Real life

The truth about Surrey’s obsession with horse masks

12 June 2021

9:00 AM

12 June 2021

9:00 AM

A saloon car pulled up opposite our fields and a man sat there looking at the horses with a bewildered expression.

I had noticed this car meandering along the farm track, driving between the horse fields and stopping every time he came alongside a horse, sitting there for minutes on end.

Then he would start driving again. Then he would stop alongside another horse. For quite a while he was parked by the grazing fields above where the builder boyfriend and I have a smallholding, and was stopped staring at our friends’ horses, I realised.

When he got to our fields, he pulled up again and began peering into our paddocks, looking over to where the builder b’s cobs were standing in the stable yard munching hay.

What fresh madness is this? I thought. So I walked across our front paddock to the fence line next to where his car was stopped and I waved at the man through the window, saying: ‘Are you lost?’

He was a person of colour, and from his heavily accented voice, when he replied, I would have guessed he was quite recently here from Africa.

He said he had just dropped his daughter off to play with the children of his friend, referring to a new neighbour of ours in one of the houses at the top of the track.

‘But,’ said this chap, looking confused as he leaned towards me, ‘can I ask you something?’

I said he could ask me anything. ‘Why are the horses wearing blindfolds on their heads?’

I saw his confusion, if he was as recently arrived in this country as I suspected, trying to make sense of our customs and peculiarities. All my friends’ horses wear fly protection. They live out, and although they have large airy field shelters, she prefers to put them in fly rugs and masks to keep them from being bothered by the midges.

I explained this to the gentleman, but he still looked upset. He said he had pulled up in order to text his friend about it and, without being at all rude, he intimated he thought it cruel.

I explained that the horses could see through the masks. But he looked unconvinced. ‘Why the rugs in this heat? Rugs are for winter, no?’ I explained that fly sheets are made of high-tech material that reflects the heat off the horses, keeping them cool.

He looked at our cobs, who were not wearing masks and rugs and appeared perfectly happy: ‘But are the flies harmful to the horses?’

And again, I saw it from his point of view. It was baffling. So I decided to stop humouring him and attempted to explain the real reason the horses were covered: ‘In this country,’ I said tentatively (and he didn’t stop me to say it was his country too; he seemed happy to listen on that basis, so I continued) ‘members of the public complain if they walk down a footpath on a farm track like this and see horses they think might be bothered by heat or flies because they assume the horse feels as they feel. They like to see horses covered in rugs and masks all the time.’

And I explained that this was especially true of Surrey, where townies and those of a left-wing persuasion recently moved here from London complain bitterly if horses are not covered in every kind of protective gear come rain or shine.

Last winter, the local neighbourhood WhatsApp group was awash with complaints about an experienced horse producer who had not rugged two foals living out with their mothers, despite them having a brand new £5,000 field shelter.

It had to be explained to them that a baby horse cannot be forced into a rug.

He looked utterly bemused, but thanked me and drove away.

It bothered me all day, that exchange, and I wondered whether it was because there were so many replies I might have given defending my culture, and telling him he had a cheek.

But no, it wasn’t that. I realised I was bothered because while I put a fly mask on my thoroughbred Darcy, and sometimes a fly sheet, because she’s sensitive, I’m not convinced. She doesn’t seem to mind wearing it but she does rather look like Darth Vader.

I’m bothered because deep down, I agree with him.

The horse-rugging craze is getting so ludicrous there are people putting horses in onesies, with even their legs covered.

I took the fly mask off my thoroughbred that morning, and I haven’t put it back on since.

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