Saturday, 29 September 2012

No blog today

So sorry; no time to write; have to go out for cocktails. This very, very rarely happens, where I live. I am beside myself at the thought of hard liquor. I also have to get the mud off my boots and the straw out of my hair. Literally, and metaphorically.

The ladies of the blog apologise:

29 Sept 1

You can see that they look very, very sorry indeed.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Yet another half-baked theory. Or, too much thinking.

The problem with being a geek is that you think too much. Or rather, I think too much. (It’s always very tempting when admitting something personal to resort to the generic You.)

I went back to HorseBack this morning as there were still some notes I needed to take and some questions I needed to ask. I feel a bit awkward and intrusive asking veterans questions, but they are gracious and honest and funny in their replies, leavening seriousness with the humour that is found anywhere a soldier or ex-soldier is. Britons always rely on humour, especially when matters grow grave; earnestness is one of our great national sins. Military Britons, I notice, use it even more than the civilian population, if such a thing is possible.

Everywhere I look, whether it is with the people who work there, the horses, the visitors who come to observe, the servicemen and women, both active and retired, who come to take the courses, there is interest. I am so damn interested I don’t know what my name is. It’s part of the reason I want to write about it. My endless temptation is to widen everything out: all must feed into the human condition, my favourite subject. At one point, as the sun shines down over the timeless Scottish hills, I even find myself talking, like an absolute idiot, about Jung. (The person I am talking to politely tries not to look too horrified.)

It’s something I do in writing too. There must be text, and subtext, and parallels and ramifications; there must be metaphor and symbolism. Part of the reason I like coming back to having a horse after so many years is how fascinating they are, and how riveting the intricacies of the inter-species communion.

But sometimes, the thing is just the thing. I wonder if the danger is that I wander into the mazy realms of theory and conjecture, and miss the heart of the matter. For some strange reason, I believe that thought can solve everything; it is my touchstone. (All that damn education I had, surely it must keep me safe from the slings and arrows, goes the paradoxically magical part of my brain.) Yet, the really great horsemen and women often run on instinct. They are interested, of course they are, but when they are most successful they go with the gut, not the head. Life, horses, humans - all sometimes just are what they are, and thinking too much about the whole shooting match can miss the point.

That’s my new theory of the day. I’m not at all sure it is right, but I’m going to test it for bugs. I shan’t be able to train myself out of my geekish instincts overnight, but a little middle ground might be restful, if nothing else. The human instinct is a great gift; over-thinking can mess and muddy those clear waters.


Today’s pictures:

Up at Red’s View first thing, I did not have to think at all, I could just look at the wild Scottish sky:

28 Sept 1

28 Sept 2

28 Sept 3

28 Sept 4

Down the road at HorseBack UK, there was the usual dose of loveliness. Gus the foal, with the hangars of the Deeside Gliding Club in the background:

28 Sept 5

Jack the Shetland:

28 Sept 6

Being wrangled, Western-style:

28 Sept 8

Watched, with fascination, by the Sporting Gentlemen:

28 Sept 9

Meanwhile, over in the other arena, some very elegant groundwork was going on:

28 Sept 10

28 Sept 11

28 Sept 12

Red the Mare, who knows bugger all about Jung, but is happy as long as she has food, water, a view to look at, and a damn good daily scratch on her sweet spot:

28 Sept 11-001

This is her Minnie the Moocher have you got a treat in your pocket approach:

28 Sept 20

Answer is of course yes, but only of the very healthy, meadow herb, non-sugary variety.

The chicken seems happy too, and very bonny today:

28 Sept 19

Myfanwy the Pony is content, now the bad weather has passed:

28 Sept 18

(Getting quite muddy and woolly for winter.)

And The Pigeon is always happy, having the sunniest disposition in the world:

28 Sept 20-001

And now all I have to think about is whether the lovely filly Certify can win the next at Newmarket. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

HorseBack day

I got up gingerly, like a curmudgeonly old lady, checking for aches and pains. But the sun was shining and I had things to do and I was bored of being what my father used to call a Minny Moan, so off I went.

It was a HorseBack UK day. My chaise longue joke went down very well so now I really am part of the furniture and I don’t feel I have to be on my best behaviour or try to impress anyone. This is a delightful state to find oneself in, but it is oddly easy there, because the whole point of the place is to make people feel comfortable.

Comfort is a word that can be overused; it can slide into sentiment. It can have a pious ring to it, even something slightly patronising: to comfort the afflicted has the faintest whiff of de haut en bas. But comfort in its sense of ease is a lovely, true thing, and that is what you find there, under the shadow of the blue mountains.

There is no sense of one-upmanship; everyone does what they do very well, and without fuss or fanfare; the people who are visiting learn what they learn, and take what they need. One of the veterans said to me today: ‘No one is competing to see who has the worst wound.’ I thought that was interesting, especially as this group was composed of the ones who wear their scars on the inside. They do not have artificial limbs; they have wounds of the mind. From the outside, you would never know. They are charming and funny and wry and dry and articulate. I wonder if that makes it more complicated, somehow.

The funny thing was that there were some acclaimed sporting gentlemen there today. (I think they might be a secret and so shall not reveal their names or discipline.) I was very excited by this and it was part of the reason that I took my iron tonic. But in the end there was so much there to fascinate, the veterans told me so many interesting and honest things, the horses were so delightful, and every single conversation I had was so riveting, that I barely had time to shake the tall, athletic fellows by the hand, let alone admire their tremendous physique.

Still, it is absolutely brilliant that a great sport is interested in such a good organisation, and from the athletes’ smiling faces I guess that they shall be drawn back to the place as I am. As I left, my stamina feebly shot, one of the sporting gents was levering himself onto a wooden horse, and being instructed in the art of riding Western, to general waves of merriment.

I smiled as I drove home. Up at the horses’ field, Red the Mare was dozy and affectionate and faintly comical, as she sometimes is. I had been fretting, lately, about the logistics of setting up her winter quarters. ‘You know what?’ I said to her. ‘It’s just a few decisions and a bit of fencing and a new water tough. I had the perspective police good and proper today, and I marked them well.’ She nodded her head wisely, as if she could have told me this all along, if only I had had the sense to ask.

Just as I was finishing this post, feeling rather weary and wondering how my tired mind would come up with a galvanic final paragraph, an email with a short link fell into my inbox.

I opened it to discover that two women called Chrissie and Susie are walking 780 kilometres with rucksacks on their backs, over the ancient pilgrims’ route from France to Spain, all to raise money for HorseBack UK. I gazed ruefully at the iron tonic. I don’t think even an industrial vat of it would get me that far. So now I don’t need a good final line. I have two remarkable women instead. Seven hundred and eighty kilometres. ON FOOT. I swear I shall never complain of fatigue again.


The link to the Incredible Walking Women is here:

HorseBack, as always, is here:


Pictures of the day:

The tidiest tack room I have ever seen in my life:

27 Sept 8

Four wise professors in the University of Everything:

27 Sept 1

27 Sept 2

27 Sept 4

27 Sept 5

Work in the arenas:

27 Sept 9

27 Sept 12

27 Sept 12-001

The view to the south:

27 Sept 9-001

With Gus the foal looking on:

27 Sept 10

And inside, there is a sporting gentleman on a very splendid wooden horse:

27 Sept 14

Finally, my own girls, in sepia today, for no special reason except that it brings a waft of Edwardian elegance that pleases me:

27 Sept 15

27 Sept 16

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Still ill

Continuing unspeakable. I always think I am rather stoical and brave when I get a bug, and then I get one and am absolutely pathetic. I fantastically believe that I may wish it away through sheer force of will. This is magical thinking of the nuttiest kind and makes me ashamed, since I am supposed to be an empiricist.

So I lie in bed, groaning, and thinking in panic of all the work I have to do and all the logistics that must be done and the emails sent and the arrangements made and oh oh oh.

I have tried chicken soup, industrial amounts of vitamin C, Solpadeine, echinacea, ginger tea and all sorts. I know I am properly ill because I have not had a bet for two days. If I cannot study the form, then there must be something direly wrong.

It is so ordinary, and so dull, and so inevitable. Everyone gets a bug, from time to time. It’s all round the village. But I appear to regard the whole thing as a personal affront and a tremendous indignity.

Tomorrow, I shall be bringing in the iron tonic and GETTING UP. Because this is ridiculous.

In my delirium, I saw that there is a best-looking horse competition somewhere on Facebook; some Thoroughbred lovers’ site that I follow, happily. Light-headed from illness and too much sleep (my other sovereign cure for all ailments) I started madly rifling through my old pictures to find the most lovely shots of Red the Mare. Because surely she must win most beautiful horse?:

26 Sept 5-001

And then I wondered if there were a most beautiful dog competition, because really, who could not give this face a championship rosette?:

26 Sept 12

I very sincerely trust that everything will be back to normal tomorrow. Because otherwise I don’t know what will happen.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

No blog today

So sorry; ill in bed.

Two lovelies to divert you from the weather. (Torrential rain and seventy mile an hour gales here.)

25 Sept 1

25 Sept 2

Monday, 24 September 2012

I cannot be ill

The clouds came storming over the hill, bringing the promise of rain. I took the wireless up to the field so I could listen to The Today programme whilst I brushed the horses. Red very much enjoyed Sarah Montague, but got grumpy when it hit nine o’clock and Andrew Marr came on. She dashed the radio from the gatepost, giving herself a huge shock as the dial turned to hissing static. She’ll be writing to Roger Bolton at Feedback next.

