The Equestrian Career of Miss Shirley Burr
When I set out to write a profile of Shirley Burr for a local magazine some time ago I had no notion of the exciting, adventure-packed life that would ultimately be revealed. Shirley was an extremely practical person. She thought that a curt resumé of her accomplishments, one that omitted any drama, would suffice. I disagreed. Hence it took more than a year to write this story. The magazine published it over five issues! Delving into memory took time but in the end I think it was worth the effort. After reading the triumphant result, I hope you do too.
Born in 1935 in England, Shirley Burr was the first child and only daughter of a timber broker. Her family lived in the little village of Danbury in Essex not far from London. Like all English children of that era her young life was dominated by the Second World War. London during the Blitz was a place of anxiety and uncertainty with ear-splitting air raid sirens, cold nights spent huddling in bomb shelters, evacuations, fire trucks, ambulances and destruction.
Then, on top of this seemingly endless ordeal, Shirley had to endure another, no less life-threatening. Shirley was diagnosed with lymphatic tuberculosis at the age of nine. Tuberculosis was a disease common in England at that time, one contracted by drinking unpasteurized milk. She was desperately, possibly fatally ill. Luckily there was a new wonder drug called penicillin that had recently become available. Shirley’s doctor didn’t have much experience using penicillin but he had heard miraculous stories about it. Unfortunately, Shirley’s case wasn’t destined to be one of them. To the doctor’s horror, after the second injection of this life-saving antibiotic Shirley had a violent reaction then lapsed into a state that was euphemistically called a “deep sleep”. Her stricken parents watched over their unresponsive, unreachable daughter fearing that she would die. Amazingly, she didn’t. After four days she eventually woke up.
It took months to recover from both the disease and its traumatic cure. Shirley rejoined the world just as the war was ending in 1945. “Fresh air and exercise” was what the doctor ordered for his frail patient. Shirley’s parents had notions of invigorating hikes through the countryside but after so many months in bed even walking exhausted their daughter. So far life hadn’t been much fun for this little girl. The doctor didn’t want to turn her recovery into yet another trial. As luck would have it, a soldier who had just been discharged from the army had started a riding school in Danbury. Girls and horses were a match made in heaven, as the doctor well knew. So, in a stroke of medical genius, he prescribed riding lessons.
His remedy was an outstanding success. In an astonishingly short space of time Shirley became the sort of ten year old girl in pigtails who could expend vast amounts of energy doing all kinds of activities – so long as those activities involved horses. She spent every spare moment at the riding school where she endeavored to make herself indispensable to its owner. Shirley mucked out stables, swept the yard, carried water buckets, cleaned tack, groomed all the little school ponies and, of course, rode.
Riding was her ultimate reward. What started as weekly lessons evolved into something much more consuming as it became clear that despite her fragile appearance, Shirley was a formidable athlete. In addition to being highly coordinated, courageous and lightning quick at grasping the concepts of horsemanship, she was a cool competitor. She didn’t own a pony herself but that didn’t matter. She climbed the ranks of the Pony Club and entered every local horse show, flying around the jumping courses with the finesse of a fighter jet pilot. The clusters of rosettes that she won riding the school ponies were good advertising for the stable and so the owner was more than happy to encourage Shirley in every way he could.
Much to her parents’ consternation, Shirley’s academic education did not keep pace with her equestrian achievements. She attended an excellent convent school in Chelmsford but her long illness had caused her to fall far behind her peers and she never really caught up. Not that she made much effort. She dreamed her way through classes. Her head was full of horses.
Everything about school irked her, even the uniform. She much preferred jodhpurs to the stodgy box-pleated brown dress that she was obliged to tolerate five days a week. The cream coloured blouse and strangling tie were also a source of annoyance. However the part that displeased Shirley the most was the scratchy straw boater hat. She had a solution for that. On the way home from school she would take a detour through the riding school and purposely walk past the long line of stable doors. Inevitably, one of the ponies would reach out, lift the hat right off her head and chew it to bits. Shirley’s mother, who had to pay for the repeated replacements, did not think it was as amusing as she did.
At night when she was supposed to be studying, Shirley was instead secretly reading Horse and Hound, Britain’s weekly equestrian magazine. Not only did the magazine profile the who’s who of the horse world but its thick classified section served as the major directory for employment in the industry.
When she wasn’t gleaning important information from Horse and Hound she was reading a pony novel written by one of the famous Pullein-Thompson sisters. Between the three of them, Christine, Diana and Josephine, the Pullein-Thompsons penned almost two hundred horse stories. They sold ten million worldwide. In the post-war period of the late 1940’s and through the 1950’s they were all the rage. The convent school that Shirley attended required students to read the classics of English literature but dithering Hamlet bored Shirley to tears and she had no patience for Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen thought that what a girl needed was a rich husband. The Pullein-Thompson sisters, on the other hand, disdainfully disagreed. What a girl really needed was a horse. In the pony novels there was certainly no waiting around for Mr. Darcy. Girls took control of their own lives. They relied on their own ingenuity and hard work. They earned money, counted their shillings and planned their opportunities. Adults barely figured. The plots often revolved around finding a horse that nobody else wanted and turning it into a show jumping champion. Shirley just ate them up. The lessons of independence, freedom and enterprise stayed with her all her life.
By the age of thirteen she had decided that she wanted a career in horses. At sixteen she scraped through her GSCE, the most basic academic qualification, and the minute that was done she left school. She moved from home into digs in the nearby town of Hutton in order to be an unpaid working student at a stable much larger than the one she had grown up with in Danbury. Here, for the very first time, she rode full sized horses, not ponies. She reached the very highest ranking in the Pony Club system, the “A” level, and passed the British Horse Society’s Preliminary Instructor’s Certificate. With that she was ready to get a paying job.
She found one as a riding instructress for a girls boarding school named Hanford School in Dorset. The Reverend Canning and his wife ran their school in an enormous old Jacobean manor nestled in a fold between rolling hills and surrounded by miles and miles of picturesque countryside. Their daughter Sarah had been in charge of the school’s riding program but she had gone of Oxford to read law. Now eighteen year old Shirley had to take over. Not only did she excel at her new job, she also loved every minute of it. The atmosphere at Hanford School was happy and homey and the quirky personalities of the children were an unending source of delight.
Sarah Canning had reluctantly left behind her own personal horses and these became Shirley’s responsibility as well. Up until now Shirley’s experience had been limited to riding school horses, sturdy, unremarkable mounts more valued for their forgiving temperaments than anything else. Sarah’s horses were of an entirely different class. These were tall, well-bred, fine-skinned, hair-trigger horses. This was something new. The moment she sat on them Shirley appreciated the difference: long, elastic stride, power and scope over jumps. Shirley’s favourite was a striking Thoroughbred gelding named Tetros (pictured below). His grandsire had been the famous racehorse The Tetrarch and Tetros had inherited his trademark colour, a coat of steel grey paint-blotched with white.
To keep Sarah’s horses fit and sharp Shirley was expected to take them out foxhunting with the local pack which was the Portman Hunt. This too was something new. Foxhunting was not for the faint of heart. It was not like show jumping, navigating around a carefully laid course of brightly painted rails that safely fell out of their supporting cups if a horse came to grief. With the Portman Hunt riders followed hounds full pelt across fields, through mud, over solid stone walls, hedges, banks, ditches, streams or whatever else loomed up in front of them never quite knowing what lay on the other side of each blind leap. Falls and injuries were part and parcel of the sport. It was terrifying – and thrilling.
Also thrilling were the Portman Hunt balls, a staple feature of Dorset’s genteel country life. During the Christmas holidays when the girls had all gone home, the balls were held in the Great Hall of Hanford School. Shirley danced the night away caught up in the patterns of Scottish reels and other country dances. By morning when winter light filtered through the leaded windows and almost everyone had gone home, the few remaining diehards, of which Shirley was always one, would move from the freezing, empty hall to the kitchens. In their satin ball gowns and bow ties they would gather around the iron Aga stove to drink coffee, eat eggs and trade jokes.
After two happy years at Hanford School Shirley was ready to move on. She went to Ireland on what for her was a fact-finding mission more than anything else. For one, the emerald isle was legendary for its horses and Shirley wanted to see it for herself. Her second point of investigation was Burton Hall. It was a well-regarded establishment in Dublin situated virtually across the road from the Leopardstown racecourse. Not too far from it also were the premises of the famous Dublin Horse Show. The Dublin Horse Show was the country’s shop window to the world.
Burton Hall was run by the elderly and distinguished Colonel Dudgeon and it had a great reputation for preparing young professionals for the British Horse Society’s Instructor’s Certificate. So far Shirley only had the preliminary certificate. She knew that she would need the full qualification if she wanted her career to advance. But she wasn’t ready yet to take the exams. The exams were tough and the prep course at Burton Hall was costly. Shirley didn’t have the money to pay for it. For the moment she contented herself with an unpaid position as a working student at Burton Hall and used her opportunity to see what the course required and learn everything she could about what lay ahead of her.
