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Chapter One

The Yard – How A Horse Healed My Heart
By Grace Olson

Chapter 1

My love of horses was reignited on a rather nondescript sort of a day. The kind of day you could easily forget about if nothing in particular happened to change it into a more noteworthy experience. I was cleaning the sink in my therapy room, preparing for the next client, when my phone pinged.

“Hiya! Not going to be able to come today. Got to wait in for the gardener!” messaged the irksome client.

My heart dropped and I instantly felt panic about not earning enough money that day. She often cancelled appointments at the last moment and it stressed me out a lot. I phoned her immediately because I felt I’d be able to get her booked in more easily via a call rather than a text.

“Hi! I got your message!” I said in a cheery voice, pretending I was unperturbed. “Would you like to rearrange? I can do next Monday at the same time.”

“Yes, great! See you then. Got to dash now, bye!” She hung up.

“Bloody hell,” I sighed to myself. “She didn’t even apologise or offer to pay for wasting my time again! I suppose I should have mentioned a cancellation policy earlier. So I can’t really expect her to offer.”

I felt utterly crap. I had an hour and a half to fill but as I worked from home, filling the time was not a problem. Why is it that washing always needs doing along with cooking and cleaning and other dismal, monotonous chores? And why is it always left to me? I swore out loud as I dashed downstairs, almost tripping over the cat, to hurl a mountain of endless laundry into the machine and then flew back upstairs to chop a load of vegetables for a curry. Our house was on four levels, so doing anything always involved lots of stairs, which seemed to add to the irritation of getting things done.

“Crikey! Is that the time already?” I grabbed the dog, dashed to the car and opened the boot.

“Quickly! In you get!” I commanded.

The dog looked at me blankly.

“Come on! Get in!” I gestured to the boot space.

No response at all from the dog.

“For God’s sake! Hurry up!”

I rummaged around in my pocket for a biscuit. There was no biscuit so I had to admit defeat, scoop him up and put him in the car feeling very annoyed. I had foolishly believed life would become easier once our daughter, Florence, had started school. But it wasn’t. It was actually harder and God only knows how that was even possible.

I had really looked forward to being a mum. We had bought a ridiculously large house to accommodate a family because I had been absolutely certain I wanted at least three children. I was so enthusiastic, I even went on a hypno-birthing course so that I could experience a natural delivery. Unfortunately, the total opposite happened. I had to be induced, which involved a shocking amount of pain. I had all the drugs on the trolley and even that wasn’t enough, so an epidural was fitted. The baby was stuck so I was eventually rushed in for an emergency caesarean, during which the anaesthetic wore off. I could feel the searing pain of being sewn up, which was horrifying beyond description. Bizarrely, none of the medical staff said anything when I cried out. They all ignored me. It was like being in a horror film.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t want any more children after that experience. I had terrible postnatal depression. I was beyond exhausted and I was stunned at how difficult it was to have a baby to look after. It was so hard! And it wasn’t just the lack of sleep, it was the total destruction of my former self that blew my mind to bits.

Before becoming a mum, I had been the very confident lead singer in an indie band and life was full of fun. I also thoroughly enjoyed my work as a self-employed massage therapist, and I was physically very fit and healthy. Motherhood was like a wrecking ball. Not only did it destroy my body – I gained so much weight – but it also destroyed my self-confidence. I became as quiet as a mouse and as enormous as an elephant. Luckily, I managed to lose the worst of the excess weight but I was still big and I felt uncomfortable, unhealthy and extremely depressed. I also stopped singing because I felt too fat to go on stage. I weighed ten stone but I was only five foot four, with a very light skeleton, and all the weight was round my tummy so I still looked heavily pregnant. When the window cleaner asked me when I was due it took all my inner strength to resist pushing him off his ladder.

Every day was a struggle and I coped with it by creating strict routines that did help to make Florence a very contented baby but caused a lot of pressure for me. We had to be up at 7am for the first feed; nap at 9am; up and out to a group by 10am and then lunch and nap at 12. Another outing in the afternoon, followed by a 4pm nap, followed by bath, book and bed by 7pm. I was terribly regimented and if something random happened to threaten the routine my heart would begin to palpitate and I would lose my temper. As you can imagine this put a lot of strain on my relationships with everyone, especially my husband.

