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The Infinite Magic of Horses
By Candida Baker
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2009 Candida Baker
All rights reserved.
We had it all planned out. Ten days before Glimmer's foal was due to be born, we would put her in a smaller field with safe fences, away from the other horses, and give her time to get used to her surroundings before she gave birth.
But Glimmer, my beautiful Palomino Quarter Horse mare, had other ideas. Two weeks before her foal was due, I'd just finished feeding the horses when Imogen, who keeps her pony with us, said to me — 'Look, there's something strange sticking out of Glimmer!'
She was absolutely right — what was sticking out was the sac with the foal in it, and Glimmer was still nonchalantly eating her dinner.
I rushed inside and got my camera, and Imogen and her dad and I went down to the field and stood near the fence.
Almost immediately, Glimmer lay down and her foal began to appear. Halfway through the process, with half a foal in and half a foal out, she even decided to get up and eat a bit more. But then she thought better of it, lay down again, and in a minute there he was — a beautiful little Paint colt, and not just Paint, a tri-coloured Paint, with brown and black and white on him. I just kept clicking away, and I got everything, from the sac to his first steps.
By then my daughter Anna had arrived back from school, and I decided we would see if Glimmer was happy for us to imprint her foal.
Imprinting is a somewhat controversial method of handling foals that was created by horse specialist Dr Robert Miller about twenty years ago. The idea is that before the foal's flight instinct has kicked in, you handle it, a lot. You do just about everything from rubbing your fingers on its gums to picking up its feet. I didn't want to go that far, but I did want to see if Glimmer would let us stroke her baby and how the foal would feel about it.
We went in very quietly and just sat on the ground near him, and I just lightly stroked him and then Anna did the same. Glimmer didn't mind at all. She even joined in, giving him a few kisses and licks. Before long, we could stroke him all over. We did it for only about ten minutes, but from that moment on he was so easy to handle.
We called him Storm because he was born between summer thunderstorms. I was grateful that we spent the time with him, because when the rain got fierce I could put Glimmer in the stable and Storm was very happy to walk beside me.
As soon as Storm was born, all the other horses crowded around, including his bigger half-sister, Jewel, and gazed at him for hours. The geldings all stood in a row against the fence line. It was the funniest thing to watch.
Now he is six months old, a beautiful Paint colt, and he runs and gambols — he is very independent. He managed to get separated from his mother a few times, and neither of them panicked, thank goodness, although she was walking like a nursing mother who was desperate to give her baby a feed by the time I got him back in with her.
Every morning when I give them hay, Storm asks me for scratches. Then Glimmer always manages to drop hay on his head, so that he looks rather goofy instead of like the noble steed I hope he will one day become.
A stubborn horse walks behind you, an impatient horse walks in front of you, but a noble companion walks beside you.
Ducking for Cover
My horse, Shilo, is a 14.2 hands chestnut Arabian mare. She's sixteen years old.
A couple of years ago, something really unusual happened. I was having lessons with my riding instructor, which I'd been doing every week for the past three years. On this particular day in the sand arena, I was doing figure-of-eight circles, and Shilo refused point blank to go down the centre of the arena in a straight line. She would just side-step when I got to the middle, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Once the lesson was over, I came to a stop in the middle of the arena and waited while my instructor came over to talk to me. 'Gee, she really didn't want to step in the middle today, did she?' she said with a laugh.
We both thought it was a good joke until I asked Shilo to move off so we could go home. She wouldn't move. Not even one step. She just stood there, ears pricked, head tilted to the side, staring at her feet!
That's when we saw what all the side-stepping and fuss had been about. A baby duckling had found its way into the arena and hadn't been able to get out again. While my instructor and I were talking, the little duck must have found its way over to Shilo and sat very snugly between her front hooves. I can only imagine how scared that poor little duck must have been, especially with Shilo and I charging around it.
All that time Shilo had been trying her best not to step on the poor little fluff ball, even while I was on her back unwittingly trying my best to get her to walk straight on top of it!
I will never forget how cute both my horse and that little duck looked as they both stood there staring at one another.
A good trainer can hear a horse speak to him. A great trainer can hear a him whisper.
MONTY ROBERTSCHAPTER 3
In the Dark Hours
There's not a whole lot of fun in having depression.
Especially when you are busy hiding it from the world and making out you are OK — telling friends and family that you aren't lonely and that you don't need any assistance.
Perhaps hardest to endure is crying alone. All you crave is someone to hold you and tell you it's going to be all right. Even when you don't know what 'it' is that's making you feel this way, it's company you desire, another human spirit to let you know that someone understands and things are going to get better, eventually.
