One of the many joys of swapping a metropolitan life for that of a farmers' wife has been the chance to have my own horse, right here at home.
Forget diamonds or fancy handbags, the very best present my husband has ever given me is a corner of his Dutch barn to use as a stable. Horses are, and always have been, a bit of a drug to me. I cannot do without them.
I love horses so much that even when I lived in central London, I would travel for an hour and a half by public transport to go riding. At the far end of the Piccadilly Line, I would take a bad-tempered buckaroo of a beast around a patch of countryside encircled by suburbia and wish I was back in the South West where I grew up. I must have been really keen, now I come to think about it.
But right now I have a dilemma. I have owned my beloved Thoroughbred hunter Charlie for three years. Without coming over all Horse Whisperer, I really do feel that Charlie and I are good companions. In all the time I've had him, I've never raised my voice to him, much less had to hit him. In truth, I don't feel that Charlie belongs to me. More that I am lucky to have this loyal, powerful and dazzlingly beautiful creature in my life.
However, I cannot ride Charlie at the moment. At the age of 18 – not ancient but not young either – he has developed what looks distinctly like arthritis in both his back legs. If I so much as get on him, he looks reproachfully over his shoulder at me, as if to say: "Hey – this hurts!" As the possessor of a dodgy middle-aged knee myself, I know just how he feels.
What to do? Although I have never really totted up the full cost of my horse addiction, it is not cheap. I would almost rather not face up to it myself, let alone have my husband and kids realise just how many nights out or trips to Disneyland Charlie represents. For a start there is his Imelda Marcos-level shoe addiction. At £68 a set, his footwear costs far more than mine and lasts only six weeks.
And as for feed costs, when people say "X eats like a horse", my only response is a hollow laugh. Nothing eats like a horse – except a horse. Take 450 kilos of hungry, high-powered animal, needing top-of-the-range feed, plus umpteen pricey supplements to keep him sleek and healthy. Finally, at £8 for a bale of sawdust for him to sleep on – Charlie gets through at least two a week – I think I have found the world's quickest way to throw money on the ground and stamp on it.
Most vets would be amenable to putting down an elderly horse that can no longer be ridden. Or, if I was to be truly brutal, Charlie could go to an abattoir to be slaughtered for dog food. I'd receive about £900 for his meat value.
But are we talking about scrapping an MoT failure or nurturing a loved one into old age? Is a horse a friend or a means of transport?
After all, if Charlie's not ridden, he's not in pain. He is otherwise healthy and with his pretty head, glossy bay coat and soulful brown eyes he looks like a glorious Stubbs portrait. He could live another ten years in retirement.
But he is expensive to keep, not to mention hard work. Winter's coming and there is all that muddy grooming and mucking out of his stable to look forward to. But surely this is part of the deal. This is his home, he is one of the family.
And yet, and yet… I find myself drawn to the internet to scroll through the equine equivalent of new Ferraris on offer. All over the country there are prancing young whippersnappers for sale. They are primed and ready to tackle anything from huge jumps to fancy, floating dressage. I picture myself in rosette-studded glory parading around many a showring. Then I look out and see dear old Charlie, eating his head off at vast expense in the home he knows and trusts. Oh dear.
But perhaps all is not lost. Charlie is off to the specialist equestrian vet this week – here comes another huge bill – and, potentially, there is hi-tech treatment available to fuse bones, numb pain and so on. I really hope it works but fear this can only be a temporary solution. You don't hear of arthritis actually getting better, do you?
Sooner or later I'm going to have to make some tough decisions. What would you do? What will I do when the time comes? I honestly don't know.