They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Oct 2, 2013
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? During the preparations for a recent horse-drawn funeral, the carriage masters we were hiring raised some minor query to which my colleague replied, “Oh, speak to James, he knows much more about horses than I do.” That was true to an extent, but his well meant comment belied a grim truth. About three years previously I’d made the mistake of mentioning to my new partner (a former professional showjumper) that I’d rather fancied learning to ride. What followed was two expensive and terror-laden years.

I was taught there are two simple steps to mastering the art of horse-riding: Step One – mount the horse. Step Two – stay mounted…

It’s difficult to explain the extent of fear and helplessness that accompanied Step Two. Not having had any previous equestrian experience I’d belonged to the “Aww, aren’t horses lovely?!” school of thought. That lasted for all of two lessons. Remember the average horse has a weight of 92 stone, the potential destructive power of a Sherman tank and yet a brain the size of a walnut. You’re perched on top of this huge animal with nothing but the golden aim of a good seat and lower leg grip to keep you there. Gear-changing and acceleration are achieved by subtle leg movements, whilst steering and most importantly, braking, are a matter of equally subtle manipulations to the reins. But the terrifying reality, something even the most accomplished rider will readily admit to, is that ultimately any control you reckon you have rests entirely on your ability to fool the horse into thinking you’re the one in charge…

My trouble was that I’m definitely not one of life’s adrenaline junkies and so I learnt the hard way that horse riding is anything but a gentle, pastoral hobby. If you like to take life hard and fast and regard broken bones or potentially catastrophic spinal injuries as a price worth paying for a bit of excitement then horse riding is definitely for you. But as a minor horse rider for 2 years and full-time funeral director for 26 years, I can tell you now that riding has the highest mortality rate of any pastime or sport!

So perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that the vast majority of horse-drawn funerals are requested by non-horsey folk. I asked my partner about this. She laughed drily and said, “Much as I love horses, they still bite at one end, kick at the other and act unpredictably in the middle. They scare easily and if they bolt nothing and no-one will be able to stop them. I love the adrenaline high I get from riding a creature like that, but would I trust one with my Mother’s funeral? Would I hell!” I saw her point.

Clearly then it takes people of formidable ability and courage to train and trust such unpredictable beasts for the precise challenges of funeral work. Enter stage left our superb carriage masters, Janet & Brian. Bearing in mind that all but the very highest levels of competition riding equestrianism is a peculiarly female-dominated pastime, it should come as no surprise to learn who wore the trousers within this husband & wife team. But between her husband and the horses, it was painfully clear where Janet’s greatest affections lay!

Stroking the noses of her stunning jet black Friesians, standing proudly to attention  resplendent in their imitation ostrich feather head plumes, Janet said “These beautiful boys (and believe me they most certainly were) are damn well the best trained pair around. They won’t let you down.” I didn’t think they’d dare to be honest – Janet really isn’t the type to trifle with. 

“Mind you,” she barked, staring harshly at her long-suffering spouse Brian, who at that moment was busy groveling on the tarmac scraping up horse muck, “The hardest thing about owning horses is that when they’re old and past it, the only kind thing to do is shoot them. Don’t you think it would be fairer if we could be allowed to do that to humans too?!”

“Well,” I replied cautiously, feeling myself wilt like an autumn leaf under Janet’s emasculating glare, “I really couldn’t say.”

James Baker owns and runs Fred Stevens Funeral Directors of Nailsworth, Glos.

He is the author of “A Life In Death – Memoirs Of A Cotswold Funeral Director


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