I have been riding, with a few breaks along my life, since I was just four years old. I can vividly recall my first ever canter, on a chestnut horse called “Cobby”. Obviously this was such a significant event it is still locked in my memory banks. Cobby, in retrospect, must have been an old boy as he had a docked tail, common in working horses before the practice was made illegal in England in 1952. The lessons were with a local young woman starting up a new business. They were in a scrubby grassy field beside the railway in the village where I was born.
There seemed to be a particular buzz about Badminton this year. Eric WInter is always my favourite course designer and in this 2019 Badminton, his third, he was really stamping his mark. A clever course, one to test both rider and horse: an imaginative one with some ‘old fashioned’ questions combined with unique new ideas to make the riders think and to ride by ‘feel’. I like to walk the course on a quieter day, do a little bit of shopping and then spend all of cross-country Saturday at home on my sofa with endless cups of tea, watching the competition live on TV.
There is a peculiar British genius that means we garden, we create something lovely with plants, in almost any location that one might think of. It goes back a long way. It is not always rational. The encroaching English were contemptuous of the Irish in the 17th century because the Irish grew practical vegetables rather than ornamental flowers in their gardens. The 'deserving poor' who obtained decent housing from a local council in the early 20th century often had large plots around their houses so as to demonstrate their moral worth by cultivating a garden.
It is a stop-start time of year. The light has certainly changed as the days are lengthening and the sun gets higher. Yesterday the Skylarks were almost deafening in their song over fields where crops are now beginning to sprout green. The largest trees are still dormant in the grey woods on the Cotswold hills but in sheltered valleys and hollows, buds are beginning to pop open on their lowest branches. Daisies have appeared on the pastures, to be neatly picked by the grazing horses, but the grass is not yet growing. The horses are starting to shed their coats but have rugs at night.
I decided to go to the meet of one of the local hunts, to be held, in the customary manner, at a pub along the old Gloucester road. Such meets traditionally are arranged for late morning to give everyone sufficient time to sort out hounds, horses and themselves before travelling to the designated place. Being late is impolite. This meant that I had time to go to the supermarket and do the large weekly shop, trekking down the aisles with my trolly, calculating the comparative costs of packed versus loose vegetables and standing patiently to pay at the checkout. Life as so normal.
Polishing my boots, I was filled with excitement at the prospect of trying a new place to ride. New country to explore, new horses to meet. Well, to be honest, the countryside isn’t totally new in that it is only twelve miles from where I habitually ride but, nonetheless, it is different. English landscapes alter and modulate as the geology changes - and the geological map of the British Isles looks like marbled paper in its complex patterns and colours.
Yesterday I drove up to London to visit a friend and to go to an exhibition of paintings by Alfred Munnings at the National Army Museum. In the way of such journeys, my attention was divided between the road, empty of traffic and often straight as a die since it is Roman in origin, and the subtle beauty of the winter landscape.
It was the first time I had been to the races at Cheltenham for some time. Well, actually since before the new Princess Royal Stand was opened in 2015! People who don’t go to the races tend to think it is all about gambling but the reality is much more nuanced and many spectators don’t even place a bet. That horses are a major part of a race day is, curiously, sometimes forgotten in racecourse redevelopment (the Millenium Stand at Newmarket comes to mind). But Cheltenham has put horses at the centre of the experience.
Yesterday, for two strides, I achieved perfection. We were balanced, the rhythm was clear, tempo and impulsion just right, the little Welsh soft and easy, genuinely into a contact, working from behind over his back, straight as we worked on a circle and I really felt that for two strides we were weightless and flying. Of course, it all immediately fell apart again because it was hard work for him and as a school horse he knows how to drop out of a contact the split second your mind is not fully, 100% engaged on him (“Wow!
2018 is the centenary of the armistice that ended the first World War. It is a Big Thing in the UK, with many events around the country, the culmination of 4 years of commemoration. I was told recently, seriously, that I should wear my commemorative paper poppy, obtained through a small charitable donation, on the left, over my heart, that the red petals represented the blood spilt, the black centre represented those left mourning the dead, the green leaf the hope of regeneration and that the leaf should be set at the position of 11 o’clock when the armistice was signed.