Sunday, 30 June 2013

Look, Look.

‘Look, look,’ I cry to the Horse Talker, like an eager six-year-old child. ‘Watch this.’

She kindly watches.

I break into a run. Red trots gently by my side. I slow to a walk. She at once walks. I run again; she trots. I walk, she walks. I stop, she stops.


The answer can only be yes. The Horse Talker sweetly supplies it.

I very rarely use the Universal We. It drives me nuts, most of the time, especially when it comes to women. We, say ladies on the radiophonic device, or in the magazines, or in the newspapers, all want X and Y and a bit of Z. What We want is often negative: to banish wrinkles, lose six pounds, get rid of cellulite.

Bugger off, I shout; I don’t want any of those things. I may have ovaries, but I have no interest in diets or shoes. Don’t tell me what I want; we have not even met.

But I dare to venture that We, as humans, almost all have a little voice in us which says: Look, look. Watch this. And what interests me is the things we choose to shout about. It may be: look, look, I can write a thesis, or make a million pounds, or drive a shiny car. It may be: I can make a garden or write a sonnet or do fascinating things with an old Fairy liquid bottle and some sticky-back plastic. (Or, in that case: look what I can do with nostalgic Blue Peter references.)

I suspect that possibly the road to inner peace leads to the quiet prairie of not having to prove oneself. Perhaps really, We should all try to get past the Look, Look voice. It is a form of pride and showing off, really. But on the other hand, it is very human. Someone said to me the other day that she thought life could be boiled down to needing three As: affirmation, affection and attention. The most generous thing you can give to a person is your time. You can watch, you can pay attention; you can be a witness.

For some reason, I quite like the fact that my current Look, Look involves something so basic that it would never make a YouTube hit. The other day, I watched a video on the internet of a young New Zealand woman putting a horse into counter canter without a saddle or a bridle. It was skill of a dazzling degree, and so natural and relaxed that it made me gasp.

I have to accept that I shall never be able to do that, just as I shall never be able to play a Mozart sonata, or sing like Nina Simone, for all my private efforts in the kitchen with only Stanley the Dog to hear. (I can, if the light is coming from the right direction, get a little blues break into my voice, and when that happens I flush with idiot pride.)

Yesterday, I did another kind of Look, Look. I had a two pound bet on four horses. My old dad loved nothing more than an accumulator and I do one pretty much every day, for fun, for the challenge, for the memory of the auld fella. I imagine him laughing his head off in the great William Hill in the sky.

My four lovely horses won. The bet paid £207.96. I was beside myself. I took at once to Twitter, to tell everyone. Well done, my racing posse said kindly; you deserve it, they tweeted, generously. Then I felt slightly ashamed. I metaphorically cleared my throat and shuffled my shoes. Of course, I wrote, I don’t tell you all about my utter catastrophes. I was incredibly proud, and flushed with the thrill of the thing, but then I felt a bit bogus, boasting about it.

I’m not quite sure what the point of all this is. I did have a good point, when I started. I like to tell you small stories which have a moral to them. I like to dig out the life lessons, over and over, to remind myself. I learn things and then forget them and have to go back, endlessly, to the beginning.

I think perhaps the point was something about the small things, my enduring theme. I think it was that there will always be a bit of Look, Look, and even though I would love to be able to do complicated steps and championship manoeuvres, I rather like it that my current totem of utter achievement is that my horse and I may move in harmony. It’s not fancy, but it’s real.


Today’s pictures:

Are of the past week:

30 June 1 28-06-2013 10-35-40

30 June 2 26-06-2013 11-26-32

30 June 4 25-06-2013 15-56-20

30 June 6 21-06-2013 11-28-18

30 June 6 21-06-2013 11-31-19

30 June 7 21-06-2013 11-30-37

30 June 7 21-06-2013 11-30-51

30 June 9 25-06-2013 14-48-24

30 June 10 25-06-2013 14-45-04

30 June 12 24-06-2013 10-54-20

Ha. Just as I was about to send this, an email dropped into my inbox, from one of my various Google Alerts. It was from CNN. CNN, without fear or favour, was asking the big questions this morning. Are women foolish to love stilettos? it wanted to know. Talk about the utter idiocy of the universal we. There are about eight-seven things wrong with that question. I almost jumped onto the highest of my high horses, ready to gallop off in all directions. Then I thought: it’s a Sunday. The birds are singing. Stanley the Dog is stalking a fly in the next room, amusing himself mightily. I put the horse away. I laughed, instead.

Friday, 28 June 2013

A little bit of The Other.

I am in wandering, pondering mood today. I am interested in thought processes and the mazy meanderings of the human condition and how it is that people define and redefine themselves. I was thinking about this because one of the things about my work at HorseBack is that it demonstrates to me that I am a bit Other. I meet a lot of new people there all the time, and, after years of sticking quietly to my own cohort, I am suddenly exposed to the eyes of strangers.

I see a lot of revealing looks in those eyes. There is surprise, amusement, that particular indulgent look which I sometimes see in the glance of my mare, the one that says: ah, the old girl is off on one again. I say things which to me seem quite ordinary, and watch people take a metaphorical, sometimes even literal, step backwards. Sometimes I can identify the thing which causes a faint shiver of shock; sometimes I cannot, and go home and wonder about it.

I am aware that I have something of the idiotic about me. I don’t mind this. The absurd bit of my brain even quite likes it. When I meet the very grown-up, organised, proper, capable people I do have a momentary, almost melancholy sense of envy and wonder. How lovely it must be, I think, to do things well in the world, to have a plan, to know where your car keys are. I told someone yesterday that last week I spent half an hour looking for my keys, only to find them in the flower bed. She is a very polite person, and masked her utter astonishment well.

The pondering on this makes me think of my dad, where some of it comes from. On paper, he was a very peculiar person indeed. He got away with his absolute refusal to live by any of society’s rules through a raging, entirely authentic, natural charm. His charm was not of the Charm School variety; he never remembered people’s names or asked them suavely about their lives. He did not tick the ABCs of polished behaviour. His charm was a sort of innocent enthusiasm, a constant subliminal laughter at his own absurdity, a self-deprecating jokiness, an open generosity of heart.

I used to go and stay with people when I was a little girl, and meet fathers who did serious nine to five jobs, often ones which required a suit and tie, and I remember a confused feeling of mild envy and utter strangeness. I had absolutely no clue what it might be like to have a respectable parent. My dad drank for Britain, sang Irish rebel songs using an upturned tea chest as a double bass, gambled so hard that he sometimes left a racecourse with cash by the case, flirted with every woman he met, rode so wildly that many of my childhood memories are of being told to be quiet by strict matrons in hospital corridors. My early youth was filled with antic stories, like the time that a storied Irish band came to stay, and went on such a bender that the only way Dad could get them back to London for a gig was to load the musicians into the horsebox with three crates of Guinness and send them off up the M4, still singing.

Because when you are small you accept what you live with as utter normality, these proper fathers who earned regular salaries and allowed themselves one small Fino before lunch seemed entirely alien to me, a fascinating life-form to be studied from a distance, dissected for clues of how The Other Half lived. I really liked them, and sometimes wanted one for myself, but I could not quite imagine living in their good, ordered world.

Our world was not ordered. The house burst with people, song, the veering highs and lows that go with racing; my father smelt of earth and dung and a lovely citrussy hair oil from Mr Trumper, which is what men in the seventies used to wear. (Hair oil; that really is the mark of a lost world.) The conversation was almost exclusively about equines; I felt most at home in the tack room, with the scent of leather and saddle soap in my nostrils. Gambles were landed and lost; horses celebrated and mourned; the fortunes of the house shot up and down like crazed Mexican jumping beans.

No wonder that sometimes people give me looks. I think that I thought for quite a long time that if I watched carefully I could learn to fit in, and behave in an expected manner. But you can only work with what you have been given. The faint otherness persists, and I don’t think that it matters so very much. And I also suspect that even behind the most respectable facade, even under the neatest tailoring, even in the midst of the most regular life, everyone, secretly, has their own goofy little star, which they quietly follow.


Today’s pictures:

Dreich and rain today. HorseBack morning:

28 June 1 28-06-2013 09-38-02

A lot of new flowers and growing things are out in the garden:

28 June 2 28-06-2013 10-33-36

28 June 3 28-06-2013 10-33-50

28 June 5 28-06-2013 10-34-02

28 June 6 28-06-2013 10-34-08

28 June 6 28-06-2013 10-34-44

28 June 7 28-06-2013 10-34-15

28 June 8 28-06-2013 10-34-58

28 June 8 28-06-2013 10-35-15

Best Beloveds:

28 June 15 25-06-2013 14-48-19

28 June 16 16-06-2013 09-50-58

Where the hill should be:

28 June 20 28-06-2013 10-37-57

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Small but mighty.

