Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Not a blog.

I’m not really here. I’m supposed to be getting ready for my trip, and so this is not really a blog at all. But I had to tell you of my red duchess. So this one is really for the horse people. The rest of you, just carry on as you were.

Yesterday was one of our worst days. Everything was out of kilter. We were like a scratchy old married couple, sniping and misunderstanding and missing the point. I actually felt properly cross with her, which happens about once every six months, as well as livid with myself. All hopeless and feckless and pointless. Into the garden to eat worms.

I never quite know how these things happen, although they always occur when I am getting cocky. I wonder if the cockiness transmits itself to the mare, and she does not like it. She is a very sensitive person, and although she has grown mightily in confidence, she is not a swaggery, sanguine sort. She feels things keenly. Because of this, she craves steadiness and consistency and calm. I wonder if the cocksure alarms her in some profound way.

My rule is that I leave all the personal stuff at the gate, as if I am carting it about in a great suitcase. My frets and worries are not her business. My job is to make her feel safe. But sometimes one can be carrying a little attaché case that one is not even aware of. I thought I was pretty fine and getting on with it yesterday, but I see now that I had some fairly gnarly tensions and furies twisted up inside. It is perfectly possible that my clever girl felt those, and was responding to them.

Today, the sun shone, and my demons had gone back into their cave. I had stopped lashing myself about yesterday’s debacle and went out with the intention of doing some lovely, slow, basic groundwork. Everything would be the kindest and sweetest and smallest of steps. I would concentrate on softness and feel.

And there she was, my gentle, saintly girl, back again. The crosspatch of the day before had vanished. We did a lovely free-school of such elegance and grace that I tried to make snapshots of it with my mind, so I could remember it always. Her dear ear flicked towards me, waiting to see what I would ask of her next.

That was the plan: do the fundamentals on the ground, and re-establish the harmony between us, and finish. But my friend the Horse Talker was up on her sweet Paint, and I thought, well, perhaps just a little ride. Just a nice extended walk, nothing more. The most important thing after a bad day is not to ask too much.

Round the field the two companions went, their ears pricked in the balmy sunshine.

‘Shall we go round the block?’ said the Horse Talker.

Bugger it, I thought. Stupid to waste a glorious morning.

Off we went, into the wide open spaces. Everyone was happy. The mare was all ease and lightness.

Up at the road, the girls observed the traffic. The road is our traditional stopping point. We are incredibly lucky to have plenty of fields to play about in. There is no call to go out on the public highway, where crazy people in vans might drive up our arse. (I have no idea why I think they might do this. Despite my attempts to eschew irrational thinking, I sometimes have a tendency to catastrophise.)

‘Oh, come on,’ I said, on a wild whim. ‘Let’s go out.’

The ex-racehorse and the novice Paint, who was only backed last year, both in their rope halters, walked out as calmly and politely as if they had been riding the roads of Scotland since birth. Huge lorries did pass by, although the kind drivers slowed with great care and courtesy. No rogue vans appeared. The girls did not bat an eyelid. Into the back lanes of the village we went, past barking dogs, random humans, and excellent building men constructing a whole house. Not so much as a flinch or a twitch.

To get back into the woods, we had to slide through a narrow gap between an old iron gate and a stone wall. It was so narrow that I had to lift my legs out of the stirrups. The mare did not pause, but kept a true line.

At that point I was so delirious that I dropped the reins and steered her gently with my body, waving my arms in the air as I sketched for the Horse Talker the full magnificence of the red mare and the mysteries of the equine mind. Red stretched out her neck and lengthened her stride, her body athletic and rhythmic under me.

As we got back to the field, one final test awaited. A vast oil truck was delivering its load of heating fuel. To get to the gate, we had to pass right next to it, as it was virtually jammed up against a tree. The space was perhaps three feet wide. It was a huge article, humming and grinding and shuddering away as it pumped its oil out.

Again, neither horse looked twice.

You may imagine the festival of pride and congratulation. You may imagine the kisses and hugs and strokes. I thought my heart would burst.

How can it go from dislocation and despair to harmony and communion, in 24 short hours? A long field discussion ensued, as we tested out various theories, covering everything from the jagged human mind to a spring-fit horse to a bad sleep interrupted by screeching owls.

I quite favour the notion that the dressage squirrels came in the night, and that was what made the difference.

I said to someone today: ‘The red mare not only teaches me about horsing, she teaches me about life.’

Today she taught me never to give up, that things are never as bad as they seem, that tomorrow really is another day. She taught me to return always to fundamentals, to have faith, to be kind and patient.

She also offered me a great gift. She did not get my best self, yesterday. Mostly, she brings out my better angels, but yesterday I fear she saw a glimpse of my darker demons. What she did today was so generous and moving that I feel tearfully humble, even thinking of it. She forgave me. She did not hold it against me. She took all her trust, in her dear hooves, and presented it to me, believing that I would keep her safe from the great lorries and the construction men and the barking dogs and the honking oil truck. It was if she was saying: well, you may not be a perfect person, but you are still my person. I still believe in you.

It seems curious that a flight animal, who has no concept of abstract thought or philosophy or psychology, can give a flawed human back a sense of self. But that is what she did.

Well, her, and the dressage squirrels, of course.


The glorious pair, relaxing after their morning of triumph:

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Monday, 28 April 2014


1416 words, and secret project sent off to the agent. It is still in its most inchoate form, but I rely on her gimlet eye. She will dig the bones out of it, if anyone can.

It might seem a bit bonkers, to be writing two books at once, but I had a catastrophic loss of professional time, for reasons too crazily dull to go into, and I am now head down and driving to the finish, like Ryan Moore on a Stoute hotpot.

It may also be insane to embark on two such speculative projects. They are equally eccentric in their own ways, and I have absolutely no idea whether they shall ever see the light of day. Good thing I am cussed as an old mule. I am very, very good at channelling S Beckett. Try again, fail again. Fail better.

The mare was all over the shop this morning. She always does this when I get cocky and think I’m all that and start boasting on Facebook. She is like my own little delegation of hubris police. I had to work and work, and that light harmony which we have been in for so many days eluded us. I got strict, and asked her for her most strenuous effort, and she was so hot in the gleaming Scottish sun that I threw a bucket of water over her afterwards as if she were a runner at the Royal Meeting, coming back into the unsaddling enclosure. She gave me a very slightly reproachful look, as if to say What happened to the cowgirl mooch? We’ll find it again. We always do.

And now I am about to go away for some days. I have a memorial service for one of the great old gentleman, and a happier thing too, the confirmation of my beloved godson. I have to dig out my posh frocks and find some shoes which do not have mud on them.

I am very slightly melancholy. Perhaps it is the exhaustion of writing and writing that damn secret project. I put on 55,000 words in four months, which is a stupid amount. No wonder my brain has been going phut. There is also that naked feeling, of sending something off, and waiting for the terrifying verdict. My poor little babe is tottering out into the real world. Perhaps too it is that at last I can stop, and think of the losses of the last few weeks. The latest of the Dear Departeds were put in a box, because I had work to do. Now they are close by me, and I miss them. Bloody, buggery old death.

I’ll be off the blog for a while. It’s not a holiday holiday, but it is a break, and I’m going to stop all the clocks. I shall be back, brighter and better, with my dander up and my joie de vivre restored, on the 13th of May.


Today’s pictures:

Are of the sunshine:

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I don’t know what she was up to this morning, but that picture pretty much sums it up.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Different kinds of photographs.

I do not necessarily think of myself as a tremendous grafter, but I must admit that this week I have worked my arse off. Red mare, secret book project and HorseBack: all got hours of my time, every inch of my brain, and every ounce of my effort. I did rather yearn to take a day off and go to Perth to see the races, but I doggedly stuck to my desk, and I do feel an exhausted sense of achievement. Even with the help of my trusty iron tonic, I am shattered.

As a result of all this frenzied activity, I’m afraid I have rather neglected the blogging, which has been spotty, to say the least. Even as I write this, my gnarled fingers stutter and fail over the keyboard.

