No horsing around

It used to be believed that someone who had a gift with horses possessed what was known as the ‘Horseman’s Word’. Picture by Alastair Smith
The badly-spelled letter I wrote to my parents when I was eight asking to buy me a black stallion
Me, aged about 11, kitted out in my riding gear

As a little girl, I was mad about horses and when I was eight, I wrote a letter to my parents begging them to get me what I considered the perfect mount for a small child, a black stallion.

I also entered the annual ‘Win A Pony’ competition run by WH Smith in the hope that I’d beat the gazillion other children with the same dream, not stopping to consider whether my parents could afford to look after one, nor with any notion of where we’d put it. When I started to write this, I assumed that such competitions would be prohibited now, but it appears not. Nowadays, those offering winners a real pony have a duty to carry out ‘due diligence’ on entrants, which just wasn’t considered back in the 1970s. Thankfully, competition hopefuls now have to have parental consent and must prove they have the skills, finances and knowledge to take on the substantial commitment of owning a pony.

To my parents’ eternal gratitude, I never won the competition, but the disappointment was softened when they instead agreed to pay for me to have weekly riding lessons at a local stables. That kept me happy until about the age of 15 when, after a particularly miserable wet and cold day in the saddle, I’d had enough and gave up.

I was a distinctly average rider, and can’t say I had any special connection with any of the horses I ever rode. But there are those who have what you might call a ‘gift’ when it comes to communicating with these very intelligent and noble creatures. As my dad mentions in his column from 30th May 1981, people like this were believed to possess a charm known as the ‘Horseman’s Word’.

Those living and working in the equine field used to put great faith in this secret ‘word’, and believed that there were only a select few who knew what it was. When it was whispered into a horse’s ear, it had the effect of instantly calming even the most flighty of steeds.

In 1858, American horse trainer John Rarey brought a new style of training over to England. Rarey had a reputation for being able to rehabilitate vicious or abused horses, and perpetuated the idea of ‘natural horsemanship’ which went against the traditional approach of ‘if the stick doesn’t work, get a bigger stick’. Instead of trying to control a horse through fear, Rarey addressed things from the point of view of the horse, saying that if it kicked, bit or bucked you off, it would be because you had done something wrong, not the horse.

It was a revolutionary concept inspired by Spanish settlers known as the Vaquero who landed in America in the 16th century and brought with them a technique whereby riders worked with the horse’s nature, gaining its trust so that it felt safe and secure around humans. They understood that if you did that, then you were far more likely to get the horse to behave in the way you wanted it to without the need for physical intimidation.

The English assumed that Rarey had the gift of the ‘Horseman’s Word’, although it was never a term he used himself. He was summoned by Queen Victoria to visit a supposedly untameable mare. The queen watched in awe as Rarey placed his hands on the wild beast, which then placidly lay down, and Rarey lay next to it, resting his head on its hooves.

Today we would call someone like him a ‘horse whisperer’, thanks to the term being popularised by Nicholas Evans’ best-selling book of that name which was made into a successful film in 1998 starring Robert Redford. Although the main character is fictional, he is based upon an amalgamation of several people who were famous for training horses in this way, brothers Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman, the latter being the lead equine consultant on the film and a stunt double for Redford.

Brannaman took the approach one step further than his predecessors. He grew up being emotionally and physically abused by his father, and recognised that mistreated horses behave in similar ways to abused children. “They trust no-one and expect the worst. But patience, leadership, compassion and firmness can help them overcome their pasts,” he said.

Surely, right there is a lesson for us all.

Contact me, and read more, at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 4th and the Gazette & Herald on 2nd June 2021

Fear of the fatal fungi

Chef Tommy Banks in the garden of the Black Swan, Oldstead
The White Horse at Kilburn
The aptly-named Death Cap mushroom

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 9th March 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 7th March 2018.

I’ll never forget the moment when local boy Tommy Banks, enthusiastic forager and head chef at the Michelin-starred Black Swan, Oldstead, produced his incredibly personal tribute to his late grandfather on the TV show Great British Menu in 2016. He had created his dish, a dessert called ‘My Great Briton’, with precision, tenderness and obviously deep love for his grandfather, who for many years was custodian of nearby landmark, the White Horse of Kilburn. Tommy flavoured a parfait with oil extracted from the Douglas fir trees that grow on the hills around the White Horse. When the dish was served to a soundtrack of his grandfather’s voice, it had us all, and Tommy too, in tears. His appearance on that show catapulted him and his family-run restaurant into the stratosphere and Oldstead became a must-go destination for the serious foodie.

The thing about foraging, though, is that you really do have to know your stuff. In his column from March 11th 1978, Dad talks about the dangers of confusing your fungi, and how calamitous it could be to get it wrong. His topic came about as a result of a colleague asking him if Death Cap mushrooms grew in North Yorkshire. Dad had never seen one, but he knew it grew in moist shady areas covered by deciduous trees such as oaks, chestnuts and beeches, and so deduced it was entirely possible.

The Death Cap is incredibly toxic and accounts for more than 90% of deaths from fungus poisonings. One of the reasons people make mistakes is because they look similar to perfectly edible varieties, and are rather tasty when cooked. In 2014, there was a surge in poisonings in California after a spell of heavy rain and mild temperatures caused the mushrooms to flourish. Fourteen cases were reported over a few weeks, with three of those afflicted needing liver transplants. In 2008, a woman from the Isle of Wight died after mistakenly picking and cooking a Death Cap, and in 2013 another from Bridgewater suffered organ failure after putting one from her own garden into her soup. That year, there were 237 reported cases of fungus poisonings in the UK.

In 2016, warnings were issued across the country after the wet and mild autumn had led to significant proliferations of the deadly mushroom, and as last autumn was similar, I’m assuming those warnings are still valid.

But the Death Cap isn’t the only toxic mushroom that grows here, and many have appropriately lethal names, such as Destroying Angel, Funeral Bell, Fool’s Funnel and Panther Cap. But if I came across one on a country ramble, I wouldn’t know my Meadow Wax Cap (edible) from my Deadly Web Cap (poisonous).

In a 2014 statement issued by Public Heath England, Dr John Thompson, director of the National Poisons Information Service (Cardiff Unit), said: “When it comes to wild mushrooms, people really need to be aware of the very real potential dangers involved…While mushrooms growing in the wild are tasty and safe to eat, it is not always easy to differentiate between toxic and non-toxic species, even for people with experience in foraging.”

This was certainly the case for Nicholas Evans, bestselling author of The Horse Whisperer, whose story resembles a plot straight out of one of his own novels. The writer almost killed himself, his wife, his sister and his brother-in-law in 2008 after cooking what he thought were innocent ceps. Evans, a seasoned countryman, was usually extremely careful in checking what he had picked against a trusted book of mushrooms. But this time, he didn’t, and cooked several Deadly Web Caps for dinner with butter and parsley. The next day, they started to feel ill with nausea and stomach cramps, and within hours, all four were in intensive care. Thankfully, they survived, but were sick for months afterwards, and the consequences were life long. For three of them, their kidneys were destroyed, and they ended up having to have dialysis for several hours, several days each week, and eventually, all underwent kidney transplants, with Evans receiving his from his own daughter in 2011.

Despite these fungal nightmares, one of my favourite things to eat will forever be mushrooms on toast, and I have heard that the flavour of foraged mushrooms is in another league to the mass-produced varieties on our supermarket shelves. But I’m going to take some convincing before I dare to venture into the wild to pick my own. (Source: