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