Friday, 29 November 2013

An ordinary day.

Last night, for no reason at all, I missed my father so much it felt as if someone had kicked me in the chest. The old gentleman is close by me every day, as I watch the racing and put on my idiotic accumulators, just as he taught me. Most of the time, I fold him into my heart and keep him there and think of him with smiles rather than tears. And then, out of a clear blue sky, came the sense of rupture and loss, all over again.

Today, I returned to cheerfulness and stoicism. It’s quite hard not to when you spend the morning with two men who have been blown up by improvised explosive devices and make jokes about it.

It was not a magical day. It was a muddling through day. The wind came in bitter and severe from the north, and a hard sleetish rain fell in squalls. My duchess was quite put out and gave in to uncharacteristic grumpiness. She was not the magical creature who lifts my heart to a higher plane today; she was a cross, muddy horse, wanting her hay. It was quite nice to be reminded that she has her moments of ordinariness. Otherwise she is very real danger of becoming too perfect, galloping into a mythical realm where puny mortals cannot follow.

I made a stew which was all right, but not delicious. I did some work which was perfectly fine, but not stellar. I had a couple of bets which went nowhere, although the lovely Wonderful Charm did do the business in the novice chase. I felt a bit cold and scratchy and hunched in the shoulders.

It was, in other words, an ordinary day. It was the very stuff of which human life is made. It can’t be all love and trees. Sometimes it is mud and weather. And that is quite perfectly fine.


Too dreich for the camera today, and Herself was far too ornery to put her photograph face on, so I remind myself of the moments of glory with this, taken by The Remarkable Trainer. That’s the happy face of my ex-racing, ex-polo mare, stretching out her dear neck, entirely at ease in her great thoroughbred body, in sunnier times. There are two things I do when I feel a bit gloomy. One is to watch re-runs of Kauto Star winning his fifth King George. One is to look at this glorious creature, and think how far we have come together. It’s not doing dressage or competing at Hickstead. It has required very little technical skill, only love and time. But that, right there, is all blue ribands to me.


Thursday, 28 November 2013

In brief.

An incredibly busy and productive day. I’m not sure I quite followed my own advice to go slowly, but then nobody’s perfect.

The sun shone, and it was balmy until the chill suddenly descended at three. I wrote and worked and sent things off. I met lovely people from Help for Heroes at HorseBack and watched the little filly foal kick up her heels as if she were practising for a rodeo and saw an ex-sprinter do a collected canter in a rope halter. I rode my own mare all the way down the lime avenue in a racing canter to see my mother.

What I mean by racing canter is not that we are going at great speed, but that I am standing in the saddle with my hands up her neck and letting her run. Since I have been teaching her slowness, my newest experiment is to see how fast she wants to go when I am not confining her in any way. To my intense delight, she does not pull or rush or zoom, but goes beautifully within herself, as contained and elegant as the most dowagery of dowager duchesses.

Her ears are pricked and she is having a ball, but she is in no hurry. So we breeze along, past the gnarly old trees, a flash of red joy.

We surprise a few walkers. I am so delirious I wave at them madly and bawl HELLO, which astonishes them even more. And then, after all that excitement, my good mare comes to a gentle halt at my mother’s door, and pricks her ears in greeting, and watches the happy smile that she inspires.

My mum is not very mobile these days. She cannot much come to Red, so I take Red to her. It is one of the most keenly touching things we do together.

The lovely Stepfather feeds her apples. We are quite strict about not feeding by hand, as it can make a horse pushy, but honourable exceptions are sometimes made, and this is one of them. Red is enchanted and polite, and I admire her manners. My mother is very hot on manners, both human and equine.

And then we canter away, on the springing Scottish grass, back to the quiet field.

I settle my beautiful girl, and return to the real world.

