Time speeds up as you get older. Anyone who’s old will tell you that, and now I’m in my mid-fifties I know it’s true. I heard a scientist explaining why this is so, and it made perfect sense. The theory is that our concept of time is measured in heartbeats, so as our heartbeat rate gets slower with age the days go by faster. Perhaps, also, that’s why time seems to stand still if we’re in a situation where our pulse quickens for some reason.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is that the seasons come around faster and faster on our farm, and there’s hardly time to do any of the things I mean to do. That was definitely the case with my good intentions to handle Orion regularly during the summer and autumn of 2013, before the sheds were filled with cattle and sheep for the winter. I knew the best way to cure his nervousness around people was to spend lots of time with him, but finding the time wasn’t easy.
Orion and his sisters, Gaia and Demeter, had been kept together from birth. Three semi- tame ponies were difficult to get in from the field every day, and there often wasn’t enough time to handle them all, so I separated out Demeter and let her run free on the other side of the farm with her half-sister Pandora (Orion’s full sister) who was in a poor condition having been lost on another area of moor for a couple of years.
For a while, during October and early November, we had a good routine: Gaia and Orion were kept with Tempo (our old bay hunter) and Croix de Guerre (our grey ex-racehorse) and they were out in the field for most of the day and in a shed by night.
This gave me a chance to handle them on a regular basis, and we made progress.
Orion didn’t seem to be too worried by the things some horses are scared of – quad bikes, tractors, flapping plastic and barking dogs, for instance – but he was still very nervous of people, especially if he didn’t know them or they were wearing waterproofs that rustled. Waterproofs caused our first major problem. It was pouring with rain one morning when we led the ponies out to their field. Chris was leading Orion and I was leading Gaia, and as Chris reached up to unbuckle Orion’s head collar his waterproofs rustled. Orion pulled away in fright and tanked off around the field with his head collar on and the lead rope trailing. This was too much for Gaia, who pulled away from me and joined Orion. Two ponies dashing around an eight acre field with their lead ropes tripping them up wasn’t a good way to start the day. The next half hour was spent coaxing them to be caught with buckets of food. Talk about one step forward and two back! Orion and Gaia now knew they could get away while wearing their head collars – something I’d been very careful to avoid.
It happened again a few days later, but this time Gaia was the one to pull away. I decided to go back to basics with them, handling them in enclosed spaces where they couldn’t get away and tying them up for short periods while keeping an eye on them. It was during one of these sessions, when my friend Kath was helping me, that I made my second mistake. I’ll tell you about it because it’s a good cautionary tale . . .
We usually don’t let our horses wander free wearing head collars, in case they get caught up in something. I’ve heard about too many accidents, including a lovely horse drowning because his head collar became hooked over an inlet pipe in a water trough. Well, after we’d finished handling Orion and Gaia that day, we unclipped their lead ropes and left them in their head collars while we went to the house to get coats. As we returned to the shed there was a terrible crashing noise. Gaia had been rubbing her head against the mesh of the round pen barrier, and by some fluke had managed to hook the buckle of her head collar through the mesh. Finding herself trapped, she panicked and tried to pull away, taking the partition with her. Luckily, she was sensible enough calm down and let us free her, and she allowed her head collar to be put on again immediately afterwards. It could have been a lot worse, but I’ll never leave a head collar on an unsupervised horse again!
Another person who was a great help was a local girl called Flora, who got on really well with Orion and came to see him whenever she could. Flora’s mum, Celia, was learning how to massage horses, and our riding horses were willing objects of study. They all loved being massaged, especially Winaway.
Soon it was November, and time for the cows to come into the sheds because they were making the fields too muddy. The cows start calving in December, so it’s good to have them in and settled by then. There would be no indoor space left for Orion and Gaia until after lambing in April 2014, so they were turned out in a field for the winter, checked every day and fed a bit of hay (plus the occasional treat in a bucket when Flora was around! Tempo and Croix de Guerre joined them by day but were stabled by night, and they all got used to the new routine surprisingly quickly.
In many ways it was very good for the two Exmoors to have time off and see people for nice things like food rather than being caught and asked to do something. Gaia, especially, became very tame. Orion was always a few steps behind, hiding in her shadow and still slightly suspicious! I think it will take a long time for him to trust people completely, but we’ll get there . . . I hope!