Farewell to a Friend

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A couple of weeks ago I said goodbye to the second-best pony I have ever owned.

Out of probably 30-odd ponies over 25 years, there was only one who I would rank higher than Rusty, and that was Pat.

Pat is now 25yo and living out his days with a family on the other side of Melbourne.

Rusty was put to sleep here at Elcarim Farm on a Wednesday. He was still a few months from his 12th birthday.

Rusty was born on a warm, blustery afternoon, much like the one he died on, around 4pm. He was tiny, a surprise foal, the result of my young New Forest Pony colt finding his way to my little buckskin Welsh mare, Bessie. Colt number three (she would have five colts and only one filly altogether), he was light bay with a big wonky blaze and three short ‘tennis socks’. He was down on his bumpers. Did I mention he was tiny?

When he was four weeks old we moved to the property at Ross Creek which would come to be known as Elcarim Farm. Here, Rusty grew up to be weaned and attend his first show as a yearling.

Rusty was an 11-hand yearling. He didn’t look like he was going to get much bigger than his 12.1hh mother. Too small for me, so I sold him. He went to a relative of a friend, to be a future children’s mount. A couple of years later I heard that he was for sale again, having grown much bigger than his owner required. At this stage I was pregnant with Callum. Armed with horse float and cheque book, and accompanied by toddler Rohan, I went to see the tiny pony I had sold as a yearling, with the idea that I could break him in post-baby and sell him on.

One of our first rides.

One of our first rides.

Except I never sold him. After the birth of Callum, followed closely by my second open heart surgery, I started working with the nuggety young pony that Rusty had turned into. He matured just over 13hh, but he was incredibly solid. He took up all my leg, and felt like a much bigger horse. He wore the rugs left behind by my 15.1hh Thoroughbred. His bridle was made up of a Cob size headpiece, pony size cheekpieces and a Warmblood size browband. Saddles didn’t fit his broad, flat wither. I tried so many saddles on him. From small stock saddles, to Wintecs with the widest gullets, even an Icelandic Horse saddle. Nothing fit, he could not move his shoulders in any of them. So I sold all the saddles I had and bought a treeless. This was not the most ideal thing to ride a green pony in, but he was comfortable in it, so we made do, and I learned to love the uninterrupted feel of the soft saddle.

There is meant to be a wither there, not a valley...

There is meant to be a wither there, not a valley…

Despite being quiet, Rusty was always sensitive. He had a low palate, so single-joint bits didn’t suit him. I eventually settled him in a Myler bit, with double joint, loose rings and copper inlays. I rode a lot with my seat, thanks to the feel afforded by the treeless saddle. He never liked a strong contact on the bit.

We struggled a bit with canter transitions and consistency of contact, but one year we did manage to place 5th in the Ballarat Adult Riding Club dressage mini-comp. It took me nine years to place in the mini-comp, and I was so thrilled to finally get a rosette.

Our first open competition was the Open Pony Dressage day at Werribee. I can’t tell you what year it was. Rusty was so relaxed, despite all the goings-on at Werribee, and he looked after me all day. I think we came equal second-last or something, but we were awarded the encouragement prize and brought home a white saddle blanket thanks to Deb Wilson.

Rusty at the APOB dressage day

Rusty at the APOB dressage day

He would have been five or six years old when I came home from a trip to Ikea one Easter Saturday to find him trailing his hindleg. He had got caught in a fence, and in his struggle to get out he had cut right through the extensor tendon and damaged the cannon bone. Off to the horse clinic on a public holiday, wondering how on earth I was going to pay for his treatment. He came home on the Tuesday and spent the next eight weeks in my stable, with frequent rations of grass hay and a mineral block for entertainment.

We started out with bandage changes every  36 hours, each change involving a refit of the PVC splint and several layers of padding. Rusty was very withdrawn during this time, never needy or begging for attention, even though I was out to the stables at least five times a day. The only time he demanded my attention was when he started to develop an infection in the wound. For half a day he was beside himself, clearly trying to tell me that something was wrong. Try getting a vet to come out on the basis that your pony is only eating most of his food and is telling you something is not right. The vet assured me that the wound looked fine, but left me with a course of antibiotics. This did the trick, Rusty went back to eating all of his hay and keeping to himself.

In the stables, with the bandage on

In the stables, with the bandage on

After another eight weeks in gradually expanding yards, Rusty was allowed back in the paddock, and five months after his injury we were back in the saddle. He always had a scar, but the injury never bothered him again.

Some people are said to be animal communicators, Rusty was a person communicator. He had very strong opinions and grew gradually more confident with letting me know them. Natural hoof trimmer Sylvie saw this first-hand while she was trimming Rusty’s feet. If she so much as thought about trimming his heels, he would start fidgeting and pull his feet away. Go in with no intention of messing with his heels and he would stand like an angel. One day we were standing over Rusty, talking horses, and Rusty started gesturing very obviously for Sylvie to look at his back. Sylvie is also an equine muscle therapist. She found a sore spot behind his shoulder, and after a short chat deduced that there was not enough padding in my treeless saddle and the pommel piece was too narrow. A couple of modifications to the saddle, and a couple of treatments from Sylvie, and Rusty was a happy pony again.

With these tendencies in mind, Rusty was an obvious choice to do a session with a self-professed ‘holistic vet’ at the Ballarat Equine Expo one year. When introduced to the crowd, Rusty walked up, stood between myself and the ‘vet’ and nodded to his audience. He then proceeded to completely ignore the man, apart from giving me the odd ‘this guy is an idiot’ look, while said ‘holistic vet’ made up a bunch of crap that Rusty was supposedly telling him and I smiled and nodded.

When it came to other ponies, he was independent, anti-social and sometimes actually aggressive. He had few friends, and was very content on his own. But being so steady, he was a great buddy for younger ponies. He travelled with me to pick up the newly-weaned colt Diego. About an hour into a three-hour trip, I shredded a tyre on the float. The three-hour trip took five hours, with two hours spent on the side of the Western Highway. Rusty was quiet and content until he ran out of hay, but we made it there and two days later home again safely with Diego.

Laminitis was a constant spectre, striking for the first time when Rusty was five years old and just fully grown. I became an expert on both laminitis and Equine Metabolic Syndrome. I tried several regimes for keeping the sugars in the grass at bay, but the only real winner was keeping him yarded from before the first warm day until the grass had dried off for the summer. This was no life for a pony, and we experimented with restricted grazing and supplements to allow him some freedom. Some years this worked, some years we were taken unawares by an early sunny period.

I knew the day would come when it would beat us. And I knew that when that day came, I would have to do right by him. I am glad that when he told me enough was enough, I didn’t hesitate. Once the decision was made, the deed was done inside an hour.

I miss him. I miss his broad flat back, his V8-powered trot, his big neck and long mane in front of me like a safety barrier. I miss his wisdom and his unashamed opinions of people. I miss his heavy muscles and fine skin. But mainly I just miss having him there, near my back door, content to while away his days in the paddock with the odd bareback stroll for old-times sake.

He was different. We were different. A treeless, shoeless, adult on a pony. Both of us with scars and heart troubles, I admired him for his uniqueness and he accepted me as I was. I didn’t want to ride something bigger and flasher, I just wanted us to be the best we could be and to feel safe while doing it. He made riding possible for me beyond when I probably should have given it up. He took the guilt out of my decision not to ride any more. And I looked after him as best I could for as long as I could.

My favourite photo of us. Note the loop in the reins.

My favourite photo of us.