This is a transcript of a talk I gave at Melbourne Writers Festival 2018, as part of the Animal Church stream of programming.
Flashback to April 2018.
It’s a crisp day, the breeze gently ruffling the dry fields around me, tugging at the sleeves of my riding jacket. I am standing at one end of a paddock carpeted in pale green grass. There is a halter slung over my shoulder, and I am holding a carrot.
I am also wearing an idiotic grin, and clucking to the horse at the other end of the paddock. She is eyeing me with an expression that hovers somewhere between disinterest and active dislike – also known as the mare stare. Her bright white blaze faces towards me as she weighs up the cost/benefit ratio of coming to me – the carrot is the benefit, but the cost is indicating anything other than disdain towards me. She doesn’t want to set a precedent.
She is dressed in a bright pink rug, which seems to somehow add to her sense of indignity.
‘Penny!’ I call, as if all she needs is an invitation. ‘Penny Lane! Come on, girl!’
Penny huffs, and then starts lumbering towards me. This could be seen as a positive sign, except her ears are pinned back – she’ll walk over, but she doesn’t want me to get carried away with thinking it means anything.
When she reaches me, she pauses and gently snuffles the carrot out of my hand, turning her head away from me while she chews, savouring the moment. Then she stands quietly and acquiesces as I slip the halter over her head and start leading her out of the field.
I try to talk to her as we walk, a steady patter of inane observations.
‘Isn’t it a lovely day, Penny? Hey girl? Are we going to have fun today? Yes we are. It’s going to be so much fun. Yeah!’
It’s a pep talk more for me than her, because so far, our rides haven’t been that much fun at all. Penny is a sweetheart on the ground, but her strong personality is a lot more apparent from the saddle. There’s a lot of unintentional reversing, and jumping sideways at terrifying things like sticks on the ground, or sometimes her own poo.
But I don’t care – I’m on a total horsey-high. Penny is the first pony that is all mine, and I love her. I’m determined for us to bond, and if that means bribing her with liquorice and apples, that’s the price I’ll pay.
My journey to horses started the same way I imagine most kids’ did – with the Saddle Club. I saw one episode when I was nine, and next minute I was enrolled in the local riding school for weekly lessons. While my parents patiently tried to wait out what they assumed was a phase, I had the last laugh because I’m 28 now and Mum finally bought me a pony.
I have taken breaks along the road, spending time away from horses, but they have something of a siren call over me – I can’t stay away for long.
In 2014, I was buying cat food at my local petbarn, when I came across a young family selling cupcakes outside, to raise funds for a local rescue organisation. They had pin boards set up with images of horses – before and after shots, showing emaciated, ragged looking equines, their eyes dull and their bodies exhausted, next to images where they were almost unrecognisable, restored to almost full health.
I took a flyer, and called the number that night.
‘I’d like to volunteer,’ I told the woman on the other end of the line. I felt like I had to do something.
The rescue were based just outside Canberra on a huge plot of land, that had a rambling old homestead and fields and fields surrounding it. At that point, they had about 12 horses on the land. Each of them were rescues from sale yards, all of them ultimately bound for the knackery. Their stories were unique.
There was the sweet and friendly Duke, who had arrived skinny and ridden with lice, his hair matted and threadbare in parts. Duke had been a much loved horse at one point in his life, and had competed cross country. Somehow though, through the changing of hands, he had ended up at the saleyards, neglected and no longer even a shadow of his former beautiful self.
There was Harley, young at just six years old and unbroken. The photos of Harley when he first arrived at the rescue are shocking. He is so gaunt, his head looks far too big for his neck, and his tail had been picked at by other stressed horses at the yard until he had barely any left. Harley wasn’t broken, and he was so young it was hard to understand how he ended up in that state.
Now, he was handsome and well built, and a joy to train. He came over to the fence line when I first visited the rescue, and put his head against my chest, breathing deeply. That he could still trust people was heartbreaking to me.
