The red mare’s new friend came to the field today. Isla is eleven years old, and she has the natural instincts of a born horsewoman. She is open and calm and brave. The mare loves her and they are building a partnership together.
I had a plan. We were going to work on steering today. ‘Think of it like opening a door,’ I said. ‘You are opening your rein and inviting her to walk into that space.’
We started with my favourite exercise. This is called Where Do You Want To Go? The mare decides on the direction, the rider decides on the gait. I love this for twenty different reasons, but I love it most because it is a true exercise in partnership. You really are in it together.
Until now, I’ve walked along with Isla and the mare when they do this. For all that I’ve worked that grand duchess until she is as docile as an old Labrador, she is still a thoroughbred. She is still half a ton of flight animal. This youthful jockey is still getting to know her. I would not take any risks.
Today, they looked so happy together that I let them go off on their own.
At first, the mare wanted to hang out with me and Isla’s mother, so I taught my pupil about getting rid of destination addiction.
This sounds very grand. In fact, the way that we got rid of the sticky spot was slightly eccentric and probably not what you read about in the serious horse books.
‘Make her work when she is near us,’ I said to Isla. ‘Annoy her with your legs. It’s the only time when you are not meticulously polite to your horse. It’s the only time you nag. Then, when she moves away, you leave her alone.’
'I see,' said Isla. 'You make her see that the place she thought was fun is not in fact that fun.'
'You've got it,' I said, in delight.
That was the part that is recommended by the serious books. It's a solid technique and it works amazingly well.
Isla, who is amazingly quick and receptive, got the hang of this very quickly, but the dear dozy old mare still quite wanted to come and be with the grown ups and practise for the Standing Still Olymics. So I decided to give the jockey a little help.
‘No rest here,’ I said to the red mare. I whooped and waved my arms in the air. ‘It’s a Donald Trump rally over here,’ I said, yelling like a banshee. ‘Mad Trump people, build the wall. You really won’t like that.’ That was the part you don’t read about in the serious horse books.
The red mare gave me a Lady Bracknell look and Isla’s shoulders started to shake with laughter. I felt incredibly happy that she liked the Donald Trump joke.
So that was how we fixed the destination addiction. Sometimes, you can allow yourself a little improvisation. Also, I've been shouted at by mad Trump people on Twitter this week, and one of them called me a horse's ass, so I was getting my horsey revenge.
And then the most glorious thing happened. Isla was still not guiding the mare, but the duchess put herself into a perfect sweeping circle and they picked up the most poised, delicate sitting trot and they went round as if they were in a dressage championship.
They’ve never trotted out in the open spaces before; we had only done that in a small paddock with the safety of the confining fences. Now they were out in nine wild acres, and I was not walking by their side, and they were doing it on their own.
‘Oh,’ I cried, ‘can you feel that? You are in harmony now. You are working together. That is quite, quite beautiful.’
I had not planned this. This was not the steering work. But it developed so naturally that I went with it, and I let them go. Isla was beaming and the red mare had her neck stretched out and her head low and was soft all through her body and they were working in perfect time. It was their sixth ride, and they looked as if they had been together always.
‘Can we canter?’ said Isla.
I had a moment of hesitation. This was an ex-racehorse, after all. She is quite fit, her powerful body filled with muscle and strength. There was a lot of open space.
I looked at the horse. She was happy and relaxed, at one with herself and her world. ‘She is very good-natured,’ said Isla’s mother. Yes, she is, I thought.
‘Go on then,’ I said. Let it be all right, I thought. Let it not all fall apart now.
It did not fall apart.
The gentle, brave eleven-year-old girl gave the signal, sitting deep in the saddle and kissing, and the mare rolled into a collected canter and round they went, in their fine circle.
‘You are cantering,’ I shouted, delirious with delight. I was stating the obvious. Yet it was not obvious. That mare was on a loose rein, in a rope halter, with a new rider who is only just learning a different way of being on a horse. I am not a very good teacher, and am learning as I go along, struggling to articulate things which I do automatically. No, it was not obvious. But there it was, as true as the earth and as real as the trees and as open and hopeful as the sky.
Isla had no doubt, so the mare had no doubt. They went along together, believing in each other. And then the slight young girl asked the great strong horse to stop, and she stopped. She dropped her head and blinked and breathed through her nose and looked amazingly pleased with herself. I hugged her. I hugged the rider.
‘Did you see what you did?’ I exclaimed, unable to find words good enough for this good moment. ‘I can’t believe what you did. Do you know what you did? I am so, so proud of you.’
Isla was laughing and the mare was smiling and the mother was beaming and I was so happy that I felt as if I might float away into the cool autumn air and never come back to earth again.
The last year has not been happy. It has been fraught and complicated and filled with loss. I had to say goodbye to many things. At one point, I felt I was saying goodbye to hope. I was paddling and paddling and paddling, with my failing, flailing arms, desperately trying to keep my head above water. Sometimes I thought I would go under.
And here was this shining moment of joy. It was so simple, so pure, so authentic. It had nothing to do with the strains and frets of the real world. There was a fine human and a fine horse, with their hearts beating in time. And for that moment, nothing else mattered.
On paper, I am giving something to that sweet girl, because I’m taking a bit of time to teach her to ride my horse. But that is nonsense. That is not the truth. She is the one giving me a great gift. The red mare gives me many great gifts, every day. When the two of them are together, the gifts run sure and true, like swallows flying south for winter. They lift my spirits and make me laugh and whoop and holler into the Scottish day. They restore hope.
I think of that glorious canter. I see it in my head. I run it like a film clip, smiling a goofy smile every time I watch it. If I can do that, if that girl and that horse can do that, then anything is possible. Anything. And that is a feeling that is more precious than rubies.