There was a stupid ad recently – I say stupid because it made me cry and it annoys me when things make me cry when they have absolutely nothing to do with me (or even, in the case of the ad, are even true). In the ad, which happens to be for a big brand of equestrian rugs (see why I was annoyed?), a young girl takes a horse out for a long cross country hack. Then she gets off and spends time with him, stroking the horse’s face in appreciation and one gets the feeling there are a lot of thank you’s in those moments.
Shortly afterwards, the footage shows the girl back at the yard, dressing the horse in his rug and travel boots and getting him ready to go somewhere. Then she purposefully loads him onto a lorry and the horse doesn’t take his eyes off her as the ramp closes and the lorry rolls off down the road and into the unknown without her.
On the other end, the ramp lowers down to two anxious but happy faces and the horse walks down the ramp (in his snazzy rug of course) to be greeted at his new home with much joy and fuss.
Into that short little clip is rolled so much gratitude, love, resolve, loss, heartache, fear, anticipation, excitement, joy and relief and it is a scenario that plays out several times a day all over the world. Unfortunately the ending can vary.
Why I don’t home horses
Homing horses – off the track as well as otherwise – is a subject close to my heart. Unfortunately there are lots of horses bred every year and not enough homes to go round, with the result that there are always horses looking for somewhere to go and never more so than at the end of their racing careers. It’s not a problem one can solve all at once. I reckon all you can do is try, one horse at a time.
I don’t like homing horses, mostly for the simple fact that I don’t trust people all that much. I know there are lots of lovely people out there (so my apologies in advance), but there are very few of you I hold in sufficiently high regard to give a horse to. Sorry, but there it is and that is why I still have all mine safely at home. While they drive me crazy and empty my bank account with constant demands for food, exercise, grooming, professional services and new clothes, I wouldn’t have it any other way. So broke I may be, but I know where all my ‘kids’ are when I close my eyes at night.
While my horses are off the table, I do make a very occasional rare exception if the right horse and the right person happen along at the same time. I still prefer to avoid it if I can because once a horse has been put in my hands, that responsibility is there for life, so only the very best homes are considered, which is probably why I’ve only done it twice in the last 8 years.
One of the rare exceptions
A few years ago, a special little horse was coming off the track. I say little for a purpose, because the little ones are usually the hardest to home as they’re often too small for more experienced horsemen and too green for smaller, less experienced types. So I wasn’t overly thrilled at the prospect of trying to figure out what to do with this one.
Then a friend mentioned they knew someone in Joburg who was a) terribly nice and b) looking for a smallish horse. I dismissed the idea out of hand. I was certainly not sending a horse I had anything to do with all the way to Joburg where I wouldn’t be able to check on it. No, absolutely not. It was out of the question.
A few weeks later I bumped into the same friend who reminded me about the girl in Joburg. Not wanting to be rude, I took down the number and dialled, right there in the tack shop. On the other end, the girl – her name was Beryl – picked up. She explained that she’d more or less found a horse. It was coming to the end of its racing career, but the trainer wanted to give it one last try before retiring it. She had been to look at the horse with her instructor and barring the last run, it was all but a done deal. I said thank you and sorry to have bothered and was getting ready to end the call when she asked me to describe ‘my’ horse to her. I explained that I didn’t want to interfere and muddy the waters when everything was settled. There was a short silence and then she blurted out, “You’re going to think I’m mad, but ever since I decided I wanted a new horse, I’ve had a picture in my head of a little dark bay with a white face. The one I went to see isn’t the horse in my head.”
As it happened, ‘my’ little friend fitted her cosmic order. Exactly. Despite not being able to try him or even see him in the flesh, she took the leap of faith and took him anyway and as it turned out – he really was the horse she’d dreamed about.
Some things are just meant to be.
There is a lovely Afrikaans expression about giving things with ‘warm hands’. It is usually applied to people passing an inheritance to their children while they are still alive to see them enjoy it, but I’ve translated it and sort of annexed it and modified it for my own use. I like to think of giving with warm hands as giving freely and generously without any ifs, buts or conditions attached and I passed In Extreme – as much as he was mine to pass on – wholly and without reservation to Beryl.
And it is perhaps the best compliment that I can pay to the ‘mad’ girl with the horse in her head that I never, ever had a moment’s worry about him while he was in her care – which turned out to be the rest of his life, which sadly ended, gently but out of necessity, after a silly paddock accident late last week.
I got to ride him once. And that is a memory I’ll hold in my heart and treasure always. He was chunky and reassuringly solid beneath me. Strong and capable and very much his own personality and not at all sure about this new person on his back, but kind enough to tolerate me anyway. Mostly. He did throw a bit of a curve ball, just to see whether I was up to it and that make me smile.
Horses are a little like people – there are some you click with and some you don’t. I did like Streamy, but he was definitely Beryl’s horse. And that made me smile too.
The gift of connection
Horses are such generous creatures. They don’t just let us borrow freedom on their backs, they let us borrow their friends and connections too and I have been blessed beyond measure by the varied, amazing, mad and talented people my horses have lent to me. And you become involved and entangled in their lives too. It’s an incredible gift, really, this giving of connections. So thanks to In Extreme, I got Beryl and her family and friends. And Beryl, for her sins, got me, and Hamish and my dad and the whole clutch of people and stories and other associated baggage that he brought with him.
One of the very first columns I wrote for the Sporting Post was a little story about my first racehorse and a look at all the time, the effort, the ups and downs and above all the people it had taken to get her into the parade ring that Durbanville afternoon. Because horses aren’t something that you do on your own. And those friends and connections are something that lasts long after the horse may have moved on as, sadly, we all have to do at some time or another.
With regards to moving on, my little ad states, “It’s a powerful moment that reminds you how much trust these horses put in us to take on new lives and new challenges; sometimes many times over in a single lifetime. Their ability to adapt with an open heart over and over is truly extraordinary.” Horses teach us to do the same, because we outgrow some of them physically, our ambitions outgrow others and sometimes there’s just not enough time to fit it all in before our time is up.
Funny, weird, stupid old life that gives so much, promises so much and takes so much away and does not always play fair and measure each quantity evenly. But you don’t get one without the other. That’s the deal. So it’s a matter of trust. Once you’ve rolled the dice, you have to take what’s dished out to you.
Passing on horses is hard enough, but when they get hurt or, as was the case this week, pass on, you lose them all over again, but at least, when they go, you suddenly realise the army of friends and connections they have built up to help carry you through it, which I think is how they design things. So there we were – Beryl and I – at opposite ends of the country, crying into our phones as she communicated the news.
Journeys start and journeys end, but it’s not the end of the road. Not yet. Not by a long chalk. In looking back and celebrating his life – because that’s something one does at the end – there were stories and photos shared, connections made and friendships formed, visits shared, Savannas drunk, outrides and chats and vistas enjoyed together. And at the end of it, we have all that and each other and all of it on the back of the little bay horse in Beryl’s head.
So even though my hands are empty today, my heart is heavy. Which means it is full. So it seems I got a pretty good deal after all.