What's more, I was the only one without a Barbour jacket

Tony Kelly learns to how to handle a 17-hand, one ton shire horse

We swept through a Capability Brown landscape towards an 18th- century mansion. I tugged on the reins and the wagon stopped in front of the elegant stone steps. People stared out of upstairs windows and I half expected a butler to appear, to take our coats and offer us champagne cocktails.

This was the climax to a two-day heavy horse-handling course at Wimpole Home Farm, a National Trust rare breeds centre attached to Wimpole Hall near Cambridge. Our teachers were horseman David Brady - and Prince, a gentle giant of a six-year-old grey shire, 17 hands high and weighing almost a ton.

John was there as a birthday present from his wife; he had dreams of running cart rides in his home town of Saffron Walden. Peter was on a break from his work with horses as a volunteer at Bradford Industrial Museum; Gillian was reviewing the course for a magazine.

I was the only one without a Barbour jacket. More to the point, I was the only one who knew nothing about horses. But David put me at my ease. "These courses aren't for experts," he said. "Just people who want to have a bit of fun."

We began by "tacking up" - getting the horse ready. David showed us how to lift the heavy brass-studded collar high over Prince's head. Then there was the plough harness, over his back and tail; the girth across his belly; the bridle and bit, the shackles, the reins... each of us had to go through the performance in turn, while David coached and chuckled and Prince stood patiently being dressed and undressed with only an occasional Polo mint for reward.

Out in the meadow, we learnt East Anglian commands: "Weesh" means go right, "Cuplee" means left. Not forgetting the all-important "Whoa!" We walked Prince around the field on a long rein as David arranged a set of traffic cones into a series of obstacle courses - a straight drive, an S-bend, a slalom. Prince listened and obeyed so well that I barely even had to steer.

The farm was a confusion of autumn smells and noises - manure, wet grass, threshing machines, cattle, goats, pigs, schoolchildren on trips. The children stared over a gate as we drove Prince around the field, at first on foot and then on a sledge, sitting atop a bale of hay. "Watch how this man does it," I heard one teacher say as I negotiated a sharp turn. Please don't, I was thinking.

"When horses were used on farms, the ploughman would walk for 11 miles to plough a single acre of land," David told us. He grew up on a farm with heavy horses; but by the 1960s shires were almost extinct, with just three registered foals in Britain. "It was the oil crisis which saved them," said David, who invested in horses in the 1970s as insurance against the day when tractors would be no more. Twenty years later, we still have oil but shires are back at work in breweries and heritage centres across the country.

Walking the horse was fun, but what everyone wants is to get on the wagon. "My father was a carter," David told us as I drove up the gravel drive to the Hall. "He used to come to houses like this, bringing people to New Year balls; he had to wait outside in the wind and rain till 1 or 2am." I didn't make David wait at all. I handed over the reins and Prince clattered back to the stables for a well-earned rest.

Wimpole Home Farm, Arrington, Royston, Herts SG8 OBW (01223 208987). There is a course on 11-12 Nov, then more courses in

Spring 1996. The cost is pounds 80 and does not include accommodation or meals.

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