18 September, 2006

The Blessing of the Horses at St John's Hyde Park

What on earth, you might ask? Is that really an Anglican priest on horseback? It sounds like a third version of those wonderful old-fashioned appetizers, "Angels on Horseback", which are oysters wrapped in bacon and grilled, or "Devils on Horseback," the same thing only I think kidneys instead of oysters? Whatever, no, the photograph above isn't a tasty treat, but it was a treat nonetheless. I'll explain.

So Avery has been riding at her stable this week, the wonderful Ross Nye Stable, meeting lots of new people and horses and generally having the time of her life. They are a combination of relaxed and intense, relaxed in terms of scheduling, clothing, etc., but very precise as far as training goes. So I got to see her on Thursday in the ring in Hyde Park just below the Bayswater Road, and met a nice mother called Dana whose little girl Syrie was having a lesson at the same time. It's always a bit nerve-wracking walking from the stable in the mews to the ring in the park, because the road is extremely busy with those typical English drivers who would be as polite as anything if you run over their feet with your trolley in Marks and Spencers, but would as soon flatten you in the road as look at you. I think it's the enforced stopping for pedestrians in zebra crossings that makes them so aggressive absolutely everywhere else. I always torment myself by wondering what would happen if the pony Avery was riding spooked at something and just decided to go somewhere else, rather than following the other ponies in a nice orderly group to the park. Anyway, after her lesson, Alexa the trainer mentioned that there would be a little get-together on Sunday, and did we want to come? She gave me a little card announcing "Horseman's Sunday: a unique local institution celebrating the life and work of horses stabled in Central London." Apparently in the 1960s, to protest the threatened closure of the stables, Mr Ross Nye (who is perhaps 80 years old now) began to take his horses over to the nearby church, St John's Hyde Park, and ask the vicar to bless them. Truly, I am not making this up. Well, over the 39 years it's been going on (Mr Nye is AWFULLY excited about the 40th anniversary next year) the event has grown enormously both in size and in elaborateness. Alexa explained that Avery should turn up at 10:30 on Sunday and they would walk the horses over to the church, have the blessing, and then go to the park for a "gymkhana."

I have always wondered, from all my English books, what a "gymkhana" is and why on earth it is called that. Well, now was my chance to find out. It turns out that the term refers to the Urdu word for "racket court," and was originally used to mean any organised sporting event. But in England it has come to be applied only to equestrian events, and especially those highlighting children's participation. So as in so many English things, it's important to be up on your Indian terms. Like jodhpurs. An odd word, I always thought, but I never knew until now that it was the capital city of an Indian state, and the inhabitants wear tight-fitting breeches suitable for riding. So there you go!

We took Avery to the stable, then, yesterday morning where she was pressed into service grooming the horses. At times she finds it a bit awkward to be thrust into yet another barn with unfamiliar children and trainers, and not knowing exactly what's expected of her. I don't blame her. Luckily Emily was there! So she guided her around and before you knew it Avery had a curry comb in her hand and was busily taking care of some pony. The plan was that the children would draw names from a hat to see who was lucky enough to ride to the church, and who would merely walk along helping out. Up came a dapper elderly fellow wearing immaculate jacket and trouses, and a HAT, and he immediately enjoined her to tie back her hair. Did you know it was the law in England that people handling livestock cannot have loose hair? "Easy enough for us blokes, mind you," he said cheerily, "but you young ladies must keep neat and tidy." This was, it turned out, Ross Nye himself. It was clear that John and I were entirely unnecessary to the proceedings, so we headed off to find the church and wait for her there.

It was just a couple of blocks away and preparations were underway. Local businesses had set up odd little tables with favors and information about themselves. There was a young lady selling drawings of horses, and she would draw your horse if you wanted her to. I spied one chap who looked terribly familiar but I couldn't think why: was he an actor? No, I realised, it was my vet! There promoting his clinic. There was a church service going on, and choral music floating out into the cool September air. When it was over, two vicars came out in their long black soutanes, which they quickly covered up with bright green embroidered robes. Then, believe it or not, came the sound of hooves. Many, many hooves. Eight of the hooves belonged to two horses that were destined to be the vicars' mounts, so with some really awkward help from little Pony Club people, they climbed onto the saddles and sat there, looking completely odd! Up the square came the Ross Nye contingent, and there was Avery on a pony! The lucky girl. He was called Winston, and he looked terrified. So many horses! And carts, and carriages and fancy outfits. There was one fellow in a blue velvet jacket and pink jodhpurs, with spiky white hair, and a lady (it took me a long time to discover that she WAS a lady!) in proper tartan tweeds and knee-high boots. And many, many little girls (including Avery) in the traditional blue button-up shirt of the Pony Club.

The church bells rang for noon, and the horses all gathered around the forecourt of the church for the prayers and hymns, and Ross Nye's speech about the importance of horses throughout history and their meaning in all our lives. Let me tell you, hundreds of horses all crowded together listening to prayers and speeches get real excited when people applaud. I thought there would be a mass revolt, but the riders got their mounts under control (although Avery reported later that Winston was scared to death). Then they were all marched out, around the block, and then back, one at a time, up to the front of the church for Ross Nye to offer the rider a rosette, say a few words about who owned the horse, and pass them along to the vicar (in a bright green robe ON A HORSE, too odd!) who made the "father, son and the holy spirit" gesture with his hand and blessed the horse! Honestly. And then they all trotted away, back where they had come from, some from as far away as Oxfordshire. Just to be blessed.

Back at the stable it took some time to establish that we had time for lunch (which some people had been smart enough to bring as a picnic) and then we'd head to the park for the gymkhana. So we found a pub and had cottage pie and fish and chips, and John went home to take a nap, having just come in the day before from New York. Some of the girls rode ponies to the park, but they ran out, so several including Avery rode over in Mr Nye's car, which she reports he drives VERY slowly. I bet. Another mother and I walked over, doggedly following the ponies all the way around the park instead of cutting across. I was already tired from having walked all the way to the Tate Modern yesterday, to see the Kandinsky exhibit (more on that later) while Avery and John saw "Pirates of the Caribbean." So by the time we reached the enclosure I was worn out! Just as I got there, my mobile phone voicemail called me, and there was a message from friends that they were at the ring, and so was my daughter, and where was I? We met up and watched the girls play lots of pony games, riding around cones, trying to grab flags as they passed by, and finally some jumping. It was a gorgeous day, perfect to be out and about. And you know what? The horses all looked, well, blessed.

1 comment:

G.G. said...

I loved when I lived in England (actually on the Isle of Jersey and then near Winchester). I put a link to your story about blessing of the horses on my blog located on my website for my new book, Blessing of the Animals. The site has a lot of links and related information to animal blessings. I hope you will drop by for a a visit and comment, too!