Few humans understand that relief
It is a cold day again. Cold enough that the windscreen of the old F100 is iced over and must be defrosted with a saucepan of warm water, combined with fast action on the windscreen wipers. The frost doesn't reach all the way to the top of the gum trees, but it is fat and furry on the strands of fencing wire, which look like thick white cords in the mist.
I have already done the rounds of my horses, checking and feeding the mares and youngsters; riding Powerlifter, my stallion, grooming him dry, mucking out his stable and letting him go in his paddock.
A quick shower, a bit of makeup, a change of clothes and I'm ready for my 45 minute drive to work.
The cabin of the truck feels freezing cold and the heater will take a while to kick in. Never mind, I'm used to it and I'm wearing a nice overcoat. Soon there will be equilibrium and I'll stop shivering. Down the driveway, ford the creek, out the gate and I'm off our property. The low, concrete causeway across the Molonglo River leaves only the width of a tyre to spare on each side and always commands a bit of respect. Today the river is white and frothing - no chance of spotting the trout I have sometimes seen hovering in there on sunny days.
I'm about fifteen minutes into my commute towards Queanbeyan and thence on to Canberra, when I see something wrong out of the corner of my eye. Something about a horse in a paddock to the right. What is it? I brake, back up, take a better look.
The paddock is big, fairly flat, with clumps of blackberry bushes poking untidily out of the frosty grass. There are no houses or infrastructure of any kind along this part of the Captains Flat Road - only open paddocks. The subject paddock contains a single horse, grey like the frost, moving strangely: rocking forwards, teetering backwards, swaying a little from side to side, experimenting. The horse looks tired and dejected, like he or she has been doing this for a while without success.
Now I can see what the problem is. Near the base of the horse's neck, just in front of the withers, is a buckle. Attached to the buckle are two nylon webbing straps. Attached to the straps is a horse rug. The rear and centre fastenings have apparently come adrift and the rug has turned all the way around, to hang from the horse's neck like a massive bib. The horse is standing squarely on the middle of the rug, pulling it tight into the back of the neck. Thus snookered, the horse has nowhere to go.
I get out of the truck, which is just beginning to thaw out. Ruefully, I wish I had worn boots and slacks today, instead of the high heels and stockings I chose in anticipation of my air-conditioned, smooth-carpeted office. Between me and the horse there is a rusty barbed-wire fence, reinforced with blackberry thorns. Assessing the potential damage, I decide to leave my long, navy blue, woollen overcoat in the car. Now I am dressed for paddock action: in a smart suit jacket, pencil skirt and ruffled blouse.
Taking a quick look up and down the road, I hoick my skirt up around my hips and negotiate the fence. Elegant is not the word. You have to admire how beautifully designed blackberries are for snagging your skin through stockings, whilst leaving the stockings intact. The barbed wire invites me to stay longer too, but its rust-blunted spikes let go far more graciously than the thorns.
I call to the horse to wait, that I am here and I am coming, and, having decided the horse has a feminine aspect, I tell her that she is a good girl. In a direct line, the horse stands probably 100 metres from the roadside boundary fence, but my actual track is longer. The horse watches me tiptoe across the paddock in my ridiculously inappropriate footwear, dodging sparkly piles of dry manure and clumps of the noxious weed known as serrated tussock. Serrated tussock (Nassella trichotoma) is one of those sad stories of a seemingly harmless import gone wrong. A highly invasive native grass of South America, it was brought to Australia in the stuffing of pack saddles, probably during the gold rush. When the saddles wore out and were abandoned by the wayside, the tussock seeds escaped, took flight on the wind and flourished in their new home.
I watch the horse without really looking at her. After all, this horse doesn't know me and I don't want to stalk her like a predator out for an easy meal. In fact, I have no idea who she knows or what her opinion of humans may be. All I know is that at some point, somebody put a rug on her. Quite a nice rug. Warm and strongly built, strong enough to keep her trapped under her own weight.
Now and then I pause, sending reassuring signals to the grey mare. I don't want to become the next casualty, so it is important to establish rapport. She seems to accept my meandering approach and soon enough I am standing diagonally from her shoulder, offering her the back of my frozen hand by way of formal introduction.
May I help you, I ask. Please, she answers. But the neck strap that was once the chest strap is so tight, the webbing is so stiff and my fingers are so numb and cold that I can't work the buckle. I reject the idea of asking her to drop her head so I can move the rug towards her ears, as being potentially too dangerous. If she panicked as the rug flapped near her eyes she could even break her neck, never mind what might become of me.
No, what I need to do is get my new acquaintance to move her feet, a difficult task under the circumstances. I notice that she is not shod, she is quite a big girl, and who knows how she feels about having her feet handled? But it has to be done. I decide the best approach is to try to get at least one foot off the rug altogether. Running my hand down her foreleg, I ask her to pick up her foot. I can't move, she says. Try, I say, just bend your knee and I'll do the rest. Her foot is in my hand and with my own feet I can push and nudge that part of the rug material forward and out of the way. We do the same on the other side. Now I can unbuckle the rug and take it off her.
The grey mare is free but she still doesn't move. I run feel the area where the webbing bit into the base of her neck. There is a slight abrasion there and it's clearly sore but it will heal quickly. Apart from that, and aside from being cold and stiff and probably hungry and thirsty, she seems unhurt.
You'll be alright, I say. I examine the rug. One leg strap and the belly band have torn away from the fabric. One leg strap is intact and still done up. Who knows what happened. Lots of horses are good at destroying their rugs. I fold the rug and place it on a nearby stump, as some sort of message about what happened here this morning.
I give the mare a farewell rub. I have to go to work now, I say. She does not reply and I begin to pick my way back to the truck. The thunder of hoof beats makes me turn. The mare is celebrating with a freedom gallop! But she does not just take off in a burst of joy and pent up energy. After her first mad dash, she slows to a canter and circles me.
One circle, two circles, three circles, four circles. As clearly and as sweetly as she can without voice, she is saying thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Then she leaves me and I go to work, smiling. I can feel her smiling too.
From a very early age I have been able to tune in to what horses and ponies were thinking and what they were likely to do next.