Friday, 30 May 2014


Author’s note: I’m sorry to say this is not the most sparkling piece of prose I have ever written. I’m rather over-tired after a packed week, and even iron tonic cannot galvanise my brain. But I wanted you to have something, so I let it stand.


A long and busy week, but one filled with sweetness. A very old friend came to stay, and I remembered the keen sweetness of those long friendships which go back all the way. We first met almost thirty years ago at university. He was in the college next to mine and also read history and we made jokes about Lord Macaulay which we still remember with gusting laughter. I love that with someone like that you can pick up exactly where you left off, and nothing needs to be explained, and all is ease and understanding and comradeship.

The World Traveller and the Landlord came for cocktails, and we wickedly drank martinis on a school night, and all was merry as a marriage bell.

I took the old friend to see the Mother and Stepfather for breakfast. ‘Goodness,’ my mother said this morning. ‘So handsome and charming and easy.’ A palpable hit.

In the midst of all this sweetness, the red mare suddenly went hopping lame. She was picking up her hock so high it looked as if she had stringhalt. I went into a tendon panic, and got on the blower, and two vets arrived, shining with seriousness and expertise.

It turned out the lovely girl had developed an abscess. A great deal of paring and digging went on. I was so riveted by the process of cutting a hole in the hoof so the infection could escape that I went to stand by Red’s hindquarters to watch. The vets suddenly stopped what they were doing, astonishment spreading over their faces. ‘Look,’ said one to the other, pointing. ‘She is standing perfectly still and nobody is holding her.’ I felt as proud of the good mare as if she had won the Oaks.

Ground-tying is one of the things I had consciously taught her, but there is also a fascinating thing that she does when she is in need. She seems to know when I am trying to help her. Whether I am rushing down to fling on a rug in a sudden hailstorm, or putting wound cream on a cut, or applying fly repellent, I find her at her stillest and most accepting. I’m not sure I shall ever quite understand what horses know and what they do now, but I do believe that when something is wrong she senses I am there to make her better. It is an inexpressibly touching thing.

This morning, as I went down to put on a new poultice, she walked up almost completely sound. The abscess had drained, and the soreness had gone. You miracle girl, I thought, you heal as well as you do everything else. Is there nothing you cannot do? She even cleverly goes and puts herself in the shelter, instituting box rest of her own.

As there was no work to be done, we hung out. I always think this is one of the most important things you can do with your horse, although sometimes I get so carried away with riding and schooling that I forget it. It is part of my Zennish notion: sometimes, instead of doing, you can just be.

I took her out for a pick in the lush green grass of the set-aside. I groomed her all over and anointed her with balm to keep off the horrid flies. I chatted to her. She looked at me gravely and gave me her head so I could scratch her sweet spots. There was a spreading delight in doing absolutely nothing, under the bright Scottish sun.

How glorious she is, and how lucky I am. When I think of the whimsical sliver of chance that brought her into my life, I catch my breath. (I had not planned to buy a horse after thirty years of not having one; she was sold to go and play polo in China, only the man with the lorry never turned up.) I can’t imagine my days without her glimmering, benign, beautiful presence.


Today’s pictures:

Happy again, no longer in pain, having her morning pick:

30 May 1

The sweet Paint was also very calm and happy:

30 May 2

BLINKY EYES!!! They get me every time:

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30 May 4

The beech hedge has finally gone green:

30 May 6

The old friend brought flowers:

30 May 7

And I arranged some myself:

30 May 8

Sage from the garden:

30 May 9

Stanley the Manly was sadly unavailable for his close-up. He is hunting mice.



Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Not a blog. Just a little hymn of thanks.

Too busy to blog today. So much work, so few hours. But there is always time to go down to the field and get on the sweet mare. Even a half hour on her dear back acts as a lightning conductor for sanity. We did some thrilling high-energy free-schooling this morning. Whoop, whoop, I cried, as I cantered along with her, running over the green turf with the abandon of a child. Let it rip, I called, and she did, stretching out her strong body, as elemental as her wild ancestors. She was all freedom and power, and yet so responsive and clever that she came to a dead halt from a fast pace the second I stopped moving.

This never ceases to astonish me. It is perhaps the thing about working with thoroughbreds that is the most moving. They hold all the untrammelled wildness of their ancient ancestors, yet their minds are so brilliant that you can teach them to observe the most subtle human invitation. It’s a fascinating conflation of the entirely instinctive and the absolutely artificial. Human commands must be so odd to a horse, and yet they kindly obey them. I come back, time after time, to that willingness, that offering, and it never fails to lift my heart.

However tense and fretful I am, however stretched, however slightly panicked by all the things I must do, there is always the magical time, each day, with this good horse, as she does things I can hardly believe. She makes me laugh and she makes me proud and she makes me feel worth it. She raises me above the mundane, the quotidian, and takes me into a realm of her own, where none of the stupid small things matter. That is her extraordinary gift.

I never, ever take it for granted.

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This is not the most beautifully composed picture I ever took, but I wanted to include it because it shows how dozy and relaxed she is after riding, and after that fast free-school. Common wisdom says a thoroughbred should be all hopped up on adrenaline by all that, and yet she stood dreamily for ten whole minutes whilst I trotted about, taking pictures of her. Low head, easy neck, donkey ears, soft eye, wibbly lip. My happy girl:

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Monday, 26 May 2014

A day.

Breakfast discussing the European elections. Horses. Forty pages of editing. Happy bank holiday bets. The genius of McCoy, the prettiness of Cartmel. My treble comes in. People on the internet are funny and kind. Some are people I know, and some are people I do not know. They all make me smile. Stan the Man looks handsome. Gentle evening ride. The red mare has a go at spirited, but I persuade her that dozy old donkey is much better look, so she settles for that. Sunshine and oystercatchers and demure pigeons.

Just before I finish, I have a small shaft of inspiration. Now I know what I shall cut tomorrow. I am ruthless.

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Friday, 23 May 2014

Stanley the Dog.

The red mare, with her duchessy sense of entitlement, does tend to colonise this blog. She gave me a ride this morning of such grace and ease and joy that I almost wept with delight. She was so relaxed that I let the rope rest on her dear neck and steered her with my body. An ex-racing thoroughbred, out in the wide open Scottish spaces, with no reins. A lady with a dog did look rather startled. Red gave her a yeah, well, whatever look.

Then we did a bit of a whooping sprint, just for fun. She really is quite fast. Feel the power, baby.

But she is not the only creature of my heart, and I thought that I’d do a little Stan the Man photo shoot, and give my lovely boy his moment in the sun. He did seem to rather enjoy the posing. He starts off with a rather contemplative look, as if he is pondering the Universal Why, then moves on to pure nobility, throws in a bit of quizzical, and ends on a laugh. He should be a supermodel.

It’s been a long week and I should continue flat out until supper, but I’m shattered, and I’m going to finish work now and watch the racing.

As I thrill to the speed and courage and beauty of the mighty thoroughbreds on Goodwood’s green turf, I shall be thinking of quite another horse, and quite another rider. I spent this morning at HorseBack with a very remarkable Marine. He is one of the most inspirational men I have ever met. He’s incredibly funny, incredibly kind, and he has no legs. And today, he started learning to ride. It was absolutely bloody brilliant.

I got very excited and took many pictures, and I’m putting up a link to them here:

And here is Mr Stanley, in all his glory:

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The mighty Marine:

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And here is something we have not had for a while – the beautiful blue hill:

23 May 22

Thursday, 22 May 2014

The kindness of strangers.

I was going to write a lovely, wandering blog for you about love, and the true meaning of the word amateur. I wrote it in my head as I was riding my red mare this morning. But it was a HorseBack day, and that ate up the hours, and I have absurd amounts of work still to do, and miles to go before I sleep.

So there is hardly time for words.

My glorious girl was at the height of her magnificence today. We had one of those rides that live in the memory. A beautiful, athletic walk, some dandelion dressage, a delightful collected canter, and then I let her go and she put her sprinting shoes on and I felt her power. For a moment, I thought I’d given her too much rope, and we would end up in Coull. But even as she hit full stretch, the moment I said ‘walk’, she walked. Oh, the cleverness of her. I was so proud I practically fainted.

She also made me laugh helplessly. After yesterday’s old person Rocky Horror Show, she has clearly done some hard thinking. As we wandered down the lime avenue, all dozy and in harmony and on the buckle, I spotted a horde of ramblers. Ramblers!!! With their mysterious poles and their ordnance survey maps and their hidden agenda. (I am convinced there is something the ramblers are not telling.) They were also, shall we say, of a certain age. Not quite old enough to have been in the SOE, like the ones yesterday, but not in the first flaming flush of youth. What would the red mare do with her new terror of the oldsters?

