Friday, 31 May 2013

Oaks Day

It’s Oaks Day, so I am in a state of high excitement. There is a filly I absolutely love called Secret Gesture, and I am hoping that she will cruise round the testing corners and undulations of Epsom and soar to glory. She was wonderfully impressive last time out, but this is the fillies’ classic and she is up against the best of her generation and there is never any guarantee that a horse will handle this idiosyncratic track. Still, she is the girl for me, no question about it.

I raced through my work this morning. For once, my time management worked. (At this point you must imagine me falling off my chair.) I took the car to the garage, gave Red a pick of the new lush grass that is growing in the field beyond her paddock, discussed the racing with my mother, walked Stanley the Dog, took photographs of the sheep (very important), went up to HorseBack and did my daily work for them, wrote 979 new words of book.

Now I write this, and then THAT IS IT. I’m off for the afternoon. I shall be watching the fascinating racing at Epsom, with my heart pounding. That is my Friday plan.

So there are mostly photographs for you today. It was the most ravishing morning. Dear old Scotland put on her pomp for us, and the Horse Talker and I were so overcome by the weather that we met each other at the paddock dressed identically in white linen. So sensible when one is working with horses. But the sunshine must be saluted.

The sheep were particularly enchanting, as you shall see. I love them. Mr Stanley the Dog gets five gold stars because he has completely accepted that they are not for him, and rests quietly on his lead, not barking or straining or making alarming faces at them, so that they stay gently at rest as we watch them. It was a bit of a moment, really.

Today’s pictures:

A very lovely new horse has arrived at HorseBack. He is called Fantastic Mr Fox:

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Here he is, relaxing into his new home, with his owner, HorseBack’s Jess March. On the right is Scott Meenagh with his dear canine, Jura the Puppy, and the majestic Deeside hills in the background:

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Back at home, everything is green as green:

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The sheep are resting graciously in the shade:

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There are random leaves, because there must always be random leaves:

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Coos have come to stay with the sheep, and are settling down nicely:

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This fella was my absolute favourite. Stanley and I were standing very close to him, but he was not afeared. Note the watchful mother in the background:

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More coos:

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The blossom is really finally blossoming. We’ve waited a long time for it this year:

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A very grand lady indeed:

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Cow parsley:

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My favourite chap again:

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The old oak plantation:

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The oaks are always the last to come into leaf, but it still amazes me that it is almost June and they remain bare:

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View to the south-east:

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This was taken by the Remarkable Trainer yesterday. We were teaching Red to jump. She ran on the flat and did polo so we think she has probably never seen a jump before. From the way she did it, we are pretty sure she has not. First of all there was a mighty leap, even though the tree trunk was hardly more than four inches high; then a series of funny little hops. After each, she was so excited by her own cleverness that she threw her head in the air, went zoom zoom, and pranced about the field. The really lovely thing about her now is that it only took four or five strides to settle her again, despite the adrenaline running.

I love several things about this picture. I love her look of concentration and all the fine muscles on her strong body. I love that we can teach a thoroughbred mare to jump in a rope halter on a loose rein. And it makes me laugh that I look as if I think I am riding her in the Gold Cup, instead of going over a jump so small it is hardly visible to the naked eye. My mother looked at it and said: ‘That’s exactly how you used to look when you were riding Seamus.’ Seamus was my beloved working hunter pony when I was thirteen. It seems that even after thirty-three years, some things don’t change:

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And here we are in relaxed mood, going over our newest obstacle course. See how willingly and delicately she is doing it. I could not be more proud of her if I tried:

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And afterwards, quite pleased with herself:

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Look. Look. Mr Stanley the Dog DOES BLINKY EYES. I remember when The Pigeon used to do that. Slays me every time:

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Hill, blue and stately today:

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Thursday, 30 May 2013

The prize of patience; or, I feel very slightly bogus, but extremely happy and pleased.

Two of my lovely relations are staying, one grown-up, one small. The small relation has, to my great delight, decided that Stanley the Dog is a canine of immense quality and loveliness. She was asked to do a sample of her handwriting yesterday. She wrote, very neatly and well on a piece of white paper: ‘I like Stanley. I like Stanley. I like Stanley.’

This morning, along with The Mother and Stepfather, they came to see the Red the Mare. I gave them all a little demonstration of groundwork.

