Ode to a red headed man

I was twenty-four when I first met Mo. He was a gawky red head with a kind eye and a spunky attitude. Despite the fact that he threw me to the ground during our first meeting, I fell for him immediately. He was to be a part of my life for the next 30 years.

Of course Mo was a horse, not a man – in case you were wondering. This post is a tribute to that horse who passed away last week at the grand old age of thirty-two, and who I knew for longer than many of by closest human friends.

Mo was short for Mauclair, named after Camille Mauclair, the French poet, novelist, biographer, travel writer, and art critic. I purchased him a while after returning to Australia from Portugal where I had been a working student for a couple of years under the tutelage of Maestro Nuno Oliveira. Oliveira, one of the last great masters of classical dressage, was taught the art by Joaquim Goncalves de Miranda who trained horses for the last king of Portugal.

We had our challenges, the greatest being that at the tender age of two Mo was a failed racehorse. This meant he had been poorly broken in, trained only to go very fast in one direction, and was whip shy. He bore a scar on one flank that I suspect was the result of being beaten in an effort to make him run faster than he was capable of. I purchased him to teach him classical dressage, the polar opposite of what he knew. To begin with he was like riding a broomstick – rigid and inflexible. I worked very hard to help him unlearn his difficult first years, and we achieved a lot, but his early trauma always remained a shadow beneath the surface.

Over a number of years of doing gymnastic exercises Mo transformed from a weedy upside down nag into a muscular athlete capable of all the basic classical exercises as well as flying changes, piaffer and a little passage. There is a sense of both great lightness and great power when riding a classically trained horse in harmony. That you can direct the movement of a half tonne of beast with the slight shifting of weight, the brush of a heel, or the turn of a head and shoulder, feels like magic because the animal is willing and confident in responding to your requests.

When Mo was twelve, there was a fracture in our relationship. I was riding him on top of a hill in a large paddock when he took fright at something. The incident took me completely by surprise so when he suddenly spun to the left and launched himself toward a tree, I lost my balance and landed heavily on my side on ground baked hard by a hot summer. The excruciating pain that seared through my body made it clear something was wrong. I was about a kilometre away from help.

Whilst I lay gulping air, Mo regained his composure and returned to stand by me, dipping his head as if to ask if I was ok, or enquire as to why I was on the ground rather than on his back.

I gingerly got to my knees and then my feet, using his body to steady myself. Holding onto the horse to keep upright and mustering all my resolve I hobbled delicately to the nearby house, Mo treading slowly beside me supporting my weight. Luckily the homeowner was there and helped me into the house where I lay on the floor just inside the front door feeling like I was going to pass out. I stayed there gasping for air until an ambulance arrived. The morphine the ambos administered was a godsend. After a night in emergency I spent six weeks flat on my back whilst my fractured spine healed.

Eventually I was well enough to ride again. I only got one or two in before Mo injured himself terribly in the paddock, tearing his knee open. I spent many weeks dressing the wound, cutting away the proud flesh and changing bandages. The injury healed, but despite my best efforts the scarring interfered with his joints and he could no longer be ridden.

I took him down to a friends farm near Warnambool where he was well cared for in his very long retirement and became a familiar fixture – known for cantering everywhere he went, his affection towards visitors and sticking his nose in to see what was going on. He was active right up until his last day.

His passing marks the end of a significant chapter in my life. I shall go and visit his grave soon and plant a tree in his honour.