I woke this morning feeling slightly hemmed in by death. It is of course, all to do with the dog. (Ah, the bathos.) She has an ear infection; I took her to the vet; the word tumour was spoken out loud. It is not certain, but there is a worry. I do not know what this means, but I don’t like the sound of it. We have another appointment on Friday.
I realise suddenly that ever since my father died last year, and then my other dog on the night of his funeral, something in me has been clenched and tense, waiting for this one to go. She is fourteen; she is a very, very old lady. Of course I pretend everything is normal. One can’t live one’s life just waiting for loss. I employ various techniques of denial. I treat her exactly as if she were a hale young canine, playing with her, watching her hare after her ball, giving her a good gallop each morning. She loves to run, and I think it is good for her. I am not going to patronise her by treating her like an old age pensioner.
But in the back of my mind, in the pit of my stomach, is the horrid knowledge that these are the twilight days. It is not very butch of me, but I freely admit it sometimes makes me frightened and sad.
Still, the day had to go on. The temperature was a frigid minus two, but the sun was shining like gangbusters. The horses were happy and bonny; the mare, in particular, was at her most graciously and gloriously sweet. (Perhaps she knows, the idiot part of my mind wondered. But of course she does not. It’s just that she loves this cool, still, sunny weather, and she is getting used to having her new herd member, and things are well in her world.)
I had breakfast with my family, and then drove up to HorseBack, where they were doing one of their fascinating leadership courses. Men who are building oil platforms in Dubai, or figuring out the intricacies of plumbing in a well in the North Sea, come to spend a day with the ex-soldiers and the horses, listen to talks, do challenging exercises, and learn the art of being a good leader.
‘I’ve done some of these before,’ one of them said. ‘Most of them are death by powerpoint. But this, this is real.’
I liked that, since half my life is a drive for authenticity.
I got, as always, the good conversation. I love it especially when the veterans tell me little snippets of army life, of military training, of the way their minds work. I like the language they use. ‘When I got whacked,’ one of them said today, referring to the moment when both his legs were blown off. I’ll say that is whacked.
The boss took me down to see the horses, who have been moved into a new field. The herd is so relaxed that most of them were lying down in the sun; a fine bay Thoroughbred was stretched out on his side, as if he were lounging in the South of France. I’m not sure I ever saw such a happy bunch. They do good work, and they get to live in the most natural, sociable way, not locked up in arid boxes, but out in a group as their evolution intended.
There are always good stories. I got a dilly today, about training for the Newmarket Plate, and a visit to the famous Cheveley Park Stud.
‘Wow,’ I said to my friend E, co-founder of the whole HorseBack enterprise, who told me this. ‘I dream of seeing those great sires.’
Thoroughbred stallions are very, very rarefied creatures indeed. They grow great and muscled with age; their job is to cover mares, and they are fired with testosterone. They are animals to stand back from and admire.
‘The thing is,’ said E, of a celebrated sire, ‘I just wanted to give him a cuddle.’ For all the world as if he were her tiny black Shetland, Jack, instead of a mighty horse who commands tens of thousands of pounds for each mare he is sent.
‘You didn’t?’ I said.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘Yes, I did. He was an absolute softie.’
I went away, as always, happier than when I arrived. I’m supposed to be working for them, but sometimes I think that they are doing more for me. One of the instructors said to me today: ‘It’s very hard to be in a bad mood here.’ She is right. It’s not just that there are the perspective police at every turn, reminding one that it is quite a fortunate thing to have possession of arms and legs, and something not to be taken for granted, it’s also that somehow there has been fostered an atmosphere that militates against pointless grumpiness. I cannot dwell on spectres or sorrows when I am there, and that’s the end of it.
I get back to my old lady. She waves her tail at me. I throw the ball for her and her eyes are bright and she dances about the mossy lawn, still filled with youthful delight. When she does go, my heart will be smashed, there’s no point in pretending anything else. But I shall gather up the pieces. That’s what I learn, every time I go to that place up the road. You just gather up the pieces.
In the meantime, I shall keep her going for as long as I can, and every day with her remains precious. I must not sully them with portents, but treasure each one.
The happy horses of HorseBack UK:
I love this one. Don’t mind me, I’ll just lie here whilst you go ahead and take that call:
My own little herd:
My glorious old Pigeon. Someone with this much ball passion must surely have a bit of life left in her yet:
This one is completely out of focus and perfectly rotten, as a photograph, but I wanted you to see the happy face:
And the slightly reproachful throw it one more time look:
Link to the great organisation here: