War Horse is surely set to become one of Steven Spielberg's most popular films in history. The director has played to his strengths with a great action feature, but the power in the story will lie in the relationship between man and horse, a bond that has endured for centuries.
They have stood as comrades in arms through wars, industry, on the hunting field and on the racetrack, too. For many, horses are an obsession; an all-empowering salve in a distressing world. I am one of those who have succumbed to that special bond.
I understand the draw, the pull of the equine. As a young child growing up in north London, I became obsessed with horses. There was no person whom I felt as much at ease with as I did with the horse, particularly in troubled times.
My first encounter, aged six, was with Conker, an Exmoor pony with a mealy nose and a wonky trot.
This went on through my teenage years, when all I wanted to do was ride, to be with them. To nuzzle and embrace and be reassured by the affection they return. A chronically ill father and academic failure made for a troubled teenager, one without direction apart from the constant lure of my four-legged friends. The feeling has followed me throughout my life.
Then, in my late twenties, I had an accident while hunting in Ireland. During the frenzy – we got embroiled in a barbed-wire fence – I thought I might die and vowed never to sit on a horse again. But, throughout those 20 fallow equine years, I had yearned to ride in a race, to emulate the likes of Lester Piggott and Willie Carson – my childhood heroes. And when I reached the age of 47, I decided the time had come.
What followed was a life-changing experience. Billeted down to Lambourn in Berkshire, I spent six months with like-minded horse addicts. I rode every day, lost five stone and finally got to race, at Towcester. It was a mad and dangerous thing to do. I saw stable lads – bright, clever people who'd do anything to be with the horse above all else, obsessives who'd sit for hour upon hour in a stable with mean-spirited equines, trying to coerce and cajole them into being kind and mannerly.
In December 2008, a month after my first race, I took my 10-year-old daughter to see War Horse at the National Theatre. It is a simple, uncomplicated story about the bond between man and horse, and echoed personal moments when a horse's courage, linked to my weaker one, felt like a powerful force. War Horse is about honour, horses and men. It made me cry. I wept because I understood it.
'Jumbo to Jockey', Dominic Prince's book about his racing year, is published by 4th EstateReuse content