Winnie arrived in my life on Valentines day in 2014. I didn’t know it, or would never have expected it, but she was the best valentines gift a girl could ever ask for.
A friend of mine was visiting from the UK and took the car to the beach with her son one day. She came home and told me about this hungry looking horse tied to a post on the way. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe her but having seen so many slightly sad looking horses in Antigua I assumed it was another case like this and said we would have to go check it out. She pressured me the next day to go, I wasn’t unwilling but I did inform her there is no government assistance or anywhere to take these horses so if it needed rescuing it would be down to us and to not expect any assistance, either with the rescue or the after care.
When we pulled up to the football pitch in St Phillips I never expected what I saw. This poor old mare was tied to the only post on the field, not a scrap of shade or a drop of water and was on her last legs. Literally. She was too weak to even put her head down to drink. Left there she might have lasted another 12 – 24 hours but no longer than that. She was riddled with sinking ticks and the infection they incur on their victims, her hooves were overgrown and curling round, her hair sparse and dull, barely covering her protruding skeleton. It was definitely the saddest case of a horse I have seen in Antigua. If we were in the UK the obvious option would be to humanely put her down. Not even that is easy to do here. So, rescuing her it was. We got a few volunteers to help out and went back with the trailer to take Winnie away. For a starving, nearly-dead horse she put up a damn good fight to get in the trailer. She used the last ounce of energy she had and collapsed on the floor in the trailer with no signs of wanting to get up. Once we arrived at home she still wouldn’t get up. We gave her time, we splashed her with water, we stroked her, we even tried to irritate her so she would want to move. Nothing. We ended up tying rope around her legs and dragging her out on the ground; where she lay lifeless. I stared at this old mare, mostly wondering who I would call to ask for a backhoe to bury her as I was sure she wasn’t getting up. I wish I had a picture of her on the ground that day but I didn’t think she would live and didn’t want a sad picture of her to look at.
After dropping the kind volunteers back to the racetrack and returning home Winnie was up! Wobbly and not moving but she had stood up. It was then that she got her name Winnie, after Winnie Mandela, a true survivor.
I fenced off a little area of the paddock for her to stay in for her recovery and my other horse, Babs stood with her over the fence. As did the dog. I gave her a ginormous pile of grass which she ate and slept in for days. She would submerge her whole body in the grass and lay down flat out for so long that I would regularly check if she was still breathing.
We picked ticks off her for the rest of the week. She was weak and so scared. She had scars on her face and what I later noticed to be a paralyzed nose. She would hold her breath whenever she was touched and brace herself leaning on her back legs when approached. Poor horse had obviously been beaten severely. I later learned that Winnie was one of many owned by some sick individual, the fence had broken in their paddock and people were complaining about the horses roaming so the owner tied them all to a different tree and left them there to die. Winnie was the last survivor.
My friends visit was a short one and as she owned horses she promised me a care package for Winnie to include antibiotics, muscle builder and various vet supplies. Unfortunately it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and I never received anything from her. This irritated me for a good while. I thought, oh that’s nice, take your free holiday and rescue a starving horse, then leave me, who has significantly less money, to deal with it.
How shameful it was to think like that. Little did I know Winnie was worth her weight in gold and I would pay all that I paid over and over again to have her back. She was the most special blessing in the biggest disguise.
Winnie’s role, once she survived, was to be a companion for my horse who I had not long moved home. Having come straight from the racetrack as a 4yr old she knew nothing and was dangerously large, powerful and insane.
Winnie gained strength slowly but surely over the days. She got through several courses of antibiotics, bottles upon bottles of BNT powder, any kind of skin treatment I could find and a cocktail of all natural supplements at every meal. She always walked like a dinosaur; I could only think it was because she had no muscle in her back legs and had probably had a few foals and was all a bit out of line. It was about 9 months later that Winnie trotted again for the first time and it was one of the happiest sights. She threw her head left to right and trotted down the drive, I could never forget it.
With grass being limited and a severe drought well on it’s way, I started tying Winnie out in the pastures near my house. This was actually a life saver, I could tie Winnie and be sure that Babs would stay in the area with her as I knew I couldn’t trust Babs enough to tie her.
