It was late wintertime at Hockpoll Stables, home of Cheesecake the Shetland pony and her friends. January had been bitterly cold and the horses had shivered in their stalls, despite their warm rugs. Young Sally Withers, the owners’ daughter, had been breaking the ice open on the water trough each morning as she went around feeding the horses.
Now it was February and the weather was growing a little warmer. One morning Cheesecake saw some tiny purple flowers blooming in the shade of a cherry tree. Lancer the thoroughbred and Maisie the Arabian trotted over to see it too.
“Crocuses!” Cheesecake said joyfully. “They’re blooming early this year.”
“Springtime soon,” said Lancer. “More fairs and county shows, and that means more rosettes for me!”
“And me, of course!” Maisie snorted.
At that moment Bertha, an old grey Clydesdale with a plaited mane, walked over to the cherry tree to see the crocuses.
“I can remember when I first saw springtime flowers as a colt,” sighed Bertha. “Everything was so fresh, new and wonderful back then. Oh, to be young once more. Wilbur, why don’t you come over and see this crocus?”
She called towards the edge of the paddock, where Wilbur the Shire horse was looking over the hedgerow into the next field. He wasn’t a young horse; his coat was drab, his mane was shabby and his eyes were pale and watery.
“Thankyou, Bertha,” Wilbur sighed, looking up briefly. “I’ve seen it. It’s very pretty. Excuse me.”
He trotted away without another word. Bertha moved silently away from the group, following Wilbur.
“Have you noticed Wilbur and Bertha are acting oddly lately?” said Cheesecake.
“Yes,” replied Lancer. “I wish I knew why. They’re no fun to be around”
“Oh, Lancer you’re so full of yourself,” said Maisie. “I know why they act like that. Bertha loves Wilbur, and Wilbur loves her just as much. The trouble is they feel they’re too old for love, and never declare it to each other.”
“But they look so miserable,” Cheesecake said sadly. “I wish I knew a way to bring them together.”
“Knowing you, Cheesecake,” Maisie chuckled. “You’ll think of something.”
Maisie was right. Cheesecake started the next day, asking all the other horses at Hockpoll Stables what they knew about Wilbur and Bertha, hoping to find some mutual interests between them.
Next morning, Cheesecake found Bertha out at pasture.
“Hey, Bertha,” Cheesecake said chirpily. “Wilbur’s got a bucket of oats – your favourite food! Why not ask Wilbur if he’ll share them?”
“Not today,” sighed Bertha. She went out to the paddock.
That afternoon, Cheesecake had been tacked up ready for a children’s riding lesson. Wilbur was in his stall nearby.
“Let’s call Bertha over,” Cheesecake said to Wilbur. “She loves children. I’m sure Mrs Withers will let them give you both a pat.”
“No,” Wilbur said heavily. “We mustn’t distract them.” He went back into his stall.
For three days Cheesecake tried to bring Wilbur and Bertha together, but always in vain. Then on the third evening, as she sat dejected in her stall, her friend Carlo the magpie swooped inside.
“Why the mope, Cheesecake?” he cawed, and Cheesecake told him about how her plans to unite Wilbur and Bertha weren’t working.
“I think you’re going about this the wrong way, Cheesecake,” said Carlo. “If Wilbur and Bertha think they’re too old for love, why not get them feeling young again?”
“How?” asked Cheesecake.
“Everyone knows what a rascal you can be sometimes,” said Carlo, “But did you know when they were young, Wilbur and Bertha loved pranks just as much as you?”
“Never!” Cheesecake gasped.
“It’s true,” chirped Carlo. “And I reckon that if you remind them of that somehow, the years will just melt away.”
Next morning, Cheesecake trotted over to Wilbur.
“Hey, Wilbur,” she said. “Look over there. That mean boy who’s been teasing the girls from riding school is leaning against that fence.”
“Oh yes, I’ve heard of him,” Wilbur rumbled. “He ought to be taught a lesson.”
“I think I know how too,” Cheesecake said with a wink. “Do you remember what you did that time Mrs Withers put a carrot in her back pocket before riding practice?”
“Yes!” cried Wilbur.
He hobbled over to the fence, reached his head through and sank his teeth into the bully’s bottom. The boy ran down the street howling in pain and both Cheesecake and Wilbur sniggered with delight.
That same afternoon, Mrs Withers led Bertha into the stable yard so the farrier could fit her with new shoes. Just as the farrier was reaching down to pick up Bertha’s leg, Cheesecake poked her head through the fence.
“Bertha! Behind you! Rat!” she yelled.
Bertha whinnied in terror and bolted, knocking Mrs Withers and the farrier over. She was terrified of rats and Mrs Withers took a long time to bring her under control.
Bertha was very displeased with Cheesecake. “Look what you made me do!”
“But you once did this all the time when the farrier came,” grinned Cheesecake. “And you must admit it’s funny. Just look at Mrs Withers!”
Bertha took one look at Mrs Withers plastered with mud and straw from the stable yard floor, and burst out laughing.
For another three days, Cheesecake encouraged Wilbur and Bertha to commit ever more outrageous pranks. Soon they didn’t even need her coaxing to try them out.
One morning, Wilbur asked Bertha over to drink at the trough with him. He had something to say to her.
That evening, as the sun set, Wilbur and Bertha were trotting through the paddock together side by side, with the wind in their manes and love in their eyes. Maisie stood with Cheesecake, watching them.
“Well done, Cheesecake,” she said. “You’ve made two old horses feel happier, and younger, than ever before.”
“You’re only ever as old as you feel,” said Cheesecake. “Especially when it comes to love.”