Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The boy in the black suit.

This morning, in the shop, there is a boy dressed in a tight, sharp black suit and pointed black shoes. It is as unexpected as an Eames chair in a farmyard.

It’s almost a mod look, but not quite mod. It is inflected with a faint hint of Goth, which is highlighted by the trace of eyeliner. It is all urban. Those drainpipe trousers and winklepickers are not what we usually see, in these parts.

In these parts, people tend to dress according to their tribe. There is the tweedy lot, with their LandRovers and their corduroy; the sporty lot, who go to one of those shops that sell something I think is called outerwear and is made of the kind of fabric that people go to space in; the tidy lot, who are always immaculate and respectable and perfectly pressed and make me feel very scruffy indeed. Then there is my tribe, which is what I think of, in the nicest possible way, the dirty lot. These are the people who work outside, who have mud on their boots and their hands and sometimes, as in my case, their faces, whose clothes have nothing sartorial about them, but are purely practical, built to withstand livestock and weather. We do not have young men in sharp black suits.

I smile. I remember those boys. I think I used to kiss those boys. They were the ones who loved vinyl, and spent a lot of time listening to old Nick Drake and Gram Parsons records. They loved Van Morrison, but not the famous tracks, the obscure difficult Van at his most Vannish tracks, like TB Sheets, which they put on every mix tape they made.

I’m at the age now where my youth is far enough away for the string to snap. I realise that I spent a lot of time pulled back into the past. I think I defined myself by the things I did in my late teens and early twenties. This summer, when I went back to Oxford for my gaudy, I realised it was not mine any more. I’d always been so proud of Oxford. I was not supposed to be clever enough to go, but there was a muddle in the headmaster’s office, and I ended up going back for my seventh term by mistake, to cram for the exam. Might as well have a go at it, I thought, although all my teachers said that it was a bridge too far. I was all prepared for Bristol, hoping I might find a nice room in Clifton, when the letter came. My mother stood at the bottom of the stairs, gazing at the thin piece of paper. ‘What is an exhibition?’ she said.

That was a defining feature for a long time, as all the girly swotting finally paid off. This summer, I let it go. I gave those golden stones and stately quads back to the young people who own them now. It was melancholy and liberating at the same time. I don’t need this any more, I thought. You can’t go around your whole life thinking: well, look at me, I went to university.

I think it was a thing in my mind because I did not come from an academic background. I lived among horse people, and they really did only talk about horses. My father could work out of the odds of a five-race accumulator in under a minute, but he had no idea who John Stuart Mill was. The people of the Lambourn valley did not read de Toqueville, so it felt very novel and thrilling to me as I sat in tutorials about him, with the venerable old prof who knew him as well as a brother.

The boy in the black suit was a whistle from that distant past. For a moment, I remembered it all. Then I had a nice conversation with the lady in the shop about the weather – ‘blowing in from the Atlantic,’ she said; ‘I hope we don’t get hit too hard,’ – and went to make sure the red mare was settled for the storm to come.


Today’s pictures:

Ready for the storm:

21 Oct 1

21 Oct 2

This is Red’s stern predator alert face. She knows she has a job to do:

21 Oct 3

The dramatic idea of Preparing for the Storm is of course absurd, because all it means is rugs and a slightly bigger than usual breakfast. The girls are perfectly able to deal with the weather themselves. The red mare takes up her position at the highest point of the field, well away from dangerous branches, and watches for mountain lions, whilst, in her shadow, the little Paint safely grazes. Horses are much tougher than one thinks. It is the humans who are frail, and fret. Or this human, anyway.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Say the thing.

Someone just sent me one of the nicest emails I’ve ever had in my life.

A nine-year-old person uttered a fine, fine compliment. Her mother wrote it down and passed it on to me.

It was like being sprinkled with stardust.

Despite my best intentions, I spend quite a lot of time scolding myself. I must write faster and better; I must be more organised; I must make all those vital telephone calls that I never make. One day, says the dark voice in my head, you are going to have to tackle the cupboard of doom.

I know that this chastisement is stupid and pointless. A bit of stern galvanising talk is a good thing. One must crack on. But the random, low-level chuntering at perceived hopelessness is only lowering, and achieves nothing but gloom. It is the kind of thing that you would never say to another human, only to yourself. I know better, and yet on those damn voices chatter.

And there, out of a clear blue sky, came the kind voice of a child, and that voice silenced all those inner critics with one sentence.

The particularly lovely thing is that it was passed on. It did not have to be. They might have laughed together and kept it to themselves. But they did not.

I quite often write: say the thing. By this I mean: express the love, utter the encouragement, make the compliment. This sounds very obvious, but it is not always straightforward. For Britons in particular, it can be almost embarrassing. We are supposed to be phlegmatic and deprecating; we bring grumbly complaining to Olympic levels. Too much enthusiasm and appreciation may be seen as gushing and bogus. This is particularly true in this part of the world, where the character is as granite as the land from which it comes. The Scots of the north-east do understatement so sternly that it is often interpreted as rudeness by people who are not used to it.

Say the thing, say the thing, I chant to myself in delight.

Almost everyone is a little bashed and bruised; almost everyone has a private tape which runs on a loop, listing their shortcomings. If you tell them something lovely about themselves, you can shut off that damn tape, even if only for a moment. You can, for a moment, give them their best self back.

Say the thing.


Today’s pictures:

Have been trawling through the archive, trying to tidy it up. I take far too many pictures and do not delete the duds as I go. Naughty. As I made a slightly feeble attempt to wrangle the thing into some kind of coherence, I found these:

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The funny thing is that the kind email had a pay it forward aspect. So galvanised was I by the sweetness, that as I waded through the archive, I put together a little album for the Beloved Cousin, of her family, from happy days in the summer. It’s a very small thing, but I think it will make her smile, and it was a way of passing on the joy.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Some absolutely pointless Friday questions.

I stand down by the shed, with the red mare’s head on my shoulder, talking of life and complicated families and the odd twists of human psychology. The sun thinks about coming out, and then changes its mind and goes sullenly away. The mare is covered in mud and growing her teddy bear coat for winter. She is content. I love her very much.

I think about the oddities of the things that make one human happy, and the things that make another human sad. I think particularly about the small things. Poor Matthew Parris just wrote an article about what a furious mass of crowd rage he had uncovered when he dared to write something disobliging about UKIP. He is an old school, one-nation Tory, rather courteous and thoughtful, and the intemperance of the Kippers made him despair. Underneath his article, all the furious people came out and were ruder than ever. It’s all ad hominem with them, although they could not see the irony. This fury on the internet gets a lot of press, and there is an odd herd mind which takes hold on message boards. I don’t know why it astonishes me that the readers of those two old grand ladies, the Speccie and the Telegraph, leave by far the rudest comments. They are much more polite over at the Staggers, and much funnier at the Guardian.

I do mind the rudeness very much, but just at the moment I find myself fixated on the absurdities of the unimportant. I really do mind about the absolute lack of spelling and grammar. It’s not just on news sites, where some of the crosser comments use English which looks as if it were randomly selected by a bot. It’s on every forum I visit. Breaks for brakes, should of for should have, you’re for your. I like playing with the language, and will merrily split an infinitive so it damn well stays split. I will rashly end a sentence with a preposition, and sometimes invent new words. (I do not think that wibbly is found in any dictionary, although it is the only satisfactory adjective for the soft lower lip of the glorious mare.) I make typos and sometimes completely forget how to spell.

I know I’m a writer, and it is my job to use the English language. I know that I am a nerd, and it is my obsession. But it’s so easy to write simple, clear English. Anyone can use a full stop, or put a capital letter at the start of a sentence, or understand the apostrophe. I find the trashing of such a beautiful resource almost physically painful.

Once I’ve got onto this hobby horse, and galloped off in all directions in the manner of a Daisy Ashford hero, I become fixated on tiny expressions which drive me batshit nuts in the head. It used to be jargon which had this effect. For no known reason, I grind my teeth every time someone says they are going to grow a business, rather than a pot of mint. Now, it is growing wider than dead management-speak. Today, a government minister said that the world needed to ‘wake up to’ the problem of Ebola, and instead of fretting about a fatal pandemic, which would have been the correct reaction, I grew furious over that unlovely phrase. In a similar manner, I want to throw things every time a person says ‘it’s down to you’. It used to be ‘up to you’. Where did this awful ‘down’ come from? Even Lord Fellowes has smuggled it into Downton Abbey. Don’t even get me started on ‘end of’, or ‘TB’ for thoroughbred, or ‘hun’ as an abbreviation of ‘honey’. They fly like stinging arrows to my idiot mind.

