Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The red mare teaches me a life lesson.

I especially set up a Facebook page for my red mare so that I would not endlessly bore the poor Dear Readers with her here. I know that some of you really had had enough. One or two people said so, in terms. But today she taught me something very valuable which goes for human life as well as horse life, and it was far too long for a Facebook post so I'm telling the story here. This is not, I promise, the thin end of the wedge.

This is how the story went:

Today, I never felt so grateful for the perfection that is the thirteen foot rope. Today, my red mare, my sweet, dozy dreamer, the one I put children and beginners on, had one of her most splendid wig-outs.

How can this be? you ask. I might have once asked the same thing. Not that kind, gentle soul, the Zen mistress, the keeper of the peace.

‘What happened,’ Ray Hunt used to say, ‘before what happened happened?’

The red mare is a creature of perfect storms. She can deal with one thing, she can deal with two things, but she can’t deal with the third. Or at least, she can deal with anything if I have been doing my work right. If I have not, then the storm blows up. She is a duchess of absolute safety; if she feels secure she can do anything. If her safe world gets cracks in it, she expresses herself with tremendous vehemence.

The immediate happening was that the little Paint filly was taken away for a long walk. They haven’t been parted for a long time and this was way out of the routine, and the red mare is a very responsible lead mare and does not like people going away without a permission slip. But even so, separation anxiety is something we put to bed years ago. Yet there she was, carrying on, screaming and calling, pulling herself up to her full height, tail in the air, snorting like a freight train, looking no longer like an Exmoor pony but like the racehorse she once was.

Ah, well, I thought. I’ll work her. That’ll get it out.

It did get it out. In all the mighty ways that a half ton thoroughbred can get things out of their system. We had the racing around at top speed, the rearing, the bucking, and, one of her signature moves from the old days, the rear-plunge-twist-buck combo.

That was when I blessed that thirteen foot rope. If a horse wigs out on the end of a lunge line, you’ve got nothing but a tangle and a wreck. If it does it on the end of a traditional short lead rope, you have to drop the thing and run. Those thirteen feet allowed me to stay at a safe distance from that powerful body and squint my eyes at her and gather clues. There is no such thing as bad behaviour, only good information.

It was fascinating. She was not being naughty or silly, words which have absolutely no application or meaning when it comes to horses, but are sadly too often used. She was genuinely upset, even a little frightened.

So I moved her on through the rodeo. I wasn’t scared, because she has not a bad bone in her body. I was not going to stop her. She genuinely needed to run and jump, to get all that tingling emotion out of her great physical self. I stood steady and directed that jagged energy. I moved her hindquarters back and forth, and then yielded the shoulder. I did a lot of sharp turns, to get her mind on me and off her demons. I did several changes of gait, up through the gears, from walk to trot to canter and back down again. Because I sensed she really did want to run, when she gave me a nice dancing canter I ran alongside her for a bit, as if we were playing. I didn’t want to batter her into submission with work, but balance up her mind again with as much lightness as I could.

Eventually, we stopped and her head came down and I let her rest. After a while, I rubbed her poll and her ears and talked to her for a bit. Then the head went back up and there was a bit more yelling, so we went through the turns and yields again. We did some moving forward and backing up, and what I call creative leading, where I mosey about all over the place, describing circles in the grass, stopping and starting, making sure I had her focus.

At last, I had to stop and go back to my desk. I was not quite sure whether I had done enough to get all the trouble out, although she was much calmer than when we started. As I slipped off the halter, I wondered whether she would gallop off into her twenty acres like a brumby. But she stayed by my side, very politely, until I left. Then she walked away under her own control.

As I walked down the hill, I pondered the good information. In the early days, I would have seen this as a huge failure. If I was doing everything right, then she would never be bucking and plunging and yelling on the end of a rope. I might as well give up and work with rare goats. Now, I take it not as failure, but as another valuable page in the classic novel that is The Red Mare.

There are two things that horse hates. One is when I get cocky. The moment she hears the hubris angels flapping their wings, she lets me know about it. The other is when I am not firm and consistent enough. She craves strong boundaries; that is part of her desire for safety.

I think lately I had got a bit cocky. I’d been thinking about how brilliant the mare was and how settled and relaxed and what a poster girl, and not concentrating on keeping those boundaries strong. What with the floods and the frosts, looking after her has been a matter of atavistic survival, with no work to merit the name. It is possible that I had let a few bad habits creep in.

And on top of that, there she was, in her new field with a new routine, with a human whose mind was not on the job. I’ve been feeling very vulnerable and worried and a bit fearful lately, about a lot of different things which are crashing together, some of them out of my control. For all that I swear I never take emotions into that field, I think I had been bringing my jangly self instead of my steady self. The brown mare is so mentally sturdy that she does not seem to mind this; she was not shrieking and galloping and snorting, just looking about her in vague interest. But the red mare believes that once I’ve got the jangles nobody can save her from the mountain lions.

Whatever is going on in my human life, I have to separate that from my horse life. She’s had to put up with me in deep grief after the death of my mother, and then in the absorbing sadness which comes afterwards. She’s had to put up with me being fretful and distracted and in a nervous worry. She was saying to me, in the way that only she can: enough.

There is nobody in the world who teaches me such good lessons as she. This was a dilly. Sometimes you have to put your own self aside, for the sake of somebody else. If I cannot give that mare peace of mind, then I have nothing. So I square my shoulders and remind myself of first principles and go back to the beginning.

Friday, 22 January 2016

The moment

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about the moment. People say it is all one has. The past has gone, the future is not yet here, but there – there – is the moment. If you are very clever, you can live in it.

I find the moment fairly impossible. I’m always thinking about what I’ve got to do in the next ten minutes, the next week, the next year, the next decade. Crack on, I say to myself, eyes cast into the future. Sometimes I feel nostalgic or sad or regretful about the past. I wish I had done that, or said this. Why did I not save for a rainy day? How could I have been so reckless or improvident or foolhardy? (Pick your adjective; they all come home to roost, like cross chickens.) I sometimes think I have been idiotic with time; I should have used it better, packed in more.

Yes, says the one sane voice in my head, who is very quiet and does not always get heard, but that is how you miss your life. Anchor yourself in the moment, says that quiet voice. Ha, says the critical voice, who has had too many negronis and wants to hurl more adjectives around, fucking hippy shit.

This evening, I had a perfect moment. I was running late all day because my car was buggered and there was garage business. I did not take the dogs out for their afternoon rumble until it was dark. But there was a great, graceful moon beaming out of the indigo sky and we could see quite well. Stan the Man and Darwin the Dog roared about, delighted with everything – the grass, the scents, each other, the world – and I walked up to the beech avenue. There, at the old fence, were two gentle shadows. I sensed them before I saw them, all their lovely sweetness and peace flying off them in waves. There were my good mares, dreaming their day away.

It is a huge field, the one they moved in to after the flood, about twenty acres at least. They mostly favour the far western end, up on the hill. I think they like the view. But this evening, in the dear old gloaming, they were at the near fence, as if they were waiting for me.

So I stood with them for a while, and scratched their ears, and told them of their own loveliness, and felt their soft, teddy bear coats, and gazed up at the moon, which was sailing over the dark outlines of the trees like a stately galleon on a Sargasso sea. The dogs gambolled about, playing their own intricate games.

This is your life, I said to myself. This is the moment. Don’t feel bad about the past, or fretful about the future, just stay here for a while, with these kind creatures and this mighty moon and this good Scotland.

It was very fine. It was a moment.

Then my monkey mind said: go in at once and write it down. Write it down, write it down. Which of course is slightly absurd, because the moment should be enough, but I was already thinking of the sentences and contemplating the Dear Readers and wondering what photograph I should choose. The monkey mind can only take so much hippy shit.

It was a moment though. Yes, it was.

Friday, 15 January 2016

A small good news story. Or, the nice man from Scottish Fuels.

If you are a goofball like me, with the organisational skills of a hamster, then good customer service is an absolute essential. Just as the temperature swung down to minus three, I noticed that I had let the heating oil get perilously low. In a panic, I called Scottish Fuels late yesterday afternoon. The very efficient gentleman explained that Tuesday would be the delivery day, because the tanker that would be in my area today was already booked up. I explained my goofiness and said that I had all but run out of oil and instead of being a bit sneery, as he had every right to do, he laughed kindly and said he would do his best. He could not promise, but he would try.

I turned the heating off to save the boiler (it explodes if the tank runs dry), put on two cardigans and a hat, and the dogs and I hunkered down for the duration. I thought probably Monday at best. If the tanker was booked up, it was booked up. I would just have to do starjumps, I reflected, as I cracked the two inches of ice on the horses’ water trough. (I had to use a special implement, kindly given to me by the resourceful Stepfather.) Keep the circulation going, I thought. Also: make chicken soup, which I goodly did.

At 2pm, I heard a familiar throaty rumble. It couldn’t be, I thought. I live opposite a building yard, and they have endless huge trucks chugging in and out. It would be one of those, I told myself, stifling false hope. But Stan the Man and Darwin the Dog and I ran out to have a look, just in case.

There was the smiling Scottish Fuels man, cheerfully unrolling his hose.

