Bruce was here, and he was truly the most handsome horse I’ve ever seen. I was going to make everything better, he would become a superstar, and as the storybooks say ‘we would all live happily ever after’.
My initial plan for Bruce (besides making amends for all the horrible things that had happened to him) was spending time walking in hand to help strengthen his injury. A few years before, I’d ruptured the cruciate ligament in my knee and had it reconstructed using hamstring from the back of my thigh. Post-op rehab had been extensive and it guided me towards what would benefit Bruce. Each day we took a walk along the roads fields and tracks around the farm, treading different terrains to encourage proprioception and balance. I quickly discovered he behaved perfectly on the road, but as soon as we turned onto open countryside he became agitated, flinging his head in the air to snatch at the reins, and turning sideways to barge me with his shoulder. I yanked his head down with a sharp “NO!” and carried a stick to try to push his shoulder back, but it didn’t help.
I also discovered Bruce hated being touched. Grooming was bearable but not enjoyable and he’d swing from side to side and snap the air until the ordeal ended. He jumped like he’d received an electric shock if you rested a hand on his body, and his muscles went rigid. Hoping to help him relax, I asked Sadie to give him a myofascial release treatment. She dryly remarked she was unsure where to start because he was so tight everywhere, and Bruce was adamant he was not going to release anything. The physio came to check his pelvis and said there were so many hotspots along his back it felt like he was on fire. I persevered trying to loosen him up with simple massage, but my hands literally bounced off his neck. He got so upset it was counter-productive, and I felt frustrated I couldn’t help him relax.
Bruce became stressed if you asked him do the smallest thing, and would go through a whole repertoire of movements hoping one of them was what you wanted. The more anxious he became the more I backed off, until I stopped asking him to do anything because it was easier not to wake his demons. The less structure I provided, the more he took matters into his own hands because his survival depended on somebody being in charge, and non-communication became a rapidly spiralling vortex of confusion. Sheila put one of her horses in his field for company, but he bullied and bit it and wouldn’t let it eat so he remained alone, and didn’t play with the horses over the fence. He was as shut down as he’d been when he was hunting. Physically he might be improving but mentally he was not.
After six fraught months of struggling to lead him along the tracks, I decided I’d be safer riding. Sitting on his back was fantastic and I felt a swell of pride in my horse as we set off on our first ride together. On the road he was a perfect pro, ignoring passing farm machinery and politely pulling on to the verge so cars could pass. He didn’t bat an eyelid when a gaggle of cyclists pedalled past in a gale of swooshing tyres. Riding a horse with a lovely swinging stride and an interest in his surroundings, and with the sun pushing through the mid-November clouds, I was the luckiest person alive. Me and my horse. We reached the gate that opened in to the field, and feeling how relaxed we both were I couldn’t see a problem going home across the grass. Bruce moved to open the gate with the faintest nudge of my leg, and stood stock-still while I looped the chain back over the post. I brushed my hand down his neck in appreciation and turned towards the headland, aiming to follow the hedge to the top of the field. Suddenly and without warning, he dropped his bottom to the ground- I thought for a moment a hole had opened up- and then launched himself in the air like he’d been shot from a sling. If you’ve ever seen pictures of a high-school dressage capriole (airs above the ground) that’s how I think it looked, but it felt more like jumping a wide chasm wasn’t there. It wasn’t unseating, in fact his broad back felt like an immovable perch, but it was terrifying and I had no idea what to expect or do next, so I just hung on. And prayed. When he eventually landed I thought I might regain control, but as soon as his feet hit the ground his head shot up in the air, nose pointing to the sky and ears flat back, and he fled like his life depended on it. I tried crossing my reins, sawing on his mouth and turning him, but he was galloping in blind panic and dead to feeling, so I sat and waited. And prayed some more. Time seemed to stop, I thought I heard myself shouting, but maybe it was the wind rushing through my ears, and I was more worried about the damage he’d do to his healing tendon than the damage he might do to both of us if he didn’t stop.