I'd been having such a day last year. I was five hours' drive from family whom I didn't want to burden. And I didn't want to contact a group of friends who were either recently married or recently hooked up, or who I thought were too happy to bother with someone suffering a bout of depression so bad it knocked me sideways.
I was tired of my life. Tired of pretending that I was happy by myself and that I didn't need anyone.
It's funny how we can trick ourselves into thinking we are OK, yet it just takes the slightest thing for the veneer to slide off and we are exposed for who we truly are; how we truly feel.
So there I was on the outskirts of a small country town, population 98. No one around but two horses in the paddock for company. Funny thing about those horses, about seven months before, I had saved them from starvation a couple of towns away from me.
I'd saved them towards the end of a winter when the average overnight temperature was around eight degrees below freezing. They were in a bare paddock — no feed, no rugs, so thin you could play music on all their ribs. It was obviously a long time since they'd been shown any love or attention. I'd been alerted to their plight and had brought them back to my place and my empty paddock, but not before a good two-hour battle to coax the older mare into the truck.
Paint and Sadie were their names. Paint was still a youngster at four years old, and perhaps with youth on her side she had fared better than the old grey mare.
But Sadie was a different story. Piecing together her history, I learned that she had been handled quite roughly in the past, possibly abused. She had never fully recovered. A flea-bitten grey, she was riddled with worms and lice the day I collected her and brought her to safety. She was blind in one eye and wary of the whole human race, which had given her nothing but hurt and hunger for years.
Getting Paint, the younger mare, on the truck was easy. She was a rather bossy chestnut who knew that she deserved better and wasn't too scared to express her indignation at what she had been put through. Sadie was different, not willing to be caught, not willing to be taken on a truck even though it was away from starvation. It took a lot of patience that day to get her safely loaded and home.
Once she arrived, she stepped gratefully down as if she had arrived in heaven, but she was wary ... always wary of human touch.
Over the months Paint began to thrive, bustling up for treats, pats and attention, always the first in line at the gate when you were outdoors, a stickybeak through and through who grew more sure of herself every day.
But Sadie remained out of touch and always just slightly out of reach.
I have no doubt she was grateful she was in a better place, but any attempts, no matter how calm, to get a halter on her again and groom her just stressed her out. I think she was happy just to be alive, and I learned to let her be.
Although eventually she would come up tentatively for the odd treat and tolerate the odd pat, it was always after Paint had cleared the way for her. She seemed to watch out of her one good eye, deem the situation safe and proceed forward for a bite of apple. Then, before anything more than a brief stroke or two on the neck could be given, she would step back again.
The day I was having my worst bout of depression, I had let both Paint and Sadie into the house paddock to trim down a burst of spring grass that had come through.
Sitting alone on the edge of the verandah, overcome by sadness, I reached a point in myself that scared me. I didn't know who to call, what to do, or even why I was feeling this way. Lowering my head, I began to cry.
I don't know how long I sat there, I just know I was distraught and overcome by something I didn't know how to handle any more.
I lost track of time, of sight and sound. I could have been anywhere. Then I felt the sudden whisper of warm breath on my neck. I felt a muzzle nuzzling me softly and looked up to see not the chestnut but Sadie, looking straight at me.
Standing up, I clung to her, and with my hands in her tangled, dirty mane, I pressed my face to her neck and let the tears fall. She stood stock still and let me go on weeping until I had nothing left.
Sadie, who never approached anyone, was letting me hold her, lean on her, draw strength from her. She had come to my rescue.
After some time clinging to her neck, I wiped my eyes and pulled myself together. As I whispered my thank you to her, off she shuffled ... a half-blind old grey mare who had not trusted people for as long as I knew her.
The odd thing was that she didn't miraculously turn a corner after that. She still shunned humans, still stood back, happy to let the chestnut have the attention. But somehow, that day she knew what I was going through. She must have known I had saved her, and that day she saved me.
Somehow she must have known that her fear of me wasn't as strong as my fear of living was at that moment. I think it was her way of offering me some of her strength, the equine version of holding someone close, patting them on the back and telling them it's all going to be OK.
There's something about having an animal as large and alive as a horse next to you that makes you look at the world afresh. It brings back a little of the wonder, reminds you of the simple pleasures left to be had, should you choose to feel them. I love standing in the warm air, breathing in the horses' smell and basking in their presence.
I thank Sadie from the bottom of my heart for offering me her silent support that day. For the blending of the human and equine spirit that uplifted me.
As humans, we can't hope to fully understand the horse's spirit. But many of us are simply thankful that it exists.
Slow down so you can hurry up. In the end, it's a good way. Speed ahead of accuracy is no good.
RAY HUNT, HORSE TRAINERCHAPTER 4
The Horse and the Hanging Bridge
When I was young I lived in the Blue Mountains. I must have been around fourteen or so when, one cold, misty mountain day, my friend and I decided to take a long ride to the Valley of the Waters — a gorge filled with waterfalls. It was the Sixties, and it seems that kids had so much more freedom then. In those days we would ride all day on these marathon adventures across the tablelands and valleys. My pony, Jewels, was a fat little thing, but she was gorgeous, and I used to ride her for hours on end. Our parents gave us so much leeway. We often rode in big groups, but on this particular day there were just the two of us.
My friend and I picked our way down the steep gorge and came across a suspended timber bridge. I cannot imagine to this day what possessed us to think we could cross it with the horses. It was a narrow, swinging affair with thin wooden planks, and it floated 300-odd metres above the valley floor.
My friend went first, but Jewels, never one to miss out on anything, charged after, trying to push past my friend and the other horse. They made it to the other side, but just as Jewels and I reached the end of the bridge, her back legs went straight through a hole where a plank was missing. Then her front legs went down and she was totally, utterly stuck — dangling over the drop below.
At first she struggled desperately to get out, but she was leaning to one side and her shoulder was pushing into the chicken wire that served as a barrier on the sides of the bridge. If she had kept it up we would have plunged into space. I held her head as firmly as I could to try and stop her from turning, and my friend began to climb up the hillside to get help.
The mist began to swirl around us, and my arms ached from the cold and from holding Jewels as still as I could. Every time she struggled, she tipped further to the side, but for the most part she stayed amazingly calm given the peril we were in.
Finally my friend returned with the police. I was somewhat heartened, until they said they couldn't actually do anything; they needed to engage specialist rescuers and equipment to extricate us.
So again we waited. Once more I was alone with the pony and terribly frightened. Strangely, though, my survival instincts kicked in and something allowed me to be calm and stay positive. I just kept stroking her, talking to her and singing songs. Jewels' front legs were bent and partly in the air, her body and shoulders were turned one way, and her head was held by me in the other direction. I can't imagine how awkward and uncomfortable she must have felt. I spent a lot of time trying to work out how to get her saddle off, which was hard because I couldn't let go of her head. Mostly I rode Jewels bareback, so it was unusual that she had a saddle on in the first place. I tried to tie her bridle, but there was nothing to tie it to. I was terrified that the other boards in the bridge would give way.
I stayed in position the entire time. I did not move a muscle, such was my fear of losing my grip and not keeping Jewels still. Most of the time we were holding on, my friend stayed up at the top of the gorge. It terrified me, as I felt so responsible for her and the whole catastrophe.
After what seemed like another hour, firemen or local council men — I'm not sure which — arrived to winch poor Jewels from her entrapment. The vet who accompanied them tranquillised her. They tied a cable from the bridge to a tree and then tied a belt around her. Then they attached that to a point on solid ground and winched her to safety.
It may sound easy, but the process took nearly five hours. Then six of them carried her on a stretcher to higher, level ground. I'll never forget that sight: the men struggling up such a steep incline using sheer muscle power to carry my fat horse! I walked behind, breathless with gratitude and amazed at the whole thing.
When we all eventually reached the top — tired, grateful and still a little in shock — the police said goodnight and sent us on our way home. That's another thing that would never occur these days. It was dark by then, around eight o'clock, so we set out leading the horses on the long walk home. Jewels was scratched and sore but remarkably unscathed by the whole ordeal.
Nothing was said when we reached our respective homes, despite the late hour. The first thing my father heard of the incident was early the following day. I could tell, because he roared through the house waving the morning paper like a preacher.
'What the hell is this about?' he yelled, pushing the story in front of me.
HORSE RESCUED AT RISK OF MEN'S LIVES, the headline screamed from the paper's front page.
Needless to say, we were both in a lot of trouble.
Ironically and sadly, after our dice with danger, I didn't see my friend again. I think she went off to boarding school. It was the last time I saw her.
Jewels was little the worse for her adventure. She lived until she was about thirty-five, and had a very long and happy life. I loved her for so many reasons.
When God wanted to create the horse, he said to the South Wind, 'I want to make a creature of you. Condense.' And the Wind condensed.
Excerpted from The Infinite Magic of Horses by Candida Baker. Copyright © 2009 Candida Baker. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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