I never thought I would buy a second horse. Of course, there were the lottery win fantasies we all indulge in. Where in addition to buying that dream horse property and its purpose built American style barn with 20 Loddon boxes, I also bought or adopted the horses with which to fill it. Aside from daydreams, the more realistic plan was to breed from my current horse and then the resulting foal would seamlessly take over from its mother when she was retired from ridden work. Her breeder combed the Friesian stud book for the right stallion. Together with my farrier (also a close friend), I indulged in fantasies of the stallion grading should we get a colt, or simply another show-stopping mare should we get a filly. We made plans to share the costs, share the result and share what we hoped would be a top quality horse. And that’s the trouble with plans. They have plans of their own.
Nobody ever thinks about something happening to your horse. Any more than we think about something happening to our relationship, our job, kids or our home. Yes, we take out horse insurance but it’s a backstop we hope we will never need. Yet, talk to even a small group of horse owners – let’s say for argument’s sake, five. Because yes, you can count them on the fingers of one hand. At least one of them will have a story to tell about a horse they have owned that has either had to be retired early from ridden work or has sadly had to be euthanised following an accident or illness. More than likely more than one of the five. Depending on how long they have owned horses for and how many they have had, they may have lost the ability to ride more than one. And have faced more than one harrowing decision. If we are at this point one of those fortunate horse owners who have never faced this, of course we empathise. And are grateful it is not our horse we are talking about. We know it happens. But it happens to other people, not to us. The odds are they say in the Hunger Games, in our favour. That is, until they are not.
I’ve watched what has happened to friends upon the loss of a beloved horse. The resulting emotional devastation and grief. It’s a bond you cannot explain to someone who doesn’t love horses. Along with the horse seems to go a loss of a sense of self, of purpose, of direction and so often, along with all of this at a time when you need support, the social life too. A friend of mine in Australia once told me after a good many gin and tonics, that the emotional impact following the loss of his Quarter horse mare was far worse than that of his two divorces combined. To the point where he had decided he could never go through it again so would never have another one. (He’s currently on his third marriage but has never replaced the horse, what can I say?!)
Many of you are probably reading this, nodding your heads and thinking: I know this pain. Others are hoping they never have to. We all want to walk out to the paddock one day and find our beloved old horse has slipped away peacefully kissed by the sunshine and surrounded by its friends. Then there’s the other way of losing our horse. We still have him or her but have lost our ability to ride. It’s a bittersweet, tragic love that remains. Made worse by the fact we hate to see our horses in any kind of pain and discomfort – even if it’s temporary. Like me, you may hold on in the hope that you may bring the horse back into lighter work. This dream sustained me for six months until just walking her out and another set of x-rays showed her ridden life was over – as was the dream of that foal along with it.
I was un-horsed. Watching from the sidelines while friends rode out and competed. I continued to pour love onto my horse while pouring gin down my throat. The only time I smiled was when I took the odd riding lesson but after a while this proved to be simply too painful. I stopped exercising. I put on a prodigious amount of excess weight comfort eating and drinking as mounting vet bills made the prospect of getting another horse recede even further. I looked like the female version of Thor in Avengers: Endgame. To be frank, in my grief stricken state, even if I had had the resources to go get a second horse right away, I would most probably have made the wrong choice. Again, I’d witnessed the disasters that had followed first-hand when friends, raw with heartbreak, had immediately rushed out to buy another horse. Not because they were trying to replace it. But because they would do anything to make the pain go away. I did it my way. It didn’t go away. But it made it go numb for a time.
Getting myself to the point where 1: I felt able to make a sensible choice and 2: Had the money to make one, took me almost a year. Grief has no statute of limitations. What I had forgotten was the sheer awfulness of the horse buying process. A minefield of misrepresentation, timewasting and failed vettings I had thought never to be navigating again. Of course, there are honest sellers out there with genuine horses. One thing I have learned is that if the horse is genuine you almost need to be psychic and respond to the ad before it’s listed. These horses don’t hang around. I went to see horses that were nice but I just didn’t feel the connection. I answered an ad for an appaloosa and drove two and a half hours to see it. When I got there I was presented with a bay. When I pointed out this was clearly not the horse in the photos I was told it had changed its spots. I was promised one on a loan with view to buy but the owner changed her mind. The Quarter horse I had vetted failed in spectacular fashion. I criss-crossed the country, checked the rehoming sites, asked around, answered more ads. Anything I liked the look of was way beyond my budget. One friend also searching after her horse had to be retired, gloomily recounted similar results after a year-long quest. I’d been at it four months. I announced to anyone who was interested – and I was by now such miserable company most people weren’t – I was giving up.
Then I put my back out. I went to bed fine and woke up the next morning like an extra from The Walking Dead. Supported by a heat pad and cushions, plans to visit a friend’s stud farm cancelled (and yes, she had offered me a foal before any of you ask), I decide to clear my inbox of those ‘Ad Alert: It’s a Match!’ horse-meets-your-criteria emails I had so optimistically signed up for. Disgruntled and with nothing better to do I click on a link anyway. Just like I thought. Far from what I want. Except my eye falls on the ‘You might also like . . .’ ads at the bottom. Hold the front page! What on earth is that?!
I tell myself that I have decided not to get another horse. But what harm will it do to just message the seller? Okay. So the horse is available and only 50 minutes away. It can’t hurt to go look even though I am now definitely resigned to not getting another horse. And anyway, this is bound to be just another waste of time. Luckily only a 50 minute one. My back’s feeling better. A drive might be good.
I would never have seen the ad nor responded to it had my back not mysteriously seized up and then just as mysteriously, un-seized. Was fate at work? Possibly. But three weeks later my second horse stepped off the trailer and into her new paddock. The moment I knew she was coming, my appetite normalised. I (mostly) stopped reaching for the gin and the accompanying bad snacks. Since her arrival and all that caring for a second horse entails – and she is a young horse who turned four on May 1; increased activity means my jeans are becoming looser by the day. I’m facing a long trail back to regaining my core and former fitness level but am confident we’ll get there together. She’s not like Duchess my Friesian. She’s a part-bed Quarter horse so is much smaller. She’s innately curious and a lot bolder. Not much fazes her. Sometimes she stops and snorts when confronted with the new and the strange. A string of polo ponies being led past. Having to walk across an echoing wooden bridge. The chickens who try to steal her dinner. But then she thinks about it and either walks on or chases the chickens away. I’m discovering her quirks. She doesn’t like being tied up but is content to stand perfectly still. She likes to follow me round when I poo-pick. After three days she whinnies when she sees me and comes running. My eyes fill with tears. It’s the start of a new love affair. Fat, depressed, un-horsed – I’m needed again.
I’m spending a couple more months on groundwork for her to mature just a little bit more before starting her under saddle again. Every day there’s something new to learn for both of us. But in the interim – I’ve already checked out from Heartbreak Hotel. I’m back in the saddle once more.
Written by Helen Watts