Friday, 25 September 2015


I like to think I’m quite stoical about being ill, but I’m not. This virus has been an absolute bugger. Cold sweats, pain all over the body as if I had been trampled by a cross donkey, inability to function on any level. I am pale as a ghost and quite doleful. It’s been going round, apparently, which makes me feel faintly better, because at least I am not the only one. (I have a very weird secret belief that giving in to illness is a sort of failure. Oh, the mazy corridors of my foolish mind.)

My very kind friend looked after the red mare, who is happy as a bug, since she loves most of all doing absolutely nothing, and dear Stanley the Manly has lain kindly on the bed, gazing at me with his Florence Nightingale face, and not complaining that there have been no games or sticks or rabbits to chase. For such a busy dog, he can be amazingly patient and peaceful when I am immobilised.

Back to full strength on Monday. Thank you all for your very kind wishes. I’m exceptionally touched.

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Tuesday, 22 September 2015

No blogging.

Not well. Nothing alarming, just one of those horrid low-grade viruses which make you feel as if you have been kicked all over by a cross Shetland pony.

I leave you with my favourite picture of the red mare, which is the only thing currently capable of cheering me up. (And the thought of my kind friend who will look after her whilst I moan and groan in my bed.) Also very comforting are the concerned, liquid eyes of Stanley the Dog. Although I suspect these are not really saying oh poor you, but stop being such a wimp and get up and THROW MY STICK.

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Friday, 18 September 2015

In which I am not Doris Day. Or: incapable of any sense at all.

For various complicated reasons, I had to do another late pass at my manuscript today and the whole thing was so intense that I even missed the racing at Ayr. I was in such a tense, filthy mood that I even shouted at my beloved red mare this morning. She blinked at me as if to say: yeah, yeah, I really don’t give a stuff about agents and deadlines and publishers and careers, so get your shop in order. She is bloody flinty when she is not being a duchess. Actually, sometimes even when she is being a duchess.

I was ashamed of myself. I’ll make it up to her this evening with extra love and rubs and scratches and strokes and confessions of human frailty. She knows all about human frailty, and is quite good at making allowances for it. Which is very lucky.

Stanley the Dog, also resolutely not interested in my boring and minor travails, has taken himself into the next room and is barking at a bluebottle which had the temerity to buzz at him. This is not entirely helpful for my startle reflex, which is on high.

I think of what I wrote yesterday, and I think of the small, mundane, scratchy human stuff in which I am enmeshed today, and I think of bathos. I know that every day can’t be Doris Day, but really.

I hope I shall make some sense on Monday. I can’t guarantee it, but it would be nice.


Today’s pictures:

Are from last week:

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Thursday, 17 September 2015

This is why.

My work at HorseBack is almost always done in a hurry. I dash up, canter about taking pictures, make some bad jokes, shout with laughter, wave and grin at everyone, yell ‘GOOD WORK’ a lot, give my favourite horses a good rub on the neck, make some more bad jokes, and gallop away again, in a rush to get back to my desk and knuckle down to my day job.

Today, there was such a great group, and some very welcome visitors, and people I really wanted to talk to, so I thought bugger it, the day job can wait. As I was chatting to one veteran, and admiring Red, my favourite HorseBack mare, I suddenly found one of the great stories being told.

I learnt, early on, to keep very, very still when I am privileged with this kind of information. I’ve heard stories which were so extreme that I could not write them. I’ve been taken to the limits of human endurance, and, sometimes, when the sights and sounds and horrors are unrolled before me, I have a visceral reaction, as if all the atoms in my body are so outraged that they must rearrange themselves. It’s like a kind of existential pins and needles.

I stand back, taking the pressure off, just as I would with a horse, listen hard, and keep my face utterly straight. I do not exclaim or interrupt. I do not let my eyebrows shoot up into my hairline or allow my mouth to fall open. Most importantly of all, I do not do the pity face. These men and women do not want pity. I’m not even sure they want empathy. I think, although nobody has said this in so many words, that they need a witness. Sometimes, I am lucky enough to be chosen as that witness.

In conversation, these veterans are, variously: courageous, wise, angry, philosophical, fatalistic, stoical, and wounded. They are always funny, with the gallows humour that runs through the forces like a black seam of obsidian. They are searingly honest, utterly straightforward, and almost painfully authentic. Many of them have seen things which no human eye should have to see.

Today’s story started off bad, got worse, grew ridiculously awful, and went back to bad.

I stood still and listened. I employed a bit of heavy irony. (Irony is much, much better than sympathy.) I asked a couple of questions. I am very sparing with my questions, as I don’t want to be intrusive. I did not cry, although that would have been a correct reaction. I did what they do. I laughed. I hoped there was human companionship in that laugh.

Then, the gentleman smiled, and looked at his horse. The mare was dozing gently behind him, her head by his shoulder. She knows nothing of Afghan or Iraq or Bosnia, where he had been. She knows nothing of the roaring torrents of post-traumatic stress, or what too much hot war does to the human brain. She knows only this man in front of her, as he is in that moment. She likes him. They have forged a fast and deep bond. This does not always happen, but, in an amazing number of cases, it does.

The veteran gentled her and tenderly pulled her forelock. She blinked at him, at peace in her world. The little atoms in my body moved and shifted. ‘She does not judge me,’ said the veteran.

Some people don’t get it about horses. They regard with bemusement my love and admiration for the gentle, brave, beautiful creatures. Perhaps they ask themselves why anyone should be filled with admiration for a half-ton flight animal. I can talk until my ears fall off about honesty, and courage, and generosity, and heart, and it may mean nothing.

This, this is why. That moment: that wounded human, that fine mare.
Today’s pictures:

‘We are a partnership,’ said the veteran. Yes, they are.

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My own fine partner:

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I did say one thing, as I was listening to that story. When the gentleman got to the part about the horse, and how she made him feel, I burst out, because I could not help myself: ‘They do bring out your best self. They require your best self.’ He nodded, as if this was perfectly obvious. I have too many flaws to count, but when I am with my red mare I hear the wings of my better angels flapping.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

An ordinary day.

A thousand words, a fine ride, a good political conversation at breakfast, an unexpected meeting with one of my favourite Royal Marines, HorseBack work, usual faint guilt about not being more organised. It seems that I can write a thousand words or I can tidy up my office, but not do both. Shocking behaviour.

I was going to write you a meaty political post about Jeremy Corbyn, and then I was going to do a crusading post about feminism, and then the day galloped away with me and I could not remember a single word of those radical, controversial diatribes. Which is probably just as well, as I am not very fond of stirring up hornets’ nests. I am too exhaustingly liberal, always seeing both sides of an argument, and I hate it when people get cross and I have a faintly pathetic desire for little birds in their nests always to agree. I probably should do a bit more crusading, but when I think about the reality of the thing, I feel my age. I’m in awe of those who do put their heads above the parapet and rejoice in the enemy fire. I’m always noodling about on the centre ground, searching for little green prairies of agreement and communion.

I was all fired up after my political breakfast, when we discussed the future of capitalism, the importance of pragmatism and the generally sensible nature of the good old British voter. But the moment I got on my horse, all that ran away, and I only thought about her. She is my daily meditation. I sometimes think that because we are so in tune, and I can ride her a lot of the time with one finger, that I should let my mind wander and think deep thoughts or write the next chapter of my book in my head. Yet, even at her most soft and easy, she still draws my complete attention. She is a miracle in that way. I don’t really think much when I’m in the saddle. I just feel her great body under me, and am conscious of the air on my face and the grass under our feet and the dear Scottish hills around us and, for an hour or so, nothing else means anything.

I’ve never been able to stop my mind racing around like a rat in a trap. It races so hard that sometimes it keeps me up at night. But she can stop it with one blink of her eye. I still don’t know really how she does it, but, as I always say, a really good thoroughbred mare can do anything.


Today’s pictures:

Not in fact from today. A few from the last week:

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Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Right here, right now.

I had to do a lot of errands today, and everyone on my round was so nice it was as if they had done a course. They admired Stanley the Dog, asked kind questions about the red mare, made happy jokes about the Scottish weather, and, in one shop, restored to me my purse, which I had carelessly left on the counter on Sunday. Every single person in that shop had been worried about the purse, asked me with concern whether I had been panicking, were delighted to have it back in my hands. I ran out of words for thank you.

I rode my horse and did my work and chatted to my mother. I discussed the political situation with my stepfather, because that is what he likes to discuss, watched Stanley play with some of his best canine friends in the field, and contemplated making some green soup. (I almost certainly will make the green soup, although it has not yet been done.) I read a lovely email from one of my best beloveds and sent one back.

I’ve been a bit scratchy and glitchy lately. I sometimes find life quite overwhelming. There are so many things that must be done, so many decisions taken, so many frets and worries that are rather beyond my control. (I have a horrible desire to fix everything, and some things can’t be fixed. One must just be sympathetic and empathetic and there.) I am keenly conscious of the great good fortune I have to live in a free country with a roof over my head and running water in the tap. I sometimes feel guilty that I am not enjoying every minute of every day. How dare I fall victim to doubt or melancholy when I have ALL THIS?

That is when I have to cling on to the small things as if they were a life raft in a stormy sea. A glorious trot on an elegant mare; the dear kindness of the people in my community; the joy on Stanley’s face when he sees his ravishing Dalmatian girlfriend: all these are the small salvations. None of them would ever make a headline, but they are headline news to me.

Anchoring yourself in the moment sounds so simple, but it is very hard. I cast my eyes down the road and worry about what I shall find there. I imagine terrible crashes and disasters. What if I can’t do this, or don’t achieve that? But the world might end tomorrow, I might be run over by a bus, and I don’t want to miss my life because I am fretting about next week. This Scottish earth, this place, these people, this family, these animals, this work, this day: these are what must be important. Right here, right now.

Everything could be taken away in a heartbeat. I would feel really stupid if I had not appreciated what I have.


Today’s pictures:

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Friday, 11 September 2015

A lovely day out. A welcome home.

Just got back from Blair Castle Horse Trials. This year, it was home to the European Championships, so some of the best horses and riders in the world were there. I enjoyed myself vastly and Stanley the Dog made friends wherever he went. (Except with two angry terriers and a disaffected dachshund, to whose snarls and yaps and barings of teeth he reacted with sweet charity and slight bemusement. Luckily, a ravishing lady Labrador soon cheered him up.)

I think perhaps a year ago I would have felt some chagrin. My mare would never look like those horses, or be able to do the things they do. I would never look like those riders or be able to do the things they do.

This year, I felt filled with love and joy. I admired and felt inspired. I adore watching people who are really, really good at what they do. These people were really, really good. There were some charming horses, with character and grace, courage and talent.

But I would not have swapped one of those world-class athletes for my own sweet girl. On the way home, through the mighty slopes of Glenshee, I had to watch my speed, I was so impatient to get home to her.

Back at the ranch, even though it was six o’clock and time for her tea, I leapt into the saddle and took her out into the amber evening light. The sun poured down like honey and she pricked her ears in polite surprise, not being accustomed to an evening ride. Round we went, in our old cow pony lope. She did actually do her dressage diva trot, as if to say: those world-beaters are not the only ones who know self-carriage. And then, just to show them that there was one event in which she would beat them all to flinders, she practised for the Standing Still Olympics.

I wrote yesterday that when I am in the saddle on that horse, I feel as if I have come home. Today, it was a literal thing. I was tired after the long day and the long drive, but I felt my shoulders come down and my heart lift.

There are thousands of horses out there who are better than she, who are even more beautiful than she, who have skills to which she, and I, shall never aspire. But there is not one single horse who suits me so well and makes me so happy.

Don’t compare, I think to myself. The way to hell is paved with comparisons. It’s a terrible human imperative. If only I had that, if only I were this, if only I could do what that person could do. Love what you have, I tell myself; love the one you’re with. This evening, in the glancing Scottish light, in my peaceful green field, on my glowing red mare, all that was fine and true.


Today’s pictures:

The road to Blair:

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The Great Event:

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The sweet face that greeted me when I got home. Slightly quizzical look, as if to say – Where have you BEEN all day?:

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After the lovely ride, spotting Stanley the Manly capering about in the set-aside:

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My little man was so good today:

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