New Years Day 2012 was sullen and grey, and so was I. Viewing my ashen face in the mirror, I grimaced at the chemotherapy residue and tried to focus my bloodshot eyes on something positive.
“Stop brooding! Get yourself together and do something.” I said sharply to my pale reflection, pulling on a pair of jeans that hung like pantaloons, and swamping my small frame with two thick sweaters. The clothes were cosy but inwardly I still shivered.
It was cold at the farm. Sheila’s horses had their backs to the wind in the paddock, and Bruce stood quietly in his stable munching hay. He acknowledged my presence without missing a mouthful, like a diner would greet an acquaintance by raising their eyes and nodding. He had been with me for nearly three years, and while his tendon repair had been straightforward, I still struggled with his complex character. In the beginning I did what I knew and he did what he knew, because neither of us knew what else to do, but as our understanding grew, glimmers of partnership shone and waned like a flickering lightbulb. I hoped a brisk in-hand walk would be a good start to the New Year so I removed his rugs, buckled his bridle and decided to go along the stony track and across the ‘naughty field’ where he’d previously run away on a ride. Hopefully I could show him there was no need for panic.
Bruce walked exuberantly in-hand, but we’d not been out for a while and the connection we lost during my raging anxiety still discoloured our relationship, so I talked quietly, trying to settle his dancing feet. As we opened the gate at the top the forty-acre field, I stood for a minute to catch the breeze and loosen my jacket, while Bruce pawed the ground. The field sloped dramatically downhill and the marked path was slippery, so I turned to the right and followed the unploughed headland along the fence. Bruce’s pace quickened on the grass. With ears pricked and muscles trembling he jogged sideways with head held high to evade the bridle contact. As the long weeds tickled his belly and aggravated his excitement he began to trot, and keeping my footing was difficult while I clung to the reins. I tried circling him which created a whirling equine vortex, and I have no recollection how we reached the bottom of the field.
We were both hot, sweaty, thoroughly wound up, and I was scared. I caught my breath as Bruce stopped to eat the hedge, and I tactfully ignored his misdemeanour of eating while being led. We could sensibly have exited through the bottom gate and walked back to the stables along the stony track, but with false bravado I felt I had to regain the upper hand, and took the ploughed path running up the centre of the field to the top gate. As we turned, Bruce barged right through me. Shouting a sharp reprimand I asked him to step backwards but he planted four feet firmly on the ground and shoved his nose hard into my chest. Gasping for breath I told him to back up again, and again, both requests met with blunt refusal.
“Right, I’ve had enough. We’ll bloody well sort this out!” I shouted as I yanked the reins and shoved him back with an elbow in the chest. He reluctantly shuffled two hind feet, and in view of the situation I decided that was sufficient.
Bruce also decided he’d had enough and sorted it out the best way he knew. He stood up on his hind legs and spun round to face home. As the force of his rearing-up knocked me sideways, he galloped off at full pelt. I swung from the reins like a ragdoll in a child’s hand, before realising I was going to get dragged. So I let go. In the gleeful spirit of freedom, Bruce let fly with an almighty buck. I trust it wasn’t aimed at me, but I probably flatter myself.
Wedged between half a ton of fleeing horse and a wire fence, there was no escaping the trajectory of his back feet. Time stopped and I froze as the underside of his perfectly shaped hooves swung towards me. I felt the impact of his feet and then the impact of the ground and then I lay in the mud listening to a tractor engine humming in the distance. From the intense pain in my chest I figured I was still alive, and if I was alive I’d better catch my loose horse. I gingerly tested body parts; Legs were mobile, my neck and hip felt like they had dislocated from my body, and my head throbbed to a resounding reggae beat. Moving anything above the waist caused racking waves of pain across my chest, but the pain lessened if I bent double, so I rolled and made a hundred little shuffles, and struggled to my feet staying folded at the waist (thank you Pilates).
Lurching sideways with hands on knees, I looked down at the ploughed earth, gritted my teeth and made one step after another until I reached the top of the hill. Bruce was watching from the gateway, nonchalantly resting a back leg, with the remains of his bridle hanging down his neck. He lowered his head and I took hold, struggled to open the gate, and we slowly walked through together, closing it firmly behind us.
