‘This isn’t so bad,’ said my friend, as we knelt at my old mare’s side as she lay on the ground beneath a tree growing weak.
Aged 33 in horse years, or ninetysomething in human years, Tara had been enjoying an extraordinary renaissance since Darcy the thoroughbred had been turned out to live with her and Gracie the skewbald pony.
My old girl had taken to the young racehorse to the extent that the pair became inseparable and Gracie had to leave them to it and pootle off around the field to graze on her own.
Tara and Darcy shadowed each other day and night and even walked to the water tank together. Having been lame and stiff, the renewed walking did Tara so much good that after a week she didn’t need painkillers and for the first time in years she was medication-free.
She even galloped again. She and the youngster took to racing each other towards the fence when I arrived with their breakfast each morning. Tara lost the extra weight she had been carrying from malingering in the field shelter and started to look completely sound.
And then, suddenly, I arrived one day and she was lying down. When I went to see what was wrong, she whickered at me, rolled on to her side, stretched her head out and lay still.
I sat on the ground with her, stroked her face and neck and felt tears welling in my eyes. She made little neighing noises, very faint. She looked so weak and helpless.
A girlfriend who has a horse in the paddock next door arrived and ran from her car to help. A grave look on her face, she knelt beside me and together we petted Tara and talked to her. She was in no pain. She simply lay there, muttering away to us.
‘This is all right, you know,’ my friend reassured me, and I knew what she meant. We all want our horses to grow very old, have good years in retirement in a lovely field kicking up their heels, then one day lie down underneath an oak tree and simply go to sleep. Tara began to snore gently. I felt the tears rushing down my face. My friend left and
I sat with her.
‘I… I… I… well, you know. And all the things we did together… and… well… I…you know… and I always have…’
Tara nodded her head in her sleep. Her life and mine flashed before me. Galloping flat out, leaping over hedges, her bucking midair. Seventeen years we have been together. She has been in my life longer than most humans. I stroked her face and cried.
And then, with a great heave she hauled herself to her feet and looked at me as if to ask me what on earth I was doing.
‘Bloody hell, Tara, you sod!’ I said.
‘I can’t believe you did that!’
Every autumn, when the grass comes through, it’s the same. Last year she fell asleep by the roadside hedge with her head outstretched and her tongue out and a passerby called for help screaming blue murder about the poor dead horse who had been abandoned.
Having said that, I could see that this time she wasn’t right. After struggling to her feet, she looked weak and exhausted.
She couldn’t eat much breakfast and hardly any dinner. She didn’t want her hay. I had to call the vet and when she came she confirmed she wasn’t right. But it wasn’t at all clear what was wrong. She was amazed by how good the old girl looked for her age. She didn’t have a temperature or a much raised heart rate. She was just very weak.
She asked me if she had a history of this or that and I had to explain: ‘This horse has never had a day sick or injured in her entire life. She is the toughest and fiercest creature I have ever known. I think she is just fading away.’
The vet gave her some probiotic because her stomach sounded weird, although she clearly wasn’t colicking.
‘I think she’ll be all right now because it’s the rule of horses that if you call the vet and pay the charge they always get well at that point,’ my friend said, and I agreed.
That evening Tara went down again and wouldn’t eat, not even a bran mash, so my friend and I fed her the medication the vet had left in a feeding syringe, along with some mash. She was a good patient and afterwards she lay luxuriating in a fresh shavings bed with the gloopy mess all round her mouth.
Her demeanour was very much that of an old person in a care home as their nearest and dearest gather round. ‘Tara, I love you,’ I told her that night, just in case.