Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A day at HorseBack UK

It is my HorseBack UK day, always a banner day in my week.

First, some housekeeping business. For some obscure reason, to do with privacy and deference for people’s feelings, I gave everyone a blog name when I started this enterprise. Even the animals got blog names. It’s a little bit silly and possibly a tiny bit affected, but I sometimes am quite silly and a tiny bit affected, so that’s probably a fair reflection.

Now that HorseBack is such a part of my life, the people there are going to have to have names. This is quite a complicated business. You can’t just hurl out pseudonyms, willy nilly. They have to fit. They can’t be too fancy, and they can’t be too dull. For the two founders of the enterprise, I have decided on something plain and declarative, which I think is right for them, and what they do.

The whole operation is, in some ways, plain and declarative. It is magical and redemptive and remarkable, but at the same time it is very straightforward. There is no bullshit. Everyone does their thing, with humour and sense and industry; a spade is always a spade. And at the centre of it all are the horses, who have a plainness all their own. Horses have no hidden agenda or secret plan; they are, gloriously, what they are.

So the two driving forces are going to be called The Horseman and The Horsewoman.

I run up this morning in bleak brown rain. The mercury hovers, cruelly, at zero. Everyone is rugged up in serious weather gear. A course is in progress, with veterans from a centre in Edinburgh, listening to The Horseman give his foundation lesson in the equine.

Lesson is possibly the wrong word; he talks fluently of the nature of the horse, its evolution, the way its mind works. Although the language is as plain as a pikestaff, there is a poetry in it. The vets listen, their faces serious with concentration. Many of them will have never seen a horse before. All this information is quite novel to them. I know some of it, but I can’t hear it enough. There is almost nothing that gives me more pleasure than hearing someone for whom working with equines is like breathing out and breathing in talk about his craft. (Is it a craft, or an art? Bit of both, I suspect.)

In the back, The Farrier is doing his work. I greet him with delight. He does not come to visit me any more, since I have taken my horses barefoot, and have a specialist trimmer for that, so I am especially pleased to see him.

‘How’s the racing going?’ he says, laughing. (I had told him of my naughty punting habit.)

I wonder if I should tell him the wonderful story of how Richard Hughes rode seven winners in one day at Windsor yesterday, of what a brilliant jockey he is, and a good man too, who fought his demons and won, and how no one could deserve such a rare feat more, and how my entire Twitter timeline erupted in delight. But The Farrier is a busy man.

‘I had a couple of nice winners yesterday,’ I say instead. ‘All my favourite tough mares put their heads down and battled through the mud.’ (The going is bottomless at the moment, and it takes gutsy horses to wade through it.)

The Farrier smiles.

‘There’s nothing tougher than a really brave mare,’ I say.

He gives me a quizzical look.

‘Admittedly,’ I say, ‘I am prejudiced in their favour.’

Then two extremely glamorous women appear, and I am introduced. I suddenly remember why it was that I was particularly coming up on this Tuesday.

‘Oh,’ I cry, before I can help myself, ‘the incredible walking ladies.’

These are the two women who walked 780 kilometres across France and Spain to raise money for HorseBack. Every time I think of it I practically fall over in awe.

I am afraid that I gush.

‘You look wonderful,’ I say, ‘as if you just walked round the corner, not across two countries.’

‘Well,’ they say, dry and self-deprecating, ‘we’ve only driven from the airport, just now.’

There is no time for more, as The Horsewoman comes to take me into the office to talk about proposals. This is the serious side of the work I am doing. I offered words, because that’s what I have at my disposal. These words are going to be important ones, to raise money for the operation. I try to put my businesslike hat on, and slightly fail.

‘I’m just so excited about meeting the incredible ladies,’ I say, laughing my head off, out of sheer pleasure.

(Linguistic note: as a good feminist, I of course use the word lady with some irony. But there is a complication when referring to females. Sometimes woman can sound just a little bald, too low-key. Sometimes I need a bit more. And there really are some people who are more lady than woman. My horse, for instance, is a lady. As is The Queen. Irony or no irony, there is a faint qualitative difference. Germaine Greer is a woman; the Duchess of Devonshire is a lady. Then there are the excellent American subsets of dames and broads. Dorothy Parker, I suspect, was a broad, even though her sassiness was tempered with impossible melancholy. But that really is another story.)

The Horsewoman laughs at my hyperbole; I sense sometimes that it takes her slightly by surprise. Sometimes it takes me slightly by surprise. We discuss one of the serious documents I have written.

‘The use of the word ravishing…’ she says, eyebrows just a little raised.

I burst into more laughter. ‘So sorry,’ I say. ‘Too much Nancy Mitford at a formative age.’

Before I leave, the young daughter of the house comes to ask me a favour. She is eleven years old, and bright as a drawer full of buttons. She wants to write a book. She would like to discuss it with me, and get my help. I feel as honoured as if the Booker committee had just called. This morning, Will Self was on the Today programme, talking about being on that shortlist. It was all very shiny and serious; he mentioned his devotion to the high modern style. The literary world is doffing its hat to him. I used to want those kind of prizes. Now I realise that life gives you better prizes than any old committee. That someone of eleven should want me to give her guidance and advice is a top prize. The whole of HorseBack really is my prize.

As I head to the car to go home, the veterans are gathered outside the round pen, watching the join-up process for the first time. The glamorous walking ladies are standing there too. ‘Have you seen this before?’ I say.

‘No,’ they say, smiling their indomitable smiles. (SEVEN HUNDRED AND NINETY KILOMETRES, I think, in my head.)

‘You’ll love it,’ I say. ‘It’s magic.’

The filthy weather glowers over the hills. But it will take more than weather to rain on this parade.


Today’s pictures:

View from HorseBack of the dreich:

16 Oct 1

16 Oct 2

16 Oct 3

Someone is not that impressed with the weather:

16 Oct 4

The kit:

16 Oct 5

Watching the demonstration:

16 Oct 6

The incredible walking ladies:

16 Oct 7

The Farrier:

16 Oct 8

16 Oct 9

Getting ready to do the join-up:

16 Oct 10

Too rainy to take pictures of my girls today, so here are some from sunnier times. Her ladyship with her dozy donkey face on:

16 Oct 12

And the little Welsh pony with her goofy face:

16 Oct 13

And the Pigeon, with her joyful face:

16 Oct 14

No hill today; lost in the clouds.


Link to the amazing sponsored walk is here: http://heslop-allen.vpweb.co.uk/?prefix=www

And HorseBack UK is here: ttp://horsebackuk.org/

And they have a great Facebook page too: http://www.facebook.com/pages/HorseBack-UK/197483570567?fref=ts


  1. zero degrees, brrrrr, i was like a sulky child getting up this morning when it was a sprightlier 7 degrees. it's the dark that i object to. bah humbug!

    what is the join-up, sound much more exciting than the sorting hat of harry potter fame?

    1. Angie - it was bloody FREEZING. Join-up is a process of getting a horse to follow you without a rope. I'll describe it on the blog tomorrow, specially. :)

  2. I am loving your horse posts. I spent this morning re-reading War Horse and bawling the entire time, so it was lovely to turn on the computer and see your pictures.

    1. Rebecca - thank you so much. Always delighted when a horse post pleases, since I do worry about banging on about the equines.

  3. So enjoy learning about HorseBack UK - what an amazing group of people and horses.

    I'm with you on the use of the word lady. It very much appplies to the Queen and Red. :)

  4. A particularly ravishing photo of her ladyship The Pigeon...


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