Posted by Tania Kindersley.
The Younger Stepbrother, his Best Beloved, and the two step-nephews are staying at the moment, all the way from Canada. Today, observing the merest break in the cloud and the hint of sun, I rushed up and said: ‘Come and see the horse.’
They came to see the horse. I worked with her a bit first, to get her in the required dopey mood (she is always much happier and more settled after she has worked) and then they arrived and everything was merry as a marriage bell. She was immaculate. The littlest fella looked a bit apprehensive to start. After all, he is three feet high and she is half a ton. I could see him trying to work the whole thing out, his small face wary and contemplating. Was this friend or foe? I suddenly thought horses and children are not so very different, in that instinctive way.
One of the lovely things about Red is she is quite enchanting with children. She is gentle and delicate with them, filled with consideration and politesse. It’s one of the dearest things I’ve ever seen in a horse. By the end, the small fella was feeding her Polos from his tiny little hand, grinning all over his face. They parted fast friends.
What was fascinating though is that the older nephew turned out to be a natural. He is twelve years old, but looks older; tall and willowy with the face of a poet. You can tell when someone is good with horses the moment they approach the animal. People who don’t know anything about them tend to march up, from the front, and immediately start petting the creature. This can be quite alarming for a horse, because of their eyes being on the side of their heads. It’s also, if I can say this without sounding like a 1970s hippy, an invasion of personal space. I teach my mare good manners, and I treat her with politeness in return. The good, polite way to approach a horse is a little from the side, so they can get a good look at you. Then you hold out your hand so they can have a sniff of you. You watch for the moment of consent. It is often signalled by a miniscule nod of the head. Then you can stroke them and gentle them. A small, unspoken contract of mutual respect has been signed.
The real horse people, I have noticed, almost always offer the knuckle. This is mostly common sense; a horse can’t bite a hand offered in that way. It’s a kind of loose fist, not bunched and tense, but open and easy. The Older Nephew did exactly that. Red looked at him, sniffed his hand, nodded her head, and there they were, instantly recognising each other. He was incredibly thoughtful and relaxed and sensitive to her. It was a wonderful thing to see in a boy of that age.
The reason for the title of this post is that then there were photographs. Snap, snap, snap, went the Older Nephew. I was delighted he was taking pictures of my beautiful girl, and arranged her in elegant poses in front of the mountains. But then I noticed he was taking a few shots of me. Horrid, ancient vanity kicked in. My hair was plastered to my head from an earlier rain shower, I was wearing my smeary old spectacles, and a most unflattering baggy t-shirt which I had flung on in a hurry that morning, already muddy and grubby from working with the mare. Oh no, went the inner wail, he’ll take those pictures back to Canada and all the nice Canadians will think: who’s that scruffy old bat with the lovely horse?
I’ve been thinking about vanity a lot lately, partly because my book is about beauty, and how it affects women, and partly because of Ascot. People dress up for Ascot; there is a strict dress code and it’s regarded as a time for fashion. I rummaged around in the back of my wardrobe and flung together five outfits composed of twenty-year-old jackets and my sternly practical boots. I did have a moment when I looked at the sleek, chic women, and felt a twinge of inadequacy. But I had come for the horses; I needed to be comfortable and able to run from the paddock to the stands. I thought: the real beauty is with the equines; as long as I look respectable, it does not matter what I am wearing.
When the vanity klaxon went off this morning, I thought: bugger it, it’s the beauty of the mare that matters. That is what the interested Canadians may see. In the photographs, I shall look like exactly what I am: a rather scruffy, muddy, middle-aged woman. Perhaps I shall look happy, because I am with a creature I love, and my family was admiring her. I shall not look sleek or elegant or any of those things that sometimes I long to be. But those things are not really important. Sometimes, if I do see a flattering picture of myself, nicely posed, with kind lighting and a good angle, I do get a burst of happiness. It is very fleeting. It’s not the real, bone deep, important stuff.
The important stuff is that I have a glorious horse with whom I have done weeks of work, with whom I am developing an unbreakable bond of love and trust.
I explained the theory of join up to the family this morning. It’s a slightly counter-intuitive method of sending the horse away, so that it then comes back to you. Rather rashly, I decided to demonstrate. Red does not always perform when there are people there. She gets distracted and wants to go and talk to the visitors instead of concentrating on me.
‘See,’ I said, flicking the rope at her. ‘I send her away like this.’
She walked off. I kept her moving. When we do this alone, sometimes it can take ten or fifteen minutes, because we are working in a huge field and it depends on her mood. Oh dear, I thought, as they all stood and watched, this could be a disaster. They shall think I am a nutty old fool. Then a miracle happened. Within a minute, she turned, and came to my shoulder. We walked in a circle, and then back to the little observing group. I stopped; she stopped. They stood with their mouths open. I felt like dancing a little dance.
I sometimes forget how strange the natural horsemanship can look to people who have never seen it before. There was a fine thoroughbred, a racing and polo mare, in a wide open field, attached to my side as if there were an invisible thread between us. I felt passionately grateful to her that she had done her stuff when there was an audience. I think now, as I write this, slightly rueful, that I can never free myself from vanity altogether. I might be able to talk myself out of the photograph vanity, but that little moment was a vanity of its own. Look at me! See what I have done with my horse! Look, Ma, no hands!
Today was a day of sunshine and showers. At least the sun came out, which felt like a present. And I suppose the one good thing about all this rain is that it has made everything very, very green:
This is almost my favourite of her faces. It’s not her most beautiful, regal face, but her dopey old donkey look, with a bit of grass coming out of the side of her mouth, like an old boy chewing a straw:
The lovely eye:
And watching her view:
And the Pigeon, who also has the gift of being delightful with children, and who has captured the hearts of those two boys. Having a bit of a sniff about:
Caught in the rain:
And so very ready for her close-up:
The hill, in one of our rare moments of sun: