I arrived at the yard, relieved to find I was alone, and looked around for the first time. I’d not noticed before, mainly due to being so stressed about Poppy, but the whole place was completely dilapidated. I could see that once-upon-a-time it had been a beautiful farm, no doubt surrounded by rolling meadows. But life is never static and the barns were crumbling, the fences were broken and there was a lot of sad old machinery lying rusting in various corners. I took a deep breath and headed down the path.
I leaned over the gate trying to work out 1) how to untie all the ridiculous bits of orange bailer twine to open it 2) how to get past the dangerous feral ponies so that I could 3) get Poppy who was out in the horse field at the far end of the yard. I had yet to do this journey alone and I wasn’t relishing the prospect.
“Ha! I bet I know what you’re thinking!” said a voice behind me. I looked round and there was a friendly-looking middle-aged blond woman in bright purple jodhpurs and bright yellow t-shirt, emblazoned with a “Just Do It” slogan.
“I’m Sally and I’m guessing that you are Grace?”
“Yes, I am! Hello!” I was very relieved to see a friendly face.
“Don’t bother opening this gate until you need to get your horse through it.” Said Sally who then executed a perfect handspring over the gate.
“Wow!” I was taken aback.
“I used to be a gymnast and now I teach contemporary dance in a young-offenders institution.” said Sally, matter-of-factly.
“Oh!” I replied. The dreaded ponies had begun to wander over, glowering menacingly as if to say “Get out of our territory!”.
“Now personally, I like to use dance to keep myself safe going through this field,” continued Sally and before I had a chance to ask what she meant, she launched into the most insane Flash Dance style routine.
I watched, open mouthed as she cavorted, cart-wheeled and spun herself around. She fell over several times but it didn’t put her off and amazingly she managed to remain on a straight trajectory up the path to the next gate. But even more bizarrely, it actually worked and the ponies bolted to the other end of the field!
I was lost for words as I clambered over the gate and jogged after Sally, who was bent over puffing and blowing, leaning forwards onto her knees.
“You see dance is actually a life skill.” said Sally, when she’d recovered, as if an ordinary thing had just happened and to make that sort of comment was completely normal.
“I’m actually gobsmacked!” was all I could utter. I’d never witnessed anything like it in my life and had no idea what to say. It seemed that each time I arrived at this livery yard something mad happened.
We walked to the horse field and Sally chattered away about various people at the yard - who was nice and who wasn’t and presently we arrived at the gate. Luckily this was a very straightforward gate that opened easily with no thought required.
Sally went to get her coloured cob called Malcolm and I went to get Poppy who was eyeing me with suspicion from afar.
Now, usually when I went to collect a horse from a field it was no big deal. I would walk up to them, put the headcollar on and off we’d go. But Poppy preferred to do things differently. She stood quietly and allowed me to come close and just as I reached out with the headcollar, she snorted large amounts of snot onto my arm and trotted away, swishing her tail which in her language probably meant “Bugger Off!”.
I wiped the snot off my arm feeling a bit wound up and walked after her. She stopped, looked at me and as I drew close she let out a loud whinny and trotted off. This continued for quite some time until I was feeling very infuriated and quite tired as it was such a large field.
Finally, I managed to catch her and as soon as I had the headcollar buckled on, she walked with me calmly, which was an unexpected relief.
Sally was waiting for me at the gate with Malcolm who was a very laid-back horse.
“She’s a bit of a bugger isn’t she?!” she laughed.
“Yes, that’s one word for her!” I agreed, not laughing.
“You’ll soon get the hang of her, Malcy was a total turd when I first got him but he’s great now aren’t you Malcy?” Sally smothered him with kisses.
“Now we’ve got to get through the pony field,” she continued, “So if you take Malcy then I’ll sort them out.”
“Oh my God!” I thought to myself, terrified that Sally would launch into another dance and send Poppy running for the hills with me flying after her.
But Sally did not perform another dance routine. Instead she reached into her pocket and pulled out a party blower (one of those things you blow in and it uncurls and makes a terrible noise) and she blew it, several times, in the direction of the ponies!
“I got this from a party last night!” said Sally. “Look it’s working!”
She was right, it was indeed working. The ponies cantered away and stood in a group under a tree with pricked up ears, no doubt wondering what on earth this woman was going to do next.
Miraculously Poppy was not in the least bit bothered by the crazy party blower. She was far too distracted by Malcolm to even notice what had just happened.
“Oh my God!” laughed Sally as Poppy lifted her tail and squirted a jet stream of stinky wee at poor Malcolm.
“What’s she doing?!” I asked, shocked and embarrassed.
“Ahhh she’s in love aren’t you Pops?!” Sally found the whole thing hilarious but it was so awkward trying to get down the path, out of the pony field, with Poppy swinging her bottom round and stopping to spray wee at Malcolm every few steps.
“Poppy! Stop it! The ponies are coming!” I implored, but she wasn’t listening she was too infatuated with Malcolm to care about anything else. Malcolm looked confused and was clearly not feeling any love back for Poppy.
Sally continued blowing the party blower and somehow, I managed to drag both horses out of harm’s way and we made it through the pony field. Sally took Malcolm into the stables while Poppy and I headed for the arena.
The arena was large and although the fencing was a bit broken in places, it was a good place to do schooling. I had learned a bit of rudimentary lunging and thought I’d give it a go with Poppy just to create some sort of relationship.
Poppy stood quietly and allowed me to check her feet and get the lunging gear on her and she walked very nicely when I asked her to. In fact, she did everything ‘very nicely’. She walked round and round in a large circle and stopped and changed direction and walked again round and round. I decided to go up a gear to a trot and off she went ‘very nicely’ trotting round and round in both directions.
“Hmm” I thought, “let’s try a canter.” So I asked and she immediately went into a ‘very nice’ canter.
Round and round, round and round.
I brought her back to a walk. Round and round she went like a machine. There was no eye contact, no rebellious snorts. No looking at me as if to say “Do I have to? I can’t be bothered!” like my previous cheeky loan pony always did. There was nothing but cold, mechanical perfection.
“That horse has been badly treated, I’d put money on it!” I turned to find Sally leaning over the fence. “She’s like a robot isn’t she?!”
“I was just thinking that too!” I replied as Sally hopped over the fence and came to have a closer look.
“She reminds of some of the kids where I work. Look, no eye contact.” Poppy was standing ‘very nicely’ and not looking at either of us. “I reckon it’s from her first home, whoever it was who actually backed her.”
“I’ll ask her owner if she knows anything about them. I don’t think she’ll know though because Poppy was a gift to her daughter. I think an uncle bought her? That’s what Jack told me anyway.”
Sally reached out to stroke Poppy’s shoulder and she shivered and side-stepped away from her, into the fence.
“Poor thing!” said Sally. “You’ll have to work hard to get her to trust you! I’d better get back to Malcy.” And with that, she was off. She leaped back over the fence towards the stables leaving me alone with Poppy.
Poor Poppy, I felt very sad and in that moment of my heart opening to her, she turned to look at me and her head lowered. It wasn’t much but it was a start - a moment of connection. And in that moment, I felt more than ever that I wanted to do my best for her.