Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Mortification.

Interestingly, in the light of yesterday’s post, this morning I discovered I had a done a properly bad thing.

It was not one of the usual mistakes I make – not a little bit of goofiness or muddle or poor time management. It was not letting the piles of paper grow up like mushrooms in the office, or the refusal to clear out the cupboard of doom, or the inability to reply to emails. These are regrettable, but you can make a joke about them, see them as almost charming, because diamond-sharp perfection is a sad, repelling ambition.

It was bad because it caused actual pain to someone I love more than almost anyone in the world.

I had taken the red mare up to work with Robert Gonzales again. She was coming on in leaps and bounds, and everything was improving, and I felt happy and proud. But she was still holding something back. That softness that Robert looks for was not quite there. She would blink and soften her eyes, ruminate with her mouth, let her ears fall into the relaxed quarter to three position, but she would not quite release that neck and shoulder. That’s where a lot of anxious emotion gets stored in horses, and if you don’t let it out you have no foundation to build on.

Robert said: ‘I really think you need to get her teeth checked.’

I said: ‘Oh, I have been meaning to do that for weeks, but I’ve been a bit hopeless about it.’

This is one of my less desirable defaults: I admit, with that humorous British ironical twist, to hopelessness, as if the rueful, faintly comical admission makes it all fine.

It does not make it fine.

The vet happened to be there, watching the horsemanship in action, and he very kindly said he could do her teeth on the spot. I had no need to book an appointment and take her up to his surgery. There he was, with all his state of the art tools.

He frowned as he felt in the mare’s mouth. She groaned a little. He exclaimed, in horror. The teeth at the back had grown needle-sharp, and were chafing against her cheek.

It took him twenty minutes to set her straight. He needed to do so much deep work in the back of her jaw that he gave her a sedative in order that his work could be quick and uninterrupted, and so that it would cause her no distress. My poor, stoned girl dropped her head in relief as he finished and I felt as guilty as I’ve ever felt about anything.

There are absolutely no excuses. I’d had the teeth in the back of my mind, in my mental To Do list, but I had not made the call.

I thought of all the work we’d been doing over the last few weeks. I’ve asked her so many questions, and she has answered kindly and willingly. She was in some pain and discomfort the whole time, but she did not buck me off or bolt with me or plant her feet and refuse to move, as she had every right to do. She went on trying, offering, with her good heart.

I write on this blog every week of my love for this horse. I am afraid to say that I sometimes boast on Facebook of the things I do with her. Occasionally, I cannot resist the childish desire to say: look at me, Ma, no hands. Literally and metaphorically. And all the time I was thinking I took such great care of her, I had, through arrant carelessness, allowed her to live with a sore mouth.

I feel ashamed too because I’ve sometimes said that she is not the bravest horse in the world. She is not one of those swaggery, sanguine sorts who deals with everything that is thrown at her. She is sensitive to stimuli, and needs strong boundaries and a profound sense of safety to function well. In fact, I see now, she is a very, very brave person indeed, because never once did she complain, but went on trying her best, with a gentle, doughty courage.

Often, when I feel angst, I talk myself carefully off the ceiling, use the good, rational side of my brain to restore perspective, forgive myself for perceived faults, and generally make myself comfortable again. In this case, I am not going to do that. I should feel some mortification, and I am going to feel it. I am not going to lash myself into shatters, but I am going to sit with the sensation of having made an egregious error. I have given hurt, and I should hurt too.

Then I shall move on, and make it up to her in every way I can think of, and learn this lesson well. I quite often write about the little things, in the context of quiet, daily joys. Notice the small things – the moss, the lichen, the tree bark, the light on a dry stone wall – and every day the heart will lift. I have noticed, watching Robert Gonzales work this week, that he too is a man of the small things. Nothing escapes his eye. He will see from the most minute flare of a nostril that something is happening with a horse; he can divine tension in a hock or tightness in the tail or tautness in the neck from thirty paces. Nothing is too small to be beneath his notice.

Teeth are not a small thing, but I had thought of them as an ordinary chore, something that got put on the list but did not have flashing lights and wailing sirens. In my mind, they should have had dancing girls and pyrotechnic displays and a Welsh male voice choir. I thought I was observant, but I was careless. It shall not happen again.

 

Today’s pictures:

Just one today, of my poor, brave girl, still a little dopey but comfortable again, with the dear old Scottish sun on her kind back:

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Tuesday, 3 March 2015

In which I ponder lessons in horsemanship and humanity.

Today, my darlings, I lifted up a horse’s ribcage with my feet. If you were not lifting up horses’ ribcages with your feet then I don’t know what you have been doing with your time. (Especially Anne Westminster and her Grenson’s. Which is a reference only four people and a very posh dog will get.)

There was a wonderful moment before I got on. Robert Gonzales, horseman, gentleman, spectacular human, said, in his gentle, easy voice: ‘Just start warming her up there.’ I’d made an absolute cack-handed farce of the groundwork the day before, at one point managing to swirl the rope round my arm and corral myself, but I’d been thinking and pondering and brushing up overnight, so I thought: now he shall see what an old British gal can do. He watched for about three minutes, out of the corner of his kind eye. ‘OK,’ he said. ‘There are five things you are doing wrong right there.’

‘OF COURSE I AM DOING FIVE DIFFERENT THINGS WRONG,’ I bawled, in hilarity. The mare blinked at me as if to say: decorum. I doubled over with laughter. I think I may have actually slapped my thigh. Oh, the flap flap flap of the hubris angels’ wings.

Robert showed me the five wrong things. He then showed me how to do five things right. I did five things right. The mare, forgetting for a moment that she is an aristocrat, and all this trundling about the valley in trailers is quite beneath her dignity, looked first surprised and then delighted. Round she went, relaxed and athletic, using her whole magnificent body, her head down searching for softness, a lovely bend in her body. We never really get bend, but there it was. All because I was now standing in the right position and directing my energy in the right direction and putting my hand in the right place.

‘Poor old lady,’ I said, when we stopped. ‘What you have had to put up with.’

‘Right,’ said Robert, quietly pleased. ‘Get her saddled up.’

So, we rode. Under that brilliant, eagle eye, we found a glorious soft trot, we disengaged the buggery out of the hindquarters (‘move, move,’ said Robert, when he saw I was falling into mimsy), we did easy transitions, we made delicate changes of direction. I lifted that ribcage with my heels, so that her powerful thoroughbred arse could be free to do its job.

I did whoop a bit, I must confess. The new feeling coming off the mare was like a rolling, liberated wave of energy. ‘It’s as if I’ve being trying to dance Swan Lake in clogs,’ I shouted, ‘and now someone has given me a pair of ballet shoes.’

I learnt to let softness run all the way through my own body, from my shoulders to my pelvis to my calves, so that her body too would grow soft, from ears to tail.

Wow,’ I bellowed. (When I grow excited, I lose all volume control.)

Robert, still quiet, still smiling, taking all this on the chin, looked me in the eye. ‘Good work,’ he said.

Out on the wild shores of the internet, there is a very lovely woman who also writes a blog, and also has an adored thoroughbred, and also loves almost nothing more than a good canine. She and I became blogging friends, and then real life friends, since it turned out, rather amazingly, that I knew her brother in my university days. She often writes, very bravely and lyrically, about difficult subjects. A few days ago, she wrote a piece on loneliness. Successful, professional woman are not really supposed to admit to such frail emotions, and I thought it took a great deal of courage. One of the anonymous keyboard warriors went at once into battle. Instead of saying nothing, or writing in empathy and encouragement, Anonymous was ungenerous and unkind. Pull yourself together and stop moaning, was the burden of the mean song.

It made me think about the art of criticism. All humans make mistakes and get things wrong and fall into muddles. This morning, that good horseman told me, without apology or embellishment, that I had got five whole things wrong. He did not mean that I am a bad person or I should go into the garden to eat worms. He wanted me to get the things right, for my sake and for the sake of the mare. I sensed he had faith that I could, and so I did. Not perfect, but better. Better and better and better; every day in every way.

The critique was all practical and hopeful. That is why I laughed instead of being downcast. The anonymous critic who attacked my friend had no positive end in mind. The harsh words were purely destructive, tearing down the house with no thought for the real, feeling human who lived inside. The criticism had no utility. All it did was bruise an already bruised heart.

The cruellest voices often come from the lacerating gin-soaked critics in one’s own head. I’m learning the art of not falling into category errors; it’s one of my quiet obsessions. I do drive myself onwards, because smugness and complacency are horrid companions. I make mistakes in writing, and mistakes in horsing, and mistakes in life, and I like to look those mistakes in the whites of their eyes and strive to correct them. This does not mean that I am feckless, pointless, useless and hopeless, and that there is no health in me. It just means I got something wrong. The good critic is a lovely voice, and should be welcomed in and given cake. The bad critic should be locked in a room with a bottle of Gordon’s and left there.

And this is what I love about my red professor and all the things she teaches me – I can go from lifting a ribcage to category errors to the art of constructive criticism all in fourteen paragraphs.

 

Today’s pictures:

I did not take the camera today. I wanted to take everything in with my eyes and my brain and my heart, and not have a filter. So there are just a couple more shots from yesterday:

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Oh, and I have one more thought before I go. It is this: it’s never too late. I’m nearly fifty, and I’m learning something completely new. I hope I shall be learning it until I am ninety, because you never reach the end of a horse. What I like is that I find a joy in learning. I always was a bit of a girly swot. At the same time, there is an absurd voice in me which says that when you are a grown-up, you should know stuff; that there is something almost undignified about going back to the beginning and admitting rank ignorance. This is a stupid voice, and I mostly give it a Maggie Smith raised eyebrow. What is truly undignified is closing your mind, thinking you know it all, refusing to harvest wisdom wherever you may find it. I don’t think there is ever a moment when you are done. Hurrah, I say, without embarrassment, for going back to school.

Monday, 2 March 2015

The red mare takes a journey.

Today, I had the dazzling good fortune to take the red mare up to HorseBack to work with Robert Gonzales.

I knew that I was at the very beginning of my journey, and I understood, humbly, that I was in the foothills whilst he bestrode the mountain peaks. Even so, when he took the mare in hand and showed me all the things that I had been getting wrong, in the gentlest and politest way possible, I did feel a moment of chagrin. I’ve been learning this new kind of horsemanship with the dedication of someone taking a university course, and I had felt that I had made some strides forwards.

In fact, I saw at once that I had been mimsing about. One of the things my father disliked most was mimsiness, and he was a horseman to his bones, and I should have damn well learnt that lesson by now. I’d been staying in a safe comfort zone, and letting the mare get away with things that I should have corrected. I write a lot here about rigorousness, but I had sadly lacked rigour.

When I had got over the bruise to my amour-propre, I felt excited, because a new door had been opened, and I could step through it. We’ll go on learning and I’ll go on getting better, and when you start from such a low place, the only way is up.

The mare, once she dealt with the slight shock of having someone work her who really was not messing about, had a lovely time, and when her lesson was over, rested happily, ground-tied, whilst the ex-sprinter Brook went through his paces. When they were formally introduced, she took to him with a faint degree of shamelessness, breathing into his nose and batting her eyelids at him. Often, when two strange horses meet, there is a degree of squealing and tail-swishing and a little dance as they work out the hierarchy. There was none of that. Just a gentle, questing hello, as if he were an old friend she had been missing. It was very touching.

Apart from not being firm enough, I think I have let emotion get in the way. The thing I notice about Robert is that he brings a delightful, calm neutrality to each horse. He does not get frustrated when they do the wrong thing, just keeps on persisting until they give him the right answer. When that answer comes, he does not, as I am prone to do, shriek and whoop and fall on the horse’s neck. He merely exudes a quiet satisfaction and gives them a good rub.

The love I have for this mare gets in the way of working her well. She does not really need human love; my bursting heart is all to do with my delight, not hers. She wants a place of safety and a sense of ease. My new resolution is to leave not only my worries and tensions at the gate when I work her, but to leave the love there too. I may indulge that when we have finished. It’s one of the hardest lessons in the world to learn, but I must learn it – it’s not, not, not all about me. It’s about her. That is the very least she deserves.

Oh, and PS. I was so inspired by this revelatory lesson that I cast away any shyness about saying the thing. I looked the great horseman right in the eye, smiled my goofy smile and said: ‘Robert, you are a giant among men.’ And that is no more than the truth.

 

Today’s pictures:

Resting, after work:

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Despite being in a new and antic environment, she settled very well, just casting the odd look out of the door, where she could hear the rest of the herd moving about in the fields:

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It was quite tiring:

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I love this picture for about eighty-seven reasons. First of all, you are popularly not supposed to be able to do any of the things that we are doing here with ex-racehorses. One is standing quite happily by herself, with no human constraint, whilst another horse and several humans are working away about her. The other is going easily on a loose rein in a rope halter, stretching down his neck to find the place of softness, whilst his human rides him bareback. He is also in the middle of doing an exercise which he would never have learnt in his racing days, of yielding the shoulder, so he is having to concentrate very hard. Despite that, the softness is there. I also love the  look on the mare’s face:, a little bit dozy but a little bit thoughtful, as she processes everything she has just learnt:

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Oh, those hot-blooded thoroughbreds, those crazy ex-racehorses; can’t do a thing with them:

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She worked so hard she actually got sweaty, which is not what normally happens, so on went her cooler, making her look like a proper show pony:

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I didn’t take any pictures of Robert working the mare, because I was avidly absorbing everything with my human eyes. Here he is with Brook, waiting for softness. He’ll wait, and wait, and wait, and wait. As long as it takes. That patience is one of the great lessons I take from all this. You can’t rush this, or skip parts, or think that half a loaf is a good enough. You’ve got to wait for the golden moment:

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I try not to fall into anthropomorphism, but my idiot brain says the mare is flirting. I don’t blame her. Brook is a very handsome fella, as well as a very nice one. Actually, she is not really flirting, she’s just saying hello. But there did seem to be some sweet sense of recognition in her. They are related, after all. You have to go back four generations on his side, and three on hers, but there it is – Northern Dancer, in black and white, the grandaddy of them all. Maybe that good Canadian blood really is thicker than water:

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Thank you to HorseBack, and thank you to Robert. It was a huge day.

Friday, 27 February 2015

In which I cast off my British reserve, and say the thing. Because sometimes you just do have to say the thing.

It’s been a mighty, mighty week, and there is so much I would love to write for you. I have, however, reached the stage that the poor Dear Readers know so well, when my bamboozled old brain is trying to crawl out of my ears and find a place of safety. Still, I’m going to type a line or two, and hope that I make at least some sense. (At this point, there is a very real danger that I won’t.)

There is a line in The Big Chill, one of my favourite films of all time, which goes something like: ‘How much fun, friendship and good times can one man have?’ Of this week I feel like saying: how much learning, revelation, brilliance, elegance and sheer poetry can one woman take?

I could fill a volume with the specific things I have learnt from watching a great horseman in action. I’ve already applied some of them to the red mare, and even though I am clumsy and bumbling in comparison to the grace and accuracy of Robert Gonzales, we have still made a glittering leap forwards. This week, we rode round a huge open field, with no reins, in a steady sitting trot. NO REINS. I tucked them safely under the pommel of the saddle and lifted my arms in the air, and let the good mare find her own direction. The important thing was that she should keep the same, even gait, with her neck nice and relaxed, going kindly within herself, which she did, with all the fine poise of a dowager duchess.

We did it on two consecutive days, so it was not a fluke. I was so proud of her I felt like crying absurd tears of amazed joy.

I am still in the scrubby lowlands, but I can raise my eyes to the hills, and that view shines like diamonds in my mind and heart.

But perhaps more importantly what I learnt was a human lesson. When somebody is really, really good at something, and has all the quiet confidence that brings, they do not need to hector or swagger or showboat. They do not need to prove anything, or cast anyone else down, or put out more flags saying Look at Me, Look at Me. They quietly go about their business, drawing other humans in through gentleness and politesse. They make their point by shining example. They remain absolutely present, in the moment, carrying their talent and their assurance lightly, so it is a lovely generous thing which sheds its refracted light into observing eyes. Perhaps most importantly, they are entirely themselves.

That is what I saw this week, and it was a great privilege. For once, I am not reaching for creaky jokes, or clever lines, or antic paragraphs. I am committing the great British sin of being as serious as stones. But sometimes in life you see something which is serious, which leaves a profound mark you know you will never forget, which is so beyond the run of the ordinary that it lifts you up and gives you a new and gleaming perspective. Respect is due.

Because I am British, I can’t possibly speak these words to the gentleman in question. In real life, I have to scuff my foot along the ground, and be ironic, and smile a goofy smile and look away. But I can write the words, in the shelter of the page, even though I feel quite shy about doing even that. Sometimes though, you’ve damn well got to say the thing. Because life is too short.

So - thank you, Robert. You are a remarkable horseman. But you are an even more remarkable human being.

 

Today’s pictures:

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Happy friends, sharing their morning hay:

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Stanley the Manly, ear flying, with a triumphant stick. It’s not the best picture I ever took in my life, but I wanted you to have the action shot:

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I grew up in a racing and showing yard, where every single equine was gleaming and pristine. I could not hold my head up unless each hoof was gleaming with oil, and manes and tails were neatly trimmed, and coats were shining from grooming. I used to brush my ponies until my arm ached. Now, even though I can still appreciate a Best Turned-Out, and know how much work goes into a polished horse, I appreciate a different kind of beauty. It is the beauty of a mare just being a mare; hairy, scruffy, unadorned, covered in the glorious Scottish mud, with no prizes to win or points to prove. Herself is herself, and that is the thing I want most for her:

27 Feb 4

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Happiness.

Today, I am very happy.

I’m not happy because I won the lottery or I got good news from the agent or all my workaday frets have magically vanished or even because I got to the end of my absurd To Do list, which I have not, and certainly never shall do. It’s much more nebulous than that.

I’m happy because the sun is shining and I had the privilege of watching a great horseman at work and I rode my mare in a stately trot round a huge open field without using the reins and Stan the Man made a three-year-old laugh. (‘What is Stanley doing?’ Answer: nobody knows.)

I’m happy because I drove the long way home from HorseBack and looked at the mountains and the sheep.

I’m happy because when I went down to check the red mare at lunchtime, she was dozing in the bright light, wearing an expression as near to a smile of bliss as an equine ever comes.

I’m happy because when I went into the chemist the very nice gentleman behind the counter smiled and said: ‘How is your horse?’

When I was young, my friend The Actor and I used to sit up all night watching the Oscars, in those sort of Soho clubs where they run the ceremony on a big screen. I loved all the frocks and the tears and the brave loser faces and the brilliant thespians joshing with each other to hide their nerves. I really wanted certain people and certain films to win.

Now, I am much more bashed about, and I think about lichen and trees more than little golden statues. I took in this year’s Oscars with the very edge of my brain. I really could not give a bugger who was wearing what, and there were moments when the whole thing seemed so self-regarding that it meant nothing to me. I was pleased for Eddie Redmayne, because he was so pleased, and he seems like a very nice human being as well as a talented one. My eyes were gladdened by the very sight of Cate Blanchett, because she manages to look real and elegant at the same time, and although she appears not to play the fashion game she always wins, hardly trying. (Even more years ago than the Soho days, I was introduced to her, before she was famous. She was one of the most natural, friendly, generous people I’ve ever met, and even though she is even more luminous in life than she is in photographs, she carried her great beauty with a lovely lightness of touch, as if it meant nothing to her.)

But now I could not care much about the winners and losers. I used to dream of prizes. I wanted my moment in the sun. I wanted to thank my mother and my agent and the language of Shakespeare and Milton. Now, I am happy because the man in the chemist took the time to ask after my horse. I am happy because that same sweet horse is at ease with herself and her world. I am happy even though I shall never stand on a stage in a couture frock and be told how bloody brilliant I am. The joys I find as I get older lie in those gentle, everyday things to which mere mortals may aspire.

It’s an odd relief. I was never really going to be an Oscar winner. (Best screenplay was my secret dream, even though I am very, very bad at writing scripts.) I was never going to learn the art of glamour. That kind of spotlight would never shine on me, and, looking back, I’m not quite sure why I wanted it. I was always a bit of a show-off, so perhaps it came from that antic child who would put on her best party dress and tell stories to the grown-ups who came to the house. Perhaps it was the need for validation. LOOK AT ME!!!! AND MY PRIZE!!!!

I find life often confusing and sometimes hard. Sometimes I feel like my little legs are going in a cartoon blur, on the crazy hamster wheel. That’s why the good moments, the fine moments, the moments of glad grace, are so precious to me. A happy day is my prize now. It is a glittering prize, beyond compare.

 

Today’s pictures:

Spring is in the air. That made me happy too:

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Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A glimpse of the mountain peaks.

I am in a slightly overwhelmed state. The regular Dear Readers will know that one of the things I love most is watching people who are really, really good at something. I adore brilliance. I doff my hat to it, and observe it with awe and wonder.

Today, I saw a horseman so good that it was like watching Nijinsky dance, or Olivier act, or Yo-Yo Ma play the cello.

I was doing my work at HorseBack, cantering about as usual with my camera, thinking of the Facebook posts I would write. I was very excited that Robert Gonzales had come all the way from California to share his knowledge and wisdom with us, and at first was only concerned with capturing the best shot. But after a while, I realised that something so rare was happening that I dropped the camera and merely stared with my eyes. At times, I could feel my mouth dropping open in cartoonish amazement, or my face falling into a foolish grin of pure delight.

Sometimes, at HorseBack, I hear stories from the veterans of the extremes of human experience, so bad and so far from my imagination that I can feel the very atoms of my body rearranging themselves, as if in outrage. Today, the atoms were on the move from the experience of seeing something so fine, so light, so ravishing, that it had a visceral effect of joy instead of sorrow.

What was it, this brilliance? It was so subtle that I can hardly capture it in words. It does not have soaring words to go with it, although it was a soaring thing. It was to do with steadiness, attention, timing, feel, a beautiful sure touch, a sense of something authentic and enduring. It was smooth and certain; there were no jagged edges. The thought was all about the horse, and getting that equine mind to a soft and easy place.

I thought I’d been doing pretty well with my red mare. I’d had moments of pride, which sometimes slipped into hubris. Now, watching the real thing, I realised that I was like a pub singer compared to Caruso.

That’s not the worst thing. I do not feel discouraged or downcast. At least the pub singer shows up. I feel humble, set in my correct and lowly place, but inspired to keep on going down this long and winding road until I can get within hailing distance of that kind of excellence. It will always be ahead of me, way out on the horizon, but if I could just catch a glimpse, I should be happy.

I love that there are people in the world who do such glorious things with horses. I love that the word they use the most is softness. I love that they are fascinated and enchanted by the equine mind and give it the respect it deserves. Until now, I’d only seen them on the small screen – old footage of Ray Hunt and the Dorrances, the documentary about Buck Brannaman, the brilliant training videos of the gentleman I take my instruction from, Warwick Schiller. But I’d never seen it in life before, and, up close, it is quite another thing. It is like a ravishing dance, and it made me smile the goofiest, happiest, most blissful smile in the world.

 

Today’s pictures:

Just time for two, since it’s been a long day, and I’m good for nothing now.

The magnificent Mr Gonzales, with Brook the ex-sprinter. This does not look dramatic, but it was one of the most striking aspects of the whole morning. It was simply standing and waiting for the horse to soften after a bit of work, standing and letting the new piece of learning soak in, staying quiet and still until the head came down and the muscles in the neck relaxed and the eyes went soft. Sometimes it took a moment; sometimes it took many minutes. It was the unforced, patient waiting, the sense of having all the time in the world, the offering the good horse the space to work it out with no pressure on him that was so very lovely, and it was oddly emotional to watch:

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My furry, muddy, red mare and I have miles to go before we sleep. (The woods are lovely, dark and deep.)

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But we shall prevail. Because we might have our hopeless moments and our bad hair days and our one step forwards two steps back, but we are triers. Like dear old pub singers everywhere, bellowing out ersatz versions of The Streets of London, we show up. Which must be half the battle:

25 Feb 3

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Chicken soup.

Dazed head has no thought in it.

So here is a recipe instead –

Complete cheat’s clean, soothing chicken broth.

This does four. I’m hopeless on quantities so you may want to adjust.

Poach two free-range chicken breasts gently in chicken stock if you have it or water with Marigold Bouillon powder if you don’t. (No horrid Knorr; it will go greasy and taste disgusting.)

Meanwhile, cook a double handful of pearl barley in plenty of boiling water, with a dash of Marigold if you fancy it or a good pinch of sea salt if you don’t. About half an hour to forty minutes. Don’t be afraid to boil the hell out of it; it cannot spoil as long as you give it lots and lots of water.

Remove chicken breasts once they are done – about ten minutes. Throw in two big chopped leeks and a couple of sticks of chopped celery. Simmer for another ten minutes. Check for seasoning.

Slice the chicken into thin ribbons; drain the pearl barley; put into big white bowls, pour the broth with the celery and leek over; add a scatter of very finely chopped parsley. Oddly, common curly parsley is best for this, rather than its posh, flat-leaf cousin.

Perhaps a tiny bit of black pepper if you are feeling in the mood.

That’s it.

This is completely phony and I made it up out of my own head and the purists will be fainting away. Where is the onion? What, no garlic? Why does the meat not come from a whole bird, lovingly raised by nuns and poached gently in a proper court-bouillon until tender?

I don’t care. Sometimes I want something easy and quick but delicious and wholesome at the same time. The only poncey caveat I have for you is that the chicken must be free-range, and the best you can get, or you end up with a broth that is composed of white scum and the taste of despair.

If you are that kind of person, you could add a carrot.

Or, not.

 

Today’s pictures:

The HorseBack horses were having a blast this morning:

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And dear Polly the Cob was at her loveliest:

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The red mare is actually covered in her least becoming rug at the moment, because we have gales and sleet. The road to Glenshee is already closed. But here she is from a few days ago, all red and rugless, contemplating the Universal Why:

24 Feb 3

Stan the Man really hates having his picture taken, which is why he always looks rather quizzical and melancholy in photographs. He is sitting on sufferance until I release him to go after those tempting creatures which are rustling in the undergrowth. My lovely Pigeon adored posing for the camera and used to give me doggy smiles. Not this serious gentleman. In life, he is actually a very jolly, busy fellow, constantly hunting for sticks, digging holes in which to bury the horses’ carrots, crazily plunging into the hay stack after mice, and haring off into the woods in vain pursuit of crafty pheasants, who are always ten steps ahead of him. He has never caught any living thing, which is quite lucky for me. I may be a countrywoman, but I’m not good with the agonising deaths of small things. But he never, ever stops trying. It’s almost mean of me to stop him in his tracks, even for a moment:

24 Feb 4

Friday, 20 February 2015

A trot, a drive and a thought.

I found my trot.

There it was, all the time, down the back of the sofa. The red mare, moving lightly within herself on a loose rein, as composed and collected as a 19th century marchioness doing the gavotte, twitched her ears in the Scottish air as if to say: yes, yes, I think this was the item you were looking for.

Then I went for a drive and looked at the blue land in the sunshine and felt lucky.

I did some other things as well, but it’s Friday, and I don’t want to bore the arse off you.

(Wrote book; made soda bread; ran errands; had long and soothing conversation about the human condition. Same old, same old.)

Felt particularly pleased that I captured an image of Stanley the Dog with the Scottish sky in his eyes. All the time he was posing he was itching to be off to the undergrowth, where he heard the rustle of tempting critters. But he goodly stayed, and I got my shot.

There have been some interesting pieces of wisdom floating around on the internet lately. I find these reassuring, as the news gets madder and badder. (Greece; Putin; Libya; chaos and sorrow and insoluble problems.) The small wisdoms restore some sense to the stretched mind. One of them was from a lovely man called Ira Glass, and it had at its heart: don’t give up. Keep trying, keep pushing through, and you may achieve the beautiful thing you wish to make.

When I get frustrated with my bumbling horsemanship, I have to remind myself that I was off a horse for almost thirty years. I sat on a pony before I could construct a sentence, but that long gap meant that old, good instincts and muscle memory had atrophied and even disappeared altogether. The people I admire and wish to emulate have been doing it, every day, for those thirty years. They can do things without thought on which I have to concentrate very, very hard.

I can write a sentence which pleases me because I have been practising with words for those thirty years I was off a horse and at my desk. I knew a lot of the theory when I was in my twenties, because I read all the books and I had an avid mind. I went to all the great ones for example and advice. But I could not quite yet get my ducks in a row, because the knowing is one thing, and the doing is another. The fine doing comes only from the years and years of practice. Do your scales; play your arpeggios. Don’t give up. Embrace your mistakes, because without them you learn nothing.

I can write a sentence because I worked at it. I’d still like to write a better sentence, so I’ll go on working whilst I have a brain that functions and fingers that type. I’ll go on striving to be the horsewoman that my mare deserves until they have to hoist me into the saddle with ropes. It’s never finished.

Don’t give up. Keep trying. Stretch your sinews to the sky.

That, slightly to my surprise, is my thought for the day.

 

Today’s pictures:

20 Feb 1

20 Feb 2

20 Feb 4

20 Feb 5

20 Feb 6

20 Feb 11

20 Feb 14

20 Feb 21

20 Feb 21-001

20 Feb 23

Every day, in every way, I love that face a little bit more. I should not have thought such a thing were possible. I did not know one small human heart had so much love in it. It’s sort of crazy that it’s a horse who has unlocked this bounty, but I do not look gift mares in the mouth. (Except of course when her teeth need doing.) Love is love, wherever it might be found.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

A day.

Sunshine. Cook breakfast eggs for The Mother. Groundwork. Riding. (I have lost my trot. It is tense and rushed where it should be smooth and collected. It takes me some time to find it, a process which cannot be hurried, so I am late to the rest of the day.) Members of the extended family are visiting; a lot of sweetness. HorseBack: photographs, notes, many discussions. Talk to my friend The Marine about the time he rounded up cattle in Colorado. Two hundred foot vertical drops up on the narrow mountain trails. I blanch. I am ashamed to say I make girlish shrieks.

Back to the desk, still at least an hour behind. Important emails and telephone calls. A wonderful plan is hatched. Errands.

Work, work, work, work, work.

Forget lunch. Abruptly remember that I have forgotten lunch. Feel suddenly very weak. Attempt to cram all the food groups into one very late tea-time snack. Still quite weak. Where is the iron tonic?

Back two winners at Huntingdon. The second, in particular, is a delightful gentleman of a horse, flowing neatly and enthusiastically over his fences with his ears pricked, occasionally throwing in a mighty, soaring leap just to show he is no mere workman. He is a Venetia Williams horse, and a lot of them are like this: honest and charming as the day is long.

Take huge amounts of stuff to the charity shop. The saintly glow of having a clear-out is slightly marred because the nice paper bags in which the things were neatly packed have been ripped apart by Stanley the Dog when he was in the back of the car this morning. I suppose he was looking for RATS.

Attempt to upload a HorseBack video to YouTube. Fail. ‘There was an error uploading your video.’ Have burst of First World rage. Swear at the computer, fruitlessly. Buggery YouTube will not have me.

Watch the sun change colour over the trees. Give Stanley the Dog a treat to tell him he is forgiven. (He had not even noticed he was in disgrace, and the ladies in the charity shop were very understanding. ‘I have spaniels,’ said one, darkly.)

Think about work done and work still undone. Find myself reading an article about To Do lists, and how they are never finished.

Feel rueful.

Wonder if I should check my emails again.

Think I’ll go and give the duchess her tea instead. There I can breathe and stand still and feel the air on my face and the love in my heart and see the snowdrops and think of spring.

 

Today’s pictures:

Happy girls in the lovely morning light:

19 Feb 1

19 Feb 2

Step-sister, step-niece, red mare and me, taken by the Lovely Stepfather. I appear to be having a very, very bad hair day. I try not to mind:

19 Feb 5

A chicken, for the Dear Reader who likes chickens:

19 Feb 11

The Marine, with Brook the ex-sprinter who now works with veterans at HorseBack UK. Who says that ex-racehorses have no useful purpose once their race is run? Quite a lot of idiotish people, is the answer. This fella does a very, very useful job indeed:

19 Feb 12

I know I bang on a little about the prejudices faced by ex-racehorses in particular and thoroughbreds in general. But really, you should read what the ignorant say on the internet. Don’t even get me started on the superstitions about chestnut mares….

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Love.

Very tired today, so this really is just pictures of sweetness rather than any words. I did get one of the loveliest emails this morning, from the old friends, full of compliments for my mighty mare. It makes me smile still.

Here are the only words I have today: I love my horse. Love her, love her, love her, love her. I need new words for love. The love bursts out of my heart and goes crazy in the feed shed and I wave my arms about like windmills and say to my friend who owns the Paint: ‘I don’t know what to do with the love. I can hardly even express the love.’ I am quite cross about this, and may have started shouting. All the time the red mare is standing in the doorway, most unimpressed, her ears akimbo, a quizzical and faintly resigned expression on her dear face. My friend looks at her. ‘Yes,’ she says, dry as a bone. ‘I think what she’s saying is that the love is all very well but where is breakfast?’

I shout with laughter, doubling over, slapping my thigh like a friend of the Prince Regent who is about to go and visit him at the Brighton Pavilion for a game of faro. I walk over and give the duchess a good scratch on her neck. She regards me with fatalism. Yes, she is thinking, WHAT SHE SAID. The thing about breakfast.

By that time I am so full of love and laughter I can hardly make the breakfast. The mare observes me sternly, making sure I am putting in enough seaweed and rosehips for her hooves.

I think then, I think now, I’ll go on thinking for the rest of the day – love, love, love, love, love, love.

That is all.

 

Today’s pictures:

Some more of yesterday’s sweetness:

18 Feb 3

18 Feb 5

18 Feb 7

18 Feb 8

18 Feb 8-001

18 Feb 13

18 Feb 14

18 Feb 20

18 Feb 21

18 Feb 16

As if all that goodness yesterday were not enough, she did some magnificent Spanish Riding School of Vienna snorty trots whilst I was free-schooling her on the ground this morning, and threw in some rodeo bucks just to show that the clever Paint is not the only one with that skill set. Then, having got the twinkles out of her toes and sternly reminded me that she is descended from lines of heroic champions, she settled down to her dowager duchess collection, changing direction from a mere point of my finger. When I got on, she gave me an easy canter in the Western manner, a real proper lope, on a loose rein. Yes, she seemed to be saying, I really can do any damn thing.

Ha, I said, out loud; did the dressage squirrels come in the night?

Yes, she said, with dignity. They most certainly did.

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