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The Western Way

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 10 April 2013
One of the things I like most about the work I do for HorseBack UK is that I get to meet a dazzling variety of people. One day, I may find myself talking to someone who served in the dangerous streets of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles; on another, I may discuss all aspects of the art of farriery. Today, I met a remarkable woman who is a Western riding champion.

Western is not a discipline I know anything about. I was brought up with racehorses and show ponies. Western was something I saw in old films with John Wayne in them. It was as distant from the wide downs of the Lambourn Valley as science fiction.

They use Western riding at HorseBack for many reasons. One is that, for a beginner, or someone with serious physical challenges such as prosthetic legs, the saddles are amazingly comfortable and easy. They are big, raised fore and aft, so that they cradle the body, giving a wonderful feeling of safety. On a very basic level, it’s much easier for someone with no knowledge to get on and go.

HorseBack UK instructor Jess March shows off the Western styleHorseBack UK instructor Jess March shows off the Western style

This can give the impression that Western is somehow cheating, the mimsy province of the phoney cowpoke wannabe and the rank amateur. According to my riding champion, other disciplines like dressage can be very snooty indeed about the Western way. It’s not considered proper.

Proper be damned. I grew up with a bit of dressage and eventing, and know all about those. But my new exposure to Western has shown me that it is as delicate and nuanced as anything the English have produced. It may have its roots in ranching instead of the military, but there is nothing inferior in that.

The other thing that is enchanting about it is how relaxed and sensitive to guidance the horses are. They respond to the merest shift of the body, and move along gracefully on a loose rein. It is instructive that instead of talking of the canter, Western riders speak of the lope.

The Western saddle, in all its gloryThe Western saddle, in all its glory

I love the idea of loping. It opens whole new horizons of delight for me. I am seriously considering re-training my thoroughbred mare in the discipline. I think: how glorious it would be for her, after her years of racing and polo. We can become cowgirls together, and ride the trails of Scotland as if we were in the green grass of Wyoming.

In which I contemplate the weather

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley has not set their biography yet
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on Monday, 10 December 2012
I scan the horizon, looking for weather. I scan the internet too. I am old school and new school. After many days of investigation I have found the best weather forecast, with helpful two hourly reports and a seven day long-range prediction. The only problem is that it changes from moment to moment. Yesterday, the seven days were: sleet, sleet, light snow, fair, light snow, rain, fair. Then it changed to mostly fair. At one point, someone at the meteorological centre got a bit giddy and put up some yellow sun, admittedly hedged with cloud.

All this is because of the horse. In my old life, I did not worry about the weather. It was wet or cold or frosty, or it was not. It only meant that I might have to wear a hat. Now, the weather is stitched into the very sinews of my life. It dictates how much hay I need, and what rugging programme should be implemented. The detachable neck, the under-rug, the mediumweight, or the serious winter heavy?

There are people who are frightfully butch about rugs, and insist they are the work of Satan, and that horses should be allowed to revert to their natural state. The animals will grow good long coats; they will build up a clever insulating barrier of oil against the skin which acts as a waterproof. It is unnatural, even unkind, say these zealots, to cover the poor animals in heavy clothes.

I see photographs on all the absurd horse sites I follow on Facebook of glorious equines, quite rugless, frolicking in the snow. But these are usually native breeds, hardy Icelanders, sturdy mountain ponies or the Highland strain. My darling mare is descended from three Arabian sires; her ancestors started out in the high, dry desert plains. Admittedly, the thoroughbred foundation sires were sent to good Irish mares, who must have had a bit of bone and toughness about them; that is where you see the strong steeplechasing horses come from. But still. I am not sending my delicate lady out naked into the Scottish winter.

I think that I am a bit like a farmer now, reliant entirely on the whims of weather. It has been bad lately; I struggle through wind and ice and snow to get the outdoor work done. People talk doomily of Siberian fronts bringing the most bitter winter for a hundred years. How shall the mare and I get through that, I wonder?

There is a faint hysterical edge to the meteorological reports. Channel Four is even running a whole programme about whether the weather is going to hell in a handcart. It’s not just that there may be no respite till March; there may be no respite ever. It’s all going to be freezes and floods and every kind of disaster. The way people are talking, you might think that poor Britons shall never see an ordinary sunny day ever again.

