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.
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:
The herd, grazing calmly, as if Great Escapes never crossed their dear minds:
My poor girl, getting back to normal:
Although she would like to show me all her battle scars, masked by the wonder Wound Cream:
M the P, unfazed by the entire event:
And Mr Stanley the Dog is most concerned with catching bluebottles:
The hill, which stays unchanged through it all: