The sun shines like a crazy thing. Because of my new work for HorseBack UK, I get to spend half of my day outside, which is good mentally and physically. I can almost feel my body gratefully absorbing the vitamin D and my mind opening under the wide blue skies. The long winter has kept us all in a bit of a defensive crouch. It’s only when your shoulders come down that you realise how hunched they have been.
The first course of the year starts small, with two participants. In just one day, they have gone from knowing little about horses to a familiar ease and affection. It is moving to watch the bonds develop. I bang on all the time about the oceanic feeling I get when I stand with my mare’s head on my shoulder in a quiet field. This morning, I went to catch her and turned out not to need a halter, as she hooked on and followed me all the way across the field to the gate, joined only by an invisible rope. I can feel my very heart expand when she does things like this.
Now, I witness two men who know little of horses getting the same feeling. Their faces, which yesterday morning were set and uncertain on arrival in a wholly new and strange environment, are open and smiling. The sound of laughter is heard, amidst the work and concentration. When they stand with their horses, they automatically put their arms over the gentle equine necks, in an easy fraternal mark of fondness.
I go from one loveliness to another. The remarkable trainer has come to work with the mare. She does ten minutes of initial groundwork, rides for a further five, to check the brakes and the steering, and then puts me up.
We are in nothing more than a rope halter, my finely-bred thoroughbred and I, and we are still learning the novel methods of Western riding. We weave accurately in and out of tyres, over tarpaulins, past a great flapping sheet the remarkable trainer has rigged up, all without a flinch or a spook or a foot wrong. At one point, a couple of RAF jets roar low over our heads. The white sheet is billowing in the wind, reflecting the sun. My brave and trusting flight animal stays calm and concentrated on her job.
This is why it was worth it, the long winter off. Sometimes I thought I was copping out, that I should be galloping her through the snow as I knew some people round about here were. But I had the idea that I should get all the polo out of her, that I should let her down, that we would do small, quiet work on the ground, plant those roots of trust and relationship deep in the good Scottish earth.
And this is my reward. She is a different horse than she was last year. She has cast away all the traces of wariness - of a new place, a new person, a new way of working – and has come to rest, comfortably at home. We both needed time, and we got that gift, and it is now paying wild dividends. I can’t really put into words what it feels like.
When we finish, I fall on her neck in gratitude and love. I look down. After almost an hour of concentrated riding, her eyes are half closed and her lower lip is wibbling. She carries the same expression of pleased relaxation that she wears when we are hanging out in the paddock and I am scratching her sweet spots. Ease and confidence and harmony run between us like a river. It feels as if we have won a golden trophy.
And now, all my outdoor life is done for the day. I’ve finished most of the HorseBack work and I am at my desk. There will be four hours of book and then it’s lights out. This new regime is demanding and relentless, but it’s worth it, for the holy satisfaction it brings.
And my darling Red, relaxed as an old hound, with the Remarkable Trainer up:
When people say thoroughbreds are difficult, and ex-racehorses are hard to handle, and mares are the work of the devil, I’d like to show them this picture.
PS. These are not the best pictures I ever took, because I was working under a blinding overhead sun, and I am not a good enough photographer to know how to compensate for the light. But I wanted you to get an idea of the kind of magic that happens at HorseBack and I think these shots give you some notion of it.