Today, my darlings, I lifted up a horse’s ribcage with my feet. If you were not lifting up horses’ ribcages with your feet then I don’t know what you have been doing with your time. (Especially Anne Westminster and her Grenson’s. Which is a reference only four people and a very posh dog will get.)
There was a wonderful moment before I got on. Robert Gonzales, horseman, gentleman, spectacular human, said, in his gentle, easy voice: ‘Just start warming her up there.’ I’d made an absolute cack-handed farce of the groundwork the day before, at one point managing to swirl the rope round my arm and corral myself, but I’d been thinking and pondering and brushing up overnight, so I thought: now he shall see what an old British gal can do. He watched for about three minutes, out of the corner of his kind eye. ‘OK,’ he said. ‘There are five things you are doing wrong right there.’
‘OF COURSE I AM DOING FIVE DIFFERENT THINGS WRONG,’ I bawled, in hilarity. The mare blinked at me as if to say: decorum. I doubled over with laughter. I think I may have actually slapped my thigh. Oh, the flap flap flap of the hubris angels’ wings.
Robert showed me the five wrong things. He then showed me how to do five things right. I did five things right. The mare, forgetting for a moment that she is an aristocrat, and all this trundling about the valley in trailers is quite beneath her dignity, looked first surprised and then delighted. Round she went, relaxed and athletic, using her whole magnificent body, her head down searching for softness, a lovely bend in her body. We never really get bend, but there it was. All because I was now standing in the right position and directing my energy in the right direction and putting my hand in the right place.
‘Poor old lady,’ I said, when we stopped. ‘What you have had to put up with.’
‘Right,’ said Robert, quietly pleased. ‘Get her saddled up.’
So, we rode. Under that brilliant, eagle eye, we found a glorious soft trot, we disengaged the buggery out of the hindquarters (‘move, move,’ said Robert, when he saw I was falling into mimsy), we did easy transitions, we made delicate changes of direction. I lifted that ribcage with my heels, so that her powerful thoroughbred arse could be free to do its job.
I did whoop a bit, I must confess. The new feeling coming off the mare was like a rolling, liberated wave of energy. ‘It’s as if I’ve being trying to dance Swan Lake in clogs,’ I shouted, ‘and now someone has given me a pair of ballet shoes.’
I learnt to let softness run all the way through my own body, from my shoulders to my pelvis to my calves, so that her body too would grow soft, from ears to tail.
‘Wow,’ I bellowed. (When I grow excited, I lose all volume control.)
Robert, still quiet, still smiling, taking all this on the chin, looked me in the eye. ‘Good work,’ he said.
Out on the wild shores of the internet, there is a very lovely woman who also writes a blog, and also has an adored thoroughbred, and also loves almost nothing more than a good canine. She and I became blogging friends, and then real life friends, since it turned out, rather amazingly, that I knew her brother in my university days. She often writes, very bravely and lyrically, about difficult subjects. A few days ago, she wrote a piece on loneliness. Successful, professional woman are not really supposed to admit to such frail emotions, and I thought it took a great deal of courage. One of the anonymous keyboard warriors went at once into battle. Instead of saying nothing, or writing in empathy and encouragement, Anonymous was ungenerous and unkind. Pull yourself together and stop moaning, was the burden of the mean song.
It made me think about the art of criticism. All humans make mistakes and get things wrong and fall into muddles. This morning, that good horseman told me, without apology or embellishment, that I had got five whole things wrong. He did not mean that I am a bad person or I should go into the garden to eat worms. He wanted me to get the things right, for my sake and for the sake of the mare. I sensed he had faith that I could, and so I did. Not perfect, but better. Better and better and better; every day in every way.
The critique was all practical and hopeful. That is why I laughed instead of being downcast. The anonymous critic who attacked my friend had no positive end in mind. The harsh words were purely destructive, tearing down the house with no thought for the real, feeling human who lived inside. The criticism had no utility. All it did was bruise an already bruised heart.
The cruellest voices often come from the lacerating gin-soaked critics in one’s own head. I’m learning the art of not falling into category errors; it’s one of my quiet obsessions. I do drive myself onwards, because smugness and complacency are horrid companions. I make mistakes in writing, and mistakes in horsing, and mistakes in life, and I like to look those mistakes in the whites of their eyes and strive to correct them. This does not mean that I am feckless, pointless, useless and hopeless, and that there is no health in me. It just means I got something wrong. The good critic is a lovely voice, and should be welcomed in and given cake. The bad critic should be locked in a room with a bottle of Gordon’s and left there.
And this is what I love about my red professor and all the things she teaches me – I can go from lifting a ribcage to category errors to the art of constructive criticism all in fourteen paragraphs.
I did not take the camera today. I wanted to take everything in with my eyes and my brain and my heart, and not have a filter. So there are just a couple more shots from yesterday:
Oh, and I have one more thought before I go. It is this: it’s never too late. I’m nearly fifty, and I’m learning something completely new. I hope I shall be learning it until I am ninety, because you never reach the end of a horse. What I like is that I find a joy in learning. I always was a bit of a girly swot. At the same time, there is an absurd voice in me which says that when you are a grown-up, you should know stuff; that there is something almost undignified about going back to the beginning and admitting rank ignorance. This is a stupid voice, and I mostly give it a Maggie Smith raised eyebrow. What is truly undignified is closing your mind, thinking you know it all, refusing to harvest wisdom wherever you may find it. I don’t think there is ever a moment when you are done. Hurrah, I say, without embarrassment, for going back to school.