Winnie was remarkable in so many ways, a bomb proof, wise old being; she taught Babs pretty much everything she knows now. I credit Babs’ entire life on having Winnie as I am sure she would have killed herself or had some horrific accident without Winnie to keep her in check. We would walk the footpath twice daily to go to pasture. Babs would get anxious to get out there and bomb past Winnie and I. For anyone who hasn’t had an OTTB, they can be difficult to stop. The gallop at any opportunity and seem to have difficulty knowing when best to stop. Before I got Winnie I had a couple of incidents where Babs had gotten loose and run for miles, losing all shoes and ending up through the bush, scratched to shit and completely distressed before I found her. She really was a nightmare. But once Winnie was part of the team Babs would only run so far before stopping and waiting for her new best friend. Winnie would walk though bush with her head down and her sure feet slowly and precisely, teaching Babs not to be afraid of the sticks hitting her. She would jump over the smallest piece of wire where Babs would try and plough through. Luckily Babs was smart enough to realise that Winnie was a fantastic teacher and a wise old girl and would gladly follow her lead. She really did respect and love her to the core. Winnie was even kind enough to put up with Babs’ needy and slightly annoying behaviour which included Babs constantly rubbing her face on her to get rid of flies and pushing her around the paddock to whatever tree she wanted them to nap under. Leaving Winnie alone or napping under separate trees was not an option.
It wasn’t long before I ran out of good spots to tie Winnie, shade and lush grass were dwindling and Winnie still needed a lot of fattening up. I decided, maybe not so wisely, that all the times they had escaped never ended in disaster and I would simply let them go to wonder the foot path on their own and roam the village as they pleased. To my surprise they came home on their own at the same time they usually did. So that became the routine. These horses roamed for miles but were predictable enough that I could always find them. Luckily the neighbours loved them. Everyone was so kind about having these vagrant horses visit them in their gardens and they even had several young fans that would go out and greet them and just watch them graze. My greatest worry with Babs was always someone stealing her which is common practice in Antigua. With Winnie I never had to worry. She would never let anyone catch her and I knew Babs would never leave her so that was that problem out of the way. She was also so happy for the freedom. Winnie started cantering again after about a year, she would throw her front legs around like a young spritely horse; I took such pleasure in watching her all the time. She was my proudest achievement by far. Still is.
We were then lucky enough to get a field of our own. Acres upon acres of lush grass, all the fruit trees you could imagine and it was divine. Once mango season came round they would run in to their field and do the rounds of all the mango trees eating the ones in reach and on the floor. Babs would always crack the seed and end up spitting it out having hit the bitter tasting inside of the seed while Winnie would take her time and eat all the flesh off the mango before spitting out the whole seed, cleaned like a pro. Her natural intelligence was so inspiring to me and to Babs. She just knew so much. She would seek out a tree to stand under before it rained and turn her back as the first drizzle started.
In what felt like no time, Winnie had started to look great. She really had come a full circle. Her coat was a beautiful bright shiny bay, her eyes lit up again, her nose even regained movement for the most part. She would only ever let me catch her and I really didn’t spend a huge amount of time trying to socialise her. She was ok with me grooming her occasionally but she was pretty unsociable and just preferred being left alone, and I respected that.
Sadly it wasn’t to last. After just two short years of having Winnie she began to have seizures. They were utterly bizarre; she would flop around like a dying fish and then stand up like nothing ever happened. When she had the 4th seizure it was obvious they were getting closer and closer together and more severe. She didn’t appear to be recovering after that last seizure and I knew the best thing to do would be to put her down. The vet said it was likely she had a tumour somewhere inside her causing it. It was a brutally sad day. Babs was mortified leaving her body. She stood over her with true sadness in her heart and screamed the whole way home when I made her leave her.
I cried for days. As did Babs. I left her old rope on the ground and Babs spent nearly an hour smelling the rope and moving it around with her nose. She stood at the gate for days looking for her friend. It was awful to watch. I had always imagined that Winnie dying would be sad but bearable because she had a good end to her life and knew love and respect which she didn’t know before. I was wrong and it was awful. It felt so unfair to her to have come so far, been such a trooper, a true friend to Babs and myself and just get sick and be gone so quickly.
I knew Babs would be difficult to look after again and that replacing Winnie would be an impossible task but Babs needed company. I settled for a friend’s horse that had come off the track with a damaged tendon. It was disasterous. It resulted in Babs being kicked by him so severely that her vet bill exceeded all the money I spent on Winnie and was weeks of pure panic that she might not recover. He was gotten rid of immediately after that and Babs is back to being my shadow. I hope to find her another loyal old friend but I know I will never have another Winnie. She was one in a million and I was lucky to know her. She taught me as many lessons as she taught Babs, maybe more.
Although I wish I could have had her for years to come I will remember her until I die. And be grateful to her for eternity.
Rest in peace, and knee length grass, Winnie.