Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Human frailty. Or, humility is hard.

I write quite a lot about humility, and hubris. There are times when, in a paradoxically arrogant way, I think I’ve got them licked. I think I have pride and vanity under control, and then something crashes in and shows me, in the most definitive way, that I have a long, long way to go.

I did something stupid and careless not long ago, and upset someone. I hate upsetting people. I think I am so damn thoughtful and sensitive, but in fact I can just run off at the mouth and say things that are not meant to wound, but do. I got incredibly bent out of shape about the whole thing, and despite issuing abject apologies for my crassness, I could not pull myself out of the spiral of self-recrimination.

I kept trying to call in the Perspective Police, but they were out on a mission. I listened to an interview with Salman Rushdie yesterday, and he was so measured and thoughtful and interesting, and I thought of him being under sentence of death for so many years, and yet carrying on, still writing, not complaining. People are often rather rude about him, for a reason I do not understand. I think he is not only a beautiful writer (Midnight’s Children is one of my favourite 20th century novels) but a brave and stoic man. I thought of the people in Afghanistan and the Middle East, where bombs are going off and whole villages being razed, and that they really have something to worry about. Compared to that, my own small drama was, well, small.

At the same time, in this moment of fragility, someone was critical of my riding abilities. In the scheme of things, this is so small that it can hardly be seen by the naked eye. You would need an existential microscope. Yet I felt quite undone, smashed and bashed about the heart. I could not work out why such a minor thing could cause such a excessive over-reaction. It took a lot of thought and soul-searching, and then I finally worked it out.

It was because it was true.

Despite my banging on about understanding hubris, I had not yet quite got it. I was stupidly over-confident in my skills. The fact is, I was good at horses, but that was thirty years ago. If you could play Mozart when you were fifteen and then hardly saw a piano until you were forty-five, you could not just pick up where you left off. You would not go straight back to sonatas. You would have to do scales and arpeggios, resurrect the muscle memory, practise until your fingers ached. For some reason, my pride was so invested in being able to do this thing, I thought I could just leap onto a Thoroughbred and be exactly where I was when I was fit and schooled and riding every day, in several different disciplines.

In fact, I finally realise, with the proper humility, my legs are weak, my position is sometimes unbalanced, my seat can be loose. I have to send myself back to school, return to the arpeggios, take small, stern, daily steps to get better, to remember all the things forgotten, to do justice to my horse.

The mare, in her crazy life lesson way, rammed this point home this morning. After yesterday’s dream ride, today she reminded me that it is always one step forward two steps back. She was tense and nervy, for whatever reason. The wind was up and the cows were mustering (sometimes they alarm her) and when we went out into the stubble she was spooky as all get out. It was not just the crazy birds, she was seeing terrors everywhere. I keep having to remember that she has never gone out alone in her life before, and that this environment is still relatively new and strange to her. Oh, the jumps and starts and swerves and theatrical freak outs. I had to concentrate very hard to stay on, and, what with being recently reminded of my severe limitations, I almost gave up.

Then I thought: no, come along, you can do this. So on we persevered, and in the end, the harmony returned, there was calm, and instead of wild bronco tricks, there was a collected canter and a loose rein.

I wondered about all this, and why it matters so much, and why it cracks my heart. I think it is to do with my dad. I think a lot of this horse business is to do with keeping a pulling thread to him. He is not here any more, but the one great thing he did was ride a horse. Although, as I was contemplating this, I laughed quite a lot, because he was not a beautiful rider; he would never have won style points or been admired by dressage experts.

What he did have was outrageous courage. He broke everything, including his neck and his back, and he still got back on and rode in the Grand National, against doctors’ orders. I don't have to be the most perfect rider (what am I trying to prove, after all?); I have to work hard and humbly at getting better, so that Red has a good enough pilot.

But what I would like to do is remember my father’s bravery, and emulate that. In my mind, what this means is not hurling myself over steeplechase fences, but being brave enough to face my own failings, and not to give in to despair, but to go on, day by day, working hard. Not to prove a point, or show off, or congratulate myself, but so the horse has the rider she deserves.


In other, happier news, friend of the blog Shirley Teasdale had a lovely winner yesterday at Musselburgh on the excellent Imperial Legend.

A few weeks ago, she was hauled up in front the stewards when the horse she was riding went off a true line and caused interference. I thought they were rather harsh, since the whole thing happened so quickly and there was little she could do. I wondered if she felt a bit like I had, knocked flat, back to the drawing board.

Being an apprentice is a tough road; race riding is an incredibly difficult discipline, and it is not only the stewards who are strict. Punters are ruthless in their judgement of jockeys; some of them are still screaming about Joseph O’Brien getting Camelot beat by coming too late in the St Leger, which I think is a harsh verdict. Even the masterful Richard Hughes and William Buick get screamed at on the internet if they are considered by armchair jockeys to have made an error.

One of the interesting things about Buick is that his boss, John Gosden, once admiringly said of him that he is always the first to admit he made a mistake. That’s the thing, I think, in riding, in life. Admit the mistake, learn from it, move on. Humility is so hard. Pride, preening, defensiveness are easier, in a way. But it must be done. Perhaps I have to go back to arpeggios with that, too.

Anyway, it was lovely to see Shirley back in the winner’s enclosure, and I had a little bet on her which I had rather forgotten, and when I opened my William Hill account this morning there was a nice plus sign.

So, I think, rueful and chastened, on we all bash, mistakes and frailties and freaks and all.


Today’s pictures:

Woods and grass and moss:

18 Sept 1

18 Sept 2

18 Sept 3

18 Sept 4

Red’s View:

18 Sept 9

Pretending she has never seen a scary bird in her life:

18 Sept 9-001

Nor done a four-legged cartoon sideways leap:

18 Sept 10

The Pigeon came with this morning, and despite everything, maintained her poise and serenity throughout:

18 Sept 15


  1. I watched the St Leger, and my impression was that Camelot gave all he had to give on that day and that occasion.

    Chin up! I used to be good at dogs. That was 15 years ago. Now I've acquired a daft soppy boisterous Lab and well... suffice to say we're getting there. Slowly. :)

    Imogene x

    1. Imogene - completely agree with your Leger analysis. All horses have an off day, and I don't think his spark was quite there. Still, he was a good second, and that's not nothing. And my chin shall stay up; thank you. :)

  2. bash on my dear - saw leonard cohen at the weekend and he sang:
    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That's how the light gets in.

    and in my opinion you glow!


    1. Angie - how lovely you are. And that's my favourite all time L Cohen line. How glorious to have seen the old trouper in the flesh.

  3. You have a strong heart and you know that your father would have been so proud of you.

    Lovely photos, this time of year is very pretty I think. Very pleased for Imperial Legend, sometimes it does all work out well. x

    1. Letters to Trigger - what a very, very lovely thing to say. Thank you.

  4. Oh my, how I love love love Leonard Cohen! (Angie's right: there IS a crack in everything...).

    Call me a pollyanna (although I'm not crazy about the Hayley Mills image I always get from this word); I prefer to look it as two steps FORWARD, one step back...which means, eventually, you DO get there.

  5. Gosh you are hard on yourself sweet pea...don't be, it's undeserved. It makes me wonder about the merits of being good at something and how much that matters? And then a whole raft of thoughts about working hard at something until it comes easy. I do see a parallel with what I tell Boo and starting her new school and getting in to the hockey team; try hard and then you will get good at it. Awkwardly put but it's a perennial life lesson it seems! Lou x

  6. Criticism, no matter how intended, can hurt; particularly when aimed at something dear to you.
    Keep on doing what you do - that you love it shines through. x

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