Frances had her first outing with Rent a Peasant at the Durham Christmas Festival. For a couple of years previously, we had staged a live Nativity Tableau with a Dexter cow for the Ox and real sheep but a hobby horse for the Ass (and a doll baby!). This was a baptism of fire for Frances, who had obviously never met so many people in such a short space of time before. The next year was Foot & Mouth. The holding was on Category D from Feb to Sept, so no livestock allowed off the premises. Frances went to the next Durham Christmas Festival by herself, with a pantomime cow for the Ox and toy sheep. With the introduction of the 6 day standstill and the need for a licence to disapply the 6 day standstill for one day events, clients lost interest in the cattle and sheep but were interested in the novelty of a mule.
So the next question arose of what was Frances to wear. Peasants were more likely to need and use a pack animal than a riding or driving animal. So, I began to research mule pack saddles. Lots of these are still used all round the world but in warm and dry climates. Frances needed something appropriate for the weather in the north of England. The western isles of Scotland and Ireland seemed to be the best comparisons. I eventually tracked down a Scottish basket maker, who made the kishies for carrying peats used by Highland ponies but the price was more than I could afford. So I then made contact with the wonderful basket maker Joe Hogan in Ireland, who was extremely helpful and made a pair of peat creels. Joe put me in touch with another contact, who made the traditional Irish straw mat and wooden straddle for the creels to hang on. This gentleman was a true Irishman, with no concept of time being an important factor. He also found it hard to grasp the fact that I already had the animal, as he tried very hard to sell me a donkey. Quite how he was going to post the donkey to me remains a mystery! When the straddle arrived, it became obvious that Irish donkeys were considerably less broad in the beam than Frances, but it provided the pattern to have one made that fitted her.
Over the years, Frances and I have come to various understandings. Work is definitely a four letter word. Any fantasies I once had of Frances carrying feed to the sheep, when there is too much snow or mud for the Land Rover to travel, evaporated in the face of Frances doing eloquent body language of "you must be joking". Frances is a little lamb in winter, will come when called & walk into the barn. In summer it is "ner, ner, ner can't catch me", the elegant flying trot and the nose tossed in the air. Unless the trailer is moving cattle or sheep, when there are indignant whinnies of "why am I being left behind". Frances was reputed, when I got her, to be "ride and drive". So a horsey friend brought the appropriate tack to try this idea out. Frances did the "all very interesting but never seen this stuff before" routine. At the end of the session I was told that Frances was an Oscar winning actress, she knew perfectly well what it was all about but had no intention of doing all that again.
Frances is now quite happy to go out to events as the peasants' mule, with her creels full of fleece, and stand around all day meeting the public and being fed thin slices of carrot by small children. If the carrot supply slows down, the public are reminded what they are there for! For many small children, Frances is the first large animal they have met. Frances is also more than happy to pose for photocalls, and has appeared several times in the local papers, promoting events.