Thursday, 24 April 2014


A galvanic work day. I wrote hundreds of words. I edited tens of pages. I can see a little horizon of hope. There is so far to go and the resolution is so uncertain, but still, one must keep buggering on and this was splendid buggering.

My brain has, however, had it.

There is a faint snapping sizzle as it short-circuits.

Here are some randomly chosen pictures from the archive instead of words. I’m all out of words. We sold right out.

24 April 2

24 April 3

24 April 4

24 April 6

24 April 8

24 April 8-001

24 April 9

24 April 10

24 April 14

24 April 28

24 April 31

24 April 33

9 Oct 17

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A good day.

The work seemed never-ending today. I wrote 1532 words of secret project, and edited almost to the end of the draft, so that it may not be secret for much longer. The agent may actually set her eyes on it. I went on with my mammoth task of organising the HorseBack photographic archive, which is exhausting and joyful at the same time. In the middle of all this, I took ten minutes to watch two of my favourite horses, one at Epsom and one at Perth. They both won, in fine style. One was the second favourite and not a great surprise, but the other, a sweet handicapping mare called Beacon Lady, whom I had backed from simple love and loyalty at 20-1, because I adored her last season, was a rank outsider, and I shouted with astonished delight as she zoomed from last to first in a matter of strides, and won going away.

I was so busy that I forgot to have lunch and now write this with a swimmy head and squinty eyes. My poor blood sugar.

But there is one more thing I must record before I go.

Last night, someone posted a wonderful video on the internet of two great event riders, doing a demonstration with their horses using no bridles, only a neck rein. The horses were wonderfully relaxed and accurate and responsive, and did dressage moves and jumping as if reading their riders’ minds. Ah, I thought, I’d never be able to do anything like that. I know my limitations. I watched in admiration, with a very faint batsqueak of regret. Never mind; we can’t all be Mozart.

When I got on Red this morning, I thought we would work on softness and balance. Nothing fancy, just getting her into a happy rhythm, at ease with herself. She was at her most calm and bright, moving through the world as if it were all arranged for her own delight. Bugger it, I thought, I’ll give it a go. So I dropped the reins and decided to see what would happen. Round the open set-aside we went, the mare in a beautiful extended walk, her left ear flicking back towards me to see what I wanted, following the route I had chosen as accurately as if we were in a double bridle. I really could not believe it. How can she be so clever?

Sure, it’s not doing dressage in an arena in front of an audience, but it’s pretty damn impressive for one of those crazy, unpredictable thoroughbreds. (Why do people perpetuate these canards? She was about as crazy and unpredictable as a Swiss watch.) I rewarded her with a dashing canter for fun, and she went joyfully on a loose rein. Then we did some accuracy work, just for the hell of it. I do this with her on the ground, asking her to move one foot at a time, but I’ve never tried it in the saddle. I wasn’t even quite sure what cue I would use. I moved my body and used a tiny bit of rein, and there it was – one foot backwards; stop; the other foot backwards; stop. I did it again to check it was not a fluke. It was not. You may imagine the vulgar flinging of self on horse which followed.

Yes, yes, she said, nodding her head, quietly pleased with herself. Of course I can do that.

What has she been doing? Taking secret lessons from dressage squirrels in the night?

I love her so much that love is not a good enough word for it.


Too tired for pictures now. Just the glorious all-seeing eye:

23 April 1

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The kindness of strangers.

The internet is such a curious thing. This morning, a writer I like very much was having difficulties with the etiquette of social networks. It is always a minefield in such a new medium, as everyone makes up the accepted mores as they go along. She had tried to do a little rationalisation of her online posse, and someone had become offended and got cross, leaving her rather bruised and baffled. Then I read an article about religion vs atheism on the Spectator website, and was amazed that the readership of such an august old lady as the Speccie should be so free from manners. The comment section was a brawling free-for-all, with everyone getting furious and calling each other names. The great-aunt in me was horrified.

These are the difficult sides of the internet. But there is also the miraculous, kind, touching side.

I follow various pages about this new school of horsemanship which fascinate me so much. I find them very interesting and very helpful. In my quest to let the red mare express her truest, most glorious self, and my own attempt to learn something every day, I find these places invaluable. I am normally too shy to write a comment, being conscious that I am at the very beginning of my journey. (What do you know? shout the voices in my head.) But today, a horseman I admire wrote something which struck a real chord, and so I threw caution to the four winds, and left a remark.

Would the fellow laugh, discern at once my most amateur status, peg me for a fool? Would he see quite clearly that I know nothing?

And then there was a little ping on my computer. The kind gentleman had replied. This alone is an act of courtesy. Most people do not have the time. What he wrote was absolutely delightful and filled me with joy. He wrote: ‘I guessed you were a writer when I saw what you wrote on my post.’

When I think about horses, I think that the most important thing is that mysterious attribute called feel. It’s almost impossible to pin down. It’s to do with the physical – a softness and give in the hands, a rhythmic way of moving the body. It’s to do with the mental – reading your horse, trying to think your way into their world. It’s to do also with the spiritual, if I may say that without sounding like a flake. It is a communion of two spirits, across the species divide.

This morning, I sat with my mare and watched her eat her hay. The spring grass is slow in coming, and she still needs a bit of the good hay to keep her going. It is glorious, fresh stuff, brought by the kind local farmer. She adores it, and as she eats she goes into a happy meditative state. I stayed by her and watched her dear face and thought about those two spirits, hers and mine, and how sometimes I cannot tell where one begins and the other ends.

Writing, too, has its mysterious, unnameable element. You can learn all the technical stuff you like. You can make yourself mistress of the semi-colon. You can quote Strunk and White by the yard. I have read all the damn manuals, sat at the feet of the masters, gone through The Great Gatsby line by line to try and identify where its genius lies. But there is that extra thing which is required, the thing which has no name, which is perhaps the equivalent of that feel I look for with my horse. It is a thing of the spirit. It does not arrive every day, but sometimes, when the light is coming from the right direction, something mysterious happens, a little alchemy, a sprinkle of stardust, and everything falls into place, and the words run free, and it is like dancing.

I could tell you were a writer, says the kind gentleman, out on the internet. (He could tell, yells my inner six-year-old, dancing with glee.) There it is, winging through the ether, a confirmation of my belief in the kindness of strangers, the best thing anyone could say, the perfect antidote to the shouting, rough voices. I shall smile for the rest of the day.


Today’s pictures:

After our dazzling Easter, dear old Scotland has reverted to her most dour state, so I did not take the camera out today. Here are a few pictures from brighter days:

22 April 1

22 April 2

22 April 4

22 April 4-001

I love the good companions, bowing to each other like Japanese diplomats:

22 April 8

And this is the contemplative look my old duchess has when she eats her hay, as if she is mulling over the Universal Why:

22 April 9

Monday, 21 April 2014

An unexpectedly happy day.

There’s been much sadness in the family in the last week, but oddly enough, today I did not feel sad. I remembered my father, who died on this day three years ago, with a gentle, easy fondness. I smiled, rather than wept.

I spent a long time in the sunny field with the red mare, chatting to her. As the spring springs, I decided to give her a well-deserved day off. We mooched about together, in low harmony, communing. She was in her happiest mood, at peace with the world and herself.

‘Oh,’ I said out loud, ‘Dad would have loved you.’

Later, I did a nutty accumulator, in honour of the old gentleman. I put in it all the horses I loved, rather than the ones I thought would win. I do that sometimes. They are heart bets.

The first up was Thousand Stars. He has been a top class horse in his day, but he has not won anything lately, and the suspicion is that the mighty campaigner is past his best. In the glittering Irish sunshine, he set off across the green, green grass of Fairyhouse, ears pricked, leaping over his hurdles for sheer delight. I’m not sure I ever saw a horse enjoying himself so much on a racecourse. He went straight to the lead, and stretched out the field, and I thought, well, he’ll have his fun and then he’ll come back to them, and it’s just as well that acker was each-way.

But he did not come back to them. He kept on galloping, his big, strong stride eating up the turf, his jumping true and straight. They tried to get close to him, but he seemed to say: no, today is mine. He gathered his lovely athletic body and roared clear, to win by ten lengths.

It made physical tingles run up and down my spine, as if my whole body was dancing with delight. It’s one of the happiest sights I have seen this season. Everything about it was right – a faithful competitor coming back to his best, a beautiful thoroughbred doing what he was born to do, a horse at ease with himself on the bright emerald turf.

Dad would have loved that too. Especially if he had taken the 5-1, early doors.

As I think of him, I gather all the Dear Departeds to my heart, and keep them there.


Today’s pictures:

Dad, with his serious riding face on. I love those boots:

21 April 1

Dad, with his naughty I’m flirting with someone else’s wife face on:

21 April 2

This picture makes me laugh and laugh, because my father looks so naughty. On the left is Mum, in a perfectly ravishing frock, and the smiling gentleman with her is Dave Dick, who rode the winner of the Grand National in 1956. I’m not sure about the date of this photograph, but I suspect they might have been toasting his victory.

Stanley the Dog, who has been particularly sweet this week, lying guard by the side of my mother’s bed whilst my stepfather was away at a funeral:

21 April 4

Red, after our ride yesterday, with her most demure look:

21 April 5

Signs of spring:

21 April 8-001

Sometimes I think all the world is in that eye:

21 April 8

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Light and shade.

There has been a death in the family. It was very sudden, and it is very sad.

There is the usual sense of rupture, of wrongness. The world should not exist without this person in it.

There is the usual daily papering over the cracks. We are, in very British fashion, carrying on. I do not mean that other nationalities do not carry on, or that they fall to the floor, ululating. It just feels like a very British thing to do. It is there, the loss, in batsqueaks. It is there in small pauses, sideways glances, moments of still. It remains, mostly unspoken, humming in us.

The sun shines, with steady, determined, yellow warmth. It shone like this when my father died, which was three years ago next week.