I always feel a bit bogus when I do this. The kind of horsemanship I practice is a variation on what is called natural horsemanship or intelligent horsemanship or empathic horsemanship, and I’m still pretty new at it. I grew up in the old school, and this is all quite novel to me.

I don’t follow one specific method, but have picked and mixed from the various books and videos I have found. The three men whose theories I like most are Monty Roberts, Warwick Schiller and Mark Rashid. All of these new schools share a pretty basic foundational idea: you should try to communicate politely with the equine in horse, rather than literally or metaphorically yelling at it in human.

There are two central tenets to which I cleave. One is, always ask the horse, rather than tell it. Every question is an invitation. I sometimes imagine I am in a quadrille, holding out my hand to my partner. When the mare is responding softly it does feel very like a dance. The other is: reward the try. Even the slightest move in the direction asked is rewarded with lavish love and scratches. I never wait for her to do something perfectly before congratulating her.

There are other, wider, more abstract notions. I base everything I do with her on gentleness, firmness, patience, consistency, clarity. If something goes wrong, my assumption is that it is my fault. I don’t use the word naughty to refer to a horse any more. I think: unclear human rather than mischievous horse.

When I say I feel a bit bogus showing people all this, it is because none of these ideas are mine. I’ve taken them and adapted them and learnt from Red what works and what does not. She is really my finest professor. But there I am, sounding like I am a gnarled old hand who came up with this stuff on the back of an envelope.

Still, I like the lovely relations to see it. I do feel proud of the mare, who has learnt so much so quickly, and who is so willing and clever and trusting. The other thing which is enchanting is that people really are quite amazed and impressed. She is a thoroughbred, after all, out of racing and polo, and the rumour is that there is nothing more impossible to work with. (The rumour is wrong, but it dies hard.)

Because I do this work with her every day, I sometimes take it a bit for granted that she walks kindly on a loose rope and stops when I stop and will back up when I nod at her shoulder. She will match her paces exactly to mine; if I walk faster she picks up, if I go at a snail’s crawl, she shuffles slowly alongside. When people watch it, I see afresh, through their eyes, what miracles she has achieved.

It’s very simple, in many ways. All the things I do with her are so basic a child of ten could master them. In other ways, it’s absolutely astonishing and profound, to get that level of trust and harmony with a flight animal.

And it’s not just spurious circus tricks. It means that when I get on her, there is no uncertainty or hesitation or fear. I can ride her in a rope halter with no irons and the bond is so forged in fire that there is only a singing feeling of delight between us. The days of the knee-jerk spook and - her speciality when spotting an unexpected pheasant - the vertical leap three feet in the air with sideways Spanish Riding School of Vienna passage, are long gone.

What it really means, when no one is watching, when I’m not showing off or getting a picture taken for posterity, is that everything we do together is a high pleasure. Everything is easy now. She is happy, I am happy. There is no tension or doubt. We know each other and love each other and understand each other.

Someone said: ‘Goodness, that must have taken a lot of patience.’ Yes, it did, I suppose. But it was more worth it than almost anything else I’ve ever done. It was the tiniest, tiniest price for the most glittering of glittering prizes.


Today’s pictures:

The garden, suddenly, almost overnight, is in flower. Which is very kind of it, since I have shamefully neglected the whole thing on account of too much work and too much horsing:

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Down in the paddock, in the very slightly crazed obstacle course we have set up, the Horse Talker gets going on Autumn the Filly:

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The obstacles are partly to build trust, partly to desensitise, so that when we strike out through the woods and over the hills, the girls will have encountered so many different strange things that not much will faze them:

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This item has BELLS on it. The Remarkable Trainer says she will have to go back to the drawing board to find something that will startle this mare:

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Over the tarp like it was nothing:

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Round the tyres:

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Meanwhile, Myfanwy is sleeping:

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Red the Mare, with me up:

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(Holding the reins up like that is because I’m trying to use them hardly at all, but steer with my body and my seat.)

No irons, no reins, maximum joy:

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And, my gracious duchess, shall we go this way? Yes, we shall:

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I like Stanley. I like Stanley. I like Stanley:

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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

About not very much

Today I was going to write about introversion. Then I was going to do expectations and disappointment and how to deal with the two. Then I thought I would have a bash at friendship. For a moment, I was tempted by a little disquisition on the prison system. I know you would have loved that.

