Monday, 19 March 2012

Horse tales

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I’m afraid there really are going to be an awful lot of horse stories from now on. The general view of my getting a horse amongst my family and friends seems to be comical; it is an eccentric and whimsical thing to do. I suppose it is all those things. For me, though, it is an absolutely fascinating thing to do. The interest lies in the resurrection of half-forgotten things, from over thirty years ago, and in getting to know an entirely new creature.

There is a mistake that people sometimes make which goes something like this. If you have a dog, and love a dog, then you are a dog person. You know and love and understand all dogs. This is not the case at all. In fact, the more I love my own dog, the more discriminating I am about others of her species. She has, rather oddly, almost spoilt me for other dogs, by being so spectacularly nice, interesting, funny, beautiful, gentle and athletic. When I meet grumpy dogs or nippy dogs or yappy lap creatures, I recoil in horror.

So it is with horses. I generally like horses as a lot, but there are nappy ones and mean ones and idle ones and plain ugly ones. Shetland ponies, which look so furry and adorable, are famously cross and surly. Even within breeds there can be stark differences. Synchronised, who won this year’s Gold Cup at Cheltenham, looks like an old donkey, and is, apparently, an absolute dopey old gent in the box. Kauto Star, who won in 2007 and 2009, looks like a rock star, and can act like one, adoring attention, and getting occasionally a bit diva-ish when he is not paid his due.

Red the Mare is a character I am unfolding, day by day. She is, essentially, a very nice and gentle person. She has, I discovered this morning, a little stubborn streak, although I suspect this has to do with her general astonishment at finding herself in a completely different environment from the one she is used to. As a polo pony, she ran in a pack. I imagine she has hardly been alone in her life. She lived in a field with several other horses and ponies; in the lorry, on the way to matches, she would have been with a gang; in the lines, she would have been tied up with her team-mates.

Now, because of strict quarantine rules, which are very sensibly applied in a closed herd, she has to be alone in her paddock, and then alone in her box at night. She has a strange new human, with a different voice, different smell, different tread than the ones she was accustomed to. When she planted herself in the yard this morning, I think she was just thinking: What the hell is going on?

After this unpromising start, I was worried she would get herself into a state. I took her up on the long path to the high woods. I concentrated very hard on beaming love and reassurance and relaxed confidence at her with my mind. This sounds a bit nutty and new age, but horses are famously telepathic creatures; they can tell from a hundred paces if you are nervous or uncertain. I rode her on a loose rein, partly because this is what she is used to, and partly because I did not want to grab at her mouth and signal any form of tension.

As I do all this, I remember, with vague instinct, that really you need to ride with your body. Of course the hands and reins are important, but much more signal comes off your body; it is how you maintain forward propulsion. She is also brilliant at reading those signals; I can turn her with a lean rather than a pull. I just turn my entire torso in the direction I want her to go, and she follows. It is a rather magical feeling.

She was very good going through the timber yard and sawmill, which many horses would find perfectly terrifying. She pricked her ears and walked out with a spring in her step. We had only one mountain lion moment, when she spotted two horses grazing behind a tree, and did her excessively neat and collected fast reverse.

I am growing used to this now. There is no wickedness in it; she is just saying help, I don’t know what on earth that shadowy, moving creature is. I give her a moment to calm, then walk her on; I talk to her all the time. It’s all right old lady, I say; here be no lions. You’re all right, you’re allllll right.

And the wonder is that, after a moment, she believes me, and on she goes, snorting her uncertainty through her nose, but trusting me all the same. Then I congratulate her for her courage was if she has won the Grand National.

She will settle soon. The funny thing is that I quite love the little glitches, because I have something to do. I am not just a passenger. I got a thoroughbred because I want the fine breeding; the price I pay for that is that there are moments of spirited behaviour. I could have got an old dope to amble about on, but that would not bring all these memories back, because with a creature like that you just sit on top and steer. This one is making me pull on my resources, and it is rather amazing and lovely to find that I have some, left over from those distant childhood days.

By the end, she was quiet as an old Labrador. I walked her home with one finger on the end of the rein, letting her stretch out her neck and lower her head. The low head is a thing, apparently. I did not know this, but there are people who swear that it releases endorphins into the equine body and calms it, in the way that a smile does in humans. This makes sense, logically, because in the wild, horses would only put their heads down when they felt absolutely safe. In alert for predator mode, they have their heads as high as possible, and their eyes open so that you can see the whites.

When she drops her head like that, and all the tension goes out of her body, and she breathes slowly and evenly through her nose, I feel a small, profound sense of achievement.

I think she might be missing this handsome fella. I certainly would, if I were her:

19 March 1 09-03-2012 13-41-13

The Pigeon, still a bit bemused by the new red dog:

19 March 3 09-03-2012 13-43-41


  1. Beautifully put.
    I knew that the low outstretched neck was a thing to aim for, but I didn't know about the endorphin release.

  2. What a lovely time we're going to have with Red! Particularly looking forward to seeing the darling Pidge with her. One day...

  3. Ha! I thought perhaps polo, given her size and the roached mane. How handy on her feet she must be.

    What a lovely, lovely way to spend time. Red, the countryside and the Pigeon--makes one calm and peaceful just to read.


  4. Lovely post and it was calm and peaceful to read. I enjoyed it. ~Tammy

  5. I knew by the slightly droopy bottom lip that she was A Nice Person. By the way, by controlling your breathing, like in yoga, you can give assurance to the horse and improve its going - it does work, I do it myself when I am not too snotty or out of breath. Horse stories - bring them on!

  6. loose rein and riding with your body is how we (Australians) ride stock horses.

    Are you thinking of acquiring her old friend? There is a distinct hint of that....

  7. Hmmm...maybe get her a goat to keep her company?

  8. That's the wonderful thing about a personal (vs. a public rental) horse. When riding trail horses, one has to keep the horse's head up because as soon as they're dipping it, they're either grabbing the bit so they can get back to the stable unhindered, or eating something they're not supposed to and munging up the bit. Your own horse, not being a trail horse, has none of those hard-bitten hack tricks up her sleeve.

  9. I love this post and to hear about the relationship you are building with her.


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