NATURE The equine ogre

Outdoor Living


The equine ogre

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

James and I surveyed the field, if such it can be called – it is more an indeterminate area of scrubby heath enclosed by rough stone walls and rusted barbed wire fencing, as if it has long been the goal of landowners to keep their stock from becoming lost in this wilderness.
At first sight one might assume that little of interest grows within those walls, apart from a mini blackthorn forest and rough and wiry grasses that skirt its edge; although the ground is unkempt it is not unloved. Indeed, I often thought that if a man must live again it should be here, for once we start to look we find a wealth of wild things.
In better-drained spots juniper creeps prostrate among limestone boulders and here and there rears a twiggy stem to six feet and more, and every green tussock has its own miniature wildflower garden – golden birdsfoot trefoil and milkweed of startling sapphire blue. I like this place at dusk and better still at dawn, when dew accentuates the colours and a summer mist makes monsters of juniper and thorn.
There is another attraction here too, in the form of the prettiest trout stream in all creation, one made famous by the size and quality of past fishes. Now choked along the better part of its length with reed and rush battling for room to grow, it still has a few open spaces and in these the occasional trophy trout can still be found. Fat and heavy from rich summer fare, these make as fine a prize for the angler as any. And there is one pool in particular, deeper than the rest and hemmed about by impenetrable thorn, with one vertical bank and another dangerously undercut by the current.
At the head of this pool lives a trout, rather like the ones James’s father took half a century back, a foot and a half of dark-speckled flank with a large, dark head and black flag of a tail. An uncatchable trout – just the thing for a summer evening.
Unfortunately, this trout has a guardian in the form of a horse – nor just any horse, but an evil-tempered equine ogre who’s mission in life is, quite evidently, to preserve that trout in his pool. We first met this beast a month ago; he had come to meet us as we climbed the wire fence. I had known immediately that this was a Guard Horse. One glance at its awkward, stiff-legged gait told me that, and if I had failed to notice the heavy forefeet twitching like the fists of the ready boxer, I could by no means misinterpret those quivering, prehensile lips that drew back to expose vile green teeth of exceptional length and sharpness.
There I was, straddling the taut barbed wire with my toes barely touching the ground and preparing to carefully swing my second leg over when those multi-bladed, foul smelling shears snaked forward on a serpentine neck and snapped shut just an inch short of my cheek. I had looked up to meet a narrow, red-eyed glare and wobbled precariously on my perch.
From the safe side of the fence James broke into verse. ‘They say you are a melancholy fellow – I am so; I do love it better than laughing...’
Those terrible teeth gnashed. Saliva dribbled like green treacle from the lips. The Guard Horse took a heavy step forward and shook its head with a wicked snigger, lashing my face with spittle. When I leaned back the barbed wire bit deep. ‘It’s no good quoting Shakespeare at him! Fetch a stick or something!’
‘Those that are in extremity of either are abominable fellows, worse than drunkards,’ continued James, leaning rather carelessly on a fencepost, while I remained at the mercy of the looming beast. Then, without warning, it turned on its heels and trotted away with a shriek like The Morrigan thwarted.
‘That was from As You Like It. Works every time.’ James watched and laughed as I painfully disimpaled myself. ‘Revenge of the gelding. A happy tale, I think.’ Why do I bring him along?  
I had no interest in renewing my acquaintance with that old ogre today so we went to fish the bridge pool instead, where dead winter reeds have formed an island wedged against the arches, into which the Guard Horse probably flings its victims.
In the pool downstream lay the body of one, its head wedged against a rock, the bloated body hovering in the current. The island of reeds is broken as far as its middle. We pieced together the evidence.
One of the local deer had tried to cross the water over the reeds and had broken through. Bound about on either side and unable to escape, it had succumbed to the cold and had finally sunk. The swollen corpse now waves ponderously in the current while being washed away, tiny piece by tiny piece, to feed and to fatten an impossible trout in that hidden piece of paradise.