Where to begin. Short version.
I’ve been up north for two months. Mum’s diverticulitis (which should have been addressed at least two years ago) has finally been dealt with. She’d gotten very unwell and needed surgery. Surgery which her doctor had been scaring her off of for two years. “You might die on the table Jane!” It turns out he’s known for being rather spineless, and the whole thing was far more problematic than it would have been if addressed two years prior.
I went up for a two week stint (we all thought the surgery would be scheduled for later on), and ended up staying two months. I’m glad it happened this way though. I’m even glad for all the delays to her recovery which kept her in the hospital for far longer than planned. They gave me time to muck out her entire cottage and get it into decent condition. Mice had been getting into the kitchen, the dogs were treating the spare room like a toilet, and there was junk everywhere. She’d been working far longer than she should, was in constant pain and misery. Coming home and climbing straight into bed and then not even being able to really sleep. It’s no life. And things were so bad I was trying to mental prepare myself for the worst, even whilst cracking on as though everything would pan out fine. Which, thankfully, it has. In all their preparations for the op they’ve diagnosed her with diabetes and found a surprising heart murmur, but these things should be manageable.
She’s home, she’s recovering well, the cottage is hygienic and safe enough, and the dogs have had two months of extra attention/training, so it’s now a rare day that they get caught short and resort to messing in the house.
Poppy has positively blossomed. I did loads of +R with her to help her confidence around humans. It’s still in progress, partly because I can’t control all the parameters. Sometimes noisy men turn up and try to touch her or shout at her for barking. What can you do? You certainly can’t tell the men that they should modify their behaviour… But regardless she’s doing really well and now she usually only barks once or twice out of surprise, then settles down. Having gained confidence with me she then decided that the next person she’d allow to touch her was my brother’s finance, Linzi. It’s only taken two years! And she’s still tentative, it has to be on her terms. But it’s a huge step forward. Linz said, “she’s lost her voice!” “A sea-witch took it!” I said. She’s even been playing quietly with my big burly brother. She would play with him, but it usually involved being over-threshold the entire time. Now she’ll often play silently.
On the flip side, her voice has come to her in other ways. This the dog who, as a puppy, was so traumatised that she did not vocalise at all. When she finally found her voice it was to bark in fear, or to grumble thanks when you gave her a biscuit. Now she has a wider vocabulary. Huffs and puffs and “Staffie chat” when she wants a toy. I even saw her ragging a toy the other day. She’s discovering more ways of being a dog.
We got her happy to be harnessed. The start point was a dog who would hide under the table when her harness was picked up. And slink to the ground if you forced it on. I tried to counter-condition the harness by putting biscuits on it. Then clicker trained her to put her nose into it. Then her head. Again and again and again, setting up a pleasant new history around the harness. With Reggie practicing patience in the meantime, sitting politely and earning shared clicks. Then began fastening it, which she didn’t like. The end point (or rather, progress so far) is a dog who (when she fancies it) will gallop over to you and thrust her head into the harness, staying standing and confident whilst you fasten it under her belly, then merrily accept either a belly rub or praise or biscuit as thanks. Sometimes I would run backwards on the lawn, holding the harness low in front of me, and she would sprint over to catch me by shoving her head into it. She even let Linz pop it on once or twice. Even moved her nose towards it a couple of times when Ben held it up, but he did what we would all do and was too keen to then finish the job by moving it towards her when what she needs, being so fearful, is for you to stay still and let her do it herself. But she’ll get there.
We worked on her fear of the jangly chain lead too and made good progress (a jangle now = run over to see if there’s a biscuit on the go), but there’s still more to do. We’ve swapped to a fabric lead as the weight of the chain seemed to still bother her, even once the noise didn’t. Any pressure on the line concerns her. But it’s something for me to work on when I see her next. She gave us a useful barometer of her comfort levels by only taking her regular biscuits (from their ordinary dinner ration) when she as comfortable. If she refused those or only accepted something tastier, it was a sign she wasn’t entirely comfortable.
Meanwhile, Reggie became slightly less frantic and anxious just for having people there all the time. I also spent a lot of time fussing him and Poppy back and forth, showing him that he doesn’t need to push in, a fuss will be forthcoming if he just waits. That “politeness” (for want of a better term) will be rewarded.
I also began some mat work with him and though we’ve not spent much time on the idea or had very specific training goals in mind, he’s figuring it out for himself. Where he used to jump heavily onto your lap for attention, he is now often sitting on his mat and waiting for it. He’s even decided it’s a good place to sleep, if there’s no room on the sofa. This was important to me, to teach him not to jump at anyone with my face (ie: myself or my mother/doppleganger) as I couldn’t have that happening post-surgery. She has a stoma bag now, so even if not for the surgery wound he would no longer be allowed to jump on her tummy. And he’s done really well in this regard. But again, I needed all those weeks of her in hospital, tedious and depressing and concerning though she found it, to be able to make a dent with the dogs behaviours. To get some of their old habits out of their heads.
I transitioned them to sleeping on the sofa instead of the bed, which was easy enough. And told mum it’s just not allowed anymore, because of her stoma bag and hygiene. And I think she was fine with that idea once she saw how settled they were. Even the cat (Kevin, a gorgeous tabby and white who moved himself in a few months ago) seems to appreciate the greater calm that has fallen on the cottage as now he is choosing to interact with us all a lot more, dogs included. He’s carefully making a study of them, and figuring out how he can play or sit or sleep with them.
Whilst I was at home, we also made the decision to have my childhood pony Freddie back for his last few years. He’s been on loan for 13 years, but his loaner has fallen on hard times. It can happen to anyone, and is why I never consented to actually sell him. She did a beautiful job of caring for him during all that time. So we have rented that back field again and he is home. He doesn’t have an equine companion which really troubles me. Horses should be with horses. But, on balance, this was the best option available to us. He’s seen and interacted with by people four or five times a day, and he currently has two tups sharing the field. Linzi, who has never had anything to do with horses and finds him (at 14.2hh) a bit big and scary, seems to love him. She gives him a carrot on her way to work and yesterday took him a bucket of water as the stream was a little low. Sometimes I’ve found her sitting next to the fence with him chilling on the other side. Even my brother seems happy to have him back, which I didn’t expect, asking me what we could do about his itching and such.
The pony hadn’t wintered well. Wet conditions and rubbish hay and financial difficulties. Quite thin. If he had muscle mass and was younger you’d say it was an athletic bodyfat level, but as it stands not so much. His spine was still covered, but his poos were quite black at first and I thought, “nutrition? Or bleeding in the digestive system…?” They’re a more normal colour now, thankfully. He also had a lot of winter coat still to get off and that, combined with midges, put him on an itching mission.
Three weeks later, he’s started putting on weight and has stopped rubbing himself raw. He’s on senior mix with chaff, an itch-free supplement, extra garlic, and fruit. Plus all that rough but plentiful grass and forage in the field, and the occasional handful of clover from the garden as a treat. Sudocreme, a soothing bathe of the worst bit (his neck), and daily grooming/shedding helped with the exterior. It’s all about how he does through summer now, as I wouldn’t want him going into another winter this thin. But we’re hopeful that he’ll keep gaining now that he’s got better nutrition. And where at first mum was keen to find somewhere else for him to live, now she’s planning on having him stay there, so I’m hopeful that he’ll be okay.
If it weren’t such a big journey for an old boy (he’s 28) and if livery costs down here weren’t twice what they are at home, I’d have brought him down to live with Skye. But as it stands I’m happy. I think he’s going to be well-enough loved as a family pet that I don’t need to worry about him. And he’ll not give them any trouble.
It was a treat being there with him though. It was weird going home for so long in general, but I had a job to do so it was fine. Tasks: look after mum, arrange lifts for various hospital appointments (some very excellent people helped me with this), sort out the cottage, help the dogs (mostly Poppy), get Fred settled in and on the road to health, keep Ben and Linz updated on how mama was doing, and spend time with her incase the worst happens. Objectives achieved.
