I start the blog today with pictures, instead of words. You will see why as the story unfolds. To start with, all you need to know is that I was offered a ride on a most excellent Anglo-Arab, and ended up leading a posse up the hill. A great privilege and a great pride.
As you can see, by the end I was feeling pretty cocky and pleased with myself. I am not very good at riding Western and have only had three lessons in the discipline. Although I like to think that I use a combination of English and Western as I ride the red mare, really what I am doing is riding English in an English saddle, which is what I grew up with. The two Western techniques I use are keeping my leg off and my seat quiet, which I like very much, and what I think of as inviting steering. This is where, instead of tightening the rein and bending the horse’s body round your inside leg whilst applying the outside leg behind the girth, you simply lift your hand and open the door. The horse then steps through that door. It feels like a Jane Austen gavotte to me.
In full Western, I realised my absolute novice status and tried to adapt and remember what I had been taught. It really is a very different beast from what I am used to. ‘Archie can occasionally be a bit grumpy,’ I was told with a laugh. And certainly, at the beginning, he did look askance at my amateur methods. But going up the hill, we got into a rhythm and he pricked his ears, and I thought Yeah, yeah, Green Grass of Wyoming. I had just ridden the red mare, and she had gone so softly and kindly and beautifully that she had infected me with love and confidence. I can do anything, I thought.
Wait till everyone sees this, I thought. My friend Jay has just got back from a week in the Rockies, rounding up cattle in the high places. He was riding behind, and I thought: I’ll be cutting cows too, before you can say knife.
At which point some young cows in the sloping pasture started rushing about to the right, and to the left a pheasant flew up right under my fella’s feet. He’d been distracted by the cows, getting a little wound up, but I was so punchy I had not paid enough attention. I was, I am ashamed to say, showing off. As the pheasant rose with its warning whirr, Archie jinked in alarm. And, dear readers, I FELL OFF.
One minute I was on the Trail of the Lonesome Pine; the next, I was flat on my arse, in front of a crowd of witnesses. I walked home, chastened, limping like an old crock.
The lady in the chemist was very sympathetic as she sold me a bumper pack of Ibuprofen. ‘I don’t suppose you have a pill for bruised pride?’ I said.
I draw my usual lesson from this. Whenever those wings of hubris start flapping, beware. Don’t get careless, because you think you are all that. Pay attention.
The lovely thing it did make me realise is how well I know that red mare and how safe I feel with her. She can still have a little spook from time to time, and she occasionally remembers her racehorsey past. Her majestic thoroughbred blood rises, and her ancestors call to her. But I know the signs so well, I can take action. I know every twitch of her dear ears, and every tiny tighten of every single sinew. Each morning, as I get on her, I can feel from the energy rising from her mighty body what her state of mind is. I know when she is at home with herself, easy in her skin. This morning, she was so relaxed and comfortable that I could take my hands off the reins, and let her stretch out her sweet neck, and know that all was well in her world. She is my person, and I am hers, and sympathy runs between us like starlight. Her thoughts are my thoughts, and mine are hers. That astonishing telepathic sense which horses have surrounds us with harmony.
Archie is a lovely horse, but he is not my horse. It was only the second time I’d ever sat on him, and I did not know the signs. I like to think that my meditations on herd behaviour make me able to read horses in general, and in a limited, basic way, I can. But really what it means is that I can interpret the mare, from all those hours of work, all those mornings of observation, all those weeks of devotion.
When I get above myself, I secretly think I’m a bit of a horsewoman. The truth is, I’m not. I’m a red mare woman. She gives me the astonishing gift of making me feel much better than I really am.
And finally, as I sit, a bit sore and a bit shivery and put firmly back in my box, I think again of my admiration for the Champ, the man of steel that is AP McCoy. He crashes at thirty-five miles an hour, onto hard racing turf. He’s taking a couple of days off just now, after a kaleidoscopic fall at Worcester in a novice hurdle. ‘He got me good,’ he wrote wryly on Twitter. He lay on the ground for fifteen minutes afterwards, but then, in true AP fashion, walked to the ambulance. That’s all part of his daily job. I fell off at a walk onto soft grass. It bloody hurt. It was a rude shock to the poor body. The thing happens so quickly. One minute you are on top of the world, the next you are flat on your back, staring at the ruthless blue sky. How these jocks do it never ceases to amaze me.
PS. I may have overdone it on the Ibuprofen. Not only should I not operate heavy machinery, but I should not be in charge of the English language. There will be typos. Forgive me.