A cold wind whipped across the winter-bare paddocks, tangling my hair around my face. I shivered, snugging my scarf up around my neck, and continued the short walk to the barn. I could hear Forbes banging his hoof against his stable door, impatiently demanding his breakfast.
As I unlatched the sliding doors and slipped inside, my dark bay pony laid his ears back at me and snarled up his nostrils, making his opinion of my lateness well and truly known. His bright chestnut stablemate, Skip, greeted me with a hopeful whinny and much friendlier expression. I smiled at them both, feeling my heart lift. I always felt at home in the barn, much more so than the large, glass-plated house that I’d just left behind. The barn was a comfort, drawing me in like an old friend, giving me a place where I felt like I always belonged. The combined smell of horses and hay and shavings and leather was the best perfume I could ever imagine, and I greeted the ponies warmly.
“Good morning to you, too.”
The dark bay pony banged on his door again, louder this time.
“All right, Forbes. You’re not going to die from hunger in the time it takes me to mix your feed,” I told him as I headed into the feed room.
The look he gave me made it clear that he didn’t believe me, and he continued to bang on about his hunger while I added soaked beet pulp to the feeds I’d prepared the night before, gave them a quick stir and took them out to the ponies. Forbes shoved his head into his bucket and started munching like a dying thing, while Skip politely stepped back and waited for me to put his bucket into his stable, then delicately began lipping it up.
I was stuffing a couple of biscuits of hay into the steamer when I heard another whinny from outside, followed by the yeehaw of a small but opinionated donkey. Forbes laid his ears back at the sound as he munched, and I rolled my eyes at his peevishness as I walked to the other end of the barn and let myself out the back door. My retired show jumping pony Buck and his best friend, Emily the miniature donkey, were waiting at their gate, ears pricked and eyes bright. The wind whistled past the barn as I carried their feed buckets out to them.
“Vet’s coming today,” I told Buck as he tucked into his breakfast. “Don’t worry, just for a check up. Just to make sure you’re in the best of health.”
I slid a hand under his cover and across his dark coat, thick and fluffy in this winter weather. Buck munched on, unfazed, and I left them to eat and went back into the barn, where I set to work removing stable rugs and bandages, then putting warm waterproof rugs and turnout boots onto both ponies.
Skip finished licking the last of the grain out of his bucket as I fastened the last strip of velcro around his neck, and reached around to nuzzle my face with his grain-encrusted muzzle.
“No need to share, thanks anyway,” I told him, pushing him affectionately away, then giving him a cuddle in case his feelings were hurt. Skip was a sensitive soul with a kind nature, but his feelings were easily bruised.
Forbes, on the other side of the aisle, was his polar opposite. He was snarky and opinionated, the kind of pony that, if he were human, would spend large portions of his day writing vitriolic comments on Twitter, just to get a rise out of people. I changed his rugs and put his boots on as well, taking a little more care over it as I dodged his attempts to nip me and his propensity to lash out with a hind leg when I put his back boots on.
“I know you don’t like the cotton wool treatment, but you have to deal with it,” I told him. “It’s par for the course around here, and you know it.”
Forbes wrinkled his nostrils at me as I slipped his halter on and led him out into the aisle, then retrieved Skip from his stable and led them both out into the wintry morning.
I was halfway through mucking out when Lesley arrived. She breezed into the barn with the casual confidence that I envied so much, her thick mane of auburn hair hanging down her back and veterinary kit in hand.
“Hi.” I set down the pitchfork and stepped out into the aisle. “How are you?”
“A bit late,” she admitted. “Sorry, but my vet student called in sick this morning, so I’m already behind schedule.”
“Oh no. I hope she’s okay.”
“Probably just hung over,” Lesley said dismissively. “How that girl made it through four years of vet school is beyond me. Now, where’s my victim?”
I grabbed Buck’s halter from his peg and we went out together to see him. Buck’s dust allergy had caused breathing problems and recently forced him into early retirement. I held him while Lesley listened to his heart and lungs, took his temperature and checked him over thoroughly. We both knew that this check was simply a routine measure — I knew enough to be able to spot anything untoward — but it made Dad feel better to have Buck regularly looked at, and Lesley was always very thorough.
“He’s doing well,” she declared after recording his temperature in her notes. “Keeping him out of the barn is clearly working, and he’s coping well with the colder weather.”
“He’s happy,” I said, rubbing Buck’s forehead. “I’d wondered if he’d mind being retired, since he always seemed to love being ridden, but he’s happy as.”
“They usually are,” Lesley said with a wink. “Horses are far less ambitious than their riders.”
I smiled bashfully as I removed Buck’s halter. He didn’t move, staying with his head resting against my arm.
“He’s a sweet boy,” Lesley said. “You’re lucky to have him, and he’s lucky to have you.” She sighed, then looked down again at her tablet. “Right, onto the next one.”
“Do you have a busy day planned?” I asked her as Buck returned to his freshly steamed hay.
“Frantic. And now I have to do it alone. Unless…” She looked at me, eyebrows quirked. “You said you’re not doing anything today?”
“Um, no. Well, I have to exercise the ponies, but other than that…”
“Wanna come with me and help out? It won’t be anything complicated, just holding horses, handing me bandages, that sort of thing, but since you’re mad enough to want a career doing this, you might as well tag along. If you’re up for it.”
I grinned at the vet. “Absolutely!”
We’d seen our first case of the day, a horse with a cut heel that needed its wound dressed, and were on our way to the second when Lesley abruptly slowed the ute and swung it into a driveway almost obscured by trees.
“Sorry,” she said lightly as I was flung sideways in my seat by her sudden change of direction. “I just remembered that I promised I’d drop in on Faye this weekend, and since we’re going past…”
We bumped along a narrow, pot-holed driveway, and I gritted my teeth against the ute’s lack of suspension. Tall trees on both sides cast a dark shadow overhead, and we turned a corner and arrived in the middle of a dilapidated yard. A long, low brick building with barred windows and a door at one end squatted in front of large slab of cracked concrete, and a shabby cottage with weed-filled flowerbeds lurked on the opposite side. Lesley parked the ute as a cacophony of barking started up from the brick building, which sounded as if it was filled with dogs.
“What are we here to—” I started to ask, then saw the thinnest, most miserable horse I’d ever seen in my life. Her hips and ribs protruded starkly through her dappled grey coat, her spine was clearly visible along the ridge of her back, and her dark mane couldn’t hide the painful thinness of her neck. She stood in a tiny, muddy paddock with more weeds than grass, her head down as she munched slowly at the meagre rations. “Oh my god!”
“Bit of mess, isn’t she?” Lesley agreed, opening her door and jumping out of the ute. I followed suit, and walked around to the front of the vehicle to stare at the unhappy horse. She lifted her head and watched us, pieces of grass falling from her lips as she chewed.
“What is this place?” I asked, looking around in disbelief.
“Animal rescue. Faye has dogs mostly, but she’s somehow ended up with this mare, too.” Lesley gave a rueful smile. “She’s obviously not set up for horses, but this is what comes of an utter inability to say no to people. Her heart’s in the right place, though, and she does her best. I do what I can to help her.”
I walked closer to the fence and the mare raised her head warily. Her chewing stopped.
“Where did the horse come from?”
“No idea, to be honest. You’d have to ask Faye.” She looked around, then her expression brightened. “And here she is.”
I turned to see a stoutly-built woman with wispy grey hair and mud-encrusted gumboots trudging towards us.
She clasped Lesley’s hand warmly, then turned to me with a smile. Her face was weatherworn, with prominent crow’s feet around her brown eyes, but the warmth in her expression was genuine, and I found myself smiling back as I shook her head.
“This is Susannah, she’s helping me out today,” Lesley introduced me. “We don’t have long, because we’re supposed to be at our next appointment ten minutes ago, but we were coming past so I thought I’d pop in. How’s she doing?”
“Better, I think.” Faye frowned as she considered the mare. “She’s still terribly thin, of course, but you said not to feed her too much.”
Her expression was worried as she returned it to Lesley, and I could tell that she was anxious about doing the right thing.
