February 13, 2022
It’s been over two months since my long-time equine friend Sunsmart died (see this goodbye post). Three years ago I had already done much of the preliminary training to start riding his younger half-brother Julian, but then came Sunsmart’s Cushings diagnosis and I decided to completely focus riding time on him while he still enjoyed his outings. When he deteriorated last spring, I hadn’t the heart to go ride another horse; and it was the same immediately after his death.
My husband Brett and I are both at the tail end of two and a half weeks’ leave. This morning I finished the Sandman story – I read the last volume of ten; Brett gave me the first one when the writing was on the wall for my poor horse, back in October. These were exactly the right kinds of stories and the right kind of artwork to help get me through this time – the most imaginative, profound and educational graphic novel I’ve ever read (and there was formidable competition in Maus). Here are some taster panels from the last volume, The Wake.
The girl in the red dress is Death, one of the most lovely characters ever invented. She’s no Grim Reaper, she is more like a social worker and a friend in need, and so utterly kind (except when her brother Dream occasionally needs his backside kicked to spur him into a change of perspective, or when another sibling, Desire, goes way too far in their characteristically low standards of conduct).
I commend this ten-volume work to anyone who would like a literary companion for some serious thinking, or who needs solace in times of grief. The conclusion to this story was so beautiful that I found myself with the energy and the impetus this morning to do something symbolic and ceremonial of my own.
The last time I led a horse up our bush track it was to put that horse down, and today, for very much Sandman reasons I decided we were going to do a lap of honour with his half-brother (same sire) wearing the deceased horse’s kit, just because that itself seemed fitting and something that needed to be done.
The aftermath of Sunsmart’s death resulted in this kind of partial paralysis for me that meant I just could not bring myself to deal with anything that had belonged to the horse. His useless tablets continued to lie in the shelf above the feed bins while I loathed their pink presence and all that had meant. His saddle and bridle had been gathering dust since August last year, before he went downhill, because that was when the entire landscape became too saturated from a record wet winter that also killed lots of trees to be able to continue riding – except perhaps on a giant seahorse. Several sets of old horseshoes and hoof boots past and present continued to sit in the shed and attic while I practiced selective blindness in their presence.
This morning I put a dozen carrots in the pockets of my cargo pants and went out to the shed. I threw a set of ancient, long-decayed EzyBoots into the garbage bag a decade after their purchase – we’d gone onto Renegades after finding them wanting, not to mention constantly breaking. His first worn-out set of those was kept in the attic for parts; his new set sat on the shelf near the bridles still. I don’t have a horse they will fit but decided I’m keeping them anyway.
Next I ripped a cobweb-infested saddle blanket off Sunsmart’s Ascot Roma All-Purpose, a specialist saddle for horses built like beer barrels. I threw it on the ground together with the part-used pill packet, to deal with later. I’d slid out and hung up the sheepskin half-pad I’d bought last winter to give the horse more padding around his backline, thinning from a combination of Cushings and lack of consistent riding in the winter weather. I don’t need it for this horse; I dug around for my deceased Arabian mare’s erstwhile saddle blanket in a drum because it was comparatively clean. I dusted saddle and bridle off as best I could – mental note that a thorough clean and oil is urgently needed – and hauled them and the grooming kit out to the tie rail. Then I set off with a lead rope and Sunsmart’s red “for best” halter with the gold catches to collect Julian from under the horses’ favourite shade tree.
It was already warm, with the UV beating down; I was in my uninspiring but practical farm hat and oversized long-sleeved collared linen shirt for sun protection. I wasn’t expecting to take any photos except of the tacked-up horse at the tie rail, but Brett thought it was a wonderful idea to have Julian do a lap of honour in Sunsmart’s riding gear and wanted to come along, which is how we did get some more photos out there while I was busy with the horse.
It took me a while to groom off all the dust; meanwhile Brett brushed Chasseur, who is crazy about “scratchies” and bugs anyone with a brush to pleeeeeease attend to him. He’ll stand on your feet if you’re not careful, sidling up close hoping you will get the message; then he’ll crane his neck and wiggle his lips in the biggest display of horse ecstasy I’ve ever seen in that category. We really should film it and add it to this post…
Sunsmart’s bridle needed letting out several holes; Julian has a longer head. He was a bit puzzled about the port-mouthed Spanish snaffle and chin chain, having mostly been driven in jointed snaffles of some type or another, but I’m not riding a horse with as much rocket power as Sunsmart or Julian without proper brakes, plus it’s gentle and comfortable for riding, where I wish the horse to think differently to his driving days too and to have a different head carriage. Harness-racing horses have this uncanny ability to stick their face into the sky and take off at top speed when they want to run, because that’s exactly what they do when racing. I’m half a century old and wish to avoid ending up in hospital in smithereens.
