My first contribution to Equilife was going to be super sassy, staggeringly well-researched, fantastically funny and just a little quirky. And then, as the Facebook meme goes, “THIS happened….”.
Charlotte, Anky, Carl – if you guys are reading this – exhale. Not because of the horse (obviously), but because of the rider, who is still trying to get to grips with the fabulousness that it is my privilege to partner.
If you were ever lucky enough to be of the generations that had mercury in your thermometers, you will know the predatory fascination of holding quicksilver in your hands. It is there, it isn’t, it’s fascination, it is out of your frame of reference, it’s desirable, it’s wholly uncontrollable, and wholly out of your reach. I think this is what having children must feel like (if not, I apologise – it has not been my privilege).
The closest I’ve got – for a variety of reasons – is breeding my own horses. With 6 foals to my credit, I now consider myself something of a veteran. But, as with so many things in life, there’s nothing quite like your first.
I suspect if one knew the inherent dangers – physical and emotional – of most things in life, it’s likely that we’d give them, a stealthy wide berth, instead of running headlong at them, laughing in the face of danger. I have found one’s early to mid 30’s about the best period for this – when you have too much in the way of means and too little in the way of common sense to help you know better.
This may not be everyone’s journey, but so it was for me with breeding my first horse. My first horse. The words still send little theatrical chills down my spine. I’d had horses before of course, but I wanted more than just buying one off an advertisement or inheriting a track hand-me-down with a free bucket of issues to sort out. I wanted to make it myself (and yes, I realise what a total twit I sound) and as a vague afterthought I made going to our first show together my ultimate goal.
I started out with a picture in my head of the final product and worked my way back from there. As it turns out, this is a pretty useful strategy for many things. Unfortunately it can rarely be applied to genetics. At least, not the first time round! So, the picture in my head was of a bright bay colt with black points and a star. That was my order to the universe. My heart horse, perfect in every way, if you please. I helped myself a little by starting with a bay mare. And then I read and researched and gathered as much information as I could on bloodlines and temperaments and conformation. I rang people up and asked for advice, I looked up previous generations and inspected existing progeny. Finally, after hours of agonizing, my prized (chestnut – cue alarm bells) selection was made, allowing for more hours of day dreaming of how all his best characteristics would transfer into my colt.
Send mare to stallion, mare conceives, bake at body temperature for 11 months and voila, right? Not quite, but we did finally get my mare successfully in foal. Then, almost as an afterthought, I was recommended Phyllis Lose’s Blessed Are The Broodmares. If you are considering breeding your mare, may I advise against reading it. It WILL give you sleepless nights about losing your mare, losing your foal and quite possibly losing your mind. If you have bred your mare, may I still advise against it as it will make you realise just how close you are sailing to the wind.
When the time came, being a responsible owner (and having had the bejeezus frightened out of me by Phyllis), I chose to send my mare to a maternity farm to receive expert care. We saw her just a few hours before the birth, and chatted to the farm manager about the mare, the pregnancy and what I was hoping for. “Bay colt”, I reiterated firmly. As is their habit, my mare waited for us to be safely an hour away having dinner before producing her prize. By the time we made it back, in the drizzle of a September KZN Midlands night, there was a little wet bundle on the ground. The universe had got my order muddled and delivered a chestnut. Filly. And about as rough and angular and far removed from my heart horse as it was possible to get. But as they say, you may not get the horse you want, but you do get the horse you need. And as she stood up and wobbled around in the drizzle, that funny little long-eared red bundle slipped right into a hole in my heart I didn’t even know I had.
People talk about bonding with their horse. It wasn’t something I thought about when I set out to do this. I just wanted a horse that was mine. A totally new, untouched little being that I could well, be with from the start. I wanted all of it. Every high, low, snot nose, awkward phase, growth spurt, winter coat, you name it. What I didn’t realise is that when you choose to link your life so closely to a horse, you also become theirs. In a way that I couldn’t even begin to process at the time, in that moment we made a connection. That funny, long-eared, chestnut filly (of all things), was *my* horse. And I was hers.
And so started our adventures. From the ground, to the saddle and beyond. We have moved homes and yards, we have lost friends and family and gained new ones along the way. It hasn’t all been a bed of roses. In fact, as one might expect with a large, wilful chestnut mare, and a small, equally wilful and not altogether fully prepared owner, probably very little of it has. We haven’t always liked each other. She’s put me in hospital and frightened the living daylights out of me and made me scream and cry and swear a lot more than I’d like to admit. But all along, no matter how revolting things got, we were still connected.
We did go to that first show together. She was revolting and tried to buck me off and flatten a judge. C’est la vie. She still has long ears and rough angles and thoroughly inelegant everything, but in that weird breakable / unbreakable way that quicksilver has, although we splinter apart from time to time, we are inexorably pulled back together again. We are always there for each other.
While there are still days that she makes me want to tear my hair out – and I have no doubt she feels the same – Oh my, on the days that she doesn’t….
We recently had one (hence this column – ta-daaa). Having moved on from my naïve, energetic 30’s, I’m now, well, a little more blessed in the numerical department and from that lofty height, being flung off a 16hh wall of chestnut gets less appealing the further one climbs the ladder.
Time in the saddle is supposed to be sacred, a meditation between you and your horse, free from all the detritus of mundane, a to b, one foot in front of the other of life. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way and life frequently follows you into the tack room, onto the mounting block and right into the saddle, getting between you and your partner. Somehow all the things that you used to arrange neatly around your riding time, won’t fit so neatly in their allocated spaces anymore. They threaten to reach up and choke you if you don’t keep feeding them and time at the stables is reduced to ‘once this is finished’, ‘just another half an hour,’ ‘oh well, maybe tomorrow.’ If you’re not careful, it’s enough to fling you right off your horse.
So there I was last Saturday. I hadn’t put any work in during the week and knew I didn’t have any right to lower my sorry behind into the saddle and demand a good ride. And yet, when I did, there was my friend. Waiting patiently to see what we were going to do today and doing her best to make her huge chestnut self as small and smooth and soft as she could be. I guess it just hit home that my funny little awkward bundle was all grown up in so many ways and that when it matters most, my horse, *MY* horse, really does carry me.