Oh, oh, the old friends. The ease, the laughter, the fondness, the absolute lack of need to explain oneself in any way.
These particular friends are like the Radletts in Don’t Tell Alfred. (Oh, Fanny, not Fuller’s cake.) There is a lot of exclaiming – is that a new book, look at your pictures, this lunch is completely delicious, HOW HANDSOME STANLEY IS. All the good things are noticed and delighted in, and none of the bad ones even register.
I love it that we have almost thirty years of history together and that I remember their daughter from the day she was born. She is now a very charming and composed and entrancing young lady, radiating goodness and brightness and enthusiasm.
She is not a rider, although she’s been up on a few Welsh ponies. But I offered her a ride, all the same. She was thrilled by the idea. We went down to the field in the Scottish sun, and I quickly worked the red mare on the ground, partly to show them what she can do, and partly to check her state of mind before I put up such an important passenger. The wind was up, and the mare had come haring up the field to meet me at full canter with her tail in the air, so it was vital to bring her back down to earth.
Foot-perfect. I was flushed with pride. I got on, just to check further. Still as the rock of ages.
Up went the young person. I explained to her briefly about sitting straight and breathing to keep her body relaxed. I led them on a rope to start with. Safety first. But the two girls could not have been happier with each other, so I let them go. Round in a perfect circle went the thoroughbred mare and her youthful rider.
The mother, beaming, said: ‘You ride her like that, in a halter, without a bridle or a bit?’ I’m so used to it now that I hardly notice. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘That’s how I’ve trained her. That’s what she understands.’
The Young Person’s smile was so wide that it was like a beacon, flashing its message of joy all the way to Inverness.
‘You know,’ I said conversationally, ‘there are some grown-ups who won’t get onto a thoroughbred. And there you are, riding her like you’ve been on a horse your whole life.’
Stanley the Dog was prancing around, doing antic things with tree branches. The dear Paint filly, quite recovered from her illness, decided to show off her championship breeding, and did a little reining pattern of her own out in the field, and some ventre à terre galloping. The red mare, conscious of her precious cargo, took no notice, but walked gently with perfect composure. The human joy, unconfined, flew up into the bright air.
I work this mare using the horsemanship I use for many reasons. It is a compliment to her, since it takes into account her equine self, her evolutionary biology, her status as a prey animal, her herd instincts. I do it because it makes her feel happy and safe. I do it because it is practical, and makes every single thing, from putting on a rug in a gale to loading her onto a trailer, very, very easy. I do it because it reduces the risk of these creaking middle-ages bones getting broken. I do it because it interests me intellectually, as I watch the species barrier come as close as it can to being crossed. I do it because it is sheer, visceral pleasure, an earthed and physical thing. I do it because it builds the bond between us, and that makes my heart sing.
But sometimes I think I do it because it gives me a horse I can trust so much that I may offer a happy young person a moment of pure pleasure. I need have no fret or worry. The red mare is not the fiery ex-racehorse of myth, the hot-blooded thoroughbred of stereotype. She is a horse at home with herself who will carry a raw beginner kindly and with care. That is worth more than rubies.