Mark and I were getting on each other’s nerves. Not a lot, but enough to make snappy, slightly-too-sharp replies. Neither of us are confrontational and we don’t argue much, but he thought I was having a go at him and I thought he was being stubborn. Neither of us wanted to talk about the real issue.
Over the years and through the troubles, we’ve drifted into a comfortable friend/lover/partner-in-crime combo, built on mutual respect and a huge dose of humour. We’ve become an Old Married Couple. How that happened I have no idea; two rebels aren’t supposed to mellow into Mr & Mrs Boring, but boring we are, and it turns out that eating dinner on a tray in front of the TV (me wearing my pyjamas) isn’t such a bad thing after all.
It was time to do something a bit special so I decided to make a proper roast beef dinner with Yorkshire puddings, onion gravy, and all the delicious trimmings. On Saturday night our oil-fired Rayburn range was due to be turned out for its summer holiday. The continuous heat is necessary in the cold, but too stifling for warmer weather. It would be the last opportunity before we swap to hob and microwave cooking, and Mark’s eyes lit up at the plan. We decided to dress for dinner, there might even be a glass of champagne. Time to re-claim a bit of ‘us’.
Spring grass is Bruce’s nemesis, he eats too much too quickly without a pause. Spring grass is unforgiving and he gets colic. If I strip graze him he will limbo-dance under the electric fence to reach the grass, and if I graze him in a bare paddock he jumps out. Over the years I’ve tried pretty much all the preventives . . . but he still gets colic, especially if it rains. I’ve become attuned to his behaviour, spot warning signs early, and he responds well to a couple of homeopathic treatments and a sachet of painkiller. We do our deep breathing together, a little Reiki (from a distance if he wants to be alone) and if he’s still bad, the vet comes with IV pain relief and cramp-relieving Buscopan. It’s comforting to have a plan.
On Saturday evening, the colic arrived. After a long dry spell we’d had light rain mid-week, I didn’t think it was enough to make a difference but it must’ve given the grass a growth spurt. Having done dinner prep and put the pot-roast in the oven, I drove to the stables to bring Bruce in, give him a quick groom and be back home in time for a fragrant shower. I’d even painted my nails! Bruce was listless and kept resting his forehead against my chest, a sure sign he needed me to know something. He had a lot of gassy wind, but ate his bucket feed with customary greed, so I gave him the homeopathic pills as a safeguard, and phoned Mark to say I was going to stay for an hour. Mark was in the bath and memorised the veg instructions, if he felt disappointed or annoyed he hid it well. When I gave Bruce his hay, he pricked his ears and leaned forward for a sniff, then uttered a deep guttural groan and dropped to the ground in front of me. I thought he’d died. He laid, heaving and moaning with his legs stretched rigid as the colic spasmed through his body. It was a fearful sight, I’ve seen him do it before but familiarity isn’t a shield; his pain looked horrific. I tried to distance my emotion, deal with the practicalities and phone the vet. The receptionist knows his name and my voice, respects my diagnosis that it’s an emergency and says Maria will be with us ASAP. Now we just have to wait. I pray to the horse gods to help the colic pass; I don’t dare think maybe this one won’t. I update Mark, he sounds disappointed and offers to come over. Bless that man.
Bruce is standing again now, breathing hard but not sweating. The cacophony of gut sound is drowned-out by his farts, and I tell him what a good boy he is to expel all that gas. He walks towards me and rests his forehead on my chest, and we stand in silence before I feel him tense with the next wave, and as his legs fold underneath him he goes down. He doesn’t roll, he just braces himself against the cramp so I see no reason not to let him lay down. I’ve tried walking him to ease the pain but it doesn’t help. I empty a water bucket, turn it upside down and sit in the corner of his stable. His eye flicks towards me, saying my presence is okay.
