Like so many little girls, growing up I always wanted a pony. We had riding lessons in Hyde Park each week but the actual pony proved more of a challenge. Secure in the knowledge that we were extremely unlikely ever to win, my parents allowed my sisters and I to enter as many competitions as we could find to win a pony, which would have been tricky given we lived much of the year in a fourth floor mansion flat. We were not sure the lift would be strong enough but were willing to try.
Nevertheless, in the end, I did acquire a pony or two, who would live near my sisters’ boarding schools or join us in the holidays. To my mind, there were, and are, few better moments than burying my face in the neck of a pony with the familiar smell and feel of the mane and coat to love and cuddle. In fact my father, who far preferred the horsepower of cars to that of horses, called our ponies “the cuddlies”. He himself had a series of rather marvelous Bentleys in which he would sometimes drive out to watch us in a gymkhana for an hour or two.
Whenever the great 18th century garden designer Capability Brown arrived at somewhere like Highclere, his first step was to ride round the estate to get an understanding of the topography on which to base his plans. At Highclere, his colleague John Spyers spent three weeks so doing. It is no surprise therefore that many of the finest views and perspectives here today are still best observed from horseback: cars are too low to the ground and you cannot smell the trees, or be still for the wildlife if you are sitting beside a rumbling engine. Capability Brown often used the language of grammar to help his clients see his vision and imagine the future:
‘Now there said he, pointing his finger, ‘I make a comma, and there’ pointing to another spot, ‘where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject'”.
But he was on horseback when he spoke these words!
Eons ago, horses changed our world when we learnt to harness their strength and to ride. In turn, we changed the world when we took “horsepower” and harnessed it to create the engines on which we rely today. At the turn of the 20th century, at the height of the Edwardian era, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon enjoyed racing both horses and cars, owning perhaps sixty cars and probably as many horses. In fact it was a car accident which led to him spending the winter months in Egypt but that is the start of another story.
Today’s cars are infinitely more practical with many more safety innovations than horses but I am not necessarily sure they are better in general for our health. Horses impel us to lead a more active and engaged life and you cannot just be a passenger. If my day gets too stressful, the best strategy is to walk down and call out to Phoebe, my Arab mare, to come and have a chat. She has extraordinary empathy and never fails me.
Currently we also have two chestnut yearlings looking out on the world in one large sloping field and our two little thoroughbred foals lying in the sun by their mothers in another. The latter listen for Maggie the groom’s car as that means food and attention. They sidle up asking for a scratch and stand bottom towards you so you can reach just above their tails. Twiggy will actually follow you, turning around to back into you, if she has had insufficient scratchies.
This coming week is Royal Ascot with its panoply of gleaming cars in the car parks and gleaming horses walking around the paddocks with so much promise of muscle and power. It is a great spectacle from the hats to the heels, and what is rather wonderful is that everyone has to wear name badges – so more relaxing than trying desperately to recall someone’s name and asking about children, or gardens, or where they are going on holiday, to try to gain a hint of who they are.