Dispatches From The North

Tania Kindersley lives in the North East of Scotland with two amiable lab collie crosses and one very grumpy Gloucester Old Spot pig. She co-wrote Backwards In High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female, with Sarah Vine.

More horse, of course

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Up in the high woods, it’s just me and the horse. I should think profound and uplifting thoughts, but I don’t. I think of visceral, physical things, like how every bit of my body moves, very, very slightly, with the rhythm of the mare’s walk. I’m not swaying about like a drunken sailor; the best way I can describe it is a sort of give. It’s the opposite of stiffness. It’s not a feeling I specifically remember, from my youth, although it is oddly familiar, as if there is some buried muscle memory. I find myself liking it very much, because it makes me feel at one with a living creature. (At which point, the inner hippy bursts out and tries to teach the world to sing.)

I also like trying to figure out what is going on in her horsey old head. The sharp reverses of the first week have stopped, but she is still familiarising herself with radically new surroundings. She will suddenly pause and put her head up as high as it will go, looking, I am quite convinced, for mountain lions. The things that alarm her change from morning to morning. One day, she found a small, wooden cottage inexpressibly startling; on another it was a scarlet boat out on a glittering loch. This morning, she decided that the post box, past which she had walked without remark for eight days, was bloody scary.

I suspect that she might be testing me a bit. Or even teasing me. On the other hand, her sudden fears do seem real. I concentrate very hard on being calm and firm and reassuring. I beam good thoughts at her with my mind. By the end of the ride, she is sweetly docile and relaxed, and each day brings small, potent progressions.

I love the riding. I love the getting to know a new creature. I love the sense that my muscles are growing strong. I love looking out over the blue hills I would not otherwise see.

Oddly, though, the things I like about this new life are the very small. Perhaps my favourite part is when I go to turn the mare out in her sunny little paddock. I put her smart new headcollar on, and she walks beside me like a faithful hound, head down, ears pricked. I don’t have to pull on the lead rope; we just saunter along together, in perfect step.

I stop at the corner to give her a pick of grass. I lean on her shoulder as she eats. I remember my mother telling me that an old trainer she knew used to go and dig up dandelion roots for his horses because he believed they had miraculous health powers. I must dig her some dandelions, I think, picturing myself searching through the woods for them, like a truffle hound on the scent. Quite frankly, I am so in love with her that I would do anything for her just now. She has captivated every inch of my heart.

As I think that last thought, I look down at her. She is concentrated entirely on grazing. She has no time for sentiment. She is a horse. I am mooning away like Keats after Fanny Brawne, and she is entirely concerned with eating. This feels like some sort of salutary corrective. Whatever it is, it makes me laugh quite a lot.

Into the wild

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Today, I rode out into the glen.

I really love being able to write that sentence. I think how soaringly lucky I am to be able to write that sentence.

First of all, I am damn lucky to have a glen on my back doorstep. That is not something everyone has. Although, interestingly, most people, even quite old friends, think I am a little bit nuts to live so far north, almost six hundred miles from dirty old London town. I adore London; I lived there for almost twenty years. I love the National Portrait Gallery and Bar Italia and driving through Hyde Park early in the morning before anyone is up except for the cavalry officers, schooling their horses. But London does not have glens.


Racing heart

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 14 March 2012

I write this on the eve of the Greatest Show on Earth. I have, as you see, completely given in to cliché and hyperbole. I have no defences left. I am supposed to be doing serious work; I have piles of admin to tackle; I must renew my library books. But I can think of nothing else except the glorious four days of Cheltenham.

The racing thing was always a thing. I grew up with it. My father rode horses; he even once won the Kim Muir at Cheltenham, in the heady days of the sixties, when anything was possible. Then he trained horses. When I was very small, I did not understand houses that did not have a working stable of thoroughbreds attached. It was as normal and expected to me as breathing out and breathing in. Then I went to London and ran around with boys and got tremendously urban. I still went to the races, but it was not an abiding passion. I lost touch, a bit.

Lately, I have fallen in love with National Hunt all over again. As I sit down every Saturday and frown over the form and ring up Mr William Hill to place my bets, I make little jokes about channelling the spirit of my dead dad. Oh, that gambling blood, I say to myself, as I throw on another twenty, it’s very strong. I don’t really know about blood and water, and which is thicker; all I do know is that each jumping weekend feels like a glorious connection to a man who is gone, and a distant childhood which is past. It’s not nostalgia, exactly, which I try to avoid, but it is something very strong and real.

And now, like a present or a reward, along comes one of the greatest Cheltenhams in living memory. My mother, who saw Arkle in his pomp, thinks we are living through a bit of a golden age of jump horses. There is the mighty Big Buck’s, aiming at matching the 1950s record of Sir Ken by winning his sixteenth race on the trot,  bidding for his fourth World Hurdle. There is the storied clash of Long Run and Kauto Star. There is the beautiful and brave mare, Quevega, the hope of the Irish. As if the old veteran stars were not enough, there are some thrilling novices coming into their own, most especially Grand Crus and Sprinter Sacre, who may turn out to be the most exciting horse I have seen on a racecourse for a very long time.

It is a platitude to say that Cheltenham is like Christmas for racing people. There is the same glimmering, skittering feeling of anticipation. Like a six-year-old waiting for Father Christmas, I can hardly sleep for excitement. There will be fairy stories and hard luck stories and surprise stories. The big boys will come out and do their thing, but there is always some unheralded delight, a tiny yard which manages to wheel out a big winner, as if the gods of fairness are casting their thunderbolts of equity.

There will be the roar on the first day that you do not hear anywhere else. There will be more beautiful, brave equines gathered together in the natural bowl of Prestbury Park, more honesty and heart, more tear-jerking finishes up that searching hill, than any human has a right to expect. I shall shout and scream; the echoes of Come on, my son shall ring round my little Scottish room, whilst my dog barks her head off, which is what she always does in a tight finish. I shall rely on Guinness for strength, as I do every year. I shall remember my great, late, racing father.

And on Friday at around three o’clock, I shall hope with every atom of my body that the magnificent old campaigner, Kauto Star, can defy all the statistics, and storm up the hill one last time. As I wrote last week, the odds are all against him. No twelve-year-old has won the race since 1964. His training was interrupted by that horrid schooling fall. Any number of things can go wrong. I hope for the dream because I love him, with the pure, untainted love you may have for a brave horse. But he owes his admirers nothing. After two Gold Cups and five King Georges, his place in the pantheon is assured. In the end, as I always think on these occasions, really all I want is for the auld fella to come home safe.

PS. I suppose I should put my neck on the line and give you some tips. The problem is that in most of the big races, I can’t see the favourites getting beat. I have done Yankees on Big Buck’s, Sprinter Sacre, Quevega, and Sizing Europe. If you want value rather than boring odds on, then I like TeaforThree at 7-1 in the 1.30 on Wednesday. Dear old Midnight Chase, who jumps and stays all day, will give you each way interest in the Gold Cup at 12-1. And since there must always be something to get you out of trouble on the last day, Toubab is value at 8-1 in the 5.15 on Friday.

Should you watch, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

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