Then, through word of mouth, Shirley learned of a short-term job in County Kildare as a rider-instructor for a family with four children. Kildare was the very epicentre of Ireland’s horse culture and Shirley took the job in a heartbeat. Her employers, it turned out, were Lord and Lady Carew and they lived at Castletown, one of the most impressive stately homes in all of Ireland. Shirley found herself installed in a bedroom at the top of this very grand Palladian mansion. In the picture below the two windows of Shirley's bedroom can be seen. They are on the top floor of the central building, one directly above the main entrance and the other just to the left.
Many generations of the family had lived in Castletown since it was built in the 1700’s. Modern life was now lived in the spaces left between antique dust-sheeted furniture too valuable to sit on. There was a gallery filled with pictures but it was off-limits. The Old Masters in it were priceless. In any case, the Carews had little interest in dead portraits. What mattered more to them were living, breathing horses. Of course the Carews still followed the traditions of their class. They dressed in evening clothes for dinner and Shirley was expected to do the same. The meal was announced by gong on the dot of eight. But if the dining was formal the conversation was not. The subject, discussed with considerable enthusiasm, was always horses. In this energetic, enterprising family everybody rode, hunted and competed. What’s more, the Carews had the quintessential Irish knack for horse trading. Lady Carew was an astute judge of horseflesh and even the children, bright sparks that they were, seemed to have invisible antennae that detected every trace of information or gossip relevant to the business. Dubious looking animals wild and woolly straight out of the wind-swept fields of the west would turn up at Castletown and Shirley was amazed at how rapidly they were transformed into show jumpers. The goal was to sell them on at a profit, to Americans if at all possible. The Americans had money and they paid a king’s ransom for good Irish horses.
By the time Shirley returned to England her understanding of the horse world had greatly expanded. Ireland had given her a key-hole glimpse of the upper levels, the international scene, and now she was determined to get her toe in the door. The 1956 Olympic Games were approaching and Shirley wanted to be a part of it one way or another. She had read that Colonel V. D. S. Williams was to be in charge of the British Three Day Eventing Team. Mustering all her moxie, Shirley wrote to Colonel Williams and asked if she could get a job as an Olympic groom. Selections for the Olympic team had not yet been finalized but Colonel Williams gave Shirley a job caring for three horses that were in consideration. If she was lucky perhaps one of them would make the final cut.
Three day eventing was a grueling sport that had its origins in cavalry training. In the 1950’s it was still the preserve of military men. The first day of competition was dedicated to dressage performance in which horse and rider demonstrated harmony and sophistication through the execution of precise patterns and specific steps. On the second, they went across country along miles of tracks and over fearsome obstacles that simulated a day of foxhunting. The third day was show jumping. It took a special horse to handle all that. Over weeks of trials the hopefuls were whittled down. Many were ruled out through injury and lameness. Of the three that she cared for, Shirley’s favourite was a big dark bay gelding named Countryman III. He was ridden by a man named Bertie Hill but Bertie didn’t own him. He was owned by a syndicate. To Shirley’s delight Countryman shone throughout the trials. He was selected.
Soon after, Shirley was told to expect a visitor. A member of the syndicate, one of Countryman’s many owners was coming to see him. After polishing every hair on her big star, Shirley took him to the indoor arena to wait. Suddenly the door to the arena opened and in walked a trio of women, all beautifully turned out in dresses, hats and heels. Shirley blinked. Her visitors were Queen Elizabeth, her sister Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother. The Queen Mother herself owned a quarter share of Countryman and now that he was to compete at the Olympics, representing Britain on the international stage, she had given her share to her daughter. In future, it had been decided, Countryman would be considered Queen Elizabeth’s horse and would compete under her name.
Queen Elizabeth was thirty years old and had been on the throne for just three years. She was young, beautiful and vibrant. Her pleasure in Countryman, his success and all that lay ahead was plain. She questioned twenty-one year old Shirley and Shirley, utterly unfazed, discussed Countryman with her business-as-usual professionalism. What did distract her were the Queen’s eyes. They were an intense electric blue. Shirley had seen so many photographs and films of the Queen that she thought she knew exactly what the Queen looked like. But this was something that film and photos, even colour ones, had never successfully captured. The Queen Mother and Princess Margaret shared this remarkable family feature and to be pinpointed under the blue gaze of all three royal women at once was, Shirley found, an unforgettable experience.
After that came the news that the members of the British Three Day Eventing Team would all come together now and complete Olympic preparations at Windsor Castle. In very short order, Shirley and Countryman were ensconced within the stone walls of this historic royal residence. The team horses were housed near the royal polo ponies in one of the many small stable yards while Shirley and her colleagues lived over the covered riding arena. From her room Shirley could see the royal standard flying from the tower which indicated that the Queen was at home.
The horses trained for cross-country in Windsor’s Great Park which was open to the public and people flocked to watch. Olympic excitement was building and the team was predicted to do extremely well. Experts were brought in for fine-tuning. Britain was already strong in cross-country and show jumping. Dressage however, posed something of a problem. Its origins in the baroque high art of fine horsemanship, dressage was virtually an unknown discipline in Britain. The Europeans, on the other hand, esteemed dressage above all else in equestrian sport. Consequently, they were masters at it.
To address the British team’s deficiency, the great Alois Podhajsky was brought all the way from Austria. He was the director of the prestigious Spanish Riding School in Vienna, home of the dancing white Lipizzaner stallions. Shirley had never been to Vienna but she knew about this bastion of classical dressage. Now, watching from the sidelines engrossed and fascinated, she tried hard to understand what Podhajsky worked so patiently to teach. When he himself occasionally mounted a horse to demonstrate a concept, Podhajsky, so self-effacing and nondescript on the ground, was an entirely different man. On top of a horse he radiated poise and majesty. The ordinary, unsuspecting horse, meanwhile, like an equine Cinderella touched by a magic wand, changed in front of Shirley’s eyes from a clumsy oaf into a creature of balletic grace. But then what would one expect? Podhajsky was a dressage specialist and the three day event riders were not. Poor Podhajsky probably went home each night in despair and cried himself to sleep after a day spent coaching these Englishmen. It wasn’t easy. There were only a few weeks for them to learn the basics of an art form that he had studied for a lifetime.
The 1956 Olympics were held in Melbourne. However, Australia’s unique disease-free status made importing any animal into that country a very long, complicated matter. To side-step that difficulty, the equestrian portion of the Olympics was held in Stockholm instead. In June the British team horses and their grooms and equipment flew to Sweden in a four propeller freight plane. Also on board were pedigree cattle on their way to that same country. Shirley had never flown anywhere before and maybe a freight flight shared with a large bull rolling his eyes at her wasn’t the best introduction to this mode of transport. The airplane was dark, bare bones, bitterly cold and extremely noisy. The horses tolerated it all like troopers and never turned a hair.
Once they arrived at the Olympic site in Stockholm the British team was the daily focus of intense interest, every move followed by reporters and cameramen from back home. Shirley and Countryman found themselves particularly in the spotlight. They even made the front page of the newspaper in Sweden. Then Queen Elizabeth, her husband Prince Phillip and Princess Margaret arrived on the Royal Yacht Britannia. The Queen and her sister once again inspected Countryman and talked to Shirley (pictured) before the Queen took the opportunity to walk the cross-country course. As a horsewoman she wanted to understand and assess for herself the severe challenges that Countryman would face in this most demanding portion of the three day event.
Apart from all the fanfare, for Shirley the Olympics seemed exactly like any other big horse show. Without all the other sports and athletes the special Olympic atmosphere was missing. It was difficult for her to appreciate the magnitude of the event. If she couldn’t see the forest for the trees it wasn’t surprising considering the way things went - which wasn't very well. The first day of competition was dressage and the scores achieved by the British team were poor. Then the night before the cross-country phase of competition it rained heavily. The course, already daunting, became extra risky and Countryman took a nasty fall at the coffin jump. He escaped serious injury but that night when he badly needed rest, a fire broke out in the stable complex. New hay had been stacked against the wall of the covered arena and it had spontaneously combusted. All the horses had to be evacuated. Shirley and her bruised horse spent much of the night standing out in a park watching the conflagration from a safe distance. In Sweden the summer sky stays light around the clock and the orange blaze contrasted beautifully with the pearly “white night”. The covered arena burned to the ground.
Nevertheless, the fire didn’t interrupt the schedule. The next day, the last phase of competition, the show jumping, was performed right next to the still smoldering ruins. Countryman, sore and dead tired, put in his best effort. The strong results of the show jumping and cross-country portions compensated for the disappointing dressage scores and all three combined were enough to clinch the team gold. The British were Olympic champions!
The riders, with medals around their necks, blithely vanished into a whirlwind of Olympic glory and champagne celebration on the Royal Yacht Britannia. It was left to the grooms and the veterinarian to take care of the horses in the aftermath.
Exhausted, Shirley looked forward to going home now that the Olympics were over. This time there was no airplane which she was happy about - though she might not have been had she known what was in store. The first leg of the return journey was by freight train from Stockholm to the western port of Göteborg. After wrestling all the equipment in, the horses were led up ramps into the boxcars. The grooms rigged up cross-ties for them by hammering eye hooks into the walls. Shirley was provided with a flag and a bucket. The flag was to be used to signal in case of emergency, to stop the train if necessary. There was no other means of communication. The bucket was intended to serve as a toilet. There were no amenities in the boxcar, of course, and this freight train made no stops. As the train began to move, Shirley sat down on the plank floor in front of Countryman and resigned herself to long hours of boredom. Through the crack in the boxcar’s sliding doors she watched the scenery roll by, uninterrupted birch forest, hours and hours of it. The monotony of straight silvery trunks and sun-dappled spring leaves that shimmered like green sequins combined with the rhythmic clack of the train tracks was hypnotic.
Her trance was broken at Göteborg. Here they boarded the ship that was to take them to England. The horses were put in crates. One by one the crates were hoisted into the air by cranes, swung over the ship and placed on the open deck. Loading took most of a day and the ship did not set sail until late afternoon. At first the voyage went smoothly and the horses seemed happy enough munching on their hay nets. But the minute the ship left sheltered waters and hit the North Sea all that changed. The weather turned bad and most of the grooms, like all the other passengers on the ship, became sea sick. Shirley was not one of them though.
The horses, exposed to the elements, took the brunt of the rough weather. There was nothing to protect them from the wind and rain save a canvas tarp flapping over their heads. Waves broke over the bow flooding the deck. The drenched horses struggled to keep their legs underneath themselves as the ship pitched and rolled relentlessly. The wind whipped the sea spray into their faces and the salt stung their eyes. The horses were shivering and miserable and there was not a moment’s respite from the conditions. Shirley stayed with them. She was mostly alone since the other grooms were genuinely too sick to help. A sense of her own powerlessness drove her to tears of frustration. The horses were suffering and there was nothing she could do to prevent it. There was little consolation in the idea that as bad as things were, they could always get worse. She prayed nothing truly catastrophic would happen, that none of the horses would start to colic, that none of the horses would fall in its crate. All she could do was count down the hours until they reached England. It was to be a long countdown. England was two days away.
By pure chance Colonel Dudgeon from Burton Hall was on the same ship. He spotted Shirley out on deck clinging to the railings and looking like a drowned cat. The colonel had a nice, warm first class cabin with a big window that gave an excellent view of the horses. In the end he made Shirley come in and keep watch from there.
At long last the ship reached the English port of Tilbury. Then began the agonizingly slow process of unloading. Once again cranes were needed to hoist the crates off the ship. For one of the horses this latest test was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Pushed beyond the limits of tolerance, he snapped. Precariously suspended in mid-air, the crate rocked wildly as the panicked horse struggled. There were the sounds of splintering wood and heart-rending groans of distress. For one horrible moment it seemed possible that the horse might actually tip out. All the while the crane never stopped moving and finally the crate with the horse still in it touched the ground. The horse was severely shaken, terrified and covered in cuts, the blood mixed with the salt crusted on his coat. All things considered, the damage was minor. There were lacerations and bruises but nothing catastrophic - no broken legs.
On the return to England, Shirley’s job with the British team ended. She wasn’t sorry to say goodbye. She went home to her parents to recover from her Olympic dramas. Completely burned out, Shirley was in no mood to see anybody even remotely connected to the horse world. Still, the big White City horse show was on in London and Shirley couldn’t resist going to watch. She thought that she could stay out of sight and avoid bumping into anyone she knew if she made herself just another face in the crowd, one of a thousand spectators. So she paid half a crown for a cheap seat, nosebleed high, way up at the back of the stadium. To Shirley’s satisfaction, her section in “the gods” was near empty. There she sat, blissfully undisturbed when suddenly she heard her name.
“Shirley, is that you?”
Dreading to see who had discovered her, she slowly turned around. Behind her stood Lady Carew. Diana, her eldest daughter, had just cantered into the ring for her jumping round and Lady Carew had sprinted up flights of steps straight from the collecting ring to get a bird’s-eye view of her performance. So much for Shirley’s brilliant plan of staying incognito.
“What are you doing these days?” asked Lady Carew.
“Nothing at the moment,” replied Shirley with too much honesty.
“Oh. Well, come to Scotland then,” said Lady Carew.
The children were in Scotland for the summer staying with their maternal grandmother the Dowager Countess of Lauder who lived at Thirlestane Castle. After five minutes of conversation the matter was settled. Shirley went home and packed her bags. She’d take a break some other time.
Shirley had recently acquired a British James motorcycle. It was the most expensive thing she had ever owned but the freedom it gave her made the investment worth every penny. In those days it wasn’t so unusual for a single, independent-minded girl to have one. Relatively speaking, the James motorcycle was pretty tame stuff but still, the incongruous sight of petite, demure Shirley astride her beast of a machine must have given people a shock. In that era, many girls smoked in an effort to project an air of defiant worldliness. Shirley didn’t. She didn’t have to. The motorbike was already an overdose of coolness quotient.
In situations such as this, the motorcycle was also a highly practical solution to a transportation problem. Shirley put herself and her motorcycle on a train headed north. When she had gone as far as she could, she disembarked. She rode her motorcycle the rest of the way to Thirlestane Castle, put-putting along the single lane tracks that traced through the purple heather of moors that stretched as far as the eye could see.
Shirley spent the rest of the summer with the Carews and then went back to Ireland with them. Diana, despite her young age, was now Master of the Kildare Harriers. All autumn Shirley rode second horse for her. They were hare hunting not foxhunting but the idea was much the same and hunting in Ireland was even more daunting than it was in England. Moreover, Diana, with her prodigious skill and confidence, was such a daredevil that Shirley could barely keep up with her.
By Christmas Shirley’s job had ended. It was followed by another and another and another – all temporary. Finally, in the classified section of Horse and Hound, she found something of more substance near Lausanne, Switzerland. Her new employer was Captain de Rham, a member of the Swiss national show jumping team. In her new job Shirley travelled all over Europe as the captain competed in Italy, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. The captain had such a high regard for Shirley’s abilities that he often sent her back to England alone to talent scout fresh horses for him.
For Shirley the highlight of the job came each summer when the captain was obliged to report for his annual military service. The few weeks of mandatory military training were a thinly veiled excuse for those in the cavalry to spend time brushing up their riding technique. The first summer, Shirley was delighted to discover that “military training” was to take place at the Berne remount depot, the home base of the Swiss national dressage team. One of the dressage coaches was Henri Chamartin, an Olympian and a man already well on the way to becoming a legend in what was to be a long and illustrious career. He was also an accomplished violinist and his sensibility as a musician and artist influenced his approach to dressage. In his eyes, quality of movement and ease of execution trumped pure mechanical perfection. Force was replaced by flow. That the steps were technically correct meant little to Chamartin if they were not enlivened by the individual expression of the horse performing them.
When the men noticed how closely training was observed by Shirley they offered to coach her too. Shirley was one of only a handful of English riders who was lucky enough to get world-class dressage training in the 1950’s. She realized it and made the most of it. The Swiss riders, thrilled at finding such an open-minded, receptive foreigner, were generous with praise and encouragement. Their corrections were blunt but they were equally quick to acknowledge the good points. They chose to emphasize what was right, not dwell on what was wrong. Shirley never forgot that. Dressage, with its lofty goals of balance and beauty, became inseparable in her mind from the virtues of kindness, patience and respect.
Shirley had been happily working for the captain for two years when suddenly she started having severe migraine headaches. She had never had migraines before in her life. At first she brushed off the problem but the migraines wouldn’t go away and each one was worse than the last. The captain was seriously worried. He thought that Shirley was overworked. He wanted to strap a cow bell around her neck and send her up into the Alps for a rest cure. Shirley didn’t fancy a stint as Heidi. If she was going to take a break then she wanted to go home to England.
Maybe she was overworked. Since she had left home at the age of sixteen, life had been full-throttle for her. She hadn’t had a holiday in ten years. But in her heart, Shirley knew it was more than that. The problem was more than physical. Something else was gnawing at her. She was twenty-five years old. She was tired of being at the beck and call of other people. She wanted to run her own show, to be the one in charge for once, to be the one in control. That would never happen if she continued on her current course. If she didn’t do something decisive her life would never change. She had always intended to take those exams for the British Horse Society Instructor’s Certificate. There was no reason to put it off any longer. Lack of money had been the obstacle but now after years of careful saving she finally had enough.
Before there was any chance that she might get side-tracked by some tempting job offer, Shirley made a bee-line for Ireland. She enrolled as a full-time paying student at Burton Hall. However, no sooner had she unpacked her suitcase than she began to have the first twinges of misgiving. Nothing about Burton Hall was quite as she remembered it from years ago. That was because Colonel Dudgeon had retired. Under the new management standards had slipped. The perceptible laxities in tutelage quickly undermined Shirley’s confidence. The exams she faced were comprehensive. They ran over several days and covered both the practical and theoretical aspects not only of riding and teaching but also stable management, business management, training, nutrition, anatomy and ailments of the horse. There was a lot to cover in the prep course at Burton Hall and Shirley had the horrible suspicion that much was being skimmed over. After only two weeks she quit and left Ireland. She thought that she could prepare better on her own and she spent the next couple of months trying to do just that.
The exams were held in the dead of winter at a military remount depot in Melton Mowbray. The weather that year was exceptionally cold. Shirley and her unlucky colleagues were frozen and miserable. There were twelve applicants in total. For the exam they all had to ride horses that were provided for them, unfamiliar military horses used to being ridden by men with little finesse. For Shirley, despite her considerable experience foxhunting across all kinds of terrain, the worst part of the exam turned out to be the cross-country course. The footing was icy, slippery and treacherous and Shirley had no confidence in her horse at all. She jumped every obstacle but her apprehensive approach cost her dearly in examiner’s points.
The upshot was that Shirley was not successful in the exam as a whole. The fact that she had actually missed by just a couple of points in a couple of sub-sections was no consolation. She might as well have missed by a mile because the result was the same. She did not achieve the qualification she needed. The exam and all the many associated costs had been very expensive for Shirley. Years and years of her savings had disappeared straight down the drain with nothing to show for it. Shirley was urged to retake the exams right away. She was so close, surely next time she would be successful and she only had to retake the subsections she had missed. She couldn’t. She just didn’t have the money. In fact, she was in such dire financial straits she had barely two pennies left to rub together.
Thoroughly disgusted at the way things had turned out, she brooded over her next move. Her overwhelming impulse was to leave England and Europe altogether. In fact, she wanted to get as far away from them as possible. Everything there was old news. She didn’t want to go back to the same tired cycle. She longed for a change of scene, a fresh start in some new, exciting, extremely distant country. She had always wanted to travel the world and now seemed a good time to get started. New Zealand was Shirley’s top choice. South Africa also appealed and she even had some relatives there. But no country could be ruled out in her mind.
During the brief time Shirley had been at Burton Hall there had been a Canadian woman studying there too. Shirley had asked her in an off-the-cuff fashion if there were any jobs in Canada. The woman had thought hard for a moment. Yes, there was probably something at a riding stable she knew – though she wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, she had added. Shirley zeroed in on the first part of her reply and chose to ignore the second. She had already gotten the address from the woman and now she wrote off to the Maple Ridge Equestrian Centre in British Columbia, Canada. With surprising speed, the centre wrote back offering her a job as a riding instructor.
Meanwhile, Shirley hadn’t had any job leads from her dream destination of New Zealand. Though the idea had developed some pizzazz in her mind, she hadn’t made any concrete progress on South Africa either. Canada seemed a tad hokey in comparison. The image of snow covered log cabins and beaver-capped lumber-jacks couldn’t compete with the gin-and-tonic glamour, the swashbuckling romance of the colonial safari lifestyle that Shirley envisioned in Africa. Still, a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. Apart from the job offer, Canada had one crucially important advantage over Africa. Canada was actively working to attract newcomers and to this end offered “assisted passage”. This meant that cash-strapped Shirley could book her seat on an airplane and pay back the cost of the ticket after she got to Canada. Fly now – pay later! Perfect.
Shirley arrived in Canada in April 1960. She went straight to the Maple Ridge Equestrian Centre, not far from the city of Vancouver, where she happily took on a teaching schedule that kept her busy from morning until night. Her salary was $65 a month. She paid off her assisted passage of $250 in five months.
To all appearances the equestrian centre was powering along full steam ahead. On the surface everything seemed ship-shape. Little did Shirley know that the stable was sinking in a sea of debt. She hadn’t been there very long when it went under with Titanic suddenness. The stables were closed, the horses sent away and overnight Shirley was out of a job.
She was stranded, alone in a strange country. The veterinarian who had treated the centre’s horses took Shirley in since she had nowhere else to go. He had a clinic nearby in the town of Mission. Shirley did everything she could to make herself useful there. She held patients for the vet, cleaned the kennels, inventoried the pharmacy, answered the phone. At least she had a roof over her head and she was grateful for that.
In between sterilizing surgical instruments and disinfecting the clinic floor, Shirley had ample time to wonder how her career had gotten so off-track. She had been so anxious to put the terrible exam experience behind her but in coming to Canada it seemed she had done nothing other than jump out of the frying pan and into the fire. How she would extract herself from her present dilemma she had no idea. The complex network of contacts and gossip that had effortlessly supplied opportunities for Shirley in England was no help to her out here. She dearly missed Horse and Hound magazine with its thick section of help wanted ads. Here she a fish out of water. She felt as though she had fallen off the edge of the known world.
Canada’s equestrian scene was still in its infancy. Shirley in her haste had not stopped to consider what that would mean to her until now. In B.C. there were plenty of enthusiastic amateur riders with their backyard horses and plenty of small horse shows that were besieged by these eager participants. The scene was full of activity but it was all very much at a grassroots level. Establishments such as the Maple Ridge Equestrian Centre were few because there was not yet the depth of serious paying clientele necessary to support them. Shirley needed a position that required her unusually high level of skill and experience and also allowed her to feel fulfilled as a professional. The chances of finding something like that seemed slim to vanishing. She realized that she would probably settle for far less if only she could earn enough to buy a ticket to New Zealand, the country she had really wanted to go to in the first place. Until then she was stuck in Canada.
There was a silver lining to Shirley’s black cloud. The vet had a few nice horses and since he had no time to spend on them, Shirley took control. She happily forgot about everything else when she was working with the horses. One was a pretty skewbald mare who had real potential and Shirley got busy developing it. By August the mare was ready to debut at a horse show.
The show went well and the mare rewarded all Shirley’s expectations. After a long but satisfying day, Shirley was just loading her into the trailer for the trip home when somebody walked up to her.
“I hear you’re looking for a job.”
The speaker was a strange old bird in her seventies who had been swanning around as a spectator all day. Her voice had a particular cut-glass, upper-crust English accent that seemed comically out of place here in these rustic surroundings.
“That depends,” replied Shirley.
The woman introduced herself as Miss Henrietta Rea and proceeded with airy expansiveness to tell Shirley about a wonderful girls boarding school on Vancouver Island that was restarting its riding program in the new school year. The school was seeking an instructress for this program. Would Shirley be interested in applying?
Shirley said that she would be. What was the salary?
One hundred and fifty dollars a month, said Miss Rea.
Shirley turned back to the skewbald mare with a sense of annoyance at having allowed herself to be taken in. One hundred and fifty dollars a month was an outrageous figure, too good to be true. Nobody paid that much in the horse world. Until that point Miss Rea’s story had sounded plausible enough but she had certainly over-played her hand. The boarding school with its riding program was no doubt pure pie-in-the-sky, a fairy tale of the first order.
Hence, nobody was more surprised than she was when she found herself at Queen Margaret’s School two days later. She had underestimated Miss Rea’s persuasiveness and besides, no other options had presented themselves so far. At this rate Shirley was facing the prospect of a winter at the vet clinic.
The school was located in Duncan, a small town at the southern end of Vancouver Island that had been a hub for the local logging industry. Getting there from the mainland had involved a long ferry ride and an equally long car trip over the mountains. Now, standing on the threshold of the big old heritage house that was the flagship home of Queen Margaret’s School, Shirley was relieved to see that the school itself was real enough. Inside, the building was quiet and empty because the pupils (assuming they were real too) were on summer holidays. Still, when Shirley stood in the dim, wood panelled hall she got an oddly familiar sensation. Something here reminded her of Hanford School. Shirley had been very happy at Hanford. Queen Margaret’s emanated similar feel-good vibrations.
Miss Rea ushered Shirley into an office to meet Miss Denny, one of the two headmistresses. At first Miss Denny was nowhere to be seen though her English accented welcome came wafting out from behind an oversized desk. This desk was piled high with sky-scrapers of paperwork. The dominating landmark amidst all the architecture was a steel spike of bills. After the debacle at Maple Ridge, Shirley had a new-found respect for the power of pink paper. Mentally she tried to weigh the heavenly idea of a stupendous salary against the hellish worry of job instability.
Shirley was expecting to meet a typical headmistress type, prim and proper in twin-set and pearls. Miss Denny, when she emerged, didn’t quite reach even this conservative level of modernity. Like Miss Rea, she was a woman in her seventies. Unlike Miss Rea, she was a throwback to the Edwardian era in a high-necked, pin-tucked blouse, an ankle-length skirt, lyle stockings and brogues. Apprehensively, Miss Denny peered around the obstructing paperwork but when she caught sight of Shirley she swept around the desk with alacrity for a better look. Avidly, she inspected Shirley from head to toe. Then she cast Miss Rea a look of congratulation. Miss Rea swelled with exultant pride.
“So you’ve come to teach riding,” Miss Denny said with satisfaction.
Shirley was somewhat taken aback. That she would work here was evidently a foregone conclusion. This wasn’t an interview at all. This was more like show-and-tell. Shirley was the fabulous trophy that Miss Rea, the big game hunter, had brought back to camp in triumph. Look at what I bagged! An outstanding specimen. A young, female, English riding instructor. What were the chances of that? In these parts, such a creature existed only in legend. It was as if the canny Miss Rea had successfully captured a unicorn.
“That’s lovely,” sighed Miss Denny. “Well dear, there’s some harness in the conservatory. Pick it up on your way out to the stables.”
With that Shirley and Miss Rea left the office. They went to the glass-paned conservatory which also served as the staff room. Why horse gear was stored there Shirley didn’t know. She and Miss Rea collected up a jumble of mismatched stirrup leathers, a bridle without a bit, a sweat scraper and various other oddments. Arms full, Shirley followed Miss Rea across the school grounds to a field.
At the horse show when they had met, Miss Rea had made it sound as though the riding program had stopped for the summer break. That wasn’t true. The Queen Margaret’s riding program had not existed for years. The bits of old leather that Shirley carried were pretty much all that remained of it. After five minutes of stumbling through waist-high weeds, Miss Rea indicated the stables with a flourish of her hand. “There they are.” In the distance was a dilapidated barn overgrown with vines. They made their way to the door. Inside was a wheelbarrow with no wheel. As an extra added bonus Miss Rea found a pitchfork missing its tines and expressed her delight. According to Miss Rea the barn had four stalls – though the walls were invisible. Outside Miss Rea gazed over the lumpy field and with the help of her rose-tinted spectacles envisioned a wood-chip surfaced riding arena enclosed by a white-painted fence. A class of girls was trotting around the perimeter. What they were riding was a mystery to Shirley.
“Are there any actual horses?” she interrupted.
Ah horses! A mere afterthought in this flight of fancy! They left the horse gear in the barn and Miss Rea led Shirley a mile up the road to a dairy farm. Queen Margaret’s School owned a superb herd of Ayrshire cows that provided fresh milk each morning straight from the farm to the school breakfast table. No doubt the herd was healthy and rigorously tested but after Shirley’s life-threatening illness as a child caused by drinking infected unpasteurized milk she couldn’t help but blanch. But she wasn’t here to see the dairy. Doing their best to disguise themselves among the cattle were four fat and sassy horses who didn’t want to be caught. They hadn’t been ridden in ages. None of them remotely resembled the bomb-proof school horse ideal.
The entire proposition didn’t look promising. In fact, with these poor ingredients it was bound to be a recipe for disaster. Miss Rea noticed the dismayed look on Shirley’s face and rushed to reassure her.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “Nobody expects you to do the job all alone. You’d be working with me. We’d do it together.”
That didn’t seem to help. If anything Shirley looked more dismayed than before. Miss Rea knew she needed back-up so that evening she took Shirley to Mill Bay to meet her old friend Miss Antisel Leask. The cultured and intelligent Miss Leask lived on a big ocean front estate that belonged to her family. She occupied one wing of an English style stone mansion covered in ivy. She was a single woman in her sixties who had long been a friend and supporter of Queen Margaret’s School. She also loved horses and was a connoisseur of the Arab breed, an exotic rarity in North America at that time. Most importantly, she was an influential force in the region. Her gift as a connector was unequalled. She knew everybody and knew exactly how to get things done.
That evening the three women sat down to an elaborate meal in Antisel’s formal dining room. Antisel chatted with Shirley and between soup and salad she decided that Shirley was the girl for her. Antisel remembered very well how popular the Queen Margaret's School riding program had once been. With Shirley around it could be again. It would be again because she would lend her support to make sure of it. If only she could make Shirley believe it too. Antisel employed her considerable charm and Shirley, spellbound, soaked up her enthusiasm.
The next day Shirley went back to the barn and started pulling the vines off.
The state of Miss Denny’s desk had not lied. The great piles of paperwork represented all the disparate demands and issues crying out for attention in a school that had exploded in growth over the years. Miss Norah Denny and her friend Miss Dorothy Geoghegan, the other headmistress, had together founded Queen Margaret’s School in 1921. The school was intended to give young Canadian girls a sound and proper English style education, something that was available nowhere else in the region. From the start the school was a runaway success. Within a few years of opening parents were flocking from all over the Western Canada to bring their daughters to Queen Margaret’s. The special atmosphere that Shirley’s sixth sense had detected the minute she set foot in the school was indeed a powerful draw and it originated in the genuine personalities of Miss Denny and Miss Geoghegan. The backbone, energy, integrity and moral standards of the two founders were legendary and those qualities permeated even the furniture of the classrooms.
Yet by the 1960’s the school faced some serious problems. Overcrowding was one of them. When the girls returned in September for the new school year Shirley was amazed to see so many. There were a hundred and twenty girls and the lovely heritage house was bursting at the seams. There were beds in every nook and cranny, even in the attic and on the staircase landings – and there still wasn’t enough room. The overflow girls had to be billeted down the road.
Then, one by one Shirley met her fellow teachers. There were only a couple of her own generation. Even with her age of twenty-six included in the calculation, the average age of the teachers at Queen Margaret’s at that point was seventy-eight. Half a century was a yawning chasm that Shirley had difficulty bridging. She had little in common with her new colleagues. It was 1961. Rudolph Nureyev defected from Russia, the first man went to space, the Vietnam War was beginning and the Beatles were about to unleash rock and roll on an unsuspecting world. Queen Margaret’s School seemed trapped in a time warp. Walking the length of the staff room was weirdly reminiscent of a stroll among the dusty antiquities in the British Museum. Some of the teachers had been at Queen Margaret’s almost since the school had begun. Such was the appeal of the school that once teachers settled in, they were so happy, involved and fulfilled that they never, ever wanted to leave again. Such loyalty came at a cost. The curriculum, taught by the same teachers year in and year out was dated. Fortunately, some subjects like poetry, Latin, literature and needlework had aged like fine wine. Others had long ago turned to vinegar.
Even the uniforms gave Shirley an eerie sense of déjà-vu. Except that the colour at Queen Margaret’s was green and not brown, they reminded her of the itchy horror that she herself had worn as a schoolgirl. Granted, that had not been so very long ago but to Shirley it seemed like the olden days. Tunics, collared blouses with ties, leotards and Panama straw hats were so old-fashioned.
Miss Denny and Miss Geoghegan fully recognized the challenges the school faced but they were themselves both in their late seventies and ready to retire. It was time to hand leadership to a much younger person. But who exactly? Queen Margaret’s had been a lifetime’s labour of love for them both. They were determined that the school would thrive without them and they wouldn’t rest until they found the perfect headmistress. In the meantime, the uncertainty over a successor and the fear of what the future might hold were polluting the school with a toxic nervousness. They very survival of the school was at stake.
Shirley didn’t have time to worry about the problems of the school in general since she was too busy dealing with the problems of the riding program in particular. She faced her first crisis almost immediately. When the riding program was announced thirty-six students signed up in pre-registration. With only four horses and one saddle how could Shirley possibly teach thirty-six girls? Miss Rea got into action. She set the phone lines all over the Cowichan Valley humming as she called for favours and then, thrilled to find such scope for her hunting talents, set off to bag riding school appropriate trophies that would astonish everyone. Antisel Leask also used her influence. Unseen in the background, she did her magic like the Wizard of Oz from behind the curtain.
The decision was made to open the Queen Margaret’s riding program to the entire equestrian community of Duncan. Anyone was welcome to participate, to take lessons. The idea made Shirley break out into a cold sweat. She couldn’t mount the students they already had. Surely this was the last thing they needed. But it was a counterintuitive strategy that saved the cash-strapped shoe-string program from collapsing before it had even begun. Local students turned up by the handful and with them they brought their own backyard horses, saddlery and miscellaneous equipment that Shirley didn’t have the budget to buy. They were happy to share all of it with Queen Margaret’s School. Shirley was beginning to understand what a warm and generous community she lived in.
Most importantly these local students brought with them uniquely valuable possessions that the Queen Margaret’s girls as boarding students had had to leave at home. They brought their fathers, fathers who knew how to use hammers to fix things. Some local children wanted to stable their horses at the Queen Margaret’s barn and since more horses were sorely needed Shirley welcomed the idea. There was just one small catch. To have a stable first you had to build it yourself. Before long there was a row of box stalls growing each one built on to the last in organic fashion along the outside wall of the old barn. It was a rather eccentric row constructed as it was from odd scraps of lumber, each box stall different depending on the vision of the father who had made it.
The fenced riding ring that Miss Rea had imagined became a reality too. Shirley measured and staked out the dimensions. Everybody got busy setting fence posts and nailing boards. While the Duncan community was pitching in, the Queen Margaret’s girls were not exempt from the effort. Queen Margaret’s was not in the business of pampering helpless princesses. The girls were being taught to be women of action. Any student who wanted to ride had to help with the work. The new riding ring needed all the rocks picked out of it. That was the girls’ job. The fence needed painting. That was their job too. Now that there were horses living at the barn the students were out of bed and up there by six thirty each morning to feed, groom and muck out. The stables had no electricity so in the pitch black of pre-dawn everything had to be done in the thin beam of battery powered torches. The barn had no piped water either so all the water buckets had to be filled from a hand pumped well and then carried. It was always cold and often pouring down rain. The girls squelched through the mud in rubber boots and struggled to buckle head-collars with frozen fingers. When all the chores were done they raced back, got cleaned up, threw on their uniforms, bolted down breakfast and arrived in the nick of time for chapel. Their day was only just beginning.
The riding program developed an unstoppable impetus. Just keeping pace with the jam-packed schedule was exhausting. There was commotion around the barn all the time. Now that there was less call for her hunting skills, Miss Rea considered her work done. There was only one graceful way to escape all the madness and Miss Rea took it. She abruptly retired. It took Shirley a few days to come to terms with the fact that she was now alone, solely responsible for running this three ring circus. She was the boss - and she didn’t mind one little bit.
Time flew by and before she knew it Shirley had been at Queen Margaret’s for two school years. Her salary had been paid like clockwork and she had saved most of it. Then out of the blue she heard of a ship called the “Canberra” that was making its maiden voyage from Vancouver. Ships came and left Vancouver all the time, naturally enough, but this one was special because its destination was New Zealand. Shirley could almost afford the full price of the rather expensive ticket that would take her half way around the globe. She booked passage. This time nothing would stop her from reaching the country of her dreams.
All along she had never viewed her Queen Margaret’s role as anything other than a means to an end. Moreover, circumstances at Queen Margaret’s had not done much to change her outlook. Little did she know that Miss Denny and Miss Geoghegan, true to their word as always, had actually solved all of the school’s problems. They had found an absolutely ideal new headmistress in the shape of a highly capable young Englishwoman named Miss Margaret Glide.
In the spring of 1963 Miss Glide arrived at Queen Margaret’s School and rapidly took stock of everything that was now her domain. She knew that the riding program was one of the most dynamic facets of the school so she was greatly displeased when she heard that its director planned to quit. She had no intention of letting a prime asset slip through her fingers when she had only just arrived. She marched over to the barn.
When Shirley met Miss Margaret Glide she took one look at her and thought, with all the arrogance of her own youth, “Good Lord. What were they thinking. She’s far too young to be a headmistress. She’ll never manage the job.” Margaret was nine years older than Shirley.
For her part, Miss Glide was also sizing up Shirley. Given her druthers she would have liked to save a lot of time and fuss by simply ordering Shirley to stay. But she was in no position to do so. Thus she resorted to a method she seldom used. Miss Glide could charm the pants off anyone when she felt like it – which wasn’t very often. She pulled out all the stops to convince Shirley to stay in wonderful, wonderful Canada and forget about stupid New Zealand. Shirley, however, was her usual stubborn self. Miss Glide ran through her entire repertoire of gentle manipulation, cajolery and persuasion. Exhausted by the effort, she was finally reduced to begging.
“Just give me one year. That’s all I’m asking,” she said quietly.
Shirley said she’d think about it.
Miss Glide had handled Shirley with velvet gloves and if that had given Shirley the impression that she was a soft touch, well, she was dead wrong. Miss Glide was all glowing golden hair and big blue eyes on the outside but on the inside she was a woman of substance and determination. An answer of “maybe” was not satisfactory in her books. It was time to implement phase two of her assault. Until now Shirley had kept her plans private. Miss Glide decided to broadcast them. Caught unawares, Shirley was besieged by tearful students and reproachful mothers. How could she desert them like this? The community had committed wholeheartedly to this project. Had Shirley not done the same?
For Shirley the urge to move on was instinctive. She had never stayed in the same job for more than two years. Her restlessness was ingrained. Each job and each move had served its purpose as Shirley sought to learn, to gain experience and move herself up the career ladder one rung at a time. Her reasons for taking the job at Queen Margaret’s had been quite plain at the time and since then she had never stopped to think about whether, in spite of all its faults, this job represented the opportunity of a lifetime. This place with its leaky barn, crazy caterpillar row of stables, motley crew of horses and lumpy riding ring was a far cry from the top notch establishments in England, Ireland and Europe that she was accustomed to. Those stables were designed to be worthy of palaces, were built out of stone to last centuries and housed shining, elite equine competitors. Those stables were run according to standards of hallowed tradition, dignity and decorum. But Shirley had never been more than an underling in any of them. Well, Queen Margaret’s certainly wasn’t Windsor castle, that was for sure, but for the first time in her life Shirley was in charge. She was completely free to teach as she thought best for the students and free to run the stables according to her own ideas. This riding program was her magnum opus even if she didn’t quite know it yet.
Maybe Shirley needed to borrow Miss Rea’s rose-tinted glasses to see more clearly. Huge strides had been made in a very short time. The students were riding well and many of them looked forward to competing in horse shows. Some were learning to jump and they were jumping obstacles that they had constructed with their own hands. Students had stayed behind on Easter break to saw, drill and nail under the guidance of a local father. They were proud of themselves. How could Shirley walk away from this much enthusiasm?
Once Shirley accepted that Queen Margaret’s was where she belonged a whole world of new possibilities opened up to her. There were advantages to being settled that she had never considered before. She wasn’t the kind to pine after luxuries and since she lived in residence at the school the necessities were all provided for her. Still, now that she no longer had to worry about squeezing everything she owned into a steamer trunk there were a few things she wanted to own. A clock-radio was one. An electric kettle for her room was another. Shirley started to collect a library of equine reference books and she adopted a cat. And there was one more desire that slowly took shape in her mind.
It was October when a friend called her out of concern. There was a horse in a paddock down on Riverbottom Road that looked like a welfare case. Shirley promised to investigate. One Saturday afternoon she drove along the road until she spotted the paddock. She parked and got out. Standing forlornly at the wire fence was a bony hat rack with a coat the colour and texture of a dirty old dishrag. The horse pricked his ears as Shirley walked up, clearly looking for a little company. From a quick glance under his belly Shirley could see that he was a gelding. Since his head was over the fence anyway, Shirley stroked his nose and then lifted his lip. Judging from his teeth he seemed about five years old. Shirley surveyed the paddock. It was muddy and barren and there was nothing to eat. Winter was coming and the horse would fare badly in these conditions. Shirley knew that she could not in good conscience ignore the situation. She gave the horse a reassuring pat and turned back towards the car. The horse looked broken-hearted to see her go.
Back at Queen Margaret’s Shirley got on the phone and tracked the owners down. Since she wanted to have a constructive conversation with them she broached the subject diplomatically. It turned out that the neglect wasn’t intentional. The truth was the horse had become a burden the owners couldn’t handle. Shirley offered a solution; she offered to buy the horse from them. They said they’d take $150. Even though it wasn’t a lot of money it still seemed a pretty steep price for a horse in such bad shape that the owners had already admitted was a headache to them. Shirley didn’t even know if the horse was sound. She bargained them down to $125 and closed the deal. The next day Shirley went back to Riverbottom Road with a head-collar and lead-shank over her arm. She strapped the head-collar on her new purchase, snapped on the lead-shank and opened the gate.
“Come on, old boy. Lets’ go home.”
Together they walked back to Queen Margaret’s. For the first time in her life Shirley owned her own horse.
Shirley had no great expectations for this rescue case. She hoped that given time he might turn out to be a useful school horse for the girls. From the beginning there were good indications that he would fit this role. The horse took to his new environment like a duck to water. Gregarious and kind, he endeared himself to everyone, people and horses alike. The students were safe around him and that alone made him a winner in Shirley’s eyes. He submitted gracefully to a full scale make-over that included worming, vaccinating, hoof trimming and some heavy duty grooming with a curry comb and plenty of elbow grease. Surprisingly, he turned out to be not grey, as expected, but a warm, sun-kissed cremello, a colour that went right along with his sunny personality. Shirley named him Sundancer.
When Sundancer had gained some weight and strength Shirley began to ride him and immediately got her first inklings of his athletic potential. He was green and uneducated but that also meant that he was unspoiled. This horse, Shirley realized, was a blank slate for her to write on. His progress would be the living, breathing illustration of her own abilities as a rider and a trainer. Soon Sundancer was schooling over cross poles and cavaletti, the beginner’s steps to jumping. Carefully Shirley introduced him to larger obstacles. He negotiated them with fluency. Shirley was shocked. It was suddenly clear that she had a talented show jumper on her hands.
Her next step was to take Sundancer to a couple of little horse shows just to get a taste of the experience. Sundancer didn’t want a taste; he wanted to gobble up the challenge. It had been years since Shirley had ridden in shows. Whether as a groom, rider or instructor, her jobs had inevitably required that she stand at the railings and watch while her employers competed on the horses they owned. With Sundancer her competitive instinct, so long stifled, came roaring back to life. Prize ribbons began to pile up. It was like a plot stolen straight out of one of the Pullein-Thompson pony novels that Shirley had read and loved as a child, one where a girl winds up with a horse that nobody wants and turns it into a show jumping champion. In the years to come Shirley would own many horses. Some she trained to be student horses and some were very successful in competition. But none of them ever matched Sundancer in Shirley’s heart. Sundancer was a the fulfillment of a life-long dream (pictured below).
While Shirley was enjoying all the good things that resulted from her decision to stay at Queen Margaret’s School, Miss Glide was forging ahead with her plans to overhaul the place. First, she went to England and hired new staff. Her most exciting find was a talented young English teacher named Miss Phoebe Spurgin. Not only had Miss Spurgin received her teacher training in one of the most advanced and progressive systems but she was clearly a person of exceptional intelligence. Miss Glide couldn’t wait for her to arrive. She was exactly what Queen Margaret’s School needed.
Unfortunately when Miss Spurgin did arrive it was on an all too typical disaster day. Decrepit water pipes had burst and flooded the classrooms. All the teachers were busy trying to clean up the mess. Miss Glide found her prize teacher barefoot and with her skirt hitched up frantically mopping water. That was the limit! Miss Glide couldn’t stand it anymore. What was the point of getting great teachers if they were prevented from teaching? All the old buildings needed either updating or replacing or expanding. Something had to be done.
Had she not become a headmistress, Miss Glide would have made an excellent architect. Since she wasn’t one though, she hired people who were to draw up plans. Then she spent happy hours poring over the blueprints. Her desk disappeared beneath unfurled rolls that showed new classrooms, new dormitories, a gymnasium and, best of all, a science lab.
Absent from the collection was any diagram that represented a new barn. It wasn’t that Miss Glide didn’t think the riding program was important – because she did. It was just that she had no idea that a new barn was desperately needed. Nobody had told her. Shirley met with Margaret and discussed her needs frequently enough but the items Shirley submitted for approval amounted to a mere laundry list of minor equipment. Shirley knew that Margaret had her hands full with the really big priorities and all the associated problems of how to finance them. Money didn’t come out of thin air. In the grand scheme of things, a new barn seemed low on the list.
One day as she closed the door of the headmistress’s office behind her she was confronted in the hallway by a colleague.
“Well, did you ask her?” she demanded to know.
“Ask her about what?” replied Shirley.
“A new barn!” said the teacher, exasperated. “Go back in there.” The woman turned the door handle, pushed the door open and shoved Shirley back inside.
Miss Glide looked up from her desk in surprise. “Are you back again, Miss Burr. What is it this time?”
“Oh by the way, I think we need a new barn,” Shirley announced.
Miss Glide gave her a piercing look and Shirley shook in her boots. She liked, respected and admired Margaret enormously, even counted her as a sincere friend. At the same time she was secretly terrified of her. Everyone was. Miss Margaret Glide was formidable. It was part of what made her such an outstanding headmistress.
“Is that all or did you have something else in mind?” said Margaret sternly, her expression unreadable.
“No, no. That’s it,” said Shirley, dying to make her get-away.
She didn’t show it of course but Margaret was delighted. Something else to plan and build? What could be better?
Two years later the riding program had more land, turn-out paddocks and a spanking new forty-horse stable. Then in 1968 came a covered riding arena with tack room, tool room, feed room and storage all attached. The arena, beautifully surfaced in fresh and fragrant wood chips was also fully lit with great banks of fluorescent lights so that riding lessons, which already ran back-to-back through the day, could continue into the night as well. With more than one hundred and fifty riding pupils now enrolled the lights were a necessity. Queen Margaret’s School had one of the best equestrian facilities in all of Canada. The riding program was a prime attraction for boarding students and was a major part of the school’s identity, distinguishing it from all others. As director, Shirley occupied a position of prestige. She had come a long way.
She used her leverage to further enhance the reputation of Queen Margaret’s by persuading top-ranking equestrian experts to visit the school and guest teach. So it was that when Shirley heard that Michael Herbert was in British Columbia she was determined to snag him. Michael Herbert was an expert in Three Day Eventing and had worked with the British Olympic Team. He had recently been employed by the Canadian Equestrian Team and tasked with the mission of preparing Canadian riders for the upcoming 1972 Olympics which were to be held in Munich. Michael was in Western Canada scouting for potential team riders when Shirley met him. He agreed to teach a riding clinic at Queen Margaret’s and the resulting professional acquaintanceship opened a whole new vista in Shirley’s career.
In 1977 Michael ran a month-long Three Day Eventing summer camp in Oliver. Since it didn’t conflict with her Queen Margaret’s schedule, he asked Shirley to be the official stable manager. Not only that, but she was also able to participate, seizing the chance to refresh her own riding skills under the discriminating eyes of experts. The summer camp went so well that the next year Michael asked Shirley to be stable manager for the Canadian Three Day Eventing team as they prepared for the 1978 World Championships. The championships were in September and even though it meant missing the beginning of the school term at Queen Margaret’s, Shirley couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stay on and accompany the team in her official capacity to the big event.
The World Championships were held in Lexington, Kentucky and the venue was the brand new Kentucky Horse Park. Shirley was dazzled by the facilities, the fanfare and the excitement. It made much more of an impact on her than the Stockholm Olympics had done. To top off the experience, the Canadians won the team gold medal and Shirley had the immense satisfaction of feeling part of a big job supremely well done.
The Canadian team was in an excellent position to tackle the 1980 Olympics which were to be held in Moscow. Then Russia invaded Afghanistan. Loudly led by the Americans, the Western world protested and boycotted the Olympics. Only the Eastern bloc countries attended. For the Canadian Equestrian Team the big opportunity was lost and Shirley always wondered what might have been.
After this disappointment Michael Herbert changed his emphasis from national team development to Canadian horsemanship in general and Shirley played a leading role once again. His first goal was a certification program for coaches and instructors all over the country. Five experts were assigned to develop the program and begin examinations. Shirley was one of them. Not forgetting her own difficulties as a young aspiring professional, this was a project very close to her heart, one that she approached not only with rigour but with understanding and sympathy. In concert with the exam project and the push to develop Canadian horsemanship in general, Shirley was employed by the British Columbia Horse Council to conduct weekend stable management courses throughout the province.
Between her full-time position as director of the riding program at Queen Margaret’s School, her weekend workshops on behalf of the BC Horse Council and her stints as stable manger for the Canadian Equestrian Team life was hectic for Shirley. There was always far too much to squeeze into each day. In 1979, feeling the charring sensation of ‘burn-out’, Shirley asked for a yearlong sabbatical. She had been at Queen Margaret’s School for 18 years. The riding program was running like a well-oiled machine. Besides Shirley, there were several other good people on staff by this stage so it could happily function without her daily supervision for a while.
Of course the sabbatical was not quite the complete holiday Shirley pretended it would be. She spent part of it with the Canadian Equestrian Team in her role as stable manager and went with the team to England where it competed in the prestigious Three Day Event at Burghley. After that she did truly take some time to travel like a tourist. Her main destination was Australia (which she thoroughly explored on bus and rail passes) but also high on her list was ... New Zealand. This time there were no detours or false starts; she made it there. And discovered, to her secret relief, that it was not quite the Shangri-La she had built it up to be in her imagination. The landscape was stunning, that much could not be denied, but apart from a shocking quantity of sheep there was little else remarkable to her mind. The pace of life seemed sluggishly slow. Society was mind-numbingly staid, backward and calcified. It reminded her of England – and why she had left. Shirley suspected that had she come to New Zealand all those years ago she would quickly have become bored and frustrated. She realized how lucky she had been that she had grudgingly allowed Margaret Glide to convince her to stay in Canada, a country abounding in youthful energy, open-mindedness and potential.
When Shirley returned to Queen Margaret’s she dove back into the whirlpool with renewed vigor. In 1982 she was asked to be the Chef d’Equipe for the BC Dressage team at the North American Junior Young Riders Championship. The event was held at Maple Ridge, the very same equestrian centre that had sunk and left Shirley stranded twenty years earlier. Time had passed, management had changed and most importantly the West Coast equestrian scene had advanced tremendously thanks in large part to the efforts of Michael Herbert whom Shirley had expertly assisted. Maple Ridge was active and thriving and Shirley was thrilled when her team took the bronze medal. The future for BC looked very bright.
Time flew. As Shirley got older the daily physical demands of running the QMS riding program gradually shifted to others. In 1986 the program was officially placed under the direction of someone else and Shirley moved over to administration. Somehow, despite the change she seemed to be no less busy than she ever was. There was never enough time for everything that needed to be done.
Apart from her sabbatical year, now a thing of the distant past, Shirley’s only other real breaks were rare weekends away from the school. Phoebe Spurgin, the talented teacher from England, and Headmistress Glide, or simply Margaret as she now was to Shirley, had combined funds in 1967 to purchase a cottage on a small island. This island was one of the cluster between the mainland and Vancouver Island known as the Gulf Islands. Phoebe and Margaret planned to retire there one day. Just steps from a beach of shells and driftwood, the cottage was all rustic charm with bare floorboards, plank walls and minimal plumbing. In other words, it was perfect. From Duncan, this idyll was only a twenty minute drive (at race car speed) and a short ferry trip away. Yet it gave the illusion of remoteness, completely disconnected from the pressures of Queen Margaret’s School. It allowed the Head Mistress and the Deputy Head Mistress, as Phoebe now was, to relax. Often Shirley joined them at their island holiday home.
