Sunday, 16 March 2014

A very long horse story. And a bit of a life lesson.

I write about the red mare a lot because I love her. I write about her because she gives me a daily parable. I write about her because horses fascinate me, and humans fascinate me, and horses and humans together fascinate me.

There is such a history between the two species. Although they see the world in radically different ways, there must be a coloured area in the middle of the Venn diagram, some meeting of senses or souls, or the two would not have stayed together for so long. Equines are, even now, stitched into the cultural consciousness. Only three or four generations ago, horses were a daily sight, even in cities. The shires pulling the drays from the breweries, the hansom cabs, the doctor in his trap, the milkman on his rounds; all were quotidian familiars. Even now, in the hedge-fund playground that Westbourne Grove has become (how I miss the junk shops with their dusty windows) you can see the beautiful stone water trough put up for the passing horses to slake their thirst.

I know that some people are bored witless by the horse stuff, and I used to be mortified by that. But now I think: it really does not matter. There are so many other places for those people to go. Besides, a lot of the horse stuff is not about horses at all. It reminds me of Mark Kermode, insisting, with the antic dogmatism I love so much, that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was not about spying.

I don’t usually do a blog on a Sunday, so I feel I can really indulge myself. What happened this morning was so instructive and interesting that I must write it down. (Write it down, write it down, shout the voices in my head.) If someone should stumble upon it, as they think about getting lunch ready or come in from walking the dog, so be it. But this one is, ruthlessly, unapologetically, for me.

I woke thinking about death. It was galvanic thinking, not melancholic. I looked at the singing blue sky and wondered what I should do if this day were my last. Get to that red mare, I thought. It was a quiet Sunday; I had nothing to do and no human to see. I would spend all morning playing with my pony.

The wind was up and it was mild, and Red was quite twinkly and snorty. I let her out into the set-aside and she cantered about a bit with her tail up. I decided some serious groundwork was the answer, before I rode.

She didn’t especially want to do work. She wanted to eat the spring grass. The little Paint was eating, why could she not? As I sent her round in loping circles, a gust of wind came and she let out the most tremendous buck. She is not a bucker or a kicker. Her form of resistance comes usually from the front – she will leap and throw her head in the air and put in a rear, although she does not do this very often these days, on account of all the strict training. But if she wants to assert her will against mine, that is how it happens. This was quite unlike her, a serious rodeo bronc, and as she did it, she twisted her body in the air and let fly with her hind legs.

Her off hind hoof was about two feet away from my head.

It gave me a serious fright. Fear makes humans cross, and I was absolutely furious, with her, with myself, with the situation. Don’t get cross with a horse, said the stern voice in my head; never, ever take it out on the equine. She wasn’t directing anything at me, she was just being herself, with the wind in her tail.

I channelled the fury. I made her work and work. I sent her in fast circles, I made her change direction, I stopped her and started her.

She looked absolutely amazed.

I suddenly realised the mistake I make with this horse. It is that I am, deep down, slightly apologetic. I love her so much and am so grateful when she does lovely things that it is almost as if I am saying: so sorry that I am asking you to do anything. She is so relaxed and blissed out when she is roaming and grazing that it seems a pity to make her do human things, even though I am proud of the work I do with her and I know that most horses like a job.

Because of the fright and the rage, I was working her without apology. I was absolutely focused on getting her to do the things I asked. I was not rough or hard, but I was without doubt.

The result was astonishing. She was instantly responsive, concentrating entirely on me, with no resistance in her.

It made me think about leadership. The thing I search for every day is softness, and feel. I like to work gently and slowly, reading the mare all the time. Leadership has nothing to do with dominance; it is not about imposing the human will. It is about saying: I can give you good, secure direction. I am making the decisions, and you can trust those decisions. As long as I am in charge, the mountain lions will not get you. Softness and gentleness must be there, but they must not get muddled up with lack of conviction. Horses adore conviction. It makes them feel safe.

When I finally got on, it was as if I had a different horse underneath me. There was no hesitation in her, and no question either. She did as I asked almost before I thought it. I was doing nothing technically different, it was just that my mind had changed. She was relaxed but alert, full of energy but with no thought of buggering off. She went on a true line and gave me instant transitions. Even though she can do a canter as light as air, she can still get a bit excited when we step up the pace, the memory of her racing and polo days living in her. Today, she did a perfect, collected canter in circle after circle, describing glorious wide arcs in the open Scottish field.

The little Paint was grazing in the set-aside, and we played with her for a bit, rounding her up as if we were out on the range. Red changed direction with just a slight movement from my body or a turn of my head. We were a pair of crazy cowgirls, with Green Grass of Wyoming of our very own. I laughed and laughed and laughed, from sheer delight.

Then we did some jumping. I started teaching her to jump last summer. It turns out she has a mighty leap, even though she was bred for the flat. But over the winter, with the treacherous ground, we’d put it on hold. I have not jumped her for perhaps four months.

It was a bit rash, to give it a go all on my own, with no one there to pick up the pieces. But by this stage I was in a whole other zone. This mare and I could do anything.

It took her a couple of muddly attempts to find her stride. And then, on the third one, there it was – neat, flowing, easy. It felt like the most natural thing in the world. The fence I had made out of silver birches was about fourteen inches high, tragically small. But to me, it was as if we had just leapt a double oxer at Hickstead.

And then I walked her back and cooled her down and took her halter off and spent half an hour brushing her and trimming her mane. She was loose. She could have walked away. But she dropped her head and went into a happy doze, and blinked her eyes as I tended to her. We walked together back to the paddock, no rope between us, just companionship. She did her Minnie the Moocher walk, and I chatted to her and told her how clever she was.

I felt the usual gratitude, but it was of a different kidney. It did not have that tinge of apologetic astonishment. It is astonishing, everything that horses will do for humans. And it does deserve gratitude. But what we did today was an equal partnership. It came from my conviction as much as her willing heart. And all because she gave me a fright. My bronco girl finally pulled out of me the right stuff. Perhaps it was what she had been waiting for all along.


Coming up for breakfast:

16 March 1

This is her wind-in-the-tail racehorse face:

16 March 3

I have a theory about thoroughbreds, that they are aerial creatures, creatures of the sky. Cantering at liberty, Red holds her head high:

16 March 5

(You can see the tyres and silver birch trunks in the background, getting ready to be made into our tiny jump.)


16 March 6

Oh, how duchessy the duchess is:

16 March 6-001

The little Paint was rather magnificent today too. We did a join-up out in the open spaces, which was very, very clever of her indeed, and made me smile in amazement:

16 March 9

Stanley the Dog, leading his girls in:

16 March 10

I know there is a life lesson in all this, but I’m not quite sure what it is. Something about living each day to the full, and not giving up, and being bold, and never fearing to admit that one has been wrong, and striving to improve, and always learning, and keeping the human mind as open as the wide Scottish sky.

Something like that.


  1. This post was like a perfect meal. Tasty, satisfying, making you feel healthy afterwards and not even slightly bloated.

  2. I'm glad you wrote it down. It's made me think … how you responded to Red with honesty and clarity is often missing from our relationships with people. I agree with Marcheline - a perfect meal!
    And beautiful pictures.

  3. Thank you for this! It has made me ready to stop feeling sorry for my mare, and to take a leadership role, too. Your stories prove to be the inspiration I need to keep moving forward.

  4. I loved this post. I'm trying to be more assertive with my new gelding. I know I'm too soft with him - apologetic as you say. Lovely photos.


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