OF CRICKET AND HORSES
By CAMERON DUODU
What on earth, I hear a reader say, have horses got to do with cricket?
The connection link is – my kids.
I was born and bred in the green rain-forest. I never set eyes on a horse, close at hand, until I was 20 years old and some git in the newsroom of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation thought I was the perfect person to be sent to the Accra Polo Club, to report on a polo match that was being between Ghana and Nigeria.
Of course, bluff was part of my repertoire as a reporter, and so I did manage to wheedle out all the important information necessary for writing an accurate report — especially how many goals had been scored by which side and in which “chukka” — by engaging one of the spectators (a player who, fortunately for me, was still nursing injuries from a fall from horseback and so had been forced to watch from the sidelines) in an “argumentative” conversation about the relative merits of the two sides.
After that, I never got near horses till – again – my profession took me to the Accra Turf Club to write a piece for Drum Magazine about the reigning champion jockey of Ghana, a very lanky and handsome Malian guy called “KK”. I went to his stables to interview him, and we made him a “poster boy” by publishing a full-page colour photograph of him. In the mid-1960s, colour photographs of men used as centrefolds in a “girlie”magazine like Drum were rare, and KK was so appreciative that he used to invite me to go to the Accra Race Course on Saturdays to see how he was faring in actual races.
He occasionally tipped me the names of horses to back: “Try Number Twelve!” he would casually say.
But naïve as I was, I thought he was just being modest and didn’t want me to back the horses that he rode. So, quite stubbornly, I only backed the horses he rode. But each time, it was rather the horse he had asked me to back that won, not the one he rode. And I kicked myself for being a sentimental “KK” groupie! But I mean, how could I back any other horse when the artistic Champion Jockey, “KK”, was strutting his stuff on the course?
I realised, then, that in horse racing, it wasn’t the best rider who necessarily won every race. It all depended on the horse he rode. And that depended on the horse owners, who assigned particular horses to individual jockeys. Give the best rider a “donkey” to ride and he would come last in the race, no matter how well he rode! Eventually, I concluded that the knowledge of horses that would enable me to make my fortune out of horse-racing, would be too difficult to acquire.
I would have had to know the best horses by name; get acquainted with their owners to know which particular jockeys suited which horses and could get them to win at all costs; and learn – by watching horses being taken for “practice run” at Labadi beach at dawn – what “form” they were currently in. Form could also be sussed out by secretly observing the times the horses posted round the race course, when apprentice jockeys took them out for “exercise”. Obtaining all this information, on a casual basis (I decided) could take the rest of my natural life. And “straight guy” that I sought to be, i.e. a “high-minded” journalist who wasn’t prepared to “acquire” the underhand “tips” that made “race course economics” viable – I stood to lose a lot of money if I wasn’t careful. My interest in horse-racing therefore died eventually. I regret to say it went largely unmourned.
I’d forgotten that horses existed when one of my kids informed me that one of his friends was learning how to ride a horse and that he “too” would like to – in so many words – acquire the bragging rights that came with being able to ride a horse at that age.
“Riding horses? But where?”
“The Saddle Club! It’s at Burma Camp!”
If you’re a father, you will know that when your children enthuse over something they want to do, they are instructing you, not asking you. For if you don’t do it for them, they will get their mother to do it for them. The loss of face that comes with that eventuality is only to be experienced to be believed. So, quite often, whist we think we are training our children about life, it is they who are our masters and leading us into fields of their choice – and a choice quite often made by their friends, whom they naturally seek to emulate.
So, to the Saddle Club we went. It all began harmlessly at first, but when certain horses known to be “difficult” or “frisky” were allocated to my children – one was called “Dagomba” and another, “Lucifer” (!) – I began to bite my finger-nails a lot as the boys sought to master them. One of the riding instructors, a Sergeant-Major who, I guessed, knew human psychology quite well because his job was to control soldiers who had all sorts of different personalities, noticed my anxiety and politely suggested that if I were to learn how to ride horses myself, the activity would become less strange – and fearful – to me and I would feel less apprehensive about my boys being on horseback.
I didn’t take kindly to the idea at first, but soon my boys advanced enough – without mishap, thank God – to be taken into the bush on horseback for an hour or so to do what was called “hacking”, I realised then that I would go out of my mind if I continued to sit down and drink beer, waiting for them to return from the bush. For no matter how hard I tried, my mind would keep visualising all sorts of accidents that could happen to them – being thrown off a horse’s back (normal fare); being “taken” by the horse too close to trees (especially coconut trees on the beach); or experiencing breakages of “tack” (the leather strings that help to control the horse) and thereby being unable to control the horse (especially forcing it to stop or reduce its speed).
So I allowed myself to be persuaded to take riding riding lessons, and eventually, I got to learn to become a proficient rider. (This had its own disadvantages, of course, for it encouraged my sons to “gang up” and compete with me, in order, no doubt, to “show” me how much better they were at riding than I was!)
