Nat's blog: Life with a Hooligan

So we find ourselves in March, with the days noticeably drawing out and Spring pretty much upon us. I’m going to be honest, I have no idea when spring officially begins, but in my world it’s usually around the time that the Diva’s waistline starts expanding at an alarming rate. 

We're blessed with fantastic grazing here, so the summer diet has begun and the workload has started to increase, much to the Diva’s horror.  We've enjoyed a relatively quiet winter.  Florence managed to better her dressage scores every time out last year (after our debut, see last month’s blog for that bit of comedy…) so she was promised a winter of hacking and not a lot else. 

We've made it into the school about once a fortnight, largely to remind both of us that I do still have the ability to produce a well-schooled animal, having spent the rest of my time being tanked off at various opportunities around the farm tracks. 

We have a busy season planned and our first competition of 2017 looming just around the corner, but as there isn’t much to report in the way of the hairy opinionated one this month, I thought I would take the opportunity to introduce you all to the other equine member of the team, Tobi, a horse who's the reason that I'm 32 going on 80.

Meet Tobi (the hooligan)

My relationship with Tobi began in 2011 when I was searching for something to get me back out jumping, after losing my native pony to colic. 

He was a 16hh, 7-year old registered Irish Sports Horse and I was drawn to his advert almost instantly.  What's quite amusing is that I largely purchased Tobi because I, and I quote, had “never felt so safe on a horse before”. 

Tobi being a hooligan in his field

Tobi being a hooligan in his field

In all fairness to him, he really was the perfect horse when he arrived home and our first year together was pretty exciting in many respects. He didn’t ever really put a foot wrong, and everything I asked of him he did with no issues. 

He hacked out alone and in company, schooled in a busy manege daily, behaved impeccably on farm rides and loaded like a dream. It did become apparent, quite early on, that he had a pretty decent spook in him, but if I kept him in a consistent level of work, that inherent sharpness stayed mostly under control. 

There, however, lay the problem. I couldn’t keep him in work. We would generally manage a week, two at best. The rest of the time was spent with him self-harming in a variety of ingenious ways. 

Before sitting down to write this blog, I pulled out his veterinary records from the last six years, largely to remind myself of some of his escapades, as I appear to have blotted a lot of them out by way of some sort of unconscious self-preservation. 

As I thumbed through the invoices and reached £10k (which only took me as far as 2014), I promptly stuffed the remainder back in the drawer and poured myself a large stiff drink…

The hooligan's escapades 

Within a month of him arriving, he tried to die spectacularly during a major bout of colic. He then went on to repeat this tradition every September for the next three years, baffling everybody, until it was discovered that he has an allergy to a particular sugar in grass, which also causes him to be so covered in hives for about nine months of the year that he resembles an equine version of the elephant man. 

He managed to stand on a nail during our first year together, which caused an abscess so deep that he had to have a huge hole gauged out of his foot and needed four months in his box.  

His hooligan-like behaviour in the field (and where his nickname originated from) was also the source of much merriment. 

Pretty much every week he would come in with an injury significant enough to require veterinary treatment and I became extremely well acquainted with the structures of his underlying muscle fibres. 

Tobi sporting one of his many injuries

Tobi sporting one of his many injuries

He has a piece of bone floating in his front leg somewhere from one particularly impressive episode, which I am positive will re-emerge some day and cause some sort of huge drama, and yet another bill.

There was also the time that his rug blew up over his head in a storm and he ran in a blind panic through some trees and shredded himself to such an extent that he looked like he’d been in an altercation with Edward Scissorhands. This required three months off work while the wounds healed. 

When every horse on our old yard caught ringworm, Tobi had to go one better. He caught the fungal infection, as predicted, then had a massive allergic reaction to the Imaverol prescribed to treat it, which blistered and burnt the lower skin on his face off. 

After six weeks of hellish box rest, he followed this up with another death-defying colic bout, just in case my nerves weren’t shot enough.

The big disaster 

The big disaster, however, came in 2014 when he tore a significant hole in his DDFT after another of his famous field episodes. 

It was during the investigations for this that we discovered he also had advanced navicular in both front feet, which came as a shock to all of us as he had never been unsound for any reason other than through one of his many injuries, but did explain a few unusual traits that I had noticed when he was being warmed up for work. 

It was during his recovery that he had another colic bout and while at the hospital, we decided to scope him for ulcers. Unfortunately, Tobi had other ideas about this and elected to rear up, while under sedation, and land on a vet’s head, who then had to be blue-lighted to hospital. 

Picking Tobi up a few days later was mortifying, as I did the walk of shame to the wagon, him breezing along beside me smiling sweetly at all and sundry. 

I felt like the bad parent with the out-of-control child. I won’t lie, there’s been times during my six years with Tobi that I’ve genuinely thought I'm being punished for committing some horrific crime in a past life.

He has become the bane of my long-suffering farrier’s life, because he's able to remove his own shoes with remarkable ease, and then, in typical Tobi style, realises that he can’t walk without them and ends up with badly bruised soles.

Towards the end of last year, I was able to get him up and running again… and I even had a dressage test planned. 

Somehow he got wind of this, and the week before Christmas, he stood on his own overreach boot in the field, fell over and in his scramble to get up, sliced into his opposite leg with his own shoe. 

Cue an impressively gory flap of skin waving at me in the breeze, an emergency call-out, 10-days’ worth of antibiotics and some Frankenstein-esque staples. You couldn’t make it up.

Needless to say, after the DDFT injury, the navicular diagnosis, the grass allergy discovery and the realisation that he is a complete and utter idiot, it became highly apparent that life with Tobi was not going to go the way that I had originally intended. 

Planning a future with a hooligan

Planning anything with him is about as successful as trying to organise a tornado. We still haven’t made it to a competition, six years later, but he's going to be dragged to one at some point this summer.  

I won’t vocalise when it'll be, because inevitably he'll hear about it and attempt to remove his own legs, or head, or whatever other body part he feels like sacrificing at the time.

Two years ago, I decided, for my own sanity as much as his safety, that he couldn’t live in a herd without serious consequences. 

After 21 years on the same yard, I moved to a smaller quieter farm where he's turned out with just the Diva, who firmly doesn’t believe in contact sports. It's the safest I've managed to keep him, and although he does participate in yobbish behaviour on a mostly daily basis, the glare of an unimpressed mare is usually enough to bring him back to a level of almost-sanity.

I’ve had people tell me that I’m an idiot for continuing with him, and there have been times when I've been so close to selling his tack and giving it all up as a bad job. 

He'll live the remainder of his days with me regardless (unless I go first, of course, due to the stress of his existence), but there's just something about him that makes me persevere. 

He is, despite everything, a supremely stunning animal and the feeling of power that he gives me under saddle is unreal. 

He loves to work, and is an all-round nicer animal when he has a job to do. You ask him a question and you get 10 answers, there's so much going on in his head. 

And what it boils down to is that I quite simply love working with him, despite the fact that lungeing him is akin to attaching a rope to an airborne Boeing 747, and he has perfected the spook-and-disappear so expertly that I’ve been tempted to offer his services as a magician’s assistant.  

Regardless of this, I made a promise to him when he landed in my life six years ago that he would have a home for life, and I will fulfil my side of the bargain.

Even if it turns me grey in the process…

‘Til next time,

Nat x