Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Sarah Lee Silver.

Sarah Lee Silver - by Jenny Williams.

I first saw Sarah-lee at Stowe Fair 1991 and fell in love with her straight away. There was one snag. My Van had blown a gasket and I had been told it would cost £300 to fix it; the Dealer wanted £350 for Nancy as he called her.

I decided my lack of experience would not be a good thing for her as I had not had any contact with equines since losing my nerve as a teenager in the mid 60’s so I felt she’d stand a better chance with someone else. I was sure such a beautiful mule would find a good home.
I never forgot her though and it was through her I found and joined the B.M.S., boring everyone stiff about this lovely mule I hadn’t bought!

I was so disappointed at missing her I eventually bought a little black welsh pony cross called Bluemoon from Henley horse sales and Amber from Butts Farm, I think it’s called withdrawal symptoms!

Around 1995 a friend drew my attention to an Advert in Horse and Hound for a 13hh part bred Arab mule, it had to be “Nancy” so I rang the Number.
Putting the pieces together it was the same animal. The lady had “rescued” her from the following sale and changed her name to Sarah. She told me she was easy to ride and “bombproof”-- and she wanted £700 for her! Once more this was way above my budget, again I had to pass her by.

In 1997 I was showing Amber on the B.M.S .Stand at the Malvern Autumn Show when a lady said she had ridden a mule just like her at Weston Super Mere. She casually let slip that there were two mules, and one was a flea-bitten grey called Sarah! She only had a vague idea of her whereabouts so on the basis that if you want to know any gossip about an area you should ask the postman, I got on to directory enquiries and started ringing every post office in Weston super mere. Several confused postmen later and I found one who knew exactly where the two mules were—at a riding stable run by a lady called Debbie Banwall, who let horses out for riding during the tourist season. She was based at Burnham on sea. I rang her and she was very helpful. Yes, she had two mules including a part-bred Arab mare she had purchased from a local dealer who had bought her down from Appleby for her. She was now running out on the Quantocks as the tourist season was over. I could visit her anytime.

I was desperately trying to get planning permission for my smallholding and was overrun with debt and livestock so I could not leave but I saw Debbie occasionally at Andoversford sales when I had a stall for my paintings so got bulletins of Sarah’s progress.

May1999 and I was strolling round Andoversford looking for somewhere to set up my stall and was brought up sharply by something in a group of coloured ponies tied to a lorry in the parking area. It was a pewter coloured mule. I went up for a closer examination and the pewter colour turned flecked. I hadn’t seen her for 10yrs but I knew there couldn’t be two mules like that “Yes, it’s Sarah” Debbie said coming up behind me. I wanted to ask what she was doing there but didn’t dare. A local donkey Derby dealer came up and started to ask questions—how much? £1000!!!! I knew he wouldn’t pay that for her but there were several people around who might and again she was out of my reach.

I returned several times to look at her and there was always a large group round her from the dealers who knew a crowd puller when they saw one to the well off horsy types who could afford her but not appreciate her, just stick her in a field as a companion. Suddenly Debbie said “you really want her don’t you?”
I said yes but I couldn’t afford her.
“How much can you afford?”
I had sold my first two donkey foals that month so I told her and found myself writing out a cheque, hoping the bank manager wouldn’t be too disappointed.
I couldn’t stop shaking and asked Debbie to put her back into the Horse box till I could find someone to take her home for me, in case someone saw her and gave her a better offer. I was still shaking two days later.

Debbie had said that she wanted me to keep Sarah’s name but it is pretty common since “that” film (which by the way doesn’t have three mules in it anyway) so I upgraded it to Sarah-lee Silver because of her colour.

At first she showed a typical mule reserve and wasn’t keen to catch me but we worked our way round that and I spent almost a year just walking her in hand round the local lanes and bridle paths. I knew she couldn’t have lasted so long unless she could be a good ride but I was a novice when I lost my nerve and that was over thirty years previously, I hadn’t ridden since.
I found a saddle that fitted and a webbing bridle and gradually began walking her tacked up then one day I was walking her and just felt it was the right time to get on.

After that I spent hours riding her.I bought a “trooper saddle” from Henley market and then copied the way the donkey men used them by attaching an extra girth.
We began doing fun rides for charity. On the first I had heard there was a slope so I decided to try a crupper, Sarah-lee told me exactly what she thought of that idea in the first few minutes so I threw it at a marshal and asked them to keep it for me. However the “slope” proved more of a problem as it was an almost vertical bank and within a few steps the saddle was “undressing itself” over Sarah-lee’s neck. She, turned sideways and stopped, clearly saying that she was not going another step until I’d got off and sorted things out—dually reprimanded I did as I was told, walked her down the hill and remounted.

At the start of the next season a friend had made me a set of breeching out of webbing and delivered it to test just before we set off. As the ride was on Bredon Hill just outside Pershore and all up and down maybe this wasn’t wise. We came to a farm track at the side of the hill. It was rough and stony and deeply rutted by tractor tracks I wasn’t going to push her as it was a 12 ml trek and she had already done 8mls the previous day in the Cotswolds. I wasn’t sure what she could do, so I let her pick her way up the hill at her own speed. Behind us came a terrible snorting, scrambling sound.

I glanced round cautiously; convinced there must be a fire breathing dragon or a troop of Shire Horses thundering up the track. No, it was a young girl on a wild-eyed Arab. Soon it was alongside us, snorting, dancing, and sweating furiously. The next thing I knew, it had stumbled head-first, pitched its rider and was disappearing over the brow of the hill. The rider was muddy and shocked but unhurt. It appeared the mount was on loan. Somebody offered to catch it.” I don’t know what to do if you do!” sobbed the girl “I can’t get on him—he rears if you try to mount” I swear Sarah-lee snorted in derision!