My old dad always said that once you got the irritation there was nothing you could do about it. Some poor hapless person would annoy you in some way, and, after that, they could say nothing right. They could be the nicest person in the world, but every word out of their kind mouths would be nails on the blackboard from then on.

It’s so irrational. How on earth can it matter, when the world is so oppressed, whether someone chooses to say end of, or TB, or use he as the universal pronoun? (I get particularly livid when people do this with horses, as if they are writing off ALL THE MARES.) Talking of generalisations, I find the universal we even more distressing, particularly when it comes to women. We all want to lose half a stone; we all obsess over shoes; we all crave the latest must-have. What is this we of whom you speak? And while I’m on the subject, ‘must-have’ causes me daily offence. It is wrong on about eight different levels.

On the other hand, there are lazy tropes and worn phrases of which I am fond. I rather like ‘back in the day’, which drives one person I love demented. I use ‘old-school’ far too much. Almost every single one of my metaphors has an equine aspect. (There is a lot of galloping, and many, many prairies.) My skies are almost always the colour of some pigeon or other – doleful, despairing, or desperate. Practically everything is dear and old – Scotland, the weather, Blighty, TS Eliot, the hills. I’m always ransacking the most obvious parts of Shakespeare – the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the sorrows not in single spies but in battalions, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. When I was editing the manuscript of the book, I found myself shamingly unable to kill all the darlings that should have died. I have developed awful little tics and twitches, and indulge them far too often.

Taste is so odd. Why do I love green but hate yellow? Why does it drive me mad that everyone has started using the redundant So to start every single sentence? Where did my adoration of Scott Fitzgerald come from, when I cannot wear Nabokov? (This is particularly wrong, since Nabokov is supposed to be the ultimate writer’s writer.) Why do I worship Nina Simone, but find myself left cold by Michael Jackson?

Those are my Friday questions.

Now I’m going to watch the racing. It has not only the great beauty of the thoroughbred, but also a glittering language all its own. I love every single racing expression. Racing has a lingua franca which stretches across nationalities and cultures. It is tribal but not exclusive. It is the sound of my childhood, the voice of my father, and it never ceases to thrill me.


Still no time for the camera. Just this dear old face:

17 Oct 1

As I have made the complaint about bad English, the irony gods will ensure that there shall be at least three howlers in this post. I’ve read it through twice, but my eyes have gone squinty. I rely on the Dear Readers to point them out and save me from myself.

Have a lovely weekend, wherever you are.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The good body and dry stone walls.

So sorry I have been away. My body suddenly went into spasm and that was that.

I felt most inadequate. Where was my stoical spirit, my great buggering on? My father was endlessly breaking things and dislocating things and getting back into the saddle. My body, it seemed, was made of weaker stuff.

The pain, which appeared to have been ebbing, got the bit between its teeth and decided to make an attack on several flanks. It amused itself by wondering which part of the frame it would settle in. It tried the neck; ran up and down one leg; explored every inch of the back. At one point, I was unable to put on a pair of socks, which was absurdly dispiriting.

Bloody hell, I thought, furiously, it was just one slow fall onto soft turf. Actually, I think there must have been a twist, so that things got wrenched, as if nerves and muscles have been pulled slightly from their moorings and this soreness is the re-attaching process.

As I lay, immobilised, for two days, I thought about pain. I know quite a lot of people who live with it daily. My mother does, although she rarely speaks about it. My father did, towards the end of his life, his bent physical self exacting payment for all those racing falls. At HorseBack, I work with people who know its every mean strategy, and have to do battle with it in long sleepless nights.

It made me think about freedom, and privilege. People are writing a lot about privilege at the moment, mostly because of rising economic inequality. There is that terrifying statistic which is going the rounds, about the top 1% of Americans being richer than the next 3 billion world citizens combined. A rich person in the liberal West is probably the freest and most privileged person on the planet, and it is right that commentators get exercised about the awful gap. But I started to wonder whether privilege is being marked on the wrong scale.

