As far as Sir Guy Masterleigh and his friends are concerned, the skittish horseplay that members of The Other Pony Club get up to on their summer holidays is 'no different from rugby or synchronised swimming'. The rest of us may beg to differ
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The Independent Culture
EVERY SO OFTEN, members of The Other Pony Club meet for a week's holiday. There are no ponies, though: the members pretend to be ponies, riders and grooms. That's their thrill.

The club is run by a gentleman who calls himself Sir Guy Masterleigh, from the garage of the mock-Tudor semi-detached house in the Hereford suburbs where he lives with his wife, Miss Prim. (Miss Prim is proprietor of the Muir Reform Academy for "naughty adult" girls and boys. That's their thrill.)

This year, The Other Pony Club's summer holiday took place in a remote holiday-hire farmhouse in the Pembrokeshire hills. Sir Guy, a bearded man with greasy brown hair and a wandering eye, greeted the photographer and me at the farmhouse door and led us into the kitchen, where he introduced us to Isobel, Trixie, Zac and Brent.

Our attention was inevitably drawn to Isobel and Trixie. Isobel, a whippet- thin person of about 50 with long, wispy, salt-and-pepper hair, nodded graciously but haughtily. She wore a blue tracksuit; her face was thickly made-up, the eyebrows drawn in, her thin lips a matt orange with a dark rim around them. Trixie, 6ft 2in, wearing a black catsuit and a dog's collar, grinned. Aged around 40, Trixie is distinctly manly, but the catsuit neither harboured the usual male bulges nor proffered female curves. She made it clear that she considers herself a woman and always dresses as one. Isobel, though clearly a man, wore a bra. But when asked bluntly whether she was transsexual or transvestite, she retorted, "I haven't a clue."

Sir Guy slipped in among his guests like a lizard on to its rock and introduced the other two. Brent, a rugged middle-aged Australian, and Zac, a strapping girl whose face has spread a little around the jaw. She blinked behind figure-of-eight red glasses.

"We've had a marvellous week, marvellous," said Isobel in her Ealing Studios, mock-posh voice. Her manner, somewhere between a Carry On film and Upstairs Downstairs, radiated dignity, disdain and humour.

"Such a shame Lordship has gone - a magnificent beast, superb condition," she went on, narrowing her eyes and inhaling deeply on her cigarette. "Wonderful breeding stock, I should imagine - at least 18 hands."

I asked Trixie how many hands she was. "This week Trixie is a pony," Isobel replied icily, "and ponies are not noted for giving interviews to journalists."

Sir Guy cleared his throat. "The Other Pony Club," he began in a quiet, insistent voice, "That's us. We have 500 members worldwide, about 90 in this country." Those members pay pounds 60 a day for clandestine horseplay. "The secrecy is foisted upon us, although what we do is no different from rugby or synchronised swimming."

As he spoke, I flicked through Pony Training Illustrated, one of his desk-top-publishing productions. (There are others: The Rod Closet, a mail order directory of canes and birches, and Part One of The Rose Bottom Trilogy.) In the pony training book, Sir Guy takes "Sweet Lass" through her paces. The first hazy photo reveals a large girl in a T-shirt and trousers; by the end she is barefoot and naked bar the head gear, the bit, straps around her neck so that she can't look round, and a wide bondage belt. Ponies must learn that once in "role" they mustn't talk, move freely or adjust their harness. "They get whipped, generally not very hard, if they break the rules," Sir Guy explains. If anyone gets frisky with them apart from their masters, they should "lash out with their feet, rear up, neigh, whinny and make a fuss in body-language."

"We did have two mares get in touch who wanted to be covered," Sir Guy said. Covered? "The equestrian term for sexual intercourse," he said, his patience wearing thin. "They would have been quite happy for me to cover them," he continued, unable to suppress a smile. And was he their stallion? Isn't sex what it's all about? Some shook their heads, some nodded uncertainly. Sir Guy said testily: "I'm married and faithful. We never use the word stallion because our horses do not go out to stud."

Leaving the others to their coffee, Sir Guy took us around the house. In his room on the bed was a full Scottish outfit. In all the others there were vanity cases, cocktail frocks and high-heeled shoes. Later, Isobel explained that they changed in the evenings: "Country house dinner wear - Home Counties with the aged Ps."

Most of his clients are professionals, like himself. "I was a defence systems engineer, but the Cold War changed everything. I was made redundant." He had to earn a living and had always been interested in '"The Scene" - sado-masochism and "sub/dom" - and identified a gap in the market. These days, PO Box 135, Hereford HR2, is bunged up with responses to his Pony Express newsletter.

Sir Guy is sure he would know if anyone dangerous tried to join. "I'd pick up on their motivations. You can't do these things as a helter-skelter free-for-all; you have a responsibility to look after your members - you've got to deliver on their trust. There are strict rules and boundaries." He ushered us out as the sun set over the mountains. We were not invited to dinner.

The next morning, as directed, we went to the barn for the dressage show. Sir Guy, now the "team manager", pointed us to a bench with a piece of paper on it on which someone had written "Press". He was wearing a dark blue naval jacket, a ruffled silk shirt, a paisley patterned cravat, jodhpurs torn around the knees and black boots against which he tapped a riding crop. The barn was lit by a 40-watt light bulb behind a battered shade; the windows were covered in cobwebs. On the floor were four inner tubes from old fax rolls at intervals of several feet, substituting for dressage markers.

Isobel appeared in perfect equestrian attire: hard hat, hairnet, waistcoat, black boots, trim jacket. Awaiting the pony, she talked us earnestly through the forthcoming event: "It is essential the pony be kept calm. We're doing it today in gathered Praetorian style. It's extremely severe but suits the human form of horse. Trixie will be totally in role, as I am, because we believe in it. Trixie is an excellent horse - a real horse."

