Horse riding is a unusual past-time, statistically. It's one of the most dangerous sports you can play, with more fatalities and injuries per year than kick boxing, rugby and base jumping combined. Yet, the rest of the world's most dangerous sports are played almost exclusively by men. Horse riding is a statistical anomaly because in almost all equestrian disciplines, female participants usually out-number men.
The gender disparity in equestrian sports has long been a topic of discussion and the reasons that are given to explain women's love of horses says as much about our society as they do about the situation. "It's a nurturing sport," or, "It's a social sport" and even, "It's a sport where they get to dress themselves and their horses up." These explanations speak more to the way that gender operates in our society than to the truth. I'm not actually sure what the truth of the matter is, but I'm willing to bet that it's nothing at all to do with nurturing, because if that was the case we could all buy bunnies and kittens, and could save a small fortune on saddlery, stock feed and physiotherapy.
Maybe the answers are in our history, as answers quite often are. A long time ago, from the sixth century BC until the first few centuries AD there were tribes of mounted nomads that roamed around the lands of Russia and Kazakhstan. They were known as the Sarmatians and they were highly skilled horse handlers and fierce warriors.
Credited with perfecting the use of saddles and stirrups, the Sarmatians were highly succesful and controlled vast tracts of land. One of the most interesting aspects of Sarmatian social life was the role of women. Sarmatian girls not only dressed like men and hunted, they also rode into battle – and not as nurses or caterers, but as soldiers. So fierce were they that Sarmatian women wouldn't marry until they had killed three enemy soldiers. Interestingly, they were also believed to be the origin of the myth of the Amazons because Sarmatian mothers would cauterize the right breasts of their infant daughters so that, when grown, they could draw a bow and throw a javelin from the back of a horse unimpeded.
Nowadays we have sports bras, so some of the Sarmatian habits are somewhat redundant but despite all that, maybe there's just a little bit of the Sarmatian in all of us. I suppose it is possible that the Sarmatians were the origin of a warrior woman gene that has spread throughout the world and which draws women to horses, still, despite their background or nationality. But I think it's more likely that the Sarmatians – nomadic and without government or mass forms of communication simply did a job that they had to do, safe from the limitations of gendered expectation. Wherever tribes settled in one spot and lost their nomadic ways, the role of women became more focused on domesticity, their status was eroded and they were constrained more. So, for the Sarmatian women the horse was very much a part of their power and independence.
Just as it is now. I think that horses offer women power and independence. They offer the ability to take great risks with our bodies when at every other moment they are under the scrutiny of a society that views women's bodies as a commodity. And they offer the opportunity to be assertive without censure – to control 600kgs of instinct and muscle. And they offer the possibility of bringing us in touch with some deeper part of ourselves that knows we are capable of absolutely anything. Anything at all. Because, for women who love horses, the sound of hooves galloping is loud enough to drown out the voices that constrain us.
As a child I decided that Christianity wasn’t for me because in the bible there was no mention of dogs or horses going to heaven. And I believed then, as I still believe now, that a life (or an after-life) without animals is not much of a life at all.
I was speaking with a wise friend of mine the other day about ageing. He said, “I’ve probably only got another dog, or maybe two, left in my lifetime.” I’ve thought a lot about that and I’ve decided that for those of us who love them, there’s probably no better measure of our own existence than the number of dogs whose lives we have shared.
For thousands of years dogs have lived amongst us, their dog years spinning out like ours, but in fast-forward. We watch them grow from first puppy waddles into big pawed adolescence and from there into confident maturity and finally into fragile old age. Living their lives with joy in the simple things and with an endless supply of love for the people who care for them. They are a daily reminder of how we should live. And their much shorter lives teach us that nothing is forever, no matter how much we wish it could be.
When you say goodbye to a much loved dog a small piece of you goes with them. You might look for that part of yourself in the corners where they used to lie – in the living room where the early winter sun warms the rug or in the cool jade stand of kikuyu underneath the plane tree. But that part of you has gone and you’ll always feel that missing, even when the next dog comes along and your arms are full of licky wriggles and the milky smell of puppy breath in your face.
The last time I said goodbye to a dog I cradled his soft, grey head in my lap and told him that he had been loved every single day of his life. Even when he dug up the garden or chewed the children’s shoes into slobbery leather lace, he was loved. He may not have been perfect but we loved him and he loved us right back. Because dogs love as we should. They love us at our worst, without question, without qualification. They are loyal, joyful and totally honest. By loving a dog we commemorate what is best in our own hearts.
I think that it is perhaps one of humanity’s most redeeming features that we unconditionally love our dogs, knowing from the outset that one day they’ll leave us broken-hearted. One day your dog will take that small piece of you to a place where you cannot yet follow.
But it seems a very small price to pay for a lifetime of love.
Water always runs to the deepest point, to where the land is lowest. For me, the same is true of writing. The words fall into the places that lie deep beneath. I think of them as the 2am places. The ones you usually hide with conversation and movement. The voice in your head that you hear because the only other sound is the hum of the fridge and your own quiet footsteps through a sleeping house.
