It’s a Bank Holiday Monday and the place is as quiet as a cathedral. The sun shines down and I decide to take a day off.
I don’t always take off weekends and national holidays. That’s the thing about writing; it expands to fit the space available. And I like to write every day, even if it’s only ten lines.
But still, to take a day off when the rest of the nation takes one makes me feel stitched into the social contract, which is a feeling I like very much.
Down in the quiet field, in the sunshine, the horses show their spring fever. The Paint drops her belly to the ground and gallops, ventre à terre, as if she is hearing her ancestral voices from the wild frontier. The red mare, much more upright, as poised as a ballet dancer, tail flying like flags, snorting like a steam train, gallops beside her.
The beauty is so elemental that I stand and stare, rooted to the good Scottish earth.
Then we do some work. The mare forgets her snorting and her Spanish Riding School of Vienna and her spring fever, and drops into her soft place, all her attention on me.
For the last few weeks we have been losing the trot. It’s there, and then it’s gone. Her stride breaks up, ragged and uncoordinated, she puts her head in the air and begins to rush. In the old days, I would have thought this perfectly normal for a thoroughbred ex-racehorse. I would have sat tight and kicked on. Now, if I do not have a soft horse, I have nothing. So I’ve been searching and searching for that softness, endlessly going back to the beginning, looking for the places where I have made a mistake.
It’s a practical thing – bending to a stop, doing lateral flexion, working up through the walk – but it’s a mental thing too. If I do not always have that good, true starting point with me, I am lost. This kind of horsemanship, so new to me, is all about rigour. If I have one stride that is too snatched, too quick, too tense, then the whole thing will fall apart. If I do not correct that stride but let it go, then I shall have trouble later on. No detail is too small to be ignored.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about time. It’s taken two years, learning this new approach, and I’m still working on the trot. Sometimes I get cross at my slowness. My great mentors, Warwick Schiller and Robert Gonzales, could fix that trot in a morning. TWO YEARS. What have I been doing?
The answer is: I have been making mistakes. Unlike those two mighty horsemen, I do not have the work of a lifetime locked away in my muscle memory. If I did not make the mistakes, I could not learn anything. There’s still a part of me which is livid that I could not just get it, and gallop off into the horizon. But learning is not a matter of furious will and snapping of fingers. One can understand something in one’s head, but still find it has not quite percolated down into the gut. Over and over again, every day, I have to practice, getting it right, getting it wrong, until it becomes second nature.
I learnt to write because I did it every day. I learnt to write by being really, really bad at writing. My first books were so rotten that I still feel embarrassed when I remember them. But if I had not been rotten, I would never have got good, because I would not have had to try.
Today, in the silent sunshine, there was the lost trot. We had found it. I’m not quite sure how. I’d been breaking things down into their constituent parts, going back and checking that every small thing was good. If the yielding of the hindquarters was even a little off, I went in until that great, powerful body was at the exact angle I had asked for. There is a sternness to this way of thinking that I like. This is no place for the slapdash. It’s for the exact same reason that I shall go back through a tenth draft, and remove a single semi-colon. It’s a tiny thing, but it makes a difference.
And through all that rigour, all that attention to detail, all those small steps, comes absolute freedom. When we found that beautiful, contained, easy trot, we were set free. I did not have to worry about anything, or ask her anything, or tell her anything. She was doing it all on her own, and I went with her, and we were part of the moving world, shimmering in harmony. We were going as slowly as two old dowager duchesses, but inside we were flying.
Happy Easter -
After the ride, she had a little doze. This is the same mare that an hour before was hoolying around the field like a crazy horse:
It has taken a long time, and I do castigate myself for being slow and stupid, but in that long time we have built something very precious. We may not be doing flying changes, but we are a partnership. I am the senior partner, because that kind horse needs a good leader so that she may feel safe. But we are, truly, in it together. It has taken a long time, but perhaps it needed to take a long time. Perhaps it should take a long time. It’s not, as I remind myself every day, magic beans. It’s building something enduring and true, and the foundations must be dug deep and each brick put on the one before. That does not happen overnight.