Traps, Ponies and Ferries … (not forgetting a bottle of beer)

21st August 2014

The tiny village of Landrake, some three miles across the border into Cornwall, is not known for horseracing, but is the subject of Tony Lake’s blog.

Traps, Ponies and Ferries … (not forgetting a bottle of beer)

Richard Frederick Meysey-Thompson was the second son of Sir Harry Meysey-Thompson of Kirby Hall, Yorkshire. After seven successful years at Eton, where he excelled in most sports, but particularly fencing, athletics and shooting, he enlisted into the Rifle Brigade in 1866. The following year his 2nd Battalion was posted to Raglan Barracks in Devonport. Here he enjoyed life to the full or as he put it in his 1898 book “Reminiscences of the Course, the Camp, the Chase”, “Plymouth was a charming quarter, and with hunting and shooting in the winter, and cricket, steeplechasing, fishing, and otter-hunting in the summer, there was always some exciting amusement on hand.”

With only a very small allowance supplementing his ensign’s pay and without “connections” Meysey-Thompson struggled as an aspiring jockey. However, desperate to succeed, “he never refused the offer of a mount, no matter how unpromising.“ As he said, “No one is likely to give me good mounts at present, so I must e'en ride what I can get, for I must have practice in public; then when better horses come in my way I shall be able to make the most of them.” In that frame of mind he was more than happy to go to Landrake to partner a good Irish bred horse, Kildare, owned by a brother officer, Mr E W Dunn.

The journey from Devonport to Landrake was well over fifteen miles so Kildare and his lad started out just after seven in the morning. Borrowing a pony and trap, the two Riflemen started a little later … and soon encountered their first problem.

They had anticipated crossing the River Tamar on the new steam powered ferry at Saltash Passage only to discover that it had broken down. Fortunately, the mechanical fault occurred after Kildare’s crossing but that was little consolation at this time.

A few fishing boats were moored in the Tamar and the Riflemen made a suggestion to a couple of fishermen. Would it be possible to hire two fishing boats to transport a cart in one and two soldiers and a pony in the other?

The fishermen were agreeable … but the pony was definitely not! Pushing, shoving and all sorts of persuasive techniques were to no avail. Clearly the pony was not going to board the boat. As a last resort Meysey-Thompson suggested that the pony could swim behind their boat. It was risky, but what else could they do?

Surprisingly, the pony took to water like a duck. As the fishing boat cast off, the pony swam alongside. With the soldiers hanging on to the reins attached to the bridle soon the three-quarters of a mile was safely negotiated.

Although much time had been lost, Kildare’s race was not one of the early races on the card and they arrived at Landrake just in the nick of time… only to be greeted by a new problem.

Kildare’s lad had got lost on his way to the course and had only just arrived himself. Poor Kildare had had nothing to eat since leaving the barracks after breakfast.

To a man who earlier in the day had been unfazed by the width of the Tamar and a recalcitrant pony this was only a minor problem. Realising it would be foolhardy to feed his horse minutes before a race he instead made a beeline for the beer tent, bought a bottle of beer, and poured it down Kildare’s throat.

The horse seemed to enjoy it and he was transformed from “looking rather weary and jaded, he became almost playful.” He ran well too. In the hands of the resourceful Meysey-Thompson, he took up the running at half way; from then on he was unchallenged and ran out a very easy winner.

Kildare’s triumph was duly celebrated and on the way home further celebrations took place. The townsfolk of Saltash had gathered at the repaired ferry to pay tribute to the pony that had swam the Tamar in the morning. Perhaps Meysey-Thompson should have considered buying him a beer too.




Meysey-Thompson had a distinguished military career, achieving the rank of colonel in 1890. He won a Royal Humane Society medal for his efforts in trying to save his companions in the Ainsty Hunt Ferry boat tragedy in 1869. He was an accomplished horseman and his riding career lasted over 20 years during which time he rode many winners in England, Ireland and Spain. His last winning mount was on his own horse, Outlaw, in the Thirsk Hunt Cup. He enjoyed much success as an owner, most notably with Monkshood in the National Hunt Chase in 1887. He died on 1st September, 1926, aged 79.