I’ve been doing a little Facebook experiment. It is called 100 Happy Days, and the idea is that every day you post something that makes you happy. It sounds very hello clouds, hello sky, but I think it is in fact quite an interesting psychological test.
I am capable of grumpiness and crankiness; I grow fretful over trifles; I am sometimes assailed by fears of the unknown future. I wrestle with mortality and the growing numbers of the Dear Departeds. (I am missing my dear old godfather a lot at the moment, and, as Cheltenham approaches, holding my late father very close to my heart.)
The lovely thing is that this idea makes me realise that even on the darkest day there is at least one happy thing, even if it is only a snowdrop or a pied wagtail or the soft eye of the red mare.
Today, there were not single spies of joy, but battalions.
The sun shone, for a starter. It really shone, with conviction and promise. The birds were singing, the woodpeckers were hammering away in the woods, the new grass was growing, to the mare’s delight.
In the morning, I found my one happy thing. It was a dilly. One of the great old cowboys, I can’t remember whether it was Tom Dorrance or Ray Hunt, said that the thing you are always looking for with your horse is that place deep inside where everything is possible, where there is only willingness. This is quite a profound thought, and sometimes feels almost metaphysical to me. It is nothing to do with technique and everything to do with heart and feel.
I thought about it with the mare this morning. I was doing some circles with her. She tends to lean in and drop her shoulder and sometimes a simple circle can be hard work. Today, though, something blossomed and spread. She started going easily within herself, in the most ravishing, smooth, floating sitting trot, describing a perfect line, so light that I was riding her with one finger. ‘There’s that place,’ I thought. I felt it in myself, deep in my gut. I felt my place of willingness and her place of willingness speak to each other, so that we found a harmony that was like flying. Hold on, I thought: THERE IT IS. There it is.
It was a feeling like no other. It transcended the actual and the physical and soared up into a realm of its own.
I was so ecstatic that I raced her out of the circle into a straight canter, as if we ourselves were roaring up the Cheltenham hill. I whooped out loud. ‘Woo, woo,’ I shouted. ‘You absolutely brilliant girl.’
You should not really be letting a thoroughbred canter about on a loose rein whilst whooping in their ear. The red mare kept her composure. She put on her sprinting shoes for a moment, and then came back under me, and gentled to a steady halt. She lifted her pretty face to the sky, and blew through her nostrils. I must not get fanciful, but I think she was as happy as I was.
That moment would have been enough. But then I went up to HorseBack for the first course of the year. The place was transformed. All the horses were in, the sun was still going like gangbusters, a wonderful group of Personnel Recovery Officers were gathered, Brook the ex-sprinter was doing a hoof-perfect demonstration, and, best of all, some of the regular veterans were back for a three-week stint.
My admiration for the veterans knows no bounds. It’s not just that they have done sterling service in places and situations I cannot even imagine, or that they face startling mental and physical challenges with stoicism and good humour, it is that they are so funny and generous, and very nice to me. I’ve got over my initial shyness, that sense of distance between the experience of a civilian and the experience of those who have served. They mob me up now, and make me shout with laughter. They think I am a bit crackers, as one of them said today, I suspect because of my ridiculous passion for horses, and my betting habit, and my Cheltenham obsession, and my tendency to open my mouth and let streams of nonsense issue forth. I take this as a big compliment. Coming from fighting men, crackers is good.
It was so lovely to see real work starting again, and all the people gathered, new faces and familiar faces, and the dear equines getting ready to do their important jobs. It reminded me of what all the effort is for, and made the hard, long winter worth it.
And then, as if all that were not enough, I backed two winners at Stratford, so that my Cheltenham bank is bulging.
I’m trying to resist the urge to put it all on Hurricane Fly. I love that horse like a brother. He is not a soft, kind horse like my mare. He is tough as teak, a dauntless warrior, a fighter and a biter. I’ve seen him almost shoulder other horses out of the way, with a bugger off look out of the corner of his canny old eye, and a surge of power that says: Champion coming through. I love him for his raw talent, his splendid athleticism, his refusal to give up. He has a wildness in him, as if he can still hear his ancestral voices, an elemental aspect, that sets him apart.
I reminded myself today that Cheltenham is not about the punting or the winning or the cash or the cleverness of picking out that one banker of the meeting. It’s about these mighty thoroughbreds I love so much. It’s about their beauty and their grace, their courage and their willingness and their power, their dancing stride and their mighty leaps. I cannot count the ways in which they make my heart sing.
I’ll have a little bet on the Fly, for loyalty, for love, for the memory of old times, but if he can reverse all the stats and see off the young shavers as he storms up the hill, it will be a sight worth more than emeralds. Even typing his name makes me smile.
So, it turned out that this was a day of manifold happinesses. I do not take that for granted for a single solitary minute.
Just time for a couple of pictures, as it’s late now, and I’m tired, and I’m going to have a glass of wine and watch a replay of Quevega picking herself up off her nose at the top of the hill and surging to festival glory last year. That little battling mare makes me cry.
View from HorseBack:
The dear HorseBack horses:
My astonishing mare, taken a few days ago. A lot of happiness in that picture:
This is very naughty, because I respect copyright, but I had to show you this ravishing picture of Hurricane Fly, safely arrived at Cheltenham, blowing away the cobwebs from his journey across the sea. I hope that the very talented Alan Crowhurst will forgive me, just this once: