Luckily, my neighbour and friend Harriet Sergeant has also recently taken up riding. Although a fearless skier and traveller (she was once shot at with a Kalashnikov while working as a journalist in Mozambique) she used to sweat with terror on a horse. But after taking her daughter for lessons at the local stables she was hooked. She bought Alfred, the riding school favourite. Such was her enthusiasm that even before Alfred’s arrival, Harriet could be found shopping in Chipping Norton dressed in jodhpurs, chaps, leather boots and a hunting jacket. Unfortunately Alfred did not live up to the outfit. Thousands of pounds and countless hours have been fruitlessly spent trying to make short-legged, dinosaur-necked Alfred look a bit more upmarket, but Harriet adores him anyway. Every weekend Harriet and I get together and ride. In reality this is not as straightforward as it may sound. Hours are spent poring over Ordnance Survey maps discussing the right route (no streams: Alfred doesn’t like water). Alfred then has to be boxed over. Harriet has to get dressed (she now looks like she’s stepped out of a Burberrys ad). The children have to be entertained, the dogs tied up and the husbands motivated.
Once on the horses, the complications don’t end. My horse goes too fast, hers too slow. In order to communicate I am forced to yell as she trails along a mile behind. When we canter she sits back looking relaxed and happy as Alfred lollops along. I, however, hang on for dear life, perched on the back of what might as well be a Scud. Instead of cholesterol controlling my horse, there’s been a role reversal — he now controls me. After every ride I come home exhausted, my arms hanging out of their sockets and my legs shaking like jellies. Trotting behind me is a complacent Harriet. “Perhaps,” she says, irritatingly, “you should sell Tex and buy something more suitable.”
Another friend, Sophie, wife of the writer and film director Bruce Robinson, moved from Los Angeles to a farmhouse in Herefordshire. As time passed her happening film friends were replaced by horsy neighbours. Five years on, the kitchen looks like a tack room. In order to make a piece of toast or boil the kettle you have to remove the rugs, bridles, tail bandages and numbeners draped over the Aga. Hours are spent laundering tails and painting hooves. Bruce, who is terrified of horses, wanders around looking baffled: “The French have got the best idea they serve them with potatoes and peas.” What happened to the glamorous girl in the slinky Voyage dress who used to pay him all that attention? He feels so saturated in horse talk that he refuses to call the tack by its correct names: thus, reins are known as “steering strings” and stirrups as “foot rests”.
This summer my horse and I went to stay with Sophie. When not riding, a great deal of time was spent discussing what to do about Sophie’s new cob, Heidi, who has a mane that sticks up like a loo brush. She looks like a zebra. Having spent a fortune on Frizzese gels and hair oils, Sophie has now bought a special orange Lycra tube to stick over Heidi’s mane. So far it’s had no effect but Sophie lives in the hope that one day she will take it off and find lovely silky hair underneath. We have discovered that if your horse looks good, you look good. This explains the hours that go into grooming, the mania for plaiting and polishing, and the obsession with outfits and tack that characterises the horse world.
So what is it that makes them so wonderful? In my husband’s opinion it is that, having subdued him, I have now moved on to my horse. I am guiltily aware that there is an element of truth in this: I am having an affair with Tex. That heady sense of being on the edge- of control with an animal much bigger than myself gives me a feeling of wild euphoria. The elation of charging through the fresh air, through the countryside I never see except in this way, the sensation of being alive, at one with an animal that I have (almost) subordinated to my will, justifies all my passion.