In every family, there is the one who is not much talked about. Not because they are wicked or shameful, but because they are so good. They do not run off with drummers or take to the bottle; they just get on with it. They do not create drama. They just, delightfully, are.
Myfanwy the Pony is like that in my family. I don’t write about her much here. It’s all about the great journey with Red the Mare, my mighty thoroughbred, with her famous grandsire and her beauty and her great spirit.
Myfanwy came quietly and unexpectedly into our lives because Red needed a friend. And there was this little grey person, with her pretty face and her pricked ears, who almost dropped out of the sky. The lady who transported Red to her first home up on the hill had a pony her children had grown out of, and Red needed a companion, and the lady very generously offered us the loan, and it was as simple as that.
When the small person arrived, my big mare, who had been on her own for a doleful week, whickered and whinnied as if her long-lost sister had suddenly pitched up at the gate.
A few weeks after that, the American Paint filly joined us, and last November we moved the herd down to their new home in the shadow of the green woods, and they have been there ever since, a little trio of calm and joy.
The stories that got told here were all of Red. Quietly, in the background, Myfanwy, in her grand old age, her riding days over, enjoyed her retirement. She settled most mornings under her favourite tree, watching sagely as the younger ones got worked and schooled and educated. We did inculcate her into our school of horsemanship, and she learnt to hook on and back up off a soft cue and yield her hindquarters, and always looked rather pleased with herself when she had done this new work. We sometimes took her out for a good walk in hand, and the little Pony Whisperer would come and give her a grand groom, and only last week I did a join-up with her in the field, and she remembered all the steps as if we had done it yesterday.
But really, she was just a continued presence, with her bright face and her sweet ears carved like commas and her surprisingly low, throaty, Lauren Bacall whicker. She made no drama; she created no three-act opera. She left that to the other two. When the gales came last week, she amazed us by kicking up her heels and doing a perfect bronco display in the wild weather, and the Horse Talker and I looked at each other and said: ‘Well, there is life in the old lady yet.’
Not that much life, as it turned out.
This morning, there she was, standing under her tree, like a little unicorn in the autumn light, waiting for us to come back from our ride, as she always did. We were just about to leave the field, when we saw her stumble and stagger.
I, always convinced that she would live until she was thirty, almost ignored it. Not Myfanwy; she was a tough mountain pony; she could deal with anything. But then I looked again, and I could see something was very wrong.
We thought she had colic, at first. The vet was off on a call, so the Horse Talker and I walked her and walked her, for an hour and a half, round the field. Then the Remarkable Trainer arrived, closely followed by the vet. By this stage, violent streams of mucus were coming out of the poor old lady’s nose and mouth and she was shuddering all over, her small furry body shaken by violent spasms, low groans coming from the very depths of her.
The vet, one of the kindest, most sensitive women I’ve ever met, tried a single injection, and said to see what would happen in a couple of hours. Heart failure, though, she thought; possibly multi-system failure. She held out little hope.
The injection had no effect. The three humans sat in the shelter, which is built up against an old granite wall, filled with soft straw, a place of quiet and safety. The old girl shuddered and went down and got up again, and then stood, suddenly very still, almost in a fugue state.
I made the decision. ‘She is telling us she has to go,’ someone said; everyone said; everyone knew.
The light was failing in her black eyes.
She lay down again and I sat on the packed earth floor with her and gentled her on her forehead, in that exact place that mares nuzzle their foals. ‘It’s all right, old lady,’ I said. ‘You can let go now.’
I said that to the Pigeon too.
It was very quick and very good, in the end. The vet warned us there could be struggles, jumps, spasms, gasps or groans. But there was none of that. She let out one last cry, lifting her head in a final effort and neighing. Her two friends, put safely in the far paddock, called back to her, their voices carrying bright and vivid on the chill air.
Then the needle went in, and she fell straight to earth, with no battle, as if she was so ready that the very ground was pulling her to it.
And she was gone.
She went in elegance and grace. She made it very simple for us. It was her time, and she knew it.
The vet, who is not a sentimental or anthropomorphic person, said: ‘I’m glad she said goodbye.’
We were all slightly surprised. But that last call, and its responding cry, did feel like a final farewell. Horses do not do sentimentalism. They understand and accept life and death much better than humans do. They have a lovely, honest flintiness which I adore.
For all that, I think it was a goodbye, a bookend to that first hello, when the big red mare and the small Welsh pony first set eyes on each other and called out in greeting, as if they were old familiars, as if they were each the one the other had been waiting for.
The last picture I took of her, two days ago, in the lovely November light.
And Red the Mare, who loved her well, and who, when I went down to check on her just now, by the light of the sailing moon, would not be consoled: