The banks of the River Po in Italy, south of Rovigo, are massed up into dykes, high above the surrounding flatlands. In spring and autumn the great river swells to the very brink of the lane that runs along the top of the bank. To each side of the brooding water, way below the banks, are farmhouses, trimmed land, ripe tomatoes, verdant meadows, corn bulked in barns.
One autumn evening I was riding the mare along the top, going home. An elderly man was climbing the bank, clutching the hand of a small child, his grandson probably. They reached the peak at last, crossed the little road, and gazed at the awesome flood, brown and swirling, that loomed like a Titan high above the landscape below.
The old man will have remembered when the Po broke its banks in the 1950s and millions of acres were flooded. There are pictures of families on farmhouse rooftops, and one striking image of a goat on a barn, balefully regarding the sullen water that encroached increasingly upon them, until their pinnacles were no more and they were gone, and drowned. So the old man looked at the river.
The mare was to all extents and purposes unrideable for the people at the stables. At a walk she was tractable, especially in a halter, but at all other gaits she was dangerous and had done for several riders. I put her in a Pelham with running reins and we got on fine. She was just nuts out of a walk, so it was difficult to win with her to start with but after a while, when she understood what the plan was, she won several competitions and we had enquiries to buy her. I didn’t want her sold since she had become a friend, so I would put her back into a simple double bridle when buyers came to try her. The results were spectacular, and alarming for the buyers who rode her. She stayed unsold.
There was a two-year-old filly to make, who was kind but had inadvertently broken the local policeman’s leg when he had tried to ride her, and a very odd gelding, sombre and stubborn with a deep and placid eye, who refused to have his hind feet touched. None of the farriers would touch him so he came to me. It took some time.
There were others to exercise and school, and for much of the year I rode on the river side of the dyke when the water was low. Poplars grew there, shadowing ruined and abandoned buildings, red brick and dappled by the sunlight, amid exotic greenery and mossy turf. Ferns sprang up, wild flowers carpeted the grass. During these months a shepherd kept his sheep there, solitary, stoic, until startled by a misadventure of the mare. It was a surreal world, quite removed from, as far as I could see, anything that resembled a life that I recognised on the other side of the dyke.
Under the green canopy of the poplars the pleasant foibles of the mare, the foolishness of the filly, the idiosyncracies of Mr Don’t Touch My Toes, seemed as sensible as anything going on over there.
I was paid to ride these horses by a retired (at 45) civil servant, a butcher, a dentist, a car salesman and garage owner, and a landscape gardener. On the whole they were all unfaithful to their wives yet understood themselves to be pious, and would be offended should their morality be questioned.
They were not rich men, though at ease with themselves, and were essentially what Europe understands as the new middle class. They were having a nice time. Their children were having a nice time, too, and will have learned from their parents all the pragmatism that they need to succeed in their world.
They will have grown up by now, having embraced or at least flirted with socialism and even communism, received their degrees at university and settled down to a life sympathetic to their understanding of an ordered life, profitable and comfortable.
Many of them will have voted for Silvio Berlusconi, on the basis that a successful businessman, a billionaire even, must surely know how to run the government of a nation, since for them it will the small matter of profit and loss and little else. They will have decided their morality, since that is personal and not to be questioned. But now they are nervous and confused.
This winter the banks of the Po will be swollen, threatening the rich farmlands of the Padana. The mare has gone, but she is not forgotten. I don’t have a photograph of her, or the golena, the secret, bosky sun-spilled world of greenery that exists on the riverbank when the waters are low.
With thanks to Giorgio Bassani.
Thomas Rees is a former horse coper who has written for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, Spectator, from Iraq, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, the US and Russia.