We hadn’t lived in Morecambe many days before we noticed the horses. There are always horses around town, in the fields, occasionally cutting the grass on the play area and often on the roads. Just five minutes walk from our home are stables with horses and ponies of all shapes and sizes. I treat the large horses with the respect they deserve but I like to stop and pet the little ones when they are outdoors. Horses have become so much of our Morecambe scene that we hardly give a second glance these days when we notice a horse grazing by the roadside or see someone with a pony and sulky, a lightweight two-wheeled single-seat cart, go galloping by but just occasionally Morecambe’s horses gift me with a story worth telling.
Firstly some background. Morecambe is home to one of the UK’s largest settled Irish Traveller Communities and they own many of the horses. This community are British with Irish ancestry and are distinct to Roma and Gypsy communities. Together they are referred to as the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller [GRT] community and judgement of and prejudice against this group of people is widespread. The recent shameful story about Pontins holding a list of names to exclude travellers staying at their holiday parks is an example of how endemic prejudice of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community is.
I don’t know much about horses but from what I can see many of the horses in Morecambe are neither sleek race horses or large and strong shire horses; they mostly seem to be Gypsy Vanner or Irish Cobb horses. These originated in Ireland and were bred by Irish Travellers as robust and reliable horses with a good temperament suitable for pulling wagons. When ridden it is generally bareback.
The Cumbrian market town of Appleby-in-Westmorland is less than an hour’s drive from Morecambe and it is here that the annual Appleby Horse Fair is held, generally in early June each year. Living in Lancashire, you generally know when this big event is coming up as you spot members of the GRT community on the road making their way there. Said to be the largest gathering of its kind in Europe, around 10,000 people meet at Appleby-in-Westmorland to trade horses, wear their best clothes and see friends. They are joined by around 30,000 visitors keen to witness the traditions and culture. Horses are prepared for trading by being bathed in the River Eden and groomed. The fair also has stalls selling clothing and horse-related goods. The flashing lane runs through the fair and is the perfect spot for spectators to watch the horses being put through their paces as the horses are ‘flashed’ or shown off by sellers to potential buyers.
We recently had a slightly too close an encounter with just one of Morecambe’s horses. We were walking towards the canal on one of our lock down days out. It was a cold day and as we strode out along a quiet lane we saw three guys ahead. They were wrapped up against the frost and standing with their arms folded, watching a fourth man riding a horse bare back and with no riding hat. The man and horse galloped towards us and we moved onto the grass verge to give what was clearly a lively horse plenty of space as it went by. Carrying on, the demeanor of the three spectators made us aware that the horse and rider had turned around and were returning behind us. The three were shouting encouragingly and I wondered if this was a practice for the flashing lane at Appleby Horse Fair or Morecambe’s own version. Again, not wishing to spook the horse, we calmly moved to the side of the lane. The man and horse passed within a horse hair’s breadth and this time it was clear to even two people who have never ridden more than a seaside donkey that the rider was not completely in control. Just clearing us, the horse bucked and succeeded in throwing the rider onto the road. Not a man to give in, the rider clung onto the reins and we could only watch, horrified as he was dragged along the tarmac. Amazingly, he hung on and eventually calmed the horse enough so that the shaken and battered rider could leap back on, no mean feat with no stirrups. ‘Is it the rider or the horse?’ we asked as we walked by the three onlookers. ‘We’re trying to decide,’ one of them replied smiling in a knowing way, ‘But we think its a bit of both!’