Getting in touch with my Thelwellian side

My friend is pretty much perfect in every respect, except for one thing. She's horsy
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EVERY THURSDAY afternoon our local charity shop has a half-price sale. You can pick up some amazing bargains. I haven't yet worn the silver Lurex flying-jacket I bought for pounds 1.50 recently, and no one has quite got the hang of the cappuccino-maker - should it gurgle and spit when the water is still lukewarm? - but my pounds 5 musical tantalus is the envy of all our friends.

Too bad Uncle Archie never lived to see it. Being an old Calcutta hand, as they say, and lifelong member of the Oriental Club, he would have recognised a superior tantalus when he saw one.

I take it you all know that a tantalus is a case, usually portable, and much in use in colonial service, in which alcohol decanters are visible but locked up. Mine is shaped like a steam engine; there are six shotglasses in the tender, and the funnel is the neck of the whisky decanter. When you pick it up it plays "Drink to me only..." I bet I'd get a fortune for it at Sotheby's.

Anyway, I tell you all this only because last Thursday, when I called the friend with whom I always go to the charity shop, she said she couldn't come. Why on earth not, I asked. We never miss a Thursday rummage. "Because I'm watching the World Championships from Dubai on the Internet. It's terribly exciting," she said.

World Championship what? I said stupidly. Apart from the Ashes and rugby, December isn't particularly sporty. Unless it was skiing, but not from Dubai, surely?

"Don't be daft," said my friend. "I mean the endurance riding. You know Richard was British heavyweight champion this year."

Funny things, friends. You can love them dearly, even though you find some of their characteristics truly appalling. My Thursday friend is funny, generous, sympathetic, sensitive, accommodating and pretty much perfect in every respect, except for one thing. She's horsy. Being sensitive, as I said, she rarely reveals the darker side of her nature to me, knowing my aversion to all animals except for working sheepdogs.

This is no mean feat considering the fact that she was one of the first women jockeys, has always kept horses even though she lives in the middle of London, and took up endurance riding with her new husband seven years ago.

Occasionally, if I arrive unexpectedly, I may overhear them discussing farriers' fees or bran mash, but to their credit they stop immediately I come in and switch to more sociable topics.

They ride every morning and once, I can't remember why, I agreed to join them. Yes, of course I can ride. To prove it I have Thelwellian photographs of myself as a child on a series of barrel-bellied ponies called Skittles (they were always called Skittles) winning rosettes at gymkhanas. Years later I took it up again briefly to research an article I was writing on the English upper crust. Hunting with the Belvoir reinforced all my prejudices about horsy people.

But in friendship there must be give and take, so off I went to Epsom for a morning's hack. Of the three hours we spent with the horses, only half an hour was spent in the saddle. The rest was devoted to mucking out, grooming, lungeing, tack maintenance and trudging dispiritedly around a five-acre field with a wheelbarrow picking up horse-shit. Apparently it poisons the grass. I've never been riding with my friends since.

I do, however, pick up the odd hint of what they get up to at weekends in the summer, and they seem to be doing pretty well. Endurance riding, I'm told, is the fastest-growing equestrian sport in this country. Since Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum took it up this year (it's because of his enthusiasm that the championships are taking place in Dubai), its profile has been raised significantly. My friend bought her horse for a mere pounds 2,000 and was gratified to see it carry her husband to heavyweight victory this summer. The horse Sheikh Mohammed was riding in Dubai last Thursday was the French Endurance Riding Champion and cost him pounds 240,000. When they compete in endurance rides at weekends, my friends, like all the other competitors, sleep in the trailer alongside their horses. Sheikh Mohammed arrives with 100 staff and as many wives, takes over the local hotels, sets up a catering tent for corporate entertaining and flies to and from the venue in his helicopter. I'm glad he only came fourth in Dubai.

If Richard qualifies for the British team one day, as I'm sure he will, I shall drink his health in 20-year-old Laphroaig from my musical tantalus. If he wins I might even give it to him.