Thursday, 24 July 2014

The voices in my head.

‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ says the critical voice. ‘Tell them you can’t do the bloody blog. Half of them probably hate it anyway. They have lives to be living. What can it matter?’

The critical voice gasps at her fag and orders another gin. I think she probably did not get enough love as a child.

I was on the verge of writing: no blog for a while. Everything is on fast forward. I did 1527 words and HorseBack and the horse and the dog and my family things and did not have time for the vital administrative tasks that have been hanging over my head for days or the picking of the ragwort, which is like painting the Forth Bridge. I am furious about the ragwort.

Stanley escapes and barks at the nice farmer bringing the good hay, and the farmer looks affronted and hurt. I am hurt on his behalf. How could Stanley bark at the farmer? I know he thinks he is protecting the old homestead, but even so. This unsettles the mare, who usually ignores Stanley, and then the Paint sees him creeping through the bushes and thinks he is a mountain lion. My green paradise is suddenly besieged and the peace that normally lives there is fled.

‘Bloody ragwort,’ I shout, seeing it sprouting evilly through the set-aside, no matter how hard I dig the bastard up. ‘It’s six o’clock and I have not yet finished my work and I have not finished the weed-digging and how can there be a blog?’

I was going to say no blog because of all these good reasons. Something has to give. Really though it was to do with a long day and exhaustion and one moment of idiot fury. It only takes fifteen minutes to write two hundred words. I know that it occupies much more mental time, because I do think about it a bit you will be astonished to hear, but even so, it’s not a three-hour slog. The sudden spasm is because I am not listening to my sensible voice of yesterday about perfection being the enemy of the good.

(Thank you so much to the intelligent Dear Reader who knew it was Voltaire.)

The reason I do this is because I like having postcards, which I can look back on. I like markers.

I like the strangers who come and read and say: me too.

I like the act of writing. I think of it as a good discipline, a practice, like doing your arpeggios in the morning.

If one person, one single human, reads this and raises a smile because of some idiot joke or a dancing stretch of prose or a needed thought, then my work is done.

Its ambitions are shatteringly small. How odd I think, that I started it to promote Backwards, with the absolute conviction that I could go viral, sell a million copies, and retire with fields full of ex-racehorses. Now, one smile, even a fleeting one, is enough.

I like that it is free. Paid work has a different aspect to it, slightly distanced by professionalism. I adore reading good journalism, even if it is by people with whom I radically disagree. There are columnists whose weekly articles I look forward to keenly. But I get a very different kind of pleasure from reading my sister blogger across the Atlantic, with her thoughts on love and heartbreak and family and food and the beauty of the canyon in which she lives, so far away. It is a sweeter pleasure, because she does it for love, and so her blog has a personal authenticity which no paid writing can match. It is a gleaming glimpse inside the soul of an ordinary human, struggling with all the ordinary challenges and ordinary griefs and ordinary joys of life. And it has a truth in it which makes it extraordinary.

The critical voice has now given up and gone to buy another bottle. She quite often does not stay long. She gets disgusted and moves on to wreck someone else’s party. The sensible voice has her sensible hat on and is enjoying her moment in the sun. She does not need gin, although she has been known to indulge in the occasional Negroni.

‘You can fit it in,’ she says. ‘Everyone has busy lives. It does not matter if it is only three lines. Don’t give it up because you are feeling a bit overwhelmed in one hour of one day. Just write it, word by word. Don’t fret if it is not the dazzling thing that exists in your head. You don’t need bouquets and cups; you just need to write.’

The sensible voice is awfully nice.

Stanley the Dog has now calmed down. The mare is settled for the night.  The delicious new hay is in the shed. The sun is still shining. I have not finished my work, but I never finish my work. Like the ragwort, it is always with me.

I remember that the 1527 words were not bad, and that despite my endless panic about time, I did manage to take ten minutes to back a winner at Sandown, and that Red and I had one of our floating trots in the hayfield this morning, so light it was like dancing.

We wheeled in and out of the huge cotton-reel bales, shifting to left and right as easily as thought. When she first arrived, she believed that the bales were monsters which would eat her, and often leapt vertically in the air, all four feet off the ground, at the very sight of one. Now we slalom between them like cowgirls in a cutting competition.

