• Gillian Keegan

A horse called Madeleine - Part 2

Trigger warning - contains loss.



I had bought my first horse, a 5 year old warmblood called Madeleine, 'Maddy' for short. She came with a very clean bill of health from the vet and I had spoken to a professional trainer who had trained her for 2 months. I couldn't believe that I was getting a horse!!


We hadn't been living at Lightwood for very long and, whilst we had plenty of space, we didn't have horse-safe fences. The property had been a sheep farm back in the day so had ringlock fencing around most of it, totally unsuitable for horses as they can easily get their legs stuck through it. So while I busied myself pulling down hundreds of metres of wire, I arranged for Maddy to go to my instructor's place, which was 10 minutes down the road. This also meant that I'd have support and easy access to lessons whilst I got to know her.


The day arrived and I felt sick with nerves as we waited for the truck to pull up with my new horse. This wasn't helped by the fact I was dealing with a 2 year old Bear at the same time - we didn't know anyone in the area and had no family there so I had to take him with me to the yard!





We heard the truck before we saw it - a huge transporter, used for interstate travel of racehorses, appeared slowly coming down the country road. They opened the doors, Maddy plodded off, super quietly. I took hold of her lead rope, was handed a chaff bag full of her things and a bit of hard feed, then off they went again. She was officially mine! The Bear was super super excited about the whole thing and it wasn't the easiest moment of my life trying to manage him and the new 5 year old. Luckily, a lady on the yard came to rescue me - she was trying out her new horse that day - she took hold of the Bear (thank you, thank you Liz!) and I walked Maddy up to her new paddock.


We put Maddy in a paddock on her own initially, next to other horses, in order for her to get to know them. All was good, and a bit of an anti-climax, if I'm honest. She stood in the paddock, really quietly then started to eat. I watched her for a while and then went home!


The next day was a weekend. I woke up, incredibly excited to go down to the stables and give my new horse a brush. I wasn't rushing anything, I hadn't planned to do any work with her (I didn't have a saddle for her anyway) so I thought I'd spend time grooming her. The Lawyer and Bear came down with me, excited too. Now, this is where I discovered my first mistake. I had ridden horses for a long time by this stage, and horses that were classed as challenging, but these were always educated animals, and I was always around many people to guide and support me. I hadn't ever handled young or difficult horses, so, even though I thought that I had reasonable experience, I was actually in way over my head. The yard was empty (it was only a small place with only a couple of agistees) but I didn't think much of it when I went to get Maddy and led her away from her paddock to stand on her own in the yard. She had tied up well on her own in her last home so, why wouldn't she now? I realise, in hindsight, that I was asking a lot of this very young, green horse. She had done hardly anything, she was in a strange place and I removed her from her only source of comfort - the horses next to her, to then tie her up on her own.


She seemed tense, but I tied her up and went to take off her rug. I managed to get the chest straps undone when she reared straight up, her rug sliding backwards and pooling around the bottom of her hind legs. This was the first time I had been next to a rearing horse, definitely the first time I had to deal with a rearing horse - and I was on my own! I honestly wanted to vomit, I managed to get her to step out of her rug then untied her and led her, dancing, straight back up to her paddock. I felt too scared to put her rug back on even so I just turned her out and arranged for my instructor to be there when I next took her out of the paddock. I felt ridiculous that I hadn't even been able to brush my horse, never mind think about going for a ride.


After the very rough start, I had a groundwork lesson and felt a little more comfortable handling her. I booked a saddle fitter to come out and measure her up, I started to think about a rough training schedule. Then, one day at work in the city the following week (around 1.5h away from where we lived) I got a call on my mobile from my instructor. I asked how she was and remember her response exactly, "I am fine, but your horse is not".


She explained that Maddy had a deep laceration near her hock on one of the hind legs, it looked like a wire injury. I couldn't believe it, the main reason she was there in the first place was to protect her from fencing injuries. I had owned her for less than a week! They were calling the vet and would keep me informed. My instructor was amazing and told me to stay at work - she would let me know what the vet said. I was upset at this time, but not horrified. I knew that horses did this sort of thing all the time. We would patch her up and carry on. But that's when it got really bad.


The vet arrived and she was incredibly difficult, not letting them get anywhere near her leg to properly examine the damage. They had 4 very experienced handlers around her and eventually sedated her to prevent anyone getting injured. She also appeared to be hyper sensitive to needles and tried to run a mile as soon as she saw one. They bandaged her up, telling me that it was too early for a prognosis but that they wanted to see her in the surgery so they could put her in the crush and take a better look.


At this stage I had managed to get there from the city - my instructor very kindly said that she would take us to the vet as I didn't have a float then. She had travelled so quietly to us in the truck, and I had been told by her owners that she loaded well. Obviously, this didn't include in straight load floats as she turned into an absolute wreck, drenched in sweat, her whole body shivering as we tried to load her. The whole experience was traumatic for all of us.


I heaved a sigh of relief as we pulled up at the vet clinic in the neighbouring town. We arranged for her to stay there overnight to avoid putting her through loading again. She was put in the crush where she barged about it and tried to jump out. The vets took off her bandages and looked closely at the wound. Then we had it - she had completely lacerated two tendons. They couldn't say whether she would ever be sound again.


I was absolutely numb. I couldn't quite hear what they were saying, I couldn't take it all in. They had to sedate her again to bandage her back up and explained that she would need to have weekly bandage changes. I nodded blankly and somehow managed to get myself out of the surgery and back home.


Later that night I called my instructor, the reality of what I would need to do to take care of this horse sinking in. The vet advised that they would only treat her in a crush as she was otherwise dangerous - she was so needle shy they couldn't safely sedate her in a paddock. I didn't have a float so it meant getting someone to give up a full morning a week for a significant length of time as I would have been unable to load her on my own, given she was so difficult. It was an absolute nightmare. My instructor even asked if there was a possibility she had been drugged when she arrived at the yard. The horse we were dealing with now was certainly not behaving like the horse I tried out.


I called the previous owners and gave them the news, mortified that they had handed over the horse only the previous week. They were incredibly upset - I really don't think any drugs had been involved, we were just dealing with a horse that was sensitive to change and pain. I explained the situation and they called the vet themselves - they wanted to help but advised that they wouldn't take her back. They couldn't care for a horse with such an extensive injury.


Then the second conversation that I remember really well was again with my instructor, "Gill, I'm sorry to say this, but if you try to take this horse on yourself she will end up killing herself, or killing you." The reality of the situation really started to sink in then. I had one of the most horrendous decisions to make of my life.


The vets were very kind and gentle with me. They told me that, in their view, given how stressful Maddy was finding the treatment, and given how long it would need to go on for, the kindest thing was to put her to sleep. I could not believe that a week into my horse ownership dream, I was discussing the most human methods of euthanasia.


It happened whilst I was at work. I simply couldn't be there at the final stage. I felt that I had hugely let her down, and let her owners down. With her head over her stable door she looked perfect. But she wasn't.


The following day I went back to the vets to collect her things. The nurses hugged me with tears in their eyes and we all had a cry, standing outside the stable she had been in at the surgery. They handed me her rug and halter, again in a chaff bag and that was it.


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