Monday, September 14, 2015

Gulliver and Winn

I would feel it first: the breath of air, the faint exhalation against my elbow. I'd turn my head and be eye-to-eye with my horse. Gulliver: the horse I was luckiest with. I bought him as a barely-started three-and-a-half-year old, sight unseen off the internet from western Canada. He was a Connemara, a breed I'd always loved, and I thought he'd be perfect as my new event horse even though he'd never jumped a fence yet and I'd never evented before.

Years later, when I told my trainers Betty and Angelica how I came to acquire Gully, they shook their heads with identical expressions of amazement. "You were lucky," they said, but by then I knew how much I was.

Gully was my fellow adventurer, my partner in crime. I always felt safe on his back; he never, ever did anything to harm me. He adored me, and only me: when my daughter brought her classmates to the barn, the other horses would hang their necks over the stall doors, long and low like brontasaurii, hoping for treats. Gulliver would stand against the back wall of his stall, tail clamped between his legs, head up, eyes wary.

He loved to explore. He loved to go new places. He loved to jump. Eventing was fun for him, until it started hurting. If you look at our competition record you see toward the end a bunch of withdrawals--the time I pulled him in cross-country warmup, because he lacked enthusiasm (he was lame the next day). The time--several times--that we got through cross-country like champions, then started limping in show-jumping warmup. When first Angelica, then Betty, began calling to tell me about other horses for sale, I knew what they were really trying to say.

The vet's diagnosis was "navicular syndrome." Unfortunately that can mean a bunch of things. Horses' feet are complicated structures. Neither xrays nor ultrasound showed any huge abnormalities, but the truth was that both Gully's front feet hurt, and nothing we tried made made him better. I retired him far earlier than I hoped to, and bought Sarah, my lovely mare.

Gully lived outside on our farm, with his long-term herd. He had a good enough life, but he hated the inactivity. Sometimes I rode him, but though he seemed happy to be under saddle he also limped, which told me I was hurting him, which I couldn't bear.

Two years passed. Then one day, several months ago, the farrier went to trim the sole of Gully's right front hoof, preparatory to putting on new shoes, and his knife slid into a pocket of space that shouldn't have been there. A separated sole? My farrier'd seen something like that once before, in 30 years. He trimmed Gully's other front hoof and found the same thing. Afterwards, Gully was sound. He was unfit, hairy, dirty--but he didn't limp. No one can really explain this.

I still didn't ride him much. It turns out I don't have time to keep two horses in eventing work right now. In a year or two, perhaps, but not right now. But last week, with my daughter's horse off as he heals from cellulitis, she rode Gully out with me and Sarah, and from the expression of delight on the horse's face it was obvious that he really, really, wanted a job.

And I thought of Winn. (That's not her real name.) Winn is one of my lovely pony clubbers, a smart and thoughtful teen who right now needs something to ride that's both sound and won't scare her to death. As quirky as Gully is about relationships, I thought he really might like Winn, and while I can't absolutely guarantee he'll stay sound, I knew he would be safe and lovely for her.

She came and tried him, and they did get along, so she rode him again at Saturday's pony club clinic. Gully was making happy faces at her, and listening to her, and she was grinning ear-to-ear, when suddenly Gully slid on a wet patch of grass, and fell. It's a crazy thing, but it happens sometimes. They went down together--my view was blocked by other people, but Winn rolled free and Gully did his best to not hurt her. It wasn't anyone's fault, but I hoped it wouldn't scare either of them.

It didn't seem to. Winn remounted and they jumped one teeny fence together, to end on a good note. Then she dismounted, ran Gully's stirrups up, and walked him back to the barn. Later my daughter told me that Winn said to her, "The whole way down, Gully kept saying he was sorry, and I kept telling him, buddy, it's okay." If Gully was already talking to her, and she could already hear him, that boded very well, but in truth I already knew how well-suited they were. As they walked away from me, Gully kept his nose exactly behind Winn's elbow, the whole way home.