28 Nov 1-002

Oh, and the other piece of dancing joy in my busy day came early on the card at Newbury, where a delightfully honest and genuine and bonny horse called Top Dancer won his chase in glorious fashion. He had my money on his back, but it was not that which made me smile. It was the manner of his running. Some horses just have blatantly true hearts. You can see those hearts shining like beacons, even on the murkiest day. These are the horses which never deviate, but run straight and true, with willingness and enthusiasm, answering every question with a ringing Yes. They may not always be the most naturally brilliant or excessively talented, but they are a delight to watch because of their absolute, authentic goodness. Top Dancer is such a horse. He is only six, and he should go into all the notebooks.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Go slowly.

I learnt something today. A while ago, I read a line which said something like – the secret of doing things well and happily is to do them slowly.

I am not good at doing things slowly. I type fast, walk fast, talk fast. As I try to fit all the things into the day which must be fitted, I rush about, headless, heedless, with a constant sense that I am not achieving everything which must be achieved.

The sense of rush is like the tingling foam of a toothpaste. Toothpaste does not need to have that minty tingle; advertisers discovered, when the thing was first introduced to the general public, that people would not buy it unless they got the active sensation. It was a subliminal cue – the thing is working, it must be worth paying money for. In the same way, my irrational mind says that unless it has the hurry cue, I am not working hard enough, getting enough done, keeping up to the mark.

Today, I went slowly. I worked my horse slowly. I edited my book slowly, lingering over sentences. I completely forgot to speak slowly, but there is only so much muscle memory one can retrain in one day.

And I did get things done. I can’t tell yet whether it was more effective, or less, this new method, but I’m going to go on giving it a try.

One of the things I have taught Red the Mare is to take things slowly. She came from a working life of fastness – first in racing, then in polo. Even though I could not resist taking out that thoroughbred Ferrari for a whooshing canter every so often, I did a huge amount of walking, in the saddle and on the ground. Let’s just stretch and swing and mooch, I was telling her. It does not all have to be zoom, zoom.

It makes me laugh that I have turned her from a sports car to a stately old Bentley. If she were a motor, she would now be driving around Maggie Smith, not Jensen Button. She still has a socking great engine, but the emphasis on slowness means that I can roll her into a glorious low canter on a loose rein, and she has no sense of rush and dash. She moves serenely within herself, giving me a harmonious sensation that goes beyond words. She can take life gently, as it comes to her. As always, she teaches me a vital lesson, and as always, it takes me a little time to catch up. I instinctively applied slowness to her before I even thought of applying it to myself.

I am all speed. I am impatient, desirous, grasping even. Let us do this, this and this – now, this instant, ten minutes ago. Kick on, I tell myself, twenty times a day.

Now I think: go slowly. It is worth a try.


No camera today. A few pictures from the archive:

27 Nov 1

27 Nov 2

27 Nov 3

27 Nov 6

Although this one is not quite in focus, I rather love it, because I think it looks like a painting:

27 Nov 6-001

(I suddenly realise quite a lot of my pictures are not in focus. Just off, rather a lot of them. For some reason, this feels faintly symbolic. Or indicative, at least. I think that I am often not quite in focus. Little bit blurry round the edges.)

27 Nov 7

The Deeside Gliding Club, seen from HorseBack. Apparently it’s got the best thermals in Europe. Or something:

27 Nov 8

27 Nov 9

Oh, Mr Handsome. He certainly took his adorable pill this morning. Some days, he wakes up and is just so sweet I think he must be doing it for a bet:

27 Nov 10

Her ladyship, who got five gold stars for her work today. We worked on the ground, at liberty, and the swish swish swish of a half ton flight animal following my every step, with no need for a rope, made my heart sing in my chest:

27 Nov 12

As I finish this, I suddenly realise – I have written a whole blog which could be summed up by the hoariest old proverb. More haste, less speed. Ah well, sometimes the obvious has to be stated. I am human, after all, and the obvious is often the first thing I forget.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

No blog.

So sorry. Fighting off horrid bug and feeling doleful and rather pathetically sorry for myself. Shall butch up and be back to my usual stoicism tomorrow.

In the meantime, it was too gloomy a day to take pictures, but here are some from last week:

26 Nov 1

26 Nov 2

26 Nov 3

26 Nov 10

Herself was ravishingly, gloriously, shimmeringly sweet this morning. She does not care that I am pallid and grumpy. She gives no hoot for the badness of the bad hair day. As if sensing weakness, she was extra gentle and polite, wearing a touchingly knowing expression on her face, as if to say – yes, yes, I understand perfectly when my human must be treated with kid gloves. She is the epitome of elegance and grace.

Monday, 25 November 2013

In which, once again, I contemplate the small things.

It’s funny, coming back to the blog after a break. Come ON, yell the stern voices in my head; give them the Good Stuff.

I did have a whole thing for you about confirmation bias. In a rather twisted way, I love confirmation bias. I hate its effects, and I find it dismaying that it can turn perfectly intelligent people into idiots, but for sheer, ruthless efficiency, it is as reliable as a virus. You can set your watch by confirmation bias. And in some horrible fashion, I rather admire it for that, even as I am baffled by the humans who fall into its cunning elephant trap.

Ha. Should write something about paradox perhaps, instead.

But in fact, as I sit and think and tap tap tap my fingers over the keys, I come back, as I always do, to the small things. I’ll just tell you about the tiny increments of my life, even as the shouty voice is bawling oh, oh, they’ll find that really interesting, in its most sardonic and sneery tone.

It was minus six this morning, but the sun shone with such grace and conviction that it did not matter. Scotland looked as if someone had come along and cleaned it in the night; it had a vivid, lucid sparkle which made me smile like a loon. The red mare was equally happy. She adores the bright cold. Wind and rain make her grumpy, but she can take any amount of frost. She just fluffs up her dear teddy bear coat and her gentle face falls into an equine smile.

It was too icy and slippy to ride, and the ground was like marble, so I took her for an easy walk in hand, past the hills and the trees. It is one of the simplest pleasures in both our lives. She relaxes and puts her head down and swings along beside me, and I am conscious of this great, beautiful creature, as docile as a dog, in complete harmony with my puny human self. It is the consent of horses that always astonishes me. They have the power to flatten us mortals, and yet, most of the time, they choose not to. It is an act of elegance like no other.

Then I went to HorseBack for my morning work, and I ran up to the very top of the hill, where I could see out over two mountain ranges. Two mountain ranges; it is absurd, really. I have an excess of blue mountains. I feel the luck of it keenly. I’m a little banged up at the moment, tense and unsettled after losing the sweet little pony, still fretful about all the work I must do, fighting off a stupid bug which is trying to grab me in its crocodile jaws. But when I look at those hills, I feel, just for a moment, that anything is possible. I feel beauty running like a curative through my creaky old body.

Back at home, I concentrate on the very domestic and the very small. I make stew. It is a version of the old Irish stew my mother taught me as a child. Stew, like the hills, has the power to make everything better. It is a meditative affair – the careful chopping and dicing, and then the slow, slow cooking. You can’t rush a stew. Even the thought of it makes the shoulders come down.

I think, for some reason, of poor Jonathan Trott. When I get scratchy and glitchy and hopeless and pointless and feckless, I have a dangerous habit of comparing myself to the shiny people out in the world. These are the ones who have all the answers. They do life exceptionally well, as if they took a degree in it. Their houses are tidy and they know where all their vital documents are and they do not lose their wallet and then find it in the fridge.

I am in awe of the shiny people. Yet sometimes I think that perhaps their shininess only exists in my own mind. Everyone has their fears and their heartbreaks and the demons that come in the night. One of the most successful sportsmen in the world, who seemed until very recently impervious, has just admitted to his. The columnists will write columns about it, and the pundits will extrapolate until their ears fall off, and someone, somewhere, will say that lessons must be learnt. But really it is just a human being human.

I think: poor man. I feel an odd sort of gratitude towards him, as he reminds me that no amount of shininess can ever render the frail mortal immune. The slings and arrows do not discriminate; everyone gets bashed up by life, one way or another. And so I hold on to the small things – the sweetness of my mare, the beauty of the hills, the slow goodness of my stew.


