‘I worry about you and that horse,’ says my mother, at breakfast.
‘I know,’ I say. I do know. I know at once what she is going to say. ‘Because I love her too much.’
My mother nods.
‘You love her too much.’
We do not need to spell out what this means. It means that if anything were ever to happen to her, I should be undone. This is true, and it is one of things which occasionally haunts me at night.
‘If one of these books takes off,’ I say, ‘I’ll get in touch with Lucinda Russell or Nick Gifford and see if they have a little mare who needs a nice retirement home.’
(Both these trainers have excellent rehoming schemes and run brilliant yards, producing kind, polite horses.)
My mother frowns.
‘Does it have to be a racehorse?’ she says.
‘Yes,’ I say.
She has good memories and bad memories of the racehorses. She used to have to qualify hunter chasers with the Surrey Union drag. Eight times out, minimum, to be witnessed by the Master and Field Master, or some such. ‘It was funny country,’ she said. ‘Lots of woods, lots of trees and ditches. And I was qualifying this horse and it turned out that he hated trees. He used to go round in circles and try to get me off. People were quite shocked.’
She paused, taken back into the distant past. ‘I’m not sure that all of the Surrey Union people were so very sophisticated.’
I love the idea of sophistication being needed to understand the mazy workings of the thoroughbred mind.
She smiles, blindingly. ‘But then I had Vino,’ she said. ‘He came from Ireland and he had never seen timber before. I had to teach him. You know, to jump gates and things. But he was brilliant in the end. Oh, I loved him.’
I can hardly imagine this tiny creature up on a great big hunter chaser, going hell for leather through the woods. Dragging is much more frightening than usual hunting, since the artificial scent is laid and all the huntsman has to do is follow it. There is no stopping and milling about outside coverts. It’s just galloping and jumping all day long. My father’s mother, even tinier than my own mum, used to hunt sidesaddle. ‘I was so terrified,’ she told me once, ‘I used to take a huge slug of brandy and then shut my eyes.’
After Vino, there was Mary, another Irish hunter chaser, whom my mother loved even more. She knows all about the love and the loss. Vino got a horrible disease and had to be put down. She can still remember the moment that Frank Mahon, our adored vet, came into the kitchen and said there was nothing more he could do for the old fella. It must have been almost fifty years ago, but that snapshot lives vivid in her mind. ‘Oh, how I cried,’ she says.
‘A racehorse,’ I say, reverting to the original subject, ‘has seen everything and done everything. And you know, if you get one who hasn’t taken to racing much, they are so happy just to live the quiet life. A nice slow old plug.’
My mother brightens. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘A slow old plug.’
‘Besides,’ I say. ‘They are home to me. They are what I know. They are what I grew up with. I love all those Quarter Horses I see at HorseBack, but it is still an unfamiliar breed. I have to learn them, from scratch. When I’m with a thoroughbred, I think: oh yes, I know you. You are my people.’
There is an odd thing about breeds. All horses are complete individuals, so making sweeping generalisations is mad and wrong. On the other hand, certain horses are bred for certain jobs. A Highland is going to be very different from a thoroughbred. Within this imperious breed I love so much, you will get brilliant ones and dull ones, goofy ones and lazy ones, sharp ones and funny ones. The ex-sprinter I know up the road is a very different character from my sweet, dopey red mare. But all thoroughbreds do share characteristics, going back to those three foundation sires and the good English and Irish mares they were bred to.
They tend to be quick, sensitive, clever and reactive. Most of them are very honest and try very hard. They are bred to go forward, and they are creatures of the air, not earthed like the native breeds. I think they have what humans would identify as pride; most of them know when they have won, and are keenly pleased when they have done anything well. They are tough, in mind as well as body.
A lot of them are also extraordinary gentle, especially when faced with vulnerability. You hear endless stories of thoroughbreds being enchanted with children. My own mare goes into a trance when she sees a child, becoming very still and fluttering her eyelashes and breathing out in delight through her nose, holding out her velvet muzzle to say hello. My father did not think twice about letting me go in to the match-fit chasers he trained, when I would try and help him out on dark winter dawns at morning stables, when I was too small even to lift a full water bucket.
Those early mornings are too almost fifty years ago. Well, forty-three years. There is a lot of my childhood I can’t remember at all. But I remember morning stables. I remember those horses. They were where I started; they are what I have come back to, with gratitude and love.
If one of the books takes off, I shall get a dear mare, who never quite made the grade out on the bright green turf, and the red duchess shall have a friend, and there will be someone to console me should the worst ever happen, and my mother can stop worrying.
Out in the field, Red lays her head gently against my shoulder and I meditatively scratch her sweet spot and get the glorious scent of her in my nostrils, and say: ‘I do love you far too much.’ She nods. She knows. She doesn’t mind.
A lot of work at the moment, so the camera has not been out. I am still trying vainly to rationalise the archive, and here are some old shots I found:
Girls and Stanley the Dog, let out to graze at liberty in the set-aside, before the second paddock was built:
This is one of my favourite cow shots ever:
The look of love. The thing that makes me laugh is that it was a very windy day, and the red mare’s mane is blowing up in the air like that of a punk rocker. My tragic helmet hair, on the other hand, does not move:
I do remember this day. I took about forty snaps of the duchess, because of the whole thing with the red coat and the autumn leaves and the symphony of colours:
I love that she is so soft and meditative in this one. I do talk all the time about her Zen aspect, and she does sometimes go off into a little dream, as if she is contemplating the Universal Why:
(Actually, she is almost certainly wondering when the hell the humans will stop taking damn photographs and give her some tea.)
PS. The last thing my mother said to me this morning made me shout with laughter. We were talking about one of those legendary huntsmen that all old horse people know. ‘You know,’ she said, with a bit of a twinkle. ‘He had an extraordinary success with women. I don’t know why. He was very hard on his wives, as hard as he was on his hounds.’
‘Actually,’ she said, ‘I think he was harder on the wives. He liked the hounds better.’