The enemy of the good is quite strong at the moment. This is usually a sign that something is not quite right. I need to take a deep breath and see what it is. I’ll excavate. There is always a reason.

But the main thing is that there is good. I can still hear the old lady from yesterday singing, in my head. She sang a song to my red mare. Nothing can be too bad when a thing like that happens.


Today’s pictures:

This one feels rather illustrative. The focus is all wrong, but it does not matter. You can still see the beauty of the little marjoram flowers:

24 July 1

And I got a friend in to help with the lawn-mowing:

24 July 2

24 July 3

24 July 4

24 July 4-001

While Stan the Man kept busy catching the bluebottles:

24 July 10

And then had a most deliriously joyful roll:

24 July 11

There. Better now.

I do like to think that perhaps, each day, there might be one tiny thing here that brings a smile to your face. The truth is, you bring a smile to mine, by listening. Once I have shared with the group, the gentle breeze of perspective blows.

Thank you for that.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The enemy of the good.

I have slightly been living, like a camel, off the hump of the triumphant visit of the red mare to the care home last week. It was such a crossing of the Rubicon in so many ways. Flushed with the happy memory, I went back to easy, slow work in the safety of our home fields, doing things at which we could not fail. I became a little shy of marring the Great Moment with any subsequent setback, as if now only the highest accomplishments were acceptable, and any ordinary, muddly imperfections would render the whole thing a phoney and a fake. (The irrational mind really is a fiend from hell sometimes.)

Perhaps because of this, we had not made a firm date to return, although it was in my mind that I wanted to, since turning my lovely girl into a proper therapy horse is the dearest wish of my heart.

This morning, the sun was gleaming and beaming in a most unScottish way. We had a lovely lope out into the hayfields and felt friendly and relaxed and in tune with each other. I am crazy busy just now, and did not think I had the time to go and see the old people today. But I decided on a whim that we would just cross the main road into the village, so that the iron bars did not harden in my soul, leaving us once again paddock-bound.

Last week was low and cloudy. Today, because of the glittering sun, there were dazzles and reflections everywhere. Glancing light on shining surfaces has been one of the red mare’s bugbears since very early days, when she could go into top-speed reverse at the mere glimpse of sun on water.

Up went the head, on came the aristocratic snorting. Something had caught her attention like a laser, and it took me a moment to work out what it was. She had seen herself, in full view, reflected in the window of the local bank. Whoa, whoa, who is THAT??? For some moments, she could not process this new apparition in any meaningful way. The ladies in the chemist were laughing their heads off.

Bugger, I said to myself. I thought it had all been going so well. We’d got everything so soft and low and lovely, and now she was high as a kite again. For a moment, I was seized with shame and a sense of crashing failure. Then I took a grip, and worked her through it. Rather madly, we went down to the tiny industrial park, where the car mechanics are, and the recycling plant and the mysterious shuttered units with secret lorries coming in and out. There, as the rattly recycling trucks trundled back and forth, with their recorded voices shouting ‘CAUTION; LORRY REVERSING’ and their beep beep beep, we worked on lateral flexion and delicate turning to left and right until her stiff neck relaxed and stretched and eased. It took fifteen minutes. The lady with magenta hair walking her dog clearly thought we were nuts in the head.

Perhaps it was a little step backwards. If you educate a horse well, it should be able to deal with almost any amount of stimuli. But before I fell entirely into the beckoning pit of shame, I reminded myself that we are still in a learning curve, and that we did work our way through it. She came back to me, and stopped snorting at the glitters and gleams and the strange people and the alarming moving vehicles. She breathed out a long sigh, and decided that the mountain lions were not, after all, going to eat her whole. She dropped her dear head, and flicked her ears back to listen to me once more, instead of blindly staring at the hills, from when the attack bears would surely arrive.

So, after all that, we went to the old people. Because settling her had taken longer than I thought, they were going in for lunch. But two enchanting ladies disdained such ordinary things as food, and came out and gazed at the mare and admired her and said hello. She stood beautifully still, and tickled their hands with her whiskers. One of the ladies was so overcome with delight that she sang a special song. ‘Tail up, horsey,’ she sang, in a light, reedy, happy voice; ‘and bring out the sunshine.’ Red dropped her head to listen, much struck. I practically burst into tears. ‘That,’ I said, staunchly, ‘is a great song.’ My lady smiled so much her ears almost fell off.

As we rode home on a loose rein, composed again, a line came into my head. ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.’ I have a suspicion it was first said by someone very wise, and possibly very famous. I don’t know where I heard it or how I know it.

It was not perfect. There was tension; there was snorting; there was some initial fear. We are progressing in so many ways, but my work here is not yet done. The progress will never be seamless and Whiggish, on a smooth upward curve. There always shall be blips and small reversals. The important thing, I think is to mark the fact that the good was so good. She was still and gentle with the two delightful women. She walked right up into a strange porch and looked in the great plate-glass window of the care home, so that those inside could smile at her. She brought joy to people who are stoically dealing with the twilight of their lives, when dignity is so easily stripped away, and mortality is starkly on show.

And once again, most generously, she left a steaming pile of dung for the roses.


Today’s pictures:

All hosed off and cooled down and posing graciously for her close-up:

23 July 1

And demonstrating her tremendous ground-tying skills:

23 July 2

Which is doubly remarkable when you consider that Stanley the Dog was having a hell of a rumble with his new best friend Spike:

23 July 3

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A snapshot of a day. On account of there being too much work and too little time.

Too much to do; not enough hours in the day.

But there were 1527 new words written, HorseBack work done, and a joyful ride on the red mare. She is in her high Zen mode, so soft and calm and relaxed it makes me want to shout for joy. Something has changed, and we have gone into a whole new realm of loveliness.

The Sister came to the field this morning, and observed the sweet horse, and she too smiled and smiled, even though she is going through some fairly fraught life changes. For a moment, nothing mattered but the bright sun and the good earth and this enchanting, kind equine.

As I rushed off to do my work, I wound down the window of the car and called: ‘Thank you for admiring my mare.’ That is worth more than diamonds to me.

Meanwhile, Stanley the Dog has his own heavy work-load. He is on full bluebottle patrol. He barks at them, growls at them, leaps about the house trying to catch them, and snaps at them with crocodile jaws. The fuckers will rue the day.

Then, as you can see from the pictures, he is so exhausted he has to flake out in the sun.


Today’s pictures:

My mother asked me to make an arrangement from the garden for the nurses who looked after her so well in hospital. I was quite pleased with them:

22 July 1

Flaked-out Stanley the Dog, after his bluebottle work was done:

22 July 2

Although he woke up the moment he sensed one more:

22 July 4

And then crashed out again:

22 July 4-001

A couple of days ago I was having such an intense conversation with my brother and sister that I let the mare off the rope so she could explore the garden while we talked. I suspect this kind of thing is not in the BHS rulebook:

22 July 5

Hmm. Not sure about that wild rose:

22 July 6

Thanks. Seen enough now. I know you are busy, but you really should think about doing those edges:

22 July 11

And here she is, getting the love from the brother and sister:

22 July 8

Raindrops on the cotinus:

22 July 9

Our glorious blue hills, shimmering in the sun:

22 July 10

Friday, 18 July 2014

Write it down.

One of my best beloveds once told me this story. I must allow for human misremembering and natural tendency to embellish, but I think it is true.

The Dalai Lama travels everywhere with two scribes. Presumably they are there to make sure no pearl of Lama wisdom is dropped. The great words may all be recorded, and codified, and made available to the world. One day, in skittish mood, the Dalai Lama made a rather frivolous joke. (It may even have been a slightly risqué joke. I can’t remember.) The scribes’ pens hovered over their paper, uncertainly. The Dalai Lama saw the hesitation, and said, with a mock imperative in his light, sing-song voice: ‘Write it down, write it down.’ Then he burst into peals of laughter.

That story has always stuck in my head. I love that story. I hear the words ‘write it down’ in the Dalai Lama’s voice all the time, and they make me laugh.

My own write it down is less a words of wisdom thing, and more an obsessive-compulsive thing. Life does not quite exist, until it is written on the page. It certainly makes no sense until it is mapped in words. Writing brings order, and reason, and sense. I think that is why humans love fiction. Fiction has a shape, which life does not. A good narrative has foreshadowings, and Chekhov’s gun, loaded in the first act. In life, the shot just rings out.

There was no foreshadowing to the bringing down of a commercial airliner by unruly Ukrainian separatists, using a surface-to-air missile almost certainly supplied by the Russians. There was no presentiment, as those three hundred humans boarded their flight to go on holiday, or visit family, or attend a conference about AIDS. Everything must have seemed very ordinary and usual. In the quiet Ukrainian field where the wreckage now lies, there would have been no portents.

Everyone will write that down. The pundits will write of the geo-political ramifications, and the experts will write of the ramping up of the conflict, and the armchair psychologists will attempt to get into the mind of Mr Putin. People will try to give it a shape, try to make sense of it. It has no sense. It is one of those events that is so shocking and unexpected and tragic that it goes into the realm of the meaningless. It is where words fail.

In my quiet, ordinary life, a world away from havoc and mayhem, the red mare and I have a trot in the hayfields of such lightness and grace that it makes me shout out loud. The swifts fly with us, over the green grass. As this shining moment happens, at once I think: write it down. Then I think: no, you don’t have to start making sentences in your head. Just live it. Just let it happen. Not everything has to go into paragraphs.

I get back to my desk, galvanised for a big day of work. A letter sits waiting for me. It is from an old friend. She had been going through her photograph boxes, and she had found a picture of my dad. Her mother and my father were friends from childhood, and knew each other in their dancing youth. ‘Very funny and very naughty,’ was how her mother described him, with the remembering, indulgent smile that people always use for my dear old dad.

There he was, vivid and alive, making a face, as he would have said, all the funniness and naughtiness there in the twinkle of his eyes.

‘Oh,’ I said, out loud.

I burst into tears.

Even as I wiped away the tears, the voice came back. Write it down, write it down.

There were so many things to say – the sweet thoughtfulness of the friend who sent the picture, the sudden resuscitation of the dear departed, how much I still think of my father, even three years after his death. I thought of the curious act of alchemy: when someone dies, they leave their best self behind. It is the glory days that I carry with me, in my heart, all my father’s better angels. That is the paradoxical gift of death. I remember him at his most mighty, before age and care wore him down to a shadow of his fine self. I remember the laughter and the courage.

Then, again, the other voice said: don’t start putting it into words, not yet. Let it lie. Sit with it. Let it go into your body and feel it. The writing can come later.

I think, quite often, of how easy it is to miss your life. One is so busy thinking of what must be done tomorrow, or worrying over the mistakes of yesterday, or fretting about the possible pitfalls of next month, that the present moment is entirely lost. But that moment is your life, and each one must be cherished.

I was riding a few days ago, down past the burn, with the blue hills lazing in the light. As usual, I was thinking of twenty different things. Quite often, when I ride, I am writing my book in my head, getting ready for going to the machine and typing. If I am not doing that, I am thinking of different training techniques, or what I want to do with the mare tomorrow, or what possible errors I am making. I suddenly stopped, and paid attention. The birds were singing. They were singing their dear heads off, a perfect orchestra of nature; I was in the front row of the stalls, and it was all for free. I realised I had not even heard them until that still moment, because there was so much noise in my head. Listen to the birds, I thought; don’t miss the birds.

I used to think that writing it down would capture life and mean that none of it was wasted. It was an armour against forgetting. The thing would be preserved. Now I see that if you are always writing it, shaping it, whipping it into the euphony of perfect prose, then you are in danger of letting the thing shoot past your ears. Sometimes, one just has to live it. It astonishes me that something so simple can be so hard. It should come naturally, but the antic mind is oddly afraid of letting itself go slack. Thinking can be a diversion and a defence.

I love thinking. I love words. I love thinkers, and people who can make language dance. But sometimes, sometimes, life must simply be lived.