So today I’m doing something I never do, which is giving you a link to another area of my work. As some of you know, I run the Facebook page for HorseBack UK, and take all their pictures and write all their prose. I’ve been madly organising the photographic archive this week, which has almost finished me off as I have a very trigger-happy shutter finger, and there are so many magical moments to record, and as a result a stupid number of snaps to edit and collate.

I gathered together a huge selection of HorseBack photographs today, and I wanted to show them to you. My photography skills are very amateur, in all senses of the word, although the root I like to emphasise is the Latin for love. These pictures are not the most technically accomplished you will ever see. But I do feel quite proud that in some of them I managed, more by luck than judgement, to capture some moments between humans and horses that make me smile and smile and smile.

Have a happy Friday, my darlings. And, as always, thank you for bearing with me.

Here is the link: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152351999335568.1073741944.197483570567&type=1

One quick, illustrative picture for you.

The amazing woman on the left is a military nurse. She has seen service everywhere from the first Gulf War to Bosnia to Afghanistan. I have not enough hats to take off. The lovely faces with her are two of the sweetest of the HorseBack mares. There is something in this photograph that almost breaks my heart.

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Thursday, 24 April 2014


A galvanic work day. I wrote hundreds of words. I edited tens of pages. I can see a little horizon of hope. There is so far to go and the resolution is so uncertain, but still, one must keep buggering on and this was splendid buggering.

My brain has, however, had it.

There is a faint snapping sizzle as it short-circuits.

Here are some randomly chosen pictures from the archive instead of words. I’m all out of words. We sold right out.

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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A good day.

The work seemed never-ending today. I wrote 1532 words of secret project, and edited almost to the end of the draft, so that it may not be secret for much longer. The agent may actually set her eyes on it. I went on with my mammoth task of organising the HorseBack photographic archive, which is exhausting and joyful at the same time. In the middle of all this, I took ten minutes to watch two of my favourite horses, one at Epsom and one at Perth. They both won, in fine style. One was the second favourite and not a great surprise, but the other, a sweet handicapping mare called Beacon Lady, whom I had backed from simple love and loyalty at 20-1, because I adored her last season, was a rank outsider, and I shouted with astonished delight as she zoomed from last to first in a matter of strides, and won going away.

I was so busy that I forgot to have lunch and now write this with a swimmy head and squinty eyes. My poor blood sugar.

But there is one more thing I must record before I go.

Last night, someone posted a wonderful video on the internet of two great event riders, doing a demonstration with their horses using no bridles, only a neck rein. The horses were wonderfully relaxed and accurate and responsive, and did dressage moves and jumping as if reading their riders’ minds. Ah, I thought, I’d never be able to do anything like that. I know my limitations. I watched in admiration, with a very faint batsqueak of regret. Never mind; we can’t all be Mozart.

When I got on Red this morning, I thought we would work on softness and balance. Nothing fancy, just getting her into a happy rhythm, at ease with herself. She was at her most calm and bright, moving through the world as if it were all arranged for her own delight. Bugger it, I thought, I’ll give it a go. So I dropped the reins and decided to see what would happen. Round the open set-aside we went, the mare in a beautiful extended walk, her left ear flicking back towards me to see what I wanted, following the route I had chosen as accurately as if we were in a double bridle. I really could not believe it. How can she be so clever?

Sure, it’s not doing dressage in an arena in front of an audience, but it’s pretty damn impressive for one of those crazy, unpredictable thoroughbreds. (Why do people perpetuate these canards? She was about as crazy and unpredictable as a Swiss watch.) I rewarded her with a dashing canter for fun, and she went joyfully on a loose rein. Then we did some accuracy work, just for the hell of it. I do this with her on the ground, asking her to move one foot at a time, but I’ve never tried it in the saddle. I wasn’t even quite sure what cue I would use. I moved my body and used a tiny bit of rein, and there it was – one foot backwards; stop; the other foot backwards; stop. I did it again to check it was not a fluke. It was not. You may imagine the vulgar flinging of self on horse which followed.

Yes, yes, she said, nodding her head, quietly pleased with herself. Of course I can do that.

What has she been doing? Taking secret lessons from dressage squirrels in the night?

I love her so much that love is not a good enough word for it.


Too tired for pictures now. Just the glorious all-seeing eye:

23 April 1

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The kindness of strangers.

