Ann joined the Mare and Foal Sanctuary team as a volunteer at our Yelverton yard. Here she shares her experience of her first day and what being with horses and ponies means to her.
The ponies were watching me over the stone wall with curiosity, so I got out of my car and went over and made a fuss of them. Get in their good books, I thought, as I would be working with them soon. I was meeting Kerri, the Volunteer Co-ordinator for the Mare and Foal Sanctuary and had arrived early, to create a good first impression.
A feeling of apprehension washed over me as our arranged meeting time came and went. I began to wonder if I might be in the wrong place. It didn’t look like I had imagined a Mare and Foal Sanctuary would look like. Plus, there was no sign. Perhaps the site had been newly purchased and they hadn’t had the time to put a posh one up? Perhaps they had and it had been stolen or fallen down?
I sat in my car, eyes glued to the rear view mirror. The only movement I had seen was a flock of sheep meandering by and a dog walker snatching his pet up as a speeding BT van shot past.
My thoughts drifted back in time, as I remembered how I first fell in love with horses. I was around ten when my cousin invited me to spend some of my school holidays with her at the yard where she kept her horses. I was instantly in awe of the sheer size of them but captivated by their gentle nature, the sweet smell of them, their different characters. She taught me how to groom them and muck out. I graduated to learning to ride, which terrified me at the time, but I was intoxicated by the excitement of it all.
Those glorious times came to an abrupt end several years later. A move to another county meant I had no more contact with horses for many years, until yet another move brought us down to Cornwall. I was lucky enough to meet someone who had two large horses, which a friend and I rode every day after work and at weekends.
When I left work early, I volunteered at a small horse sanctuary in Devon. During my time there, I was considered ‘staff’ and had many responsibilities. When their circumstances changed, after ten years there, I chose to look for another sanctuary and found the Mare and Foal Sanctuary at Yelverton.
My mobile rang, jolting me back to the present. “Where are you?” My heart sank. I must be in the wrong place. “I’m here,” I said, hoping against hope there was a back entrance Kerri had driven into. Or maybe, she was a fitness fanatic and had walked and chosen to climb over the stone wall, to save her doing a workout later.
“Er, I don’t think so Ann. I am at the sanctuary. Where are you?” she said politely. I groaned inwardly and described where I was. I had taken the wrong turning off the main road and should have taken the next left. I mentally kicked myself for not listening to the instructions she had given me a few weeks ago, because I thought I knew where it was.
I drove like a maniac to make up for lost time and relief flooded over me as I saw the Mare and Foal Sanctuary sign a few miles down the lane I should have been in. I walked in to see five staff sitting having their coffee break. I felt sure they knew the new volunteer was an idiot.
Kerri and I chatted about the previous sanctuary I had worked at for over ten years. As I told her all about it, I talked about the horse I had fallen in love with and adopted on my first day there. I should have stopped the conversation there but went on to tell her she had to be put to sleep four months ago. The gut-wrenching grief that always lays just beneath the surface of my emotions clawed its way to the surface and I could no longer see for tears.
So, not only was I late arriving because I had been outside the wrong place, but I was also now in tears.
Following a comprehensive health and safety briefing, the fire evacuation procedure was explained and then I was given a tour of the site. My relief that no more mishaps had occurred did not last long. I joined the other staff for lunch and the wheel came off the office chair I was sitting on. Could I be creating a worse impression?
When they were done with lunch, I was asked if I wanted to go with them to walk some horses up the lane.
To my immense relief, the rest of the day went without incident, as I filled and weighed hay nets, helped with the afternoon feeds and did a bit of grooming. I watched open mouthed as a feral horse was ‘clicker trained’. The trust between the horse and the trainer was so moving, I struggled not to cry again.
I was thankfully accepted into the fold, so I started writing staff names, the horses’ names and the morning and afternoon routines in a small notebook. I could see the girls thought I was a bit odd doing this, but I told them it was to stop me asking them too many repetitive questions and driving them up the wall.
Just when I thought I had remembered all the staff’s names, one of them politely told me that a girl I had been calling Alice for weeks, was actually called Lucy. Now I have the staff names in my head correctly and the daily routine sorted. I even compiled a table of information on the horses.
I have now learnt which horses I can go in the paddocks with and which ones I can’t. Their likes and dislikes. Which horses like being groomed and those who do not. The horses who are nervous when being led. My training tick list was ticked off within a few weeks of my working up there and already I have carried out some clicker training, which I am keen to pursue. Recently, I was also shown, and participated in, training a horse to accept an injection in advance of a vet visit.
I like all of the horses, but Tikka, Ava and little Raven are beginning to steal my heart and I am keen to get to know them more. It seems I am drawn to where horses are and they enrich my life so much now. I could never stop being with them.