The Long Riders' Guild

My Rascal of a Pony

by George Younghusband  


Ask any Long Rider and they will tell you that equestrian journeys have a way of hardening your soul against adversity. You learn to dig down and push on when your road is a long one. This type of travel  requires a special type of person, one who wishes to know the world intimately and to judge other people by first-hand experience. Though he sports a modest demeanor in this story, George Younghusband was anything but the "ordinary British Subaltern" as he described himself. The small equestrian travel book he wrote at the conclusion of this trip did not profess to be any sort of literary classic. It was, like George, a modest, faithful, and cheerful account of new countries encountered with an iron-grey pony. That modesty served the "ordinary subaltern" well in later years. He eventually became known as Major-General Sir George Younghusband, Keeper of the Jewel House at the Tower of London - though I doubt if such a grand title would have impressed his mischievous mount, Joe.

Our only four-footed companion was a small, iron-grey Burma pony, standing just 12 hands 2 in. high, with the girth and legs of a Galloway.  A jolly, merry little fellow, but, as will be seen hereafter, quite childish in his love for inconvenient flippancy.

From Moulmein to Shwaygoon, a small village sixty-three miles up the Salween River, there is a daily line of steam launches, run by the Salween River Steam Navigation Co., good roomy boats 60 ft. long by 12 ft. broad, and decked throughout their length.  We tumbled our pony and baggage into one of these, and being ourselves comfortably accommodated in the bows, started on our journey.  It was kind and considerate of the skipper putting us so far for’ard, for the stench abaft, from the cargo of dried fish on board, was quite overpowering.  I have never been in the main sewer of London Town, but I can make a fair guess at what it is like, and should think a cargo of Burmese dried fish could compare very favourably with it.

The day was bright and exhilarating, the country grew more and more wooded and picturesque as we proceeded, and our little boat bowled merrily along at the rate of eight miles an hour.  We stopped three or four times to unload passengers, and to take in new cargoes of them, and after an eight-hour run reached Shwaygoon.  Unfortunately I could not speak the language, and the Archbishop, my Burmese pocket dictionary, I am sure did not do me justice in my endeavours to make myself pleasant to the jolly Johnny Burmans and their crowds of wives.

We were kept a day at Shwaygoon waiting for baggage elephants.  In the morning I tried all round for game, but saw nothing.  In the afternoon the police lent me a “dug-out” and paddled me up stream;  we shot a few imperial and green pigeons.  The former are magnificent birds, weighing as much as a plump Indian chicken;  they have the beautiful sheen on their wings common to English carrier pigeons, and large ruby-coloured eyes.  Their skin is very thick, and it wants a hard-hitting gun to bring them down.  For the table they have to be skinned as well as feathered.  Green pigeons of three kinds are common in these parts – the yellow-green, the rock-green, and the ordinary green.  All of these are excellent eating.  Fish of all sorts abound both in the rivers of Burma and Siam.

Towards evening the elephants arrived from Hlaingbue, and next morning, 26th January, early, we started up the east bank of the Salween.  The whole of our baggage was not more than two respectable mule loads, but we had the greatest to-do to prevail upon the mahouts (elephent-men the Archbishop calls them) to load it up.  It made me positively weep to see a great brawny elephant looking quite injured at having to carry a load that one of our regimental mules would have smiled sarcastically at.  Having started them off, I saddled up my little 12.2 charger and casually sauntered on to his back.  Now having been a cavalry soldier for some years, and rather fancying myself as a decent rider, I had never viewed this small atom of horse-flesh otherwise than in the light of a means of conveyance when I was tired.  However, he very soon knocked all that nonsense out of me;  for he went off like a streak of lightning, stampeded the two elephants, who immediately devastated the village, and shed my goods and chattels on the roofs of houses and up high trees;  he then galloped as hard as he could straight at a twelve-foot palisade.  I thought he was going to try and jump it, and said my prayers accordingly, but he was no such fool;  he stopped as dead as a mummy about three feet off it, and shot me violently into the hardest palisade ever made by man.  He then stood quite still and sniggered at me.  No other pony have I ever seen even smile, but that little rat distinctly grinned.  I was rather wrathful and very much bruised;  but mounted again, thinking that, having had his little joke, he would go along in a decent and decorous frame of mind.  Not a bit;  he went off harder than ever, this time through almost impenetrable forest, where he very shortly left me hanging over a bough like a night-shirt on a clothes’ line.  After that I led him till I got on to a good open bit of road, intending to have my joke there;  but he wouldn’t play at all then, and neither whip nor spur would stir him out of an old gentleman’s tit-up.  A tremendous wag that pony – I say it without malice – but in spite of my earnest endeavours to rival him in that respect, he invariably, throughout our long partnership of 1800 miles, managed to turn the tables on me, and make me the butt of all his little pleasantries.  I named him “Joe” after a facetious donkey that used to delight Calcutta audiences at Wilson’s circus.  

Burmese-Pony-75.JPG (40832 bytes)

It was on a hardy pony such as this that the young British officer, George Younghusband, travelled through Burma and Siam in 1887.  

Click on photo to enlarge

We often had to wade 200 and 300 yards in knee-deep water, encumbered with the hardest and most slippery boulders ever created.  Poor old “Joe” seemed to suffer severely, having lost all his shoes;  it was quite painful to see him try to pick his way along.  I only discovered after I had walked 200 miles, out of compassion for him, that he was only pulling my leg, one of his little jokes at my expense.

That pony of mine is quite the wickedest pony in Asia.  He is only 12.2, but within that small compass is contained all the mischievousness of fifty children.

With much toil my boy gets me a basin of water to wash with;  while I turn round to take off my coat, darned if that pony does not cruise round in a casual way and drink it, not because he is thirsty, for he has just had his bellyful of water.

I had a venerable solar topee, which I was keeping together with great trouble, when that pony, knowing it, deliberately eats the crown out.

Is my dinner cooking on the fire?  Off he goes and tips it over.

Am I dead tired and fast asleep?  He sticks his nose into me.

Do I want to give him his grain?  He goes and stands on the far side of a quagmire, though he is dying to get at it.

Have I just been on the point of getting an angle with the prismatic?  Up he comes, jogging my elbow.

Have I tied him up with everything I possess?  He eludes it somehow, slips his head-stall or breaks it so I have to let him loose.

When I am in a hurry to start, he hides behind a tree;  when I want to go slow, he runs away;  when I want to go fast, he pretends to be lame. 

Do I put my watch or other treasures on the table?  He waits till I look the other way, and then tips it over.

It had been our intention to cross Central Siam to Rahang, and there take boat to Bangkok;  but the season was far advanced, and the rains had set in regularly, making land travelling not only very difficult, but with pack ponies almost impossible.  We also entered into an agreement for the transport by raft of our four ponies, thinking that there would be a good market for them in Bangkok;  but at the last moment it was discovered that there was not sufficient water in the river to float so heavy a load, and we had reluctantly to leave them behind.  Rather than hand them over to the tender mercies of the Siamese, we hired a couple of men, and sent them to Dr. Cheek at Zimmé;  but I imagine they were stolen on the road, for I have never heard yet that they reached Dr. Cheek.  The parting between Joe and I was most affecting;  he ran down to the shore ninnying quite sadly as we rowed away.  A right tight little fellow, a friend and companion for months which seemed like years;  and though he vexed my soul very often, yet he was always so jolly and merry over it, that I could never be really angry with him.  I should like to have brought him home with me, but that was out of the question.  May he have fallen into kind hands!

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