Thursday, 27 February 2014


Going off the blog for a bit. Have to get some serious work done. When I am not tied to my desk, wrangling prose, I shall be in the field, with the good Scottish air on my face, and Stanley the Dog dancing his lurcher dance, and this person, who was at her crest and peak of loveliness and glory and beauty today, and who opened up my bashed old heart and made it fly into the sky.

Every day I think I could not love her more, and every day I do.

27 Feb 1

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

No blog today.

Time defeated me. A lovely ride in the morning and then HorseBack work and outside work and book work and the hours roared away. I have made a ruthless choice. Either I could watch three races from Bangor, or I could do the blog. I CHOSE BANGOR. There is no health in me.

Back to normal tomorrow.


Some quick pictures for you:

26 Feb 1

Herself has been taking her mud bath. Very good for the complexion, don’t you know:

26 Feb 2

This made me laugh and laugh. Stanley the Dog diligently helping The Horse Talker with ground-tying training. He would not leave her side until the job was done:

26 Feb 3

Even though he still has pesky critters to track down in the feed shed.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

In which the thoughts break for the border.

Oh, I had such a marvellous blog for you today. It wrote itself in my mind this morning, full of light and laughter, signifying everything. It was about life and death and the human heart and the whole damn thing.

And now it is gone.

I do not know where it is gone.

The day took it.

There was a canter this morning on the red mare which was so free and lovely that I leapt off and kissed her all over her sweet white face. She put up with it, although she knows that is not what professional horsewomen do. Then I just hung out with her for a while. We watched the buzzards in the woods.

Then I did 1292 words and HorseBack work and had no time to cook so ate a ham sandwich instead. I quite love a ham sandwich.

I did think about life and death and the whole damn thing and some of the thoughts were not bad. One of them, I seem to think, was even a bit of a Eureka moment. It’s just I can’t remember any of them now.

I’ll sharpen up tomorrow.

Meanwhile, here is my lovely love:

25 Feb 1

25 Feb 2

25 Feb 3

25 Feb 5

25 Feb 6

25 Feb 7

25 Feb 8


Oh, how I would love to tell you that she walks towards me like that because I have worked so well with her and understand the equine heart and have made myself mistress of that glorious thing the old horsemen call feel and that really I am another Ray Hunt, in a green Scottish field. I would love to say it is because she knows I am her human and I shall never let her down and that she is stitched into me so that I cannot tell where I end and she begins.

In fact, she is looking at me like that because I have her breakfast.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Remembering the great old gentleman. Or, the internet is surprising.

Crazy, long day, so packed with work that I thought my ears would fall off. My time management continued poor, especially as I thought that industrial amounts of caffeine might help. All that happened was that I grew slightly manic and my fingers were too trembly to type accurately.

I’m too tired to write of my day, which was interesting, and shall record it tomorrow. But one incredibly touching thing happened, and I want to tell you the story of that before I fall off my chair.

There is a tremendous organisation called The Amateur Jockeys’ Association. My father was its president for many, many years. It runs a very good Twitter feed, and I have become friendly with @amajox because they often say lovely things about my dad, and remember him well. It’s one of those interesting relationships that builds up through the ether, between people who have never clapped eyes on each other. We even make little jokes at each other, getting especially excited whenever a female jockey rides a great race, as rather a lot of them have lately. The hashtag #girlsontop gets deployed, with lots of exclamation marks and happy smiles.

Anyway, today, at dear old Plumpton racecourse, one of my father’s favourites, the 3.40 was for the Gay Kindersley Memorial Salver. To mark the occasion, The Amateur Jockeys’ Association tweeted a wonderful photograph of my dad jumping a fence, with a most characteristic gritted-teeth expression. I know that face so well that it made me laugh and it made me cry. It was the face he made when he knew he was getting away with it, because he had almost certainly been roistering about the night before. (As well as being very courageous, he was very, very naughty.)

I took the picture and put it up on Facebook, and people who knew and loved him left sweet comments.

This is what the internet can do. In between crazed sessions of work, I could take five minutes and look at the picture, and look at the remarks underneath, and think of my darling old dad, and smile. I liked thinking of those days when he rode with wild corinthians who threw their hearts over fences. I liked remembering his tremendous physical bravery. He never thought twice when he got on a horse: he just pointed it at the nearest fence and went hell for leather. I’m much more cautious. I’ve ridden work, but never faced five feet of birch at thirty miles an hour. He set a high bar.

