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A story of relationship and respect

Olimpo would recognise me as I entered the yard but never made a big deal of it.  When I approached he would gently take a step or two and then his head would bashfully sway towards me. I would rest my face on his cheek and breathe into his nostrils; he would breathe back and gently bite my face and then be sure it was me.

He was an old guy, a gentleman.  In his prime he was a top show jumper but now he was struggling to keep weight on and suffered with arthritis.  He responded well to painkillers but really that wasn’t fair and so I treated him carefully.  Over the years I fell deeply into his debt; he taught me to ride, canter and gallop.  I learned to leg yield, rein-back, shoulder-in, tempi-change and he taught me to jump.

He never let me down.  Half a ton of horse galloping towards a fence is not for the faint-hearted; riders are easily crushed in falls.  Yet when I committed myself to the jump so did he. He could have backed away or shied and I would have forgiven him; sometimes my paces into the jumps were hopeless.  But rather than let me crash to the ground he would risk aging, fragile bones by stretching further to make the fence or by sneaking in an extra step just before we left the ground.  As we landed he would blow hard and I knew my incompetence had asked a lot of him.  

It took me a while to hear him but slowly I became sensitive to his soreness.  When we began our rides I learned to walk him slowly so that he could gradually stretch muscles and tendons; I would listen to his breath and try to feel how stiff his joints had become as he had rested in his stable.  Eventually, I forgot my agenda and my requirements and just listened.  He was much more capable than I; he showed me how to judge the paces, he knew how to adjust his weight so we could land already in the turn to the next fence, he taught me about his strides and how he balanced the pair of us, and he showed me how he could defy gravity and stretch through the air.

After three years my time with Olimpo was coming to an end and I had to go.  The prospect of leaving him behind demanded all my strength.  We went for one last ride down to the beach.  The vet had given him a special injection which would relieve his arthritis for an hour or two and Olimpo became ten years younger.  We raced along the sand flying over driftwood logs, we crashed into the surf, spray mixing with my tears, then swam into the water showing off to each other before splashing back to onto the beach.  Exhausted, we rested a mile or so from the stables and I climbed down to be alongside him. 

We walked slowly up into the hills beyond the beach and I could feel the pain in my joints as the drugs faded away.  After a few more minutes I saw the mechanical digger in the distance and the vet waiting for us.  Olimpo stood beside the pit and I held his head so that he wouldn’t see a black corpse already waiting in the darkness.  I pressed my face against his cheek and softly blew onto his nostrils as the vet injected thick treacly barbiturate into his neck.  Olimpo exhaled sharply and then fell.  He was dead before he landed on his stable-mate in the bottom of the pit.  He fell with his neck twisted. I couldn’t bear to see it and climbed into the hole to lay him in a more respectful way.

Today my daughter grooms her pony. He is called Archie and she chatters to him continuously as she plaits his tail.  She is just five and the Archie is five times bigger than her.  I berate my wife; complaining that Ella is playing around Archie’s back legs, one kick and he will kill her.  Kate ignores my protest; ‘It’s OK, he will look after her.’  For a moment I struggle with her disregard for the danger but then remember that I do know what she means.