Warning: this is crazy long. It also involves an awful lot of horse. It’s a story I really wanted to tell, and it has taken many, many words. Feel free to skip on and come back tomorrow, when there will be pith.
The Great Moment arrived.
Of course, in the manner of so many great moments, it did not turn out quite as I had dreamed it. There was no swoony Disney effect, with a sweeping string section and not a dry eye in the house. No Hollywood producer, had she been passing, would have stopped and said: ‘I must make a damn film out of that.’
It was very ordinary, and very, very sweet.
I’d worked the mare on the ground and under the saddle for a long time in the morning, to prepare her. She did an enchanting free-school, with floating transitions between walk and trot from my body only, and then hooked on and walked round the field with me, her head low and her ears in their donkey position.
In the saddle, I did something which I should have been doing every day, and have not. As I learn this new kind of horsing, I get so excited that I skip parts and jump around and do not do the things in order. Let’s do that today, I say to myself, galvanised because I’ve just seen it demonstrated. Or let’s try this, just for fun. In fact, one should roll through the foundational steps, in their right sequence, every single day, as automatically as if one were brushing one’s teeth.
I finally got the message, and put into action one of the most brilliant techniques I have ever learnt. It is a mental thing. You get on your horse and you say: where would you like to go today? The horse moves off. Usually it will go to the gate or where the feed is or the place where its buddies are hanging out. When you get there, you make it work. You disengage the hindquarters and turn it in tight circles and, as Warwick Schiller says, the brilliant Australian horseman from whom I learnt this method, annoy the hell out of it. Not in a mean way, but just because you are continually asking something. Then, when you are facing away from the favourite spot, you let it go on a long rein and the moment it moves off, you leave it alone. You go from work, work, work, to bluebirds and butterflies.
Sure enough, Red wanted to go to the top gate where the feed lives. Circle, circle, circle. She got the message very quickly. Off we went in the opposite direction, on the buckle. Then she tried the bottom gate, where the grazing is. Circle, circle. Then she tried her little paint friend. Circle.
She is so clever that she got it at once, and she stretched out her duchessy neck and strode off, athletic and relaxed, to the easy places.
I love this method because it means you are not saying no. You are saying: of course you can go over here if you want, but if you do, there will be work. On the other hand, if you go over here, where I want, there will be only lightness and ease. It’s what Buck Brannaman calls offering the horse a good deal.
Usually we have a bit of an argument as we leave the field. She wants her breakfast; she wants her pal. I want to go riding. Argy, bargy. Today, because I finally went back to proper basics, there was no argument, only a polite conversation.
It also has the miraculous ability to relax them. I’m still not sure entirely why it has this effect, but it is as if some lovely Zen mistress has come and sprinkled cooling fairy dust in the air.
Out in the hayfields, we did another foundational exercise, again of a simplicity so delightful that a child of nine could do it. If your horse wants to go left, you turn it right, and vice versa. Again, the miraculous relaxing. We did this out in the hayfields, and at one point she actually breathed out a gusting sigh of happiness and relief.
This was the preparation. I write it all down because the work to get to the Great Moment was as important as the moment itself.
Into the brave new world we went. It was twenty times better than yesterday. There was no snorting, and no spooking. Buses honked and hissed, tractors and trailers clanked past, bicycles whooshed by. The red mare twitched her ears and walked boldly on. We met another tiny child. There was the same awe-gazing that we had seen before. My heart, as it always does when I see this look cast upon my beautiful red girl, flew into the light Scottish air.
Down to the care home we travelled, going kindly within ourselves. And just as we arrived, and I was about to break out the swoony string section in my head, the mare, with perfect bathos, lifted her aristocratic tail and took a huge dump right by the tubs of begonias.
I let sentiment go by, and laughed and laughed. ‘Good for the roses,’ said one of the carers, staunchly.
Out came the old people. All of them were suffering from the various indignities of age, as time ruthlessly ravaged their minds and bodies. Some were in stages of dementia, some had physical infirmities. Some had words which made no sense; some had no words at all. One or two were hovering on the cusp, just holding on before the final infirmity caught them in its crocodile grip. They came out with sticks and walking frames and wheelchairs. The carers, capable and brisk, said: ‘Look, here is a horse. A HORSE.’
‘This is Phoenix,’ I said. ‘She is a thoroughbred.’ And, I’m ashamed to say, I told them, because I can never resist it: ‘Her grandfather won the Derby.’
‘Hello, Felix,’ said a chorus of amazed voices.
She did not, as I had slightly hoped she would, at once stick her dear face out and tickle them gently with her whiskers. She was a little astonished by such a gathering of strangers. A great murmuring had broken out, a chorus of exclamation. It was a very familiar sound to me and it took me a moment to realise what it was. It was the exact same noise that the crowds make when they gather round the winner’s enclosure at the races. At last, I thought, this finely-bred racehorse, who trundled round the back at gaff tracks, is in the winning circle.
Like a winner, she caught a wing of adrenaline, and stuck her head in the air and let out a calling whinny. The old people found this hysterical. They smiled at her and laughed at her and gave her carrots. She was a little restless, more reactive than I would have liked, but it was a small space, filled with humans she had never met before, and, considering it was only her second visit to the village, I thought she comported herself amazingly. She took the carrots and amused her audience by flinging little orange scraps about the place as she chomped.
It was not quite the Disney moment. She did not lay her velvet muzzle on a frail old hand and let out a low breath of recognition. She was not yet relaxed enough for that. But she will be, in time. We shall go again, and she shall get to know them, and I’ll work sternly on those foundations, and we’ll get that magic moment.
It was an ordinary grey day, in an ordinary little village, outside one of those ordinary buildings thrown up in the 1970s with no thought for aesthetics. It was an ordinary group of humans, carrying the ordinary afflictions of age. It was an ordinary horse, with her ordinary rider.
It was not a movie. It was real life. And damn, she did make those people laugh and smile.
Today’s pictures are a photo essay of the morning:
Free-schooling. Notice her ear turned in towards me:
Transitioning down to walk:
Resting, after all her good groundwork:
Out into the hayfields:
At the care home, I walk away to take pictures. Big whinny. WHERE ARE YOU GOING????:
And what’s over there?:
Well, I suppose it is all right:
Are we really on the Deeside way?
Answer: yes. And there is the village:
And the hills:
And the long view east:
And back to the village again:
The end of the mighty ride. She can hear her little Paint friend calling:
Hosed off and shaking it all out:
And having a well-deserved pick in the long grass:
There is a postscript to all this.
Because I had made my offer to go to the old people, I really had to go back and concentrate on the work I do with this mare. You can’t just take a thoroughbred on a mission like that and kick on and hope for the best. I grew up in the old school of kicking on and hoping for the best, and I don’t disdain that. Using those traditional English methods, I did dressage and working hunter and cross-country and showing and won many red ribbons and silver cups.
But I like this new school because it has a simple solution for every problem. The minute you see the world through the horse’s eyes, everything can get fixed. I find a delightful utility in it. I like it too because although I think of it as a new school, it is in fact very old. It does not belong to anyone. The great horsemen are like aristocrats with their stately piles: they are not owners, they are custodians, passing on the wisdom to the next generation. The knowledge that I now use was passed along by Ray Hunt and the Dorrances, men whose names I did not even know until two years ago, men now departed on whose sage words I hang.
Through the miracle of the internet, one of the holders of that flame makes it available to neophytes like me, in a practical, easily accessible form. I went back to the school of the magnificent Mr Schiller and did not muck about this time. The mare and I had a serious purpose, and I could no longer be cavalier. I had to be rigorous, and follow the steps. The difference in my horse was immense.
The discrete purpose had a lovely unexpected consequence. It set us free. Even though I’m very proud of everything the mare has achieved, I still was conscious that I had a great, powerful thoroughbred under me. Because I am still in the learning stage, there were days when she could be unpredictable. I am middle-aged, and I have not ridden seriously for thirty years. I saw no reason to take unnecessary risks. We kept to the safe places, the quiet fields and tracks near home. The main road was a Rubicon for us; there was no thought of crossing it. Why should we? We could play in the hayfields and the sheep meadows and the home paddocks.
After we left the care home today, I took her out on the Deeside way. I would never have dreamed of doing this before, in a million years. Why not? I thought, seeing the sign; let’s just go. And suddenly there were the bright open fields and the long blue hills and the unknown spaces. And there we were, in them, on a loose rein, in perfect harmony.
I realised that I had been hamstrung by fear, by horrid imaginings, by doubt. But because I had gone back to the beginning, and concentrated my mind, and applied the proper techniques in the proper order, I was utterly liberated. We could go anywhere, in our rope halter.
She had a bit of a look, and a bit of a tense, and then she took confidence from me and walked out, easy and relaxed, with that lovely sway of pride that the fine ones have.
Who would have guessed, I thought, that a visit to the old people would have set us free?
And finally, this quote about the horse from Ray Hunt is like a prose poem. I’m going to recite it in my head every morning:
‘You want your body and his body to become one.
This is our goal.
It takes some physical pressure naturally, to start with, but you keep doing less and less physical and more and more mental. Pretty soon, it’s just a feel following a feel, whether it comes today, tomorrow or next year.
So one little thing falls into line, into place.
I wish it would all fall into place right now for you, but it doesn’t because it has to become a way of life.
It’s a way you think.
It’s a way you live.
You can’t make any of this happen, but you can let it happen by working at it.’