Today’s pictures:

25 Nov 1

25 Nov 2

25 Nov 4

25 Nov 4-001

25 Nov 7

25 Nov 8

25 Nov 9

25 Nov 10

25 Nov 11

Thursday, 21 November 2013

A small wall, and a small break. And the cricket, of course.

I have hit a little bit of a wall. Not in a catastrophic way, just in an ‘oh, there’s a wall’ way. The body and mind are saying steady, steady, just as I say it to my red mare. So I’m going to slow down for a few days. There will be done only the work that must be done. There will be gentle time spent with my glorious girl; there will be the sweetness of Stanley the Dog, and the making of soups (yellow split pea today, with sage and olive oil), and the mighty treat which is listening to The Ashes on the good old BBC iPlayer.

There are people who loathe and despise the BBC, and write weekly about its manifest ghastlinesses, and wail of how blatantly wrong and unfair it is that Ordinary Decent Britons should be forced to pay the iniquitous licence fee. I think: no commercial broadcaster in the world would put eight hours of cricket, for five days in a row, on an internet device which can be accessed at any time. As I sat up last night to catch the first few overs, I watched my entire Twitter timeline explode with anticipation and joy and giddiness. It is THE ASHES. It is the Gabba. The wonderfully vocal Aussies are booing Broad. Who silences them by taking three wickets, before I finally give up and go to sleep.

The sheer level of exhilaration, jokes, and keen sporting knowledge lifts my heart. There is even a spoof account of towering genius, run by a tweeter called US Cricket Guy who refers to falling wickets as ‘decision timbers’, which makes me shout with laughter every time. And, as always, the thing of beauty which is Test Match Special makes the whole occasion.

People who love test cricket love it like nothing else. It is not just a game. It is an ethos, a symbol, an idiosyncrasy; it has history and culture stitched into it. It is also a thing of implausibility – how can a game which goes on for five days have you on the edge of your seat? Yet it does. And dear old Auntie brings it to us, in all its glory. That alone is worth the licence fee.

All of which is a rather long and winding way of saying that I’m going off the blog for a few days. I hate doing this. I have a bizarre sense of obligation. I must give the Dear Readers, so loyal and generous, something. It is also a wonderfully useful daily writing practice, good for my mind and my fingers. And I miss your lovely comments when I am away. I miss the small thrill I get every time my inbox pings, and there are the familiars, some of whom have been with me from the beginning, saying something kind about the sweetness of the red mare, or the handsomeness of Stanley the Dog, or making a wise observation on the human condition.

But still, a rest is due. Soup and cricket indulgence shall restore me to fighting strength. Next week another massive work push begins, and I must limber up.


In the meantime, I leave you with a few quick pictures:

21 Nov 1

21 Nov 2

21 Nov 3

21 Nov 4

21 Nov 10

21 Nov 11

21 Nov 12

The red mare was astonishing today. She still has moments of being anxious and unsettled. Her world has changed, with the lack of her old friend. But she responds to good, steady, calming work like a champion. (Work is the thing that soothes and quiets her. It is the old horseman’s adage of: change the subject.) This morning, she did free schooling, which I had never taught her before and which I rather extemporised, and which, of course, she got the hang of in about five minutes. Then there was some enchanting walking about together with no rope, our feet moving exactly in time. And then, when I rode her away from Autumn the Filly for the first time since Myfanwy left us, expecting fireworks or resistance or upset, she went as sweetly and kindly as she has ever gone. I was so exhilarated by this that when I saw an inviting green slope I sent her into a racing canter on a loose rein. There I was, standing in the stirrups, leaning up her neck, inviting her to go along as fast as she liked, and she kept to a lovely rolling breeze and dropped back to a gentle walk as soon as I told her to steady.