Indeed, Shirley was visiting Phoebe and Margaret one weekend when after Sunday lunch they decided to take a drive. The island had only three dirt roads and could easily be covered in about ten minutes so Phoebe, who was doing the driving, went extra slowly in order to prolong the outing. The car was progressing at a snail’s pace when Shirley, purely to make conversation, said “Gosh, that house has been on the market quite a while.”
“What house?” demanded Margaret.
Shirley pointed to the ‘For Sale’ sign and Margaret’s attention immediately zeroed in.
“You should buy it,” she said.
“Oh no, I don’t think so,” said Shirley.
She was too late. Margaret had made up her mind.
“Stop the car!” she ordered. “Shirley is going to look at that house.”
Phoebe parked and the three of them got out. Even from the road the house had that distinct air of emptiness. It had been unoccupied for some time, so they walked up to it and shamelessly pressed their noses against the glass of the front windows to peer inside. There was no furniture apart from a grand piano which stood in splendid isolation on wooden floors that looked just like the decking on a boat. There was a fireplace and Shirley could imagine her cat curled up in front of it. The enormous windows that she was looking through gave a wonderful view of the harbour and its ever-changing population of sailboats.
On top of all these appealing features, the house had a sizeable plot of land and Shirley, who hadn’t so much as planted a single petunia in all her life, could suddenly see the amazing garden she would grow. She had not considered buying a house before. Home ownership represented a completely different lifestyle from the one she had led. For the last thirty years she had lived in residence at Queen Margaret’s School. The idea of house ownership seemed foreign and a bit frightening – but also tantalizing.
After half an hour of poking around Margaret hustled them all back into the car so that they could get back to the cottage and call the real estate agent. Two weeks later Shirley was the proud (and surprised) owner of her own home.
For many years it was only a holiday place but at the end of 1998 at the age of 64 Shirley retired and moved into her island home permanently. She had been at Queen Margaret’s School for 37 years and in honour of her commitment and contributions the school named the riding program after her. It became known as the Shirley Burr Equestrian Centre. Shirley thought that buildings and institutions were named after people like prime ministers, war heroes and philanthropists – famous people, not people like her. But she was in good company; Margaret and Phoebe had buildings at Queen Margaret’s named after them too.
For the first time horses were no longer a part of Shirley’s life. In some ways she missed them terribly. On the other hand, life without horses was a whole new adventure. Shirley was more than ready to try new things and experience pleasures long deferred. She started work on her new garden and there were lots of other activities to keep her happy if she chose. Phoebe was volunteering at the tiny one-room island school, for example. With her quiet kindness and endless patience, she was helping the local children make big improvements in their reading. Soon she had Shirley helping. Margaret and Phoebe, being big lovers of literature, had also started a book club which they invited Shirley to join. Shirley’s tastes had matured from the Pullein-Thompson pony novels of her childhood as far as the racing mysteries of Dick Francis and that was good enough for her. She gracefully declined. She was much keener to join a Scottish country dancing club that had popped up on the island. Through many happy hours reeling she was able to rekindle the joy she had felt at the hunt balls of her youth. It so happened that there was a ping-pong club too with a fervent collection of players. Shirley gravitated to the unusually competitive atmosphere and the quick reflexes that had once made her such a force to be reckoned with in competitive riding now made her a formidable opponent across the ping-pong table!
Shirley had just decided that she didn’t mind not having horses in her life after all when they made an unexpected reappearance. Behind Shirley’s property was a farm. One day Shirley heard rumours that there were now horses on that farm. She ignored them. It wasn’t that she didn’t love horses anymore. Of course she did – but she loved her new life too. Horses, as she well knew, could be all-consuming. And anyway, the farm and its horses had nothing to do with her. Certainly nobody had asked her to get involved.
But ignorance as bliss was not such a foolproof strategy. All too soon Shirley got a telephone call from an island resident. The caller filled Shirley in on everything Shirley really didn’t want to be updated on. The new owners of the farm, who were not yet living full time on their property, had employed a girl from Switzerland to care for a few horses that were already there. The girl was having some difficulty and would really benefit from Shirley’s expert advice. Would Shirley go over and see what the problem was? Shirley reluctantly agreed to help though she suspected that a visit would prove to be the thin end of the wedge. And so it was. One single encounter was all it took for this girl, alone and overwhelmed as she was, to latch on to Shirley like a barnacle to a boat. She now viewed Shirley as her ‘go to’ resource when in doubt of anything.
Some months later the Swiss girl returned to Switzerland but she was replaced by two more girls. They became equally dependant on Shirley’s advice. Before she understood how it happened, Shirley found herself giving them riding lessons. Then, when the farm owner’s daughter, who came on weekends, discovered this she also wanted to be coached. More horses arrived at the farm. Things seemed to be snowballing. Still, Shirley tried with all her might not to get too involved....
The crux came at Easter. Shirley was just sitting down to a big Easter lunch when the two girls called from the farm. One of the horses was sick and they didn’t know what to do. A few days earlier the veterinarian had come to the farm and vaccinated all the horses. Now one horse was off his feed, running a fever and didn’t want to move. The girls had called the vet who was having a much needed day off. The vet had said that it wasn’t unusual for a horse to have a couple of down days after being vaccinated and that there was really nothing to worry about. But the girls were worried. The owners of the farm were on holiday in Europe and the girls didn’t know what else to do. They needed Shirley’s help.
This was exactly the kind of thing Shirley didn’t miss about horses. They had a special genius for getting ill or injured at the most awkward, inopportune times. Christmas horse emergencies were the classic examples but Easter with the owners away and the vet off-duty was also a predicament that qualified for full points. Shirley left her guests and her succulent lamb roast to go to the farm and assess the situation.
The horse had been vaccinated high on the rump. Unfortunately, the injection site had become infected. Worse, it had obviously turned into an abscess. Tightly swollen, exquisitely painful to the touch, it was a festering, pressurized volcano. Shirley phoned the vet again and was less easily fobbed off than the girls had been. As bad as she felt about ruining the vet’s Easter she was insistent about the need for her to come and treat this horse. Convinced at last that Shirley would not take no for an answer, the vet got into her truck and drove to the dock to await the next ferry sailing to the island.
At long last the vet arrived at the farm. She took one look and realized that the abscess needed to be lanced and drained. The girls restrained the horse and Shirley held the vet’s tray of sterile instruments. As she stood there in the cold barn on Easter Sunday Shirley realized that she couldn’t pretend any longer that she wasn’t involved.
The vet stuck the tip of the scalpel in - and the abscess exploded like Vesuvius. Everyone in the vicinity was sprayed with pus. Sighing in utter resignation, Shirley wiped her spattered face. Her hair and clothes were covered in stinky, yellow slime. Such was her re-baptism into the world of horses. Horses had reclaimed her. But Shirley had loved horses since she was ten years old. She knew she’d never truly escape – and secretly that made her very happy.
Once Shirley realized that resistance was futile things really took off. The farm owner’s daughter, Jessica Vanderhoef, had been very quick to appreciate the good fortune of having a treasure like Shirley literally on her doorstep. Jessica could not live full time at the farm because she was studying at university on Vancouver Island but she resolved to make the most of Shirley’s expertise nonetheless. Weekends at the farm were therefore action packed. Jessica particularly loved dressage and dreamed of competing. Thanks to her father horses suitable for competition soon arrived at the farm and with that all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
For her part, Shirley was surprised and delighted to suddenly find herself with a student like Jessica. Intelligent, athletic, dedicated and extremely hardworking, Jessica proved to be an ideal pupil, one interested not only in riding but in all aspects of horsemanship, an attitude of which Shirley approved. In time Jessica’s hard work paid off. After many months of study under Shirley’s tutelage Jessica took the exam for the Level 1 Instructor’s Certificate (Competition Coach) and passed with flying colours. She then turned her attention to serious competition. She had success at several shows and ribbons piled up. The highlight came when she won Reserve Champion at the BC Dressage Championships in 2012.
Jessica was well on her way to a successful career and nobody was prouder than Shirley. She’d been fully retired for over a decade before Jessica came along and she’d worried that perhaps her formidable skills and expertise had grown rusty or even outdated. Clearly they hadn’t. Jessica’s successes proved that Shirley was as much a relevant force as ever and that gave her enormous satisfaction.
For Shirley, retirement with all its activity, both equine and island, had turned out to be almost as busy as non-retirement – and just as rewarding. To this day Shirley never ceases to wonder at all the opportunities that landed in her lap over the course of her career. She knows she’s had adventures that other people can only dream of and she looks forward into the years ahead always wondering what new serendipity the future might hold.
(All the photographs in this biography come from the personal albums of Shirley Burr and are used with her express permission.)
Cover photo: Shirley jumping Tetros.
Photo at the beginning: Shirley jumping Mazurka.