Robyn Louw’s story about a mare who taught her what being a First Warden is all about

One of my ambitions with BizNewz is to expose excellent writing to a broader audience. This beautiful piece by Robyn Louw showcases one of South Africa’s most talented writers. A perfect Sunday afternoon read, I went through it twice and both times found tears rolling down my cheeks. The gifted Robyn earns her living writing about her passion for Sporting Post  but occasionally casts her net a little wider. I’m hoping that happens more often in future. This is a very personal story about her love affair with a special Lady. It carries a message that stretches far beyond the equine world.

By Robyn Louw*

Oh dear.  I’m having one of those girly, reflective days when one contemplates too much and accomplishes too little.

Lady Warden - the mare who taught her human so much about living
Robyn Louw – gifted writer, horse-lover and lifelong learner. Pic by Hamish Niven Photography

I belong to a Facebook group dedicated to a young friend who was taken too early by cancer.  Silly words ‘too early’.  It’s always too early.  There isn’t ever really a good time.  Anyway, when someone meant as much as my friend did, there is the idea that their spirit remains to watch over all of us and that they are still a part of our life, even when we cannot see them.

This was beautifully put into words by Alanis Morissette in her song ‘Guardian’ which someone posted on my friend’s Facebook page.  The song chorus contains the lines:-

 “I’ll be your keeper for life as your guardian

I’ll be your warrior of care your first warden”

It immediately reminded me of my old mare, Lady Warden (yes, I know, I’m seeing connections where there probably aren’t any, but work with me here).

Lady (as most horses do) comes with a story.  My dad was given her dam, Young and Lovely, in one of those silly deals that only horse people can dream up.  The previous owners could not get her into foal, so we got her on the condition that we could keep the mare as long as the previous owners got the first foal.  And so it was done.  The first foal was a little brown filly, who would go on to be christened Lady Warden and she duly went off to the previous owners as promised.  Young and Lovely went on to produce a full sister the following year and a subsequent colt.

Time passed, Lady had a brief, if unremarkable racing career and retired due to soundness issues and she ended up back on our farm.  I was quite young at the time, but remember a tall, imposing and spirited character who always seemed full of life and high spirits.  She was the herd leader and I remember watching her canter across her paddock, her blood up and the wind under her tail, revelling in her power, speed and beauty.

Racing wasn’t really top of my list of interests at the time, so I got on with the business of school, boyfriends, work and eventually found myself living abroad and more or less sworn off horses and definitely racing.

Lady’s younger sister had gone on to be a fairly decent race mare and my dad had managed to keep her for breeding purposes.  Unfortunately she was not a naturally good broodmare and struggled to carry foals to term.  I was discussing yet another disappointment with my dad one day when I remembered that tall, leggy mare and wondered what had become of her.  She carried the same genes and was much more physically suited to being a broodmare than her younger sister.  My dad said she had been sold to a local vet, who also had racing and breeding interests.

So I thought I’d look her up and see whether I could perhaps purchase her back.  It took some persuading, but the vet finally agreed.  I made the necessary transport arrangements and the day before she was due to be collected, rang the vet to check that everything was in order.  He said there had been a problem and that the mare could not be collected the next day as arranged.  I asked why and he replied that she had been confiscated by a rescue organisation.  I cannot recall all the emotions that went through me at the time, but suffice to say there were a lot of them and they were all quite strong.

I got the details of the relevant organisation and immediately set about trying to rectify matters.  I explained that it was a misunderstanding, the horse had already been purchased and due to be taken to her new / old home when she was confiscated.  The staff were most kind and accommodating, but explained that until they prosecuted or the vet agreed to relinquish ownership, they could not release the mare.  It took us a long time to sort it all out, but we did eventually get Lady back.  She was a far cry from what I remembered and there was precious little in the pitiful creature we got back to speak of that tall, vibrant mare from my memory.  She was thin, neglected and permanently unsound – that beautiful fiery canter reduced to an ungainly shuffle.  No more paddock hijinks with her head up and the wind under her tail.

Gosh, I thought, hadn’t I done well to save her.  Wasn’t I good and kind for ‘doing my bit’?  I made a silent promise that she would be comfortable for the rest of her days and again subconsciously patted myself on the back for doing such a good deed.

A year or so down the line, she had settled in with her younger sister, recovered and was doing about as well as she was ever going to do again.  She wasn’t a particularly friendly or cuddly horse.  She was opinionated, fiercely independent and frequently irritable, as I guess I’d be if I was similarly disabled.  A lot of her sparkle was gone, but she was comfortable and well looked after and she did the best she could.  She quickly learned the value of carrots and the rustle of a plastic bag would have her hustling across the paddock as fast as her legs could carry her.  I’d always fancied the idea of breeding and producing my own horse and finally it seemed I had the opportunity to do so.  I had Lady vetted and passed sound for breeding and she duly produced a rather funny-looking little chestnut filly foal.  Zsuzsanna.  She’s grown into a large, elegant and complicated lady.  A thinker and a worrier, she is my soulmate on her good days and the bane of my life on her bad ones.