I know it is absurd to write these things. But they are milestones to me. They are the things that cynics say you damn well can’t do with a thoroughbred mare. You’re supposed to stuff Dutch gags in their mouths and truss them up with tack and bung them full of calmers, not ride them about in a bit of rope. Almost more than anything else, I love the fact that she tips over all the stereotypes with her elegantly duchessy hooves.

And I am so proud of her, that I want it to be marked. I want it to exist in language; I want there to be proof on the page. It is more for me than for you, I freely admit. I want to know that on the bad days, when the dark clouds gather and the prospect seems bleak, I may take down this book, and slowly read. And I can think: anything is possible.


PS. My eyes are squinting with tiredness, and I have not proofed this well. I know there shall be howlers. Forgive me.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013


Today, I am struggling with words. I never struggle with words. Words are the air I breathe and the water I swim in. They are my dear old familiars; they jog alongside me like faithful hounds. They are my people.

Some humans, apparently, see the world in pictures. I see it in sentences. Even when I am at my least cerebral and most instinctive, which is when I am working the red mare, I still distil what we are doing into paragraphs. If there is nobody there to here, I sometimes speak these out loud. (Luckily, Red loves the sound of my voice. She finds it soothing. Sometimes, it even sends her to sleep. I do not take this personally.)

But today, the words are like crazy sheep, and I’m the person on One Man and His Dog with the canine that goes rogue. No matter how much I yell ‘come by’, I cannot get the fuckers into the pen.

The wrangling is so hopeless that it has taken me two hours to write four simple paragraphs for a vital piece of work, and I’m still convinced they are no good. I’ve gone word blind. I stare at the things on the screen, and I have no way of telling if they are in the right order.

It is very disconcerting. It’s like suddenly forgetting how to ride. Or how to walk.

Too much emotion lately perhaps. Perhaps my bruised spirit is saying: stop. Perhaps the words will come back to me tomorrow, and I shall be able to see them again.

In the meantime, there is just the enduring reality of this dear face:

20 Nov 1

This morning, despite gales and rain, she worked so serenely and well that I wanted to give her flowers. She is going into a whole new dimension: the most gracious and duchessy of all the grand duchesses. If I were only very slightly more flaky than I actually am, I would go and look her up in Debrett’s.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Another farewell. With mighty hills.

Not very long ago, one of the fine old gentlemen died. He was of a great age, and had run his race, but all the same I felt a profound sadness. He was my father’s first cousin, and he was kind and clever and funny and generous, and I remember him well. He was a proper gentleman of the old school, filled with elegance and grace.

Today, it was his memorial service. I could not go south for it, but I wanted to mark his passing. So, as black-clad mourners filed into The Guards’ Chapel, I drove west, to Glen Muick, which is my own cathedral.

I often go there for the dead. I went there for my dad, and I went there for both my dogs. I went when another cousin, who died stupidly young in a freak accident, was laid to rest, and it was another five hundred mile journey I could not make. I thought of her too today. They were from different sides of the family – one from the rackety Irish side, one from the much more respectable English and Welsh side – yet they were quite alike. Both had flashing, infectious smiles; both drew you to them; both had a goodness which shone out of them, bathing you in its gleam.

It was one of the most beautiful Scottish days I ever saw. We woke to frost as thick as snow, and then the dazzling sun came out and gentled the cold land. The November light was thick as honey, taking on that magical amber aspect which always somehow astonishes. There was a profound stillness in the air, as if the very world had paused on its axis.

The blue mountains stood, beyond their silver loch, as strong and eternal as a vow.

I lift my eyes to them because they have been here for millions of years before I was ever dreamt of, and they shall be here for another million after I am forgotten. That is why they are my church.

I said my goodbyes. I remembered the tall, elegant gentleman, and all his manifest kindnesses. All the dear departeds had their roll call, right down to the sweet black canines, still missed, and the little white pony. There is an absurdity to remembering a small Welsh pony alongside a grand gentleman, and a rightness too. Love is love, as my sister wisely reminds me.

Stanley sniffed the air and turned his head down the valley. There were deer there, moving fast into the distance, their wild nobility lifting my heavy heart.