There was a wire boundary fence at the top of the field, which common sense told me he’d want to jump if he faced it. On the right of the fence was a thick high hedge, planted to break the wind on the exposed hilltop. I decided to try to turn him towards the hedge and run him into it, if I went at an angle we stood a better chance of less injury. Jamming my feet down into my stirrups, I moved both hands to the right of his neck, wrapped the reins around my fist and kicked like mad with my left leg while putting all my weight into my right. Like an oil tanker in an ocean of grass, he started to make the turn, not fast enough to jack-knife but with enough latitude to avoid the fence. The looming hedge whipped us with sharp-as-nails branches as it skimmed his shoulder at speed, and as the sudden scourge of pain brought him back to his senses, he dropped his head and slowed to a trot, and then to a standstill. I slid off, loosened his girth because he was blowing so hard I thought he’d explode, and collapsed in a heap. My body was completely numb and as the adrenaline dropped I began to shake like a leaf. Then my anger rose up inside and with renewed force I got to my feet and dragged Bruce back down the field to the road. I dragged him and swore and cursed, he pulled me, barged me and trod all over me. Blood from his scratches was smeared over his neck and my jacket, the branches had shredded my sleeve, and with each step the torn leg of my once-white breeches waved like a forlorn peace flag. As we walked home in the dusk we must’ve looked like a pair of leftovers from Halloween trick-or-treating. When we got back I tied Bruce in his stable, washed him down with warm water, inspected his cuts for thorns and applied Sudocreme to the worst. I was as gentle as possible but he flinched with every touch. I rugged him, put down two buckets of warm water and a big pile of hay, and stood outside the stable hoping he might take a drink or eat a mouthful but he just stood and watched me, slowly flapping his lips. The honeymoon was over and reality didn’t match expectation. I’m sure I wasn’t the first, or the last, to experience that disappointment.
“I’m sorry Bruce,” I said quietly, filled with remorse and sadness. “I’m so sorry.”
Through the winter I persevered as best I knew how. I did everything I’d ever learnt to try controlling my horse, never realising his fear of harsh control was the root of the problem, and what I light-heartedly tried to dismiss as his ‘open-country panic attacks’ were exactly that. To him they weren’t light-hearted, and I didn’t dare drop my false bravado and admit I was shit scared. The day the end nearly came was the catalyst for change. We’d ridden happily along the stony track from the farm for about twenty minutes when we reached a fallen tree blocking the path. With no way round and no way over, the only action was to turn and go back. As we turned, Bruce sprang into action. I had a comforting thought that if I couldn’t slow him he’d stop at the farm entrance, but I hadn’t reckoned on the tractor driving down the path towards us.
The tractor took up the width of the track and the trailer he towed behind was only marginally narrower. From his high place in the cab, the driver saw me in plenty of time, but maybe I looked like I was having a fun gallop because it felt like eternity before he stopped and tried to pull in, except there was nowhere to pull. Bruce’s gallop didn’t falter, I sat back in the saddle waiting for him to slide to a halt or hit the tractor head-on and neither option was appealing. His third option was to go to the side of the tractor, where the gap twixt wheels and hedge was about the width of a thin horse, but Bruce wasn’t thin, and my legs were either side of him. He took the third option. I briefly caught the look of sheer horror on the tractor driver’s face as Bruce dived for the gap, and I instinctively pulled my feet from the stirrups and grabbed the pommel for balance, tucking my knees up to my elbows, and stupidly breathing-in as if that would make me thinner. I heard my stirrup and leather drop to the ground as the side of the tractor pulled it off the saddle. At the time it was strangely exhilarating. The horse beneath me was so focused on his task (albeit with no regard for me) that I felt no fear until afterwards. He stopped at the farm entrance like nothing had happened and Sheila watched us walk down the drive.
“Good ride?” she asked, looking quizzically at my white face and missing stirrup.