Isobel fell silent when Trixie appeared, led in by the grooms - Brent, dressed in a brown overall and cowboy boots, and Zac, in morning coat. Trixie's large brown eyes rolled the way a nervous horse's eyes do. She was dressed in a white leotard, white tights, and white trainers. Around her waist was a wide bondage belt. Her head was encased in straps, her neck held rigid by a wide pink leather collar, in her mouth a bit. On the collar was a "My Little Pony" badge.

Isobel sashayed towards Trixie and murmured, "Good girl, good girl." They attached her to the sulky, and Isobel lowered herself into the seat. "Walk on," she said with authority and Trixie raised her feet in a stately march. Trixie looped round the fax rolls, obeying the pull on the bit, trotting a little, backing this way and that. Then she drew to a halt and curtsied. Zac stepped forward and said, "I think Trixie deserves a rosette," to murmurs of assent that sounded almost like prayers. Zac stuck the rosette, one of those red raffia frou-frous you put on presents, on to the bridle. The bar code was still showing. There was polite applause. Trixie neighed loudly.

Isobel slipped from the sulky, saying haughtily to the grooms, "Harness down please," and stalked away. Trixie was taken to the stables. The show was over.

When the excitement had died down, they gathered again around the kitchen table. Why do they like doing this? "It's a game," Isobel said, blowing smoke rings. "Do you ask cricketers why they like cricket? That's sexual, grown men playing with a bat and ball, simulation of sex. The wicket is the vagina, the bat defends the wicket against all comers."

"Didn't you play horses in the playground?" asked Zac.

"It's been going on for thousands of years," said Isobel. "I believe Genghis Khan kept people as beasts. Didn't we meet a woman who wanted to be a cow?"

"Yes, she wanted to be milked," said Sir Guy, smirking. "And we had a volunteer who wanted to be a vixen. It's my dream to have a hunt."

"What would the vixen wear?"

"A tail between her legs," he said, savouring the idea.

"Quite a few want to be performing bears on chains," boomed Trixie.

"I heard a sweet story," said Sir Guy, "about a girl who wanted to be a bird, so her man had a gilded cage made for her." This raised an "Ah".

"And cats - look at the musical," said Isobel.

"Big cats - pumas and leopards - feature in French adult comics," said Sir Guy.

"The best erotica," Isobel replied, adding: "And what about bunny girls?" "Bunny girls!" they chorused, laughing, as though the existence of bunny girls made their predilections ordinary and socially acceptable.

"Some people get us wrong, you know," explained Sir Guy. "One man wanted us to geld him. We suggested he saw his GP."

"Some people want to be dolphins," said Trixie excitedly, removing her bit. "They have separate hemispheres for their brain, one half sleeps, the other half is awake - it's incredible, like being two lovers in the same creature."

What about her love life? Did she have a steady boyfriend? "No, I'm too old," she said. She said she had always wanted to be a girl and had suffered bullying throughout her childhood and adolescence. She opened up, wanted to talk: she is broke, lives in B&Bs, moves on constantly. She suffers; strangers can be unkind. She was in full flow when Sir Guy pointedly told her that she wasn't obliged to answer my questions. As though obeying an order, she returned to her original theme: "Dolphins are the only animals besides humans who have sex for social reasons," she said, and slipped out of the room.

I asked Isobel about her life outside The Other Pony Club and she cast me a pitying glance. "I always say be honest with the Press if you're going to talk to them at all." So where did she live? She raised an eyebrow. What did she do for a living? She raised the other one. Did she live alone? She looked away. "I live in a village in the West Country. I write." What did she write? "Fiction - and other things." The subject was closed. Did she have a boyfriend? "I'm not interested in sex," she said, gazing into the distance. Did she cross-dress? Again the pitying glance. "I wear country casuals - Windsmoor, that kind of thing." And make-up? "Oh yes, yes," she murmured. And the neighbours? "Nobody looks at a woman over 50, my dear."

Trixie returned carrying a collection of My Little Ponies and spread them lovingly on the kitchen table. As though indulging a child, Isobel suggested that she fetch her tutu. Trixie thumped speedily up the stairs, reappearing a few moments later in a pink tutu, pirouetting daintily on her big feet.

It was time for an impromptu gymkhana. The grooms led her to the paddock. Trixie rushed and dashed around before being attached to the sulky. Brent and Zac leaned on a wall watching lazily. Brent said evasively that he used to be something in the air force. It was his first foray into "The Scene". He had tried being a pony, "Down to the jock-strap," he chortled. Was it sexy? "No, not at all." Trixie rushed past, a pink streak. "What I'd like," Brent said, "is to find a filly to train, to do display and dressage with."

Zac, as evasive as Brent, said that she was something in computers and lived in south London. The usual interrogation techniques failed until I asked about S & M. She's in that scene, she picks up men at clubs and takes them home, ties them up, that kind of thing. She likes a varied life, she said.

Suddenly a car appeared, and Trixie bolted into the kitchen followed by the others. Trixie and Zac cowered by the Aga, Isobel flattened herself against a wall, Brent stood like a rabbit caught in headlamps. They didn't relax until Sir Guy came in with Cindy, a glamorous woman in high black boots. He knew of her, she was OK. They all returned to the paddock.

Cindy was a writer of erotica, there for research. Lordship, she said, was a friend of hers. She said sotto voce, "They tied him up in the stable, naked but for the bridle. He panicked, got cold hooves and did a runner." She giggled.

But the mood was broken, and soon after Cindy's arrival Trixie came to a standstill and whinnied. The grooms gave her sugar lumps and Isobel lit a fag and glanced around at the hills. "It's been a marvellous week - marvellous," she said, with a shudder of delight. !