My Animals and Other Family
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“I had spent most of my childhood thinking I was a dog, and suspect I had aged in dog years. By the time I was ten I had discovered the pain of unbearable loss. I had felt joy and jealousy. Most important of all, I knew how to love and how to let myself be loved. All these things I learned through animals. Horses and dogs were my family and my friends. This is their story as much as it is mine.”
Clare Balding grew up in an unusual household. Her father a champion horse trainer, they shared their lives with more than one hundred thoroughbred racehorses, mares, foals, and ponies, as well as an ever-present pack of dogs, on a sprawling estate in the Hampshire Downs. As a child, Clare happily rode the legendary racehorse Mill Reef and received her first pony, Valkyrie, as a gift from Her Majesty the Queen of England.
But Clare ranked low in the family pecking order—as a girl, she was decidedly below her younger brother, and both of them were certainly below the horses. Left to her own devices, she had to learn life’s toughest lessons through the animals, and through her adventures in the stables and the surrounding idyllic English countryside.
From her struggles at boarding school to her triumphs as an amateur jockey and event rider, Clare weaves her own coming-of-age story through portraits of the beloved horses and dogs, from the protective Candy to the unruly Frank, who were her earliest friends.
The running family joke was that “women ain’t people.” Clare has to prove them wrong, to make her voice heard—but first she had to make sure she had something to say. My Animals and Other Family is a witty, brave, and moving account of stumbling—often literally—into one’s true self.
slowly.” I could feel my father’s eyes on me, so I looked at him. His mouth was open slightly and then he nodded. “That’s probably true.” “Gooch is still there. I like him. But you’re right about that Whispering Death fellow. He shifts the ball, he really does,” I said, folding my arms. “Good girl,” my father said. Well, I didn’t think it was that difficult, frankly, to have an opinion that seemed to be right. You just had to listen to the commentators, watch what was going on,
were back in their houses or watching TV in the Hostel. In the barn at the end of the row of stalls were some paper bales wrapped tight in black plastic. They were for racehorses with respiratory problems, because there is less dust in paper than in straw, so I figured one of those would be perfect for Frank. I split open the bag with a knife, placed it carefully back on the windowsill and picked the sharpest, shiniest pitchfork leaning against the wall. I raised it high above my head and
your patience and your willpower, your skill and your strength. All in all, I have always thought that ponies are harder to ride than horses, so a child who rides well at eight or ten years old will always ride well. My mother had seen an ad in Horse & Hound for a bay mare. She was sixteen hands high, twelve years old, and she was called Hattie. We went to try her in Ashampstead, a village about twenty miles from Kingsclere. “She’s beautiful,” I said, patting her on the neck. I could
from scratch. Back in a normal saddle, I was still persevering with the madness of Henry. I took him up on the Downs and tried to make him jump the Team Chase course at a sensible pace. He hopped up and down on the spot and then shot forward, hot breath steaming from his nostrils like a dragon. I tried dropping my hands completely, thinking that, if I didn’t resist him, he wouldn’t fight for his head. That didn’t work so well. We came into the double of brush hedges that separated the
field, and I waited for things to happen. What I know now is that, in most flat races, you do not have the luxury of “waiting for things to happen.” You make them happen. Jane Allison, who was riding a three-year-old trained by Paul Cole, made her move four furlongs from home and shot clear of the field. With apologies to all those who may have had money on Mailman, I have to confess I did not even notice. I was merrily galloping along, saying, “Good boy,” in Mailman’s ear, thrilled that he