“Fast,” I replied. “Very fast.” And then I burst into tears.
We’d reached crisis point, my horse terrified me and I had no idea what to do. On her next bodywork visit for Bruce, I recounted the story to Sadie. She looked up as I spoke, and when she’d made what adjustments were possible to Bruce’s taut muscles, she said matter-of-factly “I can’t help you with any of but I know someone who might.”
I watched as Kirsty Hearne shut her car door, tuck her hair under a leather cowboy hat and walk towards the stable. For some reason it struck me that her walk looked completely certain, self-contained, as if she had everything she wanted. I’d explained our problems on the phone and she was willing to see if she could help. A woman of few words, she introduced herself, cast her eyes over me and Bruce, ran an open-palmed hand softly down his neck, and nodded towards the schooling paddock, where she’d suggested I have a few poles laid out. As I led Bruce around, she arranged the poles into an L-shape, and asked me to lead him through them. No problem. I walked one side of the poles, he walked through, and I breathed a sigh of relief that we’d done something right. Then she asked me to back him through the poles. I pulled at his mouth, pushed him hard in the chest and loudly commanded “BACK!” and he stood annoyingly still. I shouted the command louder and made the push pushier, but still no movement.
“Do you always have to push to move him backwards?” Asked Kirsty.
“Well, yes,” I replied “I’ve always done it that way.” How else was there to do it?
“And do you always shout?”
“Only if he doesn’t obey.”
“And does he obey?”
“Ummm . . . no,” I said forlornly, looking at the ground. “Not usually, no.”
Kirsty walked over to where Bruce stood firm and asked if she could have his reins. I handed them over feeling an absolute failure. She shook the reins at him, lowered her head slightly and took a short step forward. He stayed immobile. She lowered her head further, and walked towards him more forcefully, and he took a few hurried steps backwards, put in a buck to show his displeasure, and then stepped neatly around the L to the end of the poles. Kirsty rubbed his forehead and told him he was a good boy. He dropped his nose and rested it by her elbow.
“I think we’ve solved that problem,” she said quietly. “Perhaps you could try asking instead of telling. Ask him to step backwards, we’ll practise it later.”
Next, she asked me to lead him forward again, this time walking inside the poles with him. We walked down the straight, and when we got to the turn he walked right through me. I jumped to one side, and hopped back again to finish.
“Did you think about slowing him to make the turn,” she said, and I wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement.
“And do you always have him walking ahead of you at the pace he wants?”
“I guess so,” I replied, never really having thought about Bruce’s position. I’d never really given much thought to leading a horse, I just expected it to do as I said. If it went too fast I’d pull it back and if too slow I’d pull it forward. When I wanted to stop I’d apply pressure until it stopped.
Kirsty showed me how to decide where I wanted Bruce to be, and how to keep him an arm’s distance from my body so we didn’t bump eachother. It was the first time anyone had explained how to give a horse clear directions, rather than correct it when it did wrong, and it made perfect sense. I didn’t know why I didn’t know about it. Then she showed me how to breathe commands instead of shouting them, and we practised going forward on an out breath, and halting by slowing my feet so we stopped in unison without any pressure on the rope. Miraculously, we moved left and right by turning my shoulders. As we went back and forth through pole alley, walking over the poles, and stopping and starting without pulling or tugging on the reins, I felt an incredible sense of elation at the way Bruce responded. If he noticed my feet slow down and my shoulders turn, what else did he notice in my movements? This was all new to me, I’d been taught that being the boss was the key to mastering horses, not breathing.
“I think we’ll call it a day there,” said Kirsty after forty minutes. “You both look like you’ve done enough.” As she ran her hand down Bruce’s neck he dropped his head and snorted. “He’s a good horse. You just need to find him his quiet place,” she said.
At the time, I had no idea what she meant, or where that search would take us, but I knew it was our only chance to make things work. So I had to find out.