I think: one death is all deaths. All the Dear Departeds line up, close in my heart. One death is all mortality. I think: send not to know for whom the bell tolls.

Then I go down to the field and work the mare. She is light as air, soft as silk. We free-school in a way we have never done before, so relaxed and in tune that I shout out loud into the bright air. She looks at me as if to say: you didn’t think I had that in me, did you?

We go for a ride.

There have been thoughts to think and things to do and arrangements to make. I have not ridden for two days. I wonder, as I get on, if there will be a little spring fever, or just general thoroughbred high spirits. I sit deep in the saddle and give her a loose rein and trust her, and there she goes, with her glorious aristocratic neck stretched out and her ears pricked and not a bother on her.

We have one of the best rides we have ever had, and my heart lifts in gratitude and love.


Today’s pictures are a little photo essay, of a moment with the horses, and of going back to the fundamental things, which is what I always do at times like this. Watch an animal, being itself; look at a bud, a flower, something as humble and actual as a patch of moss and grass and stone. Go back to the true and the real, as unreality plucks at one’s shoulder.

After the ride:

15 April 1

15 April 2

15 April 3

Then a nice long cool-down and a little amuse-bouche:

15 April 5

At which point the sweet Paint does one of her step by step stealth moves, to see if she might be allowed some:

15 April 6

If I just stand here, very still, she might not notice:

15 April 7

She notices:

15 April 8

And then decides perhaps she has made her point:

15 April 9

And will graciously allow her small friend to lick the bowl:

15 April 10

Which she does:

15 April 12

Whilst Red has some of the good hay brought by the kind farmer:

15 April 15

Another moment of hope from the filly:

15 April 16

Then she thinks better of it, and takes herself off:

15 April 17

Watched by Red, who is the lead mare, after all, and must keep a close eye on her precious charge:

15 April 17-001

A nice, cool drink:

15 April 19

And I look around, at the green things, at the growing things, at the living things:

15 April 21

15 April 23

15 April 25

15 April 28

15 April 28-001

15 April 29

At the simple things:

15 April 30

Friday, 11 April 2014


It’s been a long week, and I have finally run out of words. I turn my brain upside down and empty it on the table to see if there are any left, but there it not a single one.

Luckily, the red mare gallops to the rescue, putting her photograph face on in the dazzling morning sunshine, so that at least I have some pictures for you.

There are several remarkable things about these photographs.

The first is that it took me about fifteen minutes to take them all, as I trotted about, looking for angles. During that time, the mare did not move a hoof. I admit, I have taught her ground-tying, and she is amazingly clever and a quick study, but even so. There was quite a lot going on – helicopters flying over, no doubt on their way to Balmoral, men building buildings on the hill, the little Paint scooting about and yelling. Red just called back one time, a long, reassuring I’ll be there when I’ve finished posing neigh, but stayed quite still through all the distractions.

The second is how her beauty varies, from angle to angle.

The third is how her character shines forth – intelligent, kind, interested, sensitive, soft, affectionate. I am of course guilty of shameless confirmation bias, but I can see them all, scudding across her dear face like clouds over a blue sky.

The fourth, and perhaps this is the most astonishing of all, is that the pictures were taken after a fast free-schooling canter. I’d been sending her round the little paddock at liberty, and we’d done gracious, duchessy, extended walk, and slow, delicate trot, all on voice cues. It was so perfect that I’d been tempted to stop there, to end on the famous good note. But the sun was dancing and I wanted to play, so I upped the tempo. Sometimes I send her round me whilst I stand quite still, but sometimes I want to join in. Today, I joined. I ran with her, level with her shoulder, whooping and laughing, and saying come on, let’s go, let’s go. She pricked her ears and gathered herself into the most enchanting rolling canter, perfectly balanced, wild and free and yet quite contained within herself. I galloped along beside her, as if I too went back to the Byerley Turk on the bottom line.

I stepped back, asked her to stop, and she came to an instant halt, and looked at me as if to say: ‘How about that then?’

I put the halter back on, and was about to lead her off for a cool-down, when I decided to have a photo session. I wasn’t sure that this gambit would work, on account of us having just spent ten minutes of high energy, as I encouraged her to express every inch of her empress blood. But she dropped her head at once, blinked at me, and stood stock still for her close-up, when the conventional wisdom says that she is a thoroughbred who should have been too hopped up on adrenaline to do anything but cavort about with her nose in the air.

How about that?

My miracle horse.

11 April 1

11 April 2

11 April 3

11 April 5

11 April 9

11 April 10

11 April 12

11 April 15

That last photograph was when the Paint Filly was calling. That is Red’s responsible, lead mare, I’ll be there in a minute face. It kills me.

Of course, as I am about to press publish, I realise that despite my best resolution to give you only some diverting Friday pictures, despite my conviction that I had no words left, I came out with rather a lot of words. I realise also that I am in severe danger of bragging about the brilliance of my lovely girl. But she makes me so happy and so proud and she deserves every good word in the world. It is self-indulgence, I freely admit, but it’s Friday, and I know you will forgive.


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