Christmas memories: ‘I’m on a swimming horse. If you cut me open like a stick of rock, you would find this moment carved within me’
What is your most memorable childhood Christmas? Helen Seymour reminisces about finally being released from Christmas church duties so she could join the annual Christmas horse swim in Howth.
It was my first ride. Now, before you get excited, we’re talking horses.
It’s Christmas 1984. I’m fourteen. I work in a local riding stable. I get paid £8 a day to do what I love. Ride horses. Groom horses. Feed horses. Muck out stables. I am in Heaven.
Except for one thing.
Every year on Christmas Day, the entire stables go to the beach. That’s 35 horses, en-masse, clattering down through Howth Village, across the pier, and onto Claremount Strand, for a gallop or a swim, depending on where the tide is.
You don’t understand… I hate church… If Jesus was alive he’d be on the beach…
And each year, everyone goes, except for me and my sister. Because our Church of Ireland-going parents take us to mass on Christmas Day, and this is non-negotiable. For two years now, we have been begging, pleading, cajoling, but to no avail.
“You don’t understand… I hate church… If Jesus was alive he’d be on the beach…” There were many, many, angry shouts and tears.
And then, without warning, a Christmas miracle.
“Your father and I have been talking,” said my mother. “We realise how important this ride is to you (her actual words, I swear), so we have decided you can go to church on Christmas Eve, and we will take your brother on Christmas Day.”
It was a defining moment. Parents, I realise in hindsight, have moments of give and take as they navigate their children’s teenage years. Critical moments. I am forever grateful for the great big “give” my parents gave that year.
Is the tide in or out? No one knows. It’s 1984. The only way to discover if the tide is in or out is to go to the beach and see for yourself.
December 25th. I’m awake in my bedroom with yellow woodchip wallpaper. And I remember, oh my goodness, the Christmas beach ride. Get up, get upI Running down the landing, bursting into my sister’s room, pink roses wallpaper, white carpet. “…Eat your breakfast” my Mother shouting. “You’re not going anywhere until you eat…” slamming, banging, the smell of pine, Christmas paper ripped and torn. Screams and shouts, “I love it, thanks!” Pulling on my jodhpurs, where’s my hat… my gloves, my gloves, and we’re out the door, running running up the road, bandy legs in long black boots.
“Who are you riding?”
“Is the tide in or out?”
Important questions. The beach can be a skittish place. You don’t want to ride a highly strung horse on the beach. You don’t want a horse that will stop mid gallop at the sight of a piece of seaweed.
“Who are you riding?”
I’m riding Giscard (we pronounce it Geese-Guard). Beautiful Giscard with her big eyes, long lashes and her soft velvety mouth. Giscard, named after the French President elected the year she was born. Giscard, standing 17 hands tall, a majestic, fast, strong dark bay with golden undertones, and a long flowing mane and tail.
“Is the tide in or out?”
No one knows. It’s 1984. The only way to discover if the tide is in or out is to go to the beach and see for yourself. Oh please let it be in. I’ve never swum on a horse before. And I really want to.
“What did you get?” teenage girls shriek as they muck out stables and groom their horses. Brushes brushing, mud swept off furry coats, careful untangling manes and tails. Horses whickering across the yard.
There’s a song that’s been playing on the radio for the last month, “Do they know it’s Christmas?” and it’s the Christmas number one. We’ve been singing it for weeks. Now it plays on the tiny transistor radio in the tack room as we grab our saddles and bridles.
Girths tightened, leather snapping as stirrups are pulled. Thirty-five riders begin to mount thirty-five horses and ponies of differing heights, shapes and colours. A clattering of hooves, as we begin to move. Up the yard, out the gate, down the road. Thirty-five horses and ponies with happy chatter from all their riders. Hot horse breath in the cold Christmas air. Down we go, clattering, chattering, through the village, across the seafront.
And then it happens. Her knees soften, her shoulders submerge, and this giant of a horse sinks down into the sea.
“The tide is in!” a shout from the top echoes down the long line of horses. In the distance, I can see the beach. Closer it comes, closer again. The lead rider halts traffic as we cross the road, and suddenly here we are, at the top of the long wide sloping concrete ramp that leads down into Howth’s waterfront. I stare nervously at the slimy green seaweed around the edges, and the way the ramp disappears down into the murky grey seawater. I watch the lead rider and the first few horses make their way down. Hooves splashing, fetlocks submerging. In they go.
Gisgard makes her way down. She slips, she slides but steadies quickly. It might be my first beach ride, but not hers. She knows what she’s doing. We’re off the ramp, we’re into the sea and I can feel soft sand beneath her hooves as we enter the water. Small splashes. A horse beside me paws the water with happy excitement. Deeper we go. I look behind me. There’s a steady stream of ponies and horses still making their way down the ramp. The chatter of the riders stops and a sort of silence descends. There’s a gentle breeze and the sloshing rhythmic sound of this small horse army wading deeper in the water but other than that, it’s calm and still. The winter sun is high overhead as a bird swoops past.
The lead riders are getting deeper. I feel the water drag and pull around my boots. I look down and see my feet submerged. I watch the horses ahead start to swim. One by one, their bodies disappear down into the sea, just their neck and heads above the water, their riders perched on top, with knees pulled high.
Icy water invades my boots, plunging down around my feet, a shock to the system. Fear is forgotten in this freezing sea. Gisgard now is shoulder deep, the salt sea water licking the sides of her saddle. My knees, my thighs are soaking wet. Gisgard stops. She sniffs the air, seems to take it in. I pull my knees up high, and gently squeeze her forward, not really sure if I’m doing this right.
And then it happens. Her knees soften, her shoulders submerge, and this giant of a horse sinks down into the sea. Down we sink, up we come. Icy water swirls around me as Gisgard’s legs reach and pull in the sea beneath us. We are sinking, rising, sinking, rising. She is swimming. We are swimming. I’m soaking wet. I’m freezing cold. I’m fully alive. I’m fourteen. It’s Christmas Day. I’m on a swimming horse, surrounded by a sea of swimming horses.
If you cut me open like a stick of rock, you would find this moment carved within me.