Ha. It turns out we do not need Miss Marple after all. The Dear Readers are on the case of The Mysterious Incident. One of them, to my delight, turns out to be an ex-copper and has put her considerable forensic and analytical skills to work. She concludes that a possible explanation may be rogue deer.

‘Oh, yes,’ I say out loud, as I read the clever comment. At once, this makes the most sense of all the crackpot theories that are jostling in my brain. My current favourite was that a psycho rambler, who, furious that I have put up a fenced paddock in the middle of the old rambler’s route up into the hills, which is rudely not marked on any Ordnance Survey map, had come in the night to wreak his revenges. You can see why I never applied to the police force.

This makes me think of the shining marvellousness of the Dear Readers. When I started this blog, I wanted to make my book go viral, build a brand, make some commercial hay. It was a hard-nosed business decision. Of course, none of that happened. I built a small readership, but nothing like enough to have any effect on sales.

I did, even so, for a long time become obsessed with numbers. All the graphs did go reassuringly upwards, and I checked them mercilessly and castigated myself if I ever suffered a little dip. I was always racing to the internet to see how many views I had received and comments I had got. If there were fewer than the day before, I felt quite awful.

Then, as HorseBack came into my life, and my working day became chewed up by trying to fit in volunteering and day job and mare and family and dog and exigencies of ordinary existence, I, without even meaning to, just stopped looking at the figures. The last I looked, a few months ago, the graphs had gone down a bit, probably because the blog has become more inward-looking and less polished and, in an odd way, less needy. When I was busking for custom, I did sometimes get it. Now the thing exists easily, in itself, not trying to gain anything or prove anything or score points. The dear old blog does not mind if the numbers are small. It is just what it is, comfortable in its own skin, operating without fear or favour.

But what is so lovely is it seems, in some serendipitous way, to have found its perfect level. The Dear Readers may not be counted in vast marching battalions, but oh, feel the quality. They can solve mysteries; they fall openly in love with Stanley the Dog. They remember, tenderly, the Pigeon, and allow that my heart still aches for her. They put up with long ramblings about racing, which they do not follow themselves. (Some of them, who have never watched a race in their lives, even turned on the television for Ascot.) They come and wave hello from America and New Zealand and Austria and Sri Lanka, and all points in between.

Perhaps it comes back to my middle-aged obsession with the small things. I do not disdain worldly success, but the profound satisfactions of the heart are now all in the minute, the minuscule, the barely visible. The delicate barometers of Red’s mood and the merest wibble of that famous lip; the flight of Stanley the Dog’s left ear; a particular expression on Myfanwy’s face; the sight of the Scottish light on an old oak tree; the leap of a lamb in the field; these are things which mean the most.

The cohort of the Dear Readers is small, but oh, it is mighty.

And that is my happy thought for the day.


Hardly time for pictures, as I am, as always, racing the damn clock. Here is just a little something on which you may rest your kind eyes:

27 June 1 25-06-2013 15-25-18

27 June 2 25-06-2013 16-22-50

27 June 3 21-06-2013 11-25-03

27 June 4 21-06-2013 11-31-04

27 June 10 26-06-2013 09-36-19

27 June 11 25-06-2013 14-48-51

27 June 20 25-06-2013 16-25-58

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

In which a mysterious event occurs.

Here is the ridiculous story I was promising you.

It took place two nights ago.

At 9.31pm, on a quiet Monday, I hear the four words I dread the most. ‘The horse are out.’

The Horse Talker and I like to lean over the gate and watch our little herd with adoring eyes, and discuss at vast length how calm, how tractable, how happy, how unshockable they are. This is faintly self-indulgent, since it is partly due to the work we have done with them. We had fabulous raw material to work with, but the daily groundwork, desensitising, attention to detail has paid off, and we are not above the occasional naughty clap on the back. We are only human after all.

Then suddenly, out of the blue, they go nuts in the night and completely trash a strong wooden post and rail fence.