Later we had a chance to try the breeching going downhill. We entered a field with a path more suitable for goats than horses. A steep slope led to a gate in the bottom right hand corner another track led to a gentler but longer zig zag track to the right. Sarah-lee pricked her ears and I let her have her head – she followed the gentler path and watched the horses struggling down the steep one. The breeching gave me confidence though.

We did a ride for air ambulance at Offchurch but it wasn’t until the last half mile I remembered the river. The water was deep and muddy, the bottom hidden and there was a steep bank down to it. Sarah-lee stopped dead! It didn’t help that it was a public footpath and two dogs were running up and down on the other side barking. It was a seven mile hack back and the only footbridge blocked by a style.
The trouble is people would keep trying to help! The more they “helped” the more she dug her heels in convinced there were crocodiles in there. It took me an hour to persuade her there wasn’t.

As time went by people got used to her on the rides and started to look out for her, At first they’d been worried their “short-ears” would react but most of them ignored her, she even acted as nursemaid to a nervous retired racehorse on one ride, guiding it quietly along on its first fun ride.

The only time she had me off was my fault entirely. We were riding through some woods and I heard some buzzards call above us. I looked up through the canopy to see them, Sarah-lee looked down at a “Triffid” (Burdock plant) she’s convinced they are going to uproot one day and get her and likes to get her bit in first.
She leapt sideways and spun round dropping me unceremoniously in the mud. She stood there looking down at me with that infuriatingly “What an earth are you doing down there?!” look on her face. I remounted, muttering under my breath, a few yards further on a grass snake slid between her legs and she didn’t bat an eyelid.

I have entered her in the occasional show but I don’t like them as they are so boring. I rang up the organisers first to ask if they minded and they were usually quite good. One judge said she would be “Honoured” to judge my part-bred Arab.

Pony owners were the most problem. At one show I was already feeling guilty as Sarah-lee had seen the Malvern Hills as she came out of the trailer and obviously thought we were out for a great fun ride instead of a boring show. It was hot and we were standing by the handy pony ring. The gymkhana classes had just finished in the next ring and a child on a little chestnut welsh pony came out and started tearing past from one end of the field to the other. Eventually she hauled the exhausted sweating animal to a stop and stood alongside us to watch. After a few minutes it was dug in the ribs, swung round and galloped off again. My girl sighed and carried on watching the class.
Suddenly a shrill voice piped up,
“Oh, it’s probably the donkey that spooked him”
I turned to see “proud mum” trying to take over the reins of over excited welsh pony.
No one speaks about my Sarah-lee like that! I’d had enough of the brat by then and as it swung pony round, barging my quiet well behaved hinny I explained in no uncertain terms that my girl was not a donkey,-the pony had stood alongside us for five minutes without batting an eyelid,-and if she couldn’t control her child better it was no use blaming my hinny for it’s bad behaviour. “Mothers” mouth opened and shut, and she led brat and pony away without another word. The handy pony class judge grinned and gave me the thumbs up.

I entered her three years running at the BDS Championship show and got the dubious distinction of, despite being the only one in the class to be ridden in the saddle or pack mule and donkey class, coming last every time. Sarah-lee got a rosette for just being there but I don’t count those sorts of rosette.

My most prized position was a certificate Sarah-lee got on one fun ride to say she’d completed the 12 mile ride—much better than any old second hand rosette anytime :0)
Sarah has also been a great ambassador for the breed on various BMS stands
She has earned the notoriety of having “Coon Jumped” out of her stall at the Three Counties Autumn Show—not bad for an old lady with arthritis! However, most fun has been acting as guinea pig at the local donkey groups various demonstrations. Whether it was the yearly, early May walk for local charities. Or the aromatherapy demonstrations (Never mind the pongee stuff just let me at the grape oil it’s in!)

She’s had her teeth rasped and her feet trimmed, she’s had shiatsu and Tellington touch and various saddle tryouts all without bating an eyelid although I’m sure she wondered what us human beings get up too!

I stopped riding Sarah-lee because of foot and mouth and maybe it was this year of inactivity that made her arthritis start to show worse. She definitely started “squaring up” her left hind toe when led and I worried about riding her. Her last but one owner hadn’t helped when I rang up to say I’d got her “Good God! Is she still alive!!?”
I said I hoped so as I’d been riding her for three years. It started to worry me more though. She had the back man to her ( Suck through teeth like a plumber “What an earth has happened to you girl”—coarse no explanation in what he meant, professionals always like to keep you in the dark it makes you more in awe of them)

The next time (after Foot and mouth) I had to have one of his partners as he’d smashed both arms in a motorcycle accident. She did the 15minute prod and massage took the cheque for a third of my weekly wages and before Sarah had walked home a half mile she was dragging her toe again.

This did not exactly boost my confidence although I have seen her do a great gallop around the walkway and up the field to skid to a halt just by the donkey’s paddock.
She had the blacksmith who handed her over to his apprentice while he did someone else’s animal. I was not at all happy at this (I was paying for the organ grinder not the monkey) especially when he did not listen to me when I said she had arthritis in her left hip and continued lifting it too high even though Sara-lee was obviously protesting. Eventually, when it was obvious he was not listening she sat down on him, a thing she had never done before.
She had her yearly teeth rasp in spring, this time during a demonstration by the visiting Donkey Sanctuary practitioner and for the first time protested! I’d never had any trouble with the equine dentist before and looking at the photo’s can only assume that
a) It was because she was handed to someone else to hold
b) As her head was raised up it put pressure on her back

I was worried about her future and as fate would have it The Horse Trust rang me up and said they heard I was looking for a home for my mule Amber and they would like to have her on display. They already had a Hinny but I managed to persuade them to take Sarah-lee also. So if you are in Princess Risborough please visit, and give her a stroke.

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