter morn when our breath and that of
the horses hung in the air, and our fingers froze around the reins.
the downs were shrouded in mist and the leading horses were lost to those at the
rear. The head-lad would ride from lead to tail and back again, to make sure
that all his valuable charges still had riders, and that some of the younger
lads were not taking advantage of his absence to canter instead of trotting, and
trot when they should have been walking.
evening when we had bedded down for the night the trainer would do the rounds,
visiting each horse. This called for split-second timing on our part, for on no
account had the horses to have their rugs off too long, yet they must be
stripped of immediately he appeared at the door of the box. We would peer out to
see if he was yet emerging from the box next door, and when he did, quickly undo
buckles and surcingles, to peel the rugs off just as he entered the door.
trainer, tall and distinguished, immaculately dressed, and carrying a
silver‑headed stick, would enter, make a few pleasant inquiries about the
horse and oneself, run an expert hand down the horse's back and legs, and have a
few words about him with the head-lad, who hovered in his wake.
I had stuck out half the winter in rather bad "digs", my mother
insisted that I should give up and go home.
the years that followed I worked with hacks, children's show ponies and hunters.
beauty of these winter mornings, with the trees etched against a steel-grey sky,
the excitement of the meet, the milling hounds and restless hunters, the music
of the horn, the stirrup cup, will stay with me all my life, though I may never
did work for a short while for a vet, but this was most unsuccessful, as I have
never been able to stand the sight of blood. Consequently, at operations I
usually had to be assisted from the room before the job was half done. This made
me rather more of a liability than an asset.
destroyed at the vet's were taken to the vegetable garden and interred, unless
the owners wanted the bodies. The vet had a rather macabre sense of humour. When
we were sitting at lunch he would pass a remark on the splendour of the beans,
or cabbage, then add, "That must be that white dog of Simpson's. Or, no, I
think I put him in the turnip bed. It must be either the ginger cat, or that old
would see him wink at his wife, Helen, and look across at me to see my reaction,
which always delighted him.
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