Horses saved my soul
She lost her career, her famous husband and almost her life. But one thing helps Sue Douglas put her life in perspective
There is an image on my mobile phone that will stay with me for ever. Among the pictures of my children on holiday and sunsets on the beach is a strange and rather beautiful picture of a sunlit valley with its patchwork of fields, woods and villages stretching out below.
The oddness is in the framing of the scene, as the picture is taken (by me) between two large, black, furry ears.
The ears belong to a horse I am on, and the picture is my anchor on reality, for it’s the world between two ears that guides me.
Mane attraction: Sue Douglas believes in horse power
It’s a world with a different perspective from the one I live in and it represents a philosophy and a way of coping with my troublesome existence.
I haven’t always been able to wax so lyrical about horses. When I was little and growing up in South London, I wasn’t smitten with them or remotely any good at riding. The first time I fell off some grumpy, obstinate fat pony, I packed up my hat and riding boots and got on with school work, other sports and, later, boys.
But in my 20s, invited to a wedding in the U.S. where the guests were to ride along endless Floridian beaches, I had a second chance. A friend and I decided to take the challenge seriously and went to painful and humiliating lessons so that we could gallop along that beach, our hair flowing, waves gleaming.
I won’t forget feeling a complete prat in my full riding gear and boots, rising to the trot while the other guests — in bare feet and swimwear, hair flying behind them — raced along the sand, laughing at our regimented efforts.
‘There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,’ said Winston Churchill. He understood this, and I do, too, since my charmed existence, lasting more than 20 years, started to crack about ten years ago.
Sue Douglas and one of her horses at her home in Oxfordshire
The beginnings of things not always
going to plan occasionally flickered into view. I thought my marriage
was wonderful, but my husband [historian and TV presenter Niall
Ferguson] and I argued all the time.
had mixed feelings about my job at a glamorous magazine publishing
company. It was all heady stuff, but I missed newspapers terribly (I’d
been editor of the Sunday Express, deputy at The Sunday Times and number
three at The Mail on Sunday).
When, ten years ago, I watched those
terrorist planes fly into the Twin Towers on my office TV, my ambitions
floundered slightly. My husband phoned me from New York, and said,
somewhat brutally: ‘How does it feel to work for a frilly frock company
What was my life I had three young children I seldom saw, in a perfect home I spent little time in. But what then I’d worked on a legendary anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa and been one of the few women in Britain to edit a national paper. Had been.
I had a clever, young husband who was beginning to really succeed, and I trusted him to go alone to the U.S. to make his name. And now something was bugging me. Something was wrong.
So I rode. And I watched the world unfold in front of me. I rode and knew that if I carried my doubts with me, I’d probably end up on the ground (I often did and was on first-name terms with the hospital’s A&E staff).
I rode more and more to try to get my
bearings on things I knew were unravelling in my personal, and
professional, life. Things that I couldn’t understand or control. At
least if I rode well and ignored my brewing problems, I was in control.
Well, sort of. I hunted with the Vale of Aylesbury and the Bicester
Back in the saddle: Sue conquered her demons and got back her horse
I went to a few
shows. I galloped around at point-to-point meetings, but was never brave
enough to race. Branching out, I took up dressage, eventing, even
showjumping. At one time I had 13 horses. All the while, my sense of
something being wrong compounded and my only respite was to find a new
perspective, to challenge myself to control my horse by understanding.
I was far too light and thin to use force. I had to think. I had many horses during that time and often went for spirited thoroughbreds that were more beautiful than reliable. But it was working for me.
And then, it happened. I had a really bad riding accident. It took place on a beach, while I was out riding alone with my dogs by the sea. Suddenly, my silky pair of ears reared, went right over backwards and rolled on my head, causing a small mid-brain haemorrhage.
Sue Douglas's husband, historian Niall Ferguson, left her after the riding accident
And that might have been that.
I woke up in hospital and only
remember events two months later. I lost my job, my husband told me he
was having an affair and wanted to leave me.
He left, then came back and then left again. My father died. Suddenly, I had no money at all.
children were shaken and two of my three ended up away from me in
boarding school as an understandable way of coping with the tsunami of
change at home.
And I rode.
Slowly at first. Secretly. I was scared, but I also wanted to show my
children — and myself — that I’d be able to conquer all my demons if I
got back on.
was three years ago and I’m picking up the pieces of my life again and
beginning to like it. I often say, teasingly, that a horse is better
than a shrink. You can talk to it and tell it all your problems. It
never says anything back.
it behaves differently when you sit back and accept, when you relax and
can move with its movements instead of being a lump on top of another
You see the living
world around you in a way that’s impossible in an office; you notice
things. Galloping full pelt through long grass on a summer evening, it
takes balls to dare to let go and trust in another.
I fell off again for the first time after my accident, after the first
rejection by my ex, after my terrifying financial Armageddon, I remember
looking up at the sky and thinking: ‘I’m not dead — yet.’ And I got up,
brushed off the mud and trudged across the field to a panting grey
gelding, looking at me suspiciously.
a great Mexican saying: ‘It is not enough for a man to know how to
ride; he must know how to fall.’ I’ve fallen many times, but daring to
get back on is, to me, what life is all about. My life is less turbulent
now, but I will always ride for a fall, because without that risk we
This piece first appeared in Pyschologies Magazine.