I did such a funny, lovely thing this morning. I took my mare for a walk.
I usually have many rational explanations for this. It’s important to get her onto metalled surfaces to harden up her hooves, now she is living barefoot. It’s a fine thing to let her explore new places on the ground. (We crossed the burn today and went up into the woods.) Besides, she is recovering from a slightly bruised foot, so she is off games and I cannot ride her, but it’s good to get her moving.
I also have a whole, highly developed theory about leading. Everything with a horse starts with the feet. If you watch herds at work, you see quickly that the leaders are the ones who get the others to move their feet. You can tell the hierarchy instantly from that. If Red is fractious or not paying attention, I move her feet, and like magic, I have her back. Four steps backwards or disengaging the hindquarters, and the stardust is scattered. If I ever had to give advice about a difficult horse, which I would not really, because I can’t bear all that telling everyone what to do, I would say: do a week of nothing but leading.
But the real truth is that it is one of my keenest, most profound pleasures. There is nothing that soothes my heart more than ambling past venerable trees and fields of antic sheep and meadows fecund with cow parsley, with a beautiful, relaxed creature at my side, as the sun gentles the bright land.
I taught the mare, very early on, to lead nicely on a loose rope, matching her pace to mine. This is not just some hippy freak or circus trick. It makes everything easy and happy between us. I don’t get pushed or barged or pulled. She gets the safe feeling of being with her good leader. She puts her head down and lengthens her neck and swings her lovely quarters. Everything in her speaks of peace. I look at the trees and the hills and then I look at her glorious, strong body, her intelligent head, her kind eye, and I am in aesthetic overload. The world stops and the bad news goes away, and it’s just me and my girl.
I suppose it is slightly eccentric, this going for a walk. A gentleman stopped his motor to ask if he was going in the right direction, and seemed excessively surprised to see a red thoroughbred peering curiously through his car window. But it feels entirely natural and proper and expected to me.
I came back to watch The Morning Line, which I had recorded. I like to look at it after my equine work is done, so I can prepare myself for the day’s racing. Clare Balding made a moving and eloquent tribute to Sir Henry Cecil. All his past glories were there, from the beautiful and bold Oh So Sharp, a mighty filly I adored in my youth, to the soaring swansong that was Frankel.
I thought, as I always do when the good ones go, that it’s a pity that these lovely canters through a great life come after the person is dead and cannot see how beloved and brilliant they were. Although I suspect that Sir Henry had an inkling of it. In London, the cab drivers used to lean out of their taxis and shout: ‘Hello ‘Enry, got a good one for us?’ When the cab drivers love you, you have arrived indeed. I used to smile all over my face, in my younger days, when taxi drivers would tell me they had once won money on my old dad.
The great thing about Henry Cecil is that he never trained by the book. He did not even know there was a book. He always said he did everything by instinct. ‘The horses tell me what to do,’ he said.
That’s the most profound truth, for anyone who has anything to do with equines: the horses are always your best professors. If you listen to them, they will tell you everything.
I’ve been thinking lately what it is that makes a horseman or woman. Some people just have a feeling for the thing, and it’s almost impossible to define or teach. I think it’s an imponderable combination of a dozen things. It is calm and curiosity and patience. I have a private notion that people who are really good with horses have a rhythm to them, as if moving to some gentle internal metronome.
I think that they are also the ones who understand that a horse is a horse. It sounds stupidly obvious, but a lot of people never quite believe it. Horses are not like us. The human and the equine worlds have a little overlap, a small coloured common area in the Venn Diagram, but they are mostly quite different. Horses think differently, act differently, literally, with their binocular vision, see things differently. They consent, generously, to step into our world, and light it with their mysterious, foreign presence. I never take that consent for granted. It is my daily gift.
Henry Cecil was a horseman to his bones, and a bit of an eccentric too. In my flaky mind, I think: I bet he’d understand why I take my beautiful, bonny mare for a walk.
Are of the week. It’s been such a strange seven days. This time last week, I was mourning a fine man I knew who died too young; then came the very public passing of a national treasure who is missed by the entire racing world. I’ve been surfing a tide of rolling emotion, tears never far from the surface.
Yet, it’s also been a week of small, intense pleasures; of kindnesses, love, family, interesting new people, good work. I even had two huge accumulators come off, which would make my dear old parent smile, in the great betting shop in the sky.
The sun shone. The blossom blossomed. The lilac bloomed.
Stanley the Dog was impossibly funny and handsome. My mare took my heart in her delicate hooves and expanded it, which is her great talent and my great fortune, and not what I expected would happen to me in my middle age.
Life and death; love and trees. That was the story of the week.
The wonderful children of Banchory Academy, who inspired us all at HorseBack so much:
And Scott and Rodney:
Stanley the Manly:
The precious herd:
And my glorious girl:
Have a happy weekend, Dear Readers, wherever you are.