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June is a particularly busy month if you are a horse or a monarch.

This year 4th June was the sixtieth anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation.  Happy anniversary, Mrs. Windsor.  And then; happy birthday, Mrs. Windsor!

In Britain the reigning monarch has an ‘official birthday’ – rather like a horse, and for oddly similar reasons.   As head of the Commonwealth, the monarch’s birthday is excuse for a good knees up in various nations across the world, and the best possibility of a nice day  for a party in Britain would place the occasion in summer, hence June.  The Queen’s real birthday is April 21st, by the way.

Horses also have ‘official birthdays’.  Horses’ birthdays are adjusted (January 1st for UK, August 1st for Australia) so a new batch of foals will be old enough, broken and ready for racing when the season begins.  Why am I so intent on making this connection?  Well, one good reason would be the Queen’s well-advertised interest in thoroughbred horses, but my personal excuse is much more to do with ‘Royal Occasions’, in which nearly all the splendid men in funny costumes are supported by shiny-flanked horses.  There are hundreds!  

Now I am not one of the world’s great equestrians.  Only once did I come together with a horse in a riding sort of way and I fell off.  The relationship ended there.   However, that doesn’t mean we didn’t remain friends; so I have always worried.   Horses are expensive to maintain, and like so many of us in later life can become hostage to fortune.   I worry about the horse that has outlived its useful years, the older animal about to embark upon retirement:  what happens to all those cavalry giants when their time comes to go out to grass?

ImageAppleby Horse Fair begins on 6th June.  This week, 40,000 people will descend upon the narrow roads of a little country town with a residential population of only a few thousand.   And for many the journey will be made from afar in a traditional gypsy wagon.  Appleby is the gypsy Mecca, renowned throughout the Romany world certainly, and a pretty formative experience for anybody else who tries to pass through the town in the course of the next ten days.

Apart from fights and dubious car sales, the business of the fair is trading horses which, before they are ‘demonstrated’ at the gallop on a course known as the ‘Mad Mile’ are washed to glory in the local river by their riders.  These are for the most part gypsy cobs – horses better suited to pulling those wagons – and the element of spectacle is introduced by the bare-back rides, which can be quite dramatic.

When the fair is over those horses will return to their gypsy life, meaning anything from grazing on a tether beside some busy road to pulling the carts and traps their owners use for either business or travel.  Alas some, the old and the work-weary, will enjoy a less certain future.  I am not saying that all gypsy horses are treated badly – there is an old phrase that goes something like ‘gypsy gold gleams by day and neighs by night’ – and certainly many will enjoy active retirement. Some, though, will be neglected, some will simply be turned loose to fend for themselves, and some will be sold for meat.

On royal occasions or at horse fairs, the RSPCA are always in evidence, always watching.  But the chances are they will be far more engaged at the latter than the former.  Cruelty has always been an issue where the treatment of horses is concerned.   Once the occasion is over and those spectacular creatures which make it so special are scattered once more to their respective homes, it is far more difficult to be vigilant.

I have few fears for the cavalry giants:  well-heeled patrons buy them at their working life’s end and charities step in when public generosity fails.   Sadly, it is less likely the gypsy cob’s life will come to a natural conclusion, be there ever so many kind hearts out there ready to help if they can.  The numbers are simply too great, the documentation – or traceability if you prefer – too scant, if it exists at all.

Spare a thought, please, for these poorer cousins, for in Britain the class divide doesn’t stop at people.  Or if this doesn’t move you, forgive my tenuous link to a past post when I offer you instead:

frozen Lasagne, anyone?