After a suitable break, we bred Lady again and she produced another chestnut filly.  Iffy – my exquisite, accident-prone, madcap slice of sunshine.

A few years later, another breeding and this time she finally produced my much longed-for bay colt.  I think we all have an idea of what our perfect horse looks like.  I don’t know how she did it, but Lady took my secret hopes, dreams and aspirations and distilled them all for me in this one utterly perfect colt.  My husband laughs when I say that is my last horse, but it is.  You simply can’t improve on a dream come true.

Of course all this happened over the course of many years and with each new adventure I read and learnt about pregnancy and foaling ills, then raising youngstock and finally onto producing my babies into the competitive world.  I’ve learnt about breeding, conformation, injuries and all manner of soundness issues, behavioural work (IH in particular), physical therapies – the list goes on.  I’m still learning in fact.

Lady Warden – the mare who taught her human so much. And, through her babies, continues doing so every day.    Pic by Hamish Niven Photography

Of course Lady stayed with us as a pampered pasture ornament and for her last summer I had her in a paddock right outside my kitchen window so that she was the first thing I saw in the mornings.  She’d be straining at the fence, beady eyes scanning the window for any sign of her human and impatiently calling for breakfast as soon as she saw me.  Oh she did make me laugh.

Unfortunately her infirmities gradually crept up on her.  She’d also picked up a strange nasal discharge that no manner of antibiotics could clear or scopes could identify.  The vets said it was probably a cancer seated up higher than their instruments could reach.  We did our best, but finally took the decision to end her life comfortably while we still had the option.  We were all there to send her off.  She had half a bag of her beloved carrots while the vet administered the sedative.  Then she polished off the second half.  We all patted her, said our thank yous and our goodbyes and then the first purple syringe was administered.  Before the second one could be connected she dropped to her knees and sank down into the sand.  She was gone in a matter of moments.  Quietly, peacefully, and surrounded by her friends and family the way I felt she deserved.

As hard and tearful and sad as it was to say goodbye to my old friend, there was still a part of me that felt satisfied that I’d done my duty and done a good job of looking after her.

How silly and arrogant us humans are!

In my journey to improve myself, my riding and my horses, I’ve been thinking a great deal about teaching and teaching methods over the last while and it seems a particularly human arrogance to assume that we teach the animals in our life.  In reality, they are doing just fine without us thank you very much.  All we really teach them is to cue their actions at times to suit us.  Which isn’t all that clever really when you think about it.

And I came to the realisation that Lady really is responsible for a lot of my journey – certainly the most meaningful bits of it anyway – and it turns out that all the time that I thought I was looking after her, she was really looking after me, teaching me and setting things up so that I’d keep up my lessons once she was gone.

We rush about and huff and puff about silly things like our hands, our seat, or whether our horse is really on the bit enough, collected enough, showing enough expression, etc.  We constantly want to fix, change, adjust, meddle.  In reality our horses are kind enough to put up with all this and graciously tolerate all our ‘efforts’, while they quietly get on with the real job of training us.  Teaching us patience, compassion, how to plan ahead, prepare a little better, think a little harder, deal with disappointment, be a little kinder and more empathetic.  How to be better people really.

In that beautiful letter that Fiona Apple wrote about her dog Janet, she said “I know she is coming close to the time where she will stop being a dog, and start instead to be part of everything. She’ll be in the wind, and in the soil, and the snow, and in me, wherever I go.”  I may not be able to see Lady’s funny, grumpy, snotty face outside my window anymore, and while I’m quite sure she’s off doing far more interesting things, at the same time she is everywhere in my day and still a strong and guiding force in my life.

And it turns out that instead of my being her guardian, it’s really been the other way round all along.

Lady, in her infinite wisdom, obviously realised that teaching her human was a bigger job than she could accomplish in her lifetime, so she has left me three very different and very unique bits of herself to continue my training.  I am so very lucky to have 3 new guardians to keep up the job of looking after me while I look after them.  I’m keeping up my lessons and hope Lady will be pleased with my progress the next time we meet.  Perhaps she’ll even take me for one of those fantastic looking canters.

 “I’ll be your keeper for life as your guardian

I’ll be your warrior of care, your first warden

I’ll be your angel on call, I’ll be on demand

The greatest honour of all, as your guardian”


* Robyn Louw writes for the Sporting Post, South Africa’s horse racing newspaper.  The pics were taken by her husband Hamish Niven, a professional photographer. 

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