What really counts is agency. Fine accoutrements only get you so far. If you live in pain, so acute that even the drugs don’t work, then all the traditional privileges count for nothing. Your good body becomes a trap and a snare.

As I slept and slept, trying to heal, coming back to the old, old wives’ notion that there is nothing a good night’s sleep cannot cure, I wondered what would happen if sleep would not cure. I looked, foggily, at the internet, with its flashing banner about that 1%. I thought of those very rich. I did not envy them. The person I thought of, the beau ideal who kept coming back to me, was a dry-stone-waller I met once whilst staying with the Beloved Cousin in the south. He was a gnarled old fellow, and walling had been in his family since memory began. He could create a thing of beauty out of that Cotswold stone, and he was teaching the art to his son, who was teaching it to his son. I saw the three generations at work one sunny morning, and it was such a delightful sight that I had to try and restrain myself from doing the lunatic grinning which can frighten people.

That man, I thought, as I tossed and turned, has the real privilege, in its best and truest sense. Forget your fancy schools or castles in Spain or fine wines; forget your contact lists and private jets to Davos and seats at the top table. That man, whose name will never be known outside his quiet part of the country, has a good body which works, so that he can create something of use and beauty in the world. I would almost guarantee that he is happier than all those 1% billionaires put together. He is who I want to be, still out in all weathers in advanced age, still physically strong, still of the earth.

The pain is fading now, so that I can think again, although my mind is still a little battered and fogged, and a veil of soreness hangs over me.

Spinach, I think, and soup, and all manner of green things, so the poor body can get back to fighting strength. I see people whose physical selves have been shot to pieces. They still prevail; they ride horses and climb mountains and do jobs and make jokes and brighten the world. They do not complain or give up, but they have to strive. The thing that so many people take for granted, that I sometimes take for granted, is a body which works without hurting, and that is the privilege which cannot be matched.


Have taken no pictures this week, but this person has been the best of good companions, and put all his lurcher-ish instincts on hold to sit and gaze sympathetically at my weakened self. Not a hint of reproach in his dear eyes:

16 Oct 1

And a kind friend stepped in to make sure that the red mare was beautifully looked after:

16 Oct 2

Just thinking, as I finish this, of another kind of privilege. It is being able to write, without thought: ‘a kind friend’. The other thing, apart from the 1%, which has been doing the rounds in the news is an apparent epidemic of loneliness. I’m always wary when people start leaping on these kind of bandwagons; there is often a lot of hyperbole and why oh why and not much empirical working. But there does seem to be some evidence for an increasingly atomised society. I think there are people who do not always have a kind friend, and certainly not one who will step into the breach at a moment’s notice. It is another gift.

Don’t take anything for granted, say the serious voices in my head. Not one single thing. Riches come not in bulging wallets, but in the good body and the human heart. 

Friday, 10 October 2014

In which I hear the hubris angels flap their feathery wings.

I start the blog today with pictures, instead of words. You will see why as the story unfolds. To start with, all you need to know is that I was offered a ride on a most excellent Anglo-Arab, and ended up leading a posse up the hill. A great privilege and a great pride.

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As you can see, by the end I was feeling pretty cocky and pleased with myself. I am not very good at riding Western and have only had three lessons in the discipline. Although I like to think that I use a combination of English and Western as I ride the red mare, really what I am doing is riding English in an English saddle, which is what I grew up with. The two Western techniques I use are keeping my leg off and my seat quiet, which I like very much, and what I think of as inviting steering. This is where, instead of tightening the rein and bending the horse’s body round your inside leg whilst applying the outside leg behind the girth, you simply lift your hand and open the door. The horse then steps through that door. It feels like a Jane Austen gavotte to me.

In full Western, I realised my absolute novice status and tried to adapt and remember what I had been taught. It really is a very different beast from what I am used to. ‘Archie can occasionally be a bit grumpy,’ I was told with a laugh. And certainly, at the beginning, he did look askance at my amateur methods. But going up the hill, we got into a rhythm and he pricked his ears, and I thought Yeah, yeah, Green Grass of Wyoming. I had just ridden the red mare, and she had gone so softly and kindly and beautifully that she had infected me with love and confidence. I can do anything, I thought.
Wait till everyone sees this, I thought. My friend Jay has just got back from a week in the Rockies, rounding up cattle in the high places. He was riding behind, and I thought: I’ll be cutting cows too, before you can say knife.

At which point some young cows in the sloping pasture started rushing about to the right, and to the left a pheasant flew up right under my fella’s feet. He’d been distracted by the cows, getting a little wound up, but I was so punchy I had not paid enough attention. I was, I am ashamed to say, showing off. As the pheasant rose with its warning whirr, Archie jinked in alarm. And, dear readers, I FELL OFF.

One minute I was on the Trail of the Lonesome Pine; the next, I was flat on my arse, in front of a crowd of witnesses. I walked home, chastened, limping like an old crock.

The lady in the chemist was very sympathetic as she sold me a bumper pack of Ibuprofen. ‘I don’t suppose you have a pill for bruised pride?’ I said.

I draw my usual lesson from this. Whenever those wings of hubris start flapping, beware. Don’t get careless, because you think you are all that. Pay attention.

The lovely thing it did make me realise is how well I know that red mare and how safe I feel with her. She can still have a little spook from time to time, and she occasionally remembers her racehorsey past. Her majestic thoroughbred blood rises, and her ancestors call to her. But I know the signs so well, I can take action. I know every twitch of her dear ears, and every tiny tighten of every single sinew. Each morning, as I get on her, I can feel from the energy rising from her mighty body what her state of mind is. I know when she is at home with herself, easy in her skin. This morning, she was so relaxed and comfortable that I could take my hands off the reins, and let her stretch out her sweet neck, and know that all was well in her world. She is my person, and I am hers, and sympathy runs between us like starlight. Her thoughts are my thoughts, and mine are hers. That astonishing telepathic sense which horses have surrounds us with harmony.

Archie is a lovely horse, but he is not my horse. It was only the second time I’d ever sat on him, and I did not know the signs. I like to think that my meditations on herd behaviour make me able to read horses in general, and in a limited, basic way, I can. But really what it means is that I can interpret the mare, from all those hours of work, all those mornings of observation, all those weeks of devotion.
When I get above myself, I secretly think I’m a bit of a horsewoman. The truth is, I’m not. I’m a red mare woman. She gives me the astonishing gift of making me feel much better than I really am.

And finally, as I sit, a bit sore and a bit shivery and put firmly back in my box, I think again of my admiration for the Champ, the man of steel that is AP McCoy. He crashes at thirty-five miles an hour, onto hard racing turf. He’s taking a couple of days off just now, after a kaleidoscopic fall at Worcester in a novice hurdle. ‘He got me good,’ he wrote wryly on Twitter. He lay on the ground for fifteen minutes afterwards, but then, in true AP fashion, walked to the ambulance. That’s all part of his daily job. I fell off at a walk onto soft grass. It bloody hurt. It was a rude shock to the poor body. The thing happens so quickly. One minute you are on top of the world, the next you are flat on your back, staring at the ruthless blue sky. How these jocks do it never ceases to amaze me.

PS. I may have overdone it on the Ibuprofen. Not only should I not operate heavy machinery, but I should not be in charge of the English language. There will be typos. Forgive me.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

A very ordinary story.

Somewhere, on a train in Germany, my agent is reading my book.

This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.

She has to like it. She may have notes. I shall make changes. Then she has to like the changes. Then she will sell it. Then an editor will edit it. Then the subs will have a bash. Then, just as everyone takes a deep breath and thinks it is all over, I will decide I must do a semi-colon edit. After that, there may be a cliché edit. I once did a cliché edit followed by a platitude edit. You can’t beat belt and braces. (See what I did there?)

All this is something over which I have no control.

Actually, that is not quite true. I can control the clichés, when I get to them. What I cannot control are the subjective judgements. I have to do that awful thing: letting go.

People are talking about Europe sliding back into recession. Perhaps, by the time the editors get to thinking about my book, nobody will be buying books any more.

Books are such fragile things. They require time, and engagement. Someone has to want to buy one, find the time to sit down quietly to read, have the mental space to give themselves to the text. In the crazy modern world, it seems a miracle than anyone still reads at all. Yet books are also sturdy things, still there, in all their papery analogue old-school glory, holding their corner against the flashing electronic Johnny-Come-Latelies of the internet and the Kindle.

I sometimes think that writing them is a very odd job indeed.

To take my mind off all this, I go out for a long ride on the red mare. The little Paint comes with, and the two good companions stretch out their dear necks and point their toes and move in time, along the burn, past the hills, through the trees. They adore riding together and it really is one of those moments when the world grows still and makes sense.

A charity sale is going on at an old cowshed near the house. We decide to go and look in the window and see what is going on. Groups of ladies come out and exclaim over the horses. ‘Oh, you are so beautiful,’ they say, first to one and then the other. A small boy is brought out to see the mighty creatures. Several of the women are clearly rather knowledgeable. ‘You ride in rope halters?’ they say, impressed. Then, to the mares: ‘You good clever things.’ (At which point, I practically fall off with pride.)

One exceptionally elegant lady tells us that her son has just ridden in the famous long-distance Mongolian Derby, a thousand kilometres of unforgiving terrain on strange ponies. That really is proper pride, I tell her. She smiles. ‘He is in the Household Cavalry,’ she says. I think of the complex emotions this must produce in a mother. There must be that pride, on many different levels, and perhaps a sliver of astonishment too – that is my boy – and trepidation and fear too. It’s a hell of an office to go to. All this is in her voice, and our eyes meet and some very human sympathy runs between us, as if we are not strangers at all. Horses, I notice, often facilitate this bashing down of barriers. People often tell me amazingly intimate stories as I sit on the red mare, and she drops her head and dozes, and they stroke her strong neck.

More people arrive to see the equines. The mares, who have not had a crowd like this since their sell-out tour to Peoria, are in their element. They blink their eyes and hold out their velvet muzzles to be stroked and impress everyone by standing like dignity on the monument. The Paint filly gets so excited by her adoring public that she goes looking for new humans who will give her more love. ‘It’s not often,’ said one woman, beaming, ‘that you get to see such beautiful big animals up close.’

I write a lot about the beauty, of the red mare in particular, and of her pretty friend; of the thoroughbred in general, which, for my money, is the most ravishing breed ever invented. Most of the time I think it is my own monomania speaking, a hysterical confirmation bias run mad. But there were other people seeing it too. It lit up their faces and made them smile and stand up a little straighter, in the cool Scottish air.

As the tickertape of world news flickers past, filled with the big and the terrifying, here was the very, very small and the very consoling. It was a moment of keen sweetness. It means nothing, and it means everything.

‘Good girl,’ I say, putting my little heroine back in her field. ‘Clever girl.’ I rub her sweet spot and she ducks her head in acknowledgement, and then I let her go and she wanders off, swinging her hips a little as she goes.


Today’s pictures:

Just time for a couple.

This is another of my not-very-good pictures. The light was wrong and the focus a bit off, but I put it here because it shows the dearness of the two friends:

9 Oct 1

This one is better. Stanley the Manley, with his basilisk stare. He does not really enjoy posing for pictures since it takes up valuable time when he could be hunting for mice or looking for really, really big sticks, so as well as the Scottish sky in those eyes, there is the ruthless gleam of deep reproach:

9 Oct 2

Wednesday, 8 October 2014


After the storms, Scotland looked very, very beautiful today.

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The paddock now has a little loch in it:

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But Herself is all muddy and happy and calm again, now those crazy winds have stopped blowing and she can get her rug off and have a good old loaf in the sunshine:

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From the garden:

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Focus is all over the shop in this next series, but it’s a sweet little photo essay. Red was doing her Minnie the Moocher walk to come and say hello, whilst Stanley the Dog was sunbathing. I just love Stan the Man being so preoccupied with his serious stick that he does not notice a HUGE RED MARE right behind him:

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Also, what makes me laugh is that the duchess can’t be fagged to go round, but insists that the young shaver gets out of her regal way.

Also, for those of you interested in herd behaviour, and I know that number runs into legions, the red mare is giving a perfect lesson in pressure-release. Ask once, gently. If there is no response, ask again, more firmly. THEN REALLY MEAN IT. At once release the pressure when the desired result is achieved. She’s been watching her Warwick Schiller videos. Clever girl.


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