Sometimes I give in to the doom. As I skitter and skid and strain every muscle not to fall over, I wonder if no-one shall ever rid me of this turbulent ice. Then I remember the old men round here, who will tell you tales of their childhood winters, when they were snowed in for three months at a time. Now, our snows last for a week at most. Last season, there was a three week snow, which was regarded as very remarkable indeed. It was nothing compared to what those old-timers lived through.

There is a seam of granite which runs through these north-eastern Scots. It is in the landscape, where that stone is indigenous, and it is metaphorically in the character. There is a doughtiness here that astonishes me still; it is nothing like the soft south where I grew up. It took a bit of getting used to, when I first moved up here. It can come out as curtness; strangers sometimes think it almost rude. But it is just a very splendid attitude of getting on with it. Historically, merely surviving in these parts required a gaunt steeliness, and that strain lives here still.

I like it. I can learn from it. Even my highly-bred duchess is toughening up, taking this hard northern weather in her stride. Even if it is the worst winter ever, we shall stock up on hay, and rug ourselves up, and put our heads down, and bash on through.

Where the heart is

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley has not set their biography yet
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on Monday, 26 November 2012
It’s strange how one changes, as age marches on. When I was younger, I was a careless traveller; I thought nothing of leaping on an aeroplane at a day’s notice, and running off to Manhattan or Cochin. Now, leaving home is like a physical wrench. I like to imagine I am a citizen of the world, but sometimes I think if someone told me I would never again be able to leave Scotland, it would come as a slight relief.

As I come to the end of the first week in the south, staying with the cousins I visit twice a year, there is the usual sense of bittersweet. It is enchanting here: a charming house, a happy family, delightful dogs, green fields to walk over, a rambling garden to explore. I have all possible love and comfort; there is good conversation and good jokes and good food and fine wines. There are even horses to divert me, since the cousin’s husband runs a polo yard. I go outside to see his summer stars, all dopey and furry and relaxed in their winter coats, enjoying their lazy months off.

Things I miss number one: the mountainThe things I am missing. Number one: the mountain

Yet the sight of them makes me miss my own mare, and my own field, and my own equine routine, which has become such a defining part of my daily life. Getting out before breakfast to do the feeding and grooming and riding and groundwork has become the most meaningful part of my day. Writing, which is my job and my love, obviously gives its own definition, and I could not exist without it, but, oddly, it is the hard physical work, out in the mud and the air and the elements, which currently gives me the most joy. It’s not necessarily what I would have expected.

Slowly, slowly, for all the joy of being here, I feel the homesickness build. I am so dug into Scotland, I even find myself missing the mountains. There are no mountains in the south; I scan the horizon fruitlessly. I miss the glacial valleys and the dark Scottish woods and the blue hills and the weather coming in from the north-east. I did not grow up there; I had almost no knowledge of the place until I moved north, on a complete whim, fourteen years ago. Belonging is such a curious and nebulous concept, but the very landscape has stitched itself so deeply into my heart that leaving it, even for a short time, creates a slight gap in me, as if something is missing.

The things I am missing. Number two: this faceThe things I am missing. Number two: this face

This does all sound a bit flaky. It’s just a horse and a few hills, after all. One must get out in the world; I have hermit-like tendencies which should not be indulged too much. But then I imagine the thing as if it were the other way round - if I did not miss home, if I had no sense of belonging, if I did not yearn for the mountains - and I think how awful and arid and sad that would be. It might make my social life rather more complicated, but I wonder perhaps it is not a great piece of luck and privilege, to find a place where I am so deeply rooted. They really are my hills, and I lift my eyes up to them, and find my strength.

Sometimes a bag is just a bag

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley has not set their biography yet
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on Tuesday, 02 October 2012
There are two orange sheep in the field.

This is not necessarily a sentence I ever anticipated writing. Nonetheless, two new sheep have arrived, and they appear to be the colour of mango flesh.

When they were first sighted, on Friday, I could only see the flash of orange backs over the dry stone wall. There have been young cows in that field for the last few weeks. Some of them are a kind of amber colour, and my addled brain wondered if some new dwarf strain of cattle had been introduced. It was only when I got right up close that I could see they were two bonny sheep, quite the smartest pair I had ever seen, as if someone had been combing them every day. I had no idea what they were doing there, and wondered if they had escaped from some kind of cloning project and galloped to freedom over the mountain.
Orange sheep

My mare is still quite astonished by them herself, casting them a suspicious look every so often, as if they are, literally, wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their presence on the other side of the wall was actually quite helpful this morning, since we were doing desensitising training. This is a faintly paradoxical method where you scare your horse in order to show it that there is nothing to be afraid of. The mare is prone to theatrical spookiness out in the stubble fields, and I decided it was time to do something about it.

I found an absolutely terrifying plastic bag. It is of thick, crackling material and makes a loud noise when scrunched. It is also coloured and shiny. Oh, the horror. The theory is that you crinkle it and wave it about, and then the moment the animal stops backing away, you hide it. It’s a pressure release method, and it’s astonishingly effective. Patience, patience; small steps; and then, by the end, she is sniffing the alarming object and will allow me to run it all over her body.

There are two parts to this technique. One is to show that you yourself are not alarmed, so that really there is no possibility of the thing being a predator. The second is to demonstrate that the item will not eat her. One great horseman I know has got his horse to the stage where he can ride it in fast circles whilst lugging a huge, flapping tarpaulin behind him on a rope.

As always, I extrapolate from horses to life. There should be desensitising training for humans too. People do not have the same ancient predator response that horses hold, but there is a tendency to catastrophise. So often, the worst thing assumed does not, in fact, happen, and one is left feeling relieved and slightly foolish. Or, the bad thing does happen, but it’s not the end of the world. One finds an inner resource; one bashes on through. The mountain lion might have shown its claws, but it did not eat one for breakfast.

So many imagined terrors exist only in the mind, and never materialise. Just as, at first, my mare truly believes a small plastic bag will be the end of her, until I prove to her that it is no threat, so humans will conjure imaginary demons or disasters or hurts or slights or failures that never come to pass. Sometimes, the bag just is a bag.

The orange sheep, despite my wild conjectures of radioactivity or cloning, are, in fact, merely dyed. Apparently, it’s a thing that people do with some ovines before they go to market. I had no idea. It’s not a freakish scientific experiment gone wrong; it’s just a sales technique. For some reason, this feels symbolic of something, but I’m not sure what. Perhaps, like the bag, orange sheep are just orange sheep, and I may now learn to slot them into my category of things that I take for granted.

Back to the drawing board

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley has not set their biography yet
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on Wednesday, 12 September 2012

That clip-clopping sound you hear is me, trotting back to the drawing board. One of the things that strikes me most in life is how one can know something in one’s head, but not quite register it in one’s gut. The intellect understands; the instinct rebels.

I know perfectly well that life is not an easy upward progression from one achievement to the next. It is not always rational: A does not always follow B. But the odd Whiggish tendency in me often thinks it is. I may learn this thing, or understand that, and then on I go, towards the sunny uplands. In fact, I often have to remind myself that life is mostly about rolling back down the hill, and having to pick oneself up, brush oneself off, and start all over again.

Oddly, it is my horse that reminds me most of this. I’m ashamed to admit I had got a bit swanky about my abilities. Oh, look at me, with my no hands and my whispering skills and my knowledge of herd dynamics. Watch me make her turn on a sixpence with only a shift of my body, or back up with only a twitch of my finger. Observe us, after only six months of work, in perfect harmony. I’m afraid I even bragged a little of this, only yesterday. I’m pretty good at groundwork, I wrote, foolishly, to someone.


A new field

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley has not set their biography yet
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on Wednesday, 04 April 2012

It has taken two weeks for me to fall out with the livery people. Actually, it was not so much a falling out, as them developing a deep antipathy towards me. I thought I was being blithe and charming; in fact, I was clearly having the effect of nails down a blackboard.

It was on account of the rules being unwritten. I suspect that they are unwritten because, to the livery people, they are so blindingly obvious that they do not need stating. In a perfect storm of unwitting misfortune, I broke every single one within the first week.

Walking through the sawmill, for instance. Apparently this is so verboten they need new words for no. I saw the mill, and thought that for conditioning a new horse to a strange place, nothing could be a better test. The more weird things she can see, the more she realises they are not lairs for mountain lions, and the quicker she will settle. I was so proud of her as she bravely went past piles of logs, nameless contraptions, huge sheds, heavy machinery, saws and tractors. I was smiling and laughing. I waved at the sawmill gentlemen, wished them good morning, introduced the mare, made obligatory remarks about the weather.


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