The blind mare
On the verge of my territory - bordering Georgette's, the "northern" correspondent -there' s a sign post: "Horses, retirement home". Retirement for horses? An old people's home for old horses? I had seen horses, of indefinite age, meditating in a large meadows on the edge of the main road. In times of news shortage, I thought at the time, that could be an item for my newspaper.
At the end of August, this time of news-shortage arrives. No a ball, no town council meeting , no jumble sales. I call the horses' retirement home. A gruff voice over the telephone. The owner of the veterans home. Yes, they are old. Yes, it is just like an old people's home. And by the way, there's a problem I'd like to talk to you about, with the mayor. Let's meet.A juicy litigation will do nicely.
It's one of these gray and wet sunday afternoons, a puff of autumn in full summer, sad as a line of poplars on a grey sky. Upon meeting Frederic, one does not understand immediately why he is is the retired horses' business. He works as a car mechanic full-time . Why does he look after twenty-five old horses ? Moreover, he doesn't have the horseman's look. You would associate him with car rallies, motorbikes, car tuning. It is a long story.
Frederic, his ex-wife, and their children, loved horses and wanted to do "something" for them, but what? They lived on a large chunk of land. That's one of the luxuries landed people around here are completely unaware of. Because there's land, acres of it, one can have another life on the side, to escape routine and boredom. One day, they saw a film with Fernandel, "Happy like Ulysses" about, precisely, a man who saves a good old horse from the slaughter-house. That was the beginning of a new life: Frederic opened his "old people's home for horses"
It was a huge success. In the French countryside, people put aging horses in a field. It is a mutual and fair pact. In town, it's another story. When the dear boarded horse starts to limp, the owners can't believe old age does that to horses. When the manager of the boarding stabbles sighs that one must find a solution, they do not find any. The rare "hypo-geriatric" centers managed by French agricultural state councils are full and out of price. The slaughter-house is there to regulate the problem, if you ask vets about it.
Frederic says that, often, the veterinary surgeons make a long story short with a lie. I know somebody who will board it in its farm for nothing, don't worry, sign here. They call the slaugtering house, so that everyone can sleep at night.
The other solution for soft-hearted horse lovers are the French provinces. Boarding is less expensive. Frédéric's retirement home was quickly filled, by word of mouth. He boarded at one time up to 35 horses. Too many, it will not happen again. He tends to them before going to work, at 6 o'clock of the morning, and at night fall. His paying guests are: an old high-level military horse, an ex-steeple chase champion , a one-eyed horse, (injured by a tree branch), an asthmatic ones, an arthritic one, a lunatic clown. And even a horse with orthopedic horse-shoe.
Frederic and his new girlfriend take me on a tour . She is thin and shy, smokes hand-rolled cigarettes. A teenager hovers around: Frederic's daughter. She is mad about horses and chose to live with her father after the divorce. Two boys, younger, stayed with their mother. Old horses stare at us in silence. Frédéric reflects that they played a part in the break-up, but maybe not.
It' an old farmhouse , with barns reconverted as enormous boxes. The horses roam the fields, behind the house, except for four or five horses, in a gated field, within sight. Rows of old tires are laid down along the fences. These tires are for Neige, a gray mare. She is 18 years old and blind. A disease. The tires guide her to the stabbles, and are a warning near the barbed-wires fences. Frederic fetches something in a cellar, a blue horse hood, and slips it on the mare's head.. Snow looks like a death penalty case. No, it's to protect its eyes from flies and insects. She has lost sensations and doesn't drive them away. Snow is a little eccentric, which can be understood with her infirmity, but she still loves to go for a walk Frederic takes her along the mountain lanes, behind the house. He speaks about the absolute trust she grants him when he guides her on the rocks.
There is nothing they didn't do for the blind mare Being blind, Snow doesn't know day from night. She annoyed the other boarders at night, constantly shuffling in her box. So they put a radio in her box. When the radio in on, it's daytime, do as you please. When the radio is turned off, it is nighttime, hush. It works, according to them. "Sometimes, we joke and say that we should put a TV in their box, in the winter time. They culd watch the daily soaps, just like old folks ".
One thing is sure, Frederic will take never again take stallions in. Old or not, they spell trouble. One of them is in a gated box. After what occurred this summer, no way this one will go for a walk on the mountain lanes. The boarding home has two stallions. Both white, both thin, both old. But age does not impair instinct. This summer, a defective fence allowed the two stallions to fight for territory and mares. It was terrifying. They lacerated each other, fractured bones, ripped lips open. Frederic can't remember how he finally separated them but they would have fought to death, no question asked. The veterinary surgeon, had a tought job patching them up. Fortunately , a veterinary surgeon has agreed to train in equine geriatrics and look after them.
Separated and sewn-up, the two stallions were under arrest. To walk them to the boxes is always a tricky moment. Frederic has a trick: a carrot when the two stallions pass near each other. Between a harem and a carrot, old stallions choose carrot without hesitating . But between carrot and a good fight, sometimes, they pick the fight.
It rains seriously now. One cannot go to see the twenty other horses, in the meadows around. During summer, they sleep outdoors, In winter, Frederic and his daughter walk them to the stables every evening.
A damp loneliness hangs on the scene, which worries Frederic. To fight it, he came up with a fostering programme. Folks with free time on their hands could come and work for a few hours in the stables and adopt one of the boarded horses. One cannot ride them, at their age, just love them. Frederic's daughter does not agree. She thinks that horses can't care less about human beings, that they fare better without them. Frederic says that, on the contrary, they are interested and need human contacts. He dreams of devoted foster-volunteers, who would come on sundays to walk them along the mountain lanes.
Inside the house, we sit to talk. Some dying house plants, a wrapped stereo. They are moving soon. It is not a very comfortable house, just a place to eat and sleep. This family is not cosy. With the divorce, Frederic had to sell the house. He retains the land around, for the horses. And there comes the problem with the council. It is not possible to build a house in this agricultural zone. Unless it has something to do with agriculture. And old horses boarding home does not classify as agricultural activity. Therefore, no house, and an obligation to clear the house for the new owners in one month from now.
Always a pragmatic man, Frederic bought two mobile-homes: one for him and his partner, one for his daughter. But the town council prohibits long-term parking of mobile-homes.The battle plan is ready: On September 30, they will settle in the mobile-homes, with or without electricity, with or without water. It is true that it is impossible to leave the horses alone and to go to live downtown or elsewhere. At night, anything can happen, especially with the stallions. The owners of the horses pay a pension each month (the majority, some forget, others can't afford it any more...). They would have cause for complains. To return the horses to their owners, to close shop, is to send them to the slaughter-house. Who will take back an asthmatic and lame horse in downtown Grenoble or Nice? Thus the life in a mobile-home, with a teenager, for as long as it will take to build a new house. It does not frighten them.
About the article on his problem with the mayor, Frederic would rather wait. To call the press, even a very small newspaper, is only a last end solution here. Everybody knows each other, they are all related. I suggest an item on the fostering programme.20€ to join is no crook's fee.
The item was published, the lame, one-eyed, blind, asthmatic, arthritic horses had their center page story, with a photo of Frédéric. He looked really desperate alongside the hooded blind mare. I expected a riot, phone calls and donations. Nothing. One lady rang, said Frederic, and that is all. In horses as in human beings, old age does not sell well. Frédéric has moved into his mobile home. He has electricity. For the time being, the mayor didn't say anything.
Horses age gracefully. Always upright, always on their feets. Last June, the boarding house lost its oldest guest, Dixie. She died in her sleep, at the record age of thirty eight years! They did not think of calling the Guinness book of records. Dixie had a pal, Billy, a youngster of eighteen years. "She was thin and took very small steps, just like a granny. She had a foul temper too. But Billy followed it everywhere. During the last days, when we knew it was the end, we.wondered how Billy was going to react. For one or two day, he floated around, sort of "Where is the old gal? And then he went about with his life".