Two weeks ago today, I said goodbye to my boy.
I have been putting off writing this post. I know that whatever words I can come up with will not even come close to expressing our time together. They all seem quite hollow and empty.
Apollo at 4 months of age.
I remember the first day I saw him. We’d been looking for a horse to buy for a few months and my riding instructor had called earlier that week to let us know that he’d found a horse that fit all of our requirements. I remember sitting in the car as Mum drove me out to my weekly lesson, and craning my neck to try to catch a glimpse of him as we came around the corner of the driveway. There was a split second where my heart sank, thinking that plans had changed and he’d already been sold, but just at that moment he threw his head up from behind the tack shed. He was tied up with a frayed red webbing halter and was wearing a very weathered Keiffer saddle stuffed with various faded tatty saddlecloths. Despite the embarrassing attire, he just glowed. His short black mane made a messy mohawk along the top of his neck and his fine coat showed every curve of muscle as he curled his neck to get a good look at me.
We bought him.
My first bareback ride on him, 2 weeks after we met. I was 11.
I took a glorious dressage-trained performance animal and made him into a kids pony. We did it all. We galloped along goat tracks in the wee hours of morning. We would jump anything and everything that stood still for long enough. We’d work on our flatwork in an arena that looked something like Central station at peak hour. We’d get 3 girls up on his back and lead ponies back down the driveway to their paddocks after a long day of doing a whole lot of nothing much at all.
At Penrith Show in 1996. A lousy photo, but a great day.
We did a few shows. He never approved of this, but seeing as it took hours to get him ready and I just kept shovelling the food into him until I was finished, he didn’t complain too loudly. He’d get washed and glossed and trimmed and plaited and then we’d go and try our backsides off. We never really got anywhere, but we never really cared. He’d show off for the day, and I’d try to help him out by not looking too much like jelly on a plate, and we’d generally come away with some ribbons for our efforts. The next day though, it’d be right back to having fun.
At Hawkesbury Show in 1997 – 3rd in Pleasure Horse
We even tried Pony Club for a while, but it soon became apparent why kids ponies are normally ponies and not thumping great horses with the turning circle of a tank. We started out at a club up in the Blue Mountains, getting up at 5:30am and riding the 2 hours down into the valley with a small group of other riders to the club. It was always the most fun part of the day, even the days when you ended up having to ride home in the pouring rain. We’d cut through backyards and cross the road at the top of the track so we could avoid the ostrich farm. He’d tolerate many things if I asked him to, but those huge fluffy birds were sometimes just that little bit too much for the both of us! In the end, we attended a club closer to home. We both got to sleep in a little longer, but it was never quite as much fun.
At Pony Club in 1996. Gymkhana day.
Some time after that, I became ill. We were out on a trail ride with far more people than horses, and so those of us with bigger horses were doubling. I always had the largest horse, and we were always the designated pack mule. While everyone else was up and ready to leave after lunch, I was always still on the ground and packing things into the saddlebags. Instead of standing still and then doing a mad gallop to catch up, we’d just walk along behind and I’d jump up when I was done. This particular day, I couldn’t jump up, and I knew something wasn’t right. I ended up having to claw my way on and cross my fingers he would get us home safely. He did, as always.
Apollo in his paddock with Chuckie the JRT
We’d always had an understanding. He was always head of the pack, and he worked hard for it. My concession in the relationship was that I was not to do anything to embarrass him in front of his herd. None of this riding business, or any of those smothering cuddles, and he’d do none of this happy nickering or walking up to me in the paddock to be caught. In return, he’d behave and do what I asked. Heaven help either of us if we overstepped the boundaries, it made for a most unpleasant day! He’d even get the dirts if I rode anyone else. It didn’t matter if he was occupied with a rider of his own, he’d watch me the entire time and make certain that I understood his displeasure the next time I got on board. It sounds stupid when you write it down, but that was just how it worked.
It must have been 3 months since I’d seen him. I’d been stuck in bed and hadn’t even been up to a car trip. Mum got the driveway gate and as we got to the parking area I saw him up on the hill behind the dam with a bunch of the other boys. I got out of the car and called out to him but the word stuck in my throat. I put my head down and held on to Mum to get over to the paddock gate to try again, and halfway there I heard this thundering of hooves as he tore across the soggy paddock to the fence. There were clumps of mud and grass going everywhere and a very confused group of geldings on the hill behind the dam as he galloped towards the fence. There were two big furrows as he dropped anchors and came to a screaming stop in front of me. I wasn’t feeding him, I hadn’t waved any carrots, he had absolutely no reason to expect anything at all, but he came anyway. With speed. If there was ever any doubt in my mind about how he felt about our little relationship, that day cemented it in my mind. We were fine.
Freshly groomed and on the hunt for treats. 2004
He gave me a hell of a fright in 1999. We got a phone call at some horrid time in the morning, and I remember Mum’s face as she told me he was unwell. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten out of bed faster. He was miserable and was trying to throw himself on the ground every few minutes as his gut cramped up. When he saw me, he stuck his nose under my arm and stayed there much longer than usual. I still don’t know how I managed, but between my mum, another owner and myself, we kept him upright for around 2 hours until the vet could get there. Once the painkillers kicked in and he rested, I slept. It was only a short grace period before it started again, and this time everyone was exhausted. I put him on the float and travelled out to the vet in another person’s 4WD. I didn’t cry that day, and I’m sure they all thought that I was cold and heartless, but I told him the rules. Behave and come home to me. Two days and around 16L of IV fluids later, he was headed back to his herd. I spent the next 6 months in bed and thought it was well worth it.
Eventually I was strong enough to come and groom him. Then I was strong enough to sit on him and have a potter around. I’m pretty sure he had a good idea of my limits, but he was never overly gentle with me, preferring instead to leave me dangling from conveniently located low-hanging tree branches, should the opportunity arise. My arms ached, and my legs screamed at me for days, but I felt more alive in those few minutes than in the months of sitting about the house. It wasn’t until we were all kitted up and out in the bush that he started to get his oomph back. He’d go anywhere out on those bush tracks, even where there were no tracks. Down rock stairs, through creeks, and right up to cliff edges. It took me right back to when we were both more able. There was a day when we had to strip him down to his skin and walk low and slow under a fallen tree. There was a day when we followed a trail up the sides of a mountain, and then found that it lead nowhere, forcing us to come down in reverse. There was even a day when we were playing cops and robbers and, while coming around a blind corner at considerable speed, managed to skittle three nuns in full habits while they were out on a relaxing walk.
Proud as punch! He was simply wonderful that day
He was getting on though, and his joints just didn’t want to play. Pretty soon after I started feeling well enough to ride regularly, he started getting stiff. He never said no, and even after his legs started giving him trouble, he’d still attack our occasional rides with energy and excitement but only if we were going out in the bush. And usually after double checking my bag for carrots.
I was worried that retirement wouldn’t agree with him. He’s always been so very possessive and proud, and I was concerned that he’d become miserable and turn into a sour old grump. I worried for about a year, until one day I realised that he wasn’t looking for me any more. I rode past on another horse, and I expected to be met by his typical loathing stare, but it never came. He had a beautiful big paddock, two meals a day, and a little group of mares. He was happy.
In his paddock. It was always easy to find him even in the dark, that white face was pretty distinctive.
I watched him a lot in his paddock at the beginning. I watched him herd his little band of mares around, and drive the other boys away. I watched him carrying on like a two year old and galloping around with the ex-racehorses. The day I watched him fight for his position in the herd and lose without complaint, my heart just ached for him. In that one moment he went from being the top dog to looking like an old horse, and that was never meant to happen.
Waiting for me to come and ride.
I only rode a little after that. He didn’t mind indulging me, but I got the distinct impression that he had better things to do. Often, I’d stay until late in the evening and watch him with his dinner. The first 3 bites were the most fun. First he’d shove his nose into the dry feed as quickly and as far down as he could, stuffing his mouth full before I could get in there and dampen it down. The next mouthful would be very similar to the first, but he’d never quite get down as far and would end up with wet bits of food all over his nose. These would be sneezed and snorted loose at the beginning of the third mouthful, and he would relax into his meal as he became sure that nobody was going to take it away from him. That first mouthful was always gold.
Eating the grass near the feed shed. March 2007
I don’t want to write this. This was not supposed to end this way and even now, when I think about it, it still doesn’t seem real. I keep thinking that it is all just a bad dream and that I’ll drive up and find him gadding about in his winter woolies, hassling the other retirees for that good spot under the tree.
Handsome, as always.
I got a phone call from the people who manage the property telling me that he was off his feed, and had looked a bit miserable the past few days. They said that maybe I should get a dentist to have a look at him. I went out in the meantime to try to get him to eat. I made his favourites; warm pellet mash and molasses water. He made a half-hearted effort with the food, and halfway through he nuzzled his head into my shoulder. Somewhere inside I knew right then and there that it wasn’t his teeth. I booked the dentist, and before she’d even finished working on him, the vets had been called and the float had been hooked up to the car. He didn’t want to get into the float.
Checking out what the herd was up to after trying some food for me.
When the results came back from the first test, I knew that it was more than the infection that the dentist had expected. The vet was talking in a way that I understood, but enough above everyone else that I didn’t have to deal with hearing the explanations of why. I pretty much already knew, but I ordered extra tests anyway to be sure, and left for the night. He didn’t want to follow the vet into his stable.
Looking out over the front paddocks
She didn’t call that night, and I barely slept. When the phone went in the morning, I wasn’t sure what I wanted her to say. She said what I expected her to say, and I called PSWC to drive me out there. He let me cuddle him for a while before giving me a half-hearted nudge, and then gingerly followed me into the sun outside and we sat and talked for a while. And then he followed me back inside.
On Wednesday the 13th of June 2007 I said goodbye to my baby.