“Winnie” Winstone’s Journey
Spring 1989-November 20th.2018
In the early hours of April 5th.1989 I woke from a distressing dream to a deafening blast , which ricocheted across the front wall of our house. I lay in bed, frozen ,my heart pounding so hard, it knocked audibly in my chest like a drumbeat.
Someone screamed, my mother and my body fled from the room, along the dark corridor, down the staircase, around the corner. My legs stopped working, like wading into treacle…my younger brother had taken his own life.
Later it started snowing.
Our world shifted on its axis, torn into shreds, turned upside down, it seemed to lose its floor, it was shattered, smashed into a million shards and thrown up into space, floating aimlessly, struggling to find our own way back to the light, to feel the familiar earth back under our feet.
The following months drifted in a haze, an emotional roller coaster, held hostage in my mind by a plague of accelerating thoughts or plunging into deep troughs of lethargy. Images and sounds appeared randomly, replaying themselves in mid vision, while real life played out in the background.
One November morning that autumn, making my way across the yard to Jason, my coloured cob, a yard mate mentioned two 5 month old Welsh colts had been left in a stable next to his. Peering over the door, two faces peered back, a terrified grey and a self-assured black colt. My gaze was drawn back to the grey, entranced by his terror and his tiny frame, fluffy, white with thin legs like sticks, vulnerable.
That was the moment where my heartstrings entwined with his, no planning or mulling it over, no question of leaving him to a future of doubt and uncertainty. I bought him the following day and so for us began the gradual thaw, the return to life on earth.
Not long afterwards someone reclaimed their stable and Winnie ( I named him this because he did …a lot) was shut in with Jason. Fortunately he bonded immediately with the little chap, mothered him, played with him and protected him from the other horses out in the field by cantering up and down, carving out a boundary line in the dirt, between the herd and Winnie. They shared their small corner stable, hay and feed, dozed together and groomed each other. Jason could wiggle the bolt loose on their stable door with his muzzle. One night he opened the door and they pottered around the yard, feasting on a bag of hard feed in the corridor (much to the disgruntled owners irritation). Luckily I found them early in the morning, stuffed and sleepy, but otherwise ok.
Winnie grew in strength and confidence with daily handling and even changed colour from grey to dapple and back to grey ( with even a tinge of pink in between ).
The land became over grazed, so we moved to a cattle farm in the village where the land was cared for and the farmer had built roomy stables. At that time it was the tradition to train young ponies for riding, so we set off into the paddock with a guide book in one hand and Winnie on a lunge rope in the other. Just a few minutes each day, until he responded to my voice. In later years, even after a decade without lunging, he remembered the sequence without prompting.
Eventually I backed him in his stable, as he accepted the increasing pressure of my weight against him. I slowly lowered myself onto his back, expecting an eruption, but he stood calmly without flinching. Each day we moved a step forward as he tolerated me finding my way, asking him to respond to gentle pressure from my hands and legs to turn left, right, stop and back up. Gradually he understood until we talked in this way and then moved on to tackling trotting poles and over small jumps.
The farm was situated beside bridleways, which had breaks along the hedgerows out into open fields. In the spring and summer we ventured out with my blue roan Cocker spaniel, Bailey. As cantering entered my mind, Winnie would fly across the fields, the rapid pulse of his hooves pounding over the grassland, mirroring the exhilaration in my heart, in that moment free of grief and anxiety.
We learned to negotiate the farm gate, backing up alongside, while I opened the catch and he waited patiently once we were through, while I pulled it shut.
He always remained highly sensitive towards loud noises and destructive energy. A few stables along from ours, a stroppy woman unnerved him, as she barged past him one day, while he was tied up outside our stable, reacting with such force that he snapped his lead rope in desperation to escape from her and galloped off down the bridleways. One path led to a main road leading out of the village, so I ran behind the trail of dust, fearing the worst. He was lucky, as a friend of mine happened to be at the gate entrance to a neighbouring farm on the roadside and she took him in until I caught up.
My nephews and niece learned to ride on Winnie and once he spooked while Sophie sat on his back listening to instructions. He fled down to the end of the paddock with Sophie still in the saddle, ashen, her little fingers locked rigid around the reins, shaken but not stirred.
After an arson attack on the neighbouring farm, where a youngster and veteran perished in a locked barn, we moved to a private field off a bridle path, not far from my childhood home. The event shaped my decision to enable my ponies to live out and take care of themselves in my absence and eventually to build an open barn at my site.
Jason, in true cob style, walked obliviously through the electric fencing with his winter rug on to crop the longer grass, so Winnie followed. The land owner was irritated with their antics and pushed Winnie’s nose onto the electric fence to teach him a lesson, so with that we moved to Manor Farm, a dairy farm, next door to my childhood home.
