Monday, 23 January 2017

The missing, the mother, the thoroughbred.

I’m thinking of writing a sequel to The Happy Horse. This is partly because I love writing about horses, and partly because people seem to have enjoyed the book very much and some of them kindly asked for more. So I’ve been going back through the archives to see if there is enough material to make a book.

The archives is a very posh way of saying: pages and pages of red mare love. Five hundred pages, to be precise. If this is to make a book, it will need some ruthless editing. The dead darlings will litter the stage, as if they are in the last scene of Hamlet. There is also, you will be amazed to hear, quite a lot of repetition. I shall have to put my steely hat on and cut and slash and shape and form.

This morning, I found a very touching passage about my red mare and my mother. Those of you who have dead parents will know about the missing. After a while, time does its thing and the grief and the ache and the almost physical pain subside. I no longer feel as if I am carrying around sorrow like a huge bucket of water. I learnt to put my burden down. Normal life reasserts itself; there are ordinary moments of quiet happiness. The savour returns. There is a point. Life, in other words, really does go on. 

But the missing never disappears. It may find itself a nice place in the heart where it can rest, and do no harm. It does not dominate and dictate and make everything else seem thin and gimcrack. It simply comes out, from time to time, like a kind of memento mori. I’ll be going along and all of a sudden I miss my mother so much I can’t breathe. Ah, I think, there you are, you dear old Missing. You’ve bashed open your cupboard door and are running free over the plain. (You are also making me mix my metaphors in a rather alarming manner.)

It can be a bit of a shock, when the missing comes in without warning. Occasionally, I feel faintly resentful. It’s been fourteen months now; surely some of the sharpness must have worn off by now? Then I become philosophical. This is how it works. Love is love; the missing is always the missing. It’s probably best not to bang on about it, but it is there and it will always be there and sometimes it will bring smiles with it, fond remembering smiles, and sometimes it will bring tears. Imagine, I think to myself, if it were not there. That would be awful, profoundly wrong, as if the world were out of whack.

There is nobody in the world like your own mother, and of course you are going to miss her. That, really, is all she wrote.

What is so lovely about the idiotically obsessive writing I did about that horse is that I recorded my mother too. Mum adored the red mare and every time her eyes fell on that sweet thoroughbred face they lit up. One of the greatest legacies my parents left me was an understanding, admiration and love for the thoroughbred, and I use that legacy every single day. 

Stitched in to all that bonkers horse writing is the good human stuff, the memories of my mother, the small moments of utter sweetness.

I found this one today and I’m reproducing it here. It made me smile. I miss my mum and I’m not ashamed of that. But I have words, many hundreds of them, that keep her with me.

This is what I wrote:

There are many, many reasons I love my red mare. I love that she turns all stereotypes about thoroughbreds, ex-racehorses, chestnuts and mares on their head. Any good horse person knows that an equine will reflect back at you exactly what you put in. Breeds do vary – some are bred for speed, some for strength, some for steadiness – but all horses are individuals, and have characters as discrete as snowflakes. To say that every cob is this or all Arabs are that is as inaccurate as saying that all men like cars or all women crave shoes.

A thoroughbred is likely to be sensitive, clever and fast. That is the result of years of careful and tightly controlled breeding. Many of them are also very brave, and exceptionally willing. But you will get dear old dopes, and ones who are a bit windy, and others who are absolute jokers. Some are as genuine and straightforward as the day is long; some are capable of being a bit of a monkey. Some like strength and drive from their riders; some yearn for quietness and softness.

My girl is clever, funny, generous, willing and kind. She likes steadiness and calm. She adores routine. She has a goofy love for very small children, who make her flutter her eyelashes and soften her eyes. She has a mighty talent for stillness, which is why I think of her as my Zen mistress. She likes listening to conversations, twitching her ears and going into a little doze of pleasure. She is fond of humans, thinking them good things.
She is about as far from the loon thoroughbred of ill-informed myth as you could get.
I love her for all these reasons. But the thing that made my heart lift most this week is that she makes my mum smile.

My mother is not terribly mobile and has to deal with a lot of pain. She is very stoical about it. To cheer her up, I ride the half mile to her front door to show her the red mare’s sweet face. Each time, my mother’s own face lights up. My dear stepfather feeds the good mare apples. Only he is given special dispensation from our strict rule of not feeding by hand. The mare is gentle and polite with him, lipping quietly at his fingers until all the deliciousness is gone. This makes my mother laugh out loud.

Then I show off a few paces, and do some figures of eight, and trot off down the long field towards home. The mare pricks her delicate ears, leaving pleasure trailing in her majestic wake.

What is it with the horse? an old friend asked, a while ago. There are a hundred answers to that question. I could get philosophical and say that horses teach humans everything about authenticity. They are perfect professors of existing in the present moment. They have their priorities straighter than anyone I ever met. They care nothing for the superficial, and everything for the profound, unshowy virtues, like reliability and kindness and understanding.

I could say it’s a matter of aesthetics. In an often ugly world, a good horse is a still point of beauty. I could say it is the challenge – my old saw about the half ton flight animal under the ten stone human. Sometimes, I think it is the most simple thing: doing honest, physical work in the open air.

And there is the funniness too. The red mare is a natural comedienne She makes me laugh every single day. She is a fascination of complexity too – both a duchess, and a conscientious and responsible lead mare. (It touches me daily to see how seriously she takes that important job.)

But just now I think it is that this delightful creature can bring a dancing smile to my old mum’s face, by the very fact of her simple presence. She is better than any medicine. There is something in that which goes beyond words.


  1. Surely you know it was not *just* the red mare that made her face light up. Surely you know it was seeing you - her girl, her daughter - astride that beautiful and graceful and very large creature, watching the two of you become one in the figure eights, the trotting, the joy. No great recipe happens without the blending of ingredients, and you are an essential ingredient of that particular recipe for your mom's joy.

  2. Ah, you've made me cry a little. What a lovely routine you shared with your mother and stepfather.


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