Stooped over, and stopping often so I could ease the racking pain, we walked the mile home side by side, Bruce steadying his pace to match mine, head down mimicking my stance. When we reached the safety of his stable I realised the bridle had fallen off and I hadn’t been leading him. Bruce resumed eating his morning hay, and I dragged his stable rug partly over his back to keep him warm. Then I began shivering and slumped in the corner of the stable, which is where Sheila found me when she came to do her horses.
I recalled scant details of our accident as Sheila helped me into her car, but I couldn’t speak much and crying was too painful. I was grateful for silence as she drove me home, one hand on the wheel, the other holding mine. The colour drained from Mark’s face when we arrived back. He made me a cup of tea and took me to hospital Accident & Emergency, where the young doctor listened aghast at the story.
“Tell me again what happened,” she asked, trying to maintain a practised expression of non-expression.
“I got kicked in the chest by my horse,” I repeated for the second time. “I think I’ve ruptured my mastectomy implant and broken my ribs.” I paused, wondering if I should bother to say more. “I landed on my hip and banged my head. I don’t think I blacked out but my shoulder and neck are really sore. And my arm doesn’t feel connected.”
She rolled her eyes, collected her thoughts, and systematically checked my breathing, sight and cognitive function. Her conclusion was minor concussion, whiplash to my neck, severe bruising to my hip, possible ligament damage to my arm, broken top ribs, and a completely ruptured mastectomy implant. I made a weak joke about being fitted with airbags. Nobody laughed.
“We don’t x-ray for broken ribs,” the doctor sighed. “If you rest, everything should heal in the next six weeks, but see your GP if you get further pain, dizziness or shortness of breath.” She showed me the door. “Take painkillers if you need them, and . . . be careful.”
“Happy New Year.” I muttered weakly as I left.
There’s no point trying to make light of this serious accident. Like most accidents, it could’ve been far more serious, but it was pretty bad as it was. Bruce drew his line of tolerance, I disregarded it and suffered the consequences. The strange thing was that it literally booted the past into the past. All the cancer stuff, all the anxiety and chemotherapy detritus, and all the negativity I felt towards my own failings.
I thought I was working progressively with Kirsty’s guidance because I’d made huge changes, but I was going by rote and not by feeling, and I misread a lot in my haste to look like I was doing right. We all have to start somewhere but Bruce was way ahead of me, and to have any chance of catching him up I had to let go of expectations and a great deal of ego. Cancer makes things all about me; how I’m feeling, how I’m surviving, what’s my latest prognosis. The preceding two years of cancer treatment had taken a toll on both of us, but Bruce’s primary concern was his own survival. He didn’t pander to my weakness, he needed capability.
My father had been a do-as-I-say disciplinarian, demanding submission from his family. Our punishment for not reaching his high expectations or following his rules was to live with his sulks. We weren’t abused, but the strain of living with totally inflexible standards eventually made me run for my life. If I wanted to regain equilibrium with my horse, I had to take the plunge and accept some things would always be beyond my control, and inflexibility was not the answer. I had to be honest and acknowledge things as they were, not bury them under false bravado.
There had to be a middle way of training where I could set out my non-negotiables, and then negotiate a balance where both Bruce and I felt comfortable; I guess you call it a partnership. Kirsty began the process, I carried it, and Bruce showed me how to let go the only way he knew. He knocked the old way into oblivion, and there was no going back.
Would I have preferred a horse that I could just get on and ride, the same as I had always done? Yes I would, because the enjoyment and freedom exploring picture-perfect countryside with a steady companion has no equal. Would I have still felt the bond of togetherness that ties me to Bruce’s heart? Yes, I probably would. Do I regret the way things turned out? Bruce was a gift horse. I might not have known at the time he was something I wanted, let alone something I would treasure, but the people Bruce brought into my life, and the person I have become because of him, are gifts beyond compare. The gift horse who brought gifts. Non, je ne regrette rien.