I persuaded my mother to admit Winnie and Jason into her garden one summer. She had a beautiful mature willow Tree with pale green foliage spilling down to the lawn like a maxi skirt. Jason, with his arthritic knees, took a liking to the leaves, for the pain relief and ate them until he’d eaten up to as far as he could stretch, so the maxi became a mini skirt !
Jason was very elderly by now and no amount of attempts to help him gain weight worked, so with a heavy heart he was put to sleep in the autumn of 1999.
Zorro came to join us that year, a showy, dark dapple grey Welsh pony. Neither he nor Winnie liked each other, but gradually grew to tolerate each others foibles, becoming like an old couple during their 19 years together.
During this time foot and mouth prevented us from using the roadways, so we moved between the farm and home, walking up the shallow stream on the property boundary from the farmyard and into the garden.
Winnie continued to accept little children on his back from my infant class, only tipping two off. A group of mums were having an animated conversation, while their children took turns to sit on Winnie. One mother flapped her arms in the air, oblivious of Winnie’s fear. He reared up and her daughter slithered off his back onto the grass, tearful, but unharmed. Another time two children had a ride to Prinknash bird park for a farewell treat.
A peacock sprang up at the fence line as we rode past and squawked, flicking up a wonderful display of shimmering blue and green feathers. Winnie reared up, but the little boy clung on pale and bewildered.
Another blow swept in with the loss of my older brother drowning abroad on a family holiday in 2001. My mother teetered on the edge of madness with both her sons gone, so the privilege of keeping Winnie and Zorro in paradise came to an end when she remarried aged 78.
I moved to Stroud with no vacant field nearby so Winnie and Zorro had a couple of years in Hyde with an Arab mare. Zorro’s cribbing made us unpopular so we walked down the hill to Chalford and stayed on a steep bank below the Stroud railway line. It was hard to omit visions of trains toppling of the railway and down the bank, so we moved after a few months and had a few seasons at Painswick squash club stables. I hated the separation, having them so far away from me after the joy of waking in the mornings to see them cropping the grass in the garden, so I started to look for my own land. Fortunately the field at the end of my road became available to rent. Winnie, never a fan of horseboxes refused to load, until after half an hour of trying the driver and a yard hand lifted him into the box out of desperation, much to everyone’s amusement.
The new field stretched out along a steep hill with a ramshackle home made shed and fresh water flowing from a spring on the far end of the field boundary. Winnie had begun to shed his teeth and weight, but he was well, very happy and able to keep his place in my growing herd, so I refused the vet’s advice to remove his back teeth or euthanise. By now there were a range of feeds to help him keep his weight at a healthy level, he stopped taking little passengers on board and started to wear warmer rugs for cold and wet seasons.
In the autumn of 2013 an opportunity came along, to buy a piece of grassland with a corpse and a derelict stone shelter and my herd arrived at their current home.
Winnie’s had a happy life here with Zorro and the mares, growing slower and more relaxed,enjoying dozing in the sunshine,plodding around behind me as I poo picked and calling me when his feeds were due. He welcomed visitors,bearing gifts of ripe bananas, mints and treacle treats. He was still inclined and capable of seeing off a new herd member twice his size and forgetting his absence of teeth.
In November there was a sudden drop in temperature causing the herd to become animated and I felt all was well as he joined in catering and bucking around the field.
On November 19th Winnie refused his last feed of the day. Occasionally this happened and his appetite would return. I noticed a flock of wood pigeons flying up out of the wood, through the tree tops ,splotches of grey spreading up into the sky. The following day he was lying down and refusing food, so the vet came out straight away. Her eyes watered as she checked his heart rate- not okay – double the normal rate indicating of a larger issue underlying it and his gut action was not right. The main vet came in to give his opinion and gave Winnie light sedation and morphine. He said it would be kinder at his age to let him go if his condition didn’t improve. Winnie rallied for a while, getting up and nibbling grass until the drugs wore off and he lay down again.
The end was very quick and painless for him and after the vet left I lay down with him and howled. For the living there comes the unbearable moment of life crossing over to death, caught up in its vice, no longer In the present. All the decades of our close bond and adventures closed away into the past. Journeys end.
The next day it snowed.
Zorro felt the loss of his old friend, in his own way; the absence of Winnie and the routine disrupted. He suffered a severe bout of colic two weeks later which he thankfully pulled through. I feel deeply grateful that he has reintegrated happily with the mares, even taking turns to take the lead.
A flock of birds flew up out of the wood just after Winnie passed and reminded me of this anonymous poem ( possibly written by Navajo Indian priests) that has brought me comfort through past losses.
Do not stand by my grave and weep;
I am not there I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunshine on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the mornings hush
I am the swift uplifting rush of birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand by my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
Blog and photos by Jo Equineearth.co.uk