Sunday, 21 September 2014

For the horse people. Or, the red mare teaches me a hard lesson.

It is a Sunday and I don’t usually write a blog on a Sunday, so I think this one can be as self-indulgent as I like. You know that when I write the horse posts I try to put in a bit of good life lesson there, so that the non-horse people can enjoy the things. Today, this really is about the horse. It is for the horse people. It goes to you with love, because you will understand every word.


This morning, at 11.02am, I lost my temper with my red mare.

My red mare. The love of my life, the beat of my heart, the transcendental gift that stops me going bonkers.

‘Fucking HORSEI shouted. ‘Do you have any idea how much I think about you and work on you and write about you on the internet? Do you know how much money I spend on those Warwick Schiller video subscriptions so that you can have a happy life? Do you know that I sent myself right back to school so I would be good enough for you? Do you know how many times I had to embrace humility and admit that I was not good enough, and go right back to scratch? Do you know that I taught myself a whole new way of horsemanship, for you? AND NOW THIS????’

She snorted at me and rolled her eyes. She did not give a bugger. She is a horse, after all.

We had gone out for a nice canter. We’d been doing such nice canters in the last week that I had been boasting about them on the Facebook. I don’t know why I did not hear the hubris klaxon go off, but I didn’t. I’ve had a lot on my mind.

It started off light and floating and glorious and I whooped into the air. And then she suddenly did a half rear, a right plunge, a left plunge, and finished it off with a great, snaking, head in the air yaw. I almost fell off.

All the beautiful, soft harmony was wiped out, and the light stride broke up, and there was a wild, uncollected creature underneath me, as if a friend had turned into a stranger.

I was a bit frightened, I must admit. That was why I shouted. I was also humiliated, even though there was nobody there to see. Did this mean that everything we had done over the weeks and months was worth nothing? Had I been fooling myself all this time?

There is a certain school that would say – ha, typical thoroughbred. Typical mare, typical chestnut, typical ex-racehorse. Naughty monkey, that school would say; taking the piss. Kick on and try a martingale.

The new school I have embraced says, sternly, firmly, that there is no such thing as a typical horse, and that it is not laughing matter, and throwing kit at the problem will do nothing. This school says that it is almost always the human who is wrong. I had to look to myself, which is quite a tiring thing on a quiet Sunday morning.

The mare was by now hopped up on adrenaline, and throwing her head about, and had lost all focus. My adrenaline was high too and the first thing was to take a deep breath and bring it down. Temper would solve nothing, only pour down the reins as tension and convince her that there were mountain lions in the woods.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, I thought. We are going to have to do some work. Sunday, Schmunday.

Slow transitions – halt to walk to halt; walk to trot to walk, three steps at a time. Back to lateral flexion. Looking all the time for the soft,willing place, which I had lost.

No, no, no, said the mare, still star-gazing. There is a man with a dog over there. AND CYCLISTS. In lycra. (She does not approve of lycra.)

Hey, hey, hey, I said; they are none of your business. Listen to me.

More transitions. Endless changes of direction, to get her focus back. Oh, she said, there you are. I had forgotten about you. Yes, you bloody well had, I said.

Turn turn turn; stop, walk, stop. Flex, flex, flex.

It was the canter we had lost, so I was determined to find it again. But to do that, we had to work up through all the gaits, starting with a perfect, gentle stop. That took half an hour. Finally, I thought we could risk the canter again.

Rush, rush, rush.

Back to the beginning.

And then, at last, the glimmer of something. Relax your shoulders, I told myself, and give her the reins. I had to be brave enough not to hold onto her. I started to think that adrenaline had been the problem, and that had to be banished, so the only answer was to show her that going into canter was not a tight, tense thing, but a lovely, open, loping matter.

I gave her the reins, prepared to find myself halfway to Inverness.

Oh, she said, all right. I don’t have to panic.

We did canter to walk, canter to walk, from voice. We did canter to halt. Lots of lovely loose walking on a long rein in between, so she could stretch out her neck, and remember that she did not have to be a racehorse, but could embrace that dear old cowpony incarnation which I love.

At 12.17pm, we hit the sweet spot.

Ah, I said, there it is.

Yes, she said, nodding. There it is.

I was exhausted, mentally and physically. I had ridden my arse off. I had thought my head off. We were united again, moseying back through the long grass on the buckle, as if none of that craziness had happened.

What was it? I wondered, as I brushed her down and put her to rights and let her out in the field.

I’ve been very grateful to her lately, because she does keep me sane. I’ve been writing a lot about how lucky I am to have her, and how she soothes my troubled mind as I rush up to my book deadline.

The problem is that gratitude is no good to a horse. In the wild, herd leaders are not grateful to the rest of the pack, as they fall in behind. They essentially say: follow me or die. Survival instinct is perhaps the defining element of a horse, because it is a prey animal. It does not want soppiness and outpourings of love; it wants safety. Perhaps I had gone soppy and allowed little things to slide without even realising it. She does not want me to fawn over her; she wants strong boundaries and consistency and sureness. She damn well does need me to step up to the plate. Maybe, just maybe, all that plunging and yawing was her way of saying she was starting to feel insecure.

Ruefully, as I read myself this stern lecture, I thought: what would my horsemanship mentor, the most excellent Mr Schiller say? He would say: how is your groundwork? Are there holes? he would say.

Sometimes I think I am one big hole.

I thought I was being so clever; I was certain that I was, as the great old cowboys who perfected this kind of horsing would say, taking Square One with me. But maybe I had left it behind, let it get raddled round the edges, blurred the outlines.

There is a lovely paradox at the heart of this way of thinking of horses. The aim is to find softness, to work off feel, to make everything easy and light. The horse becomes an extension of you. You think something, and the horse does it. There need be no yanking or pulling or kicking. But to achieve that, there needs to be toughness at the beating heart of it. There must be rigour. You have to be tough with yourself, keep checking motives and mental processes and physical techniques. Those good boundaries must be maintained. It needs slowness and patience and repetition. It is love, but it is tough love.

Back to the beginning, I think. Or, more accurately, the beginning never ends.

We did find a good note on which to end. I did not give up. We did have a canter on a loose rein in a rope halter. I did not fall off. The hubris demons laughed their mocking laugh and my temper got lost and my pride got bruised, but we are still partners. That mighty red mare taught me another of the forty-eight life lessons that she teaches me, every single damn day – don’t take things for granted, don’t get sloppy, don’t get cocky, never, ever, ever give up. Glory does not just fall from a clear blue sky; you have to work for it. You get back what you put in.

A thoroughbred is one of the greatest creatures on this green earth – fine and powerful and fleet and brave. Respect is due. The puny human game must be raised. Or at least, the game of this puny human.

21 Sept 1


  1. Any possibility that she was just feeling good and she couldn't contain herself? Have seen that happen around the track, with fit horses on lovely, cool mornings. Not what you want precisely, but the motivation is pure. Does usually happen at the beginning of a work, not somewhere further on, though, so probably doesn't apply. Just a thought. She does so well -- can see how you were surprised.

    Too bad they can't read "Understanding Humans 101." Although, to be fair, one wonders what in the world that could consist of!


  2. Well, with horses, people, and all other animals, no amount of learning or practising to be "good" is going to circumvent the everyday things that happen. A horsefly, a piece of leather that got turned the wrong way, a bit of tummy upset, or a million other things could cause a very well educated horse to act out - or, as Bird mentioned, a sudden surge of feeling wonderfully energetic. Since horses can't speak vocally and say "You know, when you came out to saddle me up this morning I was feeling a bit on edge." - or any other little thing that may be bothering them, we have to be forgiving and realize that it's not all about us and our training courses... they're still individuals, with only their actions to communicate their feelings to us. She wasn't being "bad" - she was just being herself.

    "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" - Hamlet

  3. First thought from a non-horse person AND inveterate horse lover (oh how many Christmases did I plaintively ask, how many calculations did I do with my babysitting money to see if I could cover the upkeep...):
    Did something SCARE Red?

    I know as a person that when I'm really frightened & the adrenaline is peaking all over the place, I am least likely to listen to anything much less yelling.

    Kudos to you for finding your center & acting out of it.


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