My Animals and Other Family by Clare Balding is a funny, brave, tender story of self-discovery
'I had spent most of my childhood thinking I was a dog, and suspect I had aged in dog years. By the time I was ten I had discovered the pain of unbearable loss. I had felt joy and jealousy. Most important of all, I knew how to love and how to let myself be loved. All these things I learnt through animals. Horses and dogs were my family and my friends. This is their story as much as it is mine'
Clare Balding grew up in a rather unusual household. Her father a champion trainer, she shared her life with more than 100 thoroughbred racehorses, mares, foals and ponies, as well as an ever-present pack of boxers and lurchers. As a toddler she would happily ride the legendary Mill Reef and take breakfast with the Queen.
She and her younger brother came very low down the pecking order. Left to their own devices, they had to learn life's toughest lessons through the animals, and through their adventures in the stables and the idyllic Hampshire Downs. From the protective Candy to the pot-bellied Valkyrie and the frisky Hattie, each horse and each dog had their own character and their own special part to play.
The running family joke was that "women ain't people". Clare has to prove them wrong, to make her voice heard - but first she had to make sure she had something to say.
This memoir by BBC sports broadcaster and former equestrian Balding, first published in the U.K. in 2012, rollicks along like one of her beloved horses. Those horses (and some dogs) are the animals of the title; her "other family" consists of her father, top horse trainer Ian Balding, mother Emma, brother Andrew, and "formidable" grandmother, Priscilla Hastings. Despite the fact that her family isn't always the most affectionate, and her recollections of purging to make weight for horse races, this isn't a memoir about hardships, but one in which Balding's love of her animals and life shine through. The early chapters are filled with stories of favorite ponies and childhood hijinks, such as the time she almost spilled milk on the visiting Queen Elizabeth. Balding advances from riding ponies to eventing and flat races, culminating in her winning of the amateur title, Champion Lady Rider, in 1990. A short epilogue covers her post-racing life, including presenting for the BBC, and her relationship with her civic partner, Alice. This memoir is all British and all about horses, so readers who don't understand the stone as a unit of measure or know a canter from a trot may be lost. Readers who stick with this through the last furlong, though, will find a book full of heart.