“Slow and steady is the key with rehabs,” Lesley confirmed. “In her condition, if she gets too much feed at once, she’s at high risk of colicking, and that’s the last thing we want. But she’s at the stage now when you can give her as much hay as she’ll reasonably eat.”
Faye looked perplexed. “I meant to ask you about that. I’ve got a couple of bales left, but hay is hard to come by, and everyone else I’ve talked to wants an obscene amount of money for it.” She opened her hands in a helpless shrug. “Fifteen dollars a bale can’t be right, can it?”
“We had a drought over summer,” Lesley reminded her. “Good hay is expensive this year, but whatever you can get is better than nothing, as long as it’s not mouldy or stale.” She patted Faye’s shoulder reassuringly. “I’ll see if I can track some more down for you. Have you had any luck catching the horse?”
Faye shook her head. “I’ve tried, but she won’t come near me. Not even for carrots. I ended up throwing them out into the paddock, but she seemed to have trouble eating them.”
“Probably needs her teeth done,” I said, and Lesley nodded.
“And her hooves trimmed,” she added, and I looked at the mare’s feet and winced. “They’re starting to split, and they’ll cause her some serious issues if those cracks get too wide. We can sedate her for that if necessary. I’ll give Barry a call, see if I can tee something up with him during the week.”
Faye smiled gratefully. “I really appreciate you taking such an interest,” she said happily. “I wouldn’t know what to do without your help.”
“You need to find someone else to take her on,” Lesley said matter-of-factly. “You’re not set up for horses here, and you’ve already got your hands full with the dogs.”
“I know, but how would I know that whoever took her would take proper care of her?” Faye sighed, rubbing her hands on her dirty cargo pants. “Well, I suppose I’ll keep trying, and keep you posted if I have any luck.”
Lesley glanced at her watch. “Tell you what, why don’t I come and see how Sprocket’s getting on after his surgery, while Susannah has a go at handling your mare.”
“Uh…” I wasn’t sure how good my chances were, but I couldn’t say no without trying. “I guess I could attempt it.”
There was a tattered halter and lead hanging on the gate, and I let myself into the paddock while Lesley followed Faye towards the brick building to see the dogs. When the barking doubled in volume, I knew they’d gone inside, and that the grey mare and I were alone.
My boots sank into the gluggy mud in the gateway as I hitched the gate shut. The horse watched me suspiciously as I walked in her direction, but waited until I was a few metres away before turning around and walking into the far corner of the small paddock.
“Hey, girl. Come on, now. Let us help you. We both know could use it.”
I spoke softly to her as I approached on an angle, knowing better than to walk towards her head on. The mare kept a close eye on me, stepping away as soon as I breached the large personal bubble she had around herself.
I stopped, and so did she.
I stepped forward, and after a moment, she did too.
We moved in a slow dance, a step at a time, while time seemed to stand still around us. Slowly, gradually, the distance between us decreased until I was close enough to reach out and touch her. I moved carefully, slowly extending my arm to brush my fingers against her thin neck. The mare flinched away from my touch, tripping on her overgrown hooves. She was standing against the fence, and I didn’t want to put too much pressure on her in case she panicked and ran into or through it. So I lowered my hand and stepped back, waiting for her to relax a little before I moved closer again. This time she stood still, and I was able to run a hand down her thin neck.
But the moment I lifted a hand to the lead rope over my shoulder, she burst past me in a flurry of speed, almost knocking me down in her desperate panic to escape. I watched her stumbling across the uneven ground, and a desperation to help filled me.
“You have to let someone help you,” I told the horse. “You can’t do this by yourself.”
Once she’d stopped moving, I began the process over again. This time, when I reached her side, I managed to slip the rope over her neck without her running away. But when I tried to lift the halter up to her face, she half-reared and pulled away. I barely kept hold of the lead rope around her neck, and had to drop the halter on the ground. It took me several minutes to calm her enough to let me touch her again, but she eventually relented, allowing me to run my hand down her narrow scabby face.
“You poor, poor girl,” I said sympathetically. “How could anyone let this happen to you?”
I looked up to see Lesley and Faye exiting the dog building. I tried to lead the grey mare towards the gate, but as soon as she felt pressure on the rope around her neck, she baulked, almost pulling the lead rope out of my hand. .
“It’s okay.” I held a hand out to her, and she blew warm breath over my skin. “Come on, let’s go see what Lesley can do for you.”
I started forward again, applying only the gentlest pressure to the rope around the base of the mare’s neck, and this time she followed me. The loosely knotted rope around her neck didn’t give me much control over her movement, but it was better than nothing.
Lesley met me at the gate with an approving nod. “Nice work.”
“I couldn’t get near her with the halter,” I explained as she came into the paddock. “But hopefully this will do.”
“We’ll manage,” Lesley agreed.
Faye was more effusive with her praise. “You’ve really got a way with horses,” she gushed. “I haven’t been able to get that close to her since she arrived! How on earth did you do it?”
I shrugged. “Just lucky, I guess.”
Lesley was running her latex-gloved hand across the mare’s back, which was covered in scabs and bare patches of skin.
“You know what this is?” she asked me, and I nodded.
“That’s the one.” She picked off a few scabs, and tufts of hair came out with it. “Is that a fungal or bacterial condition?”
“Um.” I bit the inside of my cheek, thinking. “I don’t know. Bacterial?”
“Trick question. It’s both,” Lesley said with a grin. “It’s not the end of the world, but it’s pretty unsightly and it won’t be too comfortable for her. Treatment?”
“Antiseptic wash and keep it as dry as possible?”
“Yep. But I suspect — woah there, good girl — that she won’t love the idea of being scrubbed down. She’s barely tolerating this as it is,” Lesley said, stepping back to allow the mare to relax again. “But I’ve got a good topical spray that’ll help clear it up. I’ll drop some round in the next day or so, and rustle up a rug that’ll fit her. One that’s waterproof. That’s very important, because if moisture gets in under the rug, it’ll only make matters worse. Assuming, of course, that she’ll let you put one on.”
She looked at Faye, who shrugged. “I can try, if you’ll show me how.”
“Hmm. Might need to get her haltered first,” Lesley said. She glanced at her watch, and winced. “We really have to go. We’re half an hour late now, and even I can’t drive fast enough to make up that much time.”
Faye thanked her effusively as I gave the mare’s thin neck one final stroke, then untied the lead rope from around her neck. As soon as she was freed, the mare turned around and trotted in her ungainly way across the paddock, determined to get away from us.
It started to rain, a light misty sort of rain that wafted across the yard in sheets. I turned my collar up against it and stood with my back to the weather. The mare did the same, ducking her head down, and I watched the dampness settle onto her scabby coat.
“Oh, I almost forgot that cream for Caesar,” Lesley said as we headed back to the ute. “It’s in here somewhere, I’m sure of it.” She rummaged around in the back, then pulled out a tube of cream and another pair of latex gloves. “Let’s do this, shall we?”
The moment we stepped inside the long, low brick building, the barking started up again.
“Noisy beggars, aren’t they?” Faye said fondly as she led us down a narrow aisle between two rows of dog enclosures.
Each one contained at least one dog, some tattered bedding and toys, and empty food bowls. The smell was nothing like the warm, comforting smell of a horse barn, and the loud barking couldn’t compare to the warm nickering of a horse – although Forbes’ ear-splitting whinnies would give some of the dogs a run for their money.
I walked behind the two women, glancing through the chainlink fences into each enclosure that we passed. There were dogs of all shapes and sizes — small yappy ones, big floofy ones, hyperactive ones flinging themselves at the cage doors, shy ones who sat on their blankets at the back of their pens and watched us suspiciously with their ears and tails lowered. Faye stopped at the far end of the building, and I gasped at the sight of the saddest and meanest-looking dog I’d ever seen.
“Stay back,” she cautioned us as the dog let out a low, threatening growl.
“What happened to him?”
Caesar was a short, stocky pitbull. His white coat was covered in scars and scrapes, and he had patches of hair missing. His skin was mottled pink underneath, and one of his eyes had a pale film over it. His ears were so tattered as to be almost non-existent.
“He was part of a gang-affiliated dog fighting ring,” Faye explained. “The police found out about it and shut it down. They had to put most of the poor dogs down, but one of the cops is a friend of mine, and he took pity on this one. Thought he might be able to be saved.” She sighed as she crouched down next to the enclosure, and the dog tentatively approached, then sniffed her hand through the fence. “He deserves a second chance. He’s had a miserable life, but he’s only a pup, really.”
I stared at Caesar, torn between feeling bad for him and hoping he wasn’t going to bite her hand off.
“I hope you can get through to him,” I said finally.
“So do I,” Faye said. “I’m hopeful that he’ll come around. But he’ll be staying here, no matter what. It’s always too dangerous to re-home a dog like him, not least because sometimes the gangs find out where they are and come back for them. I can’t let someone else’s family take that risk.”
A shiver ran down my spine at her words. “Aren’t you worried about them coming here?”
Faye shrugged as she slowly stood up. “What else can I do?” she asked. “Who else is going to take him?”
The personal risks that she took to do what she did hadn’t occurred to me before, and I was overcome with a feeling of admiration for her. She was an older woman, living alone in a small cottage on the outskirts of town, with no neighbours to speak of. Yet she put her own safety and security on the line for the sake of one dog.
“I’d be terrified,” I confessed.
“Well, if we didn’t do things that scared us, nobody would ever get anything done,” Faye replied matter-of-factly. “You ready, Lesley?”
I stood back and watched as the two women entered the dog’s enclosure. He growled, low in his throat, but they stayed calm and moved carefully, taking their time. Faye held the dog while Lesley applied the cream to his mangy coat, speaking softly to him the whole time. It only took a few minutes, and once he was released, Caesar retreated to the corner of his pen and plopped down onto an old foam mattress.
“I’m pleased with that,” Lesley declared, pulling off her gloves. “He should make it through the physical issues. The emotional scars, well…” She shrugged. “That’s anyone’s guess.”
Faye smiled sadly. “That’s always the real obstacle,” she told me. “We can heal the outside. It’s going to take a lot of time, energy and love to heal the internal wounds.”
“He’s lucky to have you,” Lesley told her sincerely. “Not many others would give him a chance.”
Faye sighed. “That’s my bleeding heart — always getting me into trouble.”
Lesley reached out and gave her a hug. “You’re my hero,” she told the older woman. “Give me a call if you need anything.”
“You’re an angel,” Faye replied. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
As we walked back down the aisle between the rows of caged dogs, my footsteps slowed. I looked in through the bars, peering at their faces, wondering what their stories were and how they’d ended up there. Each one had their name written in chalk on the wall by their door. Dodger, a black and white collie, lying on his bed with sad eyes. Jed, a big black and tan Huntaway, pressing himself up against the wire mesh. Sprocket, a wire-haired terrier that yapped and flung himself at the front of his cage, desperate to attract our attention. I felt their longing, their desperation to be loved and wanted. I wanted to take them all home, but there was no chance. Dad didn’t like animals in the house, and Mum was allergic. I just hoped that one day, they would all find a family that would love and deserve them.
We said goodbye to Faye and walked back to the ute. The grey mare stood in her paddock, watching us go.
“What’s going to happen to that horse?”
Lesley shrugged as she started the engine. “Hopefully Faye’ll find someone to rehome her, and soon. She’s not going to be cheap to rehab, and Faye isn’t exactly rolling in money.” She looked at me as she backed out and turned around. “I don’t suppose you’re in the market for another one?”
I shook my head. “Dad won’t spend money on anything that hasn’t already won several national titles and is guaranteed to land me in the prizes from day one. I don’t think I could convince him to let me bring home a scabby frightened Thoroughbred.”
“Not even as a project? Faye would give her to you for nothing,” Lesley urged. “You could keep her just long enough to get her fit and ready to go, then sell her on. I’m not saying you’d make money, but…well, she could use someone like you in her corner.”
I sighed, leaning my head back against the headrest. “I wish I could, but I don’t even have to ask the question to know what the answer will be.”
We didn’t talk about the grey mare again for the rest of the day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I wondered what would happen to her, and whether she’d get a second chance at a life worth living.