This bridle is in fact over 40 years old and came with Sunsmart’s great-grandmother. It originally had a blue and white checked headband which we replaced with this blue-striped one four decades ago. I had a nice new black-and-white bridle for Sunsmart for most of his riding career, but two years ago, coming back from a ride, he took fright at something while I untacked him and stepped into the reins before running off dragging the already-removed bridle, which was torn to pieces by the time I caught him. So I patched something together from old bits and pieces instead, after that.
Julian has had an old saddle on him a couple of times when I was doing preliminaries with him several years ago, but I’d never led him around in one and never put the “good saddle” on him before. Sunsmart’s fit was always going to be a reasonable fit for him; I may tinker around the edges a bit down the track, and have a re-fit done if it turns out necessary.
Typical for Nelly that she’s always hanging around when there’s something going on. I usually have donkeys hanging off me when I’m foot trimming too. They’re highly curious and very sociable, and seem to be into giving peer support to their friends. Nelly is still wearing a veil because she has no pigmentation around the eyes and gets burnt easily. While we don’t need the veils for flies anymore now the dung beetles have moved in for the summer, they are still really good UV protection for animals lacking in skin pigmentation, or to prevent long-term eye damage from UV, which is why our equines wear veils for most of spring and summer, excepting overcast or rainy days where they do prefer a break from them.
Julian tends to get a bit more rotund than ideal over spring when the grazing is good. I did restrict pasture for a while and was considering muzzling him. Work would certainly help him with that; also, he actually enjoys it. He’s got a work ethic and a fondness for adventure like Sunsmart had.
As we set off today, Brett was opening gates in front of us so I could concentrate entirely on the horse and his initial reactions to moving around with a riding saddle on him. If they’re going to be jumpy, this will be the time. Considering I’ve done nothing with him in that line for years, he was remarkable – just a tiny bit hesitant and nervy for not even half a minute, that an onlooker would have had to be looking for to notice – but then I was his “babysitter” for his harness training when he was young, as well, so I guess that confidence role goes back forever for him. Next time it will be “old hat” from the start to carry a saddle around.
And then we had gone around the house to the trail head behind it, just like I had done so many times with Sunsmart, including that one last time to end his life. And while Julian has been on this bush trail free-ranging with his friends, and quite a few times when we took him on walks with us years ago, today he was the first horse to walk there with me since Sunsmart the day he died.
We walked the track, with Brett up ahead and the entire equine entourage following us in single-file: His companion horse and five eager donkeys, who all decided to tag along. Because he is the herd boss, nobody crowded him or tried to overtake him. It was quite humorous looking behind us at the procession of assorted long-ears and the big lanky chestnut horse in the middle of them making his usual conversational-sounding buzzing noises.
The long-ears have a more sedate walking pace than ex-racers, and got left behind eventually. When we got to the south boundary, Chasseur decided he was going back to the donkeys and kindly excused himself. Brett, Jess, Julian and yours truly continued our loop by turning left at the swamp track, where Brett got the camera out.
As you can see, Julian isn’t fazed if the rest of the herd suddenly deserts him out on walks with us, as has happened before. Like Sunsmart, he’s very independent and self-reliant; and he’s had a lot of solo track sessions as a harness horse. By the way, here’s a shot from his harness days:
Horses like this are “been there, done that” when it comes to strange equipment attached to their persons; the main issue with turning them into trail horses is usually to get them used to being in a natural environment with wildlife jumping out at them, which bothered Sunsmart more initially than it ever did Julian.
Because I left off the chest rope today for simplicity, Julian accidentally stepped into the reins when sniffing the ground at one point, which broke their buckle. THAT is one reason this little rope is part of my standard riding equipment – it prevents that completely as it keeps the reins from dangling when the horse has the head on the ground, which they may frequently do to check out things on the ground and convenient snacks when I’m dismounted between gates etc. Oh well, I can probably fix it; today I just knotted them back together.
We met the new weanling calves near the entrance to the Middle Meadow, lying in the shade of a paperbark tree, which got a raised eyebrow from Julian – he knows who they are, but he’s never seen them there before. Horses react to things being different from what’s usual to them – and likewise, we’d had some raised eyebrows at a fallen tree which wasn’t there last time Julian did this loop. That’s always an easy fix: I go ahead of the horse and touch the fallen tree, sit on it, and let him come up to me to check it out when he’s ready. Julian isn’t particularly jumpy – occasionally he’ll leap in surprise, but mostly it’s just raised eyebrows, hesitation and the odd snort, and easily fixed by reassurance.
The Middle Meadow still has green feed in it mid-summer, so I’m happy the calves found it – they’re an independent bunch, not always following the older steers around but instead usually doing their own thing. We left them to it and made our way through knee-deep reeds and dead annual grasses. When we got to a relatively clear bit, I started walking Julian in a circle, and Brett again got the camera out.
You can see he’s an active horse keen to run. Racehorses don’t muck around as a breed, they’re the opposite of plodders. Harness racers need a fair bit of groundwork with circles and tight turns when you are training them for riding – their previous work was 99% straight lines and gradual turns. Also halting and standing still, and rein-back.
He’s a super alert horse. Normal riding breeds tend to only look like this when they’re in a strange environment or they’re checking out something strange in the distance. But he’s in a familiar area where he grazes frequently, in this photo, and he’s not worried, just switched on and curious about all sorts of things. He’s the kind of horse who finds himself interesting things to go look at, when he’s free ranging – he enjoys adventures and checking things out. It was a particular delight to adopt him into free-range herd life back in 2017, from solo yarding in the same old yard for years in his previous home, because of that.
Now that’s a super photo of a typical interaction between an alpha dog and an alpha horse. Our stock dog thinks she’s the boss of every animal on the place, but horses like Julian and Sunsmart beg to differ. His body language is saying, “I’m not afraid of you and if you keep this up you will feel my teeth and hooves.” Sunsmart made a big point of telling Jess this when we first got her and started taking her on rides in 2013. He’d go stomping towards her if she didn’t back off quickly. As time passed, they became friends of sorts and toned down their displays, preferring to race each other when the opportunity arose. This scene reminded me so much of her early days with Sunsmart.
Julian is fun to work with because he’s thoughtful, adventurous, independent, generally sensible, quick to learn and interested in doing “extra projects” on top of his herd life. This maybe, maybe not one-off lap of honour for his half brother was also such an enjoyable work session that I now find myself keen to repeat it – when before I couldn’t face the idea of ever saddle educating and riding again.
You can’t replace a four-legged friend who has died, but you can be friends and co-adventurers on fresh terms with another four-legs. Every horse is a different universe, even if you can see similarities and parallels that recall another horse for you. Julian has striking physical and character traits in common with his deceased half-brother Sunsmart, his deceased uncle Romeo, his deceased sire The Sunbird Hanover, his deceased dam Juliet, and his famous deceased grandsire Albatross (in whose case I can see it from 1970s film footage). He’s streaks of each of those, and also his own thing.
Like in the Sandman cartoons, the new Dream of the Endless has overlap with the old, but is definitely his own thing.
We walked into the main pasture, where we met Ben and Nelly coming back from their outing. Nelly doesn’t like losing sight of Julian and was happy to see him. I took the saddle and bridle off Julian there in the field and let him join his friends. He bid me a friendly goodbye before walking away to graze, and we carried the riding gear back to the shed.
When it was stowed, this was the view from the garden:
They’re a social bunch, and Julian tends to follow me around after I’ve worked with him and be extra affectionate. He seemed to enjoy the outing – just as in past outings, before Sunsmart’s diagnosis. He’s tagged along with Brett and me before on dog walks, of his own accord, and sometimes with Sunsmart when I rode him. He’s not waiting for treats, this is just what he does. When he first came to live with us, he often left the herd to follow me around as I was doing maintenance work out in the paddocks – he’s curious and sociable. You can show him tools and he will sniff them and watch what you’re doing with them. While none of this bunch say no to treats, they are just very social and interested in what we do. The donkeys often tag along when we are showing visitors around the nature reserve on eco-tours, which has resulted in amusement and lovely photos for guests to take home.
Julian gets on well with the others in the herd, but is definitely the boss and occasionally asserts this fact. Here he’s snake-facing Nelly and Ben to say, “Back off, this is my party.”
Seconds later, butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
And then Julian’s horse friend re-joined the others in the meadow, after our herd outing went its various ways at the halfway mark.
Julian is STILL interested in what I’m up to, here. I’m not trying to attract his attention. It’s just what he does. Only when I turned my back did he go off to graze – and I surreptitiously turned back around to take two more photos.
Nice animal. Well, aren’t they all, at our place anyway. And a good lap of honour for the friend we lost, which has somehow made the loss a little easier.