Posted by Tania Kindersley.
After the pointless rage and grump of yesterday, I woke early and went up to the mare. The inexplicable bad mood had gone, faded away like smoke, but I was faintly wary. It was time to ride for the first time in her new home. She was just settling in the glen, and then had to be moved again. So that is two new places in as many weeks. It was strangeness on strangeness. And these are wide open spaces, where anything could happen.
I have been slightly surprised by how not scared I have been. Taking a new horse out alone into surroundings which are unknown to her and to me, as I have been doing for the last couple of weeks, could be quite a daunting prospect. I just did it, because if you think about things too much then you can get stalled.
Two things worked in my favour. One was that, because of being put into the saddle so young, I feel entirely at ease on a horse. It is like going home, for me. Even though it is reaching back over many, many years, that ingrained instinct survives, miraculously intact. There is no sense of anything alien or forgotten. It’s a bit like if you have been abroad, talking in a second language, and then you come back and may suddenly speak your native tongue.
The second great advantage is that there is nothing mean or nasty in Red. She has her little spooks and freaks, but that is all about acclimatising. She is not trying to get me off or thinking of wicked things to do. When she gets frightened, I can feel her heart beating in her chest. This makes me, oddly, more confident, because it is up to me to be the lead horse, to calm and comfort her. It gives me a good and important job to do. Therefore I have no time for nerves myself; I am entirely focused on the task in hand.
But too much time to think is fatal. Because of the move and the snow, I had not ridden her for four days. I was out of the rhythm. My imagination had space to kick in, worrying slightly about possible trouble. As I tacked her up, something startled her, and she got herself into a bit of a state. She started fussing with her head, and jumping about a bit.
Miraculously, I had, only yesterday, stumbled upon a brilliant article about working with your horse on the ground, by a woman called Ruth Mazet. Her idea is that, to get your horse to relax and trust you, you should tack it up and then walk it about the field for fifteen minutes. It sounds a bit hokey, and it is certainly not a technique I have ever used, or would have thought of myself. It turns out to be the single most helpful thing I have done with my mare.
It’s not just any old walking; you must make shapes, keep changing direction, do small circles this way and that. It’s a way of establishing yourself as the lead horse, and also maintaining your own space. (This is incredibly important when working with a horse; if they crowd or barge you, it means they are not giving you their respect, and think they can walk all over you, literally and metaphorically.)
Well, I thought, I don’t want to get on the mare in this state. I’ll do the creative walking. So, off we went. Fuss, fuss, startle startle, went Red. I let out the lead rope and did a little bit of lunging, first in one direction and then the other, keeping my body upright and open. I let her get all her fussing out, and did not take much notice of it. Come on, I said, firmly; trot on.
Then we did more of the special walking, this way and that, with me always slightly in front. After ten minutes, I did not even need the rope; she was anticipating each move, and following me like a puppy. I laughed out loud. It was absolutely bloody brilliant. I do not know very much about Ruth Mazet, but I think she may be a horse genius. It is such a profoundly simple technique, and such an amazingly effective one, and I bless her for it.
Then I got on and off we went. The mare was quite calm, but on alert, still very conscious that she had not been here before. She snorted out of her nostrils, as if to say: what the hell is this place?
And just as I was reassuring her that it was all fine, and here be no monsters, a huge fat pheasant whirred into life right under her feet. The noise of a pheasant taking off is alarming enough, that rolling, clucking rattle, but when it practically flies into your legs, it is enough to make anyone jump.
Red jumped, like a cartoon horse, straight up into the air, landing about three feet to the right of where she started. I blessed my old dad. I think I really did inherit his seat. Anyway, whatever it was, I was not at all dislodged. The funny thing about this is that it is the kind of incident that could disconcert, at the start of a ride, but it had the opposite effect. Oh, all right, I thought, if that’s the worst you’ve got, then there’s nothing to worry about. If I had been hanging half out of the saddle, I might have fretted, but I wasn’t. We’re going to be all right, I said, merrily, to my horse.
So I showed her the place. She was a bit surprised by the skittering newborn lambs, calling for their mothers, and faintly convinced that there might be mountain lions lurking somewhere on the horizon, so I let her pause a couple of times to take everything in. We walked and walked, and once she was stretching out her neck, we did a long slow trot, and then a collected canter. There was no zoominess, no shaking of the head, no veering about. She was listening to me, paying attention. The harmony I had glimpsed last week returned, in a great wave.
I smiled and laughed and patted her and stroked her withers and said oh, oh, oh, you are such a good girl. Any tiny fears I might have had were banished.
I tell you all this because it really does seem like a miracle to me. It is a huge thing to ask a new horse to come into an entirely foreign place and learn to trust a new rider. She is not an old hack; she is a thoroughbred who was bred for racing and trained for polo. The building of trust and respect is not a given; horses are not machines who just come out of the lorry and perform exactly as you may wish. We take all these new steps together, and each move forward feels like a vast victory, a much much better thing than I ever did before.
The other interesting thing is that she likes work. After the ride, she was much more settled, happier in herself. After I untacked her, she leant her head against my chest and let me scratch the special place behind her ears that she loves. She lipped gently at my hand. All thought of frets and alarms was forgotten. I felt my heart bloom in my chest.
There is a thing which the psychologists talk about called flow. It is a sort of zen state of mind when you are so absorbed in some demanding task that all extraneous worries and miseries are banished. The task, apparently, must be quite difficult; you can’t just do anything.
When I am with my mare, I get close to something like that. All my attention is demanded. I am constantly listening to what she is telling me; I am concentrating on beaming messages of confidence and reassurance back to her; I am remembering my body position and feeling my physical self tune into the movements of the horse.
I am learning, every day, to interpret the tiniest tremor in her, to tell whether it is genuine alarm, which must be soothed, or a hint of silliness or trying it on, with which I shall have no truck. I am learning how much leg she needs, how to get her smoothly into a lovely rolling trot or a gentle canter, how to turn her with my body, how to keep her balanced.
Back and forth we go, in the mind department, horse to human, human to horse. There is no room for anything else. The world shrinks, and there is just this one true thing.
No time for photographs today. (I am still working out how to balance morning stables and evening stables with writing an actual book; some things are getting lost in the mix.) So here are a few snaps from the last few days of snow:
Obligatory equine loveliness:
And contemplative for her close-up:
If any of you are riders, and are interested, the Mazet technique is here:
I can't recommend it highly enough.
Ps. When I say morning and evening stables, I am reverting to the language of my childhood. It refers to the times of day when the horses were mucked out, watered, fed, groomed, worked, and generally checked over. Red, of course, is not in a stable, but I think of the routine like that. Up I go first thing, to brush her and pick out her hooves and take her out for a ride and then settle her back in her field. Up I go last thing, to feel her legs, make sure her water trough is clean and clear, check her rug is in position and not rubbing her, and generally have a bit of a chat. Morning and evening stables, just like my dad did his entire working life.