The internet is such a curious thing. This morning, a writer I like very much was having difficulties with the etiquette of social networks. It is always a minefield in such a new medium, as everyone makes up the accepted mores as they go along. She had tried to do a little rationalisation of her online posse, and someone had become offended and got cross, leaving her rather bruised and baffled. Then I read an article about religion vs atheism on the Spectator website, and was amazed that the readership of such an august old lady as the Speccie should be so free from manners. The comment section was a brawling free-for-all, with everyone getting furious and calling each other names. The great-aunt in me was horrified.

These are the difficult sides of the internet. But there is also the miraculous, kind, touching side.

I follow various pages about this new school of horsemanship which fascinate me so much. I find them very interesting and very helpful. In my quest to let the red mare express her truest, most glorious self, and my own attempt to learn something every day, I find these places invaluable. I am normally too shy to write a comment, being conscious that I am at the very beginning of my journey. (What do you know? shout the voices in my head.) But today, a horseman I admire wrote something which struck a real chord, and so I threw caution to the four winds, and left a remark.

Would the fellow laugh, discern at once my most amateur status, peg me for a fool? Would he see quite clearly that I know nothing?

And then there was a little ping on my computer. The kind gentleman had replied. This alone is an act of courtesy. Most people do not have the time. What he wrote was absolutely delightful and filled me with joy. He wrote: ‘I guessed you were a writer when I saw what you wrote on my post.’

When I think about horses, I think that the most important thing is that mysterious attribute called feel. It’s almost impossible to pin down. It’s to do with the physical – a softness and give in the hands, a rhythmic way of moving the body. It’s to do with the mental – reading your horse, trying to think your way into their world. It’s to do also with the spiritual, if I may say that without sounding like a flake. It is a communion of two spirits, across the species divide.

This morning, I sat with my mare and watched her eat her hay. The spring grass is slow in coming, and she still needs a bit of the good hay to keep her going. It is glorious, fresh stuff, brought by the kind local farmer. She adores it, and as she eats she goes into a happy meditative state. I stayed by her and watched her dear face and thought about those two spirits, hers and mine, and how sometimes I cannot tell where one begins and the other ends.

Writing, too, has its mysterious, unnameable element. You can learn all the technical stuff you like. You can make yourself mistress of the semi-colon. You can quote Strunk and White by the yard. I have read all the damn manuals, sat at the feet of the masters, gone through The Great Gatsby line by line to try and identify where its genius lies. But there is that extra thing which is required, the thing which has no name, which is perhaps the equivalent of that feel I look for with my horse. It is a thing of the spirit. It does not arrive every day, but sometimes, when the light is coming from the right direction, something mysterious happens, a little alchemy, a sprinkle of stardust, and everything falls into place, and the words run free, and it is like dancing.

I could tell you were a writer, says the kind gentleman, out on the internet. (He could tell, yells my inner six-year-old, dancing with glee.) There it is, winging through the ether, a confirmation of my belief in the kindness of strangers, the best thing anyone could say, the perfect antidote to the shouting, rough voices. I shall smile for the rest of the day.


Today’s pictures:

After our dazzling Easter, dear old Scotland has reverted to her most dour state, so I did not take the camera out today. Here are a few pictures from brighter days:

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I love the good companions, bowing to each other like Japanese diplomats:

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And this is the contemplative look my old duchess has when she eats her hay, as if she is mulling over the Universal Why:

22 April 9

Monday, 21 April 2014

An unexpectedly happy day.

There’s been much sadness in the family in the last week, but oddly enough, today I did not feel sad. I remembered my father, who died on this day three years ago, with a gentle, easy fondness. I smiled, rather than wept.

I spent a long time in the sunny field with the red mare, chatting to her. As the spring springs, I decided to give her a well-deserved day off. We mooched about together, in low harmony, communing. She was in her happiest mood, at peace with the world and herself.

‘Oh,’ I said out loud, ‘Dad would have loved you.’

Later, I did a nutty accumulator, in honour of the old gentleman. I put in it all the horses I loved, rather than the ones I thought would win. I do that sometimes. They are heart bets.

The first up was Thousand Stars. He has been a top class horse in his day, but he has not won anything lately, and the suspicion is that the mighty campaigner is past his best. In the glittering Irish sunshine, he set off across the green, green grass of Fairyhouse, ears pricked, leaping over his hurdles for sheer delight. I’m not sure I ever saw a horse enjoying himself so much on a racecourse. He went straight to the lead, and stretched out the field, and I thought, well, he’ll have his fun and then he’ll come back to them, and it’s just as well that acker was each-way.

But he did not come back to them. He kept on galloping, his big, strong stride eating up the turf, his jumping true and straight. They tried to get close to him, but he seemed to say: no, today is mine. He gathered his lovely athletic body and roared clear, to win by ten lengths.

It made physical tingles run up and down my spine, as if my whole body was dancing with delight. It’s one of the happiest sights I have seen this season. Everything about it was right – a faithful competitor coming back to his best, a beautiful thoroughbred doing what he was born to do, a horse at ease with himself on the bright emerald turf.

Dad would have loved that too. Especially if he had taken the 5-1, early doors.

As I think of him, I gather all the Dear Departeds to my heart, and keep them there.


Today’s pictures:

Dad, with his serious riding face on. I love those boots:

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Dad, with his naughty I’m flirting with someone else’s wife face on:

21 April 2

This picture makes me laugh and laugh, because my father looks so naughty. On the left is Mum, in a perfectly ravishing frock, and the smiling gentleman with her is Dave Dick, who rode the winner of the Grand National in 1956. I’m not sure about the date of this photograph, but I suspect they might have been toasting his victory.

Stanley the Dog, who has been particularly sweet this week, lying guard by the side of my mother’s bed whilst my stepfather was away at a funeral:

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Red, after our ride yesterday, with her most demure look:

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Signs of spring:

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Sometimes I think all the world is in that eye:

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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Light and shade.

There has been a death in the family. It was very sudden, and it is very sad.

There is the usual sense of rupture, of wrongness. The world should not exist without this person in it.

There is the usual daily papering over the cracks. We are, in very British fashion, carrying on. I do not mean that other nationalities do not carry on, or that they fall to the floor, ululating. It just feels like a very British thing to do. It is there, the loss, in batsqueaks. It is there in small pauses, sideways glances, moments of still. It remains, mostly unspoken, humming in us.

The sun shines, with steady, determined, yellow warmth. It shone like this when my father died, which was three years ago next week.

I think: one death is all deaths. All the Dear Departeds line up, close in my heart. One death is all mortality. I think: send not to know for whom the bell tolls.

Then I go down to the field and work the mare. She is light as air, soft as silk. We free-school in a way we have never done before, so relaxed and in tune that I shout out loud into the bright air. She looks at me as if to say: you didn’t think I had that in me, did you?

We go for a ride.

There have been thoughts to think and things to do and arrangements to make. I have not ridden for two days. I wonder, as I get on, if there will be a little spring fever, or just general thoroughbred high spirits. I sit deep in the saddle and give her a loose rein and trust her, and there she goes, with her glorious aristocratic neck stretched out and her ears pricked and not a bother on her.

We have one of the best rides we have ever had, and my heart lifts in gratitude and love.


Today’s pictures are a little photo essay, of a moment with the horses, and of going back to the fundamental things, which is what I always do at times like this. Watch an animal, being itself; look at a bud, a flower, something as humble and actual as a patch of moss and grass and stone. Go back to the true and the real, as unreality plucks at one’s shoulder.

After the ride:

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Then a nice long cool-down and a little amuse-bouche:

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At which point the sweet Paint does one of her step by step stealth moves, to see if she might be allowed some:

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If I just stand here, very still, she might not notice:

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She notices:

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And then decides perhaps she has made her point:

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And will graciously allow her small friend to lick the bowl:

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Which she does:

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Whilst Red has some of the good hay brought by the kind farmer:

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Another moment of hope from the filly:

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Then she thinks better of it, and takes herself off:

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Watched by Red, who is the lead mare, after all, and must keep a close eye on her precious charge:

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A nice, cool drink:

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And I look around, at the green things, at the growing things, at the living things:

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At the simple things:

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