21 Feb An Old Grey Mare
“She’s a gentle horse,” the old Hungarian said to me as he stroked the neck of a placid-looking grey mare. “She pulls a bit – just don’t be too hard on her mouth.”
“Oh and when she starts cantering she might put in a tiny joyful little buck, just to show she is enjoying herself, nothing to worry about.”
The Hungarian’s tone was soothing and, in any case, I was barely listening. I was so excited about the prospect of being back in a saddle again that he probably could have told me I was mounting a man-eating tiger and I wouldn’t have minded.
An hour later I was lying on my side on hard-packed dirt, struggling to get breath into my lungs.
One entire side of my body was numb. The first fingers of pain were just beginning to reach out from the point of impact, like slowly-moving tentacles embracing a prey animal.
At first I just lay still, stunned. Then I rolled onto my back, still struggling to breathe. Up ahead my riding companion and the old Hungarian had turned their horses around and were looking back at me anxiously.
Eventually I staggered to my feet, as my father – also Hungarian – had taught me to do as a boy.
“You always get back on a horse,” his voice came to me from down the decades, like a memory evoked by a faded early Polaroid.
“What happened?” my companion asked.
I replayed the incident in my mind. The long steady walk, then a quickening trot, just moving into a canter when….
It was as if a jack-rabbit had decided to kick its back legs as high in the air as it could. Or the wound-up tension in a mouse-trap had suddenly released. In a month of Sundays there was no way I was going to stay on that horse. I hit the ground at speed.
“Are you dizzy?” the Hungarian said. His voice was matter-of-fact.
“No, not dizzy,” I said. There were plenty of other problems I could have listed, but not that.
Eventually I staggered over to my horse, resisted the urge to kick her hard in the ribs – I was in any case too sore for any such extravagant manoeuvres – and hauled myself painfully back into the saddle.
We were an hour’s ride into the Hungarian plains and there weren’t too many other options.
On paper, at least, I had the skills to deal with a difficult horse. My brother and I were brought up on horses in leafy Berkshire, back before my Dad lost all his money.
As a child I had fallen off dozens of times. One time I was thrown into a tree by a feisty Arab and smashed two front teeth. Forty years later I still have well-worn gold caps to mark the incident.
Sometimes my brother and I would watch horse-racing on television and then act out what we had seen in the fields by our house, thrashing at each other with our riding crops.
Later when my father moved back to Hungary and began to keep his own far-from-successful racehorses we both rode them out to work them. There was a huge thrill to feeling one of those equine athletes accelerate from a jump start to a full gallop in just a few paces.
I also rode during my years in Russia. On summer weekends I sometimes headed off with close friends to a village on the Volga River. We would sauna, swim, fish and ride for hours along the riverbanks.
Once I spent a week riding in the Georgian mountains near Chechnya. I was thousands of feet above the plains with only a morose Russian-speaking cowboy for company.
And then, shortly after arriving in Canada with Kristin, my wife, I bought a horse and called him Henry. I must have been having a bad macho day.
Henry had never hidden the fact that he hated being ridden. Even when I test-rode him he bucked and smashed me against a paddock fence.
I was forewarned, then, when I finally came to saddle up Henry for our maiden outing.
At first it seemed my fears were misplaced. He seemed relaxed, even happy. I lunged him for half an hour or so, first this way, then that, and he trotted and cantered out nicely. Encouraged, I climbed into the saddle.
Ah, how good it feels to be back on a horse, I thought. Then, without warning, and with my feet not yet in the stirrups, Henry reared up to his full height. I clung to him like a limpet.
He dropped down onto four legs and then went straight up in the air again. This time I lost my grip and rolled off backwards. And then, lying on the ground, as I scrambled backwards to get out of the way of this now snorting monster, he brought his back hoof down hard on my calf.
Instantly my leg went numb.
“I think it’s broken,” I shouted to Kristin who was looking on with horror.
Then, in a fit of childish pique, I raised myself onto my one good leg and began to hop after Henry brandishing the lunging whip. Needless to say he outran me. Even if I had been on two healthy legs I wouldn’t have had a chance of catching him. Kristin just stared at me as if I’d lost my marbles.
That time around I spent a week on the couch, swigging whisky and ibuprofen and bemoaning my lot.
This time I decided to man it out. I even went flying the next day in a small plane up towards the Slovak border. But by about day three, with the pain showing no sign of abating, I finally headed off to a hospital.
Sure enough the X-rays showed a broken and dislocated rib in my back, about four up from the bottom. “You’re lucky it didn’t pierce the lung,” the nurse said sternly. I could tell that she thought I was far too old for such equine antics.
A week on and the pain is slowly beginning to fade. The docs have told me that I must rest for six weeks. Sleeping on my side is still impossible. But I have weaned myself off the oh-so-good painkillers I was taking.
And with things now ramping up in Ukraine, my thoughts are turning east. I spent two weeks there in January – one in Odessa on the Black Sea, and one in Kyiv, the capital – just to dip my toe in the water, and brush up a little on my Russian.
The university has made it clear that I have a commitment teaching here in Budapest until April. Next week I am, in any case, due to head to Bosnia with half a dozen students for a week-long study tour talking about the 1992-1995 war, which was my first.
But in the meantime, I am also going to turn my gaze back to the one-time Soviet Union, an area I spent several years covering.
I am starting a newsletter – Back to the Front – that will draw on fresh reporting from my occasional forays. I will also document some of my past encounters – an afternoon drinking champagne with Putin’s chief propagandist in his villa in Crimea, 10 days in uniform with the Russian Spetsnaz in Chechnya.
My aim is not to follow the headlines and certainly not join the media bubble, but offer original material, vignettes, commentary and insight.
For those of you curious for news of the lodge, it is, at the moment, under several feet of snow. I have a little look at it every few days using small cameras I have installed.
The plan is still to open this year after two years closed because of Covid, though we have now pushed the start date back from May to September. Details will follow as soon as they are firm.
And I promise in the meantime I’ll be staying away from horses – at least until the next time.