I shed tears and sang a bit. I like to sing for the departed, and there were only the old hills there to hear.

And then I drove home and got on my red mare, who is so alive that I can feel every dancing atom of her body speaking of the reality of the present moment and the hope of things to come. And we cantered round the field on a loose rein and she pricked her dear ears with delight and I exclaimed out loud.

Death and life, my darlings. And love and trees. And hills and memories. And the human heart, chipped and bashed, and put back together with binder twine and glue. And, as always, buggering buggering buggering on.


Today’s pictures:

19 Nov 1

19 Nov 2

19 Nov 3

19 Nov 5

19 Nov 7

19 Nov 8

19 Nov 9

19 Nov 10

19 Nov 11

19 Nov 14

19 Nov 15

Back at the field, trying to pretend I am just an old cowgirl:

19 Nov 20

I wish this next photograph had come out in focus, but I think you can see something of the exhilaration shining through the blur. The Remarkable Trainer and I have been working on quiet transitions for a while. Even though I ride in an English saddle and in the English style, I throw a little Western into the mix, so I just hold one hand forward, give a click and roll Red into a loping canter. She used to get excited about speed, which was for so long her job. The head would go up and it would all be zoom, zoom. Now she relaxes into it, and I relax into it, and the sweet stream of silent communication flows back and forth between us, across the species divide, and the joy of it goes beyond words. She has been my best professor in all things equine. As I came back to horses after so long away, I learnt so much that I needed to know from her. But she is my professor in life too, and today she reminded me that sorrow does not cancel out happiness. The two can exist alongside each other, jogging in tandem like old familiars. There really can be tears in one half hour, and wild smiles in the next.

19 Nov 20-001

And then, just for the hell of it, we did some stuff with no irons and no reins. The cleverness of this red mare sometimes leaves me breathless:

19 Nov 23

Also, it makes me laugh that she is so relaxed in this picture that she appears to be having a little doze.

And so, I finish what was in many ways a melancholy day on a happy note. Red’s gift, as always.

Monday, 18 November 2013

No blog today.

Too tired.

Just some trees.

And a face.

18 Nov 1

18 Nov 2

Someone I have never met said something very kind to me today, in one of those social networks at which the newspapers like to sneer.

It touched my heart and cheered me up. I suppose that ‘internet can be really nice’ will never make headline news. Much better to scare everyone with the trolls and stalkers and green ink loons and extreme porn. But there is an awful lot of kindness out there in the ether, if you know where to look, and I don’t take a single word of it for granted.

The sneerers say the whole thing is narcissism and showing off, as shallow as a puddle on a slick city pavement. But every time you bother to write a generous comment, or like a photograph someone has taken, with one of those little thumbs ups, or put a favourite star by a tweet, you are adding some tiny increment of goodness and generosity to somebody’s day. That somebody is quite likely a complete stranger to you. You are making that unmet human smile. You are giving the gift of encouragement, which has a price beyond rubies. You are sending out little arrows of love across the known world.

Think of that. It’s a bloody miracle.

No blog today.

Too tired.

Just some trees.

And a face.

18 Nov 1

18 Nov 2

Someone I have never met said something very kind to me today, in one of those social networks at which the newspapers like to sneer.

It touched my heart and cheered me up. I suppose that ‘internet can be really nice’ will never make headline news. Much better to scare everyone with the trolls and stalkers and green ink loons and extreme porn. But there is an awful lot of kindness out there in the ether, if you know where to look, and I don’t take a single word of it for granted.

The sneerers say the whole thing is narcissism and showing off, as shallow as a puddle on a slick city pavement. But every time you bother to write a generous comment, or like a photograph someone has taken, with one of those little thumbs ups, or put a favourite star by a tweet, you are adding some tiny increment of goodness and generosity to somebody’s day. That somebody is quite likely a complete stranger to you. You are making that unmet human smile. You are giving the gift of encouragement, which has a price beyond rubies. You are sending out little arrows of love across the known world.

Think of that. It’s a bloody miracle.


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