By JOJO MOYES
MOST PEOPLE will tell you they spent their adolescence feeling certain that they belonged somewhere else. In my case it's possible that my parents agreed with me. I grew up in London, the child of urbane, educated artists. I spent my childhood surrounded by paintings and music, fed the creative spirit by osmosis.
But what I wanted was horses: small hairy ones, glossy dancing ones, mud, sweat and leather. My passion was indiscriminate and all-consuming. The fact that I lived in a terraced house in the inner-city neighborhood of Hackney was a flimsy obstacle to my true path. When I turned 7, I was allowed weekly rides at a London stable, a development that only fed my hunger. From that point on, every grass verge was potential turf, every park bench a possible jump. I convinced my father to buy me grooming brushes, which, horseless, I sniffed with an addict's rapture. For my 10th birthday I persuaded my mother to fill my bedroom with hay. To her credit, she did.
My parents separated when I was 12. At some point during that strange summer of hushed conversations that stopped as soon as I entered the room, the prospect was raised that I might like to stay at a horse farm in Cornwall, on England's southwest coast. A hand-drawn leaflet promised a centuries-old farmhouse, a kids' bunkhouse, top-class riding lessons and whole days, not just hours, in the saddle.
After a six-hour drive, I arrived mute with nerves and anticipation. I didn't notice that unlike the spotless, nationally renowned stables where I had trained, this appeared to be a series of ramshackle old barns, among which loose ponies and the odd chicken strayed. I didn't care that the couple who ran it bickered like two cats trapped in a sack. I saw Mitch, and it was love.
Mitch was a small, flea-bitten, gray pony. He was described by his owners as "sharp": liable to jettison those unable to anticipate his meaner tricks. Perhaps I was just small and mean myself. Or perhaps I was so besotted that I simply chose to ignore his bad points.
Either way, a photograph from that time shows a skinny, solemn child atop her charge with the same ease with which one claims one's place on the living-room sofa.
Our relationship was swift and intense. Mitch and I rode out all day, every day; sometimes with the group—an instructor, two blasé Swedish teenagers and other horse-mad children—but we were also allowed to disappear on horseback around the sun-baked farm's several hundred acres of streams, meadows, stony paths and wilderness. For an only child from the city, supervised and scrutinized, it was unheard-of freedom.
“A group gallop along the edge of a field led to a fall, and when I stood up my thumb didn't.”
It was on my third day there that I had my first accident. An impromptu group gallop along the edge of a field led to a fall, and when I stood up my thumb didn't. The tumble was followed by a sense of panic that this would end my trip. And sure enough, a call to my mother from the hospital ended with the words: "She'll have to come home."
I simply refused. I had found my spiritual home and no broken digit was going to cut short my time there. After several frantic calls, my parents reluctantly agreed that I could stay, and even continue to ride. "Just go slowly," they warned. "No jumping or galloping."
Two days later Mitch and I were jumping straw bales, without any reins or stirrups, when I fell off and hit my head so hard I knocked myself out. I opened my eyes in a sunlit field to a sea of concerned faces. I had no idea who they were, or who I was. I still remember how oddly peaceful it was.
"My ears are pierced!" I announced, finally. Even my subconscious knew this was big news; the previous day, I had sneaked out with the others and got it done, against my father's express wishes.
The doctor came. I spent the afternoon in the bunkhouse, realizing, as my memory returned, that I would be in trouble when my parents heard about my ears. I wasn't worried about what they'd say about my riding. They were resigned to that. My father promptly sent a lengthy, considered letter wondering whether the ear piercing was a reaction to the separation. (It wasn't. I just really, really wanted pierced ears.)
They let me stay. The days stretched and blurred blissfully. I developed an appetite, wolfed bacon and eggs for breakfast, packed sandwiches for lunch on horseback. Occasionally we would park the horses outside a country pub and eat in the garden. I made friends, and sneaked out at every spare moment to tell Mitch I loved him.
I'm not sure it was reciprocated. On day seven, he scarred me for life. We had gone as a group to the beach, riding bareback into the surf. The horses pawed the water and swam with a strange, pop-legged underwater gait. Riders who fell off simply grabbed a tail and hauled themselves back aboard.
It was heaven. But at some point Mitch tired of it all. He bolted out of the water and, with forensic precision, scraped me off against a tree. My swimsuit offered scant protection. When I caught him and climbed back aboard, I couldn't see the wounds across my back, but I saw my fellow riders' faces.
"You need to go to the hospital," came the now-familiar cry. But I only had two days of riding left. I refused. I ignored my salt-stinging back and carried on.
It was the first of many visits to the farm. I eventually outgrew Mitch, but I never outgrew horses. Thirty years on, I live on my own farm with my own mismatched herd. There is hardly a time when I ride my skittish thoroughbred that I don't wonder whether horses are a form of insanity. I think my parents would concur.
The scars strafing my back are still impressive. The first time my husband saw them, I had to convince him they were the result of the fleeting whim of a small, gray pony.
I bear them with pride. To this day, I've never had a better holiday.
—Ms. Moyes is the author of nine novels, most recently, "Me Before You."
A version of this article appeared February 9, 2013, on page D8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Horse-Crazy Girl's Separation Vacation.