He was loved in racing because he was bold and he was a true horseman and he did not swagger. The jokes he made were most often directed against himself. If you really, really wanted to make him laugh, so his shoulders would hop up and down and tears would fall down his cheeks, you only had to tease him about one of his own personal foibles. He did not judge. He took people exactly as they were. He asked merely that they not be dullards. (He had no time for the puffed-up or the pompous either.) He was an outstanding character in a world of characters. He was so completely and utterly himself, and that self was so idiosyncratic and without rules and generous of spirit that people used to smile involuntarily whenever he walked into a room. That is a lovely gift. I never met anyone quite like him.

I think the real reason that I got the red mare, and the real reason I write of her so often, is that she makes me feel close to the old gentleman. I miss him keenly. But today, it was the funny old internet which made me feel close to him, and lifted my heart. That is not necessarily what it was designed for. It is not what it is most used for. But alongside the rants and the trolls and the cute kittens and the inexplicable conspiracy theories, there exists, on the wide prairies of the web, something very human and very good and very true.


This was the picture:


Three things I especially love about it, apart from my fa’s expression – the magnificent britches, the kind, honest face of the horse, with ears pricked, and that wonderful old-school position. That’s what they used to do in the fifties, sit back and slip the reins.

Friday, 21 February 2014

The red champion.

A rather manic and quite difficult week. I run hopelessly behind, watching time scoot away from me into the middle distance. But words were written and work was done.

This morning, a small friend came to visit. I have known the small friend since she was born. She is now nine. I took her to see the horses. Could she get on? she asked.

I hesitated. The red mare was in her very best mood, sweet and still and dozy, but even so. She is a fifteen-two thoroughbred and I did not know if she had ever had anyone that young on her back before. Even though I do not believe the stupid stereotypes about ex-racehorses, they are still not children’s ponies. I did some groundwork to further check the mare’s mood, and got on myself for a minute or two. Everything in her world was lovely. The Zen calm ran deep.

The small eager face was turned to mine, all hope. All right, I thought. Why not?

Up she got. The leathers were up to their shortest but still rather long, but this did not seem to bother her. ‘Good GIRL,’ she said, to Red, who put her ears into their most dozy donkey position and walked kindly with her head low and her neck relaxed. Round we went in the field, very slowly, everyone happy as nuts. The small friend smiled and laughed and waved her arms in the air, entirely without fear. ‘Don’t forget to breathe,’ I said.

Red sighed, and went all soft and gentle. The kind ones do sense when they have very precious cargo on their backs, and get an almost protective look in their eyes.

‘Can we trot?’ said the small friend.

We trotted. Red did her smoothest, slowest sitting trot. ‘That is her Maggie Smith trot,’ I said, laughing, as she mooched round like a dowager duchess.

The whole thing was a mighty triumph. When we stopped to pose for photographs, the red mare dozed off. She has just carried a child on her back, I thought, and she did not put a hoof wrong. She was as tender and careful as if it were her own young.

I made the mistake last night of looking at some show horses on the internet. All that elegant collection, all that technical skill. I’m still doing cowboy lopes with my girl; we have not even thought yet about outlines and getting her on the bridle. I felt a bit inadequate. But then she rose to queenly heights this morning, with her small passenger. She did not blink an eyelash. Horses are never perfect, but she was perfect. Bugger collection; she was my champion riding horse, right there in a muddy field, with the sound of laughter ringing through the bright Scottish air.


Two pictures today, as gleaming as silver challenge cups:

We did try to get her to pose for the camera and prick her ears, but she was so relaxed that she just went to sleep:


Not her most beautiful look, but one of her sweetest:

21 Feb 1

Even though she is all muddy and woolly from the winter, she still is an aristocrat among horses. I said to the small friend: ‘Now you can go home and tell everyone that you have ridden the granddaughter of a Derby winner.’ I could not help it. She might have been the slowest flat horse in Britain, but she is bred from champions, and I never quite get over my absurd pleasure in that.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

My day gallops off over the horizon. Or, not really a blog at all.

HorseBack ate my day.

There were so many interesting people at HorseBack today, and then so many words to write, and after that so many archive photographs to wade through as part of a tragic cataloguing effort, that my day disappeared in a puff of smoke. Oh, oh, my time management. It does not even deserve the name of time management. It is more time lost down the back of the sofa. And I was doing so well with my blithering twenty minute increments.

Also, I have to tidy up the house, as people are coming, and the state of artistic confusion is not quite as charming as it sounds.

So the day galloped off over the horizon, and I watched it go with regret.

Still, there have been 2992 words of secret project over the last two days, so all is not lost. Even though I did miss the 3.10 at Punchestown. (Luckily, Upsie won.)


The red mare does not care. She adores a day off:

19 Feb 1

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

A belated day.

My broadband has been off all day, but I wrote this earlier, and thought I would put it up, even though it is far, far too late for pictures. So sorry about that.


