A few days ago I wrote that the only thing to do in the face of the madness of the world is to find your one small thing which adds to the sum total of human happiness, and to do it.
Since then, I have been in a non-specific fury. The world news is bad, my poor mum is still in the hospital, my beloved Arab Spring got stuffed yesterday, with my money on his bonny back. I was going to deal with the jangles by drinking some gin last night, and getting sloppy drunk, but better angels prevailed and I went to bed early and got up with the sun.
As the red mare and I continued to take one glorious step forward, and one prosaic step back, I had returned to my internet horse training guru, the brilliant Warwick Schiller, and looked at some of his amazingly helpful videos. There were two things that stood out to me. One was the importance of balancing your horse. The other was making it do more than you do. (This is a clever idea based on herd psychology.) It also chimed with something another wise Australian, Ian Leighton, had written not long ago, about love and horses. He was concerned that some people get a bit soppy with their equines (at which point I mentally shuffled my feet and cleared my throat) and confused good, honest, tough love with the sentimental sort, which does a horse no favours. Horses need good boundaries; it makes them feel safe.
With all this in mind, I girded my loins, and went out into the glorious Scottish sunshine.
The mare was soft and sweet. I was patient and rigorous. I did not skip a step, but went slowly through the foundations. I got on, and all the scratchiness was gone. There was my lovely, easy, confident girl again. Two days ago, she leapt in the air at the sight of a duck. Today, she walked past a strange man wielding a loud strimmer, dressed as if he were attacking an outbreak of Ebola in a disaster movie, without twitching an ear.
And then, out of the clear blue sky, the universe sent me my one small thing.
We came across a care worker pushing a very old lady in a wheelchair. The old lady was clearly not well, and beyond speech. But she looked up at my mare, and the shadow of a smile crossed her ancient face. A fleeting gleam came into her empty eyes.
The care worker and I fell into conversation. The red mare stood stock still, occasionally bending her dear head to regard the old lady with gentleness. A line from Yeats came into my head. ‘Dream of the soft look your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.’
‘Do you think,’ I said hesitantly, to the care worker, ‘that your old people would like it if I brought the mare to see them one day?’
I am an absolute pushover for therapy animals, in particular service dogs. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that these wonderful creatures are brought daily to my eyes, as I see pictures of sweet canines in hospitals with the gravely ill, and great guide dogs, and brave Labradors working in the dust of Helmand. Horses too are increasingly used in service roles, with autistic children, and people with special needs, and even young offenders. I see their power every week, in my work at HorseBack, especially with those who are fighting the long fight with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ve often thought that I should like the red mare to go to the old people’s home, but have always been too shy to ask.
The care worker looked delighted and amazed. ‘Would you do that?’ she said. ‘They would love it.’
The red mare is going to be a therapy horse.
I kept my countenance and finished the conversation and politely said goodbye and moved off. The mare was relaxed and low under me, her lovely neck stretched out, her stride easy and free. The sun dappled through the trees. In the distance, the blue hills glimmered in the light.
‘You amazing girl,’ I said, out loud. ‘You are going to be a therapy horse.’
I wonder sometimes what all this striving is for. I want a happy horse, I want to be able to do everything with her using only my little finger, I want to be able to go down to the field and leap on her back without having to fear catastrophe. That, of course, is the point. But sometimes, when I am a bit jangled up, I get confused, and think that I must show off. That’s when I start posting endless stupid updates on the internet, begging for praise. That’s when I think I should school her for some competitive purpose, so that we can win prizes. Perhaps, lurking in the back of my mind, there is her mighty pedigree. When they bred her, they must have thought she could win the Oaks, even the Arc, with all the titanic middle distance champions that inhabit her bloodlines. She ended up trundling round the back at Thirsk. Perhaps there was a part of me that felt she should finally live up to her aristocratic billing. I don’t know.
All I know is that, in that moment, everything fell into place. This, this, is what all the work is for. It is so that a fine thoroughbred can calmly go into the village and put her dear head through the window and make the old people smile. That is the point of the desensitising and the balancing and the endless groundwork, and my dogged attempts to make myself a better horsewoman.
‘You beautiful, clever girl,’ I said. ‘That is your one thing.’
Sudden tears came, I’m not sure why. For all of it, I suppose. I was blinded. I had to take off my spectacles. The good horse walked on, finding her own way, until I had gathered myself again.
I believe that horses feel pride. You can see it in some of the great champions, as they lift their heads and prick their ears after the winning post, and turn to regard the cheering crowds. The look of eagles, my mother calls it. Desert Orchid had it, and Kauto Star, and Frankel. ‘He really soaked it all up,’ Tom Queally once said of Frankel, after his storming victory at York. ‘He knew he was the man.’
As I felt the gladness pour out of me, I sensed pride in my red mare. It was very quiet, and very contained. But it was there. She is going to be a damn therapy horse. I could kiss the sky.
Before the ride:
Hosed off and relaxed afterwards: