Divorce, fear of other harnessed horses and snakes!

One night I found myself sitting at a working horse Clydesdale show horseless after losing mine to colic not long before, when I struck up a conversation with a good friend who I hadn’t seen for a while. After a while he looked at me and said “I’ve got a young gelding you might be interested in, but he could be in ‘fairly average condition’ as I’ve had him hidden away and haven’t seen him for a while.” He went on to tell me that he had secretly removed his share of the horses from the property when he discovered hers were being fed and his weren’t (divorce). I could take him and we would work out the price later if things worked out. Oh boy….

The next weekend we had the float hooked up real early and took the 5 hour drive from Brisbane up the highway to the back of a small Australian coastal town. We were expecting to see Leo in paddock condition, maybe with feet slightly overgrown, and a bit on the shaggy side – we had been assured that the mate was looking after our friend’s horses. What we hadn’t prepared ourselves for was what happens to a 2.5 year old clydie gelding in an Australian drought living hidden out the back of someone’s large property on coastal sand for a couple of years. What greeted us, once we could finally get close enough, was a dull eyed, scared, undernourished (he weighed just on 450kg), wormy boy, with horribly overgrown split hooves with permanent damage right up to the coronet band, and a fairly significant doze of Qld Itch. What had I gotten myself in to?

5 hours later the four of us had finally loaded Leo into the float after he was exhausted and we literary lifted him in, to just travel one hour south to spend the night with family. What a horrid night; Leo hadn’t seen real grass in years and we were so worried that he would colic from either the little bit of grass he had access to, or just from the stress of the day. The next day we had to face a possible 5 hour replay of the previous day’s loading experience. Horse hubbie to the rescue. He very calmly told everyone to disappear, backed the float up to a slope and after 2 ½ hours of quiet coaxing, Leo was back on the float. 50% improvement in 24 hours, we were on a roll here!

At home Leo was wormed, watched, wormed again and then the slow rehabilitation feeding regime started. We were also in terrible drought conditions, but we luckily had access to plentiful supplies of good grassy hay. Australian’s love lucerne, but Clydesdales don’t. Once I was happy that he was settled, his teeth were done, the vet visited for a check up, and the first farrier visit happened. To cut a long story short, 2 years later we had a glossy healthy 800kg Clydesdale, but one that was still battling chronic thrush. What a learning curve. I must have read every article I could find, been told how to fix it ranging from “just leave it alone” to “use iodine every day”. After 2 years we had an otherwise healthy horse with thrush so bad farrier number 5 could put his finger right in the stinking holes and they were bleeding slightly. But farrier number 5 has become a great friend and he saved Leo’s life. That first visit he didn’t beat around the bush, in fact he was quite blunt; he would do what he could but it may be too late.

Leo comes from an amazing line of working Clydesdales, his sire and brother were both champions in the show ring, and certainly in the competition ring. We were novices and he was nervous of other horses in harness around him. So here we go again – slow hours of patiently driving him with the slide on all kinds of ground and all kinds of noise, and with other horses all around him. He did end his “cart horse” career on a high; in harness with his brother being centre stage at a friend’s wedding. Looking stunning and so well behaved, but he never settled at shows with a whole lot of stuff going on around him.

By this time our 16 year old daughter was eventing at pony club, and I was instructing. I was finding more and more that I would spend my weekends out on the cross country course with other people’s children, too tired when I got home to harness Leo up and exercise him. This is also where the snakes come in! The cross country course at pony club was on flood plain right on the bank of a river. Being maintained by volunteer parents at the club meant it was regularly overgrown, and was in an area known for deadly King Brown snakes. It was crunch time; I had to get myself on horseback to instruct to get me up out of the grass as everything that moved was a snake (my phobia), and my only horse was my cart horse Leo. Home we went, threw a saddle on one day, did the girth up the next; and the fearless child climbed on the next. Not an ear twitched, and off Leo walked as if he had been in saddle all his life, as long as we only walked in straight lines and let him make the rules everything was sweet.

That was five years ago. Leo has reignited my love of riding, and with the help of the most amazing dressage instructor he has now become a “dressage Clydesdale”. Circles, straightness, cantering, just staying in the arena – all major challenges to overcome one at a time! He will never get to the Olympics, nor is he likely to ever do those fantastic high school movements, but he is honest, hard working and just so popular with all the horsey people around our part of the world. As I drive into showgrounds for competitions I always hear “hey Mum, Leo’s here”. We regularly place in our tests, and he is just getting better and better all the time.

He is a real champion, not only because of what he has come through, but where he is taking us!

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