My Year with a Horse: Feeling the fear but doing it anyway
Lion £8.99 (978-0-7459-6849-0)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
HAZEL SOUTHAM, in her mid-forties, and standing just 5 feet 2 inches tall, fell in love with a horse. Duke, a 16.2 hands (5 feet 6 inches at the shoulder) Irish Draught, was, in equine terms, a sort of cross between a tractor and a 4WD — and about as manoeuvrable. But this 16-year-old “gentle giant” proved to be the dependable rock that stood firm in a turbulent year, when Southam’s life threatened to fall to pieces.
I should declare an interest. I have also spent a year and more with a horse — 16 of them. My horse, Neville, is a bit sportier, but shares some of the Irish good sense of Duke’s breeding. And I share with Southam the wonder at the extraordinary generosity with which these huge, powerful creatures offer themselves to us.
As her year begins, Southam knows little of this, and has to overcome understandable physical and psychological fears to trust herself to a creature with its own will and suspicions (horses are essentially flight animals, convinced that they are surrounded by mortal threats). In parallel with this, her elderly and much loved father descends into dementia, her frail mother suffers a stroke, and she herself contracts a debilitating disease on a journalistic trip overseas.
Having taken Duke on loan from a riding centre, Southam also has an obligation to her new charge. But, far from proving an onerous duty, this new relationship, and the multiplicity of skills that she has to learn, take her out of her house, out of familiar territory, and out of herself. She receives more from Duke than she could ever give. The experience is physical, emotional, and spiritual.
By trade, Southam is a feature writer; so the narrative rattles along in brisk journalistic fashion. She has a tendency to intersperse the story with the equivalent of fact-boxes, which can make you feel ever so slightly patronised, but she is admirably candid about her feelings as she faces the disappearance of her father’s identity, and risks losing the reins of her own destiny.
The book might have been improved if, alongside the description of Southam’s feelings, there had been more considered reflection on what prompted them, and how faith, and our view of the world, is challenged and shaped by what happens to us. Duke and his diminutive rider, however, are good, lively companions on this thoroughly enjoyable and eventful ride.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a full-time freelance writer and editor.