Things have changed, in the horse world, since the days when I grew up in a racing stable in the Lambourn Valley. Some of those things have changed for the better. The new rug technology, for instance, is splendid. I have no nostalgia for the flat green canvas of the New Zealand, or the heavy sacking of the Jute.
Some things have changed for the worse.
The language is failing. What I refer to as a thoroughbred is now called, almost universally, a TB. I try not to get angry about it, because what can it really matter and because perfectly nice people use it. They do not think it a slur. But today I am in a hot rage, and all my ancient fury is flying into the yellow air.
TB is the most reductive acronym you can use for a horse. Its proper usage is for a disease which, before modern medicine, ravaged entire populations. Consumption was, most often, death. TB Sheets was the one Van Morrison song to which I could never listen.
Quite apart from that, it is ugly. It is an ugly reference to one of the most beautiful, majestic breeds ever invented. Thoroughbred has a euphony to it, fit for the fleet, proud animals who have illuminated the sport of kings. The word used to be spoken, in my youth, with tones of admiration, affection, even awe. I grew up knowing that these mighty creatures were the empresses and emperors among horses, bred over three hundred years for courage, speed, agility, stamina and strength.
Even worse, people now casually refer to what they call, with varying degrees of resignation and wryness, ‘a typical TB’. What does that even mean? Was Arkle a typical TB? Was Mill Reef? Was Dancing Brave? Was Red Rum?
Was Frankel a typical TB? When he stretched out over the Knavesmire in the Yorkshire sun, leaving Grade One horses flailing like selling platers in his wake, was that typical? When Simon Holt shouted, with joyous disbelief in his voice, ‘they can’t even get him off the bridle’, was that typical?
Funnily enough, I think he was perhaps typical of his breed, although he was the most exceptional example of equine greatness the racing public has seen in many generations. He was proud, intelligent, courageous, strong, brilliant, fast, and, in the end, once his humans had worked their magic with him, biddable. That is not the typical that those other people mean. It is what I mean.
Other ghastly, intellectually lazy, reductive collocations abound. Moody mare, there is another. People even put it on t-shirts. They speak the words as if they are carved in stone. The man in whose yard I have just spent a week, a horseman so blindingly good that he has forgotten more than I shall ever know, only buys mares. He is a professional. He makes his living from horses. He can afford no sentiment. He buys mares because he knows they are the best.
There is nothing finer in the world than a really tough mare. If you handle them right, they are more loyal and more brave than any creature on earth. They will give you everything, when it seems nothing is left. Was Dawn Run a moody mare? Was Oh So Sharp? Is Quevega?
Was Kincsem moody, as she won her fifty-fifth race on the trot, a record that stands unbeaten to this day? (She was born in Hungary, in 1874, and she routed them all over Europe, as dazzling as a queen, and when she died the Hungarian newspapers were edged with black in her honour.)
There are many more horrid, confining expressions doing the rounds. I hate them all. One of those which makes me want to punch someone in the nose is ‘field ornament’. This refers to a horse which can no longer be ridden. Its implications are nasty in about five different ways. Horses are not ornaments. They are not static, decorative items. They are living, breathing, sentient beings. Just because they can no longer ride or compete or race, it does not mean that any of their intrinsic qualities are lost. They may have honourable retirement. Was Desert Orchid a ‘field ornament’, as he drowsed away his final years in a quiet paddock, dreaming of the days when he set the crowds at Cheltenham and Sandown and Kempton on a roar?
The reason I am in such a rage about all this is that today someone suggested that the red mare might be a headshaker.
It was not meant unkindly. It was intended in the spirit of helpfulness. It is just the way that many people now speak about horses. It is the putting in a box, the applying of a label. It is this labelling that sends me into a frenzy. As I heard it, all the subterranean resentments burst into raging, scarlet life, and I was so angry I had to walk away, before I said something unforgivable.
Red and I, as the Dear Readers know, sometimes have our scratchy days. Sometimes, this takes the form of a sort of yawing with the head and neck. Usually, if I concentrate, I can work through it. We always, always, find a good note on which to end.
It does not happen often, but it has been there, on occasion, from the beginning.
On the other hand, the vast majority of our days are composed of harmony and light. This is one of those moody mares, typical TBs, of which the idle speak. Just to put a cherry on the stereotype, she is chestnut, with almost four white socks. (One is so tiny it hardly counts as a sock, but the superstitious would still look askance.)
This mare, most days, will stand still on command, will move one foot when I point at it, will back up her half-ton body when I twitch my little finger. When leading, she will halt when I halt, back when I back, vary her pace when I vary mine. I can free-school her, which is like lunging, except with no halter and no line. She will canter in perfect circles around me, make transitions from voice, come to a dead stop when I simply shift my body. Under the saddle, she will go kindly in a rope halter, make complicated changes of direction from a signal so subtle that it can hardly be seen, give me a sitting trot of such collection and smoothness that it is like riding the air. She will do a breeze-up on a loose rein, in open fields, and come back to a walk when I merely move my seat.
She is damn well not a headshaker. She is a horse who sometimes shakes her head.
Whatever it is, I shall get to the bottom of it. It may be pollen, it may be blood pressure, it may be sunlight. It is one of the mysteries of the horse world. I shall investigate.
But this miraculous, funny, brilliant, idiosyncratic, kind, clever, beautiful creature is not, ever, ever, going to have a label slapped on her. Her loveliness is so extreme that it often leaves me lost for words, and words are my business. Nobody is going to reduce her to three syllables.
As I finish writing this, I feel the tide of rage ebbing away. We shall be all right, me and my girl. It may just be that there will be days when the shaking is on her, and on those days, she will have a little holiday. The thing causes her no distress. She is, at heart, a supremely happy horse.
I hear a line, from my distant past. It makes me smile. It is from a film. It goes: ‘nobody puts Baby in the corner.’