Today’s pictures:

Are all about the best beloveds:

18 July 2

17 July 3

17 July 4

The dear old pot table, a bit scruffy this year, but still with its own loveliness:

17 July 4-001

This is the picture I saw as I opened that envelope. My kind friend is in the middle. My dad is on the left. You see what I mean about the twinkly eyes:

18 July 1

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The nicest of them all.

At last, my mother is home from the hospital. I lie on her bed and talk of Michael Scudamore, who has died.

‘I can see him now,’ says my mother. ‘Sitting on the lawn, in a director’s chair, drinking Pimm’s.’

­­­­I think how racy my mother must have been, to have a director’s chair on the lawn in the late fifties.

‘He was a very good jockey,’ she says. ‘He rode with your father. But the real thing about him is that he was so nice. He was the nicest of them all.’

Nice is considered a poor word. Writing manuals strictly instruct you not to use it, not if you want to be taken seriously. I like it. It is a small, humble, unassuming word. It does not show-boat, or take up all the oxygen in a room. And it does, whatever the sneery received wisdom says, mean something.

When I was young and heedless, I suspect I probably agreed with the sneerers. Who wanted to be nice? It was so dull, so safe, so workaday. Much better to be charming or wild or reckless. Now I am older, and chipped around the edges, I crave niceness. How lovely and reassuring to be nice, in a rushing, technological world, where internecine battles break out at the drop of a hat, and trolls stalk the internet, spreading their bile.

He was a nice man, Mr Scudamore, and that is a proper epithet for a gentleman of the turf.

My mother tells me about Dave Dick, who was the joker of the pack, and drove a car like a maniac. ‘He never had his eye on the road,’ says my mother. ‘He was always looking at you to see if you got the joke of the week. Oh, I was so frightened.’

‘Fred Winter was my hero,’ says my mother. ‘Because of how he rode a horse. He was the most beautiful jockey I ever saw over a fence.’

She pauses, remembering. ‘Then Francome came along. And he was beautiful too.’

I remember watching John Francome ride. There was a poetry in it.

‘The one I love watching at the moment,’ I say, ‘on the flat, is Ryan Moore. I watched him educate a two-year-old colt in a race the other day. He took him through the whole thing, very gently, step by step, letting him find his stride, sitting perfectly still, and then picking him up a furlong out and letting him rock into a flying rhythm and showing him his business. He won, and he never picked up his whip, just hands and heels.’

‘So the horse would not know he had a race,’ says my mother, smiling. ‘Scobie Breasley used to do that. He was a genius with two-year-olds.’

We talk of the Hannon two-year-olds, and how beautiful they are. Many trainers have a stamp of a horse. You can often tell, seeing the mighty creatures in the paddock, which yard they come from. The Hannons love big, strong, close-coupled horses, very deep through the girth, with short, powerful necks and finely-carved heads. ‘And Mark Johnston,’ says my mother, ‘likes those honest, long horses, rather old-fashioned types.’

‘Who look as if they might go hurdling,’ I say.

Almost under her breath, almost wistful, my mother says: ‘The most beautiful of them all was Frankel.’

We remember Frankel, as if we are paying homage, which in a way we are.

‘They have a presence,’ I say. ‘Those great ones.’

‘Nijinsky had it,’ says my mother. ‘You could feel it the moment you stepped onto the course. Although he wasn’t much fun to see in the pre-parade ring.’

‘Because he got so lathered up?’ I ask.

‘Oh,’ says my mother, indulgently,as if describing a naughty schoolboy, ‘he got himself in such a state. But it never seemed to make any difference. He just went and won anyway.’

‘Michael Scudamore,’ says my mother, reverting to our point of origin, ‘made a dynasty. Imagine that. His grandson is riding now.’

‘Tom Scu,’ I say. ‘He’s a lovely jockey. And a gentleman too.’

We contemplate the Scudamores, the nicest of them all, a family which knows horses like sailors know the sea. I think of the brothers, who only this week carried the coffins of their grandfather and grandmother into a Norman church. The old lady died, and her husband followed her three days later.

What loss they must be feeling: two blows coming so close together, two mighty oaks felled. I look out at the sunshine. It was sunny like this when my father died, that impossible, improbable sun which is not supposed to shine on dear old Blighty, not on these islands of mist and rain. The Scudamores must have that same feeling of unreality that I remember so well. They must be looking out into the blinding light and waiting for the world to make sense again.


Today’s pictures:

The red mare is having a well-deserved day off. Today, she just gets to be a horse, out in the long grass, with her dear friend for company and the sun on her back:

17 July 1

17 July 2

17 July 3

Wednesday, 16 July 2014


I have that undefended, deflated feeling which comes after too much excitement. It is like a child going to a party. You eat too much chocolate cake, do a tap dance, play kiss-chase with all the boys, and, as your mother predicted, there are tears before bedtime.

I am prone to passions. When one has me in its grip, I feel certain that it must be shared. There is a regrettable lack of editing or restraint.

Afterwards, as the waves of angst crash on the shore, my sensible mind says: nobody has to read it. It is your blog. It is free. And maybe someone who is having a shitty day will smile. And maybe someone who is feeling dislocated might sigh and say: me too. And maybe there is a life lesson in there somewhere.

That is the hope.

Here is the fear, which comes from the snapping jaws of the irrational mind. There you are, says the fear, which is a hag-bitch from hell, banging on again. On and on with the monomania. Not everyone has to know. You should just think these things, and not write them all down. People have lives to lead, and not enough time. It’s just a DAMN HORSE.

Sometimes, the rational mind fears the irrational mind may have point. This is one of those times.

I also had angst because I suddenly thought I had pushed the mare too much. I had  asked a vast deal of of her. I went down to the field and stood with her for a long time, rubbing her and relaxing her and putting her to rights. I apologised, just in case. She wibbled her lower lip and sighed. I interpreted this as a sign of forgiveness.

I apologise to the Dear Readers too. I really will write of something else. You are kind and good and you put up with a lot.

Don’t apologise, bawls the defensive brain. Don’t show weakness. Once there is blood in the water, the sharks will gather.

But frailty is part of the human condition. Vulnerability is what makes people interesting. There is no point building a castle keep and retreating inside it. The passions make me stupidly vulnerable, and there is no point pretending they don’t. It was a big day, and I told it in too much detail, and now I am crashed.

Miss Overshare sends her regrets, like Miss Otis.

But the lovely thing is that tomorrow the sun shall rise again, and with it shall come brevity and pith.

16th July 56

The Great Moment.

Warning: this is crazy long. It also involves an awful lot of horse. It’s a story I really wanted to tell, and it has taken many, many words. Feel free to skip on and come back tomorrow, when there will be pith.


The Great Moment arrived.

Of course, in the manner of so many great moments, it did not turn out quite as I had dreamed it. There was no swoony Disney effect, with a sweeping string section and not a dry eye in the house. No Hollywood producer, had she been passing, would have stopped and said: ‘I must make a damn film out of that.’

It was very ordinary, and very, very sweet.

I’d worked the mare on the ground and under the saddle for a long time in the morning, to prepare her. She did an enchanting free-school, with floating transitions between walk and trot from my body only, and then hooked on and walked round the field with me, her head low and her ears in their donkey position.

In the saddle, I did something which I should have been doing every day, and have not. As I learn this new kind of horsing, I get so excited that I skip parts and jump around and do not do the things in order. Let’s do that today, I say to myself, galvanised because I’ve just seen it demonstrated. Or let’s try this, just for fun. In fact, one should roll through the foundational steps, in their right sequence, every single day, as automatically as if one were brushing one’s teeth.

I finally got the message, and put into action one of the most brilliant techniques I have ever learnt. It is a mental thing. You get on your horse and you say: where would you like to go today? The horse moves off. Usually it will go to the gate or where the feed is or the place where its buddies are hanging out. When you get there, you make it work. You disengage the hindquarters and turn it in tight circles and, as Warwick Schiller says, the brilliant Australian horseman from whom I learnt this method, annoy the hell out of it. Not in a mean way, but just because you are continually asking something. Then, when you are facing away from the favourite spot, you let it go on a long rein and the moment it moves off, you leave it alone. You go from work, work, work, to bluebirds and butterflies.

