I’m still not officially here. I’ve come back from my trip away and am scrambling to catch up with work and get organised. I was not really going to do the blog for a few more days, but this was a story I wanted to tell. Usual warning: it does involve horses.
I was standing in the field this morning, talking to The Brother-in-Law. We were gazing at the blue and green wooded hills. I was waxing, as I often do. (I sometimes think he secretly wishes I would wane.) I said that I felt so lucky, surrounded by so much beauty, that occasionally when I put pictures of it on the blog it almost felt vulgar, as if I were boasting. Look at me, with all my damn trees.
He looked thoughtful. He said: ‘You know, even here, even with all this, one can have bad days. I hope you tell them about those.’
I should coco, I thought. I said, out loud, ruefully: ‘Yes, I do.’
But not today, I thought. Today, I would be able to tell the Dear Readers a story of magnificence, because I was back with the red mare, and the swifts had arrived, and there was spring and life in the very air. I would get on, and be brilliant, because I’d been riding all those top polo ponies in the south, and I was in the zone. I was on fire.
I had a lot of catching up to do, a lot of work, many things to attend to, but before all that I would make time for one glorious ride on my beloved red girl. It would be one of those stories where it was all joy.
(It is at this point I must admit that I was verging on the smug. In fact, I was as smug as Smuggley Smuggerson from Smugton in the Vale. Telegraph address: Smugpot.)
It started off perfectly. A fine free-school, some gentle affection, the bond tight and profound. I got on. Lovely, lovely. Out into the dandelion meadow we went. Lovely long lines. Light as a feather. I walked back on a loose rein, watching the mare stretch out her dear neck, and then decided, for some reason, to do a bit of schooling. Today was going to be all about softness, but then I thought I’d do some more technical work.
And that was when it all fell apart. Transitions, said the mare. Bugger that for a game of soldiers.
I never know why these things happen. I can come up with about twenty reasons, most of them to do with my own inadequacy, but there is always the slight mystery of the equine mind. I wanted a good, even trot, and she was not going to give it to me.
Out there, in the set-aside, with the little Paint watching with interest, we had a drag-out, drop-down fight.
I had tried everything – changing the subject, yielding the hindquarters, lateral flexion. I remembered what one of the great old cowboys, I think it was Ray Hunt, said about always looking for that place deep inside a horse where there is only willingness. Willing place, I thought. I said it out loud. My willing place would meet her willing place and there would be harmony. All would be willingness. We would have willing place up the wazoo.
No, no, no, said the mare.
I forgot all the good principles of great horsemanship. I forgot patience and softness and feel. ‘For fuck’s sake,’ I said, in a furious voice. ‘You bloody horse,’ I said. Buggery human, she said back.
We were very cross with each other indeed.
In the end, I went back to my old school, the riding of my childhood. I gritted my teeth, and rode through it, kicking on. I did not do any of my newly learnt techniques. I was beyond that now. Right, I said, all nuance fled, I am here all week. I’m going to ride you and ride you until we find that good stride, even if we are still here at tea-time.
No, no, no, said the mare, tossing her head about. The trot was awful, ragged and uneven. I bashed on.
‘Oh, get on then,’ I shouted, giving her the most amateurish riding school kick. ‘Just go.’
And suddenly we were cantering. And suddenly, there it was. There was the good stride.
It was as if we had been listening to ghastly radio static, screeching and scratching across the airways, and all at once, someone started playing a Bach cantata, clear and true.
‘Oh,’ I cried. ‘There it is. Go on, then, you beauty.’
Yes, yes, yes, she said.
A canter, out of nowhere, of such balance and ease that I could hardly believe it. Round and round we went - loose rein, one hand, steering entirely with the body – all her furious ragged energy transformed into wonderful, controlled power. She bounced off the ground, her body singing with joy.
‘There it is,’ I shouted, whooping into the bright air.
I still can’t tell you what happened. Maybe it’s the sugar in the spring grass, maybe the owls kept her up all night, maybe she picked up on some hidden tension in me that I did not even know was there. Maybe she wanted to shake me out of my smugness. Maybe the Brother-in-Law had had a word in her ear. Maybe it’s just the thing that horses do, every so often, of testing the boundaries. They like good boundaries. It makes them feel safe. Every so often they test their limits, check their human, just as they would with the shifting hierarchies in a herd. Maybe I was just being a bit crap.
I don’t really know how, in the end, we found our transformation, and went from scratchiness to communion.
So yes, I do have bad days, even here with all this beauty, even with this horse that I love with my whole heart. And yes, I do write about those bad days. But the thing I do know, with horses, with life, is that if you kick on through, you can find the good, shining note, on which to end.
After the ride, looking as if butter would not melt in her mouth, as if she never had a mulish thought in her clever head: