The therapy that comes from a few hours in the paddocks at Summerhill stands in stark contrast to all the stuff we see every day on the “box” or we read about it in the papers.
(Photo : Gareth du Plessis)
“The Thoroughbred - its grace, its nobility, its courage and intelligence, its speed and stamina, its brute strength and sometimes its brittleness, make it the irresistible pick of the good Lord’s creations.”
Summerhill CEORacehorse sales are intense affairs, especially when you’re a consignor, and more so when you have responsibilities for the affairs of others on your shoulders. The Emperors Palace Ready To Run is a typical example, though if you would allow me a bit of self-compassion for a moment, the Summerhill situation is anything but typical. When we went to Jo’burg for this marathon event the week before last, we had a 121 entries in the catalogue, and carried the hopes and aspirations of close on 200 owners across 22 timezones. Think about that for a moment: every second horse in the ring, conversations with every one of their owners in 12 different countries before they faced the auctioneer, others with many an aspirant buyer, and the “weighty” consequences of whatever they fetch.
By their nature, people who breed horses most times love them; like their kids, most of their geese are “swans”, and they generally hold high expectations. In these circumstances, as their consignor, you sometimes need to be a father-confessor, part-time psychologist, an occasional inspiration, a soothsayer and at all times, an advisor. We take our responsibilities seriously here at Summerhill, and while it’s true that in just about every instance, we have the most understanding and compliant customers on the planet, it doesn’t diminish the burden of care. Their triumphs are our triumphs, their disappointments are our disappointments, and most horse sales are a rollercoaster, not only because prices fluctuate, but because of the emotional wrench in parting with a member of the “family”.
Without in any way wishing to diminish the pressure our younger colleagues might feel in these situations (few people anywhere know what it is to sell 120 horses in a catalogue of 240) age brings on an elevated sense of the highs and lows attached to the outcomes, and we like to believe that when we get back to the old “plaas”, we’ve earned a respite. Over the years, the next couple of months have always involved more time out on the farm, more stock-taking, more reflection and more thought about the future.
I don’t know about you, but for me the most therapeutic response to a fortnight in Jo’burg, is a good stretch in the paddocks, a bit of “R-and-R” at our fishing shack on the Wild Coast, and plenty of books. Of course, it helps to be in good company and to have a healthy supply of that stuff that’s made the Cape famous, as well. The ancestral fishing grounds are as remote as any place in South Africa, and getting there is something of a military expedition. There are no roads to speak of, no shops, no newspapers, no cellphone signals and the radio doesn’t work. If you’re taking horses along, you park the float off some 20 kilometres out, and you ride them in. In other words, if it’s a break you want, this is utopia; if you’re looking to recharge the batteries, it’s fail-safe.
My late great pal, David Rattray, honed my skills in preparing for these epics. Stocking up, he said, was a wife’s pursuit, but never leave the fishing tackle or the logistics to a woman. If any of those things go awry, the trip is a nightmare, and any time you might have reserved for fresh ideas and new inspiration, goes to waste. By the time you’ve used your connections to source the best of bait, stocked up on lures, spoons and the latest fishing bag, and bought your wife her “annual” fishing rod (which by this time next year has joined your arsenal), the fish are already on instinctive alert, and they’re looking for shelter. Never mind, we’re in the racehorse business, and we know about challenges, and anyway, who wants to go down without a fight?
Whether it’s a hangover from the preoccupations of a torrid sale or one of the occupational hazards of creeping age, I find myself in “thinking’s” top gear in the early hours of most mornings. It’s true to say though, that while it’s more frequent these days, Summerhill owes many of its best ideas and problem solving to the “three-in-the-morning” ramblings of our team, and I’ve often wondered why it is so.
Its appeal as a haven for those in search of the peace and quiet that comes with its remoteness, makes Hartford House a favourite for some wonderfully diverse and learned people, and one of our guests recently volunteered an explanation for this phenomenon. The smart people will tell you that the bulk of our most creative thoughts, like the sudden idea for our Ready To Run sale, or the resolution to a “knotty” spot in the farm brochure, come to us during these hours, and it apparently has to do with the two hemispheres of the brain. Deliberate thinking comes from the left hemisphere, while the “aha” moments reside in both. The more cross-talk you get between the two hemispheres, something older people are supposedly good at, the more happy moments you get, spawning a self-reinforcing loop in which creating a little gives you a taste for creating a lot.
A similar loosening of the brain’s reins helps to explain the way all of us, young and old, can sometimes go to bed at night trying to solve a problem and wake up in the morning with an answer or a burst of inspiration. When we go to sleep, the pre-frontal cortex, which consolidates and integrates knowledge as a sort of “cop on the beat”, keeping the unruly regions of the brain in line, powers down. At the same time, a thing they call the occipital lobe, which processes information visually and symbolically, goes into overdrive. During the course of the night, the latter often comes up with novel and unlikely solutions to whatever’s on our mind, and slips them to us either in a dream, or just as we wake up. Encouragingly, for the ageing, in a less rigidly structured brain, the same kind of thinking takes place all the time, just in case you youngsters thought you had us beat!
My close association with the world of racehorse breeding, and especially with the natural environment in which we live, has me permanently intrigued. For an animal of such complex and diverse geographical origins, the thoroughbred is a remarkably straightforward creature. Perhaps it’s the concentrated process of selection over the centuries that’s made it so, but in the end, its grace, its nobility, its courage and intelligence, its speed and stamina, its brute strength and sometimes its brittleness, make it the irresistible pick of the good Lord’s creations. We on the other hand, have made our lives so complicated, so frantic and in these times, I’m afraid, so angry, you wonder where we got it all from?
The therapy that comes from a few hours in the paddocks at Summerhill stands in stark contrast to all the stuff we see every day on the “box” or we read about it in the papers. While I don’t want to sound too philosophical, I’ve always had trouble with orthodoxy in its most extreme forms. Raising racehorses inevitably leads you into the origins of the breed, and in my flirtations with the 19th century evolutionary debate, I have a new-found sympathy for the pain this discovery brought to people who, prior to Darwin, would have happily called themselves men of science and men of God. We now have a world full of scientists, many of whom have no faith, and the faithful, many of whom have little reason, and that’s a great loss for all of us.