Back in April, Bruce and his horse-neighbour Winston broke their dividing fence, and hoolied around the field like a couple of youngsters. Things sobered up when Bruce got kicked on his hock, and I found him standing by the gate looking very sorry for himself.
The joint swelled and subsided, puffy became the new normal, and Bruce walked a tad stiffly but appeared unconcerned. Last week his displeasure at being out in the wind and rain erupted in an awesome acrobatic display, cantering back and forth with sliding stops and handbrake turns. Then he suddenly found he couldn’t put his hind leg to the ground, and what had been a ligament strain got a whole lot worse.
I’ve spent a week of worry on auto-pilot. The torn ligament, mega-swelling, and Bruce’s age, were all cause for concern and I was reluctant to have the joint drained because of possible infection, and the high likelihood of the fluid returning. I’m realistic about movement-limiting injuries and euthanasia, but Bruce is as much part of me as my own arm or leg, and I don’t know how I’d manage without one of them either.
Last night Bruce laid down in his stable for the first time, but more importantly he managed to get back up. He turned the corner to recovery and I breathed again.
Today is Thursday. I got up early to write my blog and sat with tea and toast wondering what to write. Then it occurred to me. How often do we actually worry about what we’re worried about?
I’ll let those words sit for a moment because they surprised me too.
At the moment we’re all worried about Covid, and that worry has given the green light for all other worries to become important. We’re on permanent alert lest a stranger sneezes, and making sense of government guidance (I use the word ironically) is like doing a cryptic crossword in Ancient Urdu. A lot of people met their own mortality for the first time, and even though they didn’t shake hands it wasn’t an amiable introduction.
Worrying about things out of our control makes us feel stressed, but stress has become such a dirty word it’ll soon be unmentionable. It’s overtaken smoking, eating or sitting down as something you Must Not Do, and soon we’ll have a government minister in charge of it. But without stress I think we’d probably crumple; just like tension on a high-wire, stress counter-balances all the blah emotions. If only life could be one long scented bath, but in order to get more hot water we have to get out some time and stoke the boiler.
Are we ignoring the real worry and worrying that we can’t control the outcome, which is change. Change is a ‘C’ word more graphic than the anatomical one we don’t say unless in the company of our sluttiest girlfriends. Change means facing up to fears of the unknown, and the unknown is the nemesis of mankind.
So, if the unknown is too immense to think about, we find something smaller on which to pin our fret, because worrying about something tangible is more controllable. We rant about things like chocolate bars getting smaller, or beat ourselves up for hugging a friend. We worry about our horses/dogs/cats eating properly, when really we’re wondering who will look after them if we can’t, and we worry about our sore knee when we’re wondering who will look after us if we can’t. Or our partner. Or both of us at the same time.
So let’s make time for small worries. Let’s recognise them as big worries in drag, trying their best to put some glitz into pathos. Let’s accept them, acknowledge them, and at three o’clock in the morning, try to let them go. We can’t change change because it’ll happen whatever. But we can cut ourselves some slack, eat two chocolate bars instead of one, and make the best of what we have in front of us because sooner or later that will change too. And that’ll be a whole new load of stuff to worry about.
The blog is short rambling and random this week with not much editing. Normal service will resume asap. Blame Bruce? Never.
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.
I love a free offer. But when it’s another life-limiting disease I should have read the label before I put it in my shopping basket. Greed will be my downfall.
The new recruit goes under the name Polyarteritis Nordosa. Polyarteritis Nordosa is a rare inflammation of the arteries, caused by a malfunctioning immune system. My immune system was sheltering between a rock and a hard place, killing off stray cancer cells with accurate sniper fire. Now it’s come out all guns blazing, shooting at the cancer, the drug that keeps the cancer stable, or anything else in its sights. Imagine Gunfight at the OK Corral meets Reservoir Dogs; apart from Val Kilmer, it aint a pretty sight.
Polyarteritis Nordosa showed up for duty about a year ago, bringing with it mysterious bruises that wouldn’t fade, and fingertip-size red lesions on my legs. It quickly added a random purple pattern to my thighs which looked like crazy-paving, and, just for good measure, a strong dose of swollen aching joints and hit-the-brick-wall-fatigue. If this was cancer’s new buddy I hoped the courtship would be brief, but alas, they’ve become besties.
The London oncology professor diagnosed the problem at first sight, but it took months of different opinions, investigations and skin biopsies to confirm his suspicion. Now he and a wonderful London rheumatology professor are working (gloved) hand-in-hand to stabilise my condition. I was a multi-disciplinary medical case, now I’m a multi-professor medical case.
The inflammatory levels in my blood are ridiculously high. I’m an over-achiever but this is silly even for me. Large doses of steroids reduced the inflammation but caused a major flare-up when I came off them, and now I’m on longer-term low dose steroids. I have a love-hate relationship with steroids, which varies from trying to conquer the world with manic activity, to sleeplessness and mood swings that drive me crazy. Or crazier.
Playing host to two serious diseases isn’t a barrel of laughs but it does have its lighter moments. I wonder how/if they consider eachother; do they fight to invade my body space or do they divvy-up areas aren’t already diminished and toss a coin? If my waistline is the border, will cancer cells attempt risky crossings in a migrant dinghy to reach my pelvis, and will Polyarteritis Nordosa send an army to my upper torso, like the Romans marching north to crazy-pave Hadrian’s Wall?
Last week I had a phone consultation with the rheumatology professor. We both agreed there wasn’t much to do at the moment except watch the situation, which I’ve learnt over the years means they’re working on best-guess scenario. I don’t have a problem with that. When you go past your expiry date you can’t expect instant answers because there aren’t any. I never set out to be pioneer woman, in fact I’ve always thought this heap of shit is pretty much wasted on me because I’ve got more important things to do, but hey, next person in line gets the benefit of my experiences, and that’s the most positive spin I can muster for this situation.
Before we finished the consultation I asked the professor if he was happy to continue overseeing my treatment.
“Yes of course,” he replied. “I’m more than happy. I specialize in rare and esoteric diseases, which you have, and I’m very interested in your case.”
“I seem to specialize in them too,” I replied flippantly, and he laughed out loud; the rheumatologist has a similarly dry sense of humour.
For some reason, between thanking him and scheduling our next appointment, the word esoteric escaped me and I thought he said erotic. Rare and erotic disease.
“What did he say?” asked Mark as I put the phone down.
“I have a rare and erotic disease.” I replied, shrugging my shoulders nonchalantly. I quite liked being rare and erotic. For a moment I had visions of turning into a burlesque dancer until I remembered my crazy-paved thighs.
“What did he say?” Texted my friend.
“I have a rare and erotic disease.” I texted back.
She replied with **???!!
I feel a tad disloyal towards the cancer. We’ve been together for so long, how do I explain I’m having a fling with a younger disease? I’m no cougar but Polyarteritis Nordosa sounds more outlandish than stage 4 cancer, and definitely more erotic!
My plan for terminal cancer was neater than this. I’d have some good times, then things would get worse, then worse would become the good times. Eventually my organs would pack-up and I’d die, and I hadn’t calculated on something else elbowing its way in. After all this time, cancer should at least get the credit because having an understudy steal the limelight as the curtain falls would be ironic. I hadn’t expected to die of something randomly erotic, but maybe I’d prefer multi orgasm failure to multi organ failure? Just sayin’.
It seems obvious now how similar Bruce and I were. Anxiety overruled logic, we both cloaked ourselves in an armour of false bravado and we were both in permanent flight from our demons. Bruce might have four legs, but I was running as fast from cancer as he was from his nemesis. Kirsty’s ‘quiet place’ would prove as mind-quenching for me as it did for him.
How do you find a quiet place? I began by Googling ‘meditation Dorset’ and found a local MBSR course. Mindfulness Based Stress Release is awareness through paying attention, non-judgementally in the present moment, based on the teachings of John Kabat-Zinn, who ‘brought Buddhism to the West’. I’d got frustrated with meditation before and given up, but it’s easier to do something for someone else than for yourself, so I joined the weekly group to discover what a quiet place looked like, and how I could give it to Bruce. It was hard going! I abhorred silence and always considered my razor-sharp reactions a blessing, so why would I want to pause first? Mindfully chewing raisins wasn’t what I’d expected but I’d paid for the course so I listened to the reasoning, and gradually learnt how to unhook and release the tangle of what-ifs in my mind; when you stop paying attention to the voices, they stop chattering. Mindfulness gave me the simplest coping tool, breathing, and over the years mindful breathing has changed my life. Pause Breathe Smile. Yay raisins!
Breathing with Bruce was miraculous. While I groomed him I focused on my breath and spontaneously, great sighs of emotion rose from the pit of my stomach and fell from my mouth like forgotten prisoners fleeing their dungeon. At first, Bruce snorted and cleared his nose, then he yawned. Then he rubbed his nose on his knee, letting out a long out-breath and swishing his tail until it ceased. I thought it was coincidence, but each day I tried to do the same breathing pattern and sometimes he followed suit. Sometimes he just flapped his lips and sometimes he pawed the ground, but he made an action that acknowledged my breathing. (Writing this, I sighed those long out-breaths again without realising!)
With all the vigour of the newly converted, I practised groundwork with Bruce, trying to breathe steadily and stop my mind wandering to a million different locations. Kirsty had me holding the reins as if I was riding, making me aware of how my hands wandered alongside my busy mind. I was also confusing Bruce because I gave no forethought to my directives. Like a garbled phone message, he got snippets of conversation and had to guess the rest. To direct him clearly, I had to set him up not to fail. It sounded straightforward but it meant unlearning everything I knew. Along with Bruce I was also starting again.
After several weeks of practise and teaching sessions, Kirsty suggested Bruce might like to move on. I hadn’t ridden since the Tractor Dash and was determined to look good, but as the old saying warns us, ‘pride goes only as far as one can spit’. I did however learn the biggest lesson, the art of doing less. Kirsty stood by the fence as I walked and trotted Bruce around the paddock, changing direction and awaiting instruction. I hoped she’d tell me what to do, but as she just stood and watched I thought maybe the lesson hadn’t started yet. Then she walked into the centre.
“What are you asking for?” she said, as Bruce and I laboured around the arena in a vaguely defined circle.
“A loose trot,” I gasped between rising and sitting. “With a good bend,” I added, trying to sound like I knew what I was doing.
“And is it working?”
I rode two more laps while I fought the inevitable answer. “No.”
“Then why are you doing it?”
“Because I don’t know what else to do.” The truth in those words stung me to the quick, my ego as flat as Bruce’s footfall.
“Have you tried doing nothing?” Said Kirsty, with the merest hint of smile.
Needless to say, I’d never considered doing nothing.
On our next lesson, Kirsty asked me to rise one beat and sit two at the trot. I understood the action but my body was clumsy. Sauntering round, Bruce seemed happy not doing anything strenuous but his mood suddenly switched, as if he decided he was being ignored and might just as well go home. He sprang into a gazelle leap and galloped towards the gate. I couldn’t see enough space to stop and prepared myself for a fall, but with cadence that would’ve impressed a dressage judge, he halted square from a gallop and stood quietly with his chest against the gate. I wriggled back into the saddle, open-mouthed and speechless.
Kirsty walked unhurried across the field. “Nice halt.” She said.
“Do you think I could get a stronger bit?” I asked her. “He can’t keep tanking-off with me.”
“Doesn’t matter what you put in his mouth you won’t stop him if he wants to go.” She replied.
I felt crestfallen, more at her seeming lack of concern than my predicament.
“But of course,” she continued, “you can always learn to turn him and that’ll stop anything.”
“Turn him?” I replied, puzzled. “He doesn’t turn.”
“Oh, I think he will if you ask in a way he understands. Tom Dorrance, who was the master of enlightened cowboy training had a phrase called double-your-colt. Basically, if you disengage a horse’s hindquarters and ask them to move laterally, they can’t go forward. It’s a way of directing when things start to go shit-shape. Instead of waiting for Bruce to gallop off and try to stop, be ready to turn as he lands from his leap, keep his quarters moving across, and you’ll slow on a circle and stop. Eventually, you’ll be able to bring his head round as soon as you feel the danger signs.”
I looked at Kirsty, she looked at me and we both grinned. “What are we waiting for?” I said. “Let’s get learning!”
Bruce didn’t stop running away, but with Kirsty’s help I began to see things from a different perspective. His running wasn’t an act of disobedience and it wasn’t directed at me personally. He was running because that’s what flight animals do when they’re terrified, and he was terrified; just because I couldn’t see the danger didn’t make it any less frightening. (Years later I discovered that when he was hunting, James galloped him up and down the field, beating him at every turn as a punishment for not standing still. The turn was the trigger, especially in open countryside, and for him it was as real as the days it happened).
I stopped calling Bruce’s escapades bad behaviour and re-named them ‘expressing his opinion,’ and they became a lot less scary. I didn’t know if I could actually alter a situation by approaching it differently, or if I was sidestepping the obvious to avoid misery, but I felt I had a choice. I couldn’t change the situation but I could change the way I looked at it and labelled it, and that was something to being going on with.
Mindfulness helped me clear my head and make room for response, instead of disciplinary reactions towards Bruce. To help him relax I had know what I wanted to do, and I began visualising my request so he received clear instruction. When he got anxious and needed to move his feet it was more sensible to direct him somewhere than try to stop him, and working with my breath meant my hands didn’t grab his sensitive mouth. I also tried to take emotion out of the equation, but that’s still a work in progress. It wasn’t a one-size-fits-all panacea, but it helped, and our confidence grew. Kirsty lent me Mark Rashid’s book Life Lessons from a Ranch Horse, and as I read about Mark’s experiences with his horse Buck, thoughts I’d had back in the nineties with Teddy began to re-surface. At the time I’d wanted to make my horse feel better about his life but I didn’t know how. Monty Roberts burst on to the scene in a blaze of join-up glory, along with Parelli instructors in cowboy hats, and I’d watched clinics, read the books and bought the halter, but that new environment was alien. I lacked the courage to travel unfamiliar paths back then, but the seed was sown and now those thoughts were ripening. They might even bear fruit.
In one lesson I rode Bruce bareback; I slid onto his vast, naked back, and as we gradually overcame the trepidation and found our balance it became intensely intimate. Kirsty asked me to focus on my legs being his back legs, and two bodies – one trying to summon intent and stillness, and the other trying to respond and relax – moved as one, like a centaur. At the end of the session Bruce stood still and listened while Kirsty and I chatted, and I loved him even more.
Kirsty always began lessons by asking me what I’d like to do or aim for. Initially, it surprised me because she was the teacher, and I thought she should know what to teach me, but it gave me focus on what I wanted from myself and Bruce. On our next lesson I asked if we could jump.
“What would you like to jump?” She asked.
“I’ve put some branches by the hedge, and there’s some buckets for stands.”
“One jump or a course?”
“Just one will be enough.”
“Okay, you shorten your stirrups and ask for a nice forward trot on a circle, and I’ll set it up.” She quickly arranged a row of poles along one side of our working space, with a small brush jump in the centre. “Trot over the poles a few times from both directions, and remember, not any old trot but the trot you want!”
Bruce pricked his ears as we trotted over the poles, raising his back and lowering his neck. I tried to make my breath slow and steady because I was horribly nervous.
Once she was satisfied we were ready, Kirsty gave instructions. “Next time, come round to the brush after the row of poles, still trotting,” she said. “What’s your plan after you land?”
