A woman who’s dedicated her life to helping sick and abandoned horses is facing a health battle of her own.
But Julie Blake, 55, is more concerned about what’s going to happen to Cecil’s Horse Sanctuary in Sundon Park than her own prognosis.
She looks across the field she’s renting with its 15 sad-looking specimens and her face is etched with despair.
“Who’s going to look after them when I’m in hospital?” she says, her anxiety and concern almost palpable, as one by one, they come up to nuzzle and comfort her.
Her equine friends include Little Joe, dumped in the field one night; Rolex, hand-reared after his mother couldn’t feed him; Nutmeg, now a very old lady; and Noodle, who was born blind.
“Horses have this connection with humans,” she says. “They’d do anything for you. A show horse will always do its best and a work horse will try to please you.
“If they come in lonely and frightened, I can’t go home to my nice big warm bed knowing they haven’t got anyone with them. They don’t understand what’s happening and sometimes I just wish I could soak up their pain.”
Many a night and she and her rescue dog Ratty have hunkered down in a stable to keep a distressed newcomer company.
“They’re like family,” Julie adds – even though she’s been married for 28 years and has two grown-up sons. “Mick and the boys think I’m mad,” she smiles.
Julie’s obsession with horses goes back to when she was a little girl. “I did ballet as a kid,” she recalls. “Then I went for a horse ride and never looked back.”
She worked as a credit control clerk and started a livery yard in Elstree.
She began taking in the odd horse that would have destroyed, never expecting her kindhearted gesture to snowball so dramatically.
She now has 23 in Elstree and six volunteers.
Last year Julie founded Cecil’s Horse Sanctuary, in memory of her much-loved father who died of cancer. She also named a miniature Shetland pony after him but the foal was stolen from the yard, aged only four weeks.
Julie doubts whether he’s still alive and says sadly: “He was just too young to survive.”
She’s hoping the Sanctuary will soon become a fully-fledged charity, which will put it on a much sounder footing. She’s currently working all night as a cleaner so she can be free in the day to muck out stables and pay for ever-increasing feed and vet bills.
She can’t remember the last time she had her hair cut, went out for a meal or bought new clothes. But all that pales into insignificance when she sees an abandoned horse perk up under her loving care.