Darwin, who is very pleased to see everyone, dashed up and tried to kiss the man on the nose. I said, pointing at the dog: ‘I’m not going to jump all over you, but that is exactly what I feel like.’

The smiling man looked at the dog, looked at me, suppressed the faintest flicker of terror, whether at the jumping remark or my resolutely unflattering hat I could not tell, and explained that he had a few last litres left and knew I was in need and had brought them to me.

‘I can’t believe it,’ I said. ‘I only called yesterday.’

He explained that when the tanker gets booked up, it does not mean that all the oil will be in fact delivered. People apparently order more oil than they need, so along the way he collects a surplus here and a surplus there. He left me until last, hoping that there would be something left in his great truck and so there was.

He told me all this with great good humour. He was not doing that jobsworth thing of making a tremendous put-upon performance of it, as some people might. He was not judging me for being the kind of flake who lets the oil run out in January. He seemed genuinely pleased that his plan had worked and he could keep me warm.

The AA, who occasionally have to come and help me in equally flaky situations (the last time was to change a tyre, because I had picked up a nail and I had lost the magic unlocking socket; no problem, said the smiling operative, and boosted the thing), employ people of a very similar character. I asked the changing the tyre man whether it was AA policy only to employ exceptionally nice people. I was joking, but he said that yes, that was exactly their policy.

I wonder if Scottish Fuels do the same thing. I had tried three other heating oil companies before I found them, with disastrous results. Those companies clearly thought me an idiot, and there was always a ten day delay on everything. The answer to every question was a resounding and rather triumphant no. I was always having to go to bed in my hat like Scrooge, because the house was so cold.

My paltry custom can make no difference to the Scottish Fuels bottom line. I have a small house and the amount of money I pay them is vanishingly small, in corporate terms. I’m never going to buy a mansion and keep it at the temperature of a greenhouse. If I went elsewhere for my oil, they would not miss me. Yet they treat me as I were the Queen of Sheba, with a hundred palatial rooms to heat and a bill in the thousands.

I don’t know quite why I love this story so much, and why it has brought such a smile to my face. The last couple of weeks have been rather fraught, with the floods and all. I’m missing my mother and I’m rather under the cosh in professional terms and I have been floundering a little bit, one way and another, which is why I have not been writing the blog. I knew that anything I wrote would end up being a wail, and I did not want to bore you with wailing. Suddenly, here at last was a story that was not a wail.

Out in the world, the news is, as it seems to be all the time now, bad. Even when it is not about great human tragedies like Syria, it is about personal tragedies like David Bowie, whose death hit my cohort as a hammer blow to the heart. He was the voice of our teenage years, and he was the one who made us feel we were not alone. He was the one we listened to when we slammed the doors of our lonely rooms and felt all that gawky, hopeless teen angst of not being understood and not fitting in. Bowie understood, and now he was gone. That mighty voice had fallen silent for the last time.

Even when the news is not death news, it is about corruption in high places and corporate malfeasance. I’ve almost got into that hippy thing of thinking that all big companies are devoted to fleecing the consumer and laughing at the poor drones who sheepishly hand over the cash. But here was a little good news story: a nice company, peopled by proper humans who did not speak jargon or stonewall or take the money and run, but who kindly made the effort to go the extra yard.

I value warmth because I spend a lot of my life outside, getting muddy and chilled and wet as I look after the mares. When I come inside, I sit at a desk frowning at my computer screen which is not much cop for the circulation. I feel the cold acutely. Those nice people brought me literal and metaphorical warmth.

Since I’ve been away from the blog, I’ve been thinking about it, on and off. I never really know what it is for. I used to think that I could use it as a promotion tool, ruthlessly pimping myself so that people would buy my books. When that did not work, I thought that I could use it as a daily exercise in prose, good for the writing muscle.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that it is the simple thing of having a record. I don’t have the discipline any more to write a diary, but I like having some written memories of my days. I’m at that stage with my mum when she is going now into the past. I feel that is probably a good thing, a right thing, a proper part of grief, but it’s also a sad, panicky thing. Her presence is fading. There are so many things I shall forget. I have crazed moments when I wish I had written down all the things she had said, the stories about Arkle and Vincent O’Brien and Lester and Peter O’Sullevan, her memories of childhood and of watching my father ride in races, her sudden deadpan remarks. Then I find that I did write some of them here, and I am passionately grateful. There is something here at least that is not lost.

I’d like to remember the nice man from Scottish Fuels, even though it is the smallest and most inconsequential of stories. So I tell it to you, and when I have forgotten it I shall be able to look back through these pages and remember. I can, as Yeats said, take down that book and slowly read.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin