Saturday, 4 January 2014

Chosen By a Horse - Susan Richards

Tissue alert! You will need them - lots of them - at the end of this book! It won't matter if you're a horse nut or not, you'll still need them.
This is one of the books I picked up while we were away, and I read it yesterday. It's still echoing today, because it resonated so strongly with me. I don't remember learning to ride. My godmother had a little stock horse mare, Trinket, and all of us (my brother and I, and my godmother's four) were put on her very early. We graduated, variously, to different horses over the years, and my godmother's boys went on to play polocrosse for NSW. Sadly, when the opportunity was there for my parents to buy a ten acre block nearby, my father balked, and insisted on staying in the city, otherwise, I could have had my own horses growing up. As it was, I had the horses at my godmother's on weekends and during holidays. Then we moved to South Australia and lived in a small country town, so there were friends' horses. My mother handed me over to one of the local landowners to teach me some more so she (who knew nothing about horses) felt better about me hooning around on quads because he could tell her I was safe. My mother got me a job in a local trotting stable in the hopes that if all I did was grunt work I'd grow out of it (that didn't work). For a brief time, I had a free lease of a mad, green-broken two year old gelding. Then we moved to the city...and horses were difficult again.

Years later, post divorce, I had a free lease horse again from the neighbour of a friend with a farm in the Adelaide Hills. He bred Australian Stock horses - like Trinket - my friend bred miniatures. The neighbour didn't get the minis at all...! So he offered us both a riding horse from his herd. My girl, Jazz, had always been the surplus horse, because he had too many. She'd grown quite distrustful of people because always, she'd just get to bonding with someone, and then they'd be gone. I had six turbulent months with her with all sorts of dramas, but about three months in, she attached to me. I'll never forget the first day I walked to the fence of their paddock and she glanced up, went back to grazing and then did a massive double take and looked back at me, then came to the fence. Magic. She died in an awful accident, and there's nothing quite so shattering as the mass of a dead horse on the ground. I still see it in my head sometimes. The neighbour came by about three weeks later. My friend had been sending me out on her horse, Missy. Missy was grieving, as was I. My friend couldn't bear to go out by herself. Then the neighbour turned up and offered me "the big mare in the back paddock. You'll want to lunge her a bit, she hasn't been ridden for a few years. And you might want to put her in a ditch before you try and get on..." So we walked across the road to his grazing property to find her. Seventeen hands of Stock Horse/Thoroughbred cross - he wasn't kidding about putting her in a ditch! He'd sold her as a youngster, and she been trained for dressage, and had done quite well. Then he found her in a less than ideal situation and bought her back - that's why he always had too many horses, because he did that a lot. He'd thought about breeding her, but hadn't got around to it. So, we started working her on the lunge to get her fit and used to being handled again, and then started taking her out. She was very different to Jazz, and quite an education to me, because she knew way more than I did about riding aids, given I'd been taught by a stockman! That period of my life was very special, largely because of the horses. It's been a long time, and I'm only just getting back into riding again - albeit very gently, due to my current health issues.

However, I can definitely identify - as anyone who's had anything to do with horses could - with Richards' story. The horse in the title is a rescue horse - a Standardbred (used for trotting) who was one of a huge bunch seized by the SPCA. She already had three horses; bossy Georgia, a Morgan mare, and two geldings, Hotshot and Tempo - a close knit little trio. Her own riding days were behind her as a chronic back condition had left her unable to ride. But the routine of caring for the three horses, and her job in social work had created a safe life where she could heal from a violent and abusive childhood, and a failed marriage. She's quite upfront about the relationships she has with all three horses, particularly Georgia, as a substitution for a relationship with a partner. The last thing she intended to do was rock the boat with the addition of another horse - until the word went out about the mob of rescue horses. One of the critical issues for Richards' was her fear of illness and loss, a legacy from the death of her mother when she was five - which began the years of being passed from relative to relative. A rescue horse, in addition to the potential problems of adding it to her three, also posed the challenge of rehabilitation from goodness only knows what level of illness, behavioural and socialisation problems.

She chose a name from the list of mares and foals. Arriving at the yard where they were being held, discovered a mob of horses so traumatised that they couldn't be approached, let alone separated from each other. Singling out the horse she'd chosen proved impossible, but then one mare took herself and her foal out of the mob and walked into the waiting truck, so Richards' took her - Lay Me Down - instead.

Richards' had to face the horse's immediate illness, brought on by the awful conditions and malnutrition, and her seriously maladjusted and violent foal. Lay Me Down improved quickly and got better. The foal didn't, but the judge on the case ruled that the mares could stay in their foster homes, but all the foals had to be returned to the owner, so any hope of rehabilitating the foal was lost. Meanwhile, Lay Me Down had to be introduced to the other three horses, which produced all sorts of excitement and tensions until a new pecking order was carved out. Richards was getting to know Lay Me Down and discovering that, instead of a shattered and dysfunctional animal - as would have been expected after her experiences - Lay Me Down was possessed of a sweet and loving nature that had somehow survived her abusive environment. And so began a relationship that was to prove life changing.

This is a very special book, and even if horses aren't your thing, have a look for a copy. The healing power of animals is well documented. I know that until we have animals our house, there'll be something missing. A horse isn't an option just yet (but is on the list for down the track), and I'm not fit enough yet for a dog, so a Siamese cat will be joining our household, pending permission from the landlord and sourcing a breeder. There's a sequel to this book - Chosen Forever - which I'll have to find now to see what happened after Lay Me Down.

If you find a copy, just don't forget to arm yourself with tissues towards the end of the book. Don't say I didn't warn you!


  1. Hi, Kaz, and welcome back. I've been lurking, and that only infrequently, as I have a flu that at this moment feels like it's going to relapse for the second time. But all of these horse stories are tearjerkers, aren't they? Including yours. The amount of time I've spent around horses can be measured in minutes, but I see how they can get under your skin. There's a cold war movie, Crimson Tide, in which Gene Hackman has this line: "A horse is the most intuitive animal ever put on this earth. Oh, it's dumber than your average fence post, but if you stick a cattle prod up its ass, you can teach a horse to deal cards." As good an explanation as I've heard...

  2. Hey Jack!
    Not good you're sick...this is probably not the book for reading when you're already fragile. I howled bucketfuls at the end, and kept having relapses of that for the rest of the evening. Mind you, part of that was the memories it brought back of Jazz and the accident.

    Horses are a bit special. There's something about half a ton of animal that's got all the equipment it needs to totally physically dominate you, but doesn't, because it wants to understand what it is you want from it, and then to do that thing... DB rode a beautiful mare while we were away - I'd have given my eye teeth to ride her, but he was too big and not experienced enough to balance his weight for the horse I was on. So, I told him, before we go back there, he has to get in a lot more practice so he can ride my gelding and I can have the mare next time!

  3. Kaz, I have picked this book up in book stores wanting to read it and then put it back knowing that the whole horse thing is just to raw for me at the moment. I must confess that there is nothing I miss more in life than the companionship of a horse. Injury has also meant I can no longer ride, I miss it and the horses and that zen like feeling you get from being in the moment with a horse. Your story about Jazz and your review had me in tears, silly really.
    I get the pet thing to, my daughter comes home from uni suffering pet withdrawal because she can't have pets, the cats get hugged till they just can't take anymore. We have an absolutely insane rescue dog, with anxiety issues we have never been able to conquer and three rescue cats, all of them a source of endless stress and expense and yet I would not be without them. Horses though are something special and there is nothing quite like that feeling you get from working with a horse.

    1. Hi Arabella! I had NO idea what I was getting into with this book, to be honest - probably just as well, or I might have left it in the bookshop. And, for the most part, it's just a lovely read that prompted many lovely memories, and even when I realised where it was going, I was still ok - until the last bit... And then I cried and cried. But, that's living with animals and loving them, isn't it? So, in amongst the sad bits are still the lovely memories and I wouldn't not have them.

      Horses are just special. Jazz was good for me at the time because when I rode her, she required complete concentration - there was no just sitting there and ambling along. As it was, she had me off more times that I care to own up to. But, she'd get spooked by trees (we rode in a state forest...), she'd refuse to put her feet in water - interesting when it rained, a log on the ground didn't get stepped over, she'd jump it...from a walk! Nuts. Mind you, courtesy of her, I can stick on just about anything now. The big mare, Topaz, was a walk in the park after her, and lovely, but I did miss Jazzy's total unexpectedness.