“Err, I don’t have one.”
“You’d better think of one before you try. We haven’t done this before and we don’t know what he’ll do.”
“I’ll be ready to turn him” I said smugly. “And then we’ll stop.”
Kirsty looked up and smiled. “Good plan.”
I never thought we’d do it but we did, and Bruce carried me like I was precious cargo. It was only a little jump but to me it was like jumping the moon. As we landed, Bruce shot into the air with ears flat back and I sat still and brought him onto a circle because that’s how confident I felt after jumping the moon. The second time was in canter, and he didn’t panic afterwards. Kirsty’s word rang in my ears, “know what you want, set it up and let it happen.” Jumping branches balanced on buckets, in the corner of a sloping field, on a horse who had been written-off meant everything I had wished for this horse came true.
Emboldened by new-found confidence, I entered a local in-hand show. On the morning of the show I got to Sheila’s at the crack of dawn, bathed and polished Bruce until he shone, and plaited his tail to show-off his wonderful backside. He was an Adonis and I was a nervous wreck. Sheila drove us to the show in her battered old trailer, and regaled me with showing stories from her youth. She’d lent me her ‘lucky’ tweed jacket with assurances it had never let her down. It wasn’t the jacket that worried me.
The other entrants in the cob class were all gypsy cobs with flowing manes. Their naturally hairy legs feathered out at the hoof like seventies bell-bottoms, and Bruce was the only maxi-cob, with a traditional hogged mane and clean-shaven legs. His paces were faultless, but he obviously wasn’t the type of cob the judge favoured. As we came out of the ring proudly clutching our 5th place rosette, an elderly countryman stopped us. “Excuse me,” he said with a broad Irish accent, putting a hand out to my arm “I hope you know you were the real winner there.”
“I’m sorry,” I replied, slightly confused.
“Yours was the only horse who moved like a cob should move. The horses above him only shuffled. Judge didn’t know what she was doing. She should see more proper cobs. Don’t get many like yours these days, he’s made like they should be. Like they used to be.”
“Oh THANKYOU, how very lovely of you to say that!” I was truly overwhelmed.
“I wasn’t the only one stood here who thought it.”
“Thankyou, you’ve made our day. But the judge was fair, she said he had hock spavins. Mind you after nine years hunting he’s entitled to have arthritis in his joints.”
As the stranger studied the offending pair of hocks, Bruce stood as still and square as he had for the judge, flicking his ears backwards as the man spoke. “They don’t look too bad to me, and they’re far enough from his heart not to cause any trouble. As I said, judge knows nothing about cobs.” He ran his hand softly down Bruce’s neck and looked him in the eye. Bruce held his head by the man’s arm and smelt something familiar that he couldn’t place. Then he flapped his lips.
Bruce and I were on a high, after a fearful first year we were finding our way of working together. I couldn’t say I trusted him, and he certainly didn’t trust me, but we had compromised to find a way to keep moving forward and still breathe. My next goal was riding a walk-and-trot dressage test. But once again, cancer got in the way of plans.
This month would’ve been my friend Jimmy’s birthday. Jimmy spent his life helping people. He was a hub of energy and generosity and his friends spun around him like satellites, reflecting and repaying his support by thriving under his guidance, while he basked in their glow.
By choice, he died alone and his funeral was a beautiful service with very thoughtful readings, and as testament to his generosity the crematorium was packed to overflowing. People from all walks of life filled the seats and aisles, spilled into the foyer, and outside to the car park.
Back in 1971 I was sitting on the grass in Bournemouth Pleasure Gardens, considering my options. My feet were bare and I can still remember how warm the grass felt between my toes. I’d spent the afternoon getting stoned with my hippy friends, listening to Neil Young’s new album ‘After the Goldrush’, on an ancient mono record player in someone’s bedsit, where the air was heavy with the smell of patchouli oil and joss sticks. Cody, who was American and doing a Foundation Year at the local Art College strummed along on guitar. He looked a lot like James Taylor and I fancied the pants off him, but he saved his crooning for Michelle and I couldn’t compete with her Joni Mitchell blondness.
It was my Ethereal Phase and I was wearing a long black silk skirt with silver stars, and a peach satin blouse with Guinevere sleeves that dipped down to my knees. Jimmy sat down on the grass beside me and we smiled. He admired my skirt, and in that blissed-out way you can’t stop babbling when you’re stoned, I told him how I’d printed it myself with a potato cut into star shape, and dipped in shoe dye to get the silver colour. We carried on talking, he rolled more joints and we carried on talking more. He told me he’d been in the London cast of the musical Hair, but the musical director said he couldn’t work alongside people with the star-sign Leo, so he let Jimmy go. He was heartbroken. We talked about everything and nothing until it got dark.
Apart from two major tiffs (one his fault, one mine) we didn’t stop talking for the next forty-four years. We shared pivotal times as we changed styles and persona. We morphed from hippies to punk, dressing in outfits from Malcolm Mclaren’s famous boutique in London’s Kings Road. We became disco divas and went clubbing; invariably fancying the same men. We saw iconic rock bands play live, and Ella Fitzgerald accompanied on the piano by Count Basie. We shared the heartache of our love lives, worked together selling antiques, and were beside eachother when plans and marriages collapsed, and when parents died. We shared more than half a lifetime.
Somehow without any of us noticing, Jimmy’s resources drained. He was unable to replenish, revitalise and reconnect his amazing energy, and without giving, he felt he couldn’t continue living. With careful planning he took his own life; on a cold February morning he walked a long way across the heathland to a lone tree where he hung himself. I know he wouldn’t have thought of me, of us, any more than he could’ve thought of any of the people who mourned at his funeral because that would have been too painful, and he had something to do that morning which required single-minded determination. And courage.
So, take time today. Take however much time you need to be kind, gentle and nurturing to yourself. Take time to be selfish and remember that by always putting others first, you are teaching them to put you last. Do all the things that make you feel good, feel alive and replenished. Remember you are loved by others and remember to love yourself because you are all you have.
And remember to Let the Sun Shine In, especially when the clouds feel feel like they will never lift.
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.
My friend Tessa and I were having an on-line discussion about cake, as you do. She had just finished the mammoth task of baking (and was partway through the delicious task of eating) a Ten Layer Russian Burnt Honey Cake, with frosted layers of condensed milk and whipped cream topped with burnt caramel crumbs. For someone with a bakery-tooth like me, the photo of it was pure straight-from-the-oven porn.
Tessa was saying how lockdown led her to cake-making adventures, which ranged from buying miniature Bundt tins, to baking the ten layers of sweet-tooth bliss, and then inviting far-flung family and friends (some flung as far away as heaven), to assemble for taste testing. I love the idea of wishfully-thought guests having an imaginary kitchen tea party.
All this mouth-watering talk made me evaluate my own bake-my-way-out-of-a-crisis default setting, because when dire straits loom, I stock the freezer. Chocolate orange cake and banana bread, cheese scones, marmalade loaf and jam roly-poly. Knowing comforting fare is lurking among the frozen peas is sustenance in itself. When we got married I baked my wedding cake, and then I baked my wedding reception, with scones and clotted cream and jam, and enough cake to feed an army. Dainty canapes are SO not me. With all the emotion my wedding brought, following a recipe in the kitchen became my ten-step programme to calm. I regained my composure with the rhythmic ritual of beating air into eggs and sifting my flour.
Maybe it’s a Jewish thing, or maybe it’s just a woman thing untainted by race, but at the first sniff of crisis I head to the kitchen. Lockdown became bakedown, chemotherapy became cookotherapy and recuperation became recookeration. When I left my first marriage I took my horse, my cats, my collection of Victorian photograph albums and some (very mumsy) clothes that I never wore again. I later snuck back when I knew the house was empty and retrieved my baking tins. As far as I could recall, in fifteen years of marriage my then-husband had never baked a thing, but being pan-less left him distraught. More distraught than being wife-less. Another transgression to add to my unreasonable behaviour. And adultery. And cancer.
Cooking is for sharing, but baking is for giving. I once spent a pleasant hour with the psychotherapist exploring why I rarely bake for myself, and at the next session I took her a lemon drizzle cake. Cake currency is like that, it’s both a Please and a Thankyou, but most often it’s a Just Because. Baking a cake is never a chore, just like eating one is never unpleasant, because homemade cake has equal parts flour eggs sugar and fat, but most part love; it’s the love that gives them their rise, and sometimes their fall, but most of all their ability to please.
My kitchen is not gadgety, some would say it’s positively archaic. My pride-and-joy is an original seventies orange Kenwood mixer which belonged to the mother of a dear friend, and was an overwhelmingly generous birthday gift. The kitchen has a reclaimed white stone butler sink, floor-to-ceiling dresser which is original to the 1879 house, a scrub-top pine table bought for £10 in a junk shop in 1978, and an oil-fired Rayburn range cooker, which is an Aga’s poor relation. I have the joy of a walk-in larder with enough room for the fridge-freezer and microwave, and shelves to store drinking glasses and Tupperware. My kitchen doubles as craft space, sewing space, office space and cat refuge. It’s also provided warm refuge for poorly hens who needed a little TLC.
Despite the words in the manufacturer’s cookbook, the Rayburn does limit cake baking to more robust confections. It excels at puddings tarts and pies, fruit cakes and cookies are divine, but Swiss roll and light sponge cakes have a pudding-y demeanour which you either learn to love or stop baking them. The warming oven is perfect for overnight meringues. Macarons, and anything with a hint of patisserie are too precise for the rather pedestrian temperature gauge, and a southwesterly wind blowing down the chimney damps-down proceedings entirely.
My baking repertoire consists of Mark’s favourites, and childhood memories- not so much things my mother made, because she hated baking anything apart from flourless Plava cake at Passover, and Baked Alaska for a special dessert, but reminiscences of the shakily-iced efforts I conjured up in our blue-and-white kitchen with pet dogs Danny and Lulu sleeping under the table. Chocolate fairy cakes sprinkled with hundreds-and-thousands, and buttercream filled butterfly cakes topped with pink jelly-tots. That kitchen had a walk-in larder too, and a proper Aga cooker. I loved Domestic Science classes at school, and still make pastry the way Mrs. Staunton taught us. I’ve never dared to see what happens if you flour the pastry instead of the board, it would be committing a cardinal sin.
I often dream of the gateaux I would create, and the things I could do with tempered chocolate if I had more workspace, or an oven that hadn’t been fitted without first levelling the floor; leaning cakes are my speciality. But it’s not eye-candy I’m after, it’s the comfort of a loving mouthful. Of giving something, feeding someone with the added gift of love. Although I have to confess, baking a ten-layer version of that gift is definitely food for thought . . .
P.S. who would you invite for your imaginary cake taste-testing party?
‘There’s many a slip between cup and lip’ is one of the truest sayings. Once James agreed to a new home for Bruce instead of euthanasia, he offered the horse to everyone, and a friend of Rosanna’s accepted the offer. Bill Blackwood was livid and I was heartbroken, not so much at not having him myself, but at where he was going. Rosanna’s friend had ridden as a child. She had a weekend cottage with a large field and a bucolic vision of Bruce grazing happily for the rest of his days. In order to give Bruce’s tendon the best chance of healing, James generously paid for debridement surgery to remove injured and scarred tissue, followed by post-op care with Bill. That this fine horse was sentenced to life as a solitary field ornament left me numb, my belief in Divine Intervention crumbled. I needn’t have worried.
Bruce loved all the unaccustomed grass. He loved being able to walk through flimsy fences to the organic veg plot and fruit bushes and he particularly loved the apple orchard, until the bucolic dream became spasmodic colic and a neighbour called the vet. Rosanna’s friend’s husband was livid at her stupidity (and the £200 vet bill) and Bruce arrived back at Bill’s six weeks later, a lot fatter than when he left. James wanted rid of him quickly and Bill phoned me.
“Horse is back. If you still want him, act fast.”
Mark and I acted fast. I phoned the livery yard I’d previously arranged for Bruce but they’d filled the vacancy. I phoned the stables where I’d kept Teddy but they were full, as were five other local DIY yards. There was room for him at a farm within walking distance of home, but the stable was for a small pony and he wouldn’t have got through the doorway with his hips intact! I found two lovely places but they only accepted horses at full livery; apart from wanting to care for my horse, I couldn’t afford the cost. Anxiety set in followed by frustration. There are lots of private homes near us that keep horses, so I delivered a printed a letter to them all asking if they had room for one more, but nobody replied. I put cards in shop windows and a strange man contacted me, saying he had a chicken shed at the end of his garden, and he wouldn’t want payment if I stayed as well. It was doubtful Bruce would fit in a chicken shed.
On Friday afternoon I answered my phone to a woman who spoke with a cut glass accent. “Hello, I’m standing outside the Post Office reading your card regarding stabling. I’ve just moved from London to Dorset and my new house has two brand new stables and two acres. Might that suit your requirements?”
“It definitely might.” I replied, writing down her address. With indecent haste Mark and I went to view, and it was perfect. Completely and utterly perfect, and she was happy for me to sub-let the other stable so Bruce had company. Then she told us the monthly rent, and I thought she was joking but she wasn’t. Feeling this dream slipping away, I tactfully said prices in Dorset were a lot lower than London, and she must’ve seen my disappointment because she dropped five pounds a month, but her expectations were completely unrealistic. She thanked me for my time and we left. The stables remained empty for two years, then she sold the house and they were converted into a granny annexe.
On Saturday, one of the livery yard owners phoned. “Hi, Lou here, have you found a stable yet?” I recounted a short history of my failures and Lou commiserated.
“I might be able to help. I’ve just spoken to my old friend Sheel, she’s thinking about renting her spare stable. D’ya want her number?”
“Text her then. She wants someone responsible who knows what they’re doing, I said you fitted the bill. Her stables are a bit out the back of beyond, a bit basic, but go see for yourself.”
“Thanks Lou, really appreciated.” I texted Sheel immediately and the answer pinged back within five minutes, with a time to visit and directions.
Old Barrow Farm was a ten-minute drive from home, along pitted gravel tracks between massive arable fields at the back of Badbury Rings, an ancient Iron Age hill fort. Prehistoric tumuli scattered the fields, rising from the flat cultivated soil in unkempt mounds of scrub and trees, a permanent reminder of those who laid buried under this vast expanse of sky. Mark and I had cycled across these tracks, and both agreed the boundless space had an indescribably eerie atmosphere.
I parked at the farm and opened the truck door. Sheel walked out to meet me and with split-second recognition, we both laughed with joy. “Elaine, it’s YOU!” she gasped, hugging my waist.
“Sheila, it’s YOU!!” I shouted in disbelief, returning the hug.
Sheila was a no-nonsense old school horsewoman. Handsome features, with steel grey hair swept into a precisely pinned bun (I’d never seen her hair styled any other way) and a complexion that defied fifty years spent outdoors. We shared a birthday and she was exactly ten years older than me. We’d been friends since the 1970s when she bought my pony Jimmy for her riding school. We had kept in touch until 2000 when she closed the riding school and moved; I don’t know whether she lost my address or me hers. We both started talking at once, then both became tongue-tied, and still shaking our heads in disbelief she showed me around. Used for storing machinery, the near-derelict farm had a row of four stables housed in an old building, with a wide walkway at the front and a bay at the far end for feed and hay storage. Outside were three turn-out paddocks with a high beech hedge at the bottom forming a solid windbreak, a small well-drained area I could use to ride, and a neatly squared-off muckheap. Sheila owned a broodmare and two younger horses, and lived in a caravan behind the barn. The farm was more ramshackle and a lot more remote than I’d envisaged, but I knew we’d be safe and comfortable with Sheila, and a quiet atmosphere was what Bruce needed. The arrangement was DIY Livery but Sheila was happy to do Bruce for me at any time, and gave me a handwritten price-list of services; a business footing makes things simpler even between old friends. We shook hands and hugged again. We had found our home.
On Wednesday, Midsummers Eve 2009 Bruce came to me. The big old cattletruck grated to a halt, Bill Blackwood jumped out of the cab, opened the rear ramp and Bruce clattered stiffly down the metal slope. The black horse stood, looked at his new surroundings and let out a long sigh. Bill echoed the sigh, turned his shoulders, and without any pressure on the leadrope Bruce followed him into the stable, which Mark had cleaned and given a fresh coat of white paint. Bill stood the horse to face him and unbuckled the headcolllar. I was waiting outside the door and could’ve sworn I heard Bill whisper “Safe now. Don’t be frightened,” but they were such unlikely words for him I must’ve misheard. Bill handed me the headcollar, walked back to the lorry and pulled out a patched turnout rug and a bridle in one hand, and Bruce’s Irish Horse Passport in the other, together with a bundle of vet reports tied with baler twine.
“Useful?” he said.
“Very,” I replied with a grin, picking up the bottle of wine I had for him, and an envelope with a thankyou card and money for diesel. We walked towards eachother bearing our gifts like one of those weird East-West spy swaps where neither party wants to act first, and we laughed awkwardly until he put the rug on the ground, I handed him the bottle in his free hand, he gave me the bridle and I gave him the card. I wanted to hug him but I don’t think he’s a huggy person, so we tried to shake hands which meant juggling the gifts about again until we touched fingertips.
“Thankyou Bill, for everything” I said, feeling a bit overwhelmed.
“Nice horse,” he said gruffly. “He’ll be fine for you.” He looked at me and nodded, and his eyes were twinklier than I’d noticed before. He got back into the lorry, crashed through the gears and drove off.
“Dear Bill,” said the card, which had a cartoon of a sleeping horse dreaming of carrots, and the caption ‘I like doing nothing.’ “It was really kind of you to deliver Bruce, here’s money for diesel. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for him, and all your help persuading James, which I know caused you a lot of work. Thankyou so much. I’ve loved riding your horses and I’ve learnt a lot. If I can ever return the favour please ask. Kindest wishes, Elaine.” I had toyed with the idea of a x but decided not.
The mission was complete. Bruce was here in the stable fate had found for him, and my overwhelming feeling was relief (reality and panic would follow in due course). He was lame on his left hind leg, both hocks were stiff with arthritic changes (spavins and thoroughpins) and his dodgy hip affected how he bore his weight. Euthanasia was still possible if the tendon didn’t heal and he was in pain, but his ‘rescue’ wasn’t a re-run of Black Beauty and he wasn’t emaciated or cowering in a corner. It wasn’t until I got a real sense of his distress that I even considered the word rescue, and then hastily un-considered it because labelling him a rescue-case is as bad as calling me a cancer sufferer.
It was eight o’clock when I settled Bruce with lots of hay and Sheila’s broodmare stabled alongside for company. Through the freshly cleaned stable window he could see her two young horses grazing in their field. I left him for the night and drove home, lost in thought and the beautiful skyscape. Mark handed me a glass of wine as I walked through the back door.
“How did it go?” he asked excitedly.
“It went good. He looks bigger than I remember. I can’t believe I’ve got him after everything. Bill found me a rug and a bridle, and here’s his vet reports.” I put the bundle of papers on the kitchen table and sank down on a chair, drained of energy. “Sheila said she’d check him before she went to bed.”
“You look exhausted,” said Mark. “Go have a bath. Egg and chips for tea, I’ll make a start.”
I love my husband. I love egg and chips.
As I soaked in the bath I fretted about Bruce. Would he settle, would he come sound, had I taken on too much, was he worried in his new surroundings? The answer to everything was yes. I was so concerned about getting him but I had no idea if I was capable of riding him. He’d tanked off across open ground the only time Bill let me exercise him, and we’d spent ages going round in circles until he slowed down. How had I conveniently forgotten that episode? Mark came in with wine to top-up my glass and a magazine to read. I was going to tell him what had happened, but changed my mind.
“Here, read this,” he said, handing me a Spirit & Destiny magazine and pouring the wine. “Sara gave me some magazines for you when I saw her this-morning. It’s a bit airy-fairy but it’ll take your mind off things. Food in twenty minutes.”
As I said, I love my husband. I opened the magazine and skimmed the pages until an article about angels caught my interest. Different angels do different jobs, and they like being asked for help. Archangel Michael is the biblical Angel of Protection and the writer gave a simple invocation to harness Michael’s great protective power. I read the words, thought of Bruce, read the words again, decided I had nothing to lose and spoke the invocation. Just to be safe I said it twice.
The next morning Bruce had his head over the stable door watching Sheila groom the mare, the sound of his flapping lips keeping time with the brush, and echoing around the high roof beams. His churned stable showed he’d spent the night pacing to-and-fro. Sheila and I exchanged hellos, and I remembered she’s not a morning person so I didn’t chat. I looked at my horse and a wave of excitement ran through my body. My horse! Sheila looked up and caught my eye and we grinned at eachother in companionable silence. As I slipped Bruce’s headcollar over his nose he grabbed the buckle and chewed it nervously, then held it in his teeth. I wrestled it out followed by the leadrope which was also in his mouth, and led him outside. He walked politely, stood to open the field gate, turned and faced me and as I undid his headcollar he stood up on his hind legs, spun round and galloped off bucking and squealing. Taken completely unawares I ducked away from his front foot waving in my face, stumbled backwards and fell over. Not a good start. I brushed myself off, retrieved the headcollar from where it had fallen and went back to the stable. I hoped Sheila hadn’t seen my first attempt at knowing what I’m doing, but luckily she’d gone into her caravan for breakfast.
The stable building was quiet, just the sound of birdsong and the hum of a distant tractor filtered through the open doorway. I looked out Bruce’s window, watching him graze in his own paddock while the neighbouring horses stood at the fence waiting to speak. I began mucking, thinking through the week’s rollercoaster events that had led me and a horse that I thought was lost, to find an old friend. When everything was clean and swept I re-laid the shavings bed, and lifted the water bucket from the corner of the stable. On the floor behind the bucket were two white feathers. I bent down to look more closely, raised the edge of the rubber mat to check underneath, and ran my hands along the wall in case they’d fallen from the brickwork. Then I wrapped them carefully in a tissue and put them in my pocket. So Archangel Michael had heard after all. Maybe things were going to be okay.
Do we write blogs for ourselves or our readers? Are blogs a way of legitimising thoughts in full view of the world while kidding ourselves we’re Very Private People, or are we secret divas playing to an audience, giving readers what we think they want?
Previously I had a business blog. It was a great selling tool to showcase Etsy and Ebay wares. I curated perfect posts of my home and surrounding countryside accessorised by vintage florals and chippy paintwork, with no mention of real life to spoil the ambient dream. It was idyllic, I would like to have lived there myself.
This blog was born from a necessity for discipline. I’ve been writing ever since I learned how, but it wasn’t until I took a writing course with Anna Blake that the benefits of editing-with-a-chainsaw were explained. Using one word instead of five made me think about each sentence, and the impact was impressive. I wanted to write more but Busy is my middle name and there was never time to do something I considered ‘doing nothing’. Having cancer, having a horse and home and running a business were all time-consuming and I also like to sleep, so where could writing fit?
Steroids provided the answer. Perhaps a tad extreme but the Universe works in strange ways. Along with chemotherapy treatment I had high-dose steroids and being awake at 4 a.m. was the norm. With a quiet house and Mark asleep, I had precious time to I escape into words, silently venting thoughts on the laptop keys. The more I wrote, the more I wrote, and the more I wrote the clearer my thoughts became. When I had a chemo break I slept through 4a.m and got busy again, because I didn’t want to face my thoughts. I couldn’t process the words Incurable Diagnosis, let alone commit them to paper.
Panacea: Noun. A solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases.
The Million Dollar Question: If my panacea was within reach, why wasn’t I reaching for it?
The Cheap-Seats Answer: Because it would unlock a Pandora’s Box of emotions I didn’t want to face.
Anna nagged me to write, and set little challenges she didn’t think I knew were challenges but yes, emails also count as writing. Then I opened a new Word document; the cathartic stuff came first and it wasn’t pretty. The self-pity was downright ugly and the dark humour was bitter and very, very dark. I used the chainsaw as a weapon against the words I’d written, and most of them lay headless in the recycle bin. I emptied the bin. I emptied myself. I wrote myself empty.
Nature abhors a void. Once I’d trashed the vehemence and spite I felt like I’d had a re-boot, and the words that fell out of my fingers surprised no-one more than me. Writing became important but I needed a discipline because I work best to a deadline. One morning, the answer came with the words Horse Husband and Cancer, and once you have a title, you have a task. The first hurdle was ‘coming out’ as a cancerous person, the second hurdle was building a WordPress site. The latter took more determination than I knew I had.
Why do we read blogs? Because we’re nosey, or connect with the writer, or find security in someone else’s thoughts? Does misery love company, or is it solidarity with like-minded folk? Do a group of blogging introverts create one outrovert, a tribe that’s greater than the individuals? Or do we just like what certain bloggers write.
Recently I wrote three posts about my horse Bruce. They were my first foray into semi-fiction, a completely indulgent experiment of true facts and modified characters. Many of my readers aren’t horsey, so apologies if they’re not what you signed-up for. I was more surprised than anyone how well the stories read, but the greater surprise was how much I enjoyed writing them; I discovered a confidence in storytelling that was previously missing. Creating something fresh is immensely exciting, whereas translating thoughts to paper can be quite draining.
So where is this blog going? I’m on a flow writing Bruce’s story interwoven with my own, and if it looks good I’ll publish what I’ve written so far. Meanwhile I’ll continue to share when the real world intervenes or my soap-box beckons; this blog is going to go where it wants. I could pull rank and say “It’s my blog” but actually, it’s OUR blog because you’re all part of it. In answer to my first question, by writing for myself I found you, and by writing for you I found myself. Neat huh.