Author’s note: This is an unadulterated, no holds barred horse story. Those with equine aversion move gently to the exits. There is, however, a real human lesson at the centre of it. So, if you are happy to take the horse as a metaphor, you may find something here.
Yesterday, in all that orneriness and grumpiness, an amazing thing happened. I asked for help, and the help, when it arrived, was of such a transformative nature that I laughed out loud at my luck.
One of the things I am very, very bad at is asking for help. It is a severe character flaw. I don’t know what cussed part of me is trying to prove what idiot thing, but my stupid default mode is: no, no, don’t worry about me, I shall do it on my own. This is also nuts because in wider life and political theory, I really believe in the collective. I’m always banging on about the social compact. (I even did it this morning at breakfast.) I don’t like the atomised view of society; I believe the individual is nothing without the wider group.
In a roundabout, scuffly boot, reluctant, sideways manner, I booked a riding lesson. The brilliant woman who does my barefoot trimming is experimenting with a new theory of riding, and luckily my fascination in her knowledge overcame my foolish stubbornness. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
The riding has not been bad, or disastrous. But there is a gap between the arching harmony the mare and I have on the ground, where the trust is absolute and the learning willing and quick, and the slight stop-start we have under the saddle. We have our marvellous moments, but there is some resistance or reluctance there, and I have had the nagging feeling that she is trying to tell me something. So, the help.
The new theory is not really new, it is more a gathering of all the best of the old techniques and intuitive knowledge of the really great horse people, with a little lemon twist. There’s a lot of psychology in it, which of course delights my questing mind.
The lesson itself was, however, entirely novel to me. It was not heels down toes up sit up straight; it was more a question of – let’s try this. We did try this. Up went my leathers, forward shifted my seat, relaxed went my back. The mare thought about it for a bit. Toss toss toss went her head. Then, suddenly, like a miracle, I got all the small shifts to move at the same time and it was as if she sighed a great, relieved sigh. I am going to sound really dotty now, but it was a sigh that came from her soul. Yes, she was saying; that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Thank you.
‘That’s it,’ said the Barefoot Trimmer, happily. I was so delighted I yelled with pleasure. I can’t believe it, I said, over and over. I whooped and hollered and laughed out loud. The mare pricked her ears and lifted her back and lowered her neck so that she was in a perfect outline, all because I was sitting gently and firmly over her centre of balance.
I talked a lot, out of pure happiness. I said how stupid I was to think that because I once rode well, thirty years ago, I should be able to pick it up just like that.
‘I could play Mozart at grade seven when I was fifteen,’ I told the Barefoot Trimmer, ‘but now I can’t even play chopsticks. I don’t know why I thought that I could just get up on a Thoroughbred and do it all perfectly.’ She was very, very kind and understanding. She knows so much and is so generous with her knowledge, but never uses it as a stick of superiority to beat one with. She does not judge. She only encourages. It took all my self-restraint not to fling my arms around her neck.
Instead, I flung my arms around my horse, and told her over and over what a brilliant, lovely, good person she was, and how much I appreciated her. She looked bloody pleased with herself.
The interesting thing is that this new position we are experimenting with often feels very strange to people when they first try it. It is a long way from the classical, riding long, sitting tall, dressage sort of position which I was taught when I was young, and to which I automatically reverted. The new way did not feel strange to me because it was exactly like the last serious bit of riding I did in my late teens.
In those days, my mother lived in Newmarket, and a kind trainer used to let me ride out for him. Admittedly, he chose the quietest four-year-old colt in his stable, but it was still a great vote of confidence to put me up on one of his valuable horses, and I think of it now with acute gratitude. The memories flooded back. I recalled chatting happily to a jockey I had ridden with in pony competitions, and who had gone on to a serious racing career, before we set off on a five furlong half-speed canter up the Heath. These shorter irons and relaxed back were precisely what I had done then. Perhaps it reminded Red of her own racing days, and made her feel at home.
So now, instead of a fret and a bit of a wrangle, instead of worrying about show pony perfection, I simply pretend I am riding Frankel. I bloody well am Tom Queally, king of the world. Red may be a million times slower than her illustrious relation, but she floats over the ground, just like he does.
For extra ease and relaxation, I am riding her simply in a rope halter. That in itself is a bit of a miracle. People have a lot of angry opinions about ex-racehorses. Too difficult, too complicated, too temperamental, too damn Thoroughbred, they say, furiously. Oh, and she is a chestnut mare; well, good luck with that. I wish they could have seen this Thoroughbred loping round a five acre field with nothing but a thin bit of rope on her face, coming to a perfect halt with no more than a small signal from my ischium.
When we started, the Barefoot Trimmer asked me what I wanted to achieve. It’s very simple and I had no trouble in answering. I don’t want to win competitions or show off; I don’t want to turn Red into a prize horse, covered in rosettes. I don’t want to be the best rider the world has ever seen.
‘I want her to feel happy and safe,’ I said.
The lurking fear, the sense of failure I had been having in the saddle, is that I was letting her down. She is so good and true, and I was not up to snuff.
Now, that marvellous, shining goal is within reach. It will take a bit of work and practice and time. My thigh muscles are going to scream and shriek before they get as strong as I need them. I have to put my humble hat on, and admit that I have a lot to learn, all over again.
But the horse and I shall achieve that glorious partnership of which I dreamed. And all because I asked for help, and the kind universe sent me the exact person I needed to give it.
I had to run some errands this morning, including going to pay the vet. To get to the vet, I drive past all this:
There are still people who think it very peculiar that I moved from London, with all its theatres and shops and restaurants and cosmopolitan population, five hundred miles north to Scotland, or, as it is known in some heads, The Middle of Nowhere. It is Somewhere to me. I bless that whimsical decision every day, because those mountains and rivers are what I see when I do something as mundane as go and pay the vet.
The chicken, for the Dear Reader who loves the chickens:
The Good Companions:
The newest member of the herd has been given a blog name. All animals and humans must have one. I gave this serious task to my very young friend, the Pony Whisperer, who comes to see Myfanwy each day. She gave it a lot of thought, and came up with Autumn, because the American Paint filly came to join her new companions in the autumn, and her coat is the colour of autumn leaves. I was incredibly impressed that such a young person should have thought of such a perfect name, and for such lovely reasons. So, meet Autumn the Filly:
Meanwhile, the Grand Duchess of the field was, after our first morning ride in the new style, more like a dopey old donkey than the granddaughter of a Derby winner:
(If I did not know better, I would swear that is the equine version of a smile.)
How long do I have to stand posing whilst you click away with that ridiculous black machine?:
At least there is a good view to look at:
And now, may I please have some love and attention:
Answer, of course, categorical YES.
All the animals find the whole being photographed thing quite dull. The Pigeon is hoping I shall get on with her walk, quite soon:
But submits, with resigned grace, to her close-up:
That really was a very long blog. Thank you for your patience. It is not something I ever take for granted.