This morning, I took a bow, got onto my horse, rode down a track, and shot an arrow straight to its target.
This is not a sentence I thought I would ever write.
The mare was mighty, and I whooped so loudly that they must have heard me in Inverness.
As I got back to my desk, the first thing I wanted to do was to tell you about this remarkable story. I am so filled with amazement and delight that my fingers are going like the clappers over the keyboard. Then, I paused. I got to thinking. Even when I have done something entirely physical, I always, always get to that damn thinking.
I thought of fear.
For two days, I have been looking fear in the whites of its eyes. It really has not been much fun. I don’t know where it came from or why it is hanging around, but it is. I’m generally quite strict about not doing pointless worry. I remember that great Mark Twain quote: ‘I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.’ But this time, despite my best intentions, the bastard got the better of me. It was that kind of beastly existential fret, which catches me in its crocodile jaws and throws me about the room. It was the ‘what if?’ worry. What if I break my leg or never get my damn book published or end up destitute? You know, the stupid, mid-life, help help help I don’t know what is going to happen terror. The kind that swamps you and leaves you feeling battered and stupid.
This morning, I rode my thoroughbred mare down that track and shot the bow and arrow from her majestic back and shrieked with such triumph that I startled the humans who were with me. The mare herself, entirely used to my noisy whoops of joy, did not turn a hair.
The odd thing was that on the Today programme this morning I heard a woman say: ‘I’m frightened of horses.’ I don’t know where horses came into it, as she was being interviewed about the Europe referendum. But it struck me, because horses are the one thing I am not frightened of. Logically, I probably should be frightened, just a little, of having a half-ton flight animal under me, one who was bred for speed and strength, with not so much as a finger on her rein and a twanging bow held in the air, just in her blind spot.
The champion archers who instructed me this morning are poetry to watch. I have seen them before, and I remember thinking: I could never do that. They make it look easy, but it’s not easy. I thought their skill and their ability and their ease went into the category of Things I Could Never Do. But they were so gentle and sure and encouraging and persuasive that I discovered the impossible was possible.
The thing that fascinated me was that I found the whole bow and arrow thing very hard on the ground. It went against all muscle memory. I could not work out where to put my thumb or how to move my shoulders in the correct way. My body was saying: what, what? I had a go, said thank you very much, and rather accepted defeat. The archery course was going on for a week, but I could only take enough time off work to do a single morning. A morning was not enough. I’ll just let everyone else get on with it, I thought, and go and play with my pony.
Later, the brilliant arching lady looked up at the red mare and said: ‘Why don’t we just desensitise her to the bow?’ It would have been rude to say no, even though I had written the whole thing off. Within fifteen minutes, I was arching. Because the moment I was on that horse’s back, the whole thing came easily. My body stopped saying what, what, and said yes, yes. I hit the target three times in a row. Admittedly this was in a walk, and the moment we got to cantering I could not control the arrow and it jiggled about and fell sadly to the ground, but still. It felt like victory to me.
The arching champion smiled, as I jabbered at her in amazed delight. ‘Well,’ she said, kindly, ‘on the ground, you were over-thinking it. Once you got on your horse, you just did it.’
I had feared that this was one of the things I would not be able to do. I did not feel humiliated precisely, but rueful and chastened. In the end, all it took was a little human encouragement, and the confidence that this mighty horse gives me, and the fears ran for the hills. I stopped thinking, and just did it. That felt like a profound life lesson.
I quite often say that this mare brings out my best self. She is a stern professor, and she really hates the second-rate. She expects the best and she requires the best and if she does not get the best she becomes insecure and cross. It was because of her vehement demands that I took myself back to school, sharpened myself up, and polished myself into the human she desired. When I am on her, I fear nothing. ‘You really trust that horse,’ someone said. I do trust her. I believe in her. She is my touchstone. When I feel my puny human body become one with her mighty thoroughbred body I cannot feel sadness, or regret, or terror, or angst. I feel whole. I feel as if I have come home. That is the gift she gives me, and it is worth more than rubies.
Now I just have to learn to take that feeling from the mare to the rest of my life. That is my mission and I choose to accept it. We are archers, after all. We laugh at fear. We are afraid of nothing. We cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.
Today's photograph was taken by my kind friend Cathy, whom I thank. It was before the arching, when we were playing in the round pen. You will be very glad to see that I am wearing a special new hat, bought for four pounds in the village shop. It has the red mare's official stamp of approval.