Answer: give them a courteous, faintly dismissive nod of her duchessy head, and walk past without so much as a blink.

This makes her three act opera of yesterday even more mysterious. Perhaps it is part of her mission to keep me from falling into complacency. Perhaps I got it quite wrong, and she was not alarmed at all, but merely acting out the vicissitudes of modern life through the medium of interpretive dance.

Anyway, since I have no time for words, I’m going to hand over to a Dear Reader. The comments that come here make me smile, astonish me with their generosity, and often cause me to laugh out loud. I love them all. Sometimes I get one that flies through the ether like an arrow to my bashed old heart. I get one that makes me feel keenly the kindness of strangers, and makes me realise that all this wandering about on equine tangents does actually have a point. As you know, I often wonder what the point of this whole shooting match is, and why I do it. I have no good answers to those questions. But sometimes, the Dear Readers reassure me that perhaps there is a point.

Yesterday, I got this:

‘Five in the morning here and I am belly laughing so hard one of my baby cats came running to see if I was having a seizure. These wonderful, magical creatures provide the best therapy. I mean the horses, not the baby cats. My trainer and I have worked mostly on desensitising, too, this past year - the mare needed the kitchen sink kind of stuff and I had to learn how to overcome my fear of horses in general and this thoroughbred in particular. We are at a nice place now; I trust her enough to get on her back and she has learned that I will not spook so bad so as to cause her a heart attack! In fact last week, she even decided I was ready to try to hang on while she jumped an exercise pole. Smart mare! I did not leave the saddle. So we are making progress. Plus, those feel- good hormones all the baby books promised would flood my system when presented with my newborn which never materialised, are now making an appearance every time I show up at the barn and she runs toward me. This mare could be the greatest love of my life. She has taught this 47 year old woman with an acute fight or flight response to chill the shizz out, as the kids would say. Heading into open heart surgery in the next week or so to fix a congenital heart condition so my riding will have to be put on hold for a couple of months, but sure would appreciate the link to the decent forum of which you speak. I have noticed during my short time as a horse owner that there are a lot of crazies out there and figure I actually don't need to add to my own particular brand. Thank you, Tania. I found your blog last September and you have been my inspiration in all things equine.’

There are several things I love about this, not least the baby cats. I love that someone else of my exact age, many miles away, is going through the same sort of journey. I love that the story is so sweetly shared. I love that across an ocean, someone else, of whom I would have known nothing if it were not for the miracle of the internet, also has a mare who is the love of her life. I love that suddenly, almost shockingly, there is the shining note of stoicism, as open-heart surgery is glossed over as if it is nothing more than going to the shops.

Thank you Elyse. You made my day.

I assume you are across an ocean, because you use the word barn, and smart to mean clever. I’d love to know more about you and your mare and where you both live, and I hope your operation goes well and you are back in the saddle soon.

And while I’m on the subject: thank you all, Dear Readers, for coming back, for being kind, and for so graciously putting up with all my nonsense.


Today’s pictures:

After our perfect ride, quite pleased with herself:

22 May 1

Waiting politely outside the shed, as I made breakfast. Raincoat on, as the mercury has plunged to a paltry eight degrees and it is going to rain all day and all night:

22 May 2

Having a little doze, as I appear to be taking my time:

22 May 3

Is it ready yet?:

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Please say it’s ready:

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The sweet Paint:

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In other news, the lilac is out:

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And finally, one of my HorseBack pictures. I was quite pleased with them today:

22 May H2

PS. Back with the PEN today. The smart loaned Nikon is smart, and the quality of pictures is probably better and sharper. But the dear, battered old PEN does do something magical with colours, and I’m quite tempted to stay loyal to it.

PPS. Whilst I am on the subject of pictures: Blogger has started doing something peculiar with my photographs. It seems to do a sort of auto-enhance as it publishes, like Google Plus does. I hate this, as I edit my pictures very carefully, and get the exact right mix of light and shade. Also, the enhanced pictures sometimes end up having far too much grain in them, which drives me nuts. I can’t find a relevant settings button, and wondered if there were any fellow bloggers out there who know about this oddity.

Ha. Turns out there were quite a lot of words, after all. Same old, same old.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A very shaggy horse story.

You know when the telegrams have to be sent to the Smugpot address? Yesterday was in danger of being one of those days.

I’d worked out some knotty writing conundrums, done some good HorseBack work, snapped some photographs I was quite proud of, and taken my mare out for a rather dreamy ride. There was hardly any head-shaking and a lot of long, swinging, athletic walking on a lovely loose rein. She then stood perfectly for fifteen minutes when I went down to talk to my mother. Finally, to put the smug cherry on the smug cake, she did not blink as a socking great dustbin lorry shuddered and groaned past her.

There is a very lovely thoroughbred forum to which I belong. It is one of the very few horse places on the internet where people do not shout at each other about rugging decisions. Or about anything, in fact. It is mostly a festival of love, for the ex-racing horses who give so much joy. It is a celebration of others’ triumphs, as someone takes their mare across country for the first time, or sends their kind gelding through an immaculate dressage test. At the same time, it is rather a brave place, as people admit to sudden catastrophic loss of nerve, or riding disasters, or an inability to strike off on the right lead. Then everyone gathers round, with sage advice and generosity of heart. Don’t worry, they all say (I often say) it’s happened to us too; you will get through it.

The smugpot came because of the pincer action of the dustbin lorry, in life, and some lines on the road, on the internet.

One of the thoroughbred forum ladies had posted a very comical picture of her mare, unmounted, looking absolutely horrified. The horror had come because the council had, overnight, painted bright red lines on the road. The mare said: MOUNTAIN LIONS AHEAD. The lady had to get off and lead her shaking girl past. Everyone thought it hysterical, and posted their own road line stories, which were legion. There were the usual jokes about a horse deciding that one daisy was the most frightening thing in the world. (I do find these equine jokes very funny.) I remembered the days when the red mare used to reverse, downhill, at top speed, because she had spotted a shaft of sunlight glinting on water.

But the idiot hubris came because I thought: we don’t do that any more. We can ride past honking dustbin lorries without flicking an ear. It’s because of all the desensitising. Last summer, the Remarkable Trainer, the Horse Talker and I set up a perfect carnival of terrifying objects, from flags to pilates balls to hula hoops to shower curtains to those silvery capes that marathon runners drape themselves in after a race. We threw everything but the kitchen sink at the red mare, and she learnt that mountain lions were not, in fact, hiding behind every tree. The idea of desensitising is not to teach horses never to be frightened, but to teach them that fear does not kill them. In this way, they grow in confidence and sense of self, and the spooking becomes a thing of the past.

Yes, I thought, bullishly, my brave girl can deal with anything now. We still have our rank failures, but leaping four feet in the air at the sight of a whirring pheasant is no longer on the list of shame.

Then, this morning, just as we were doing some dandelion dressage, changing direction with steering so accurate and light that I thought she had been hanging out with the dressage squirrels again, she found something that still terrified her out of her duchessy wits.

It was – old people.

The old people were quite a long way away. They were really very old. I could imagine them in the war. She would have been at Bletchley, and he was surely on some hush-hush military liaison job in the back streets of Cairo. They were smartly dressed, with none of the garish lycra of which the duchess disapproves. They seemed entirely innocuous.

But it turned out that they were more scary than Scary McScary of the Clan Fear.

Up went the red head, the neck braced. She did her thing of growing a hand under me. Her ears were hard forward, locked in on the petrifying geriatrics. The snorting could be heard three counties away. All her good concentration fled, as she focused in profound alarm on the threat.

‘They are just old people,’ I said, out loud.

Oh, no, she said. Are you mad? They are clearly part of a plot, undercover operatives for Al Quaida or Horse and Hound. They may not be people at all. They may have been kidnapped by space aliens and replaced by pods.

I turned her in a few circles, to get her mind back on the job.

BUT THE OLD PEOPLE, she shouted.

Let’s do a nice figure of eight, I said. Let’s do some lateral flexion.

Flexion, schmexion, she yelled.

I had almost persuaded her that in fact we were not about to be invaded by ancients bent on destruction, when the old people, who were clearly very cunning, did an abrupt turn and changed direction.

OH MY GOD, hollered the red mare.

By this time I was laughing so much that I practically fell off.

It took me about five minutes to settle her, and then she abruptly forgot the whole thing and walked kindly back on the buckle. I like to think I’m getting pretty good at the whole horse psychology lark, but I still have absolutely no idea what all that was about. If I did not know better, I’d say that she had been up all night reading the internet and had decided to have a little joke with me.

Still, what she did do, which she always does, is send the smugs running for the border. And she made me laugh and laugh. You can’t ask for much more than that.


Today’s pictures:

Are not in fact from today, as I forgot to put the memory card in.

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