The neighbour who lives next to the field hears an almighty crash, and looks out to find the two bigger mares racing at full speed past his window. What is so funny, in retrospect, is that having got out into the wide yonder of the rolling set-aside, they choose to rush back to the top gate and try to get back into the paddock, as if in apology for their errant behaviour.

I tear down and round them up and get them back in. The Horse Talker arrives, and we survey the devastation. One whole bottom rail has come completely off, two discrete top rails have been trashed and smashed and are at crazy, splintered right angles. But the really, really weird thing is that they are facing inwards, as if the force which broke them came from the outside.

The Horse Talker and I turn at once into a pair of equine Miss Marples. We examine the hoof prints, the skid marks on the grass, the trajectories. I actually attempt to reconstruct the incident, but we cannot see how it was done, with the angles of the breaks the way they are, and also the position of the scratches on Red’s body. Autumn the Filly, true to her amazing, laid-back, get away with anything nature, has come away almost entirely unscathed, except for one tiny scrape on her off fore, which has barely even broken the skin.

None of it makes any sense. Miss Marple herself would be baffled and have to eat her cloche hat. Quite apart from the puzzling nature of the broken fence, which appears to defy the laws of physics, horses would have to get into a terrible state to crash through a sturdy post and rails.

Tractors, trailers rattling with blocks of granite, and a variety of thundering diggers come in and out of that field all the time. There is a random person who lets off loud gunshots in the woods. Strange groups of ramblers appear, rustling their Ordnance Survey Maps. The herd does not bat an eye.

When the shelter was being built, the shattering noise of the nail gun did not even cause them to lift their heads from their hay. Close by, the old Coo Cathedral, a palace built for cows in the 19th century and now used for weddings, sees firework displays on the occasional Saturday night which sound as if civil war has broken out. When this last happened, two weeks ago, I tore down to the field in the pitch dark, expecting to find the girls going nuts. Instead, Red had gathered her little band in the farthest corner, under the soothing shelter of the wooded hill, and was standing between her two charges and the devastating noise. She was alert and scanning the horizon for possible threats, but there was no sense of terror. She was just on watch, that was all.

Who knows what will frighten a flight animal? Red will walk calmly up to a huge, clattering scarlet digger and stick her nose in the cab to say hello to the Young Gentleman, whom she loves, but the other day decided she was really quite shocked by a pair of blackbirds.

Even so, one of the things that I have taught her is not to go into a rising escalation of fear. That’s what the desensitising is for. Slightly paradoxically, it is to teach horses that fear is all right; it is just a thing, it will not kill them. So you crinkle a plastic bag, for instance, and they start and tremble and shoot their heads in the air, and then you indicate by your own body language that the thing is not, in fact a mountain lion, and after a moment, they believe you. There’s also a dance of bringing the terrifying object in, and then removing it; more of the pressure release principle. At the end, we always say to our girls: ‘See? It did not eat you.’ They learn to feel a moment of alarm, but this does not then soar into a rising arc of panic. They come back to us. It does not mean they will never spook, but it means that a three act drama is then much less likely.

And yet, something, something, happened in that field, which must have terrified them out of their wits, a mystery which we may never unravel.

For two nights, it disturbs me so much I cannot sleep. I hate it when anything happens to upset the herd, and I hate to see my beloved Red with Wound Cream all over her beautiful body. Wound Cream, which really is its name, is the most miraculous thing I’ve ever found. It’s by Royal Appointment, and quite right too; I imagine the Queen loves it. You put it on that nastiest cuts and scratches, and the next day, they are healed. Red has one determined cut which is still on the mend, but almost all of her scars are already fading.

I suddenly realise this morning that because I am unsettled by her being unsettled, and because I cannot work out what the hell went on, and because I have not slept for two nights, she is picking up on all that – what the Beloved Cousin calls, descriptively, being jangly. The Horse Talker and I look anxiously at our girls and say to them: ‘Oh, if only you could speak.’ We long for them to tell us the story.

But now, I see this is not the point. I’ve being babying and gentling Red for two days, but this in fact is not what she needs. So I do some proper work with her. Out in the wide three acre field, I work with her at liberty, and she hooks on at once, and drops her head, and follows my feet exactly – a move to the right, a circle to the left, four paces backwards, stop, start, quick slow. There it is, the harmony again. Everything in her big red body relaxes; she has her Good Leader back. That’s all she wanted.

