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The countless ways in which horses improve our lives

Spending time with horses lifts the spirits and teaches trust. More people, not fewer, should be able to ride

28 January 2017

9:00 AM

28 January 2017

9:00 AM

There are plans in place to tax horses out of British life. Proposed adjustments in business rates for non–residential properties — increases of up to eight times — could make vast swaths of the horsey world unviable. Life will be tough for top-end enterprises like racing yards and stud farms; it will be the end for the many riding schools and livery yards that exist on the far edge of the possible.

This is a disastrous way to carry on. The horsey life should have vast and sweeping tax exemption because it helps people to enjoy life more fully and to endure it more steadfastly. It keeps the blues away more efficiently than anything out of a bottle.


Simon Barnes and Camilla Swift join Isabel Hardman to celebrate the horsey life:



Horses are great teachers. Children who spend time around horses learn many important things. They learn that you never get love on your own terms; they learn that the pursuit of mastery is destructive to both parties. Above all they learn that understanding, forgiveness and calmness get better results than roaring and punishment.

The benefits that horses bring to people are most easily seen with the great organisation Riding for the Disabled. I’ve seen chair-bound children — children who spend their lives looking up at everybody — helped on to a horse and becoming at once tall, mobile and powerful. I have led horses for such children and seen the transformation even in a completely silent locked-in child. They fly on borrowed wings, and for half an hour they’re not just as good as the rest of us — they’re better.

Horses also teach lessons about courage. But it’s not the same sort of courage as bungee-jumping or the Cresta Run. With horses the basis of courage is trust. Even the simplest manoeuvres require trust: and it has to be a two-way thing. We’re told that team sports are great because they teach us to trust across the boundaries of individuality, class, race, colour and religion. Horse–riding asks you to extend this trust across the boundary of species.

I’ve experienced this trust in an extreme form on many occasions, but here’s one that stands out: the most frightening thing I’ve done on a horse, and the competition for that accolade is pretty intense. I rode in a dressage competition for the blind. Hors concours, of course: I wore an aeroplane sleep-mask.

At one stage I was so lost I had to peep — and was so shocked when I discovered where I really was that I wanted to vomit. And yet the rest of the riders coped and competed and won and lost, and one of them asked me to campaign for steeplechasing for the blind. Those riders have courage all right: and horses have added joy and meaning to their lives, as they do for all horsey people. The entire nation is richer for such things.

Years ago, I kept my lovely mad mare, Dolores, in Jan’s livery yard. Lord, the place was a mess, held together with baling twine, promises and Jan’s ability to do a deal. The clientele was mostly loud, Herefordshire cockney, female and poor: every day after work they drove their old bangers to horses that ate all the money. Jan operated by a kind of miracle: a few quid extra tax and we’d have all had to pack it in.

Jan’s business wasn’t really a business. It was more a way of living with passion while still paying for the groceries — and that allowed the rest of us to live with passion as well. A lot of the horsey life is like that. There’s traditionally only one way to make a small fortune from horses: start with a large fortune.

I’m not personally affected by the tax proposals; I keep my horses at home these days. I ride out round nearby chunks of Norfolk on my gorgeous American paint mare, occasionally greeting the lady with the nice piebald cob or the family with the carts. And as I take the path that dips down to the great floodplain, holding the reins by the buckle and letting the horse make the decisions — jinking only slightly as a deer breaks cover at our feet while a flight of swans beats the air above us — I know I have something that should be available to us all.


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