This horse. I’ve had some good horses over the years, but Bruce held the key that unlocked my future. He led me to the changes that unleashed a real, better me and accept what that entailed. And I thought I was saving him. Thinking back to his predecessor the big, wise Teddy, it seems horses take us on a path and it’s our choice whether or not to listen. Bruce is up again and standing in front of me, nose on my knee. I silently say the words good boy.
A few weeks ago when I was grooming Bruce, I found a cluster of raised lumps around his bottom. They weren’t scabby or infected, and my first panicked thought was MELANOMA. I went hot-and-cold; please don’t let my boy have anything cancerous. I sent some photos to Kirsty, and her quiet opinion reassured me that they probably weren’t melanoma, but even if they were they would be slow-growing. Has this colic got anything to do with the lumps?
I recall how the seasons affect Bruce more than any horse I’ve had, or maybe nowadays I just notice these things better. The summer is too hot for his bulky bod and he has a paranoid hatred of flies, so he spends daytime dozing in the shade of his stable and grazes the paddock at night. In winter he detests the rain and despite being insulated with waterproof rugs, shows his grumpiness with impatience and tantrums. He’s at his best in the autumn; as the sun cools, his hoofbeats sound less like a plod and more like a happy dance, and vigour refreshes his body. His countenance dips at ‘blackberry time’ when the fruits ripen and his coat gains a bloom of fuzzy growth, but once he’s adjusted to the change, he’s back behaving like a youngster and generally forgetting his manners. I’m pleased to see him jolly and know manners will only momentarily have slipped his mind. I’m in awe of this horse with his gleaming coat, and ready aptitude to have a go at whatever task I suggest, be it my madcap idea of walking into his stable backwards to improve his core stability, or being solid enough to nanny a nervous horse through traffic in the village.
And now he lays like a beached whale. I owe him such a debt but I can’t help him through this pain. I watch his breath rise and fall, and wonder how he got old? How we both got old. Whispers of grey hair have gathered around his eyes and muzzle, and his unshod hooves have spread to counteract the uneven placement of his back legs. We’ve stopped and restarted so many times over the years, his life must be like Groundhog Day, but he always shows the same enthusiasm for work, the same stoicism. He wears his Elder Statesman countenance like a medal.
Twenty minutes later Maria arrives and sets the routine into action. She checks his heart rate, gut noises and temperature before administering the drugs. He flinches to register discomfort. I tell him what a good boy he is and Maria strokes his neck before performing a rectal exam. The drugs start to kick-in and he stands quietly while she reaches inside. No tumours, no impacted blockage. We both allow ourselves a small smile. He once needed hydration fluids pumped through a tube in his nose, it was touch-and-go and I don’t want that again. We chat about something, I have no idea what, until Maria is happy the drugs have worked, and when he relaxes sufficiently to doze she packs her equipment and leaves. I stay awhile watching him carefully and then go home for dinner.
Mark has ‘rescued’ the beef too early and it is tough, the potatoes are bullets and the Yorkshire puddings doughy, but he saved the veg and the gravy is tasty. We eat on trays in front of the TV and the champagne stays in the fridge. I grab a chocolate bar and eat it on the way back to the stable. Bruce is waiting at the door asking for his hay and his heavily lidded eyes are brighter. I’m relieved, but that night I don’t sleep very well. Next morning he’s still drowsy, the stable is full of poop and his gut is quiet. We both agree the best medicine is turnout in his paddock. Later that day he’s as bright as a button, and I when tie him outside his stable, a steady stream of stableyard visitors arrive to ask after his health. News travels fast.
He greets them gregariously, with all the grace of an old pro. “Oh, I’m much better, thank you for asking. It was very painful, but nothing for an old hand like me. Now, have you brought me any get-well gifts? Fruit? No? Oh well, move along then please, the next in line may have food . . .”
Everyone loves Bruce. Most of all me. That night we have cold beef, new potatoes and pickled red cabbage. We open the champagne. I sleep better. And we’ve stopped annoying each other. Just like the colic, whatever caused the blockage has cleared.