Laminitis is a lot like alcoholism. Once you cross the line you can’t go back.
‘My name’s Gracie and I’m a grassoholic,’ is what the skewbald pony should be saying at least three times a week to other grassoholics like herself. She hit rock bottom a few months ago at the start of the spring and has been in recovery ever since.
But I’m not hopeful this latest period of abstemiousness will last unless she makes a sincere decision to change.
In truth, she has been bumping along the bottom for years, bingeing and then swearing off. Every spring I think it will be different. I put a tape across the field and make sure the amount of sugary grass she has access to is limited. But every spring she somehow manages to confound all attempts to save her from herself.
I think addicts are like this. They are hard-wired to self-destruct no matter how much their loved ones beg them to desist.
Gracie doesn’t eat grass, she inhales it. She hoovers it. She strims it like a Black & Decker. She puts her head down, opens her mouth and doesn’t come up for air for hours. I don’t know how she breathes. I have heard her several times defy all biological understanding of equines by letting out a huge belch.
Horses aren’t meant to be able to burp. They have no reflux. But Gracie can burp like a drunken man in a pub at closing time.
This spring, I thought she stood a chance as the grass came through slowly. She and Tara worked around the newly growing shoots picking here and there. But after a few weeks, she started to lift her back feet in the air. That’s the first sign, when the soles of her little goaty hooves start itching her. Then she began shifting her weight from one front foot to another.
She had to be shut in the shelter with soaked hay, much to her disgust. After a week, I let her out on a small patch of almost grazed off grass that Tara had been eating.
After a few hours she had eaten herself lame again. ‘How are you doing this?’ I asked her.
‘Arrrrrp!’ she said, letting out a grassy-smelling belch and lifting her back hooves up and down.
After another week in the shelter, I decided to let her out just at night. And so at 6 p.m. each evening I would go down to the field and open the tape around the shelter.
Oh, what was I thinking? Alkies are quite happy to indulge from 6 p.m., aren’t they? They live for that sort of thing. Every evening, Gracie would be pacing up and down the shelter with excitement, anticipating her first delicious mouthful.
At 6 p.m. — cocktail hour! — the tape would come down and she would surge out to binge. She seemed to eat progressively more the more I limited her.
And if I took her out for a ride, she would lunge at the sides of the lane eating everything — hedgerow, stinging nettles, sticky weed, cow parsley. On the common, she would veer sideways nearly unseating me to scoff heather, gorse, any kind of overhanging branch from a tree, not just leaves but bare branches, oak, bracken, holly, willow, a piece of a signpost — yes, I know, not all these are good for a horse. I’m just telling you what she tried to eat.
In the end, I let her out on a quarter of an acre wearing a grazing muzzle.
‘Let’s try some real control grazing, shall we?’ I said as she rubbed her head against her leg. I felt bad. But I came back a few hours later to find that she had managed to find a way to force what ought to have been unfeasible quantities of grass through the small hole in a muzzle.
I have heard lots of darkly amusing stories over the years about the ingenious lengths addicts will go to in order to feed their compulsion.
Gracie had mastered the art of speed grazing. Whereas an unmuzzled horse will lazily tear at the grass, chew for a few seconds then tear again, wandering a few steps after every few mouthfuls, Gracie had hit upon a technique whereby she stabbed at the ground at high speed like a hammer drill. She looked less like a horse and more like
a mechanical digger.
To watch this was extraordinary. You had to do a double take. It was like a speeded up film of a horse grazing.
The old girl Tara had given up trying to compete and had gone to sleep in the shelter, evidently exhausted just from watching the frenetic display.
The quarter acre of grass was hoovered bald. I guess it works if you work it.