Horses are dreadful hypochondriacs. They also hate work. We may kid ourselves that horses enjoy being ridden. But horses, if truth be told, just want to be left alone to eat. They are willing to do almost anything to achieve this end.
Tara, the chestnut mare, has over the years tried every ruse. She once bucked me sky-high in the woods, then galloped home on her own: down the main road in Cobham she went, reins and stirrups dangling, stopping traffic all the way. She negotiated several major junctions before swerving into the yard and putting herself to bed in her stable where, after trudging back on foot, I found her happily munching.
Gracie, the skewbald pony, leads me a merry dance every time I try to get her in from the field, plunging her head to the ground to snatch at passing tufts of grass — ‘just a bit more, no wait, a bit more, no really, that’s it, no, one last mouthful then I’m coming, hang on, just this patch, no, I’m really coming this time, oo wait, just this bit, and this bit…’
A cowboy in Montana once tried to explain it to me: ‘You know, a horse is really just a stomach on legs.’
If we had half a ton of body to keep filled in order to stay alive we would probably spend as many hours of the day as we could stuffing food into our mouths.
As well as bucking me off, Tara is a dab hand at the indiscriminate self-inflicted injury requiring box rest.
A few years ago, she managed to rip her nostril open during the night. They don’t tell you when you start the business of horse-owning that horses defy all attempts to keep them from self-harming.
You put them in a stable with some hay and they either scoff it all down so quickly that they roll over and get colic or else they slash themselves to ribbons on the bare brick walls.
If there is one tiny nail standing a millimetre out in a dark corner somewhere they will find it. And they will repeatedly throw themselves against it for no apparent reason other than how much fun it is to get off work and watch you pick up the £370 vet bill.
The nostril took some serious stitching and I was panic-stricken, but the vet had seen it all before. Ripped nostrils are mother’s milk to her. It was probably her tenth that week.
After the nostril, I began checking the stable every night with a paranoid eye for something that she could maul herself with.
On this occasion, I stared and stared and obsessed wildly about whether she could get her foot tangled in her feed bucket, and whether I should wait until she had finished eating and then remove it, because it wasn’t her normal feed bucket and the edges of the rubber looked a bit sharp. And so on until at 8 p.m. I satisfied myself that she was probably going to survive the night and got into my car and drove away.
And hey presto, the next morning the yard owner texted to say that Tara had managed to slice her lower eyelid open during the night. How is that even possible if you set out to do it with a mirror and a full set of surgical instruments and if you had fingers, not hooves?
The vet was called and the swollen eyelid stitched and Tara was put in a driving harness complete with blinkers to protect the wound. I raced to the yard to find her peering out of her blinkers with her one good eye, looking particularly pleased with herself.
She whickered and whinnied and neighed to me excitably as I came into the block. In fact, she whickered and whinnied and neighed so long and with such varying intonation that I really could hear her saying the following:
‘You are never going to believe what happened to me. I was snoozing with my head propped up against the door when I nodded off completely and the next thing I knew I’d cut my eyelid open on that sharp bit of wood there. I know, how crazy is that? Anyway, they had to get the vet. Three stitches. And that’s not all. The cornea may be scratched. She says it needs antibiotic drops four times a day so I’ve got to stand in. I know. Vets. Listen, you couldn’t see your way clear to throwing a bit of hay over the door, could you? No, not that. The soaked stuff, it’s nicer. Lovely. Super. Thanks. Oo yes that’s good. Very sweet. Mmmm. Did you bring anything else? Polos? Carrots? No. Ah well. You look hassled. How are things with you, by the way? Keeping busy?’