I meet a fascinating man up at HorseBack. He was a three-day eventer and rode later in points and hunter chases. He is a proper horseman. He knows and loves thoroughbreds.

I am so delighted to meet a kindred spirit that I have to contain myself. I am here for HorseBack work, after all, not to count the ways that the thoroughbred is one of the mightiest creatures ever invented. I do blurt out at one stage, ‘I have a little ex-flat mare.’ Then I remember myself and attempt to shut up. Not everyone necessarily needs to know that.

The ex-flat mare reverted this morning to cow pony, all dopey and relaxed, and then went back again to racehorse. (I definitely think that the deer are making terrible nocturnal noises and her sleep is being disturbed.) When I say racehorse, I mean that she remembers all her power and speed. Most of the time, I have persuaded her to forget those, and go along all gentle and relaxed, with her head down, as if we really are out on the Lonesome Pine.

The difference is palpable. I can feel her grow under me. The energy rises, and she wants to run. All her muscles grow taut and strong.

‘Yeah, yeah,’ I say, not quite sure what has brought this on. ‘We’re all right, old lady.’ I do some lateral flexion and turn her in small circles and figures of eight. This is the fascinating moment. It is when they decide whether they are going to listen to their ancestral voices, or to you. If you have worked them well enough, and built up the trust, and are doing some good deep breathing, they should listen to you. She could run. She is in nothing but a halter. Even if I had a Dutch gag in her mouth, she could run. My strength is nothing to hers.

She makes her choice. She is staying with me. That’s what all the work is for. I know some techniques to bring her down, and I use them, but the foundational thing is that I am her human, and she damn well knows that I will not let the mountain lions get her. That is why she has no need to run, in the end.

We walk back to the field, where we do some nice changes of gait and then have a lovely, loping canter and then stop.

She is back to cow pony again. We meet some architects and she wibbles her lower lip at them. HER GRANDSIRE WON THE DERBY YOU KNOW, I want to yell.

I like it that all that spirit is still in her. Her blue blood will never be denied. I like it that sometimes she challenges me and makes me think. I like it that she never, ever lets me get cocky. The moment I think I’m all that, she throws down a marker, as if she senses I am getting above myself.

I think of all the stupid things that are said about thoroughbreds. I think: if only people knew what you can do with them. Which is anything. That nice horseman knows, I think. I think: it’s like having an Aston Martin. And why would you not want one of those?

Monday, 17 February 2014

An ordinary Monday.


A cool, still morning. I ride the mare. She is a little edgy and unsettled. The Horse Talker and I wonder if the foxes or deer have been doing unspeakable things in the woods at night and keeping her awake. (Seriously, this is the kind of thing you have to take into account with horses. Just like humans, they can become scratchy if sleep-deprived.) But even though she is a bit twitchy, she still gives me a flowing canter on a loose rein.

HorseBack. First time up there with Awesome back and her filly not. There is a palpable space in the field. I remember this from when little Myfanwy died. You can’t believe such a small person can leave such a big gap. The dear dam is rather shut down, as if someone has thrown a veil over her. For a moment, I think: is that really Awesome? She looks different: darker, diminished. I stand with her for a while and she rests her head against my shoulder.

Back at my desk, I write 1699 words, which is a lot. Inspired by my friend The Producer, I make a chicken soup. I forget the pearl barley and it scorches, rather. The soup has an interesting, nutty taste as a result. I sit with failure. Chicken soup is one of the things I am really, really good at and I buggered it up.

I think about failure quite a lot, big and small. I think learning to fail is a life skill which should be studied. Succeeding is easy. Failure is hard. Red had a little spook this morning, which she has not done for weeks. She spun round fast and I almost went flying out the side door. Even though you can’t completely bomb-proof a horse, I have been desensitising for months just to avoid this kind of event, and for a moment I felt the black bird of shame hovering. Then I thought, sod it, she’s a horse. I did not fall off. She did not gallop away. She just got a little fright. So we went into the scary woods. It was like a test, mostly of myself. There was a bit of snorting, but we trotted kindly up the sharp hill into the dark places, and then rode back on the buckle. All was not lost. Quite a lot, in fact, was found.

The Dear Readers have said some very nice things lately. I always find this both touching and slightly surprising. It never gets old. Sometimes I feel a bit bogus, because even though I admit to fears and frailties, life always sounds better when it is written in sentences. The reality scruffier and muddlier and more fraught than you see here. But there is a lot of love in it, and today I think: that’s all that damn well counts.


Rather dim and dreary today, so no pictures. Here are two from Friday, when the sun shone.

My favourite Minnie the Moocher. She comes to say hello, with head down, donkey ears, and delicate toe:

17 Feb 1

And later, eating her hay, with her questing face on:

17 Feb 2

Friday, 14 February 2014

My funny Valentine.

Everybody has their different talents. I am good at: horses, chicken soup, not dangling modifiers. I am bad at: tennis, filing, and beef stew. (I’ve never cracked the secret of beef stew. I’ve tried twenty different versions. It is never bad, but it is always very, very slightly disappointing.)

I am catastrophically bad at romantic love. I never got the hang of it. I always did it with completely unsuitable people, for a start. They were charming, funny, intelligent and fantastically unreliable. They always left. Then I would take to my room and listen to Leonard Cohen records and be unable to speak for quite a long time.

Even when it was going well, I wasn’t much good at it. I found the swinging from chandeliers stage exhausting. Even when I was very young, I longed for the violent emotion of the early stages of love to pass, and the nice steady part to arrive. Since my relationships were always dramatic, short and doomed, I never got to the nice steady part. I still imagine it must be quite soothing.

In the end, I gave it up as a bad job. Lucky for me, I never wanted to get married or have children. I think people thought this was a form of bolshiness, but it was merely something that did not call to me, just as some people do not wish to live in New York or play piano concertos.

I used to get perfectly furious about the horrid patronising view that single people were somehow less than. I would issue rolling rants about the miseries and compromises and lonelinesses that are hidden away in the dark corridors of a romantic relationship. I have seen the despair that can exist behind the facade of a publicly perfect marriage.

Now, I don’t care. I don’t rant. I grow old; I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Everyone has their thing. Not all relationships, it turns out, hide secret misery. Some are perfectly lovely. My friend the World Traveller is brilliant at marriage and family. It really is her special skill. She and her husband like each other and want the same things and laugh at each other’s jokes. The great-nephew and nieces are some of the nicest and happiest children I know. When I see them all together, I want to hang out flags. They are a family at ease with themselves; they are a roaring success. The World Traveller did that, and I’m always rather in awe of the women who are good at making a family. I also feel very, very grateful to them, for doing it, so I do not have to.

But one strand quietly remains, of my early firebrand objections. It is that I still protest at the privileging of romantic love over all others. I think the other loves are possibly more important. I live easily and delightfully without romantic love, but I would be undone without friend love, family love, place love. The love I feel for Scotland endures like the blue hills that make my heart beat. The feeling of being stitched into a various and extended family is one of the high joys of my existence. The old friends, who have seen me straight and seen me curly, and know all my weaknesses, and love me anyway, are perhaps my greatest gift.

There is the dog love. You all know about that. I still miss my Duchess and my Pigeon. Their sleekness and kindness and funniness and beauty are still stitched into my heart. Now there is Stan the Man, the eccentric lurcher. (Actually, that is a bit of a tautology. All lurchers are eccentric.) He is lying beside me as I write this, his amber eyes regarding me quizzically. I love him because he is characterful and handsome and gentle. I love that he can run like a racehorse. I like his great athleticism. I admire the fact that he is going to catch that damn mouse in the feed shed, or die in the attempt.

There are other smaller loves which are important too, some of them so small they may hardly be seen by the naked eye. I love trees and politics and racing and books. I love lichen. I love the poems of TS Eliot and the songs of David Bowie and the paintings of Stubbs. I love talking about the big questions, which don’t have any definitive answers. What constitutes the good life? How did the Big Bang bang? What’s it all about, Alfie? How is it that the human heart may take so many blows and still endure?

And above all this soars the red mare.

It turned out that I got a love of my life after all. I never thought I would. I was so crashingly hopeless at gentlemen that I had thought I would have all the many other loves, but not a single, over-arching one. And then, by the merest sliver of chance, a horse appeared, who was useless at racing and useless at polo and should have gone to China, only the man with the lorry never pitched up. In that most random way, she came into my life.

At the beginning, I thought it would be a nice thing, to get me away from my desk, to remind me of my darling dad, to return me to something I was once good at. I did not know that it would turn out to be my one true love.

But that is what she is. I can’t even begin to count the ways. I love her kindness, her cleverness, her comedy skills, her courage, her authenticity. I love that she is a bit of a duchess and that her pedigree is crammed with Derby winners. I love that she goes back to the Byerley Turk, three times, on the bottom line. I love her power and her grace. I love her smell. I love that she does not give a bugger about the superficial things. She knows what is important. I love that sometimes, when she hits a perfect stride, it feels as if we are flying. I love that she knows I am her human and that she may rely on me. It feels like a gift.

And that is why, on this Valentine’s Day, I have no yearning for hearts and flowers. I don’t secretly long for dinners by candlelight or grand romantic gestures. Valentine’s Day is thought to be an excruciating thing for singles. But you see, I have my love. I hope you have yours. I hope it is not the kind that fits neatly onto a Hallmark card.


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Thursday, 13 February 2014


Too sad to blog today. The sweet little filly has died.

I was quite cheerful this morning, keeping my chin up in proper British fashion. The Horse Talker made me laugh; the horses themselves were at their funniest and sweetest. Then I had to write a farewell for HorseBack UK, and now my heart is too bashed for any more words.

This is what I wrote:

Today, we have only the saddest news. Our little Spirit has gone. For all her fighting heart, she could not beat off the brutal infection, and in the end, it mastered her.

Our own hearts are broken.

Nobody understands why these things happen. As anyone who keeps and loves animals knows, fate can sometimes be random and brutal. Awesome Spirit was so bonny, so bright, always a picture of health. She was such a vital and vivid presence, so actual in the world, that it seems almost impossible to believe that she is no longer in it.

It is an especially cruel blow because of the great man in whose memory she was named. Paul Burns was one of the most remarkable people who ever walked through the HorseBack gates, and every time we looked at Spirit, we thought of him. It was a lovely thing to have a living reminder of his own mighty battling heart. And now there is just a space left behind, where these two beloveds should be.

A shadow has fallen over us, but we shall rally. If the men and women who come here have taught us anything, it is the value of dauntlessness, doggedness, a refusal to give in. They show, over and over, the shining virtue of grace under pressure, which was Hemingway’s definition of courage. There is work to do. The HorseBack ship shall sail on.

But today is a day of sorrow. We say goodbye to a beautiful, fleet, dancing girl, who was taken too soon.

Farewell, Awesome Spirit. You brought us joy, and we loved you well.

Run free now.


13 Feb H1

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

A maddening frailty.

In some areas of my life, I am bold and flinty. I quite happily get on a thoroughbred ex-racehorse and canter about on a loose rein in a rope halter. I live a resolutely unconventional life. (Although, interestingly, it does not feel like that from the inside. It feels very normal and usual. I only remember the unconventionality from time to time because people are prone to raise eyebrows, and then I have to explain. Lot of ‘splaining to do, as the great Rachel Maddow says.)

I can introduce myself to strangers, and travel alone. I once drove all by myself from Los Angeles to Seattle and back again, taking the frankly terrifying coast road which winds its way along hundred foot cliffs with no safety barrier.

But there are areas of life where I am windy as hell. I know all about the complexity and contradictions of the human mind, but still, it always surprises me. One thing in which I am absolutely pathetic is being told off. I cringe and crumble; quite often I want to cry. I stutter and shuffle; I hang my head like a five-year-old outside the headmistress’s office.

I know that there are people who do not give a bugger. Someone scolds them, and they merely shrug it off. Either they are adept at diagnosing the source of the other person’s ire, or they have naturally thick skins, or they understand well that there are worse things happening in Chad. They are excellent at saving their emotional resources until they see the whites of anyone’s eyes.

I do not like the unexplained. If I have a reason for things, I am at once soothed. I have a fairly empirical, rationalist mind, and once I can see that tab A goes into slot B, I sigh a gutsy sigh of relief. I love fiction for this reason: it all comes back to Chekhov’s gun. Fiction makes glorious, lovely sense, where life does not.

A gentleman told me off this morning. He was within his rights. Stan the Man was barking, and the gentleman was afraid. I should, of course, have had the dog under control. I felt stupid and idiotic and caught in a catastrophic failure. The gentleman was cross, and dressed me down without let or hindrance. I knew that he had correctness on his side, which of course made it worse, and I issued a crawling apology. Inside, the livid child in me was yelling its head off. This is my place, it shouted, and that is my good dog, and how dare you point your stupid finger. It’s just a bit of barking; butch up. Then the upset infant slammed into its bedroom and shut the door and burst into stormy sobs.

The forty-seven-year-old adult, who could not indulge in such dramatics, and knew that rules is rules, and manners are manners, and that dogs should be trained better, went down to the field and looked at the sweet, expectant, equine faces with their pricked ears, whickering at the fence. The adult shouted, out loud, into the cold Scottish morning: FUCK. BUGGER. BALLS. And FUCK again.

Then I pulled myself together and rode the mare and felt the love and later I drove up to HorseBack and had some lovely jokes with one of the American Special Forces operatives, who is still there. ‘Thanks for the lovely write-up yesterday,’ he said, serious for once. He gave me back what the cross gent had taken away, which happened to be my sense of self.

The thing is that self should be internally generated. Just as I teach Red to go kindly within herself, to have a sense of confidence in the world, so that she does not need to rush or pull, I should be able to teach that to my human self. Most of the time, I am fairly stoical and robust. But oh, oh, the idiot power of the scold. It can undo me in an instant. I wish I knew why it had such power, and how I could armour myself against it.


Today’s pictures:

The hill, before the storm blew in:

12 Feb 2

It was the most glorious morning, with a clear blue sky rising out of the dawn. I hoped perhaps Scotland might get lucky and avoid the brutal storm blowing in off the Atlantic. But it has arrived now, with horrid sleet and snow and high winds. I bless, bless, bless the new rug technology, so that my darling girl is huddled up to her dear ears:

12 Feb 1

PS. As my finger hovers over the publish button, I have a moment’s pause. Do you really need to know all this? Should I not give you high days and shiny days and dancing days? But, as always, I think, in some mazy part of my mind, that the sharing of frailties is a good thing. It leaves me vulnerable, because anyone could say anything. I would like to show you my best side, and not have to fret. Then I think: vulnerability is important. One cannot live in a castle keep all one’s life.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014



An amazing number of words.

Good twenty-minute increments.

Another of the Dear Departeds departs.

Procrastination. I wish I could do something about it. I think: I’ll deal with it tomorrow.

HorseBack, with moody hills.

Some not very good news.

A faint feeling of unease.

The sweet, soothing presence of the red mare.

A smile at the thought of Frankel’s birthday.

A fret about things undone.

A contemplation of the power of the simple, declarative sentence.

Kindness on the internet.

A very bad hair day.

Quite a lot of laughing.

One lovely winning bet.

A ham sandwich.

Thoughts of grammar.

One excited dog; one bloody big stick.

And, in the end, after all that, there was sun. Thick, ancient, Scottish sun, the colour of amber.


Today’s pictures:


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Today’s hill, back in all her glory:

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Monday, 10 February 2014

Special Forces.

The sun shines. The Horse Talker and I take out our mares on the sweetest, happiest, most relaxed ride ever. I’m not sure I ever felt Red more gentle and at one with herself and the world. I don’t know who is more delighted that the weather has at last grown kind: equines or humans.

I run up to HorseBack. There is a crowd there. There sometimes is a crowd. I plunge in. I have no idea who anyone is. ‘Hello,’ I say, shaking hands, ‘how do you do? I’m Tania Kindersley. I do the Facebook page.’

Eventually, I sort some of them out. Two are from a venerable organisation which I cannot yet name (secret plans). One seems to be some kind of philanthropist, but I never get upsides him. Two are very smiley and jolly and funny and sharp. One is tall, and looks like Hugh Jackman. One is shorter, and is rather like a young Chevy Chase, and just as hilarious. Within minutes, my famous British reserve has fled. There is no more ‘how do you do?’ or firm handshakes. I am doubling up with laughter and actually slapping my thigh and shouting with merriment. I also quickly fall into teasing them, since they take the piss out of themselves, with ruthless irony.

It turns out that they are of the American Special Forces. When people from the services, on either side of the pond, talk of special forces, you can be sure that the special is very bloody special indeed. You can also be sure that the more special their service, the less they will talk about it. They occasionally get that thousand yard stare in their eyes, but they do not do bragging or war stories. They do self-deprecation as if their lives depend on it. (My favourite Para uses ‘when I was shot in the head’ as a gag line, like a stand-up, doing schtick.)

These two are heaven. I want to wrap them up and take them home. They were wounded in Afghan, and have been through the long months of rehabilitation. You would not know it to look at them; they are shining, healthy specimens. One has a barely visible scar at the base of his throat, the only outward sign of what he has been through.

One is back at work, no longer in the forces, but as a contractor. ‘Are you super- secret?’ I say, merrily. ‘Are you deep undercover? Can I take your picture?’

‘As long as you get my best side,’ he says, gravely.

‘I mostly hide under my desk now,’ he says. ‘And look at Facebook.’

‘Facebook is crazy,’ says the other one, in exaggerated alarm. ‘You just don’t know what people will say next.’

I know perfectly well there is no hiding under any desk, or much Facebook either. That is just how they talk.

They crack jokes for another ten minutes, and then HorseBack’s resident Royal Marine comes out to discuss where he should take them. They want to see a bit of Scotland.

‘We could go to Lochnagar,’ he says. ‘It’s not far from Balmoral. Near the Queen.’

‘If you see the Queen,’ says the Chevy Chase one. ‘Say ‘Chip, chip,’ from me.’

‘Chip, chip?’ I say.

‘That’s what you Brits say,’ says Chevy.

‘No Briton has ever said Chip, chip,’ I say. ‘What have you been doing? Watching Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins?’

‘Never?’ He looks bemused.

‘Never,’ I say.

