Express & Star

Dan Morris: There ain't no rocking-horse that ran the Kentucky Derby

"A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Shakespeare's King Richard III certainly had an appreciation for our equine cousins, as I'm sure did the real monarch when in need of a steed at Bosworth Field.

It was the start of my inglorious career as a horseman...

Though far from being of royal blood (however, if Danny Dyer can be descended from Edward III, then who knows), I too have always had a fondness for our four-legged, fetlocked friends, and my love of horses goes back to a rather special stallion I knew in my youth.

When I was four years old, my mother and father introduced me to my very first equine companion - a magnificent beast of such perfectly calm temperament, he was even permitted to sleep in my room. Then of course, his own fetlocks were hewn from mahogany, and his hooves tended by carpenters rather than farriers.

The clue was very much in his name. My faithful Rocky, was, of course, a rocking-horse.

Supposedly my parents - or my mother, at least - had fallen entirely in love with the sublimely carved specimen at first sight. With stunning glass eyes and the main and tail hair of a true stallion, Rocky was a majestic beauty - lovingly crafted by a toymaker I forget from where.

He was exceptionally tall, and to this starry-eyed four-year-old was as enchanting as any real horse could possibly have been. Beautifully fashioned on exquisitely engineered swinging arms, Rocky was built to give any lucky little jockey the most gentle and happy ride they could wish for, and I remember enjoying many of them. Yet, as my father has often reminded me, as a fine little stable hand, I was much more concerned with tending to Rocky than gracing his back.

Rocky had a favourite lunch - or at least I had deemed it so - and therefore my bedroom floor was often replete with a mountainous pile of digestive biscuit crumbs, from where I had unceremoniously crushed one of the McVitie's delicacies against my noble steed's teeth. In displays of delicacy far-removed from the typical image of a rambunctious pre-schooler, I was also known to brush his hair - though maintaining my manly standing by paying absolutely no thought to my own.

My love for Rocky surpassed most childhood infatuations I can recall, and was as such that years later, when I finally came to ride a real horse, I was full of a rich wealth of context-dependent joy that erupted from me afresh the moment I climbed atop the glorious animal. This horse, however, was not quite as accommodating as my placid and expertly engineered Rocky had been, and while initially patient with my 12-year-old fidgeting, decided after half an hour that enough was indeed enough.

A quiet trot through the Malvern Hills accelerated without warning into a full-blown gallop, and I was caught by such surprise that most of me promptly fell from my steed. 'Most of me' being the key element of the tale, for, of course, one of my arms had become tangled in the reins. Consequently, as my nag bolted, she did so with the unwieldy cargo of a flailing pre-teen hanging from her side, and eager to be rid of this, she did what came naturally to her and upped her speed even more. The situation had begun with me feeling nothing but alarm and terror, yet - and bizarrely - this quickly mutated into excitement and delight. With the wind rushing against my cheek (albeit with the other cheek forced firmly against my horse's side) I was flying across the ground at the whim of the most incredible creature I had ever been near. Said flight seemed to last forever, but was naturally over in less than a minute as the far more experienced riders around me came to our aid.

For the benefit of my noble mount (and the nerves of those around me), I decided that making the return journey on foot was a good idea, but I was thrilled that my inglourious career as a true horseman had finally begun. The incident did nothing to temper my enthusiasm, and the majority of further rides through my youth and early adulthood passed without drama. Until Warwick, of course, and a rather fateful joust. Though that, dearest readers, is certainly a tale for another time.

The first of two morals of the story here is that we should salute those who teach us - in this case, my magnificent Malvern steed. Patient enough to give me an encouraging chance and fiery enough when I needed a push, this beast was a great instructor on that day, and my finest teachers since have followed the same form.

The other moral of the 'tail', however, is much more simple - in facing the real world, try to be actually prepared. They may be sweet, but there ain't no rocking-horse that ever ran the Kentucky Derby...

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