It was one wet and miserable November evening. “Come on Mum, we need to go see her”
“But we won`t see anything now” It was true. It was 5pm and almost pitch black already. But I insisted, I wanted to show Mum a friends new pony. Who was adorable! So we drove up the road to the most distant field, parked in the layby and went into the field. It was fairly dry and we picked our way across the field fairly easily calling the pony.
It was then that I realised the shrill whinnying was not in fact the wanted pony, galloping over to greet us (it`s in everybody`s dream) but another pony from near the fence. We trudged back against the wind and found the grey pony stuck in the fence calling frantically. Trying to calm the pony I rang down to the yard and asked for some wire cutters to be brought up. Within five minutes some arrived with a headcollar. But by then we`d started moving the pony and realised that something was wrong. Severely wrong. She was sweating, trembling, and could barely stand up. Once again, we rang the yard, and a trailer was driven up. Somehow we loaded the pony in the trailer and got her back to the yard. Thankfully one of the stables on the driveway was empty so she didn`t have far to walk off the trailer. That was when the vet was rung and everyone was dismissed, except for the yard manager.
I had a phone call later that evening to tell me the pony had died.
The next day, my day off, I was casually minding my own business, pushing all thoughts of the pony to the back of my mind when I had a phone call. “We have to get all the horses in off the grass. Now!” My colleague was in a real panic. “OK, what`s up? Why?” I asked trying to calmly assess the situation whilst tugging on my jodhpurs. “I need everyones help. Everything has to stay in. The vet says”
So off I head to the stables, breaking many speed limits but dodging the cameras, and when I arrive the yard is deserted. “Right. What`s going on?”
“Oh some people have gone up the road to catch the horses in the top field… I`ve drawn a map of which horse is going in which stall or stable. In the pony stalls we`ll need to make an extra section at the end. You know, using the slip rails … some will have to go in the indoor arena … but I don`t know who`s going to fight…”
So I pulled on my bossy boots.
“Lets get these beds put down then so the horses have somewhere to go. Otherwise it will be a nightmare trying to bed them down and not know have anywhere to tie them. The ponies are coming in first? Right you go and do the pony stalls. Beds and a haynet will be fine at the moment, we can worry about the waters when we have more people. I`ll start with the stalls in the barn.”
We all set to work, and were joined by more liveries, extra haynets were pulled out from somewhere, water buckets scrounged, and the barn was soon full of deep straw beds. The liveries and staff who had gone up the road brought in the first load of riding school ponies, who were given a stall and hay to keep them occupied. Then they went to the next field, and then the next, and then the next. Until every single horse was in off the fields and the barn was full of happy munching.
Then came the mammoth task of securing them all! I don`t know if you know how stalls work, but they`re designed for horses to be tied up during the day (or in the old days, at night) but in this barn the horses were backed in, to avoid the risk of being kicked when you walked down the barn at lunchtime. Instead you just risked being bitten. We didn`t want to leave the horses tied up all night. What if they wanted to lie down? Or more importantly, what if they couldn`t reach their water? It made sense for the haynet to go at one side of the stall and the water on the other so that it wasn`t filled with hay. Our ingenius solution was jump poles. A couple of strong men were dispatched to bring the long jump poles from the school, which were passed through loops of string at the front of the stalls. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But you may have forgotten the troublesome nature of ponies or bored horses. They will lean on the poles, or try and duck under. So we ended up with cross poles as well, to make climbing through even harder. Looking back the risks are awful; we would never have got them all out in a fire, and what if they`d got a leg caught and panicked? It doesn`t bear thinking about.
The next day was surreal. The vets were coming to take blood samples of all the horses to test for atypical myopathy. Not that they really knew what it was at that point. But at 8am we heard an odd noise from the indoor arena. So we investigated. Only to find our favourite and most popular pony gasping for breath, his whole body racking with the effort, covered in sweat and shaking. The vet was called and came almost instantly, but there wasn`t anything for us to do except watch this poor pony suffer and struggle to breathe. It was like he was being suffocated by his own body. The vet gave him an IV, took blood, and tried everything to save him. But in the end we had to put him out of his misery. It was awful. We were so useless.
The vet then suggested taking everything`s temperature, and during the next hour we found five more cases. They were pulled out the barn, taken to the indoor arena and hooked up to IVs there with several vets monitoring them (back up had been called at this point). We worked around the dead pony`s body, which was covered with rugs.
After a couple of hours the knackerman arrived to take the carcass away. The trouble was that he couldn`t get in. Particularly with the equine hospital at the near end. So the only option was for us to drag this pony`s body to the lorry. It was probably one of the weirdest experiences I have ever had. I completely dissociated so that I could hold myself together. Now the thought of it makes me squirm!
Lessons were abandoned, but a few clients turned up and we had to turn them away. One freelance instructor arrived, became angry that she`d driven all the way over to be told there weren`t any lessons. Then she saw the crying mess we were all in and immediately apologised. I kept busy, mucking out, giving hay, checking temperatures.
One casualty was taken to hospital, where she died three days later from kidney complications. The rest of them thankfully made a complete recovery, but the rest of the week was surreal and unlike nothing I`ve ever experienced before. I was impressed with how everyone pulled together and supported each other. Mucking out, taking temperatures, checking vital signs, became the norm and by the weekend we were semi functioning and starting to get back to normal.
Our plight was the first that our vets had experienced and through it a lot more research was done into Atypical Myopathy; we even got a mention in national newspapers! Most recently, sycamore seeds have been linked to Atypical Myopathy, or at least a fungus that grows near the seeds in certain weather conditions. I found the most useful site for this disease; http://www.myopathieatypique.fr/en/ which is done by the experts specifically aimed at improving and sharing knowledge and research.