Friday, 17 May 2013

The Little Book of Calm

Some time ago I mentioned some of the horse books that I grew up with. One that I did not include then but which was once very important to me was The Manual of Horsemanship, a text I prized as a child:

The Manual of Horsemanship is probably the first piece of surrealist literature I ever read; that is, it is a work of total fantasy, written from a point of view of profound seriousness. It is a piece of fiction from beginning to end, a collaboration between the author and the reader in which they both pretend that it might be possible to turn the essentially chaotic business of dealing with a large living animal into an orderly affair, provided precise rules are followed.

It begins by taking the living, spirited being it is dealing with and turning it into a diagram:

(Once everything is labelled, one feels much more in control, even if a combination of fetlock joint, pastern, coronet and wall of foot does combine with an impulse from whatever it is that lies beneath the poll to kick you in the ribs.)

Having drawn and quartered, if not hung, the enemy, so to speak, the book proceeds without any further mucking around to describe the operation of getting on and getting off a pony, ("Because it is the recognised official Manual of the Pony Club it is not considered necessary to substitute the word 'horse' for 'pony' in all sections where either word is equally applicable", by the way), and all the interim procedures.

It continues, alternating between statements that might seem almost as appropriate in a book of Zen Buddhist technique ("Every aid requires the complete harmony of body, legs and hands", "If this system is carefully adhered to, the rider will find these exercises falling into his lap, as a ripe plum does from a tree", "If the rider takes a great deal of trouble in the initial stages of training, he will reap great benefits as time goes on. It is wishful thinking to imagine this high standard of training can be achieved in a short time. It is not possible") and instructions that a) beg the question of the point of the whole exercise - "The greatest difficulty in equitation is to keep the horse absolutely straight" - and b) presuppose a world very unlike the one in which most of us live, a world where you are part of a discerning elite ("knowledgeable horsemen and women will not use bad or coloured saddlery, neither will they neglect the care of their own saddlery") and have access to "your own veterinary surgeon" and your own "well-conducted hunting stable".

There are enigmatic diagrams that seem to explain everything and nothing, (mostly the latter):

(These two remind me of the kind of thing you sometimes see in American literary criticism - The Narrative Patterns in Jane Austen's Oeuvre: Characters and the Maze):

and diagrams which make the difficult look easy:
There are instructions for doing things that could never be done while holding a book in one hand (this comment actually applies to almost the entire text):
Best of all the reader is presented with a whole programme for living:
Every eventuality is covered and, provided rigid discipline is observed, all will be well. I find this impossible fantasy very soothing. My children had Hogwarts; I had a dream of stable (in all senses of the word) routine.


  1. I learned the points of the compass when young, but never the points of the horse. Mark Twain writes in Hawaiian section of Roughing It

    "I could see that he had as many fine points as any man's horse, and so I hung my hat on one of them, behind the saddle, and swabbed the perspiration from my face and started."

    1. One of the points of knowing the points of the horse, I suspect, is enjoying that nice feeling of being part of a club of experts, an exclusive group, surrounded by a sea of ignorance.