After GB’s Olympic triumph, I was going to write about dressage this month, a sport which commentators insist is mysterious and faintly peculiar. Horses doing ballet! Riders doing not much! Well, there you go!
Dressage is neither mysterious nor peculiar. It evolved through pretty
straightforward considerations of life and death: your warhorse needed
to be smart, obedient and pretty damned nifty to get you out of harm’s
way. You needed to teach it to move sideways, backwards, upwards, the
full spin, the half spin, and all this instantly and without hesitation.
You get the picture. Since you can't teach tanks dressage, after
horses fell by the wayside as far as war was concerned, these elegant
lifesaving manoeuvres became a competitive equine discipline.
It’s harder than it looks. I was once given a lesson on a horse being
trained for the Spanish Riding School. My legs said ‘trot’; it
understood ‘half pass’; my legs said ‘medium canter’, it understood
‘wild gallop with motorbike corners’. I dismounted hot and humbled.
‘Serves you right,’ said my own horse primly. ‘Dressage is for real
Anyhow, my mind teaming with dressage moves and smart things to say, I
then discovered something truly horrible. In the huge clearout last
year, when we moved the kitchen in a domestic earthquake worthy of
Thomas and Jane Carlyle, I seem to have mislaid (please please not
discarded) all my dressage books. Indeed, I can find none of my horse
books at all; no blue Pony Club Manual 1966, no Keeping Your Pony at Grass (whose cover was disconcertingly yellow – why not green?), no What the Farrier Does given to me, I think, by Father Christmas.
Nothing for it, I'm reduced to cows - the animal kind, not human.
In a fit of mental abstraction (I wasn’t even pregnant) I once bought a book about cows – The Complete Cow,
by Sara Rath. It’s a great book, a mine of historical and not so
historical cow information. Did you know, for example, that ‘soldier’
in Sanskrit, means ‘one who fights about cows’? To my surprise, I’ve
consulted this book quite often. Once you realise how important cows
have been in the whole of man’s history, it begins to feel rude to gloss
over them in a historical novel. Rude and historically negligent.
Every family in every historical novel depends on the cow: cows are
always a feature. But is a cow ever The Feature, even in a modern
I don’t think so. Cows are comic, as in Doreen Cronin’s Click Clack Moo (2000) or David Milgrim’s Cows Can’t Fly,
or even subversive as in Munro Leaf’s 1936 story of Ferdinand the
pacifist bull. But they’re never heroic. I think there’s a historica
gap to be filled.
My family had a cow, disconcertingly called Butterfly. Here’s a link to her picture.
She was a prize cow, but no beauty, at least she doesn't seem a great
beauty to me even bearing in mind that in 19th century portraits, cows
always look like oxo cubes. Nevertheless, I think of her sometimes, and
of all those family cows that, for centuries and centuries, stood
between a child’s life and death: a bit like dressage after all, so it
Rath, S. (1998) The Complete Cow, MN, USA, Voyageur Press, Town Square Books.
Picture of cow from Fotosearch Stock Photograph RF (Royalty Free)