Horses for Courses

Welcome 2013. I’m not a big one for turning my life around on January first. I struggle to turn my car around sometimes  –  six-point turns in bad weather on roads with a serious camber = nightmare  –  so anyone should expect anyone else to turn his or her life around in a single day is beyond me. The logistical struggle aside, I quite like my life and don’t necessarily fancy changing it entirely, even if it is the dawning of a Brand New Year. However, this year I have compromised a little and made my first ever New Year’s Resolution:

– Learn to ride a horse.


I have ridden once or twice in my life, but only ever as a tourist. Most recently was in Nicaragwah on my Gap Yah and it was rather entertaining. The girl I was travelling with at the time was a rather more experienced rider than I and knew what she was doing. We had placidly plodded to the end of the beach with our guide when he stopped to adjust his stirrup (the metal loop where you put your feet). My friend decided she was bored of our snail’s pace, expertly turned her horse around and disappeared back down the beach in a mini-sandstorm. Whether it was a gallop or canter I don’t know – I couldn’t estimate the MPH and wouldn’t know the horsey translation even if I could. I was more concerned with the fact that my horse evidently liked her horse, as during the seconds that I sat gawping at the cloud of sand that had been a girl on a horse, my mount decided:

– To hell with it, we’ll go too.

I felt like a driver who didn’t know where the handbrake was, what a gearstick was, which way to turn the steering wheel, or for that matter what this thing is that I’m sat in – only on a horse, you’re sat on it not in it and there is no seatbelt or airbag. Should the horse so decide, I could be catapulted any which way, only secured by my toes so loosely slipped into the little loops of metal and it was therefore still perfectly possible that I could be dragged along the beach by my feet. I remember holding onto the reins for dear life and thanking the heavens that I was galloping through the shallows on sand instead of the tarmacked roads where I’ve seen people riding at home in Bushy Park (where incidentally I daresay the horses are much better behaved. Nicaraguan horses have a thing or two to learn if you ask me).

Luckily, my horse deigned to stop when its fellow did and so I didn’t canter (gallop?) on to the ends of the earth. Scary as it was, I didn’t fall off and there was a proud moment hidden somewhere under the gasping relief.

Since my last post I have moved house  –  and been ill, attempted to learn more about a world of wine that is apparently expanding faster than our universe, been ill some more, cooked Christmas dinner, attended a couple more Chelsea Bun shoots and actually won one of them for shooting and not for cake. It’s been a busy few months. The bit that’s relevant to this post however is the moving house. I now actually live on a Horse Farm. Those of you who have read this blog from the outset will know that the Horse Farm vs. Yard debacle was one of my defining faux-pas in venturing out of the city. There is therefore both a sense of irony and of belonging in my new abode. The house is a 17th century farmhouse in West Sussex, complete with Aga, tack room, wood-burning stove, dogs and plenty of mud. It also comes complete with a small riding school run by my landlady, and the accompanying stables, ponies and horses. Before I’d even agreed to move in I’d been told I must learn to ride and I would be more than welcome to help out with the horses, and so I’ve decided that whatever the Chinese say, 2013 will be the year of the horse.

Please don’t think I’ve forgotten about shooting. My licence application is on the table beside me, complete with countersigned photographs. I have my very own gun cabinet tucked away downstairs, the lack of guns inside it leaving plenty of space for my ambitions to one day own one. And finally I have my first  –  and second  –  game shoots coming up later this month, along with a couple of days’ loading for Sir Pheasant’s farmer. I’m spending a day at Garrowby with Lord and Lady Halifax, and have been promised that I’ll see some of the highest pheasants on offer in the UK. Somewhat sadly, this is in fact the first game shoot I will ever actually see in the flesh. Please don’t misunderstand me; it will be a magnificent introduction to game shooting I’m sure, but I am a little worried that it’ll ruin me for more ‘normal’ shooting. Along with this worry and another about getting sopping wet and freezing my little toes off, one of my big, if slightly odd, concerns is that I won’t actually like it. I’ve got a week booked out in the field and I’m terrified that I’ll get to the end of the first drive on the Monday and decide that it’s just not for me. I’ve only once ever killed anything bigger than a fly, and that was a lobster that made its re-entrance into the world as lobster mousse ravioli with a seafood consommé. Not exactly the same thing. Smashing clay targets I love, but I don’t know how either my conscience or squeamish gut will fare knocking the pretty little birds out of the sky. One thought keeping me going is that just like the lobster, they’re pretty tasty  –  pheasant mousse ravioli anyone?  –  and conscience and gut both agree that I’d rather be a game-shoot pheasant than a chicken whose life ambition is to make it to the top shelf in the supermarket refrigerator cabinet. Remaining true to my philosophy roots, I’ve got my book on The Ethics of Hunting, but there’s only one way to find out for sure and so I’ll plough on (metaphorically this time) and see what the end of January brings.

Back to my equine ambitions. One of my horsier housemates has accepted my resolution, and a couple of the boys are even going to join me in my pursuits. One can ride but wants to learn to hack; the other is a novice like myself. I’m not sure what hacking is, but I know that there are special jackets available for it – a potential reward if I stick to my new year’s resolution?

I will end my first post of 2013 with another faux pas, and a slightly horsey one at that. I may now have an officially country postcode – there are now only a handful of addresses sharing my postcode, as opposed to 36 in London – and I may know how to shoot, own a pair of ‘proper’ waterproof boots, no longer fear The Mud and wear tweed to work; but I am still tripping over plenty a stumbling block on my journey of discovery. Last night I sat in the kitchen with my new housemates, discussing polo (yet more unexplored territory – I’ve been promised a trip to a polo match and someone even tried to explain ‘chukkas’ to me after I asked about ‘half time’ – apparently there is no such thing in polo). One of the boys walked in and a comment was made about his polo shirt. This was the moment when I discovered that much as a rugby shirt is a shirt worn while playing a game of rugby, a polo shirt is a shirt worn while playing a game of polo. It had honestly never occurred to me, but my loud outburst of realisation was enough to fill the kitchen with laughter. I then asked whether in winter people played polo in polo necks. But no, apparently that’s just silly.[i]

The view from my new bedroom window

The view from my new bedroom window

[i] After my discovery that ‘polo’ is in no sense a term used by tailors or seamstresses, as I had previously assumed in a not-ever-thought-about sort of way, I’m sure there must be some link to polo in the term ‘a polo neck’ or else it would be called something else. If anyone is an expert on either the history of the term or the sport or both, I’d love to know more.

A Day Not At The Races

While at University I went to The Races for the first time, going with a friend to York Racecourse one weekend in the Summer. After queuing for rather a long time for a Pimms and lemonade (which was, given the price, a little light on the fruit – and the Pimms – if you ask me), I wandered around quite happily, a little lost, a little bemused, but generally in good spirits. As the first race approached, he told me I wasn’t allowed to be at the races without placing at least one bet. The week before I’d watched Finding Nemo with my flatmates in halls. I have zero knowledge or experience with or around horses, let alone horse racing, and so when I spotted that there was a horse in the first race called Nemo Spirit, I decided to back that one. A shiny two-pound coin was handed over in exchange for a slip of paper, and, first bet placed, we wandered off to have a look around.

In order to make it blindingly obviously to all that I was new to the racing scene, I made sure to clutch my camera and stare around in wonderment. Having spotted a large sign on the opposite side of the track proclaiming ‘York Racecourse’, I dragged my friend over to take some pictures. As my finger touched the shutter button, a horse (a very pretty one, all white with the jockey dressed in sky blue) walked up between us and the sign, and as a result I have a rather lovely photograph of my friend standing next to the pretty horse and jockey. It turned out that the horse in the photograph was in fact Nemo Spirit, which as far as I was concerned was now, thanks to my £2 bet, my horse, and so I was extremely excited by this (not to mention that my horse was so pretty and well coordinated with his jockey). The cherry landed on the top when Nemo Spirit crossed the finish line first, wining the race for me. The odds had been 9/1, and I very proudly scuttled off to collect my winnings. Soon after, my friend pointed out that I was in a better position to bet now than I had been when I placed my first bet, as I couldn’t possibly lose anything over all if I only bet my winnings, and he encouraged me to bet again. I pretty much let him choose the horses – big mistake, as we lost the lot. But still, thanks to Nemo Spirit and beginner’s luck, I very much enjoyed my first trip to the races.

My biggest win to date wasn’t actually mine, and brought with it a moment of enlightenment. An anonymous someone quietly mentioned to me not too long ago that a particular horse running in a particular race at a particular racecourse that day might be worth popping a few quid on. Given that I had absolutely no idea how to place a bet, short of walking to the racecourse, paying entry and placing it in person, I elected to pass the snippet of information onto a friend instead. Possibly bad form etiquette-wise – I honestly wouldn’t know – but as I wouldn’t be placing a bet on said horse myself, I didn’t see that it would matter if someone else did instead. And sure enough, a £10 each way bet brought back a return of around £150. Lesson One: some races simply must be fixed. Either that or beginner’s luck can extend over a period of years, and can be carried with passed-on information.

Last month saw Cheltenham, and more importantly, the Gold Cup on Friday and my second personal gambling experience, if only in the form of a sweepstake in the office. The no-doubt naive questions to my somewhat horsier colleagues, the excitement of everyone crowding round the iPad in the office for the duration of the race, the frustration and effort of trying to deduce as they galloped what colour my horse was or which outfit the jockey was wearing, and being laughed at for distinctively non-horsey terminology throughout the day; it was all well worth my £1 entry into the sweepstake – even more so given the excitement when my horse, Midnight Chase, actually took the lead for a not insignificant portion of the race (despite the fact he came in 6th or 7th at the end).

And most recently, last week we had the Grand National. I decided to try and place a bet or two – without walking to Merseyside you’ll be glad to hear. I elected to bet online, and was a bit of a sheep when it came to website choice; I simply picked the one I know a friend of mine uses. Creating an online account was surprisingly easy, and I deposited a little money into my virtual piggy bank. Then it was time to look at the horses, and I’ll admit my reasons for selecting them were perhaps not the most professional. In fact, when I explained my logic to my mother she described me as a ‘sentimental old gambler’.

First, I opted for Seabass because the feminist in me would quite like to see a woman win the Grand National (and fair play to Katie Walsh; she came in third, the highest placing woman in any Grand National to date). Second, I chose Ballabrigs, because it would have been nice to see McCain have a success in his first Grand National since his father, Ginger McCain of Red Rum fame, passed away. Sadly it wasn’t to be, but my third choice was luckier. I read somewhere online about a horse that was a good jumper, but at 11 years was simply too old to be worth watching. As practical as it may be, I didn’t like the idea of an old horse being written off simply because of its age. The fences/hedges described by my friends (‘jumps’ to mimic those found out on the hunt apparently) suggested to me that being a good jumper couldn’t be a bad thing, and so, to show good willing, sympathy and support, I thought I’d place my last bet on him. It turns out that being a ‘sentimental gambler’ isn’t a bad thing – at 11 years old, on the last day of his working life, Neptune Collanges won the 165th Grand National in a photo finish. And a £2 bet at 33/1 means that my good faith covered the cost of my shooting The Classic at Royal Berks last Monday. Maybe you can’t teach old dog new tricks, but an old horse can win the Grand National – Neptune Collanges is living proof. Now just time to see exactly how long my beginner’s luck will last.

Agricultural Genres

With a degree and many photographs of me in a silly hat under my belt I moved, as people do, to an entirely new area. I knew no-one and had no contacts. I promised myself then that I would accept every invitation I got, and invite myself along where possible. The result of this was me tagging along with some colleagues to a friend’s friend’s birthday night out.

The birthday girl in question is what I believe is called an Event Rider (or something of that nature), riding very expensive and very beautiful horses in very competitive events – and being paid for it. We arrived at her house, and as it opened the big wooden gate (a novelty in itself) revealed a variety of buildings looming up in the darkness: a house, a very big shed (this turned out to be the stables), and what looked like a giant’s food mixer set into the ground: a sort of wall or fence (the mixer’s blade) fixed to one side of a central post, making out the radius of the circular wall around it. Three statues of horses stood in the gravel drive. Looking at the buildings and machinery around us as we pulled up, I opened my mouth and declared: “I’ve never been on a farm before”.

This obviously isn’t true.  We’ve had family holidays staying on farms, where we’d chased chickens (when I was little) and bottle feed lambs (when I was a little bit older), and primary school trips had given me great experience of orienteering through mazes made of small hay bales. But as a newly initiated adult, I’ve never been on a farm as a venue for a visit, party, occasion or any event other than visiting a farm.

The truth of the statement turned out to matter not a bit, as the three other occupants of the car burst out laughing. It wasn’t apparently a Farm at all, but a Horse Yard, where some of the aforementioned very expensive very beautiful horses ridden in the events lived, slept, were fed and watered, washed, brushed and sunbathed (there was actually a contraption to give the horse sufficient UV something rays. I’m sure there’s a legitimate explanation for why the horse needed a tanning salon but I can’t for the life of me remember it). To me it still sounds like type of farm – one for horses – but there you go. So with another faux pas and much hilarity enjoyed by my new friends, my country education progressed another step.

Meeting the horse later was a whole other experience in and of itself. The beast was huge. And we’d had a few drinks, making all the bigger. I made sure to stay near the head end of the animal, on the other side of the wall to talk to it through the little window. And I have to admit, though I’ve never cared much for horses, admired and petted from a safe distance, it was a stunningly beautiful, powerful-looking creature, glossy and silky silky smooth to touch – and its legs looked so muscular I felt fully justified in my decision to stay near the head end. But then, for £45,000 I should hope it would be a fit and healthy specimen.

The blasé nature of how the others waltzed into the stable showed me another entirely alien side to country folk. The hostess grabbed a large dustpan and brush quickly mucking out the horse before we set out for the night, despite her cream satin dress and matching heels, her devotion to the horse more important than her outfit (though she somehow managed to stay as clean and cream as she’d gone in) and her devotion to the animal was obvious. I think, one day, I’d like to learn to ride. Something to add to the list.

During the drive home the next day I provided yet more amusement for my friends when I mentioned someone I met at university who farms beef and peas. I explained that he was a meat farmer, thinking before I opened my mouth (for once) that a herd of cattle could be farmed for milk as well as meat – and I was quite proud of this forethought and the resulting distinction. Again, raucous laughter pervaded the car, as one of the boys, the nephew of a dairy farmer, kindly explained to me as one might to a small child the different genres of cattle farming: dairy vs. livestock (and peas are a type of arable farming). As with the yard/farm differentiation, I maintain that farming livestock is the same as farming meat, but as being laughed at every time I speak about it might get a little time consuming, I’ve tried to take it all on board. I started afresh, talking about someone I’d met at university who was a livestock farmer (and who also grew peas).