Never look a gift horse in the rear end

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The Independent Online

I entered my 50th year, flanked by my children, staring at a horse's bottom. It had seemed a good idea at the time, as rotten ideas always do. How to celebrate reaching 50? "Hire a gypsy caravan, go off with my kids, fantastic." Would that some kindly soul had taken me outside and shot me then. This is proof positive that the brain becomes more addled as you age.

I entered my 50th year, flanked by my children, staring at a horse's bottom. It had seemed a good idea at the time, as rotten ideas always do. How to celebrate reaching 50? "Hire a gypsy caravan, go off with my kids, fantastic." Would that some kindly soul had taken me outside and shot me then. This is proof positive that the brain becomes more addled as you age.

I'd forgotten that horses are big. I'd forgotten that horses come fully armed with hooves and teeth and a bottom. And a horse's bottom is a fierce and terrible thing. Even more so when it hangs in front of you, less than a foot from your face. I had expected it to empty itself, occasionally. I hadn't expected the tail-swishing afterwards, nor the huge lumps of horse-dung that the tail swished straight at me.

"What will you do if it bolts?" was the common response. Stupid question. A better one would have been, "What will you do if it stands stock-still and refuses to move?" Which, of course, it did. About 10 minutes into the journey.

Let me tell you something about horses. When you want to make a horse move, the following do not work: shouting, pulling, pleading, praying, bursting into tears. Bursting into tears does not sway a horse in the slightest. All that bursting into tears accomplishes is equine disgust. The horse looks at you as if you are vermin. Meanwhile, traffic slows for a gawp, tourists take photographs and your helpful kids see the funny side.

What you have to do to make a horse move is whack its bottom with a stick. As a part-time theatrical director and full-time father, I received this helpful bit of information with interest. I've known quite a few actors and children whose bottoms would benefit from a bit of stick-whacking. Not to mention partners.

Whacking the horse with a stick cheered me up for a bit. But then we hit the campsite. I'm a city boy, me. I'm from Birmingham. My idea of a quiet time in the country is watching half an hour of Emmerdale. When I heard the word "campsite", I had visions of a place with buildings, containing things such as toilets and shops and Chinese takeaways. I didn't expect a field with nothing in it.

The day had started badly, as it was. "This is your toilet," she cried gaily, opening a box. I looked inside. "This is all wrong," I thought. "A toilet comes with things like a door and a floor, tiles, possibly a wash-basin and some flowers. A toilet is not a plastic bucket with a lid on it."

But let us make the most of this, I think, as we enter our field. This is idyllic. Grass for the horse to roam in and graze on, a stream running through for the horse to drink from; meanwhile, we can have lunch at the picnic table so thoughtfully provided. Which we did. Well, nearly. We made lunch. The horse ate it.

And here's another thing that horses think is funny. When it's night, and you're tucked up in bed and you're cosy and it's quiet and you're just about to fall asleep, what the horse likes to do is start at the far end of the field, run up to your gypsy caravan and head-butt it. The horse thinks this is colossal fun. It likes to do this every 15 minutes.

There is nothing more terrifying than lying awake at night in a gypsy caravan while a large horse head-butts it. And then you have to get up in the morning and play Catch the Horse. Needless to say, the horse has played this game before. I haven't. But I soon learn what fun it is to be 50 and chasing a horse round a field with a stick in my hand at half past eight in the morning, while my helpful kids continue to see the funny side.

I've been a vegetarian since 1967. I try to respect all animal life. But if ever I see a menu with the word "horse" on it, I'm having a slice. If nothing else, I'm owed a lunch.

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