Author’s note: I did of course have wonderful plans for the first post back. I’ve been out in the world, and I was going to tell you about that. I had stories to tell. I’d been thinking many, many thoughts on the long drive back. I was going to be like the Ferrero Rocher ambassador, and spoil you. Then the red mare did something so lovely that I could only write of that, because I could only think of that. (There really is not enough room in my mazy brain for more than one thing at a time.) So I’m afraid this is very, very horsey, even more horsey than usual. I’ve put in some extra Scotland photographs at the end, in a tragic attempt to make up for it.
Back after a very busy, very wonderful and very emotional week at Aintree. I was at full stretch, doing all my HorseBack work, and now have hit the wall and need to sit quietly in my room for a while.
As I drove home through the snowy mountains, I thought of my dear red mare. She is the thing that pulls me home. I may have been seeing some of my most beloved racing stars, some of the most elegant, beautiful and elite athletes on the planet, but the face I miss is that of a muddy, woolly duchess, who never won a prize in her life.
I got on her back this morning after not having sat on her for six days. The popular wisdom is that in springtime, with the new grass and the twinkles in the toes, thoroughbreds should not really be leapt on like that. I did about ten minutes of groundwork first, just to check her state of mind and remind her that her good leader had returned, and then, off we went.
Because I’ve been learning a completely new way of working with horses, we haven’t done any advanced or technical riding. I’m still trying to figure out how to do everything correctly on the ground, to get her and me to the place we both need to be. My version of schooling in the saddle consists of two daily exercises, both unbelievably basic.
The first is called Where do you want to go? I get on the mare, let out the reins, and allow her to go where she will. If she gets stuck anywhere, like the gate or the feed shed, I work her there, and then let her go again. It’s a fabulous exercise and it fixes about eight different things and I love it and it makes me laugh. But it’s not exactly technical. It mostly consists of me waving my arms in the air or scratching her withers whilst asking: where do you want to go? I’m always curious to see where she chooses, and wonder what is going on in her dear head whilst she makes those navigational decisions.
Then we move on to the Left Right exercise, which is about balance and straightness and light steering. If the horse goes left, you steer it right, and vice verse. It’s really that simple. So you see, we are not exactly doing collection or flying changes.
We were working on these today, doing our ABCs, and she was a little tense and tentative and I was bringing her down until she relaxed. We were looking for softness, which is our holy grail. And then, suddenly, in a ravishing collected trot, she started going in perfect circles, with the most beautiful bend in her body, using every inch of that duchessy thoroughbred self. She used to be quite stiff, and she would drop her shoulder, and she would lean on me, and her body would go out of alignment. I have not worked on any of that specifically. I’ve just done this wonderfully basic work on the ground and under the saddle, trying to teach myself as much as her, concentrating on getting each small step right, sometimes feeling like a fool because I am still muddling about in the foothills when everyone else is galloping over the mountain peaks.
But there, out of the blue, she described a balletic, poised, perfect circle, with everything in the right place. When that happens, you can feel it, like someone has thrown a switch and the whole world has changed. And the really lovely thing is that I was not doing anything. She was doing it by herself. That’s the point of all this work, to give her the confidence to carry herself. I simply point the way, ask the question, and then let her alone. There is no nagging or correction.
I was so amazed that I dropped the reins and let her go, simply moving my body with hers. And she kept right on going, in her delirious dressage diva circuit, everything in harmony. Every inch of her body, every muscle and every sinew, was working in time, each moving part going smoothly with the other. I’m not sure I ever felt anything like it.
In a daze of delight, I said whoa, and she stopped on a sixpence and I leapt off and covered her in strokes and rubs and kisses, wishing I could express to her the brilliance of what she had just done. She stood like a statue, with her head low, her ears in their dozy donkey position, her lower lip wibbling in the suspicion of an equine smile.
Did she know? I hope she knew.
She made me cry actual tears of joy and gratitude.
There is something sometimes frustrating about putting myself back to school, about having to learn humility and patience and rigour, about having to go over and over and over and over the very, very small things, until I have them right. I’m quite a slow learner, and sometimes I think: oh, bugger it, let’s just gallop off into the middle distance and forget all this. But what it does mean is that I appreciate the smallest things as if they are dazzling diamonds. I shouldn’t think many other horsewomen burst into tears today because they did a slow sitting trot in a circle in a green field. They’d probably think: right, that’s done, let’s move on to transitions. But for me, it was like winning that damn Grand National.
The older I get, the more I believe in the small things, in all areas of life. The red mare teaches me so many life lessons, and returns me to earth when I become idiotic or hubristic, and shows me the value of the plain virtues. She is the Empress of Small Things, and I can never thank her enough.
Are actually from yesterday. The road home:
And the faces that greeted me:
Quite often, when I get back, she’s not that bothered. There’s a bit of – yeah, right, whatever. But this time she came straight over for love, and then followed me round the field when I went to leave. I do fight anthropomorphism every single day, but I swear this face is saying: where have you been?:
Meanwhile, Stan the Man was very happy to be back in the feed shed, hunting for RATS: