There is a magical house in Thalawathugoda. Which is surrounded by a garden. Adjoining which is a paddy field. In the garden there is a tree. Around it is a paddock. Which is penned in by a wooden fence. When you wake up in this house, in the guest room, you see, with sunlight streaming in through lace curtains, animals grazing around that tree. If you were brought up in a village, you might think they were cattle. Through the curtain covering the closed window, they can appear like a herd of bovines. But they are equines – horses, and if your hostess knew you had been making bovine comparisons, she will be mortally offended. “Keeping an equine is not like keeping a cow. It’s not like keeping a dog. It’s a completely different science.” says Ineke Pitts, owner of the horses whose grazing would grace your waking if you spend the night in her guestroom.
Ineke owns five thoroughbred racing horses and four ponies. She is an unusual hands-on owner who washes, grooms, saddles, doctors and rides her horses. No horse, hers or another’s, has yet broken any of her bones, only her heart. Horses have broken that many times, by dying and those scars she bears silently, so like a woman, so unlike a man, who’d dine out on the smallest horse related injury. Seated in her gracious verandah, looking at her sundrenched paddock, I ask her to describe the recent tragedy at the Premadasa riding school where six horses died painfully on a single day, as their horrified caregivers looked on helplessly. Ineke goes all British on me and refuses to discuss other people’s horses. As usual I have been too brutally direct.
Last year, on 14 December, Ineke’s closest friends learnt with frowns that she had taken leave from her extremely demanding day job and rushed off to Premadasa’s because the horses were dying like flies. She had been going through a bad patch at work, her job literally on the line and trying hard during her off hours to keep up with her PhD thesis work. She could not afford to take time off. But she did.
Not only did she drop everything and rush, but also pleaded with her stable manager Rashmi Kottegoda to do the same. She then proceeded to send frantic texts to her friends asking if they could buy medicines from various pharmacies and deliver to the scene of the tragedy. Eventually Rashmi too dropped everything and rushed to Premadasa’s, while a few friends gathered in corners and whispered about this strange behavior.
The clues to her emotional response to horses dying, even other people’s horses, are buried in Ineka’s garden. Under the tree at the centre of the paddock sleeps Athena, a mare. She was paralyzed by kumri, a condition caused by a mosquito which transfers the Setaria parasite, carried harmlessly by buffaloes and sheep, to a horse, whose central nervous system is wrecked by it. They kept Athena alive for three months, a poor horse walking with a drunken gait on wobbly legs. Buried closer to the house are the mare Candle in the Wind and Perseus, the stallion. Having lived to the ripe old age of 18, Candle in the Wind died of colic. Sad, but not the stuff of tragedy. Perseus the stallion though… That was something else.
Because Perseus was a stallion, an entire male horse, not a gelding, he competed with his male riders for dominance. According to Ineke, the key to handling stallions is winning their respect. According to Perseus he was part of a herd, which had some human members in it. There was ineke, who in his testosterone soaked worldview, was no competition. She could ride him, comb his mane, pick his feet off the ground, plait his tail, pet him, and play with him. All her memories are of a gentle Perseus. Then there was Rashmi, whose maleness was excused in Perseus’s eyes by his expert horse handling skills. In the code of stallions, these qualified him as a herd leader. Rashmi could have made Perseus channel all his testosterone fueled passion into ever greater heights of training. What happened to Perseus was an accident, but ultimately it happened because of the stallion code. You do not submit to the dominion of lesser males. You kick, buck, attack to kill if need be, but you never submit. In the human component of Perseus’s herd, there were two riders that he classified as lesser males: Sinharaja and Mohan De Lanerolle.
Perhaps their hands on his reins, their seats on his saddle and their boots on his sides transferred weaker signals of dominance than Rashmi’s. Maybe Perseus saw them as pretentious colts who tried to be leaders through trickery instead of true merit. They would be unseated. They would be shown who was master. Sinharaja was soon thrown, confined to bed and dispensed with. Mohan resisted all attempts to throw him and clung like a limpet. On that fateful day, Mohan had just ridden Perseus and was standing in Ineka’s car porch. The gate of the paddock was accidently open. Perseus the stallion, who was supposed be grazing, rushed at Mohan. He was newly shod, slipped on the concrete and went down on his spine. Perseus not Mohan. He eventually got up and was led into his stall. The stallion had fractured his spine, though nobody realized it at the time. The next day he couldn’t move. In Sri Lanka there’s nothing much you can do for a horse with a fractured spine. Even the comfort of a definitive diagnosis is denied to you. As there are no facilities to x-ray a horse, you merely guess a fractured spine, not knowing which vertebrae are affected.
In Sri Lanka horse owners and keepers prefer to do their own veterinary care rather than entrust them to Sri Lankan vets who, it is generally understood, lack exposure to equines. “There’s a handful, just two or three international class equine vets in this country. The rest want to learn. Because we don’t have that many horses in this country it’s hard for them to get practical experience. They’d benefit from more exposure. We lose so many horses,” says Ineke. She sounds more moderate now than in the immediate aftermath of the Premadasa tragedy. Then, she could not stop simmering and boiling about how clueless and helpless those vets, summoned from the Peradeniya veterinary faculty, were in a critical situation.
No vet was summoned to look at the broke-back Perseus. Rashmi gave him painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs and months of healing rest. “I tried getting medicines in the UK. But bringing medicines into this country is difficult. In the end we didn’t give him much in the way of medicine. For nearly six months we rested him. There’s nothing much else you can do. It has to mend itself. You can’t do surgery here. He was recovering”, says Ineke her voice lifting at the end.
However, there was a problem. For the first three months, they had kept Perseus at the stables, hardly moving. For the second phase of the recovery, they allowed him into the paddock. Back on the grass, Perseus would forget that he was ill and want to roll on the sand. He’d lie down only to find he couldn’t get back up. The first time this happened it took 14 men to lift him back up. It became a familiar crisis. Rashmi would round up men from the village, put ropes on the stallion and lift his 500 kg frame off the ground. Eventually, he could get up on one side, but not the other. The rope work became simpler and one sided. Ineke and Rashmi were winning. Perseus was recovering. Then one night something happened and the tide turned against him. By Christmas of the year he was injured, Perseus was dead.
According to Ineke, keeping horses alive in this country and this climate is really hard. So many things can go wrong. Even grass can be lethal to a horse if it’s too wet, too dry or fermented. Slightly mouldy food, too much water or not enough water can trigger a disaster. A thoroughbred horse is such a gallant animal, whose death ascends to a grander scale on emotions of humans and assumes proportions of Greek tragedy. All the people who had horses were so moved by what happened at Premadasa’s because watching those six horses die reminded them of similar death watches, tearing open scars left by deaths of their own beloved horses. Ineke Anne Pitts is determined that good must come out of such searing pain. Better veterinary care for horses in Sri Lanka, better cooperation and sharing of information between stables, even opening the stables to local vets to get clinical experience with horses. In short, horse owners working together to raise the bar in equine care across the country, uniting in another’s pain because tomorrow it could be their pain.
The death watch at Premadasa’s reminded Ineke of the final hours of her own beautiful Perseus. Rashmi in Sri Lanka on his birthday, on Christmas Eve, not going home. Ineke in England, up all night, watching and suffering on skype. Rashmi hiring a JCB to lift up the stallion who had not got up for three days. The horse was recovering from his back injury. One night he fell in his stall and caught his leg on one of the makeshift metal bars put in place of a stable wall that had come down. Perseus sustained a nasty injury. They bathed it morning and evening and it was healing. But they had had to immobilize the horse and perhaps that was too much immobility in one year. Perseus gave up. And died.
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