Author’s note: this is very long, and it is all about me. I’d love to think you might extrapolate some universal human truths, but let’s have the word with no bark on it: it’s all about me. It also features the red mare. She now has her own Facebook page so that I don’t bore you witless with her every whicker, but today she’s come galloping back to the blog. I just wanted you to know that before you started.
I love triers. People who try can bring me to tears. Horses who try have me in pieces. Children who try, with that wonderful, youthful sense of optimism and determination, pull on my heartstrings like nothing else.
And yet, I have lately been reminded that you can try too hard.
Of course I knew that. I don’t want you to think I am a complete booby. One of the surprises I have found as I motor through middle age is that I know much, much more than I thought I did. I got quite cocky about this for five minutes, until I realised that I have a fatal habit of forgetting all those good things I know. That’s when the gap comes between theory and practice, and I find myself falling into elephant traps and lying on my back, legs flailing in the air, thinking furiously: but I knew this.
This week, I had a little parable about trying, from my red professor.
Since I’ve come back to horses, I’ve taught myself a whole new way of horsemanship. I’ve learnt from two great horsemen – Robert Gonzales, in life, and Warwick Schiller, on the internet. Schiller provides an amazing resource for people who want to have happy horses, easy to ride and handle. At his place in California, he takes in all kinds of horses who have problems. He’ll be presented with a 17 hand dressage horse who can do a test, but who can hardly be rugged up without freaking out. He is sent buckers and rearers and bolters, horses that can’t get on a trailer, horses so riven with separation anxiety that they can’t think straight. He’ll take the horse right back to the beginning, go through the methodical steps, find the frets and the worries, iron them out, and by the end will have a soft, responsive equine who can do everything on a loose rein with its head down. He videos this, explains exactly what he is doing, and posts it on his page as a learning tool for people all around the world.
It has been a revelation for me and the mare, and because of it I’ve never in my life been so in tune with a horse, or had a horse who is so at ease with herself.
This week, Warwick Schiller is coming to Scotland to do a clinic. The moment I heard, I booked my place, and started dreaming of the great moment when the red mare would meet the master. Yesterday, a pincer action of three disasters meant that I had to cancel. There would be no trip to St Andrews, no glorious meeting.
Part of me was very sad about this. I’d been working so hard to get the mare ready. We’d gone right back to the beginning, found all the things I was doing wrong, concentrated on fixing them. I’d upped the ante, asked her new questions, pushed her harder. I’d sat up late, rewatching all the videos, trying to figure out where I was going wrong and what I needed to improve. Each day, I went down to the field with my teeth gritted, trying like buggery, because we had to get our gold star.
I say part of me was sad, because there was another part. Another part was, and this is so odd I can hardly write it, relieved. Today, I suddenly realised that I had been going to that clinic for a lot of the wrong reasons. I’ve written, over the months, about the red mare and her wonders on the Warwick Schiller forum, so that she is well known there, carving out her tiny piece of internet fame. I think that I secretly believed that I would arrive in St Andrews and say: Look, look, here is the famous Red Mare, IN REAL LIFE. And everyone would gasp at her beauty, and gaze in awe at all the clever things she can do, and give her a round of applause and a laurel wreath.
In fact, they would have seen a perfectly ordinary thoroughbred, with a kind white face, who is, I have to admit, a little bit short in front, and who sometimes slings her head and rushes her trot. In my eyes, she is the embodiment of a dream; to anyone else, she is just a sweet chestnut mare, with all the flaws that horses are heir to. She has not travelled for a long time, and the journey might have unsettled her. She would have had to stay in a strange stable surrounded by unknown horses, leaving her charge and field-mate behind. She could have wigged out a bit, even after all the good training we have done. She might, whisper it, not have shown her best self. Where would I be then?
Of course I wanted to learn, and of course I hoped that the last knotty problems would be instantly unpicked by those knowledgeable eyes. But I am slightly ashamed to say that much of the driving impetus was an awful sort of showing off. My competitive spirit, which I pretend is not there but which is always yelling, in the back of my mind, give me a cup, had hijacked the whole thing and was running riot. That’s why I was going down to the field every morning with gritted teeth.
Gritted teeth are not always bad. Gritted teeth got AP McCoy to twenty jockey championships. They got my old dad back in the Grand National after severe doctors had said he should never sit on a horse again. They got me, in younger days, round huge cross country courses, to Peterborough and Windsor, through complicated dressage tests.
But gritted teeth are no good to the mare. In this new horsemanship, she has been taught the ways of softness. When I grit my teeth, she thinks there are mountain lions in the woods, and her lovely, floating stride breaks up and her neck tenses and she fears that the storm is coming. She does not know I am absurdly trying to prove myself and improve myself; she just feels the tension and dreads the worst.
As a result of all this damn trying, we had lost that elusive trot. We’d had it, so beautifully that it made me weep tears of joy, and then it went again. The basis of this method is that you should be able to walk, trot and canter on a loose rein. You are teaching your horse self-carriage. It’s one of the things I love. Instead of giving it information every two seconds, you ask the polite question and then leave it alone. You are not saying a bit slower, a bit faster, a bit more collected. You just say go, and then sit as still as Ruby Walsh on Douvan in the Punchestown sunshine. You trust the horse, because you have taught the horse to trust itself. This requires a steady mental state. Trying too hard wrecks all that work at a stroke.
This morning, in a curious combination of regret, sorrow, wistfulness, release and relief, we went for a ride. We were no longer getting ready to show the teacher what we could do; we were just being together. I let the mare wander where she would, which is a basic teaching exercise I do every morning. She struck out towards the darkest woods, the ones that use to make her snort and rear. She was in her most intrepid explorer mode. She ignored the little Paint, who was doing her own private rodeo in the field alongside. At one point, the Paint and Stanley the Dog were staging an antic series of barrel races. The mare did not so much as flick an ear. I had no hand on her rein; she was brave and free.
By the entrance to the terrifying woods, there is a high granite wall, very typical of this part of the world. In it, there is a door. The door is exactly like that in The Secret Garden, one of the books of my childhood which most touched my heart. The mare walked up to the door and put her head through it and looked into the garden beyond. I leant down along her neck so I could see what she was seeing. There was a slope of grass, the young trees we planted for my late father, when the family gathered, including his sister, his nephew and niece, his children and grandchildren, and the blue hills beyond.
The good horse and I stood, for many minutes, looking through the secret door. It felt symbolic of something profound, I was not sure what. I said, out loud, in her ear: ‘Thank you for this.’
We were not going to do any work today, because we are no longer preparing for a great occasion. But I thought, damn it, let’s just give that trot a go, just for the hell of it. And there it was, as if it had been waiting for me all along. She was as poised as an ambassadress, as delicate as a duchess, as gentle and relaxed as an old Labrador. We did it on a loose rein; we did it with no reins at all. I put my hands out into the cool Scottish air, and she bent her beautiful, mighty body round in a curving circle, found her own lovely rhythm, beat her own delightful drum.
I had stopped trying, and that was when she gave me my greatest gift.
So, after all that, the thing which was a bit of a disaster turned out to be the best thing which could have happened. I needed a lesson in not letting that wild competitive drive get rancid and wrong. I needed to be reminded that I don’t actually require a cup. I needed to know that sometimes I can crash everything when I grit those absurd teeth too hard. I had forgotten all these things, and circumstance and this generous horse came along and set me right.
Trying is good. I try to write better prose. I try to do my work at HorseBack well. I try to be a good friend and a reasonably decent human. I try to be polite and see others’ points of view. I try not to judge in a mean way, and I try not to bitch and moan. I try for stoicism and balance.
With this ravishing mare, I try to follow the example of those two dazzling horsemen, not because it will make her a supreme champion, but because she will be happy in her skin and have a human on whom she can rely. It also means I am less likely to fall off and bruise these old bones. That’s a good kind of trying. It’s trying for the right reasons.
And it means that we get a glimpse of the view, through that low door in the wall.
Here she is, after all that loveliness, having a happy breakfast with her questing friend. The Paint always hopes that if she stands there with her Oliver Twist face on, she might get a go. She never does. The red mare knows perfectly well that she’s had her own breakfast, and this orphans in the snow look is pure theatre: