Apr 08, 2022
8 mins read
When I started this funny Cup of Coffee project, I intended to give you writing posts and horse posts and life posts. In the end, life won. I’m not entirely sure why this is. Perhaps I think that not everyone would want to read my red mare epiphanies and wonders. Not everyone does, after all.
There was a gentleman down at our field this morning doing something with a digger. (My landlord loves getting people to do things with diggers.) I fell to talking with him and I asked him whether the horses were behaving themselves around him. He cast a sceptical eye over the red mare, who was dreaming in the sunshine. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I don’t like horses. No interest. I worked with cows once, but horses - no.’
I gazed across at my dreaming thoroughbred. I said, without heat, ‘I would die for her.’ I said it as one might say, ‘Nice weather today.’ It was a simple statement of fact, not a cri de coeur or an attempt at conversion. One of the things I have learnt in life is that everyone has their thing, and that is perfectly fine. Besides, I’m used to people not getting my strange and violent enthusiasms.
The gentleman was entirely unimpressed and changed the conversation to fencing. (Post and rails, not épées.) After a little while, I went to hang out with Florence and Clova, who were happily eating the new hay in the dancing sunshine. They were so blithe and bonny. The red mare was standing nearby, still in her dream. Everyone was filled with bliss. I leaned on the big bale and chatted to the mares - I can’t remember what I said; the usual nonsense about their dearness and beauty and cleverness - and felt that I had nothing left in the world to wish for.
Not so very long ago, I would have felt mildly wounded and quite cross about what the man had said. I would have taken it as a personal slight, and an aspersion on my lovelies. Now, I don’t mind a bit.
‘If it hasn’t got an engine,’ he’d said, as his parting shot, ‘it’s not for me.’
So there we were, with our different loves. The red mare opened one eye and blinked at me as if to say, ‘Do you think he has felt the engine that a half-ton flight animal can fire up?’
‘He wouldn’t be impressed,’ I said.
But later that afternoon, when I went down to give them all their tea, she decided to fire up that engine and it was a sight to see.
She is nineteen years old and she is devoted to the ways of slowness. Her favourite thing is standing very still in the field and doing absolutely nothing. She graciously lets me ride her, but I love the slowness too, so we noodle and doodle and pootle about at our favoured dowager duchess pace.
But every so often, she remembers that her grandfather won the Derby.
I had been doing some delightful liberty work with Florence in the small field. I’m inviting her to dance, to match her energy to mine, to work off my intention and my body language. Sometimes, she says, ‘They really didn’t do this in Newmarket,’ but this evening she suddenly found her rhythm and saw the point and we went in ravishing harmony together.
(I suddenly realise, as I write these words, how remarkable and wonderful this was. At the time, I was so focused on her and making the connection I want for us both that I didn’t do any internal cartwheels. The cartwheels arrive now, as I remember, and I can see her in my mind, soft and balanced and ridiculously grown-up, moving around me in time to some hidden music.)
After that, I’d gone to the red mare in the big field. The big field is absurdly big, acres and acres, and gives on to woodland on two sides, so the mare can go anywhere. I don’t often ask her to dance in that huge space, but I did now. I offered her the movement, curious to see what she would do.
For a minute or two, she walked slowly, not much interested. And then the voices of her mighty ancestors called to her - the high brilliance of Nijinsky and the diamond sparkle of Northern Dancer, and back and back, through the magisterial dominance of Eclipse, who had to be retired in the end because nobody was willing to race against him and watch him beat them out of sight, all the way to the Byerley Turk, going to war with his captain.
She heard those forebears singing and she took off.
At first, it was a high, leaping canter. I often think that thoroughbreds are aerial creatures, everything tending skywards. Up, up, up she went. And then she caught the sheer joy of speed and she dropped her belly to the ground and stretched out in a hard, heedless gallop, hitting the ground so that I could feel the vibrations. She tore up the long sweep to the west, leaned into the corner with exquisite judgement, not losing a stride or slackening her pace, and headed towards the woods as if she were racing to some mythical, invisible finishing post.
As she crossed the line, she pulled herself up, pivoted on her hocks as if she were in the Spanish Riding School of Vienna and turned and looked straight at me. She pricked her ears. There was a faintly quizzical expression on her face, and a look of triumph too.
‘What,’ she said, ‘did you think of that?’
I laughed out loud. She knows perfectly well what I think of that. I think it is the most wildly, viscerally, streamingly beautiful thing I ever have the luck to see.
Just to make sure I was feeling the awe and wonder to my boots, she then stuck her tail in the air and did a ridiculously perfect elevated trot up and down the field.
I nearly left her then, because one should not try to embroider on perfection. But I thought I might just invite her in, one more time. So I lifted my hand and asked her to yield her shoulder and, to my surprise, she dropped her head and curved herself around me, in immaculate circles. There was an easy bend in her body and she even put herself in an outline. (We don’t work on this kind of stuff under saddle. That’s for the dressage experts and the schooling mavens. We do everything on the buckle, as if we are old cowpokes on the trail.)
‘Ha, ha, ha,’ she said, ‘I was just joking with you before.’
Round she went. I gestured gently with my hand and imagined the invisible line that connected her mind to mine, her body to mine, but I didn’t even need that. The dressage squirrels (my invaluable helpers) had clearly come in the night (they always come in the night) and she was trained to the inch.
I felt a wave of love and delight rise in me and I forgot about asking her anything, because she knew the question before I asked it. ‘Let’s dance!’ I yelled, picking up my human trot, that kind of thing I did when I was six years old and I spent quite a lot of time pretending to be a pony.
‘Let’s,’ she said.
I have no idea how I taught a sixteen hand thoroughbred to dance around me in the sweeping, open spaces. I don’t know why I don’t need a rope or a halter. I have no clue as to why I can ask her that question on a whim, when we haven’t done any kind of formal work for days on end, and she will say yes. I play with my horses, and I use the same imaginative and creative mind that I use when I write novels, and I don’t care if the mares say no. So we try this, and we play with that, and we have a go at the other, and somehow, we end up in tune and something miraculous happens in the amber sunshine on an ordinary Friday and I feel as if I could fly.
One of the reasons that I write things down is because I want to remember the moments of beauty. I sometimes think that I build up those moments - of beauty, of truth, of love, of luck, of joy - into a sea wall, and that they will keep me safe when the storms come and the angry waves crash themselves on the rocks.
That was a moment of beauty. And I write it down.
When we finished, I stood with her for a while, feeling the gratitude settle in me. Slowly, the atoms in my body rearranged themselves back into the regular and the earthed and the practical. I looked at my mare, who was regarding me steadily.
‘Do you want some tea?’ I said.
‘No, thank you,’ she said. ‘I have everything I need.’
And so I left her, standing like the Rock of Ages on her patch of green turf, and went home and made soup for supper.