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The Plunge

February 10, 2013

When I was young, between the ages of about eight and thirteen, I had regular horse-riding lessons. I was crazy about horses. Indeed, for many of those years I was a horse. I practised whinnies, snorts, head-tossing, eye-rolling, nostril-flaring, along with my bipedal version of trotting and cantering. I read Black Beauty over twenty times, devoured the Pullein-Thompsons, the Silver Brumby and the Black Stallion. I lived for that Saturday lesson when, alongside a dozen or so similarly-aged children, I was deposited for a hour at Chambers Riding School in Omagh, where for that short time I got to sit astride a bored, often recalcitrant pony, and try to cajole and bully it into becoming the steed I dreamed of.

The routine was the usual circumlocution of a paddock, ours being walled and sandy for all weathers. When we got beyond the basics – learning to sit (yes, you do have to learn to sit properly on a horse), the rising, then the sitting trot – the next big step was the canter. A totally different gait, its three-beat rhythm entirely contrasting with the simple two-beat of a trot which was essentially the same as my own running, just four legs instead of two. The canter propelled me to a new plane, its swinging rock demanding an escalation of my seat as I learned to swing with the pony’s movement, grip its torso tighter with my thighs, become part of that rocking motion. Contact was maintained, flesh against flesh, even through the saddle’s leather, the fabric of my jodhpurs, the pony’s hide.

However, to get to that thrilling point we had to break through the trot barrier. As I said, most of the ponies we rode were old hands, tired stalwarts of Saturday lessons, who responded reluctantly, if at all, to our bumbling diffident commands. So when urged to transition from trot to canter they mostly reacted, firstly, with ostensible incomprehension, marked by a rapid flicking back and forth of ears (What can you possibly mean? I’m trotting aren’t I?); then by determined disobedience – ears laid stubbornly back, a surly dismissal in the ludicrous rapidity of the trot (Forget it! This is as fast as I’m going! I put up with enough with you on my back in this insufferable routine!); but then, with enough persistence on my part, especially if I happened to be fortunate enough to be mounted on Likely Lad, who was lean and young, not yet worn down by years of this pastiche of equitation, rather than Buttercup, whose  bovine name hinted at her depth of obstinacy behind a superficially placid exterior – suddenly, suddenly there would be a change. It always happened just when I thought that the frantic slap-slap-slap-slap of the mad trot had to give, but that I was going to suffer the humiliation sinking back to a walk without ever achieving the liberation of the canter; suddenly there would be the gear shift and I would feel it somatically, viscerally, as the Plunge. It was fleetingly announced as the pony’s head pulled back, a thrust as the hindquarters gathered underneath for the push, but then would come the absolute confirmation: the leading foreleg would hit the ground with a definite thump; simultaneously the pony’s head would tilt forward, and its whole body would momentarily collect, suspend, over the pivot of that single foreleg as the animal propelled itself to a whole new level of motion that soared beyond the pedestrian trot, felt almost like flying.

The Plunge marked the change. I could feel it in the pony’s body and hence in my own. We were one. The pony had finally obeyed, and that obedience was a lesson in confidence and trust. The pony had deferred to me, trusted me enough to obey; which meant that I carried within me enough authority to elicit that trust.

The image of the Plunge has been around me a few days now. Initially I couldn’t identify the source of the familiarity of the feeling; I just had the feeling. It’s connected with my work. Since Christmas I’ve been heavily involved with my song thrushes. You may recall that I’d planned to have completed the acoustic analysis of my nine species by the end of January. Well, I’ve completed the family-level analysis and was left with two congeners: the song thrush (cf: blackbird); and the chiffchaff (cf: willow warbler); and the robin bringing up the rear as I’ve already done a lot of work on them. So with these last three species I had planned to just do a partial analysis. However, once I started on the song thrush, I found it tricky. They often sing more or less continuously, making it difficult to discern the individual song unit. So it took me a while to work that out. Then, while working it out, I noticed something that is potentially important. I couldn’t let it go. I’m almost done, but it required a full analysis even if it took me twice as long as I’d originally expected. I’m anxious about the fact that my funding runs out in October. I’m almost overwhelmed by the amount of work I still have to do; but I also feel, however tentatively, precariously, that I’m hitting my stride. All the busyness of the past couple of years have just been like the frenzy of a fast-forwarded film. Now I’m at the point just before that foreleg whacks the ground, declaratively, definitively, to plunge me from frantic trot into an energetic but ultimately serene canter that will surely carry me to a different level, forward into a new future.


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  1. I love this. Have you ever considered writing poetry?

  2. Hudson Howl permalink

    I am here cuz well speccy told to me to come here. And I always do as told. Well she didn’t really tell me to , she just threw out crumbs.

    Am glad she did so and am glad I followed through. There is much here.

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