MAY 1973 – MAY 2013



elderly Fell gelding with his owner

August 1995 was traumatic, with my mother and father-in-law dying within two weeks of each other, and with my husband working abroad I took our then 14 year old twins to Somerset at the end of that month to sort out a problem which had arisen with father-in-law’s house. The twins asked if we could ride out on our last day in Somerset before returning home to Surrey, and that’s when my love affair with Freddie first began. “You can ride, can’t you?” asked the owner of the riding centre at Minehead. I couldn’t understand his concern as he indicated what appeared to be a docile black pony tied to the barn wall, but I confirmed although I hadn’t ridden for some time I was reasonably proficient. The twins and 3 other people were all allocated mounts and we set off for North Hill.

It was a bit of a battle at first, as Freddie’s main aim was clearly to sample as much grass as he possibly could rather than participate in what he decided was another boring hack. I started to relax – too soon – as without warning, as the others continued along the narrow pathway through the woods Freddie leapt sideways through the bushes and onto a previously unseen track. I thought I was a reasonable rider, but in Freddie’s opinion obviously not. We sped along the track until we came to a clearing where Freddie braked to a sudden stop – and waited. All attempts to get him moving failed and eventually the riding centre owner and the rest of the party could be heard cantering towards us.

“Sorry – forgot to mention Freddie’s a bit of a character” said the centre’s owner. “He knows all the short cuts”. And so he did. I spent the rest of the hack cajoling Freddie to keep to the appointed paths rather than hurdle hedges. When we returned to base my offer to untack was gratefully accepted. “Of course, this is Freddie’s last season” said the cheerful centre owner “He will soon be too old to hack out all day. At the end of the season we usually pass on our older horses to the RDA, but Freddie’s not suitable. He’ll be going for slaughter”.

I couldn’t get those words “going for slaughter” out of my head. My husband said he was sure the Centre would re-home Freddie, but just to set my mind at rest two weeks later we set off for Minehead “just to check”. When we arrived Freddie and the other horses were tied to the barn wall waiting for what the centre owner said would be the last party to ride out before the season ended, and in answer to my all important question he added “No, we haven’t been able to rehome him. He’s destined for the meat market”. We didn’t hesitate. Out came the cheque book and two weeks later 22 year old Freddie was delivered to Surrey. As he was about to leave the centre manager produced a tatty piece of paper on which was written a telephone number. “Ring this number when anything happens to him” I was told. “It’s just someone who was rather fond of him”. I put the piece of paper away and for the time being, forgot about it.

Freddie moved to livery at Pachesham and our adventures began. Pachesham was an event yard full of beautiful horses – and an owner who was not only caring, but who was incredibly knowledgeable and understanding of all breeds. He might have looked out of place, but Freddie didn’t know that. He was allocated the prime stable on the yard from where he was able to monitor everyone and everything. On the days when events took place all the yard horses remained stabled until the competitors departed – except Freddie. He was turned out into the dressage arena which had established 8’ high grass banks surrounding it. Perfect for an agile Fell. How happy he was grazing the top of the banks whilst the perceived hierarchy of the equine world were working. Yes, there were lots of comments from x-country competitors who said the “black pony standing on the banks had put them off “ but Freddie didn’t care. He was supremely happy.

Freddie was a “trusty”, never phased by anything, and everyone wanted to ride out with us because of his calming effect on even the youngest, skittish horse. He could be safely turned out with geldings or mares and he had an in-built SatNav. Never need take a map or compass on a hack – Freddie had an amazing sense of direction, and even when riding through the thickest unchartered woodland he instinctively knew the best (and quickest!) route home. Freddie’s prime objective when riding somewhere new was to surreptitiously spot choice grass which his brain registered ready for the next time he passed that way. I had to be particularly vigilant when riding past Yehudi Menuhin’s music school, as Freddie would try every trick in his extensive book to veer into the driveway – and it was not because he loved music.

