Tales Of The Country: Watch out for the rein of terror

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The Independent Online

Apparently, while we were on holiday last week, a story surfaced about Shetland ponies. The story, as I understand it, was that Shetland ponies are being trained to guide blind people. They are said, in fact, to be more intelligent than dogs and blessed with better memories, and therefore more suitable as companions to the blind.

All of which provokes the irresistible thought that a Shetland pony might one day enter parliament - not, like Caligula's beloved stallion, as a representative of the people, but as the eyes of David Blunkett, the Home Secretary. "Who's that with the twitching nostrils, the barrel chest, the severe fringe and the bad teeth?" observers in the public gallery will ask. "No, not Ann Widdecombe. On the other side."

Forgive my flights of fancy. It's just that from where I'm sitting - which is almost in the casualty department of Hereford Hospital on account of having just tried to clean the hooves of the grumpy quadruped resident in our orchard - Shetland ponies are singularly ill-equipped to do anything for the blind except, perhaps, bite them.

Indeed, as we approach the first anniversary of our move to the country, the most vivid image I have, summing up the pleasures and pitfalls of our new life, is of my son Joseph taking our Shetland pony Zoë for a walk. It was a showery spring afternoon but the sun was out and a dazzling rainbow framed the distant Brecon Beacons. Seven-year-old Joseph trotting around the garden, Zoë at his side, completed a spectacle to warm the heart.

But then Zoë quickened her pace and pulled him clean off his feet. We had told Joseph that he was on no account to let go of her lead rein and he took us at our word, bless him. Clinging on for dear life, he was dragged on his tummy across a wet lawn, looking for all the world like Lee Van Cleef being humiliated in a Spaghetti Western.

When, half a minute later, Zoë stopped to munch the herbaceous border, Joseph got up, wailing. He had a muddy stripe from forehead to crotch and, I'm ashamed to say, that once they had established that he was uninjured, the watching adults, a group which included his mother and his father, could not contain their mirth. And here's the spooky bit; nor could Zoë. She was quite clearly laughing. There is a streak of devilry in her that, even after intensive training, would make her a dangerous liability as a guide pony for the blind.

Or maybe she's just punishing us for telling everyone that she's due to give birth. After all, there are few social gaffes greater than merrily asking a woman with a rounded belly when she's expecting her baby, if it then turns out that she isn't even slightly pregnant. Maybe it's the same with ponies. We bought Zoë on the understanding that she was in foal, so would produce her own companion, and when the vet gave her a once-over, he saw no reason to question it. But she doesn't seem to be getting any bigger. We have consulted some of the greatest minds in equine science, or at any rate our neighbour Annie, but still we're not sure. So the vet is coming back to carry out a proper pregnancy test. And I'm quite hoping he draws a blank. One Shetland pony is more than enough to handle.

Even on holiday, the writing is on the wall

We holidayed in Sardinia, just outside a small town called Pula, in the south of the island. We have friends who, every May half-term, stay at and never venture from the chi-chi Forte Village nearby (the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger was there this year, they report) but I prefer foreign holidays to involve at least some exploration of local culture; buying food at the early-morning markets, attempting the language, seeing a few historic sights, all that caper.

Anyway, we didn't exactly go native but we did spend several pleasant evenings hanging out in the town square at Pula, and I was struck, as I invariably am in small Italian and Spanish market towns, by how contented the local teenagers seemed, drinking coffee, eating gelati and unobtrusively, inoffensively, having fun. How very different, I mused Meldrewishly, from small market towns in England, where teenage fun supposedly has an inextricable relationship with alcohol, or drugs, or vandalism.

That said, my friend Chris and I ventured into Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, one morning. I had read that it was bombed heavily by the Allies during the Second World War but I was eager to see its medieval heart, still largely intact. From the impressive Santa Maria cathedral we walked along to the Bastione San Remy, a vast esplanade with spectacular views, and were horrified to find it completely covered in graffiti - the walls, the ground, the steps, the lot. It was like seeing the whole of Trafalgar Square utterly defaced.

Suddenly I realised why the Italians were the first to find a word for graffiti. And in the small English market town of Leominster yesterday I didn't see any, as hard as I looked. So the Italian grass is not always piu verde ...

Itÿs plane awful

An RAF jet has just flown over our house so low that I could count the bristles on the pilot's chin, or would have been able to had he not been travelling faster than the speed of sound. This happens once or twice a day. I'm hugely relieved that the war in Iraq is over, but life in north Herefordshire was a sight quieter while it was going on.