In the horse world, just as in the human one, there is prejudice against the female of the species. Mares are widely supposed to be hormonal, unpredictable, difficult and generally unreliable. My experience is that the complete opposite is true.
I’ve been having a ball with the girls over the last couple of days. On Sunday, a delightful filly called Miss Dashwood, trained by the most excellent James Fanshawe, roared from last to first in the Goodwood sunshine, producing a withering burst of speed in the final yards to catch the long-time leader. According to her yard, the next day when she was taken out for a gentle recuperative walk after her great efforts, she ‘looked very pleased with herself.’ I know that look. Then, yesterday, in the Amateur Derby, run at Epsom over the same distance as the actual Derby, Mr Patrick Mullins was up on another lovely, determined filly called Beacon Lady.
She had won her last two races, and bagging a three-timer is always difficult. Epsom is a famously treacherous course and she had a big field up against her, including a well-backed favourite.
Mullins gave her one of the kindest, cleverest, most sympathetic rides I’ve ever seen on a racecourse. He dropped her out the back door and gave her time and space to find her feet over the crazy cambers and turns. Admittedly, as I saw her five lengths behind the field, and about twenty off the leader, I said, out loud, to Stanley the Dog, ‘not even Dancing Brave could win from there.’ I was wrong, and canny Mr Mullins was right. He knew his girl. He nursed her into the race. (My fanciful brain decided her was surely crooning at her in his Irish accent, telling her what a fine lady she was.) And then, when she was at last vaguely in touch with her field, he took her wide, down the centre of the track, so she could have a good look at everything and not get stuck in traffic. Everything else was motoring, and yet he still did not ask her for her effort. He sat quite still, and kept her balanced, and let her deepen her stride.
Finally, finally, he said go, in the politest possible way, just shaking up the reins a little and crouching lower in the saddle. And perhaps because he had been so courteous and gentlemanly, the bold filly gave him everything she had, and flashed past the post a length in front. I don’t think her jockey even picked up his stick.
I had money on both fillies and I shouted them home.
Today, the Remarkable Trainer pitched up, back from holiday. Red the mare, seeing there was serious groundwork to be done, was at her most spirited, waltzing about and putting in a bronco buck and showing all her thoroughbred blood. For all that she spends most of her time like a dozy old donkey, occasionally she likes to test the boundaries, to remind us that she is descended from a Derby winner, to show that she is not to be taken for granted. At moments like that, a lot of people would shake their heads and say, darkly, ‘mare-ish’, and start digging out all the old stereotypes. I laughed my head off. The Remarkable Trainer said, ‘she’s just being a horse’. (I think sometimes people forget this about equines.)
Once she saw that this sort of Spanish Riding School of Vienna farrago was not going to fly, Red settled into her work. After a while, I got on, and the Remarkable Trainer suddenly got a rush of blood to the head and started dragging silver birch trees across the grass. ‘There,’ she said, looking at her handiwork. ‘Working Hunter fence.’ It was actually a proper jump, at least TWO FEET HIGH.
‘Bugger it,’ I said. ‘We’re going to jump it.’
So we did. I let Red find her own stride, and concentrated on sticking with her and not bothering her. She is still very, very new at this, and I wanted to give her confidence. At first, she was so amazed that she gave the thing about five feet of air; I could feel it whooshing underneath me, and whooped in astonishment and amazement. Then, she grew more sure-footed, and starting popping over like an old pro. Each time, she came back to a gentle halt, and turned her face back to me as if to say: did you see what I did?
At the time, it was just fun, something interesting and experimental to do. I like to amuse her, to keep her interested, not to let her get stale. It’s lovely, teaching her something new. It was only afterwards that I realised that I’d been blasting about a wide open green space on an ex-racing, ex-polo mare, who half an hour earlier had been bucking as if she were in the Calgary stampede. I’d been asking my posh old duchess, who has only just learnt what a jump is, to leap over a fence whilst wearing only a rope halter. She could have charged off into the blue yonder if she’d wanted to, but each time she came kindly back, despite all the excitement.
‘Bloody hell,’ I said to The Remarkable Trainer. ‘Do you realise what she just did?’
It’s not because I am clever or accomplished or a particularly good horsewoman. I am still tremendously rusty and have forgotten more than I probably ever knew. It’s because I trust her. It’s because I don’t believe any of that bullshit about mares. It’s because she fills my heart with gladness and she is as kind and brilliant and willing as any creature I ever met. Just like her two distant relations out there on the racecourse, she will give you everything if you ask politely. Sometimes she shakes her head and throws a little spirit into the mix, but she comes back at once, docile and biddable and absolutely honest. She is different each day, not because she is a slave to her hormones or suffers from the disadvantage of having ovaries, but because she is a sentient creature, and each day is new to her and will bring its own challenges, which she will meet in her own sweet way.
I suppose I’ve been thinking about this because one of the inexplicable UKIP fellows has been going on again about the frailties and incapabilities of women. (Apparently, women are better at ‘finding mustard in the pantry’ than driving cars.) And just now, I heard a woman in Pakistan interviewed on the radio say, without a trace of self-pity, that the fight for equality which happened in the West has not even started in her own country. She made it a simple statement of fact. I thought it was one of the saddest things I ever heard.
I’m a tremendous believer in the sisterhood. I think women are brilliant, not just because of all the things that they are brilliant at, but because most of them put up with this kind of thing with an extraordinary patience and grace. It goes on every day, even in the enlightened West. We ladies may have the vote and the right to own property and the freedom to do jobs, but the hum of low-level bigotry and tired assumptions infects society still. The women could be working to rule and setting their hair on fire and withholding their favours, and yet, mostly, they just get on with it. They laugh, sometimes a little tiredly, and don’t make a fuss. I have a bottomless admiration for that.
So I suppose when I get furious about the prejudice against mares, it’s a proxy for my crossness about the slurs that all females must put up with. When Miss Dashwood and Beacon Lady show such resolution and doughtiness and pure, thrilling speed, when my beloved Red soars over her birch trees, I think, nuttily, that they are striking a blow for females everywhere. I whoop in delirious triumph, because it is one for the girls.
A very random selection, because I’ve been going back through the files and trying to winnow them. Despite my soaring adoration for my girl and my manly Stanley, I really probably don’t need three hundred photographs of them. Each. (Conservative estimate.)
My mum’s new little chap:
With his big red friend:
Oh, that handsome face:
More lovely girls, human and equine:
I am not sure anyone ever made me so proud as this person does:
The funny thing is that I was not going to do a blog today. I was just going to put up some pictures. I’m very tired and it’s been a long day. Then this all just fell out of my fingers. Brain to fogged to tell if ANY of it makes any sense, so please forgive.