I had forgotten that horses grind their teeth when they’re suffering. It came flooding back as we knelt next to Ali on Thursday night. She was already heavily sedated, but it was barely taking the edge off. She tried to raise her head as she heard us approach, and managed to briefly, along with a nicker of recognition, but that was it. She was back in herself and her pain. After nearly 23 years without bothering the vet with illness (a few injuries barely count), her first bout of colic was incomprehensibly shocking both to her, and to us. I was desperate not to lose her like this, but I was desperate for her pain to stop immediately and as her heartrate continued to increase even after the painkiller was administered, only one of those things was an option. She had no fight left and given the amount of fight I know she has, there was no choice to make. She went quietly with our soft words in her ears – she had raged against the dying of the light, and now she was conceding. Possibly for the first time in her life. The light had gone from the most alive creature I have ever known.
Back when I was 19, I spent more on Ali than I did on my first car (To be fair, dollar for dollar, Ali had more horsepower.) After I had lost Kohuna, who was the one who taught me about the teeth grinding, I had leased his mum for a couple of years. Gemini was a typical Arabian mare – pretty, tough and smart and for better or worse I was smitten with the breed. I saved and saved my paltry supermarket income, while scouring Horse Deals and finally Curringa Mustang Sally popped up, an Anglo yearling out of an Anglo mare by a purebred stallion. Back in the olden days, you had to phone up and ask for a VHS tape to be put in the post – how did we ever buy anything? In the video, the breeder rattled an icecream container to razz her up (and stop her inspecting the camera at point blank range), and she sprang into the lightest most expressive trot I’d ever seen. I went to see her on the basis of that trot, but really, it was a foregone conclusion. She was coming home with me.
The Horse Deals photo.
The vet check was glowing (I think she enjoyed the attention) and she walked confidently onto the float, even though she’d only ever been transported in a truck. She may have had many many quirks and phobias, but I will always be grateful for how perfectly she always loaded and travelled. (Even if she shouted embarrassingly when I went in to pay at the petrol station as if I was leaving an infant in the car and someone needed to alert the authorities.)
‘This filly’s temperament is excellent’
My non horsey neighbour rushed over to see me the morning after I’d installed her in my paddock, exclaiming over how she carried herself: ‘You can tell she’s a purebred!’ She accepted all praise like this as if it was her due. She was well on her way to becoming thoroughly full of herself as a two-year old, to the point that my vet suggested I ship her off to boarding school a few months early to give her brain something to do. As predicted, she was quick to train and enjoyed having a job and also enjoyed having someone to pit her wits against.
As a rider, Ali was a puzzle for life. I grew to know her so well that I could tell what sort of ride I was going to have from the way her hooves hit the ground in the first two strides. She could be 17 hands tall, or her actual 14.3. She couldn’t bear being told twice and she didn’t abide nagging. She knew if you weren’t completely sure what you were asking for, and would make impolite suggestions about where you could take your request. She went through a teenage phase of rearing at any suggestion to go somewhere she didn’t want. I asked for help from my very clever trainer cousin who saw straight through her cheeky threats and after a perfectly timed smack between her ears as she went up, she never tried it again. And suddenly I understood that this horse needed a leader, and in that exchange we’d become partners.
She was counter intuitive to ride in so many other ways. The lighter and more hesitant your aids were, the more she’d over-react, and the more you tried to collect her and hold her back, the more she fizzed and raged. A calm, firm driving seat and open, generous hands however gave you a horse you could ride on the buckle. She taught me that there was freedom, security and control in letting go.
Our dressage record, it is fair to say, is chequered. The epitome of chestnut mare, tests on the same day usually varied by 10%, with comment on one ‘tense, disobedient’, and other ‘calm, what a lovely ride’. We once competed at Top Teams at Werribee, with the scent of lions in the air, and polo being played behind the hedges, and the thing she spooked at was the A marker at the entrance of the ring (and then proceeded to throw in a ridiculous circle of two-time changes, which are definitely uncalled for at level 4).
We have ridden on beaches, galloped up fire trails (leaving ex racehorses behind) and jumped fallen logs. When saddling up, you would have to pause every single time with the bridle in mid-air, while she indulged in a last minute lengthy, dramatic, tongue-flapping yawn, before you could slide the bit into her mouth. She gave quiet, sleepy pony rides at many family occasions, and looked hopefully over the fence towards the marquee at Lucas’s wedding, begging for some cake (or maybe hoping for a turn on the dance floor). She was a ring bearer and a bouquet eater for my wedding celebrations. She greeted Tim’s arrival with equanimity and warm breath. She greeted her feed bucket with either an approving snuffle, or a roaring, sliding gallop, depending on her mood. She trained my Dad to feed her earlier and earlier each day, with a hopeful neigh whenever he put his hand near the back door.
When the vet told me about the arthritis in her shoulder in her mid-teens, and suggested that she’d had a good life and would enjoy retirement, I was horrified. I didn’t think that anything I ever achieved with my riding would mean anything if it wasn’t with her. I started her on a regime of joint injections and various gold dust supplements to keep her running and we plodded along with our modest dreams of riding club dressage, clinics and trail rides. I’ve had coaches shout at us ‘What was that?’, ‘Make her listen!’, ‘Is your seat making her do that?’ through to ‘Don’t look so surprised – that’s perfect!’, ‘YES, boy she can move!’ and even ‘She’s much more difficult than you make her look’ (a compliment, I think?).
My riding face gives nothing away.
I no longer think that my riding is over without her. She came into work with a trainer after my maternity leave break, and to see her so calm and willing was enough. To have her in our backyard at Wilandra and then at Glen Mist was glorious and to be able to give her some friends to boss around was a lesson in the politics of mares. She was a beautiful bouncy paddock ornament for whom the word retiree never quite worked.
My darling Ali, you were my muse. Writing about you gave me my first published story. Working with you taught me various truths about myself that others might learn on a therapist’s couch. Somehow I found myself crying into your mane again at the end, but this time I was trying to offer you comfort instead of the other way around. I hope St Francis is ready for your dramatic arrival at those pearly gates. I wasn’t ready for you to leave, but I know that holding you back never worked. Rest softly my girl.
Pretty sure this video demonstrates her arrival at those gates.
Rosella’s paying their respects at Ali’s tree.