Guest blog:  Author Ann Vinden is currently writing a biography set in Chile during the nitrate extraction period.  She writes here about horses, class and family.

No-one would have suggested learning to ride a horse as a means of independence in the shire counties where I grew up, and yet only two generations before me, a well-off young woman would of course have learned to ride. Both my grandfathers did well enough to be given not company cars, but ‘company horses’.

In 1905 on the Chilean Pampa (plateau) of Tarapacá, my maternal grandfather, Kenneth, was offered free use of any of the horses at his first oficina (nitrate plant) for evening exercise rides or outings. A journey with the boss to HQ in Iquique took him some five hours on horseback, fuelled by breakfast of a single eggnog. A dinner invitation would be an hour’s ride across the desert in any one direction. They thought nothing of such distances.

After one such dinner party, the Camanchaca, a freezing cloud, descended as he and a colleague returned across the Pampa to his oficina. Doubtless they had enjoyed a good few whiskies and Pisco Sours. The Camanchaca was as dense as the fogs of his Glasgow origins but made him twice as wet. They could barely see a foot ahead, and lost sight of the tracks home. Fearing the prospect of sleeping rough, prey to the ice cold and bandits, they learned a valuable lesson: the horses would not pause for a moment.  They knew their own way home to the stable.

In December that year, after a series of quick promotions, Kenneth saved enough to buy his own independent transport: a horse, for £13, three-quarters of a month’s pay. Two years later, by his mid-twenties, another promotion won him the top job at an oficina. A ‘company horse’ was part of the package. Stables and a groom were thrown in gratis.

He sold his own horse, upgrading to the early twentieth century equivalent of a sports car: a so-called Polo ‘Pony,’ a full-sized thoroughbred. He played polo, his favourite sport, every Sunday morning in the dust of the Atacama Desert. Polo had been a vital training technique for cavalry from around the sixth century BC in Persia, but it had only spread to Britain through the British army in India in 1866 so was a relatively young sport.[1] An expensive pastime, it was played by the British aristocracy and their wealthy imitators the industrialist class, but like many in colonial settings, Kenneth and his work colleagues could also afford the trappings of wealth.

Kenneth and Alice at the Oficina, circa 1922. Copyright Ann Vinden

My grandmother, Alice, was born in Chile in 1881.  She learned to ride and, as a young woman, rode as competently as the men, although always side saddle. She and Kenneth’s first flirtations began with a ride in the desert together.

Naturally, their children also learned to ride.  They were put on a horse as pre-schoolers, and my aunt Kitty is pictured here on a pony named ‘Poroto’ - Spanish for Bean.’  My mother still remembers being told off for playing with the tiny young groom who looked after Poroto. He was the son of a migrant worker: his father might have come from Bolivia, Southern Chile, Peru, or Argentina. They were a multinational workforce managed in the main by the British or. occasionally, other Europeans.  The boundaries of the work hierarchy, of class, education and thereby - to some extent – race, were critical in managing control by the few over the many.

Kenneth photographs his eldest, Kitty, on Poroto, with traditional Chilean stirrups. The tiny groom, at his post, remains nameless. Copyright Ann Vinden

Ten years later in England, at the start of the First World War, my 19-year-old paternal grandfather Joe joined up and was quickly promoted to an officer post in the Suffolk Regiment and given his own war horse.  After the War, having survived the Battle of the Somme, he became a career soldier and always had his own horse. In 1937, the War Office issued him with a Manual of Horsemastership. The Manual covered everything, even how to saddle, pack and ride a camel - that ‘horse designed by committee’[2].

Manual of Horsemanship issued by the War Office in 1937. Copyright Ann Vinden

The earliest picture I can recall of his son, my father, has him in India, seated on a war horse - a good 15-hander - straight-backed, confidently holding the reins, a servant holding the nose band. He must have been about three years old.

For me, as a child in Hertfordshire, contact with horses was largely thanks to the dwindling horse-drawn trades, the rag-and-bone man, milkman and coal men trundling their horses and carts down the road.  My favourite horses, though, were the huge heavy horses that would plod slowly along the tow-path of the nearby river, dragging barges down to London and coal upstream to the power station. They would be unhitched from their load near the end of our road and while we watched in awe – and at a safe distance - were walked over the bridge to the other riverbank to continue their journey, their massive collars rattling with horse brasses.

My family had bought a house in a road that was cut off by the loop of a river, so that it felt like a village.  Our ‘village’ had its own green belt, an orchard and fields that lay between us and the river. I was a gregarious kid who delighted in dragging my friends into exploring its possibilities, one of which was a paddock housing two horses. I thought all my friends loved horses but on reflection I can only remember being alone at the paddock gate, stroking the warm, soft muzzles. I doubt my parents or grandparents had the same feelings for their horses.

These horses were my companions, and I was deeply sad for their imagined abandonment, projecting my own loneliness and misery onto them. How I longed to ride them away, to bring them to be with people, somewhere they would be loved. My solitude at least was temporary: boarding school terms were shorter than those of my locally schooled friends and soon they too were released to play all day.

I was allowed two mementoes of horses at school: a three-inch high china horse and a black-framed round picture of a bay horse, signed and given to me by my patron and protector, a sixteen-year-old school prefect in my boarding house, Sarah. Every week of term I was obliged to polish her riding boots, in a girls’ school imitation of the boys’ ‘fagging’ system.

There were riding lessons on offer at school, but with all the kit - especially the regulation long riding boots - these were deemed too expensive. I suspect the lessons I took in the holidays were offered to me by my parents as compensation. I was kitted out with jodhpurs and riding hat (one with a lovely yellow lining, another green). I do not remember boots. I rode in an offshoot of the Epping Forest - gloriously coloured, bathed in dappled sunlight, the beech and birch woods seemed boundless.

But by the time I was sixteen my priorities and my politics had changed.  I was desperate to have access to my own transport. The distances were too great and the hills too frequent for a bicycle to fit the bill. Motorbikes and scooters were out of the question, written off by my parents as way too dangerous, and lifts to social events - like under-age pub crawls - involved too much social control. They bribed me to wait until I was seventeen with the promise of driving lessons and by implication access to a car. My engineer father was clever enough to refurbish a clapped-out Fiat 600 to be my first vehicle, but not until I could change a wheel in the dark, change a spark plug, handle a major skid and of course, pass my test.

Riding was for its own sake and because I loved horses; but the car became for me, like Toad of Toad Hall, my abiding passion and liberation:

“Glorious, stirring sight! The poetry of motion! The real way to travel! The only way to travel! Here today - in next week tomorrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped - always somebody else’s horizon! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!”[3]


You may also be interested in “When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it…”  which inspired Ann to write the piece above.


[1] Polo is the Baltistan word for ball.

[2] Financial Times 31st Jan 1976.

[3] Kenneth Grahame (1908) The Wind in the Willows Ch 1.

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