Fortunately, I had watched Mary Poppins several times during my childhood so I was able to fake being a ‘fun mum’. I would sing and dance and do mad things that made Florence laugh her head off but it was all just an act. Inside I was extremely miserable and grieving for a life I felt I had lost, while battling with guilt for not feeling full of joy. I hated self-pity and I was cross with myself for feeling so down but I knew it was genuine depression. Not that being aware of that fact helped very much. The doctor was kind and prescribed homeopathy, which was very open-minded, but I needed something else. I needed a therapy that would help me find happiness but I never felt I had the time to invest in such a thing. Nor did I feel I could justify spending that sort of money on myself.

Now Florence was five and had started school. I honestly thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to have some time to myself. The reality was that by the time I’d dropped her at school and walked the dog, there was only time to treat one or two clients and do some housework before the mad dash back to school to collect her.

I hated the school run. Firstly, there was never anywhere to park due to the fleet of weird parents who seemed to regularly arrive more than fifteen minutes early. Why would anyone want to sit and wait for that long? Do they not have other things to do? Secondly, there were so many bitchy mums at my daughter’s school and they all looked at me as if I was a piece of chewing gum stuck on their expensive designer shoes. They all appeared to be very wealthy and didn’t need to work. I assumed they probably spent their days at cafes and spas because they turned up to school looking glamorous and relaxed. In contrast, I was always in a rush and felt like a rather sweaty mess. So I lingered in the background, avoiding any eye contact, praying the dog wouldn’t embarrass me further by doing a poo in the playground.

The bitchy mums were like a coven of witches, gossiping and cackling. One of them looked over at me and then turned to her friend and said something I couldn’t hear. Both of them laughed, which made me feel hot and very self-conscious. Luckily the dog saw another dog in the distance and pulled me away to investigate, which was a huge relief.

After what felt like an eternity, Florence skipped out of school and chattered about her day. None of it made any sense but I listened and smiled. In the car on the way home she insisted we listened to ghastly songs from musicals and as usual, I forced myself to sing along so that the journey home was fun for her. It was a Monday, which meant my mum would be coming over to babysit so that I could continue working. Mum was a very jolly woman who was genuinely like Mary Poppins and I often marvelled at how easy-going and positive she was. When Mum played mad games with Florence she really did enjoy herself, which always amazed me.

I sighed and got ready for my next, new client while my mum got dinner ready for Florence. I felt so heavy in my heart and desperately wished I could be the happy person I had been several years ago but I had forgotten who that ‘me’ was. However, I didn’t have much time to think more about it because the doorbell rang and in swept Lady Alexa Heptonstall.

“Sorry about the smell! I’ve come straight from the stables and the haylage is particularly pongy!” she greeted as she walked through the door.

“That’s fine, don’t worry!” I laughed, taken aback by such a funny introduction. She really did smell.

“I must say I do hope you can sort me out. I don’t have the time for this backache nonsense anymore!” exclaimed Alexa, marching up the stairs to my therapy room as if she had been there before.

I followed her up, fascinated that she knew which room to go in. She flung herself on the sofa as if she was an old friend and reeled off a frighteningly long list of horse-related accidents she had sustained. Alexa had a wonderful plummy accent that sounded almost identical to Princess Anne but she was surprisingly down to earth despite her lofty upbringing. I was amazed that she was actually still alive, let alone still riding horses, after all her terrible injuries. She had broken or sprained almost every bone and joint in her body over the years and yet she simply laughed about it and put it down to experience.

“It’s all part and parcel of the joy of horses!” laughed Alexa at my shocked expression.

“Wow! You are hardcore!” I laughed. “Let’s get you on the couch and I’ll have a look at your back.”

Alexa undressed and jumped on to the massage couch. Her back was as solid as a rock.

“Do you ride?” she asked.

“I haven’t for years but I used to love riding when I was younger,” I replied as I began the process of softening her tense shoulders.

“Oh, marvellous! Did you have a pony?” she asked.

“Sadly no!” I laughed. “I just had a riding lesson every Saturday. It was the highlight of my life!”

“Ah, lovely!” replied Alexa. “I was so fortunate. Ma insisted that I should always have at least one pony. Usually there were two or three on the go at once as Ma was so keen on competitions. I think that’s why I have two horses now.”