Sure enough, Red wanted to go to the top gate where the feed lives. Circle, circle, circle. She got the message very quickly. Off we went in the opposite direction, on the buckle. Then she tried the bottom gate, where the grazing is. Circle, circle. Then she tried her little paint friend. Circle.

She is so clever that she got it at once, and she stretched out her duchessy neck and strode off, athletic and relaxed, to the easy places.

I love this method because it means you are not saying no. You are saying: of course you can go over here if you want, but if you do, there will be work. On the other hand, if you go over here, where I want, there will be only lightness and ease. It’s what Buck Brannaman calls offering the horse a good deal.

Usually we have a bit of an argument as we leave the field. She wants her breakfast; she wants her pal. I want to go riding. Argy, bargy. Today, because I finally went back to proper basics, there was no argument, only a polite conversation.

It also has the miraculous ability to relax them. I’m still not sure entirely why it has this effect, but it is as if some lovely Zen mistress has come and sprinkled cooling fairy dust in the air.

Out in the hayfields, we did another foundational exercise, again of a simplicity so delightful that a child of nine could do it. If your horse wants to go left, you turn it right, and vice versa. Again, the miraculous relaxing. We did this out in the hayfields, and at one point she actually breathed out a gusting sigh of happiness and relief.

This was the preparation. I write it all down because the work to get to the Great Moment was as important as the moment itself.

Into the brave new world we went. It was twenty times better than yesterday. There was no snorting, and no spooking. Buses honked and hissed, tractors and trailers clanked past, bicycles whooshed by. The red mare twitched her ears and walked boldly on. We met another tiny child. There was the same awe-gazing that we had seen before. My heart, as it always does when I see this look cast upon my beautiful red girl, flew into the light Scottish air.

Down to the care home we travelled, going kindly within ourselves. And just as we arrived, and I was about to break out the swoony string section in my head, the mare, with perfect bathos, lifted her aristocratic tail and took a huge dump right by the tubs of begonias.

I let sentiment go by, and laughed and laughed. ‘Good for the roses,’ said one of the carers, staunchly.

Out came the old people. All of them were suffering from the various indignities of age, as time ruthlessly ravaged their minds and bodies. Some were in stages of dementia, some had physical infirmities. Some had words which made no sense; some had no words at all. One or two were hovering on the cusp, just holding on before the final infirmity caught them in its crocodile grip. They came out with sticks and walking frames and wheelchairs. The carers, capable and brisk, said: ‘Look, here is a horse. A HORSE.’

‘This is Phoenix,’ I said. ‘She is a thoroughbred.’ And, I’m ashamed to say, I told them, because I can never resist it: ‘Her grandfather won the Derby.’

‘Hello, Felix,’ said a chorus of amazed voices.

She did not, as I had slightly hoped she would, at once stick her dear face out and tickle them gently with her whiskers. She was a little astonished by such a gathering of strangers. A great murmuring had broken out, a chorus of exclamation. It was a very familiar sound to me and it took me a moment to realise what it was. It was the exact same noise that the crowds make when they gather round the winner’s enclosure at the races. At last, I thought, this finely-bred racehorse, who trundled round the back at gaff tracks, is in the winning circle.

Like a winner, she caught a wing of adrenaline, and stuck her head in the air and let out a calling whinny. The old people found this hysterical. They smiled at her and laughed at her and gave her carrots. She was a little restless, more reactive than I would have liked, but it was a small space, filled with humans she had never met before, and, considering it was only her second visit to the village, I thought she comported herself amazingly. She took the carrots and amused her audience by flinging little orange scraps about the place as she chomped.

It was not quite the Disney moment. She did not lay her velvet muzzle on a frail old hand and let out a low breath of recognition. She was not yet relaxed enough for that. But she will be, in time. We shall go again, and she shall get to know them, and I’ll work sternly on those foundations, and we’ll get that magic moment.

It was an ordinary grey day, in an ordinary little village, outside one of those ordinary buildings thrown up in the 1970s with no thought for aesthetics. It was an ordinary group of humans, carrying the ordinary afflictions of age. It was an ordinary horse, with her ordinary rider.

It was not a movie. It was real life. And damn, she did make those people laugh and smile.


Today’s pictures are a photo essay of the morning:

Before work:

16 July 1

After desensitising:

16 July 2

Free-schooling. Notice her ear turned in towards me:

16 July 3

Transitioning down to walk:

16 July 4

Hooking on:

16 July 6

16 July 7

Resting, after all her good groundwork:

16 July 8

Out into the hayfields:

16 July 9

At the care home, I walk away to take pictures. Big whinny. WHERE ARE YOU GOING????:

16 July 10

And what’s over there?:

16 July 11

Well, I suppose it is all right:

16 July 14

Are we really on the Deeside way?

16 July 15

Answer: yes. And there is the village:

16 July 18

And the hills:

16 July 19

16 July 20

And the long view east:

16 July 21

And back to the village again:

16 July 24

Going home:

16 July 24-001

16 July 25

16 July 27

The end of the mighty ride. She can hear her little Paint friend calling:

16 July 29

Hosed off and shaking it all out:

16 July 31

And having a well-deserved pick in the long grass:

16 July 33

There is a postscript to all this.

Because I had made my offer to go to the old people, I really had to go back and concentrate on the work I do with this mare. You can’t just take a thoroughbred on a mission like that and kick on and hope for the best. I grew up in the old school of kicking on and hoping for the best, and I don’t disdain that. Using those traditional English methods, I did dressage and working hunter and cross-country and showing and won many red ribbons and silver cups.

But I like this new school because it has a simple solution for every problem. The minute you see the world through the horse’s eyes, everything can get fixed. I find a delightful utility in it. I like it too because although I think of it as a new school, it is in fact very old. It does not belong to anyone. The great horsemen are like aristocrats with their stately piles: they are not owners, they are custodians, passing on the wisdom to the next generation. The knowledge that I now use was passed along by Ray Hunt and the Dorrances, men whose names I did not even know until two years ago, men now departed on whose sage words I hang.

Through the miracle of the internet, one of the holders of that flame makes it available to neophytes like me, in a practical, easily accessible form. I went back to the school of the magnificent Mr Schiller and did not muck about this time. The mare and I had a serious purpose, and I could no longer be cavalier. I had to be rigorous, and follow the steps. The difference in my horse was immense.

The discrete purpose had a lovely unexpected consequence. It set us free. Even though I’m very proud of everything the mare has achieved, I still was conscious that I had a great, powerful thoroughbred under me. Because I am still in the learning stage, there were days when she could be unpredictable. I am middle-aged, and I have not ridden seriously for thirty years. I saw no reason to take unnecessary risks. We kept to the safe places, the quiet fields and tracks near home. The main road was a Rubicon for us; there was no thought of crossing it. Why should we? We could play in the hayfields and the sheep meadows and the home paddocks.

After we left the care home today, I took her out on the Deeside way. I would never have dreamed of doing this before, in a million years. Why not? I thought, seeing the sign; let’s just go. And suddenly there were the bright open fields and the long blue hills and the unknown spaces. And there we were, in them, on a loose rein, in perfect harmony.

I realised that I had been hamstrung by fear, by horrid imaginings, by doubt. But because I had gone back to the beginning, and concentrated my mind, and applied the proper techniques in the proper order, I was utterly liberated. We could go anywhere, in our rope halter.

She had a bit of a look, and a bit of a tense, and then she took confidence from me and walked out, easy and relaxed, with that lovely sway of pride that the fine ones have.

Who would have guessed, I thought, that a visit to the old people would have set us free?


And finally, this quote about the horse from Ray Hunt is like a prose poem. I’m going to recite it in my head every morning:

‘You want your body and his body to become one.
This is our goal.
It takes some physical pressure naturally, to start with, but you keep doing less and less physical and more and more mental. Pretty soon, it’s just a feel following a feel, whether it comes today, tomorrow or next year.
So one little thing falls into line, into place.
I wish it would all fall into place right now for you, but it doesn’t because it has to become a way of life.
It’s a way you think.
It’s a way you live.
You can’t make any of this happen, but you can let it happen by working at it.’


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