There is a pause. Then a shout of laughter.

‘You British need to learn to speak British,’ he says.

I think how much I love Americans. Obviously, not all Americans. I don’t expect I would have much fun with one of those crazy evangelical GOP types, who thinks that gay people are mentally ill and that the fossil record was put there by Satan. But, oh, a good American is like a gale of fresh air. I never understand where the fantasy comes from that only the British can do irony. Has nobody ever seen The Daily Show? These two are so ironical that it is as if they took a course. There they stand, in the beaming Scottish sunshine, vivid and bright and endlessly funny, and I think of all the things they have done, and all the things they have seen, and the wounds they carry, quietly, with dignity, beneath their smart coats.

As I get older, I really, really understand the idea of one day at a time. It’s an old group therapy saw, its meaning worn thin with use. But I see now that the only way to deal with middle age, and the intimations of mortality, and the griefs which come, and the labyrinthine difficulties that go into trying to live the good life, is to ask the most simple questions. What shall I do today? What did I do today? Did I add one tiny increment to the sum total of human happiness? Did I try hard? Did I read something interesting or say something amusing or do something kind?

If someone were to ask what I did today, I could answer: well, I met a man from the Special Forces who looked like Hugh Jackman, and another who was as hysterical as Chevy Chase in his pomp.

It’s not a bad answer.


Today’s pictures:

The Special Forces, with HorseBack’s own Royal Marine on the right:

10 Feb 1

10 Feb 3-001

One of my happiest sights is the two girls out together, in the brightness, WITHOUT THEIR RUGS. The sweet Paint has had her breakfast and is waiting politely for the duchess to finish hers, so she may lick the bowl. It’s a little routine between them:

10 Feb 3-002


10 Feb 12

And the darling old hill, because as one of the Dear Readers reminded me, we have not had the hill for a while. It has been lost in the dreich:

10 Feb 3

One more very lovely thing did happen today, although I almost do not mention it, because the person concerned is a modest fellow who does not like compliments very much. Someone I like and respect very much gave me an unexpected present. It was a book, chosen with a great deal of thought and care, and it had an inscription written on the front page which was so touching and heartfelt, it actually made me cry.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

I dream of Tidal Bay.

Over at Leopardstown today, a late chapter in a long and glorious story will be written. The veteran Tidal Bay is crossing the water to have a pitch at one of Ireland’s best chases.

Old horse runs in race is not the stuff of which headlines or fairy tales are made. But this is not any old horse, nor any old race.

Tidal Bay is one of the most intriguing and idiosyncratic horses in racing. He has a peculiar running style, with his head stuck in the air, star-gazing all the way round. It seems almost as if he defies the laws of physics, for a horse should not be able to travel at velocity whilst making that shape.

He also has very strong ideas about the world and what he wants to do in it. He quite often moseys round at the back, as if he really can’t be fagged, and whilst the rest of the field are getting on with it, he and his jockey (mostly Ruby Walsh, lately Sam Twiston-Davies) will be having what looks like a fairly comprehensive conversation. The chat generally goes on for about three-quarters of the race, and appears to run along the lines of: not sure I want to; yes you do; still not convinced; come on it’s mighty craic; oh, all right.

You cannot tell this horse to do anything. He is stronger and more determined and more cussed than any puny human. Riding him is mostly a matter of nuanced and intelligent persuasion.

Once the conversation is finished, Tidal Bay makes up his mind, starts galloping in earnest, and quite often moves from last to first. In the old days, because of all this head-in-air orneriness, Timeform put the dreaded squiggle next to his name. The squiggle is like the Black Spot. It means unreliable, ungenuine, not to be trusted. But the funny thing is that Tidal Bay, in a tight finish, is all heart and guts. His cussedness comes into its own, as he gets a bugger off look in his eye, and goes from mule to alpha horse in a matter of strides. Suddenly, he damn well is the herd leader, and he’s going to boss the lot of them.

In the Lexus last season, he gave the racing public a finish for the ages. Half a length covered the first four home, and it was Tidal Bay, with a never-say-die surge of speed and guts, pushing his way through an impossible gap between two gallant, fighting horses, who prevailed, to roars of disbelief and joy. I have watched that race ten times, and I still have no idea how he got up.

The squiggle was quietly removed.

This season he has been mighty in victory, and amazingly courageous in defeat. He humped top weight through the mud at Chepstow last time, and finished a running-on third. He still runs with his head in the air, and he still tends to stalk round at the back for the first circuit, but the clever people at the Nicholls stable have found the key to his battling heart.

