We can all breathe more easily now that the American election is over, and perhaps even move on to other matters. (Especially those of us who happen to be American, and let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to be American now that we have such an amazing, charismatic, intellectual, inspiring president-elect in place of that war-mongering, self-serving, oil-obsessed fool. But I digress.)
The matters I’d like to move on to today are…horses. You may remember my nervousness at writing a book with a white horse at its centre, particularly after the whole lurcher escapade (sorry, dogs), and that I made all my friends swear not to let me buy a horse.
Well, so far, I haven’t bought a horse. But I have taken up riding again, and as Timberlake Wertenbaker remarked, “have you ever noticed how ‘riding’ and ‘writing’ sound almost the same?” Very profound, if you ask me. And no, you most definitely do not detect even a trace of irony.
Here’s what I’ve discovered over the past month, during which I’ve had a number of riding lessons, bought myself some basic kit, and discovered (thirty-five years having passed since I last got on a horse) that I could no longer do certain things I once took for granted, such as leaping gracefully onto a sixteen hand horse without a mounting block.
What I’ve Learned:
Riding is like alcoholism. It took just one lesson to become as completely addicted at fifty as I was at thirteen.It’s very expensive to learn to ride properly (though somewhat cheaper than buying a Rembrandt or a yacht).
Once you start gushing in public, it turns out that every second or third person you meet is also a horse fanatic. Jane Smiley, for one. Timberlake Wertenbaker for another. Lauren St John, Philip Reeve , Kate Kellaway for a few more. And those are just the writers.
Riding is a metaphor for everything in life.
Now that last point may seem like something of an overstatement, but the more I ride, the more I believe it. Balance, for one thing. I discovered (when trying to buy riding boots) that my right calf is bigger than my left. This is because I walk unevenly, which turns out to be why my right hip always aches. Trying to ride when you’re not balanced magnifies your small problem into a great big horse-sized problem – half a ton of unbalanced animal, to be precise. Which means that everything the two of you try to do feels awkward, and you have to go back and figure out how to rebalance yourself so as not to put your horse off his stride. Ever tried to raise children with unresolved anxiety? That’ll give you a hint about the magnitude of passing on flaws of balance. You might also want to reread Ibsen’s Ghosts.
Then there’s clarity. If your intentions and signals are muddled, your horse will be muddled, too. “What are you trying to do?” calls my long-suffering teacher as Tom and I crash around the indoor school in a strange disconnected version of a canter. “I’m not sure,” I mutter back, struggling to choose one gait or another. Poor Tom. He’s a great big horse, nearly seventeen hands, and when he experiences a crisis of faith, it’s a great big crisis.
Horses pick up on minute shifts of weight, position, and mood. When the rider is tense or distracted, the horse becomes tense and distracted.
This makes a precise parallel with writing. When I am focussed, clear and completely involved in the story, the reader will be too. Emotion travels through a writer’s fingertips onto the page and into the brain of the reader. When riding, the communication travels through the seat, legs, hands and voice. The purity and precision of communication determines how horse (and reader) will react. Perhaps we could apply this rule to relationships and opt for clear communication between humans as well.
Sometimes I wonder why my flights of fancy always seem to come at the end of writing a book, instead of at the beginning. It might have helped if I’d taken up riding before I wrote a horse book (my second in fact, if you count the infamous, Horse Therapy, which I try not to). I wonder if I’ll become a religious fanatic, or something equally weird, after finishing There is No Dog. That is, if I ever get around to starting it.
In the meantime, here’s the very beautiful US cover for The Bride’s Farewell , just to tantalize you (and me too, there are still ten months to go). Mainly I’m reading horse magazines and riding manuals…but I’ve also managed some Primo Levi, post-Berlin, which has to be the most moving prose I’ve ever encountered. And for research purposed only, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and the Holy Bible. Both fascinating reads. I wonder what Jane Smiley is writing/riding these days?