Years ago I had two short-lived spells of being around horses. Both were at the same stables, high above my hometown on the Corbally Road, a name that I now think of as aptly onomatopoeic; it sounds like something you might say to a horse instead of ‘giddy up’ – ‘cor-bally!’ Sisters, B. and S., shared a pony, and off I’d go to help them muck out. I think we were in our early teens, young enough to be open-eyed, amazed, and rather useless. We didn’t do much (if any) riding. I don’t even think I could lift the saddle, and I’m certain I didn’t know one end of a bridle from the other. But we indulged in copious and enthusiastic grooming and equally copious, but rather less enthusiastic, shovelling of sweet smelling manure. I can’t remember what the pony was called but I remember it was flaxen, squat, with an overblown belly as hard a car tyre, and it would sneak a bite of your arm as quick as it would look at you. ‘Never stand behind the horse,’ my dad drummed his message home, mindful of us pint-sized children, our heads four feet from the ground – perfect hoof-kicking height. Ten years later I was back at those stables, a familiar grey cat moving more slowly across the yard. This time I was with J., who regularly sacrificed a square meal and home heating for the sake of her 15-hands beauty. J. encouraged me to ride. I remember the joy of breaking into a canter (that’s as fast as I got) on a broad, grassy verge; the long acre by the side of the Ballyhome Road. It terrified and exhilarated me. Apart from the odd summertime donkey ride on the beach, that was the sum total of my equestrian life.
Part of me wishes it weren’t, that I’d ridden more. Horses represent something freeing, liberating, powerful and romantic. That iconic image of riding, nay (!), galloping off into the sunset still resonates with many of us as a representation of hope, an escape from the daily grind. All of this I thought about as is I stood under the Kelpies in Falkirk last month. The Kelpies is an awe-inspiring work of art: two stainless steel horses (their heads only) rising 100 feet from the ground in an illusion of whinnying motion. That day, they were breath taking, sparkling in the low autumn sun, almost animated with breath and life. Emerging from the earth next to a canal,the monument pays homage to the barge-pulling, working horses of Scotland, but it also reminds us of our ancient Celtic heritage, our folklore. For these are not simply horse’s heads, these are Kelpies: wild, irrepressible, and unwhisperable – just how shape shifting, water spirit Kelpies ought to be.
At first, the Kelpie will beguile and beckon. Innocent-looking Keplies will call you forth to stroke their lustrous manes, rub the white star between their eyes, reach out to offer them a fallen apple. But don’t! Stay back. Better still, run! For the Kelpies that haunt Scotland’s rivers and streams and lochs in the guise of magnificent horses are in fact malevolent demons. Should you touch the Kelpie, it could be your undoing. Should you mount it, it willbe your undoing. The Kelpie will gallop towards water; by then you’ll realise you are stuck fast to its back and the wicked trick has been played. No saddle, no stirrup, your skin and the horse’s hide are fused as one. (This is when it gets grisly.) Swimming to the deepest part of the lake, the Kelpie will dive under and devour you, throwing your entrails onto the water’s edge.
Those of you who prefer to rationalise your way through ancient myths and legends might choose to believe that the story of the Kelpies was a means of warning people, particularly children, from swimming in treacherous bodies of inland water. Me? I give wild horses a very wide berth and maybe I’m thankful that my horsey career was over well before it began.
‘Upon The Horse and His Rider’, by John Bunyan (excerpt)
‘There’s one rides very sagely on the road,
Showing that he affects the gravest mode.
Another rides tantivy, or full trot,
To show much gravity he matters not.
Lo, here comes one amain, he rides full speed,
Hedge, ditch, nor miry bog, he doth not heed.
One claws it up-hill without stop or check,
Another down as if he’d break his neck.
Now every horse has his especial guider;
Then by his going you may know the rider.’