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Sarah Britten

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Falling Off

This piece is in the current issue of Migrate, the magazine of the Loerie Awards. This issue’s theme is “Obsess”, and I tackled my obsession with, you guessed it, horses. There’s no online version to link to, so I’m blogging it here:

Falling Off

I have fallen off three horses in my life.

The first was Duke, who escaped from my mother and cantered off with me when I was four. I ended up in the sand, grazed and sobbing; I still remember how a nice lady gave me a pineapple-flavoured Super C.
The second was Squire’s Darling, who slipped on a steep brick driveway and fell over sideways. A student at the time, I was lucky enough to have been thrown clear rather than trapped beneath him, and so I escaped with nothing more than a green stick fracture of my left elbow.

The third was Mile69, who bolted with me while I was on honeymoon. Choosing to part company with him voluntarily rather than ending up like Christopher Reeve, I ended up in a heap in the grass and had to be carted off to a chiropractor. Bruised and sore, I staggered around barely able to move for the rest of the holiday; sex (in case you’re wondering) was out of the question.

Perhaps the third fall was a sign, because my marriage was not destined to be a happy one. After a post-divorce rebound relationship ended a few months ago, and I was forced to confront the awful mess that constituted my life, my mother told me: “Forget about men and get on the back of a horse.” She was nearly killed at the age of seventeen when her mare fell on top of her while jumping, but her belief in the power of horses to fix a broken soul is unwavering.

This may be hereditary.


I have been obsessed with horses my entire life.
My first word was “horse”.
Before I could read, I paged ceaselessly through every horse picture book I could get my hands on.
I have lost count of the number of horses I have doodled, sketched and painted over years since my I first clutched a crayon and scribbled on a blank sheet of paper.

I should have grown out of this obsession by now, but I have not, and when I think of horses I am filled with inexpressible longing, the kind of longing that grows from wanting something so terribly much and never getting it. You would think that I would have learned to ride long ago, but it was thanks to Duke that my parents never allowed me near a horse again; I was Accident-Prone, they said ominously.

My obsession with equines remained restless and unfocused until I discovered the Family Radio & TV supplement to the Durban July in 1983. There was page after page of pictures of horse and, not only that, but a TV broadcast of the race, with lingering shots of each competitor galloping past the grandstand down to the starting gate. It was heaven.

I can still name the winners of the Durban July from 1983 to 1989:
Tecla Bluff
Devon Air
Bush Telegraph
Royal Chalice
Right Prerogative

After that, I lost track.

Those were all good horses, but they could never compete with the horses of my imagination. My most persistent fantasies, narratives which would run for months, even years, would involve the ownership of a fantastically good racehorse who defeated all before him. I would dwell luxuriously on particular races, replaying the comments of the pundits who would naturally have rejected his chances and would be proved deliciously wrong. I would also draw up imaginary pedigrees, fantasy racecards, even map out a stud career for my champion, who would of course sire other champions. These horses were always colts and stallions, never fillies or geldings, because it was important that they enjoy successful – and prolific – careers at stud.

My fantasy horses were always perfect. They might change appearance – after I saw the Australian movie about their great champion Phar Lap, my horse was chestnut with a white star between his eyes; later I graduated to a mahogany bay and still later, to a black thoroughbred, one of the rarest colours of all – but they always remained impervious to defeat. In this they offered a reassuring counterpart to the disappointments of real life, where I didn’t always get to be good at things, didn’t have friends and wasn’t nearly as happy as I was when I had retreated to the shelter of my imagination.

Naturally, I would draw the horses I dreamed of. Horses, imagination and art were deeply entwined: the fantasy fed the drawings, and the drawings the fantasy. At one point, oil pastel pictures of horses covered almost every available square centimeter of my bedroom, the Prestik that fixed the best ones to the walls eventually growing yellow and brittle, until they fell down and had to be put away in a cupboard.

Between the ages of ten and twelve, my love of horses had to compete with a secondary obsession: helicopters and fighter jets, thanks largely to Airwolf, Top Gun and my father’s Time Life series on military aircraft. I equipped my magnificent machines with plenty of firepower; in what may have been some kind of unconscious prepubescent attempt to deal with the phallus – who knows? – they always prickled with guns and missiles ready to shoot down the enemy.

Many years later, a male friend would tell me how wonderful it was to find a girl who could talk about the Mig-25 Foxbat.

The aircraft rather than the horses were the expression of the male aspect of my personality – for a while, my parents were excited about the prospect of my becoming an engineer (how wrong they were). The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, argues in The Uses of Enchantment that girls in particular loved horses at a certain age because it was a way to exert control over the masculine and give them a sense of mastery. What this might mean for girls who never grew out of horses, he did not say. Gloria Mitchell, in her essay Horse Lust: Bondage and Discipline to the Would-Be Equestrienne, found riding to be an overtly sensual experience. “In my post-pubescent life,” she writes, “I seldom think of horses – I suppose that erotic contact with other human beings has diminished the need to climb on top of animals.”

For me, though, horses have little to do with men besides offering an alternative to the distractions of online dating, and when I long to ride them even in my dreams, it has more to do with the glorious freedom of being one with a beautiful creature so much bigger and more powerful than oneself than anything obviously sexual. For the most part, people who love horses love them because they are horses, and, like me, many of them never grow out of this love. My aunt, who suffered from terrible back problems while I was growing up, took up riding when she was in her fifties and now spends every weekend at the stables. As a teenager she helped save up to buy the mare that nearly killed my mother, and finally, she is able to ride again.

She is happiest when she is on a horse.


My favourite drawing of a horse hangs in my parents’ home. It is a chalk pastel sketch of Horse Chestnut at three, based on a photograph I took when I visited him at the racing stables in Randjesfontein. After he was shipped to America, I wrote about him for a Sunday newspaper: how, for his fans, his greatness transcended the disappointments of real life, and how, when he won the Triple Crown in 1998, I saw tears streaming down the faces of grizzled old men. They had spent a lifetime studying form, handicapping the field and losing money on sure bets, but finally they had witnessed a moment of magnificence that would remain golden in their memories for what remained of their lives.

This is something that those who have no interest in horses do not notice or understand. Horses inspire love. Real, anguished love. When Barbaro, the beautiful unbeaten bay colt who won the 2007 Kentucky Derby, broke his leg and spent a year in rehabilitation, he inspired the kind of burning love that tightens the back of the throat and fills the chest. When he finally had to be put down, horse lovers across America wept, inconsolable. The Onion satirized the outpouring of grief, but certain special horses do seem to fulfill an urgent and particular national need, for every year the fans seek another Seabiscuit, another champion to love and cherish; another steed, one might say, to be the bearer of their dreams of what might be.

Barbaro was a reminder that even the most dazzling of champions can die. In real life, horses are heartbreak. They break legs or succumb to colic. They are defeated. In the flesh, most of them do not embody what I imagine to be the nobility of courage, beauty and freedom. But even after all these years, I doodle them while I take notes in meetings and read the stories on American horseracing websites; I see hoofprints in the sand and I long to ride the animals that left them there. In this obsession, there’s a certain constancy (which is comforting).

In viewing my life as a narrative punctuated by falling off, I am reminded of the beautiful and simple act of staying on.


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