Today, probably for the last time, he goes up against the best of his peers in a Grade One chase. He is thirteen, which is old, in professional terms. The diamond brilliance usually loses its lustre when racehorses pass eleven. He had a hard race only a month ago, which can take it out of any horse, let alone one of his venerable years. He is up against First Lieutenant, a lovely, talented nine-year-old. First Lieutenant is a favourite of mine; I love his rangy, athletic build and his honest Roman nose. But I shall be shouting for dear Tidal Bay today, although I think the odds are against him.

He will be reunited with his old pal, Ruby Walsh, and who knows what chats they shall have, as they wander along at the back? If anyone can do the improbable, Ruby can.

Tidal Bay is not a horse of ease and grace. He is a horse of character and grit. That is why I love him. I think that is why he is adored by the crowds who come to watch him run. He’s not quite like anything else. And he’s been around so long, and given a huge amount of joy. If the auld fella can pull it out of the bag, there will not be a dry eye in the house. Certainly not in this house.


I can’t put a picture of him here, because of copyright. There is the red mare instead, who never won a single thing in her short and undistinguished racing career, but is of course the Grade One champion of my heart. She gave me a canter today of such lightness and delicacy that it was as if we were floating.

9 Feb 1

Friday, 7 February 2014

Good and bad, light and dark, up and down, round the houses. Or: usual ramble.

1342 words today. I am still doing my twenty minute rule. Everything is broken down into increments of twenty minutes. I actually set a timer. When the thing beeps, I reset it, so that the work may spread into hours, but because all I am faced with is twenty minutes, I do not feel overwhelmed. I love this new experiment and think perhaps I shall do it forever.

Down at the paddock, the sun has come out and the winds have dropped and all is golden and calm. The red mare is so delighted that she falls into her softest and sweetest self, her lower lip curving itself into an equine smile. The floods which cover half the fields have frozen over, so that we have skating rinks everywhere. The Horse Talker and I wonder what the dear equines will do. They consider for a while, then strike out across the ice to reach us, not flinching as it cracks under their hooves. They break the ice to make their way through, as if they are pioneer women, going out to settle the west. They pick up their feet like dowager duchesses on their way to a ball, as they feel the slivering shards against their fetlocks. It is one of the most charming sights I ever saw. I think how good and brave they are.

I have a ride of such ease and joy that I don’t have words for it.

I work with the mare in many different ways. Some days I concentrate on collection, or straightness, or not dropping her shoulder. Some days I work on soft cues, or steering. Some days I simply want to get her to be her best, most relaxed self. Today, I go for the cowgirl and cowpony. I want to be able to ride her with one hand, on a loose rope (we are in the halter), and to get her to keep a steady pace, going kindly within herself without me having to niggle or nag. I want to ride with thought, almost more than cues. We’ve been stymied by the weather lately, and are out of practice, and I’m not sure if this programme is too ambitious. But suddenly, there she is, going right when I merely think right, loping into a steady trot when I think trot, gathering herself for a joyful canter when I think canter.

There have been a few two steps forward one step back lately. I had to go back to the beginning, and concentrate on the fundamentals. I was reminded keenly of the humility that horses teach, and how you cannot tick boxes, or take them for granted. Today, that going back to Square One was rewarded with such loveliness that I whooped out loud and fell on her neck and showered her with garlands of love. She is one of the most remarkable creatures I ever met. Today, she gave me the great gift of making me feel like a champion.

And then, just as I was finishing the section above, smiling, with happy memories of a gentle morning, the demands of work crashed in, and the twenty minute rule did not help, and my head became stretched and maddened, and suddenly I had forty-seven things to do and not enough time to do them all.

I think this is called: being human.

As I dashed back to the field, fraught and tense, desperate to get the evening stables done in the smallest time possible, so I could tear back to my desk and attempt to dig myself out of the avalanche, I suddenly saw the look on my mare’s face. It was very, very slightly disapproving. Are we such creatures to be done in a rush? she seemed to be saying.

She was right, of course. Bugger the work. I’ll get it done. I took a deep breath and looked at the sky and looked at the trees and looked at the floods which lay like mirrors on the winter land. I looked at the light, which we have not seen for so long. I stood, perfectly still, with the mares, one on either side.

Don’t miss your life, I told myself, just because you have things to do.


Today’s pictures:

Really are from today.

Horse Talker leading Autumn the Filly across another stretch of cracking ice:

7 Feb 4-001

The fields:

7 Feb 7

7 Feb 8

7 Feb 8-001

My lovely girl, posing after our ride:

7 Feb 4

And looking pretty pleased with herself, as well she should:

7 Feb 6

Stan the Manly Man, striking out:

7 Feb 18

The little HorseBack filly, in surgery as we speak, still fighting the filthy infection which has her in its grip:

7 Feb FB1


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