The first thing, of course of course, after the second 250-mile leg of journey, was to dash up to the mare. She does such a funny thing when I return from trips. She pretends she is very, very grumpy indeed. She turns her back and swishes her tail and rolls her eyes, as if to say: what kind of time do you call this? I josh her out of it. You silly old donkey, I say. She throws her head about as if to indicate that this is not a proper form of address for a granddaughter of Nijinsky.
After about five minutes of this, she gives in, and admits that she is actually very pleased to see me indeed. She ducks her head at me, so I can scratch the sweet spots by her ears; her eyelids flicker, her lower lip wibbles, she breathes a long, loud, rattling sigh.
By the end, we are all in harmony again. I’m ashamed to say I actually sniff her. (I really am glad there is no one about. I’m not sure what the farmer would say if he saw me sniffing my horse.) The smell is one of the things I love most about her. It’s a scent of earth and air and healthy horse, and some sweet smell all her own. I’ve been with polo ponies all week, and they are all beautiful and enchanting and have great thoroughbred bloodlines, but none of them smells as good.
That was the weekend. Now I am back at work, into my stern autumn regime. Term has started. There was no time this morning for mooching about in the field, but a quick, serious ride. After the stop-start of the wet summer, I am banking on a good September, so the mare and I can both get match fit. We do neck-reining and transitions. She makes an initial protest after her ten days’ of loafing, and then settles to her work. I feel ridiculously, stupidly pleased.
It was interesting being with the Cousin and the Old Fella during the season. Usually, my trips to the south are in the winter, when all the horses are laid off, and the Old Fella goes to South America to work. Now, it is time of matches and practise.
There must be about forty polo ponies, almost all of them at their physical peak. They are worked twice a day; exercise in the very early morning, around seven, and then schooling and stick-and-balling in the afternoon. Some of them are old playing veterans; some are young stock, just learning their trade. They are all kept out, in their most natural state, in two big herds. I think not all polo yards do this, but the Old Fella believes that horses should be horses, and they are at their happiest when getting filthy out in the open air. They can roll and canter around and the young ones have play fights. The herd dynamic is evident, in all its ancient glory: the boss mare, the strict pecking order.
Back home, I think, as I give Red her special head massage, with citronella balm to keep off the flies, that she has got a whole new bargain. She used to run with a huge pack, with all the untrammelled horsiness that involves. Now she just has one small Welsh pony to boss about, but she gets the devoted and undivided attention of one human. She loses the wild herd; she gains the focused love.
In a big professional yard, like the one she lived in, she would have been very well treated. His horses all adore the Old Fella. But he has a job to do; he is on the go literally from dawn to dusk. (I always admire this kind of hard, physical, unrelenting work, and the people who do it.) There is no time for him to stand with one horse, for an hour at a time, as I do, just rubbing and scratching and chatting.
Red seems pretty happy with her bargain. When I am grooming her, she turns her head right round, and presents her forehead for affection. In the minutes after I returned, she rested on my shoulder, and went to sleep. I could feel her dropping and relaxing, as if to say: oh yes, my person is back.
I had a lovely time in the south. The extended family gives me joy like almost nothing else. I got to ride some prime equine athletes. (I even bought special new boots for the occasion. If the Old Fella was going to let me up on his polo stars, I had to be exceptionally well shod.) But as I look out over the grass and old stone walls and the beech trees, as I hear the lilting murmur of the birds and the slow doze of the Pigeon as she rests beside me, I think: there really is no place like home.
I always like it, in newspaper or periodical articles, when they do a little postscript about things to look out for this week. Or some kind of Coming Soon.
Here are my things for the week:
The swallows, amazingly, are still here. I thought they would be gone by now. They are mustering like mad, and flying like gangbusters, getting their muscles up for the long flight to Africa. I rather dread the day when the air will no longer vibrate with the whirring of their brilliant wings, but at the same time it is one of the marking of the seasons that I love.
The political season swings back into action. I think: come on, government, plan for growth, plan for growth. I’d love to see Dear old Blighty back on her feet again. Because of my repudiation of tribalism, I don’t really care any more if a policy is Left or Right. I mind if it is good or bad. I want the politicians of all stripes to do well, so the country can lift its head and shake off its malaise. We have been catching glimpses of glory again during these Olympics and Paralympics; it would be lovely to carry that sense that anything is possible into daily economic and political life.
My inner geek stretches itself and raises its head as the American election campaign gets into gear. I give you due warning: I shall have a very great deal to say about Mitt Romney. He is one of the most unfathomable and contradictory men I have ever observed in public life. It’s not just that the election fascinates me, it’s that I think he is one of the most complex individuals I have seen on the international stage. I’m going to work him out if it kills me.
The road home. When I veer off the main highway for the last leg over the hills to my house, this is what I see:
Some pictures from the south:
Smallest cousin, with her faithful shadow, The Pigeon:
And Pigeon, on her own basking:
Godson, on his own lovely mare:
Old Fella, Godson, and middle cousin, also known as The Dancing Queen, at full tilt:
No time to take pictures here yet; have been too busy getting organised. Here is Red, from the day before I left: