As the long goodbye goes on and the day of the dear Stepfather’s departure draws near, I can put the good face on for about forty-five minutes. For half an hour, I’m breezing, on the bridle. For the next fifteen minutes, I’m under a strong drive, desperately hoping the winning post will come. After that, I’m blown. I’m like a suspect stayer, who is never going to get two miles, who gives all for a mile and six and then has no more.
So I go and sit very quietly in a silent room and recruit my resources. The silent room is very important. Some people find a quiet room a sad thing; I find solitude the most profound balm. I have to get everything sorted out in my head and I can’t do that when I am putting on the good face.
I’ll watch a bit of the dressage later, on the second day of the Olympic three-day-event. I will marvel at the honesty and willingness of the horses, those great equine athletes who carry their countries’ hopes on their brave backs. They have flown in from all around the world, faced all the heat and the atmosphere and the razzmatazz, will tomorrow go out over huge fences and up steep hills at a fast gallop, and today are asked to settle themselves and perform movements as precise and delicate as the ballet. I watch them giving their riders everything and I find it intensely moving. It’s the kind of thing that would have made my mother put that special look on her face and say, with a dying fall, ‘Oh, those horses.’
It’s an event which makes me think a lot about resolution and endurance, which are qualities I need just now. The man at the top of the leader board is a tall fellow, very dry and self-effacing. In every interview, he says: I’m very lucky. He means, I think, that he is lucky to have had the career he has had, to have had the mighty horses, the loyal support team, the strong and loving family. But a lot of people would say his luck ran out when he fell on his head nine months ago and was put in an induced coma. I would not have felt very lucky if I found, as he did, that I could not climb the stairs or see straight. I might have drawn stumps then, thinking I had had my luck and there was no more.
But great champions are made of steely stuff. They may, like this tall man, be true gentlemen, polite and sporting, but inside there is that absolute core of titanium, a secret unconquerable self, that competitor who never gives up. So William Fox-Pitt, who probably shouldn’t really be riding a horse at all, rode out into the gleaming Brazilian sunshine and outdazzled it, with a test of such ease and grace that it made me catch my breath. He can climb the stairs now, that is for sure.
I used to tell my mother that when I was face down in the dirt I would ask myself: ‘What would AP do?’ I would think of that other steely horseman, who never knew when he was beaten. ‘And what would AP do?’ she would say, with a quizzical smile on her face. ‘He would get right back up and ride another winner,’ I would tell her, with a smile of my own.
I like admiring people. I like looking up to the best, being inspired by them, hanging on their coat-tails, thinking if I could summon a tenth of their brilliance and resolution then I would be all right. Everyone needs someone to look up to. I’ll take Fox-Pitt for my inspiration this week, not just because he has quietly staged the sporting comeback of the year, but because he seems to manage to be a fierce competitor whilst also being a proper human being. If I feel a little melancholy, I will look up pictures of Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, waiting in the wings for their moment in the sun, which will come later. She’s another champion who combines rock-hard dedication with smiling humanity, and she’s as goofily in love with her world-beating horse as I am with my dear red mare.
Look up, I think, and climb the stairs.