Hazel Southam - Journalist

When hope was hard to find along came a horse called Duke

I didn’t expect to have my life changed by a horse. But it was. I’d been scared of horses almost since I could remember. Though I’d grown up in the countryside, it was not a pony-riding childhood. My time was spent instead scrambling up trees, riding bikes, and dipping for newts in our pond.

Horses, it seemed to me, were all far, far bigger than I was, faster, probably more intelligent, and, here was the rub, unpredictable. I didn’t want anything to do with them. I didn’t even watch horse racing on TV, my dislike of horses was so strong.

Yet unexpectedly it was a big, middle-aged horse called Duke who got me through one of the toughest years of my life: the year that my father’s dementia caught up with him and he had to go into care.

How did that happen? Well, I was tired of being unable to keep my New Year’s resolutions. They were always things I shouldn’t be doing: giving up chocolate, alcohol or crisps. So one year, when I was in my late thirties, I resolved to do something positive instead: I was going to overcome my fear of horses and learn to ride.

The results weren’t impressive. Horses are flight animals. They can sense fear. So if you’re sitting on their back, terrified, and shaking with fear, as I was, they think, ‘Oh no, what’s wrong? Why is this human scared? Should I be scared too?’ And then they run.

If you’re already scared and don’t know what you’re doing, as I didn’t, this results in the horse bolting, you falling off and getting even more scared.

Anyone in their right mind would have given up at this stage and taken up tennis. But I’d been hooked by the idea of getting back out into the countryside, particularly, the beech woods that surround the market town where I live.

Playing in beech woods had been one of the great joys of my childhood. At Christmas we’d stripped the trees of ivy to decorate the house. In early May we’d stand in awe looking at the vast carpets of bluebells that grew under the trees. And in the autumn, we’d collect sweet-smelling kindling for the fire. But as an adult, I’d drifted away from the woods. My time was spent at work or at the gym. Now I wanted to get back out there, and I figured, riding a horse would be a glorious way to enjoy being in the woods.

So the idea of riding rattled around in my head for years with a few inglorious attempts. Then, in my late forties, I met a horse called Duke, and everything fell into place.

He lived at the Hampshire Riding Therapy Centre, a riding school that does great work with people with disabilities. I figured that such an establishment would have steady, calm horses and would be able to cope with my nerves.

This was true. I signed up to loan Duke, an Irish Draught horse, the kind of animal that would have worked on a farm 100 years ago. It didn’t seem to be a match made in heaven, however. I am small: 5’2 and weighing in at around 8 stone. Duke was enormous: standing on the ground I couldn’t see over even the lowest part of his back, and he weighed 118 stones. But he was kind, patient, steady and trustworthy.

So we set about getting to know each other. Because I was so unconfident, at first I only wanted to ride out with friends and their horses. Even then, I’d spend the whole time fearing the worst: Duke would spook, run off, I’d fall and be horribly injured.

But this never happened. Instead, my times with Duke became a solace in an otherwise stressful existence as my father had been diagnosed with dementia.

Dementia affects everyone differently. For my father, at first, life simply became confusing. He struggled to do the garden and DIY around the home; he forgot who people were; he’d get lost and be found wandering in the village.

By the time I was riding Duke, he was entirely dependent on my mother and me. He longed to be active as he always had been, but couldn’t remember how to do anything: carve the Sunday lunch, tend the garden, and it took him a very, very long time to get dressed in the morning. He needed constant reassurance that all was well, which it wasn’t. His short-term memory was shot to pieces. Five minutes after you’d said something, he’d have forgotten it, leading to oft-repeated conversations and endless frustration. It was utterly exhausting, particularly for my mother.

One day in March 2011 the strain grew too much for her and she had a stroke. That was the day that everything changed.

It was quite clear that she could not simultaneously recover her own health and care for my father’s ever-growing needs. After all, dementia isn’t something from which you miraculously recover. The situation would only get worse as he declined. So, my father went into temporary care to allow her the chance to convalesce. But he couldn’t understand it, and neither could he recall what was happening.

I ran between my mother’s hospital bed, my father’s care home, work and fleetingly my own home, feeling powerless. I couldn’t wave a magic wand over my father and restore him to health. I hoped that my mother would and could recover, with time. We were at a fork in the road.

Social workers advised us that, if my mother were to recover and stay well, then my father would need to remain in care. Placing one of your parents in care is not what any of us wants to do. It goes against the grain, and the logistics are dreadful: visiting care homes, meetings with social services, working out finances. For months I couldn’t sleep for worrying. But I had to make wise decisions for the welfare of both of my parents, whether or not those were decisions that I really wanted to make.

In all of this, the only moments of relaxation and respite, times when I was not worrying, were when I was with Duke. You have to be calm when you’re with a horse, so I tried to be, even though, very often I wasn’t.
So it was, one May morning that Duke and I sauntered steadily up into the woods behind the stables and found ourselves entirely surrounded by carpets of bluebells. We stood – or more correctly, he stood, and I sat on his capacious back – and gazed in wonder and the glorious blue-purple scene that lay around us. Slowly I relaxed, my shoulders dropped, and a smile crept over my face. I gave Duke a pat and we strolled home, calmer, steadier, happier.

Thus it went on. Over five years Duke and I built up an unexpected bond. He’d see me arriving at the stables and lumber across his field, ears pricked to greet me. I stopped being afraid of his size and instead found it reassuring. On days when I was too sad to ride, I’d simply lean against his massive frame and weep.
As our partnership grew, we did more adventurous things, entering small local competitions, riding alone (not just with friends), spending many happy hours in the woods in all seasons and most joyous of all, riding to the village pub where I could enjoy a cup of coffee and Duke could make a meal – literally – of their lawn.
We had an unspoken pact that we would care for each other. Duke would look after me out on the country lanes, never turning a hair at road-filling combine harvesters, delivery vans or cars towing caravans. I would care for him at the yard, bringing treats of apples and carrots and spending hours, weeks, possibly months of my life, grooming him until he shone like a conker.

My mother recovered. Of course, my father could not. Over time, he forgot my name, where he lived, how to dress himself, how to stand, walk and speak, but never, oddly, that he had been a life-long Guardian reader. Some things, it seems, can’t be wiped out by dementia.

Though he looked like my father, the man who had read me Chaucer as a bedtime story when I was a child, introduced me to To Kill A Mocking Bird, taken me to cricket matches, and made up ditties from his favourite Bible verses, had faded away.

The call came one crisp, cold night 18 months ago. He was dying. We rushed to the care home under a starry sky, wept, prayed and made our farewells, although he was already unconscious.

I thought, having grieved for him every day that he’d lived with dementia, that I had no grief left in me. But I did. I took that grief to the stables, where on quiet, winter walks through the woods, Duke gave me something to live for, something to get up for, something to care for.

When all I could do was cry sitting in his stable, he would glance at me and then return to the important business of the day: eating hay.

Earlier this year, Duke was suddenly taken ill and died. I felt as if all the lights had gone out in my world. The day afterwards I walked our favourite route into the bluebell woods and stood where we had stood years earlier and gazed at the carpet of flowers.

It was still winter but the bluebells were shooting and spring clearly would soon be on its way. Nearby I found a rusty old horse shoe, one of Duke’s, which he’d lost as we’d ridden up there. I propped it against a tree, my heart full of sadness, but more so of gladness for the time we’d had together, and for how he had brought happiness, adventure, joy and fun into my life when hope had seemed hard to find.

My Year With A Horse by Hazel Southam is published by Lion Hudson in July. To pre-order a copy go go: amzn.to/1Rgewhj


About Hazel

Hazel Southam is an award-winning journalist who reports on religious affairs, international development and the environment. She has covered four G8 Summits.

She wrote for The Sunday and Daily Telegraph for 10 years. Her work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard.

Reporting assignments have taken her to places including Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Albania, Nagorno-Karabakh, Senegal and the Arctic Circle.

In the UK, she has also delivered media training to the MOD and leading businesses.

Contact Hazel