Good ride, good breakfast, good work. 1152 words. Felt industrious and even managed to do several pieces of admin. I hate admin. I hate the very word. I want admin fairies to live in my drawers and send all the emails and make all the telephone calls for me. (When I say drawers, I mean desk drawers, not underwear. I feel I should make this clear or distressing mental pictures shall be stuck in your minds all day long.)

Then the rain did come and everything went black. I was struck with a simultaneous wall of nausea. Bugger, I thought; I can’t be ill. I have horse life and work life and errands to run and soup to make for my mother. There is no space for illness. But it turns out I now can’t sit upright, so I am crawling into bed and hoping eighteen hours’ sleep might fix the problem and then I shall be bright and bonny again tomorrow. If that does not work, I shall break out the whisky. I was brought up to think there was nothing better to knock a bug on the head. And I do live in Scotland, after all.

No energy for pictures, just the two obligatory lovely faces:

24 Sept 2

24 Sept 1

Sunday, 23 September 2012

A remarkable day

It’s Sunday, so this is going to be a nice long post. Have a cup of tea and put your feet up and slowly read.

The sun is shining, the horses are happy, the dog is settled, so I finally have time to tell you about my day with HorseBack UK.

I’m looking for the right way of expressing my relationship with them. Working for them sounds far too grand and official; volunteering a bit holy and pious; affiliated just awful. I think you could say I am writer in residence.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer in residence. In the old days, when I was swanky and on the hunt for glamour, I used to long and long to be asked to be writer in residence at the Savoy, as Fay Weldon was. Oh, how I yearned to lounge about in my own art deco suite, dashing off a polished sentence from the hurly burly of the chaise longue. Now, all I want is mud and authenticity, so this is really much, much better. Savoy, Schmavoy.

Actually, writer in residence may even be too posh. The idea is, apart from other forms of writing they need, I shall set up a blog for their website. I will go and see them once a week, and give a little behind the scenes glimpse of their work. As they say to me, smiling: I can become part of the furniture. I shall not be lying on the chaise longue; I am the chaise longue.

Their very clever new notion is to bring extra revenue into the organisation by applying all the techniques they use with returning veterans to the corporate sphere. They have ex-soldiers working there; they have the brilliant Quarter Horses. These two invaluable resources can be used to inspire leadership, to show business people how to run a team.

I was fascinated to see how this would work. So up I went to watch.

I could sort of see the army bit. Military ethos must surely be brilliant for leadership. Although even that surprised me. Listening to two ex-soldiers give their talks, I was struck by how broad and philosophical and even, at times, poetical their view of good leadership was. All human life was there. They did not use the dead words of jargon or management-speak; they used lovely existential words, of the heart and the spirit. They talked of courage and humility and character and integrity. They were funny and self-deprecating, but at the same time, I was conscious that they had seen life and death, and they knew of what they spoke. I was so interested my ears practically fell off.

Then, they took all this, and moved it into the equine sphere. Although I bang on practically every day about how my horse teaches me life lessons, I was not quite sure how an equine could teach a corporate honcho anything. Of course, the moment I saw the course in action, it all became clear as day.

You can’t fool a horse; swagger and bombast mean nothing to it. An equine responds most happily and willingly to a good, kind, firm, consistent person, someone who is confident but not arrogant, determined but not aggressive. Possibly the most important thing when working with a horse is to build up trust, a capacity which must be very valuable if you are a boss.

With horses, you can see immediately and in very simple ways how this sort of confidence works. For instance, if you walk on smoothly and with sureness, not looking back, a horse will follow you. If you take ragged, uncertain steps, constantly turning for reassurance, chances are it will not. They also show you the profound value of things like patience, and perseverance, and clarity, and kindness.

There was an old school of horsemanship which maintained that the only way to deal with a horse was to show it who was boss, using sound and fury. You had to break its spirit, went the thinking, and then it would never dare defy you. There were certain disciplines where all kinds of aggressive methods were employed: tying up with ropes, whipping, yelling, spurring, driving the animal through fear and pain. It was a horrible sort of dominance, and sometimes the horses did give in, through sheer terror and exhaustion. But that way, no partnership was ever developed.

I imagine that there was an old school of human management which maintained the same sort of thing. Yell at the underlings; keep them in line by striking terror into their hearts. The new school of horsemanship is much more about empathy, and attention, and working with the grain, rather than against it. By being gentle but not wimpish, kind but not a pushover, you may persuade rather than hector. My suspicion is, just as this gets the best out of equines, it will bring the best out of humans too.

So it was a revelatory day, and I loved it. There is so much thought and cleverness there, and so much that is good and true. I start to think it should not be confined to wounded servicemen and women, or business leaders; everyone should go, and learn something about life.



