Winter weather in Bulgaria is full of contrasts

Days after my house burned down in November 2009, I washed my hair in a bucket under blackened vines in a courtyard jolly with pompoms of snow melting under bright sun. During the blaze, my one thought was to get animals to safety.

I had five rescued dogs then and a kitten I’d bottle fed. Once they were out of danger and the soot had settled, the moment came to decide whether to rebuild. Did I really want to spend more months waiting for life to begin, while a troupe of likeable but slapdash comedians patched the ruin? Anyone who’s experienced a renovation in Bulgaria will understand.

Perhaps it was the sight of skinny horses hauling carts through the gates to load with debris from the fire which clinched the decision. I’d like to help them and the land at least was mine; I could camp on it and do something useful. There were puppies bald with mange following the carts and a gypsy produced a kitten with gummy eyes out of an apron pocket. Maybe that was when the seeds of LIFE were planted.

I named my first dog here Bobo, short for Bulgarian Hobo. He’d scavenged to survive after the former owner of my property died. The second, a German Shepherd, was orphaned during a thunderstorm when her chained mother strangled herself trying to reach her pups. I called her Boudicca and she’s still will me eleven years later, elderly with a weak, although still lion-like heart. With the typical Westerners’ attitudes I had then, despite the benefits of desert island episodes in my past, I never imagined I’d chain a dog. But when a neighbour announced he’d killed Bobo because his barking was annoying, I bought a long chain for Bou. There are laws in Bulgaria against shooting dogs but villagers tend to do things the way they’ve always been done and memories of the communist years, when dogs were rounded up annually and shot if taxes weren’t paid, persist.

My first horse in Bulgaria, Lisko, was less a rescue than a personal challenge. Brought up in Britain in an era when it was fashionable for some families to send their gels for weekly riding lessons, I was secretly terrified of horses and spent twenty minutes every Saturday fighting nerves in the toilet before the ordeal, shaking with relief at the end of the dreaded hour. Yet I was drawn to horses and when family moved to Scotland and the chance came to have one of my own, I made progress. I had a Highland pony of the type used by deerstalkers to carry stags down from the hill. Having seen someone fall under a horse with their foot in a stirrup, saddles scared me, so I rode Dossan bareback. I was also hopeless at putting on bridles so rode bit-less, using a halter rigged with reins. Dossan would carry his incompetent load to where I fished for wild trout in lochs nestling amid heathery hills. And when once a Scotch mist descended, he quietly carried me home, skirting treacherous bogland with stolid confidence and somehow avoiding leg-breaking rabbit holes. Such experiences taught me to respect a horse’s natural talents for negotiating difficult terrain and those lessons laid the ground work to my approach to driving our rehabilitated rescued horses here in Bulgaria.

But when Lisko, a giant Haflinger, came into my life, I was still nervous. The riding school I’d attended didn’t encourage pupils to observe or mingle with untacked horses, something my middle son, Robin, a Social Anthropologist specialising in human-animal relations, feels is important. To ‘get’ horses you need to get off them and let them show you how they communicate. In his previous life, Lisko had hauled cartloads of cow manure; as a result he had terrific muscles. No longer young, he’d have an easier life with me but would still pull the cart I used to deliver food to dogs in poor Roma communities. We’d share the same field I’d lived in since the fire, my new abode a caravan. This was an arrangement conducive to two-way learning. We observed one another casually all day and at night I fell asleep to the sound of him munching outside my bedroom window.

Robin liked Lisko on sight and quickly established an enviable relationship with him, using techniques picked up during his past work with horses in a variety of settings. He described Lisko as ‘‘.. a big bairn who sometimes gets over-excited, so you need to establish clear boundaries for your safety and because he'll do better if he has a sense of where he stands.’’ Robin also advised me not to ‘pussyfoot’ around Lisko. I was still in awe at that stage. He told me to have a clear plan when approaching with an aim (e.g. to put on a halter). Lisko would know if I was dithering inside. As many experienced handlers know, he told me, effective horsemanship is rooted in clear communication. Horses in a natural setting move each other around all the time. You could see who was moving who by the way the feet moved. I needed to use my feet similarly, signaling intention unequivocally - quietly, most of the time but also not being afraid to be assertive, just as horses can be. I should present myself as a lead mare, even to the extent of metaphorically biting the ‘’big bairn’s’’ bottom, as a mare would warn off her own foal or other herd member when necessary.

These guidelines served me well and effectively changed the way I saw both myself and Lisko and how I behaved around him. Lisko had tolerated my initial feeble ‘nice horsy’ approach but was more responsive and at ease when I became a leader with clear requirements. Personal space could be an issue. Lisko had a habit of nudging hard from behind and after, just once, I’d followed Robin’s advice to turn around and ask Lisko firmly to back off – using a stride forward and raised arms – our relationship became both closer and clearer. Lisko stood back, alert but calm, waiting to be invited back into my space/his available herd member’s space. Later, we developed a game we both loved. I would stand at one end of a field with an apple in a pocket; he’d be at the other end, grazing. I’d call and as his head came up, I’d take a bite from the apple, signaling my pleasure and inviting him to join me. His lovely chunky frame revved into a canter, whereupon I stepped forward to meet him and asked him to stop when he was close. It was sweet to see him skid to a halt snorting and eager. He’d then reverse smartly in sync with my feet and after three strides backwards he got his prize. The prize he gave me was confidence in handling and being around loose horses after years of being scared of even restrained ones.

During the all-too-brief years I had Lisko, a highlight of the winter season was a cart drive alone with him and a favourite dog to a quiet spot on the River Tundzha on Christmas Day. It was an off road excursion which left all three of us glowing. If it was the sight of skinny Roma-owned horses I wanted to help that sowed the seeds of LIFE, it was the death of pampered and adored Lisko which forced them to flower. He’d never be forgotten. LIFE’s haven for rescued horses was built in memory of Lisko.

Please keep your kind donations of halters and cash coming, so we can continue and expand our work here. We are also always looking for volunteers to come out and work with the horses for a week or so.