In the end, after doing all my various work, writing 969 words of book, taking my HorseBack pictures, seeing to my own herd, making soup, and performing the necessary domestic tasks to keep my daily life on track, there was not one thing left in my poor brain.

There was one thing of which I was reminded today, which might be of use or interest. I sometimes run writing workshops, and one of the first things I say to my students is: give yourself permission to do a really crappy first draft.

There are so many things which I know in my head and forget to apply to actual life. It’s why I revisit subjects here, over and over, to remind myself. This is one of them. As I was wrangling with the first draft today, I realised I had forgotten my own brilliant rule. (I say brilliant not in flashy arrogance, because I did not invent that rule. Every good writer has said it, one way or another, but I got it directly from the wonderful Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird. Although I suspect she did not use the word ‘crappy’. That one is mine.)

Once I remembered the rule, I cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war. No longer would I have to sit hunched and frowning, agonising over each word. I could just type type type, letting the thing be as baggy and formless and inconsequential and messy as it need be. The art of writing is often the art of rewriting. I have the glorious second draft, when I can go back and bash it into shape. For now, I may just let it go, and that makes my job a great deal easier.

I suspect that quite a lot of writers are perfectionists. Perfection is the enemy of the good, and nowhere more than in the first draft. You get hobbled and cabined and confined; the words flow not in joyous torrents but in mean trickles. Giving myself permission to be absolutely rubbish is my own tiny gift of the day.


Hardly any pictures today. It was too wet and gloomy to take the camera out. Just a quick quartet of herd, blossom, Stan the Man with Stick, and Best Beloved:

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Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The very big world, and the smallest of small things.

Sometimes, I go out of the house in a hurry, and leave my iTunes playlist playing. At the moment, I am writing to a collection of wonderfully obvious classical favourites which I compiled: Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Bach.

I did it today. I came back just now after a lunchtime ride to find Clair de Lune filling the house.

Oddly, even though it was a ride of triumph, and the mare excelled herself, and we even went over our very first jump together, so that I fell on her neck and cried out with pride and happiness, I was thinking of Syria, on the way home. That was what I woke to this morning, as the Today programme brought the news, so dark that they had to issue a warning before they broadcast it. I wanted to turn away but I forced myself to listen.

Syria is intractable because it is a fight of irrational hatred, generational prejudice, old tribal rivalries. It is as if a craze for blood-letting long staunched has suddenly been turned loose. No well-meaning liberal intervention could have any effect, except to make the things worse. There is nothing so reassuring and simple as a black hat and a white hat. It is all bleak and black, and it will get blacker.

I was thinking about how one squares the circle of the big world and the small world. In my small world, small things are delightful and meaningful and important. The older I get, the smaller the important things become. The sight of a swallow, the farmer this morning going out to bottle-feed one of his lambs in the south pasture, the cry of the oyster catchers, the wild leap of excitement in my mare as she realised she had actually jumped a jump. These mean less than nothing in the face of the news on the radio, and yet, I feel more and more, they are what really matter.

I always think of the thoughts on the death bed, and what one will be pleased one did. Will the haters and the fighters really congratulate themselves, as they rattle their last breaths, on letting the other side have it? Will they think: thank God I razed that village to the ground? Or will they remember with gratitude the moments of love, the smiles on adored faces, the family successes, the small acts of kindness?

I get a little confused sometimes between the very big and the very small, because of all the paradoxes that dance between them. Sometimes, when faced with the immense, I think my own tiny life has no meaning at all. It is the old cry of the bleeding heart Left: how can you laugh when the world is so oppressed? And yet, I cling to all those small things, because they are the tiny, unsung bricks of which a good life is built. We can’t all save the world or influence foreign policy or invent things. But I suppose we all can plant a tree, and love well, and be kind. We can all listen to Chopin, and pause for a moment in a busy day, to contemplate unsullied beauty. That cannot be nothing.


Today’s pictures:

HorseBack UK morning:

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The girls, after all their hard work, waiting for tea:

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The wistful waiting for tea faces never fail to make me smile:

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And suddenly The Duchess remembers that she is, in fact, a thoroughbred, despite the fact she has just been jumping round a field in only a rope halter:

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Adorable little Myfanwy face:

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They are now politely resigned to the fact that I may be some time:

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My lovely, lovely, brilliant girl:

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And Stanley the Dog still has a bloody great stick, which is the main thing:

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The hill:

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