Freddie’s first few months at Pachesham drove everyone to distraction, in that when it was time to come in he performed an amazing disappearing act. So much time was wasted by so many people. Eventually, when all the other horses had been safely stabled, the field gates would be left open, and when Freddie decided it was time to come in he would miraculously appear and let himself into his own stable. He never changed. When we moved to Oxfordshire I spent many an unproductive hour searching for him. He seemed to know if I was searching because I wanted to ride out, in which case he became Mr Invisible, but he never failed to appear at tea time! One morning I had decided to ride out before letting him out into the field. I tied him up outside the tack room whilst I collected his saddle. I’d just lifted it from the rack as the door closed. Before I could reach it I heard the outside bolt slide across – trapping me inside. Although I knew there was no-one to hear (unless “Postie” called 2 hours earlier than usual) I shouted – and shouted – and shouted. I banged the feed bin. To no avail. Although Freddie was standing just outside the door, despite the commotion he didn’t even shuffle. I decided I would have to break out, and used an improvised crowbar to smash a hole in the wooden door so that I could put my hand through and slide the bolt back from inside. And Freddie? Still tied up, happily standing quietly, obviously delighted to have delayed the trip out, no doubt knowing time wasted on my great tack room escape meant the jaunt would not be as long as originally planned.

My interest in Freddie’s past grew and I remembered the piece of paper which had been given to me by the Somerset riding centre owner. I telephoned in the hope of finding out more of Freddie’s background – and wasn’t disappointed. It transpired the number belonged to the Humber family of Withycombe, who had bought Freddie as a 4 year old from Mr Vaughan (of Lunesdale Rupert fame). Mrs Humber was overjoyed at our contact, as it transpired Freddie had been loaned to the riding centre when he was 15 and her son was no longer around to ride him. This was conditional on him being returned to her care when his days at the riding centre ended. She had visited him regularly and had been horrified when she discovered he had been sold! This was pre-Passports, and we can only hope a similar situation would not arise today. Amongst the papers Mrs Humber gave us was a letter from the BHS West Somerset District Committee dated July 1979 thanking her for permitting Abbey Highwayman to join the Dunster parade, describing him as “an excellent example of an unusual breed”, together with a receipt indicating he had won £3 for the “Best Fell”.

The papers Mrs Humber provided enabled me to contact Mr Vaughan, who had purchased Freddie as a foal from his breeders, Mr and Mrs Dobie of Eyemouth, Berwickshire. A letter from Helen Dobie to Mrs Humber, acknowledged Freddie’s purchase from Mr Vaughan and stated they had a number of foals and older ponies for sale. Helen Dobie wrote,” although they are highly versatile, they all have a mind of their own and might not do anything”! The letter also stated Highwayman’s sister was “for sale cheap, as she is too big to breed pure”. (We think this might be Abbey Buttercup, who was with the White family when she died aged 34 circa. 5 years ago). In 2009 Mrs Humber came to visit us in Oxfordshire and I am sure Freddie remembered her. He normally ignored anyone outside our immediate family, but as soon as Jean Humber walked through the gate Freddie looked up, whinnied and trotted over to greet her.

Freddie was a real Jekyll and Hyde character, with very definite ideas about his own welfare. Our Vet used to say he was the only equine he knew who could rear on one leg whilst kicking out with both fronts. In fact an ideal circus pony. When we moved from Surrey to Oxfordshire we acquired our own land, and at 27 years old Freddie became Master of all he surveyed. When my daughter went to University her horse went with her and Townend Sandra II (alias Topsy) came as companion to Freddie. Sadly Topsy had to be put to sleep in 2007 aged 26 and Blue Cross Cupid (Welsh Mountain Section A) was given the task of Freddie befriender.

When Freddie died in May this year following a stroke he was just into his 41st year, although he had not lost condition. His teeth had long since worn away, and whilst he had just “quidded” grass and hay for several years, he thoroughly enjoyed his 6 bucket feeds a day. Everyone says what a wonderfully pampered life he had, and that 40 is a fantastic age, but it hasn’t made his death any easier to bear. There is not a day go by when I don’t think about him. He was loving and kind – when it suited him - but at feed time or when saddling, he thought nothing of taking great chunks out of anyone unwise enough to be standing close. He could open doors and gates, and on more than one occasion was caught limboing under the post and rail fencing. He ruled our lives for 18 years. We didn’t have holidays or even weekends away. We loved him so much and couldn’t bear to leave him in anyone else’s care. He was the special one. We had some amazing adventures together. Now he has gone there will be no more adventures, but the memories will remain forever. No-one will ever be able to take those away. God Bless and thank you Freddie

Sadie Densham. .

Was Abbey Highwayman (alias Freddie) the last of the Abbey ponies, or are there others still alive?