It wasn’t even my pony, to be honest. The adolescent eldest son of the house next door had been given the little mare as a yearling, decided, after a little experimentation, that he couldn’t ride her, or at least that trying to wasn’t enough fun to be worth the effort, and had left her tethered in their back garden, from which she regularly escaped to join the hotel ponies at the end of the beach.
I had a saddle. Would I like to ride her? I could keep her at my place? I had no fences, but I did have a longer rope, and a well-padded head-collar, so although little Julie’s living conditions weren’t perfect, they were better.
I broke her in with ridiculous ease. All I needed to do was to give her time to adjust her balance under the unaccustomed load my presence imposed, and let her decision about the right time and place to head home be the casting vote. She grew stronger, and I enjoyed pootling around Pacific Harbour on her, and she enjoyed getting out and seeing the world. But she’d never be a dressage horse. Not all the training in the world could raise the point where her neck joined the withers, or straighten her cow-hocked hind legs. Still, the point of dressage training is not to make a prettier horse but a stronger, sounder one, and every horse under saddle should do it.
We were trotting circles and leg yielding in and out of the circle on the beach in front of the house when an elderly gentleman paused in his stroll down from the hotel, and stood, inspecting our work. He stood thus for five minutes or so, and walked away. The next day Julie and I headed up the road behind the golf course, but we played on the beach the day after that, and the old man was there again, standing, watching.
I decided it was time to introduce myself. It seemed like the polite thing to do.
“You try to make her dance?” he enquired, his accent strongly German.
I resented the “try”. “She’s only a little horse,” I said. “I’m just trying to make it easier for her to carry me by exercising her to make her stronger.”
“Ja, dressage is good for every horse,” he agreed. “But small is good. Small horses, they last longer.”
“You ride?” It was a polite formality. Of course, given what he had just said, he rode.
“Not now,” he said. He looked at me. “You do not learn to ride here?”
“No, in Australia. I bought my saddle for a thoroughbred, so I’m not sure it fits her.” Julie was maybe 14 hands on tiptoes.
He cast a critical eye over my tack. “Not perfect,” he acknowledged, “but not too bad. I have seen worse. Who is your teacher?”
I’d had my first formal lessons from a pupil of a pupil of the Spanish Riding School, whose name I dropped. “Here, of course, it’s only books. They’re not very good at observing what you’re doing and shouting a correction.”
The old man smiled and shook his head. “Me, I know nothing. Which book is your favourite?”
“Seunig.” I’d found Waldemar Seunig’s treatise on horsemanship in the school library at thirteen and been entranced by it.
His eyebrows rose a fraction, and he nodded.
“Good man,” he said, and lost himself in what I could not decide was thought or remembrance. “I was in the cavalry,” he offered at last, “in the east. Is a long time now.” And with that he turned on his heel and walked back to the hotel without another word.
We both read history, Philip and I, but he’s the World War Two buff in the family. When I told him about the conversation with the old man that evening, his response was to go to our books. He took one down from the shelf and opened it. “There you are.”
I looked at the entry. There had indeed been a German World War Two cavalry division, although they had swapped horses for tanks in 1941.
Philip was grinning with delight. “You’ve met a Wehrmacht officer! There can’t be many of those left.”
This was the 1990s, so, fifty-something years after the horrors of Operation Barbarossa, any survivors were old men. Had I met an old Nazi? If we were right, he’d certainly fought in Hitler’s forces, and I didn’t imagine for a moment that a dissenter would have or could have become a cavalry officer. Yet he had ridden horses against tanks, no job for a coward. And what did any of that matter now?
I puzzled for years after over why the name of my favourite equestrian author had affected him as it did, only to learn eventually that Seunig had been a riding instructor to the wartime German military, having gone to Germany from Yugoslavia, and it was thus possible that my friend from the beach had met the man, possibly even been taught to ride by him in circumstances that must have differed dramatically from any riding lessons I’ve ever had. I don’t still have the book, as I gave it to a young local rider as we were leaving Fiji, as I thought she needed it more than I did.
This was an old soldier, a man who must have killed, a man who must have seen and inflicted terrible brutality in the service of a regime I had grown up despising and always would. We had nothing in common. Nothing but horses.
And that’s something.
Would you like to read another Horsey story by the same author? See here: True Grit