A tale of two horses

… and why I will not be watching Warhorse

 My grandfather was meant to be a jockey. It was in his build – small, wiry, with slim hips and a lightweight frame that belied its strength. And it was in his blood. His father and his father’s father were ostlers – stablemen who tended horses at inns in the days when horses were the cars, trains and busses of the day. Granddad told me that he was too scared to be a jockey, though his chosen career was perhaps only slightly less risky for he was an electrician who went on to wire spitfires in World War II. Granddad almost died when the site he worked at was bombed. And, showing the courage that I think would have made him a good jockey, he told his superiors that he needed to work on the landing problems with spitfires just as much as their takeoff. The War Office might not have worried about surviving pilots landing their planes, but my grandfather did.

As horses became less important to the economy, so my family stopped earning their keep from them. But horses have a way of staying in the blood. My mother rode a little as a teenager but circumstances prevented her continuing. Horses were always there though and, since my first ride on a Dartmoor pony at the age of three all I wanted to do was to be around horses. (That was my age, not his, the pony was considerably older and was called Lucky, because he had escaped from the slaughter house). Living in suburban London on a limited income, the only way to do this was for me to work for rides. And work I did, for very little riding. But to be around horses, around their sense, their warmth, their power and their kindness, fed a deep-seated need from which I don’t think I will ever escape. To do so would be to cut out a part of me.

Horses are a part of what makes us human. I feel sorry for those animal rights activists who argue that we should have no relationship with other animals for I cannot see how I would know me as me, without that contact with another species. We have eaten them, hunted them and hunted with them, consumed their milk and their blood and lived from their labour for thousands of generations. In areas without tameable equine species, human civilisation proceeded at a slower pace. They are a part of us and we of them for just as they made us, it seems we saved them from extinction. And so I cannot escape that feeling that the world is only really right and meaningful, when I am somewhere near a horse.

Just before Christmas, pondering possible presents in a bookshop, I picked up a copy of War Horse. Quickly I put it back down, turned from it, tried to find a way to stop myself from sobbing openly in public. Nine months after losing my dearest (equine) friend and I couldn’t even cope with the book’s dust jacket, let alone the film itself. I know that Spielberg, master of manipulation, will either leave me annoyed at his manipulation of my emotions or will be successful in making me cry, or, the most likely outcome, both.

For after years of wanting a horse, at the age of 32 I managed to acquire one. He found me and I found him and we saved each other. He is gone now, and at my own hand, for I had to decide that we had both had enough of fighting his injuries. But he will always be my dearest friend and equine soulmate, the one who knew me best. And I will always know that his death was my doing, even though ultimately it was the kindest end and the best thing to do for him. And so I cannot put myself through the turmoil of War Horse. And if we’re honest, it is better not to put other cinema goers through the turmoil of watching me ball my eyes out. It’s not pretty.

There is hope though, in all of this, for months after losing Derby I have met another horse, a very different animal, but one that might in his own way, save me once again. The two, Derby the glamorous chestnut and Charlie the sensible bay, are very, very different. Where Derby was stunning, beautiful and temperamental, Charlie is ‘smart’. It is the word most often used by passers-by to describe him. ‘Smart horse, that’. And he is, not just to look at, but in his head. Charlie is not exactly temperamental, but he is nobody’s fool. He is not sensitive in the way that Derby was but nonetheless he knows when he is being well-handled and he responds in kind.

When I lost Derby I knew that for my own mental health I would have to find another horse. But emotionally, and then financially, I was not ready. However I harboured a dream of rehabilitating an ex-racehorse. There are plenty around, they are offered for ‘hook’ money, and I have always loved blood horses. Harbouring this dream, I have fallen for the polar opposite. Charlie was not what I was expecting. He is not hot blood, he is cold blood. Charlie is at least half draught horse, possibly more. One hundred years ago, every farmer would have had a Charlie, or would have wanted one. He would have ploughed a field, taken the family to church, hunted all day, carted produce to market. He was the tractor, the family car, the 4×4. Bless his little ermine-marked socks but he is not, and never will be a Ferrari, and he is all the better for it.

In Charlie, it is as if my knight in shining armour turned up to rescue me from the turmoil of the last four years – the relationship breakdown, redundancy, workplace bullying, clinical depression and worst of all the loss of my best friend and equine soulmate – and instead of riding off into the sunset with the knight, I just nicked his charger. For Charlie is, if we’re honest, built like the side of a shed. This is not a small beast. He is bred to carry weight, not my slight frame. The first time I rode him he laughed at me. Until I glued my legs to his sides, locked my core muscles and pushed him up to his bridle, at which point he decided that I knew what I was doing and behaving himself was, for the time being at least, the easiest option.

I loved Derby to bits, but he was a card-carrying member of the Awkward Squad. Whilst, when the chips were down, you could trust him with your life, when the chips weren’t down he was your basic maniac. He viewed going into the school as a battle of wits, and he loved it as such. Essentially he would rather have had a cuddle. Or several cuddles. His attitude to dressage was that it was just so much running around in circles and if I liked it so much, I could do it myself. As far as Derby was concerned, work was for other people.

Charlie, on the other hand, is a worker. Both horses are given to mickey-taking if they are not told what to do. And for the same reason, since horses like the security of firm leadership. But Derby’s reaction to being told what to do was to throw all his toys out of the pram, put the RSPCA on speed dial and scream ‘Help, help, she’s bullying me again’. Charlie’s reaction to being pressured is more ‘yeah, bring it on, bring it on, yeah’. I was never quite sure where I was with Derby and continually had to react to the moment. With Charlie, I tell him what to do and he does it. He makes things seem simple and whilst I love Derby’s complexities, I am beginning to appreciate a horse who does what I ask. Sadly, Charlie thinks cuddles are a bit meh, and would rather I didn’t bother with all that stuff, but it seems a worthwhile price to pay for a horse who will work his heart out when asked to do so.

Derby was given to making spectacular leaps that must have looked amazing but were actually fairly easy to sit because he kept his shoulders and head up and whilst he did sometimes spin, he kept his shoulders straight. Charlie’s trick is a nonchalant swing to one side that probably looks like nothing in particular but there’s little warning, it’s quick, and he drops a shoulder. The first time he did it I very nearly fell straight out the side door. I came nearer to falling off than I had done in years of riding Derby. Since then both Charlie and I seem to have adapted our behaviour. I pick up on the warning signs and sit it better, and he may have toned it down a bit so that I can sit it. Neither horse wanted or wants me on the floor – they are both playing, and modifying the game so that I can play it.

More than this, Charlie makes me feel right. When I spoke about losing Derby, I said that the world felt right when I was on his back. Charlie gives me a similar sense. Trotting along the lanes on him last Sunday morning, it seemed that I had a place in the world again. Though it’s true we had a slightly odd conversation at the time. ‘The sheep, the sheep, there are SHEEP’ ‘Yes, I know dear. You have hunted in three counties. You have seen sheep before’. ‘Have I, are you sure? LOOK SHEEP DANGER SHEEP, SHEEP, oh look, a plastic bag’. When I lost Derby I carried on riding other horses. Locals commented and asked where my horse was, and I told them, often more tearfully than I intended. But they never asked about whichever horse I was riding. They knew it wasn’t mine. But on Sunday, another rider I see around sometimes said ‘Oh, you’ve got a new one. He’s smart.’ We must have started to give off some kind of signal of being each others’, even though legally we are a long way off that point and may never get there.

Charlie is for sale through no fault of his own. Owners are giving away perfectly good horses who a few years ago would have fetched thousands of pounds. Horses, ever given to reflecting human society, are now victims of our economic mess. The very rich can still afford their 30 grand horses and the relatively poorer will buy theirs for a few hundred. But the middle of the market has disappeared, leaving Charlie and thousands like him potentially homeless. For now I have him on loan but I am not sure if I can keep him. I move from one temporary contract to another and my living is precarious. We are up shit creek, and the Tories have run away with the paddle. Charlie is a victim of economics and of ageism – at 14 he is middle-aged for a horse. I confess it put me off at first because, having just lost an 18 year-old horse, I cannot face the prospect of shortly losing another. But against this, he is a known quantity. I know I can ride him past bonfires, and bikes, and running children, and dogs. I can use him as a physical shield when other people’s horses are frightened. If he is older, so be it. Age brings some advantages.

But he is also for sale because, whatever I might say about him, he is not a paragon of virtue. At one home he was sent to he ran off with his riders in walk. I supposed technically he walked off with them. Personally, I wouldn’t really notice him doing this. You can still steer him and I’m just grateful that he walks out. He does this with such aplomb that he reminds of Poirot, a police horse I used to know who would walk off with his rider whilst on guard duty outside Buckingham Palace. If Poirot got bored standing by one gate, he would simply walk along to the next, with his patrol rider pretending that it was his idea really.

At another home, Charlie was taken hunting and told to jump a stone wall. Being a sensible chap, he put in a big jump because, well, who wants to smack their legs against stone? Unfortunately Hunting Bloke fell off. Remounting, he put Charlie at another wall and Charlie said ‘err, no thanks. You fall off over those things so I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you.’ Sadly, it was not all the same to Hunting Bloke and he phoned up Charlie’s owner to say that he didn’t want the horse, because he didn’t jump walls. This isn’t, when you think about it, true. Charlie does jump walls, it’s just that he makes executive decisions not to do so if he thinks his rider will fall off. Personally I like this in a horse, as it significantly ups my chances of staying on board. But every person, every horse, every relationship is different, and Charlie and Hunting Bloke were never going to get along. So he came back to the stables at which I ride, to Derby’s old home, and I couldn’t help but think that fate was giving me a tremendous shove. Which is odd, because I try not to believe in her.

In the evenings, after work and after exercising Charlie, I cycle home in the pitch black on a cycle path beside unlit dual carriageway. Initially this scared the hell out of me because I could not see where I was going and risked ending up on the road, or on the floor, or in the canal. I tried to adopt what I thought might be a Zen Buddhist approach to this, which was to focus on the spot of light provided by my bike light, relax, and allow the path to come to me instead of fretting about the way ahead. I decided that this could be a metaphor for my life, since I tend to worry about the future and not concentrate on what is actually happening, when what is actually happening is generally all right. I confess though that eventually I decided that my own cod Zen Buddhism was scant protection against the lorries on the A38, should my one true path have taken me in front of them. So I bought better batteries. Now I can see further ahead and feel much safer. Literally it is easy to find better ways to light my path. Metaphorically, I cannot see that far ahead and do not know if I will be able to secure my future, or Charlie’s.

Charlie is not the ex-racehorse I planned a future with. He is representative of the motive power that enabled Britain’s industrial might. He is the unsung hero who ploughed the land to feed generations of humans. Every horse has their place and I wonder if it is time for the Charlie Horses of this world to move into the limelight. Then again, I’m not sure he’d like that. But when my work is done for the day, I ride him under floodlights, watch his perfect shadow, feel the exact sureness of his rhythm and think that maybe this spotlighting is enough. I am not sure what will happen with Charlie and I.  But whatever happens, in my mind I will be in a bright spot with him, the dark all around us, kept at bay by this smart horse.