Here they all are, teaching and learning, under the gaze of the wooded hills:

23 Sept 1

23 Sept 4

23 Sept 5

The views beyond the sand arena:

23 Sept 9

23 Sept 10

Team-building exercise, involving an entirely idiosyncratic and very, very fast Shetland pony:

23 Sept 12

I wonder how many leadership courses involve a Shetland pony. Watching the thing in action, I grow convinced that anyone who does not use this faintly unexpected tool is missing an absolutely enormous trick.

The professors, in this wonderful University of Everything:

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23 Sept 16


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23 Sept 17

And my own little professors, who teach me something good every single day:

23 Sept 20

23 Sept 21

Reading back over this now, I think: I have not quite captured it. There is something missing, but I am not quite sure what. This happens in writing, sometimes. You find yourself almost there, but without a cigar. You circle around the point, rather than nailing it.

If this were professional writing, rather than the amateur sort, done for love, I should go back and whack away at it, with a second, third, fourth draft. I should reframe and rewrite; I should, as I almost always do, slash away the first three paragraphs. (Huge writing rule: if in doubt, cut the beginning, especially if you have, as I do, a fatal tendency for what my friend the Man of Letters calls throat-clearing.)

As it is, this is an amateur enterprise, in its most true sense. It is the place I can come not to be perfect. It is where I can be a bit baggy and shaggy and goofy and blah. It is where I can have a bad day, and it’s not the end of the world. This thought in itself feels like some kind of life lesson, although I’m not strictly sure what it is.

Maybe it comes back to something that is true with horses. You can learn much more from a ragged day, when everything does not go quite right, than when the work is immaculate. It is not the shining ideal that teaches us; it is the shuffly, muddly, faintly farcical screw-up that leaves a lesson in the mind.


Link to HorseBack UK here:

They really are a tremendous outfit, and if you have, as I have, recently won some money on the ponies and are feeling generous, there is a donation button on their website. Even a fiver makes a huge difference. But most of all, I want them to become better known. Apart from anything else, what they do is so interesting. So if the spirit moves you, do tell your friends.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

A day in pictures

The day galloped away from me and all my plans went awry. There is no time for words now, so here is a quick look at the day in pictures:

The light dazzled and changed, from the brightest, thinnest blue:

22 Sept 9

To a deeper amber:

22 Sept 3

And back again:

22 Sept 10

The chickens seemed happy:

22 Sept 7

I was supposed to go for a serious schooling ride, but then my small helper came out to see the ponies, and we were having so much fun that we all stayed on the ground:

22 Sept 12

Notice my duchess taking the opportunity to have a little doze.

It was actually a really, really good day to do groundwork, since Red was in her happiest, sweetest, calmest mood. We did a lot of work on what might seem a very dull thing, which is standing still on command. It actually makes a huge difference to my horse life. It also makes me almost faint with pride when I can put the rope on the ground, tell her to stand, and walk away, whilst she stays still as a statue:

22 Sept 10-001

Admittedly, it does help when she goes to sleep.

She stood for ten minutes straight, whilst I took these photographs. The Pigeon was exceptionally impressed:

22 Sept 10-002

The Pidge had a bit of a sunbathe:

22 Sept 11-001

Then the Small Helper gave the pony a tremendous brush and comb and a whole lot of love:

22 Sept 8

22 Sept 8-001

Myfanwy showed her appreciation by doing a great camel yawn:

22 Sept 9-001

It’s like one of those pictures on the internet where they invite comedy captions.

Herself grew dozier and dozier:

22 Sept 14

22 Sept 122

Her happiness, as always, demonstrated by the wibbly lower lip, which sent the Small Helper into peals of laughter:

22 Sept 11

I despaired of taking a single picture where she did not have her donkey face on. The relaxed face brings me great delight, because it means she is content, but it does not look that pretty, involving a goofy look and ears sticking out at right angles. At last, she spotted something interesting to the west and I managed to get her looking beautiful, with her ears pricked:

22 Sept 15

So, it was a sweet and happy and gentle day. I watched the racing, and it was fine. The dear old veterans Borderlescott and Beckermet were running, and even though, at the age of ten, they could not quite hit the front, both of them ran on well to finish not far off the pace, and both of them still have all their great enthusiasm for the sport, which is a great credit to their trainers.

I muddled about, backing every single thing which finished second, but then suddenly realised that I had cleverly done my accumulators each way, and one of them came true.

To my astonishment, I seemed to have won £296 off a two pound stake. That is the kind of thing that would send my father into transports. It made me laugh and laugh.

The especially lovely thing was that the last leg relied on a really nice, honest filly called Lady Kashaan. She was not quite quick enough to win, but oh she battled on to the line, pegging the winner back with every stride, sticking her dear head out and refusing to give up. I love those gutsy, battling fillies, and the whole thing filled me with delight.

There shall be proper words tomorrow.


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