She loves love, and will present herself for it. She will make a sweet face and offer her head for scratching. She will stand for long minutes by my side, leaning on my shoulder as I rub her dear cheek. But this is secondary, for her. Horses experience love in a very different way than humans, and their version of what we call love is mostly based on feeling safe.

She doesn’t want me jangly and fretful. She wants me leading her round a field, confident and certain. Then she can relax. I’d forgotten this for a bit, and this morning I remembered, and my lovely girl let go her nightmares and followed me willingly and with gratitude.

The Bizarre Event starts to fade. I hate mystery. I love explanations. But we have to chalk this one down in the category of May Never Be Solved.

Still, we were lucky. The kind neighbour mended the fence; the other kind neighbour is on full night patrol in his monster truck, just in case any random human agency was involved. Our little herd is protected by the kindness of the compound, their scratched bodies are mending, and they revert to their usual, happy, dozy state.

I have to put away the ghastly imaginings of what might have been, of the potentially catastrophic injuries they might have suffered, and feel grateful that the ending was really a happy one. The best horseman I know, my cousin’s Old Fella, lost a horse not long ago when it crashed through the gate from its field for no known reason, and broke its shoulder. The fates were kind to us; we got off miraculously lightly. I must remember that, and not dwell on the horrors which might have been.


Today’s pictures:

26 June 1 26-06-2013 11-26-19

26 June 2 24-06-2013 10-54-07

26 June 3 24-06-2013 10-54-46

26 June 5 21-06-2013 11-25-10

26 June 6 21-06-2013 11-27-15

26 June 7 21-06-2013 11-30-36

This is an absurd picture of some clouds I took by mistake. But I rather love it. It’s a bit like a painting of the sky:

26 June 9 24-06-2013 10-54-17

The herd, grazing calmly, as if Great Escapes never crossed their dear minds:

26 June 10 25-06-2013 14-44-12

My poor girl, getting back to normal:

26 June 10 26-06-2013 09-36-43

Although she would like to show me all her battle scars, masked by the wonder Wound Cream:

26 June 14 26-06-2013 09-37-53

M the P, unfazed by the entire event:

26 June 12 26-06-2013 09-37-07

And Mr Stanley the Dog is most concerned with catching bluebottles:

26 June 10 25-06-2013 14-48-42

The hill, which stays unchanged through it all:

26 June 20 26-06-2013 11-26-14

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

No time, but a lot of pride.

I have a good drama story for you but I’ve run out of day in which to tell it. The imaginary equivalent of the Countdown Clock has bibbled and bobbled its way to the end of my round, with that cheery yet rather ominous sound, and that’s all she wrote.

I will tell the story tomorrow, because it is actually a proper mystery and perhaps the Dear Readers might be able to solve it. In the meantime, there is just enough time to say -


25 June 1 25-06-2013 15-42-19

This small person was not the rider in the family. Before Myfanwy had to be retired from being ridden, The Oldest Great-Niece sat on her a couple of times, but she never felt at home in the saddle. That was perfectly fine. She had other areas of brilliance. No one gets pushed, in this family. Then, one day, without telling me, she went up into the hills and started taking secret lessons, and NOW LOOK.

I am so proud I could burst.

Story, all polished and in forensic detail tomorrow. In the meantime, a couple of pictures for you:

This was the view the World Traveller and I saw as we watched the miraculous riding lesson:

25 June 2 25-06-2013 15-42-40

25 June 3 25-06-2013 15-42-42

25 June 4 25-06-2013 15-56-18

25 June 6 25-06-2013 15-56-24

25 June 7 25-06-2013 15-25-16

Back home:

25 June 9 25-06-2013 16-21-32

25 June 9 25-06-2013 16-23-09


25 June 10 25-06-2013 14-44-14

25 June 10 25-06-2013 16-22-43

25 June 11 25-06-2013 16-22-54

HorseBack morning:

25 June 15 25-06-2013 10-31-28

25 JUne 16 25-06-2013 10-30-07

Oh, the nobility of Mr Stanley the Dog:

25 June 20 25-06-2013 14-47-43

My own dear old hill:

25 June 22 25-06-2013 16-25-55


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