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The Carriage Commentator

Belle as a tandem leader in August 2020 - photo kindly supplied by Yogi Howe



Sarah is trying to come to terms with the loss of her beloved Section A mare Belle, who died recently after a nasty colic, aged 15 - May 2023

Sarah, Gabriella & Belle – Newbury Show M&M lead rein

This week has dealt one of the most brutal blows I’ve known.  My beloved Section A mare Belle is no longer whinnying over the stable door, greeting me first thing with her shrill and distinctive call, and (what I chose to interpret it as), unending love.  She, of all my Welshies, was my pal, and now she’s gone.

As the brilliant author and playwright, Abi Morgan of ‘The Hour’ and ‘The Iron Lady’ fame, entitled her book about the toil around her husband’s encephalitis, ‘This is Not a Pity Memoir’, nor will this blog be.  But being able to put into words, and having the platform to do it, might help my own grief and in some small way, help anyone else who has been through a similar, nightmarish experience.  A few days on from when Belle was put down, I’m still exhausted, raw and my emotions are hard to keep in check.  The last few days in the stable yard has been weird.  My usual happy place feels very unhappy.  Those horses and ponies that remain seem quite unaware of the seismic change and empty loose box.

Needless to say, I’m currently questioning how and why we lost Belle and what more we might have done to save her – it’s a fairly natural part of this process.  Should we have spotted the signs of her colic earlier and called the vet sooner?  I’m thankful that I wasn’t away as it was rare weekend at home, doing chores, clearing paddocks, exercising those in work, tending to those on a break.  On Saturday, we realised that by about 7.00 pm Belle wasn’t comfortable.  She’d been lying down for much of the day, but it was hotter than it had been and she of all of them here is a pony would take the weight off her feet lie down for long periods during the day. 

There are several schools of thought on what to do with a colicking horse – walk it round, put it in the horse box, let it roll, canter it on the lunge.  Mum and I are in the ‘walking’ category as old wisdom states that letting them roll can lead to a twisted gut or they might get cast and asking a horse to canter when it’s in pain is a tough call.  What all are united on is that the vet must be called as soon as possible.  Horse stomachs are complicated things and colic nearly always needs professional intervention.  Despite the fearsome out of hours bill that I now have, a lovely vet called Ellen came out on a Saturday night and we attended to Belle.

After the administration of a painkiller and sedative, Ellen performed a rectal examination and pulled out some pretty dry poo so we agreed that it was an impaction.  Oddly, Belle had been pooing during the day and the stable wasn’t bereft of her regular tally of one every two hours. Deciding that I would stay with Belle through the night, we popped up a camp bed and together she and I dozed.

I’m thankful, at this end of the episode, that I had those final few hours with Belle.  At about 4.00 am she was clearly in a lot of discomfort again, presumably the painkillers had started to wear off, and I even tried to give her some lush grass to take her mind off things.  All she wanted to do was lie down.

Richard was duly awoken, and we called the vet again, who arrived, administered more sedatives and painkillers and performed another rectal examination.  This time it was like something from a horror movie as Ellen’s long, thin arm emerged from Belle’s back end dripping in blood.  Her face fell as she said there was a large rectal tear inside and we had to get Belle to the horse hospital in Newbury as soon as possible.  Phone calls were made, a Land Rover was hitched to the trailer as I didn’t want Belle to have to climb up my relatively steep horsebox ramp, and we rattled our way into Newbury as the sun rose.  Travelling in the back with her, trying to keep her upright, I wondered how any animal loads into a trailer as it’s a noisy, windy and uncomfortable place.  What trusting creatures they are, our horses.

Unloading her and being confronted by a wall of vets and assistants ready to take Belle for scoping and further examination, we were made aware of the reality of situations like this, the first questions being, ‘Is she insured’ and ‘Can I have your credit card.’  ‘No’ and ‘yes’ were the answers.

It was a surreal 45 minutes sitting listening to the radio with Richard, awaiting more news.  Martin Amis had died, various people were talking about his influence, and I remembered I’ve never really liked his books (too aggressive and masculine).  There was the usual sibilant reporting about Putin, Ukraine, Braverman that we have become largely inured to. 

Then a vet called Kate, who appeared to be pregnant, had to deliver news that I didn’t want to hear, but somehow knew I would.  At some stage in the night, Belle had suffered huge internal tears.  Grade 4 was fatal – she was grade 3A to 4.  I was asked to picture a clock, and her tears went from 6 to 11 – I assumed it was the shorter distance between the numbers, but the written report later said it was 11-6, which was 60%.  In a heartbeat they were talking about surgery, colostomy bags, colonoscopies and reversing them, and turning her upside down to reach inside her, none of which was guaranteed to work as the reality was there was, at best, a 10% chance of it being successful. 

Returning to my precious but by now dozy mare in the surgery, with shaven patches on her neck and tubes hanging out of her, I told the vets in my emotional stupor that they weren’t to be mavericks like that vet on Channel 4 who keeps dogs alive who should have been put down.  I told them that she wasn’t just another little, white pony, but that she was the Valegro of the driving world and had won more than most, and could happily assume any position in any multiple, was a cracking single and had taught lots of people to drive, had competed at the finest shows in the land and that she had started my children off riding and remained unbeaten in ‘prettiest mare’ classes.  But vets see all sorts of horses, who have done all sorts of things, and they see owners who say all sorts of overwrought words when their beloved animals are near the end.  I don’t’ think my words fell on deaf ears, but I don’t think they really heard me.

Having decided surgery wasn’t an option – at the very least any external scarring might have prevented Belle ever wearing her harness again properly – we agreed to try and stabilise her for a couple of hours and see how she got on.  Saying farewell to her, Richard and I left for home, and I decided to take our youngest daughter to a show jumping event at Sparsholt near Winchester which we’d entered some weeks ago.  Life had to go on.

It was shortly after we arrived at this familiar venue, where Belle had competed on countless occasions as a single, tandem and pair and qualified for the national indoor finals several times, that Kate the vet rang to say Belle’s heartrate had increased to 90 and there was more abdominal fluid than there should be, plus her white blood cell count was going awry.  My main concern from the beginning of the prognosis had been infection, as surely some of the impacted poo must have escaped into her system through the tears, and it turned out this is what had happened as infection had clearly set in.  The vet offered the next stage of an IV drip, but by then my mind was made up and I asked that she was euthanised.  It was a horrible instruction to make, but one which was done with Belle’s health and wellbeing in mind.  Thankfully there were some Pony Club friends at the event with large shoulders onto which I cried.

This week, looking back over the photos and the 11 years with Belle has been both torture and wonderful.  She was the one who, when I turned up at the breeder’s stud a lifetime ago, first caught then held my eye in a field full of pretty white ponies.  I’ve told the story before of how it was Roger Jacobs who recommended the ponies after a chance comment at a Road Club gathering at the Warrenders where I mentioned I was looking for a pair of ride and drive ponies.  Finding myself interviewing BDS junior whips for their scholarships not long afterwards at the Unicorn Trust in the Cotswolds, next door to where the mares were grazing happily and quietly growing up, it was an easy hop to meet them while in the area.  It was beautiful Belle I couldn’t stop thinking about; Ruby simply presented herself to me as in her bossy manner, and I had to have them both, unbroken as they were. 

Ruby was the one who had been shown in hand of the two, Belle had done nothing, but was by far the easier of the two to handle and train.  She was endlessly biddable and simply loved being used, enjoyed the children and was happiest when I was at her head during lead rein classes.  She took to riding and driving equally well and must be one of the few ponies, if the only one, who has competed in the Mountain & Moorland Lead Rein class AND the Official Meet of the BDS at Royal Windsor over the same weekend.  She took the girls to their first Pony Club rallies and camps, she was a sweet companion on the horsebox and at events if something else was nervous, and she was the one who rallied round at the indoor finals last year when Ruby got so cold she nearly shut down and it was her tenacity and depth of character that helped us become reserve national champions.  Only once did she let me down which was at Smith’s Lawn when she was in season, and found herself next to a large, black Friesian stallion belonging to Cribbs.  She got excited, he got excited, and we were asked to leave the ring.  But it was only once in a multitude of other, exemplary times she gave us during our many adventures together. 

All the doors she helped open for me personally and professionally, for us as a family, the friendships that she helped us forge, meant that she was more to us than just another little, white pony; she was the platform for all that we now do.  There’s something so special about where our horses can take us and the experiences they enable us live through and the memories they help us create.  For that, as hard as it is now and will be for the coming weeks, we are grateful to have been Belle’s family. 

Sitting in a bag in the kitchen is all that is left of Belle, a lock of her thick, unruly mane, a section of her tail and the relatively new set of shoes Richard Wiggins put on recently, alongside her well-travelled passport and the smart navy headcollar she last wore.  Much as these mawkish mementoes are something special, what we really cherish is knowing what a huge impression this little pony with the big heart has left behind in our hearts.

Belle (Aston Harvest Moon) 2007-2023

Belle on the offside at the National Indoor Finals April 2022