James and his new wife married in late February. A week later they drove from London to Dorset, ready for hunting on Saturday. Rosanna was older than James and disguised it well. Tall and willowy with expensively coloured blonde hair and enough charm to make sure she got what she wanted, she liked to have attention and didn’t mind being a work widow, but she had no experience of horses or hunting, and needed to assess her rival.
Saturday morning, the groom overslept. She cussed as she opened her eyes and again as she looked at the clock. She had bought a bottle of good wine to leave at the house as a wedding present for James, but changed her mind and drank it herself. Hopelessly hungover, she threw on clothes and boots, threw up, made strong black coffee and stumbled out to the stable. The fog was thick and the cold air sobered her quicker than coffee as she began her tasks on auto-pilot. She saved time by not giving Bruce his breakfast, justified it by skipping her own, and decided to muck-out when she got back from driving Bruce to the meet. She tied Bruce up on a short rope and flicked the grooming brush over his clipped coat, luckily he’d stayed clean under his rugs. His hogged mane didn’t need attention and she plaited his tail into a mud-knot, securing it with rubber bands instead of sewn stitches and spraying hairspray to flatten the strands she’d missed. She splashed hoof oil on each foot and fetched his clean tack from the saddle room. He wouldn’t win any prizes for turn-out, but she hoped no-one would notice in the fog. She buckled a travel rug over the top of his saddle and left him tied while she hitched-up the Landrover and trailer.
It took six attempts to align the towbar correctly to the trailer, and she cussed it wasn’t left ready-hitched last night. Bruce always loaded perfectly, but this morning’s missed breakfast upset his routine and he danced sideways and backward instead of walking up the ramp. The lights were on at the house and she wanted to get away before James or Rosanna came out; she needed to have Bruce ready at the meet for when James arrived. She got rough, and Bruce was sweating profusely by the time he loaded. Quickly throwing some hay over the stable door for her own horse, she checked her watch jumped into the driver’s seat and set off.
Dark wet trees overhung the narrow lane leading to the main road and visibility was scarily poor. She thought she hit something in the road as Bruce shifted his weight and the trailer wheels lifted on one side. Maybe an animal, or perhaps the grass bank which she couldn’t see, but she didn’t have time to check. The car crawled forwards in the fog until suddenly the road junction sign appeared out of the gloom, and she had to brake quickly to turn right. She checked her watch again as she turned onto the main road, and as she her swore at the lateness, the noise of screeching brakes and breaking glass tore through the foggy silence. The Landrover spun up the far bank, as the car she hadn’t seen hit the trailer side-on, crushing the wheels into the body and leaving it wrecked and overturned in the centre of the road. The airbags inflated and everything fell silent again. In the other car the driver was unconscious, and inside the trailer, Bruce lay trapped under the crushed breast bar. With a deep sigh, and a flap of his lips he lay still because it was impossible to struggle in his wrecked partition. No hunting today.
After a night in hospital with concussion, the groom was arrested for dangerous drunken driving and James dismissed her immediately. The car driver, airlifted to a specialist spinal unit had life changing injuries, and Bruce spent a week in veterinary hospital with cuts and a fractured pelvis. The nurses adored him and their care did much to help him heal; the prognosis was good with a full recovery expected after three months box-rest and a slow return to work. James moved him to a livery yard to recuperate, and Bruce came back into work in June ready for autumn hunting in September. Rosanna decided, with more pluck than anyone expected, that ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ and bought everything one person could need to ride a horse. She took a crash-course of riding lessons in London, determined to ride Bruce and join her husband hunting.
Bill Blackwood spent endless hours hill-working Bruce to get him as fit as possible for the upcoming season, making no allowances for his new rider’s lack of ability. By the time Rosanna’s September hunting debut arrived the horse was sound and raring to go but Rosanna was not; reality was larger than resolve. She needed a hipflask of brandy before she even got on the horse and nervously chain-smoked through her first early morning meet. As hounds moved off, Bruce broke into a slow trot and she grabbed his reins with hands clenched into iron fists. Bruce was honest enough to follow the horses in front over the first few fences as his rider had her eyes clamped shut, and hipflasks sloshed in every pocket as she rose from the saddle and landed back with a sickening jolt. London riding school lessons and gentle hacks in Richmond Park hadn’t quite prepared her for the hunting field, and riding school horses behaved differently to a fresh, super-fit cob. After an hour’s riding she was exhausted, couldn’t face crossing the stream ahead and really wanted to go home. She didn’t like hunting or horses, and if this was a quiet meet she didn’t want to experience a fast one. Her husband had disappeared to join his friends at the front, and no-one was paying her any attention. Needing to pee and seeing she was alone, she gratefully slipped from the saddle and squatted behind a tree, holding Bruce, taking a gulp of brandy from the flask and lighting a cigarette at the same time. As she hastily tucked her shirt back in to her expensively tailored breeches, two riders trotted past and stopped to ask if she was ok.
“Yah fine, I just don’t wanna jump that stream”
“Oh follow us, there’s a concrete bridge ahead. We never jump anything unless we have too!”
Hooking the reins over her arm and lighting one cigarette from the other as she answered her mobile phone, Rosanna walked behind the girls across the narrow bridge, leading Bruce. With no side supports and having made the crossing many times before, the girls kept their horses to the centre and walked on ahead. Engrossed in her phone conversation, Rosanna paid no heed to Bruce as he jogged sideways behind her, anxious to stay in sight of the other horses. Rosanna was laughing at the drama of her best friend’s divorce as Bruce slipped off the edge of the bridge into the watery ditch.