Anyway, it was either that or losing my mind with anxiety whilst waiting for them to finish their dangerous dalliance with the beasts in the bush. It eventually turned out to be a most pleasant way of passing the time, and I shall be eternally grateful to the kids for forcing me to acquire such an esoteric skill.
One day, I was out with the group “hacking” when we came across a puddle in the middle of the road. I thought our leader would avoid the puddle and so prepared myself to make a small detour. But our leader did something to the horse which made it jump straight across the puddle. My horse, following the herd instinct, also jumped, instead of following my direction to avoid it. This unexpected move on its part unsettled me, and before I knew it, I was flat on the ground!
The leader quickly turned round and came to help me get back on my horse. As he did so, he told me, with the matter-of-fact tone of a man used to the hard life in military barracks: “Sah, as for riding, when you are riding, you have to fell, sah! You jost have to fell – sah!”
Only a small smile crept across my upper lip at this time. But when we got back to the Sergeants’ mess, I had the opportunity to explode into full-scale laughter.
I was informed solemnly that the tradition at the Saddle Club was that if one “fell”(!) whilst riding, one had to buy the riding group a carton of beer.
I complied without demur. It was the best thing I could have done, for when the soldiers realised that I was a “good sport”, they relaxed and began to tell me jokes. One of the cleanest happened to be also the funniest. It went like this:
One of my predecessors as a civilian member of the Saddle Club had been a lady who had been sent to finishing schools in England and France by her well-to-do husband. She had taken riding lessons there, as the upper class young ladies in her schools invariably did. So when she returned to Ghana, she enrolled at the Saddle Club to prevent her riding skills fr going “rusty” (as she put it.) Her husband would bring her to the Club and wait for her whilst she took her lessons.
Now, as I have stated before, the instructors were very hard “other ranks” who detested the “airs” associated with rich “bloody civilians”. Unfortunately for her, this particular lady had the knack of speaking with an upper-class English accent (or what the other ranks thought was one). So, whenever she opened her mouth, they secretly held their sides. In particular, her articulation of diphthongs in ‘Received Pronunciation’ – which made her words quite distinct from what was usually heard in Ghana – amused them greatly, but they politely didn’t show it.
But one day, they decided to bring her down to earth from her British upper-class perch. They took her hacking. They put her on a horse called “Leo” , which had secret habits known only to the instructors.
Leo behaved himself very well, and everything went quite smoothly. Until they reached a smallish stream that lay between Burma Camp and the Labadi Beach road.
The lead rider crossed the stream without incident. Then another rider also crossed – again, with no incident. All the riders crossed safely, in single file.
It then came to the turn of Leo and his lady rider. Leo gamely went into the water and began to cross it. In the middle of the stream, where the water was deepest, Leo unexpectedly bent his knees and lay on his back in the water,! He showed no concern whatsoever about the human being that was supposedly riding on his back, as he turned about and began to enjoy the cool bath offered by the stream!
“Eugh Lieugh!” [“Oh Leo”) the lady cried, as her whole body was immersed in the water with a mighty splash. She thrashed about and managed to get her feet out of the stirrups without too much trouble.
With straight faces, the riding instructors quickly dismounted and, acting lik perfect gentlemen, went to get her out of the water. Any contact with her soft, curvaceous body, as they carried her out and tried to help get the water out of her clothes, was, of course, purely accidental.
Meanwhile, Leo was snorting to get the water out of his nostrils, and happily waving his legs in the air. A couple of lashes from a whip however brought him quickly to his feet, and he was led across to dry land. After being rubbed down, he allowed the lady to remount and he was quiet and impeccably behaved for the rest of the hacking.
I laughed so much at the way the chap who told me this story accurately imitated the lady’s “Eugh Lieugh!” that I forgot to ask whether the lady was also fined one carton of beer for “felling”into the water (as I had been fined.) I am glad I didn’t ask, for I’d noticed secretly that strangely enough, none of the riders who could not be expected to buy a carton of beer, was ever given a horse like Leo, which had ideas of its own about how to treat those who rode on its back!
Come to think of it, I don’t think those macho Ghanaian soldiers would ever have asked the lady to pay the fine of one carton of beer. For they were so clever that they knew they had had to make a show of empathy towards her, for the way “foolish Leo” had “disgraced” them by dunking their “lady ward” into the drink. She was bound to report the incident to her husband, with the disclosure that that they had been very “kind” to her. Which would make him buy them a beer — many beers, in fact! And that would be just and fair, for in their eyes, that rich husband of hers was responsible for turning a full-blooded Ghanaian woman into a cardboard copy of an English upper-crust lady who, instead of yelling her head off when a naughty horse dumped her into the drink, merely merely muttered: “Eugh Lieugh!”