“The size and power of horses and ponies means you understand that idea of working with them, because you can’t fight,” says Balding. “You have to be a team. That’s probably why Archie was so dominant in our lives and ruled the roost, rather than knowing any boundaries.”
We’re talking over Zoom ahead of the release of her latest book, Heroic Animals: 100 Amazing Creatures Great and Small. Everybody thinks their pet is special, but Balding’s riveting mini-essays redefine what we think about what animals can do. From Cher Ami the pigeon, who – despite being shot twice – delivered a message that saved the lives of 194 soldiers in 1918, to Trakr the police dog, who spent two days exhaustively searching Ground Zero and found the last survivor of the 9/11 attacks.
The project has been a welcome distraction in a year that has had rather less going on than it might have done; the Olympics, Paralympics and Wimbledon were all cancelled. The book has exercised her brain, taking her to places she wouldn’t otherwise have gone.
“It’s like history, the way I’ve always believed that we should teach it, through interesting stories,” she says. “Doing it through animals means you get an insight into cultural differences.”
She had set herself a target of four animals a day. Some subjects took rather longer though, for instance when she found herself going down a research rabbit-hole watching videos on YouTube of the great champion racehorse Arkle.
“I watched three days worth of videos and documentaries. I thought I knew lots, but there was a lot of stuff I’d never seen.”
There are probably a disproportionate number of equine heroes in there. Horses that marked Balding’s childhood: Aldaniti, who came back from serious injury to win the Grand National in 1981, the charismatic grey Milton, who was Balding’s favourite show jumper and Charisma, “who I believe was the greatest eventer we’ve seen”. From more recent times, Valegro makes the grade for his “beauty and elegance” in the dressage arena.
There’s still plenty of space for the likes of Stoffel, the escape-artist honey badger from South Africa, and Zarafa the giraffe who was a gift from Muhammad Ali of Egypt to Charles X of France in 1827, and inspired that country with a new sense of awe at the wonders of the animal kingdom.
Balding found herself with tears streaming down her face after watching a film about Hachikō, the Japanese akita whose remarkable loyalty following his master’s death affected a nation. For nine years until his own death, Hachikō would wait at the station at 3pm for his master’s train.
An example of a jollier story, she says, is the Tamworth Two – a pair of pigs that escaped while being unloaded from a lorry at an abattoir in Wiltshire in 1998. The pigs (later named Butch and Sundance) were on the run for more than a week. “You can wonder how that’s funny, but it is,” says Balding.