“Wow! You have two horses?” I was absolutely fascinated. I didn’t know anyone who had a horse and suddenly, here was somebody who had two of them.

“Yes, I’ll show you a photo when you’ve finished, if you like.”

“Ooh yes!” I replied with great enthusiasm.

I couldn’t wait for the massage to be finished so I could have a look at Alexa’s horses. It turned out she had a beautiful dapple-grey Irish Sport Horse and a huge Cleveland bay. Both were for showjumping as that was her passion. The two gorgeous horses were kept at a posh livery yard in Harrogate. This surprised me, considering she had mentioned her family had a very impressive, sprawling mansion.

“Pa collects vintage hot-air balloons so the stables are full of them,” explained Alexa.

“Wow, that sounds fun! Do you go up in them?” I asked.

“Oh no, Pa just collects them. He never actually goes up in the air in them. They’re just his weird hobby!” laughed Alexa. “Also, he’s very allergic to horses so they’re not allowed anywhere near the house unfortunately. It’s such a shame as I can’t stand the bitchiness of livery yards.”

“Bitchiness?” I asked.

“Oh yes. Livery yards seem to attract the worst sort of females!” She chuckled.

“Really? I thought they’d be lovely places full of women all enjoying horse riding!” I said, surprised.

Alexa laughed her head off at that comment. “If only! They are full of stupid idiots who have all the gear but no idea.”

She proceeded to tell me about how, in general, livery yards consist mainly of “unfriendly women full of their own self-importance with warm blood horses that they can’t control. They only ride round the block, because they daren’t go any further, wearing the latest equestrian clothing and do a bit of dressage not particularly well.”

“How depressing!” I exclaimed. “I couldn’t stand being with people like that.”

“I can’t either!” said Alexa. “This place is not too bad so far.”

Later that evening, I sat down with a cup of tea in the living room and the cat jumped on to my knee and curled in to a ball. I stroked her soft black fur absentmindedly as I thought about the conversation I’d had with Lady Alexa. My mind was alight with memories I hadn’t thought about for many years. I had loved ponies when I was little and regularly asked my parents to buy me one but they couldn’t afford it. Even as an adult, whenever I saw a horse I felt a pang of sadness and wished that I could have one. Unfortunately, life was full of expensive responsibilities and I truly believed that horses would always remain a dream that could never happen for me.

The rest of the week passed by in a blur of chores, work and general gloom but I cheered up when I realised that Lady Alexa was coming for another treatment.

“Bloody hell! Those horrible women at the yard were the last straw today!” exclaimed Alexa as she came through the door, marched upstairs, flung her clothes off and leaped on to the couch.

“Oh dear! What happened?” I asked.

“Well, I arrived at the livery yard much earlier than usual and found one of the grooms punching my dapple-grey horse in the face!”

“Oh my God! Why?” I asked.

“Apparently he’d nipped her! I told her I’d do more than nip her if I found her anywhere near my horse again! I was furious, let me tell you!”

“What did you do about it?” I was so absorbed in the drama I almost forgot to continue massaging.

“I complained to the yard owner and the groom was sacked on the spot. And then I packed up all my things and left immediately!”

“Oh blimey! Where are your horses now?”

“Luckily I have a friend called Tony who owns his own breeding yard at an old farm in Ilkley. It used to be a fabulous yard but unfortunately the glory days have well and truly gone! It’s an absolute dump now but I don’t care. So long as I don’t have to deal with any more bitchy women, I’m happy!”

I was so fascinated by the conversation about horses I had to keep reminding myself to focus on work. I must have given her such a rubbish massage and I was amazed she bothered to book in again. I found it interesting that I hardly knew Alexa, yet I felt as if we had been friends for years. Being in her company perked me up a lot and I looked forward to hearing more of her horsey dramas. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait too long.

“Ahoy there! Fancy coming to see my new foal? I just bought one from Tony!” Alexa texted a few days later.

I was surprised to receive her message and felt quite emotional to have been asked.

“Yes, I’d love to!” I replied instantly. How could I resist such an invitation?

We made a date for the following day as I had no work booked in. I was excited to go but felt very apprehensive when it was time to set off and it really hit home how much confidence I had lost since having a child. Before being a mum, I would have thought nothing of leaping into the car and heading off to do gigs with the band in other cities. Ilkley was only twenty minutes away but it felt like an expedition to me. I looked through the route very thoroughly, several times, and then had to dash back into the house to go to the toilet.

“I think I should call and say I can’t come,” I said out loud to myself.

No! You can do this! It’s horses! said my inner voice.

“But I feel too self-conscious. I look like I’m pregnant! I can’t go out looking like this!”

Don’t be so ridiculous. Nobody cares what you look like!

“What if I get lost on the way? Farms never have signs outside!”

Then just phone Alexa!

I really did want to go but I felt such crippling anxiety. After another toilet trip I took a deep breath.

Now get the hell in the car, woman, and get going! You will regret it if you don’t! my inner voice commanded.

I marched myself to the car and made myself set off. I put some calming music on and ignored all my negative thoughts about getting lost. After a while, the beautiful scenery soothed my nerves and I loved looking out at the rolling fields of the farms I passed. There’s something very relaxing about watching sheep grazing lazily on the hillsides and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing all the old stone cottages along the way. By the time I arrived I felt much better.

“Hello!” Alexa waved as I drove into the yard.

She was surrounded by a gaggle of Jack Russells who were very keen to say hello too, yapping and wagging their tails. I stepped out of the car and had a good look around. It was exactly as Alexa had described. You could tell it had once been a super-luxurious equestrian yard but now it was very shabby and decrepit. Every expense had been spared on the maintenance of the place and if something could be fixed by a bit of gaffer tape then that had been used to do the job. However, it was brimming with horses, which was very exciting indeed.

“Do come and meet Henrietta, she really is a pet!” enthused Alexa as she led me past a row of beautiful showjumpers looking out of their stables, to a small paddock in which there was the most adorable little bay foal I had ever seen.

“Oh wow, she’s so cute!” I gasped.

“Isn’t she just? But don’t be fooled! She’s already quite a little madam, aren’t you, Henrietta?” Alexa laughed but I could tell she was very proud of her really.

Henrietta had very long legs so it was clear she was born to jump. Her mother had won many prizes so Alexa had high hopes for the future.

“So long as she doesn’t break her legs, of course! She’s already tried to jump out of here, haven’t you, little monkey?” Alexa chuckled.

Alexa’s other horses were grazing in a nearby paddock so we went to see them and gave them apples, which they enjoyed very much.

“They’re absolutely beautiful!” I said wistfully, looking around at the outdoor arena and wishing that I could have a ride.

“They are, aren’t they? I know I’m very lucky.”

A sudden crash of a door banging shut made us both jump.

“Oh, it’s Tony!” exclaimed Alexa as a very dishevelled man almost seemed to fall out of a barn door, carrying several saddles.

“Bluddy ’ell!” he yelled, tripping over the reins of a bridle, slung over his arm. The saddles flew in all directions and Alexa and I dashed over to help.

“You silly clot! What are you doing now?” laughed Alexa as she pulled Tony back on to his feet.

“I forgot we was goin’ to that show tomorrow,” mumbled Tony, looking very embarrassed in my direction. His thick Yorkshire accent was an interesting contrast to Alexa’s cut-glass one.

“Tony, this is Grace, my magical masseuse!” said Alexa by way of an introduction. “And Grace, this is Tony.”

We both said hello and Tony blushed. He appeared to be quite uncomfortable.

“All this tack wants a clean-up,” Tony grunted. “An’ that bloody wall has fallen o’er there. I dunno which to sort fust?”

Alexa looked over at the dry-stone wall that had tumbled down in the middle and was scattered across a footpath.

“You do the wall! I’ll do the tack,” she said and Tony nodded, muttered something incoherent and wandered off to look for tools.

“He’s a bit shy!” laughed Alexa as we walked to the tack room to clean the saddlery.

The tack room was dusty and full of mouldering saddles from hundreds of years ago. Cobwebs decorated most of the ceiling, and the windowpanes were cracked but it filled me with great joy as youthful memories of my riding-school days flooded back.

As I was driving home all I could think about was how much I had loved riding ponies. The thrill of cantering along soft turf and flying over jumps like a bird. The lovely moments in the stable, grooming and tacking up, when the pony would blow softly on your face. The smell of the saddles and bridles hanging up in the tack room. Such happy, fun-filled days.

Why did I ever stop?

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