For me this place is no aquifer. Words do not gush out onto the page. It is just a thin seam of honesty that can occasionally be mined for words.
Sometimes I dream in words, in loops and strands across a page. My own handwriting in blue ink. But by morning, like dew, the words have gone.
The process of drilling down into the place where the words lie, though always hard and sometimes even painful, is also occasionally illuminating. If the events that are written about are not autobiographical, the emotions surrounding them most certainly are.
The passage in my first novel where Frank describes his grandfather's love of horses is, in some ways, the most revealingly autobiographical:
"Frank told me that his grandfather came home from the war with a limp and a love of horses that he would never lose. As he got older his joints stiffened, his legs would neither bend nor straighten and he was unable to ride. But he would still walk amongst the small herd of horses in the paddock, feeling the heat of their dusty sides, running his crooked hands along their backs and breathing in the grassy, sweet smell of their bodies as they bumped against each other and nudged at his pockets with their soft, blunt muzzles. In the slow, amber evenings he would watch them at the water trough jostling like fretful siblings, stamping the dry ground and lifting clouds of dust that caught the lowering rays of the sun and tipped the edges of their bodies with gold.
Frank said that Granddad never forgave himself for ageing. That he was happiest with the reins in his hands, the smell of horse sweat seeping through woollen saddle blankets and the rhythm of shod hooves crunching gravel. Over time he grew less able to care for them and he let the little herd dwindle as they grew old and died. And they did, one by one, slowly and peacefully in the place that they had played out their whole lives. He folded their long-legged bodies into holes dug out of the hard clay and mounded the red soil above them. From the house he could see them, seven miniature hills fringed with weeds and the long, stiff stalks of wild oats. Each one he buried took a little more of him into the ground with them and the bridles in the shed became unrecognisable under their mantle of cobwebs."
To me, these words are premptively elegaic. Beauty is temporary. Friendship, youth, conversation, a good horse – these things are fleeting. The golden moments that make a life.
My grandmother could not remember her mother-in-law's name. Sixty years since she last saw her and the pages of the past had faded. "She was very kind to me," she said, but she could not remember her name. Her husband, Herman, had been an only child and he had been gone for ten years so there was no-one left to remember the names of the dead. My grandmother could remember the really important things though, the milky smell of a baby's skin, the song of birds at dawn, a friend's good bye – and her mother-in-law's kindness.
She showed me a photo of my grandfather in Sumatra as a child, his parents on either side. Dressed in white, a tropical plant in an ornate silver box and a wooden shuttered house behind. My great-grandmother, as though she is somehow already taking leave from the family history, looks without expression at the camera. She wears a thick, dark necklace and holds a paper fan. My grandmother pointed to the necklace in the photo, "I have that necklace somewhere," she said. "Maybe one day it will be yours."
In the photo great-grandmother wears a white, drapey dress of lace, a wide black sash around the breadth of her rib cage. My grandfather looks about five years old, dressed in a sailor suit with woollen socks pulled up. My great-grandfather wears a white suit, his face is calm, his chest broad and a watch chain disappears into his pocket.
I know the stories. My grandmother held us on her knee when we were small and recited stories of real life monsters, wars and famines, death and loss. My great-grandmother, whose necklace might one day be mine, left the tropics with her son and starved to death in the last, long winter of the war, while my grandparents raised their new family on stolen scraps and a barrow load of tulip bulbs. My great-grandfather, who was born in Indonesia, was captured by the Japanese and died building a railroad across Sumatra, from Padang to Pekanbaru. The railroad never carried a train and on his death certificate the coordinates of his grave are marked in careful Japanese script.
My grandfather survived the war, though he would never speak of it. He took his young family back to Indonesia after the war, and then on to Australia. My grandparent's house was full of strange carvings and rattan furniture and my grandmother would fry us krupuk, the salty taste and the crackle of hot oil on our tongues. My grandfather wore batik shirts every day that he didn't wear overalls and he made cassette tapes of opera, each one labelled with a felt tip pen in spidery block letters.
We buried my grandmother in a dress that she had brought from Palembang in Sumatra. White and drapey, cotton lace like the one her mother-in-law wore in the photo. I gave the eulogy and I think she would have liked it. I spoke about loving one another and family and the courage of my grandparents.
I should have said that one day we will all be the person in the photo. One day the children of my grandchildren will look at a photo of some old lady in funny clothes and won't know what my name was. Not much of what mattered to me will be remembered either – the petty fears and frustrations with which I furnish my life. If I'm lucky, at the end of my three score years and ten or twenty I won't remember them either... jobs and arguments, the things I achieved, the things I didn't – all will be forgotten. If I'm lucky what I'll remember will be the really important things – the milky smell of a baby's skin, the song of birds at dawn, a friend's good bye and the memory of kindness.