I wake up thinking: bugger, bugger, bugger.
I have decided that I have got into bad habits with my horse and must go back to square one and start from the beginning. I have grown cocky, and lax. I have let things slide.
I am stern with myself. As if to set the thing in stone, I make this confession on a forum which practises this kind of horsemanship. I say that I understand that going back to Square One does not mean I have to wear the red badge of shame. All the same, secretly, I feel a tiny scarlet pin of mortification on my lapel.
I march down to the field this morning, fired with good resolutions. I shall take myself and the mare back to the start, and be strict and proper, and not allow those pesky bad habits to creep in. The horse looks slightly surprised, but goes with it. She is sound again after her horrid abscess and full of spring beans. I have a lovely free-school and do a delightful hooking on. She follows me round the field like a dopy old hound.
The Horse Talker arrives, and I bring Red up to the shed, and start mixing up her breakfast. With enthusiasm, I explain to the HT my new plan. It’s going to be high-end, full steam ahead, no messing, serious work. I shall be ruthless with myself. There will be no more sloppiness.
The Horse Talker, who is practical and wise, looks at me quizzically, and says: ‘Why?’
I explain that I was concerned that Red had spent Sunday with a bit of separation anxiety, as the little Paint was taken away on a great adventure to Glen Tanar. There had been some shouting, some staring, some scanning of the woods, some beady examination of the cows. (The red mare was clearly convinced that her filly had run away to join the cow circus.) Then, when her friend finally returned, Red had bawled her head off and pranced about like a Lipizzaner stallion, with her tail stuck straight in the air.
‘If I’d done the groundwork right,’ I said, ‘she would not have paid any mind.’
‘She was just a bit excited,’ said the Horse Talker, in a forgiving tone. There was a pause. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘you’ve got a really good horse.’
She looked at the red mare. The two humans were in the shed, with the big doors wide open. Red was standing at the entrance, where I had left her, watching me mix up her feed. We had been talking for ten minutes, and the mare had not moved a muscle. She was not tethered in any way.
‘Damn it,’ I said. ‘She is a really good horse. Am I trying to live a life, or prove a point?’
I always come back to this. Some of the time, I am ashamed to say, I am trying to prove a point. Look at me, look at me, tell me I done good. Give me strokes and thumbs-ups and rosettes and gold stars. Give me compliments, which I can hoard up against a long, cold winter.
I think of my dad, who did nothing for public consumption. He loved winning races and singing songs and making people laugh, but he did those things for their own sake, I think, rather than for acclamation. He did not know what to do with a compliment if one were given to him. He would put it in his pocket and shuffle his feet and buy you a drink and change the subject.
I think of writing, and all I know about it. Much of it is still a mystery to me. But I do know that you should never sit down to write a book because you want money or love or awards or good reviews or your name in the papers. You must write it for its own true self. You must write because you love language, and you want to tell stories, and you are curious about the human condition.
Authenticity, I think. Along with kindness and stoicism, authenticity is the virtue I admire the most.
Whether I am working a horse or writing a sentence, I do think it is important to pay attention to the small things. I do think it is vital to be rigorous. I do think one must be honest and humble and sometimes go back to the beginning. I think one must try to be better.
But the Horse Talker is right. The good question is why. Pointless lashing for lack of idiot perfection is tiring and useless. Context is queen. It’s not just what you do, but why you do it.
I want to work carefully and correctly with my mare, because this will give her a foundation of security. If she can trust her human, she will be happy. I want a happy horse. I want to write a good sentence because of the sheer, visceral joy of the dancing language on the page.
The rest is just jam.
Are from the archive. I forgot to charge the camera battery:
As I finish this, I think of the craving for compliments that sometimes comes upon me. It is not a trait of which I am proud. I suppose it is fairly human, but when it roars in me, I generally think it a sign that something is not quite right. When one is easy in one’s own skin, one does not need outside validation. All the same, what is making me laugh now is that my best compliments are not always the obvious ones. Someone I admire said to me, not long ago, with a smile: ‘you are a slightly dotty lady who gets excited when she trots a horse round a field.’ For all that I occasionally think I want to model myself on AP McCoy or Mary King or William Fox-Pitt or Venetia Williams or the late, great Henry Cecil, those kind of people who have horses in their bones, who are at the absolute top of the tree, actually I’ll take that line and frame it in my heart. It makes me laugh. It is my best kind of compliment, mostly because it is true.