There was Robbie. He wasn’t from the saleyards, but from a surrender. When he first arrived, he was assumed to be somewhere in the region of 27 years old, ancient for a horse. His owner had been trying to move house from Canberra to the coast, and had moved Robbie to a paddock in her new area a few months before she went herself. She hadn’t checked on him for months, and when she did at last visit him and take his rug off, she was shocked.
He was skin and bones, his fur matted and lumpy. She had cried, and called the rescue to take him, ashamed and embarrassed, but determined to do the right thing. I sponsored the cost of Robbie’s feed, and visited him to brush him and hang out with him in his first few weeks at the rescue.
Months later, he had his teeth done, and the vet told us his age was actually closer to 15. He still had his whole life ahead of him.
But the story that arrested me the most was that of Jet. Jet was a stunning mare, with Andalusian bloodlines. She was the product of backyard breeding – her mother had actually been artificially inseminated to produce her.
And yet, despite the cost and effort this would have entailed, Jet was left for the first seven years of her life in a paddock, first with her mother and then without. With no human contact, and very little feed, she was wild.
When the owners sold the property, they told the local ranger that whoever could catch her could take Jet. And if she wasn’t gone by the time the new owners arrived, she would be forced onto a truck and taken to the knackery.
The rescue’s trainer, and incredible young woman, spent five hours in the field with Jet, sitting quietly, getting her acclimatised. She spent hours just trying to get a halter on the mare, and it took almost an entire day to get her onto a truck – by the time she was loaded, Jet’s legs were shaking from nerves.
When I met her, she had been on the property for almost a month. She wouldn’t let anyone touch her except the trainer, and still seemed in awe of the fact that food actually came to her, multiple times a day.
I gave her liquorice, and her eyes were wide with shock and delight, her mouth making funny chewing sounds as she experienced the taste sensation for the first time. She was a joy, but that hadn’t stopped her from being neglected.
In all the time I spent at the rescue, I never stopped being confronted by the disconnect between our imagined relationship to horses, and how we actually treat them.
Horses have this esteemed position in our collective imagination – it’s the reason why we’re even here at this event. They symbolise freedom, and spirit and energy, and the ability to fly. They connect with us on a level that is almost magical to experience.
And yet we starve them, beat them, ignore and abandon them, overbreed them to the point where we send foals to the knackery, before they’ve had even the briefest chance to enjoy life.
The cruelty is bewildering, and heartbreaking. It is one of the reasons why I have been determined that when I have a horse of my own, she will be mine forever. If she is injured, or is no longer able to be ridden, I will pay for her to live somewhere comfortable, and will visit her every day, until the end of her years.
She is my responsibility. She has no say in the facts of her own life, and I will not allow her to be discarded the way so many of her brethren are.
Flash forward, to August.
When I arrive at the stables, Penny is standing patiently in her paddock, in her usual position at the fence line, where she likes to stand and watch distant traffic pass.
‘Penny!’ I call, and she turns straight away, ears forward, as she begins to walk towards me. When she reaches me, we put our faces together, and I give her a carrot. She sniffs my pockets, and then I slip the halter on, and we walk out of the gate and towards the stable.
Our relationship has progressed from those early days in April. Now Penny comes to me willingly, and often snuffles her face into my chest for a cuddle, or lets me stand beside her gently stroking her face. She makes her happy snorty sounds when I arrive, and gets quite annoyed if I talk to another horse in the stable before I come to her.
She responds to my voice, and takes reassurance from me when she’s spooked by a kangaroo. Slowly, we are becoming friends.
She is already my most anticipated part of each week, and the thought I turn to when I’m frustrated or tired. An hour with Penny has restorative powers.
All I give her is liquorice, exercise and cuddles. What she gives me is immeasurable and unquantifiable, but is something that has existed for longer than either of us has – this unspoken thing between humankind and horsekind. We’re just one small spark of that legacy.