Today, I met some people who had bits missing. I think that’s the best way to put it. Say the thing like it is. Amputee is horrid; armless and legless are just wrong, somehow.
Words matter, in these situations, and often there are no good ones. When good-hearted people took against disability, a word I too dislike, and started talking about differently-abled, it did not quite fly. It lacked authenticity, somehow; it was as if they were trying too hard. It had a faint whiff of political correctness and jargon and not calling a thing by its name. Yet, there is really no good name. Bits missing is my own small protest against the poverty of language when it smacks up against lost limbs.
The other problem is when words whack into sentiment. My fingers are itching for adjectives. I want to say: heroic, and remarkable, and extraordinary, and awe-inspiring. I want to tip up my thesaurus and empty it out onto the page. I am lost in admiration, and I want language for that.
I suspect, though, these men and women would hate that. I suspect, but do not know, that they could do without the adjectives, because that puts on them some kind of artificial burden which they may prefer not to carry. Too many words place them beyond the usual, into a part of life where regular people do not go, where civilians may not know how to react with nuance and sensitivity. Much easier to slap the label of hero onto someone, put them in that box, and then not have to think about it too much.
The women and men go out to wars. They fight their good fight. Some of them leave parts of themselves behind. At some stage, after medical attention and long rehabilitation, they end up in the rolling valley of the River Dee, on horses they have never met before. This is the operation of which I wrote a couple of weeks ago, HorseBack UK. Today, I went up to see the thing in action.
I want to say extraordinary, because it is true, yet I know that the returning soldiers are in some sense as gloriously ordinary as you and I, with all the frailties flesh is heir to. They do have extraordinary reserves of courage and determination and physical stamina and tactical nous. But to meet, they are funny and filthy and irreverent and interesting and ironical and thoughtful. My instinct of course is to hoist them up onto a pedestal; at the same time, I know that is no good at all.
Similarly, the HorseBack operation is extraordinary, and at the same time steeped in ordinariness. There is no Disney soundtrack, no slow-motion, no flying manes and dramatic galloping sequences. The horses are mostly dear old quarter-horses, who live out in the field, with dreamy temperaments and slightly scruffy tails. They are trained with intelligence and skill, and can do remarkable things, but at the same time, they are horses; they may be ornery or a bit idle or wander off if the mood takes them. Horses are not machines; however brilliant and well-schooled they are, you cannot just press the button that says go.
There is something intensely moving and impressive to watch a man who has lost half of one arm and most of the other hand, who has never sat on a horse before, guiding his ride round an obstacle course. There is something remarkable in watching a fellow with no legs ease himself into a Western saddle, or a woman in a wheelchair learn to lunge an equine in easy wide circles around her.
At the same time, there is the ordinariness again. The obstacle course is made of pedestrian poles and familiar old traffic cones; everyone wears jeans and t-shirts; sometimes the man with no legs remembers that he never saw a horse until four days ago and completely forgets what to do and the animal goes the wrong way, and it’s not all circus tricks and violin soundtrack.
There is ribbing and jokes. ‘Not bad for a Welshman,’ yells the man with two prosthetic legs to the fellow with no hands.
Maybe that is the most bloody brilliant thing about the whole shooting match. It is the extraordinary and the ordinary; it is life-changing and yet life very much as it is lived. It is beyond imagination and yet completely real.
I’m not going to hurl around adjectives, however much I want to. I wrote this because I really wanted you to get a picture of what actually goes on, rather than editorialise all over the shop. You have your own adjectives; you can fill in the blanks. I will give you one word though, and that word is: grit.
That is what I sensed, everywhere, not in a showy, John Wayne way, but in a quiet, self-deprecating, bone-deep way. It’s there in the tough, honest horses; in the people who work there in all weathers and with all comers; in the servicemen and women who just damn well get on with it. It’s not an operatic quality. It is, though, an essential one. It is the one to which I take off my hat.
I talked a lot about horses today. I discussed with one of the horsemen the bad reputation some people give the thoroughbred: too hot, too sensitive, too quirky and difficult and temperamental. I don’t believe this idiot stereotyping for a moment. Before going to HorseBack, I ran up early to my own mare. She and the pony were lying, side by side, dozing in the field. They mostly sleep standing up; it’s quite rare to find them lounging around like that.
Red did not budge as I approached. I crouched down beside her and checked her over and rubbed her sweet spots and talked to her. I thought: I wonder if she will go all the way over. We have never done that before. I gently pushed her neck, and she thought for a moment, and then over she went, so that she was lying completely flat, her head on the grass, her whole body stretched out. I ran my hands all over her face and down her neck. She closed her eyes and breathed through her nose.
This was a flight animal at its most vulnerable. It was the ordinary – a muddy old mare in a green field – and the extraordinary – a thoroughbred trusting its human completely. I sat and marvelled at it for a bit, my heart catching in my chest. Every damn day, she gives me something like this.
Then we both stood up, shook ourselves, and laughed at each other. The mare did her old donkey face. I gave her a rub and a treat. And then I drove away, leaving her gazing out to the west behind me.
The photographs today are all in honour of the horse in general. Because honour is due. Unfortunately, I only have photographs of my own horse, so these are of my mare in particular. But I think she can stand for her species.
And even in the middle of a festival of equine loveliness, there must always be THE DOG:
And the hill, which is appropriate today, because it is not just the horses, it is the hills too that play their part in what I witnessed this morning:
Talking of horses, one of my favourites, Trade Commissioner, was running today, and I put a bet on, thinking that if he won I could send the winnings to HorseBack UK, in a lovely piece of symmetry.
He got absolutely stuffed. Even the mighty John Gosden may sometimes falter.
I felt a bit flat about it, to tell you the truth, and rather dolefully put up the pictures on the blog, and got ready to press publish.
Then I decided to have a second Bet of the Day, on the nice Mick Channon filly, Represent. She looked liked she was boxed in, and I thought: idiot, idiot, idiot, there’s another punt gone south. Then a tiny gap opened up, and the jockey asked her to go through it. Some horses will hesitate at a moment like that. Not Represent. On she went, gutsy, determined, willing as the day is long, and she won her race. So there was another piece of grit. And there was forty-five pounds to a fine cause.
Sometimes I curse my father for leaving me his betting blood. I picture him in the big William Hill in the sky, shaking his head sorrowfully as another accumulator crashes and burns. Not today. Today, everybody won.
Link to HorseBack is here, if you are interested.