"Tail" of the White Mare

Vol. 7 No. 1 - 1995

Tales from Kinnego

"Tail" of the white mare

by Leslie Grayson

Nelly the white mare, was bought by my father at a disposal auction of military horses some time after the end of World War I. These horses had been requisitioned by the government from various owners for use at the Front Line, for such purposes as pulling gun carriages and supply wagons. It appeared, however, that Nelly had been used solely for pulling heavy guns. This was very much in line with Nelly's earlier work as, before the war, she had been one of a team of four white horses used to pull one of McWatter's large bread vans in Belfast.

I remember my father saying to us that the team had been used in a poster advertising McWatter's Bakery and that a copy of the advert was to be seen at Lurgan Station (though when I can't recall). I do not know if he knew this at the time of the auction but I do remember that he said he had been drawn to the mare by her nimble feet, quick movements and alertness.

A working farm horse

At Kinnego, of course, she became a working farm horse and a successful one too. She was an eager, reliable worker but no matter how hard the day's work she always came through the gateway into the cobbled yard in the evening prancing, almost dancing, with her ears forward like spears. We children loved her.

Nelly naturally had little ways of her own, picked up during the war. In the stable her stall had to be reinforced with a steel plate on each side, because, when being fed her oats and hay, she lashed out wildly with her feet and would have injured the horses on each side of her. This habit had been a part of her self-preservation on the battle field when she had to fight for her place at the feed buckets in order to get a share. Then there had been no soft life for the horses, any more than there had been for the soldiers themselves.

Another idiosyncrasy was also due to her war experiences. Her task had been to pull the heavy guns into position but obviously she had to move out of the line of fire as quickly as possible. A soldier would activate the quick release on the gun carriage so that the chains fell from it and immediately the rider dug in his spurs and the horse bounded away at speed.

Therefore, in the yard, having been trained to this procedure when Nelly was released from the cart all chains and harness had to be undone together and quickly because, when the cart shafts rose she immediately bounded forward four or five paces just as she had done on the battle-field and just as she continued to do during the rest of her life. Even as children my brother and I could unhitch her without any danger as long as we remembered this little quirk.

One of her jobs when she was harnessed to the cart was to go to town to collect the meal for the cattle and poultry. Driving her often fell to me in the holidays when I was about eight years old and could hardly see over the front of the cart; but Nelly was very intelligent and could have undertaken the journey on her own!

Only a passenger

One day, however, a policeman had observed Nelly and myself in town for our usual load of meal and proceeded to Kinnego to complain to my father that I was too young to be in charge of a horse. Father told him that the mare was capable of doing the journey on her own and that I was only a passenger. He said he had no qualms about Nelly bolting since she had no fear of loud noises, sudden bangs or even of the noise and steam of the trains at the railway gates at Lurgan station where we were frequently stopped. This was due to her experiences during the war. The policeman had to be satisfied with this and Nelly and I continued our partnership for some time after that.

Unfortunately at the age of thirty-three Nelly had to be put to sleep because her hind legs were no longer able to support her. She had been one of our favourite horses and certainly the most unusual one.