Living with an open heart means being responsive to subtle invitations from the world we seem to inhabit, like in the story of a horse.
Many people talk about the importance of planning, but when it comes to life changing events I find that the biggest don’t seem to be planned at all.
Take for example the chain of events that today finds me learning how to ride a horse. At 64 riding seems a pretty daft thing to do, after all I could easily fall and break my hip or sit down too quickly and squash my testicles; yet today I find myself in the saddle making a complete prat of myself. It’s my second lesson. How did this come about?
Unlike most who take up riding I held no love of horses nor, as a child, did I have any yearn to ride. When I was four my mother sold our house when Dad was out working and we had to rent a flat for the remainder of that year. Then I watched my father give apples to our landlady’s pony. He encouraged me to try, and told me to breath up the beast’s nose. All that seemed to do was to make the thing want to bite me and when I dodged out of the way it would hit me in the eye with a glob of spit.
Back then horses were for me rather like the prospect of school – when I grew up I would avoid both like plagues. And so I did until one day during my twenties as an organiser of summer holiday activities for troubled children I found myself at a riding stable supervising a party for a trek. I learned two things that day:
- Aggressive children have a greater fear of horses than mine
- Horses have their own agendas, are stronger than humans and are quite prepared do what ever is necessary to get their own way
Years past without me thinking about riding and then I found that I had fathered one of those girls who are illustrated in cartoons by Norman Thelwell.
I hoped that it was a phase; that being led around a field on a Shetland Pony when she was three would satisfy her life’s equestrian ambitions. It didn’t and slowly she moved to riding once, or twice a year, to every week. This was no mean undertaking because commuting to the nearest stables involved a total of three hours on the road, eating out, waiting for a horse to become available, or put on its makeup or whatever it is that delays horses from making their entrance, and ensuring when they do they are regarded as grand.
In those years we encountered lots of different riding instructors, and please don’t tell them I shared this with you, but quite a few of them were a little, I shall put this diplomatically: ‘funny in the head’!
But then who am I to write thus? My legs are killing me right now, I can hardly walk, and when I do it’s like John Wayne. And, can you believe this? – we actually got so pissed off with our weekly commute that we MOVED HOUSE to be five minutes away from the stables.
Little Miss Thelwell now rides every day, and you should see the antics that go on when I go to watch her. There are grown men standing in the saddle, waving their arms around like windmills, whilst little children of just six, and seven years gallop past them as confident as Comanches attacking a wagon train.
You won’t catch me making a spectacle of myself like that, I mused one day whilst sipping a glass of gin and tonic. But then fate turned the knife when my daughter wanted to give a carrot to a two year old she hopes to ride one day. Next door I discovered a grand old man, who was once paired with riders from the national team and now rarely gets what he considers a proper outing.
He reached out from his stall, gave me a shove with his nose before snotting all down my shirt. We became instant friends. Every day for a month I secretly visited him with apples and carrots after my daughter’s lessons.
During that month I found and read a copy of what, in 1995, the Daily Telegraph referred to as ‘The hottest book of the year’. It’s called ‘The Horse Whisperer’ and, even for someone brought up on Jane Austin, Dickens and Shakespeare, I thought Nicholas Evans wrote pretty evocatively. Through his writing, and with a little observation of what went on in the arena, I slowly became able to talk knowledgeably with ample women in jodhpurs as they called in from Europe, Russia, or even more locally from Istanbul, which is only 700 km away. During these moments my mind wandered to the novels of Jilly Cooper, who once wrote: ‘I love the long grass coming up to meet the willows’, which is innocuous save for the fact that she penned it.
By now I was in big trouble, my carrot guzzling friend took to kissing me. He found ways to take my fingers into his powerful jaws, but never champ down with his teeth. He looked at me balefully and I became hypnotized by his hazel eyes. I sought to discover what was going on in that enormous skull. It seemed to contain an alternative universe of such great dimensions that it might take several lifetimes to explore.
His owner put it to me more simply. One day her words confirmed my suspicion. “He is a very old horse who thinks he is still young”. The phrase resonated, for that’s pretty much how many people think of me – no wonder the beast and I share such an affinity.
Last week we made a plan, which I think was his intention from the outset. I would spring him from retirement. The cost of putting him to work is that I now must learn how to ride him. We’re not doing too badly, but I must still look pretty comical.
Unfortunately today our lesson coincided with a visit by a coach load of European journalists. If one day you find yourself eagerly anticipating having a tooth extracted, and in the waiting room discover a magazine with an article featuring a picture of an elderly man standing in the stirrups of an old horse waving his arms like a windmill, then you’re probably looking at a photograph me.
Did I consciously plan any of this? No, certainly not but there is a lesson here. It’s not necessary to plan everything in life if you can live with an open heart and respond to those around you, even when some of them are not even of your own species.
First published as ‘Horse Sense: The Art of Living With An Open Heart’. ‘Blokes on the Blog’, October 16, 2014.