Part of the fun along these adventures comes from the unexpected people I meet. Along my trip in Dingle, Ireland I had the opportunity to have a phenomenal guide, Elaine Waters, whose passion for horses comes with quite a story, taking her on a path she never expected.
Elaine was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England but was bred and buttered in Long Sutton, a village in an area known as “the Fens”, which consists of very flat, arable farmland near a small sea called the Wash. Her parents are both plumbers and her genius brother, a graduate of Trinity College of the University of Cambridge, is a research mathematician as well as a tenor ley clerk for Gloucester Cathedral. So how does such a girl get so involved with horses?
“I have always loved animals, all animals,” says Waters. “From the age of six or so I spent most of my spare time at the wildlife park that was just behind my house. I worked there during the school holidays until I was 18, taking care of everything from guinea pigs and pheasants to wallabies and llamas. I had always wanted to ride horses, but there were no local riding schools, so I rarely got to ride. When I was 16, I came to Dingle, Ireland on holiday with my parents. We stayed at Dingle Horse Riding, and I fell in love with horses and Ireland. I knew then that I wanted to work with horses, that I needed to learn to ride, but also that I would need a trade.”
At the time, Elaine didn’t know what her trade would be, but the idea to join the British army didn’t sound too bad. The idea had been bouncing about in her head, as she became an Army Cadet at the age of 13. By 18, she was honoured as a Sergeant and a marksman. A life of the army seemed like an imperative calling, but she started volunteering for a horse charity in England formerly known as the International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH) and since re-named World Horse Welfare, at age 17. Her compassion for horses and other animals led her to believe that the trade of best fit for her would be within veterinary medicine, so she intended to attend university first and then join the army as a Veterinary Officer. But her world shifted after being introduced to the world of saddlery through the ILPH.
The goal of the charity is to aid horses around the world; thus they provision teams of saddlers, farriers, veterinarians, and equine nutritionists to developing countries in order to teach people the optimal and sustainable methods of horse care, which mainly assists their workhorses. The concept of helping people, animals, and global travel sounded too good to be true, and Elaine wanted to be part of it somehow.
She chanced upon meeting a saddler who shared his recent travels from Mexico and who was already preparing to embark on a new project. Such excitement was exactly what Elaine craved for, and thus she set her heart on becoming a saddler. But the question that remained was how Elaine could get information about training as a saddler. As fate would have it, Elaine came across an article about “ILPH Penny”, a horse who had recently been re-homed to the King’s Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery, which was the ceremonial mounted regiment of the British Army. A recruiting section within the article magically appeared stating “Join the Troop, learn to ride, train as a farrier, saddler or tailor”. How could Waters pass this up?
So she didn’t- she signed up as a squaddie, much to the disappointment of her parents and teachers. “I did the 6 months basic infantry training, got my HGV truck drivers licence, painted my face green and ran around a lot carrying a big backpack and a rifle,” describes Waters of the initial experience.
Then the real work began: “On my 19th birthday I arrived at the King’s Troop Barracks in St John’s Wood, London, and there I did a recruits ride and then a detachment ride, learning not only to ride, but to ride with a sword in uniform,” began explaining Elaine of the next stage of army experience. “I also learned to play the trumpet and ride at the same time. It was my job to follow the officer and relay his commands as bugle calls, so that the rest of the regiment knew what he wanted them to do. The first time I rode on parade, I rode ILPH Penny, who incidentally had ears like a donkey and would bite you as soon as she looked at you. Even though I informed her it was all her fault that I was there in the first place, she seemed less than impressed.”
Elaine is what one might call a determined, “tough-chick”. She started her work in this division by working in the “lines”, which is another word for working in the stables, where she learned to handle, groom, and ride the horses, though she felt that she mostly swept the floors. Then she was moved into “Top Harness”, which meant that she was responsible for turning out the harness for a gun team of six horses. “I would spend up to 15 hours a day ‘bliffing’ – polishing until I could see my face in the leather.” She rode on the Trooping the Coulour four times, and for two consecutive years won the prize for “Best Turned Out on Queens Life Guard at Whitehall”. The adventure and royal glory was far from over, though.
She was sent to Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Canada to rise as an escourt at the showjumping competitions. From Canada she was sent to Fiji to play the trumpet before returning back to the UK to take part in several shows where the Troop performed the musical drive. “I even met the Queen a couple of times,” excitedly tells Waters.
But what about Elaine’s work as a saddler? In 2005 she began working in a saddlers shop with the four other saddlers responsible for making and maintaining the harnesses, saddles, and bridles for the regiment. It was there that she began her apprenticeship with the master saddler, and she has since qualified as a harness maker.
Despite her worldly travels, there has been one place that remained close to Elaine’s heart: Dingle, Ireland- the same place she had visited when she was just a teen with her parents on vacation.
“Throughout my years in the Troop, whenever I had leave, I would come over to Dingle, and when they (finally) offered me a job here at Dingle Horseriding, I handed in my notice to leave the army. A year later (it’s a very long notice to get out of the army) I moved over to Dingle and started working here as a trek guide, and set up my own business as a bridle maker. Since then my master has also left the army, and now works for the ILPH on their international training team.”
Elaine’s saddles and bridles are pieces of art and working on them is more than a trade for her- it has become a love. Where the wind will blow her next, she doesn’t quite know, though she very much enjoys currently working for Dingle Horseriding. During our interview, Elaine said that “it is still my intention that one day I will join ILPH in the fantastic work they do.”
And knowing Elaine, that’s exactly what she will one day do.
More to come about how to make a bridle and saddle!
Until then, Stay Wild,
Check out more about Elaine & her work at www.uiscesaddlery.blogspot.com