MY DAILY walks take me past a stable and along a path between two fields, where there are often several horses grazing. I love to see them; there is something about the sight of a horse that evokes a strong archaic response in us. As Edwin Muir said, we see them “As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield. Or illustrations in a book of knights.”
There’s a fine white mare, and, sometimes, when the wind picks up and frisks, so does she: she lets herself loose for a high whinny and a little canter round the field, the wind flinging out the shining white hair of her mane and tail, and, as she runs past, I think of the Dauphin’s praise of his horse in Henry V as “Le cheval volant, the Pegasus”: “When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it. . . It is a beast for Perseus: he is pure air and fire.”
That passage, of course, was an inspiration to Gerard Manley Hopkins when he wrote “The Windhover”, his own hymn of praise not of a horse, but of a falcon, or rather of Christ as a falcon:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air. . .
But most often, when I walk between the horses’ fields, it’s not that high chivalric poetry I’m thinking of, but something steady, earthy, ordinary, and comforting. It’s been lovely to see, in these long months of lockdown, how the owners greet their horse, and the horses their owners, as they come with baskets of hay, and blankets.
There’s a particularly stout little Shetland pony who looks as if he’s stepped straight out of a Thelwell cartoon, who takes great visible and audible pleasure in the oats and hay he’s brought each day. He’s no taller than George, my greyhound (though a good deal rounder), and only a tiny tot could ever ride him, but he clearly has a good life and is held in affection by all.
And it’s the affection, and sheer pleasure in all this horse-riding and horse-keeping, that moves me. I wonder sometimes, as I see the women coming faithfully each morning through winter to tend their horses, whether that warmth, that touch and contact, isn’t sustaining and comforting them as much as their horses: people who might be longing to resume once-regular visits to elderly relatives and distant friends, who might be longing and waiting for all our vanished human responsiveness, finding that a neigh and a whinny in response to a pat was somehow helping to get them through.
So, most days, it’s not Shakespeare, or Hopkins, but Edwin Muir’s strange, tender poem “The Horses” that comes back to me. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, beginning to recover,
Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence
We, too, in this past year, have “made our covenant with silence”, but it is a joy to see these horses and their owners renewing what Muir called “that long-lost archaic companionship”.