I ride horses. When I say this to people, a number of potential images are conjured in the listener’s mind, from those of me in cowboy gear, to those of me performing Piaffe and Passage to dulcet sounds
None of these is true.You see, I’m not a great rider. I’m not a pretty rider. I’m not an accomplished rider. But I have one talent which means more to me than any of those accolades : I produce wonderful young horses. It’s a preternatural talent, one which is almost impossible to describe, and certainly not something which can be taught.
Young horses are like pieces of unmoulded clay. All you need to do is take the time to ponder the lump of nothing before you, smooth your hand over it, close your eyes and wait for the vision of its potential to drift up from your subconscious. When that happens, the hairs on the back of your neck will stand up. Your fingertips will tingle and the base of your spine will be jolted with purpose. In that moment, you not only see what the horse can be, but your heart’s eye can track the path it will take to get there.
The moment when you get on a horse for the first time is almost spiritual. There you sit, astride an animal whose every instinct is to shake you off. The time is measured in heartbeats, breaths. You slow your breathing to match your horse’s, you watch as ears swivel back and forth, desperate for some kind of signal as to what is to happen next, you time your breathing so that you can help him to slow his, you feel as the muscles unbunch, as he slowly accepts your presence on his back. As he submits and offers you the ultimate trust.
A gentle scratch on the wither, a quiet word, a whispered “good lad” and you know that you and he have taken that first step on a journey which only a horseman will understand. From this moment onwards, your soul is tied to this animal’s.
I’ve backed and started young horses, and loved it, but my greatest joy lies in retraining young thoroughbreds, who are retired from racing, and starting them on their “second life’.
The Thoroughbred is an amazing animal. Bred selectively for only one purpose, to run faster than its competitors, it nonetheless is incredibly adaptive, and today you will find Thoroughbreds competing at all levels in all disciplines, from mounted games to dressage, to showjumping, to western riding, to eventing. I don’t think there is a breed in the world which can match a Thoroughbred for sheer all-rounded talent.
I have had 11 Thoroughbreds over the years. All different in temperament, type, ability, size and talent. Some have stayed with me a short while, and then been rehomed to riders whose talents and aspirations were more suited to them. Some stayed with me until the day I had to hold them as they bled out from the fateful bullet which ended their days. Some were lent out to friends, and came back, only to move on again.
Each one has taught me something different. Each one has whispered a message to me, which has made me a better rider, a better trainer. Each one has made me a better person.
And one day, when I am old and grey, and can no longer sit in the saddle, I shall pour over photographs, whisper their names, remember the feel of them, and sigh “thank you”.