In 2004 my wonderful horse Teddy died. My mum died, and I had a cancer recurrence. After thirty-five years I decided to give up horse-owning but still wanted to ride, and a mutual friend put me in touch with Bill Blackwood. Bill’s stableyard, situated at the back of an industrial estate consisted of an open-fronted tractor shed and haybarn facing eachother, with broken hardstanding between. The twelve looseboxes were roughly built inside with pallets and concrete blocks, mostly held together with baler twine. Bill rarely had time for sweeping or the niceties of appearance, in fact he barely had time for speaking, but his horse knowledge was legendary, his horses at peak fitness, and rumour said he accepted bribes when clients wanted him to take a horse, although if that was true it was difficult to see where he spent the money. Bill wanted help exercising horses, and thought I might be capable of doing the tedious hill walking. I liked Bill, he was fair but firm, and I realise now he was taciturn because he was entirely focused on the horse, and horses thrive on a quiet mind and actions. I became expert at riding one horse while leading two, and the hours I spent in the saddle on the Dorset hills was a profound way to process grief. I rode Bill’s horses for the next two years.
In 2008 the phone rang. “Bill here, you busy?”
“Not especially” I replied, although I was immersed in internet selling.
“Need some help. You on?”
I looked at the boxes of vintage fabrics piled high in the sitting room, waiting to be photographed and listed on Etsy. I looked at the sold stock, waiting to be laundered and packaged. I’m proudly conscientious, but riding won. “Yup, I’ll help. See you tomorrow.”
To say I fell in love with Bruce the moment I saw his handsome head would be a major understatement. Our eyes met across the stable door and no other introduction was needed. I lifted a hand to touch his neck, he swayed on his heavily bandaged legs, flapped his lips together and breathed on my cheek.
“No time for gawking” said Bill standing behind me. “Horses to do.”
“Oh, hi Bill” I replied pointedly. “How are you?”
His ironic smile creased the corner of a bottom lip. “Horses ready, I’ll come with, see you’re still on the job.”
As our cavalcade of six clattered out of the yard and along the forest track, I organised my reins and lead-lines and settled in the saddle. “Tell me about the cob” I said to Bill.
“Owner got more money than sense” he spat the words. “Perfect good hunter, ruined. Came last year as vet rehab, this year they stick a novice woman on ‘im. Fell off a bridge. Horse not woman. Not right in the head.”
“The woman or the horse?”
“Skin, maybe bone chip, fire brigade keep pulling him out of accidents, they’ll have ‘im as a mascot.” Bill laughed at his own joke. “Won’t settle. Nice horse. Patch him up, he’ll go back out.” Bill sat back and didn’t speak again.
True to his word, Bill patched-up Bruce’s wounds and he resumed weekly hunting. I looked forward to seeing him on the days I rode. I can’t explain what pulled me towards him because he bore no similarity to Teddy, my ‘horse-of-a-lifetime’. I wasn’t allowed to ride him and the only time I went into his stable to groom, I felt very intimidated by his incessant movements and sheer size- it was as if, shut-down and physically hurting, all the space around him filled with his machismo presence. Maybe girls just love to love a bad boy.
The Farmer’s Meet is a hunting tradition, where local farmers who allow hounds to cross their land are given a horse to hunt for the day. In his ninth hunting season Bruce was lent to a stout gentleman farmer (who laughingly told everyone he was wearing his wife’s breeches), and he rode the fifteen year old horse in a relaxed and unhurried way. He liked the black cob and simply wanted to enjoy a rare day on horseback. Apart from the relentless rain the day would have been unremarkable, had the farmer not chosen to jump a gate as an easier option to the high hedge on either side. Unfortunately the churned gateway was deeply poached, tearing a tendon in the cob’s back leg as he took off from the holding mud. Bruce’s ninth hunting season was his last.
“Why’s the vet out for Bruce?” I asked Bill when I next rode, nodding towards the stable.
“Done a tendon scan” he replied without lifting his eyes from cleaning tack. “Farmers Meet, last time out this season. Couldn’t keep him safe.” He threw the soapy sponge in the bucket of scummy water and walked out the tackroom.
“What’s happening with Bruce?” I asked Bill on my next visit, nodding towards the bandaged horse’s hind leg.
“Deep digital tendon tear. Won’t hunt again. Owner’s gonna write him off, too old, too crocked. Nice horse.”
“Whaddya mean write him off? They don’t need the insurance money do they?”
“Don’t need any money as far as I can see, just some horse sense.”
“I’ll have him.” I heard the words and turned around to see who spoke them. What idiot would say they wanted a troubled, lame, horse?
Bill was standing looking at me, I saw the corner of his lip quiver. “Yeah, thought you might. I’ll tell James.”
“You know I didn’t want to get another horse,” I said to Mark over dinner that night.
“Yes . . .”
“I’ve got one.”
“Yes . . .”
“You like big horses. Teddy was big.”
“This is different big.”
“It’ll make a change if he’s already lame instead of going lame.”
“I think we can get him sound.”
“Free. It’s me or a bullet.”
“Ah, he does need rescuing.”
“Do you mind?”
“Probably. What’s his name?”
Our lives were about to change, and I thought I was rescuing him.