One of the more useful things I do, which would not on the surface seem to be related to writing, is riding. And I don’t mean in any therapeutic sense–although I suppose that may exist.
It’s that riding a horse hasn’t changed significantly in 200 years. The speeds at which horses travel haven’t changed either. And so riding enables one to enter in some ways into that long gone world of the past. It’s not just the feel of the animals, or the fact that people then would have been familiar with horses in a way that people today are familiar with microwaves. It’s more that we can know what people 200 years ago smelled on a daily basis–and yes, what their boots smelled like–why they were expected to change their clothes immediately after returning from the stables.
We can understand what fast was for them, or slow. What their bodies had learned to do in order to ride and jump well. We can share first hand in their excitements and terrors.
And we can also understand more of their relationship with the world in which they lived–the reliance they placed on their horses, how they got places, how there was no protection from bad weather for those on horseback, what cavalry officers experienced training for the Peninsula. All of that and then some.
A couple of years ago, I happened to be out riding with some friends during some appalling weather–gusts up to 80 mph and driving rain which could be seen approaching as a dark scrim across the fields. We were riding hell for leather to get back to the yard, and the wind was throwing us from one side of the bridle path to the other–we were playthings to it. Half the time, one had to keep the head down and just cling to the horse’s neck, there were so many overhanging branches and dangling brambles. And yes, I took one across the face.
Then, a friend’s horse decided he’d had enough. He stopped short and turned his backside to the wind and was determined not to budge. (Horses habitually turn their backsides into the wind.)
The wind picked up, branches were being hurtled down from the trees to fall and smash on the path at our feet. But my lad was a Trojan and although he has been known to be the spookiest animal in the county, he never flinched once. He knew it was his job to get me home. And he did.
And yet, as I rode through this terrible stuff, there was more than one moment of triumph as I felt: this is what Wellington’s lads did in Spain, this is what they experienced. And now I know. Now I can write of it with some authority. Which was to me a cause of some elation.
They knew they depended on the natural world–we’ve lost sight of that. But that day I learned it. And for that reason, even as I stripped down to the vest so that I could rub my boy down with my jumper and some straw, which were the only dry things I had, that day has always become one of the finest ever to my mind.
And in case you’re wondering, I also understand completely how they could love their horses more than any other creature. For there’s nothing like them… Bless ’em.