I’m now slightly at a loss, having returned to my own life. Normally when I’m up north I feel mildly frustrated. I want to study or play with horses or muck out stables or eat dinner with John or sit with my cat or pop to the shops (our village doesn’t have one). But this time I had a job to do, so all those other concerns went out the window. They didn’t matter. And having a purpose always helps you. So that kept me busy and fulfilled, even though it was horribly stressful at times. Then once mum was improving and the pressure was off, Fred returned home.
All of a sudden 90% of my needs were met. I missed Skye and John and the cat, I wanted my own space to retire to, but otherwise I was very content. Mum seemed softer and sweeter, mostly for no longer being in pain but also, I think, because the dogs and I had created a calm environment in the cottage. Her medication was finished so I didn’t need to keep to that schedule or administer any more injections, and she’d even begun feeding herself and regaining an appetite for solid foods, so I suddenly had time and headspace to continue some studies. Intrinzen’s Project Proprius and three excellent long-wished-for books (“Calming Signals”, “Empowered Horses”, and “Horses in Company” which is just the best book I’ve ever read on how horses naturally live).
My peacefulness increased ten fold for having a pony outside the window and were it not for that list of creatures that I missed back here in Birmingham I wouldn’t have left.
At 3.30pm we would take Fred’s dinner out. We would feed him over the fence separating the back garden and the field. The dogs would come and Kevin would accompany us too. What a funny cat. He would keep look-out on a tree stump or climb my weeping willow or hide in the long grasses watching the dogs to learn about how they play. A couple of times he braved pouncing towards them before sprinting away to safety. There would always be a noisy robin in a tree, losing its mind and shouting a warning cry, “cat! cat!” The bluebells were out on our bankside and in the field there were primroses and marsh marigolds. The back garden was comprised of a curious mix of clover, grass, and reeds. We’d call for Fred and eventually he’d hear us. Sometimes he would whinny, “I’m at the front gate, come here!” but we were stubborn about where his meals were taken. The one day that he didn’t hear us I went up the hill to call again and he came tearing across the skyline in a healthy-looking gallop, very excited for the prospect of dinner. We always tried to time it to avoid the midges, as we fed him down near the stream which he would step down to with his front legs to delicately suck up some water whilst holding the most ridiculous looking posture you’ve ever seen. He adjusted back to the rough and hilly field very quickly, his hollow haunches filling out for the “work” and the food. Doddery and a bit stiff, he looks his age but seems to be thriving for the environment. They always do better with variety than with a flat paddock. It was a joy to see him recreate the exact same routes he used to take, 13 years ago. Human attention by the gate, dinners by the back fence, water at the stream, greener grass on its opposite bankside, a good pooing spot in a dimple of land on the top, and a good vantage point up there to graze and gallop about and see and hear for miles.
The dogs would run for thrown balls or scavenge for scattered dog biscuits. Poppy would sweetly gaze up at Fred and they would sniff each other’s noses to say hello. Reg was less confident, his bull terrier heritage telling him that he wanted to chase the big silver animal if it moved, or possibly even try nipping at its hocks. Mum would be smiling or laughing, for the most part, and we got both of the dogs feeling quite chill about the pony. She was not only recovering from her illness and operation, but also becoming softer and sweeter in her overall manner. She said i was kinder and more understanding than her, and that it clearly worked with the dogs. I don’t think I am, I think she was just struggling with illness. We’re all less tolerant when we’re unwell. The pony would crane his neck over the fence, convinced her dog biscuits might be interesting and then crinkling his nose at the distasteful smell. I did bits of clicker training with him for my own education, and it seemed to help him settle and restore him back to how we always knew him… nosy and confident and calm. He had seemed anxious and withdrawn at first, but he quickly remembered how it was with us.
When he’d finished his dinner, he would climb back up the hill to graze and we would sit on the patio for a while. Maybe eat a snack or drink a cup of tea. Sometimes Poppy would practice harnessing, sometimes they’d nap, sometimes we’d all play, sometimes they’d scavenge food that we threw for them. One time we cut an apple into small pieces which they each bobbed from a bucket of water. That was cute. Then eventually it would be human dinnertime.
It was quiet, it was green, there was a pony on my doorstep and dogs by my side and food in the fridge and a happy and well mama. I had a role to fulfil, a job to do, and my days were composed of creating small routines and habits which I saw build in each individual until we were all living in a more harmonious way. I had a purpose and fresh air and animals and birdsong and wildflowers.
Now I’m back in Birmingham and I don’t have a set routine to return to. I need to re-create one. I have the cat (who took a night to decide to forgive me for my absence), and Skye (who recently suffered an abscess in her front left hoof and has been on box rest, so she’ll probably be feeling a bit sorry for herself when I see her tomorrow), and John (who is in the midst of wondering again how he feels about his work and his life), and it’s good to have those individuals to return to.
But the peaceful way I feel when I see Skye for an hour… or when I have time to volunteer once or twice a week… I helped cultivate a household where I had that feeling every single day. I’d improved things for mum’s benefit, had expected to want to swiftly get back to my own life, but then as soon as there was a pony to breathe in everyday, bang… it was suddenly heaven for me too.
So I feel torn in every direction. She doesn’t need me up there right now, she’s healthier than she’s been in years and is almost over her dizzy spells and reluctance to eat. And I do need to be here, to earn some money and decide where to go or what to do next. Two months of not-earning was not a good thing, especially given I’m part-time self-employed and had a surprisingly tough winter this year. So I need to sell some things and apply for part-time jobs. Anything merry and simple, like cleaning since you’re often working alone and work short hours. Or anything that involves animals, kennel work, mucking out, pet supply sales, things like that. Am getting some responses, but there’s a lot of people here and only a handful of those jobs. So I’d better sell some drawings and maybe a corset or two in the meantime.
I still want to do that NAC equine behaviour consultancy course, and if I can raise another £300 I could do it. It’s not an expensive course by any stretch, we’re just all very skint at the moment and I have Skye to pay for. But it’s something to work towards.
The point is there’s things I can work towards, good reasons for being in Birmingham, good things I can do whilst I’m here… but if I were up north right this moment, we would now be playing with the dogs having just fed the pony. I’d know if mum was okay because I’d be able to see as much. I’d know how Poppy was developing in her fears of people, because I’d see her efforts every day. I’d know if mum was feeling strong or tired, because I’d be able to see if she’d done the dishes or fed herself or done some laundry, or just stayed in bed all day. I’d be able to ensure she asked the right questions at her doctor’s appointments and that she didn’t downplay things and say, “oh I’m okay” when she really hasn’t been. I’d get to enjoy the simple caregiving jobs of setting out cat food and mixing Fred’s dinner. And the sillier fun tasks of making him a fruit ice-lolly for the very hot days. I’d get to see if my brother was softening for Poppy, and if she were being given every opportunity to trust him and make friends.
I would have animal interactions countless times a day, be able to make real dents in positive changes for those animals, and have greenery and fresh air right outside. In terms of those selfish (and highly highly rewarding) desires, I would have them every single day, not just a few hours each week. Where I’m sat, right now whilst typing, I have sunshine on my back, a nice breeze blowing through the boat and the cat sleeping by my side. It’s not bad at all. But if I look out the bow doors to my left I see the edge of another boat, then the soulless design of an expensive block of flats rising above it. I don’t see any greenery. There are no ponies. And if I walk out the stern in search of them, it’s at least an hour’s journey (unless given a lift by John), before I find them. I can cope if I get enough of the latter (ponies) to offset the former (concrete). But I’ve had a reminder if just how sweet it can be to have those things on your doorstep, and I think that’s going to make city life harder. I’ve had about fifteen years of enjoying cities (which was a thing I had to learn in itself, I hated living in a city when I first went to uni). But I suppose those early life experiences set up patterns for the future. My default setting is to have animals around all day everyday.