Just before Tara left us, the old chestnut mare used to enjoy standing at the bottom gate watching the sun go down.
So when I caught Gracie the skewbald pony doing the same thing one evening, a look of complete serenity on her face, I felt a shiver through my spine.
I’m used to my cheeky pony being full of herself, shrugging me off as I attempt to pet her. ‘What have you got?’ is her refrain, accompanied by a brazen nuzzling of pockets. Standing peacefully watching the sunset, perfectly still, the breeze blowing her mane, was not like her at all.
When she did it again a few evenings later, I heard myself saying out loud: ‘You’re leaving me, aren’t you?’
It made no sense. She was not ill. There was nothing wrong, aside from the usual struggle to get her through spring and summer without laminitis, which was becoming more complex.
She was only 17 but it felt like, with the passing of each year, the time I had to limit her grazing in a penned-off area was getting longer. ‘Is it me or did I have her grazing the whole field this time last year?’ I used to ask people. But I brushed it aside. Perhaps I was in denial. She went lame a few times more than usual this year and in order to manage her grass consumption I ended up going up to the field three times a day to stuff haynets and tend to her in a taped-off area.
While Darcy grazed with impunity like a creature with hollow legs — as with skinny people it is baffling where she puts it all — poor Gracie only had to look at fresh shoots to make herself lame. And boy could she stuff her face with grass if I let her.
Her needs became my routine. I looked forward to her little whinny as she heard my car arrive. We suspected Equine Metabolic Syndrome, because her other problem was that her gut became easily inflamed.
I can’t count the number of times I had to de-wind her like a baby after she managed to overload herself by eating too quickly. I had perfected a technique of walking her to make her fart. It sounds comical, and it was, and we always pulled her through. We had a couple of near misses where we sat up all night in the barn waiting for her to pass gas.
But when my vet came to do their vaccinations a few weeks ago, he listened to the routine I was going through to keep her sound and he gave me his wise look. ‘You know, at some stage, you won’t be able to keep her going.’
I told him I knew. But I really wouldn’t let the thought go any further than that. I loved her so. Before going to Greece for a week for our first holiday in years, I left three people in charge of her on a three times a day rota.
The weather turned, the grass went brown, a round bale was dropped into the field. One of my friends sent a photo after we had been gone a day showing Gracie and Darcy happily munching, one either side of the bale. Another friend who did the evening check said she trotted over fine.
The next morning, we were on our way to the beach when the friend on morning duty called. ‘She’s down.’ My heart wrenched. We pulled over. By all accounts, she was colicking.
It didn’t help that my usual vet, who knows the pony, was on another job and had to send a locum. She was about 20 years old. She came on the phone and made so little sense I had to tell her to pull herself together. ‘Get the pony up, do an exam, give me a diagnosis. If it’s like she has been before it will be trapped wind. It’s painful and looks bad, but she always pulls through. You need to move her. If it’s an impaction, you need to try paraffin.’
The young vet moaned that she felt this and she felt that and it was against her beliefs to pull a horse off the floor. ‘To save its life?’ I shouted. The builder boyfriend snatched the phone and said: ‘You do everything you can to save that horse until your boss gets there, do you hear me?’
And the snowflake vet became so upset she threatened us with the police, though at least she managed to put her own feelings on hold for long enough to administer pain relief and anti-spasmodic drugs.
Mercifully, my vet arrived soon after and took over. He did everything he could. Poor Gracie was given every chance to pull through. But this time, it was not to be.