Midnight Velvet (MV) was mustered at the same time as Sunny (see Sunny – the wild horse that inspired the Brumbies novels). Unlike the chestnut, he remained a very difficult horse for all of his life. Having been caught in the wild, I have no idea of his history before that time, but it must have been hard. The horses he roamed with were glossy and rounded. MV was scraggy and dull coated as if he’d been left in the corner of a damp cupboard for years. Mares pushed him out of their herd and the older bachelors wouldn’t allow him to join them. Approximately seven months old, he must have been orphaned young. He was riddled with worms and spooked at the slightest movement or sound.
When he first arrived at our property I released him with our other horses. A sociable lot, I thought the company of well-mannered domesticated horses would calm him. Not MV. Unlike Sunny who immediately took to human company, MV avoided contact at all costs. Even trying to feed him was a challenge; the feed bin was a monster. I resorted to pouring oats on the ground for the first couple of months. Watching him steal wisps of hay from a plastic tub was at the same time sad and entertaining as he stretched his neck forward and extended his lips before dashing away to chew the few blades he secured.
Catching him proved another challenge. Using the other horses as leaders I could drive him into the yards. Once there, he did everything possible to avoid me. Instead of watching me like any other horse would do, he’d turn his head away as he trotted around the rails. Cornered, he’d either try to scramble over the fence or would rear and fall over backwards. I tried smaller and smaller yards. In the end I resorted to roping him. The moment the lasso closed on his neck he panicked and fell, bashing his head on a fencepost and tangling his legs. Yet a strange thing happened. After that, whenever I wanted to catch him, I only had to get a rope to touch him anywhere and he was mine. Even a piece of string lying across his rump was enough for him to give in. From then on people could touch him anywhere and do anything with him.
Except for the vet. At a year old, after months of gentle handling and bringing him back to full health, it was time to geld MV. He must have known what was in store. Our vet was an experienced horseman, calm and competent. MV would have nothing to do with him. I resorted to blindfolding him so the vet could inject the sedative into MV’s vein. But the tranquilliser wouldn’t take. He added more. Still MV fought it. After an hour we had to admit defeat. This little horse was so tough his mind overrode the drug. He failed to get even slightly woozy. That night he was still a colt.
A few months later the old Thoroughbred mare next door came into season. I discovered this when I looked out the window to see MV mounting her. He had jumped the barbed wire fence in order to visit Princess. There were no scratches on him and no damage to the fence. As there were no gates between the two properties and my neighbour didn’t have yards, the problem of how to get him back arose. There was no way I’d get near enough with a rope to catch him in a twenty acre paddock.
Luckily a friend nearby had a sturdy set of cattle yards with a race and crush. Catching Princess with ease, I led her through the paddocks and down the road. As hoped for, MV followed. I led Princess through the yards and trapped MV. As soon as I returned the mare to her owners I called the vet. You’d think that being in a confined space where he couldn’t turn around MV would settle. No. As soon as he saw the vet he went into a panic. No matter how hard the vet tried, he couldn’t get the needle into MV’s neck. In the end I had to do it, the only one MV would trust. This time the sedative worked and the job was done.
Being gelded did nothing to calm MV down. I continued his ground work and he did as he was asked, but it was easy to see he resented every step. One day when I was teaching him to load on a float (horse trailer) he reared and fell over backward, damaging his hip. Very upset, I rang a dear friend, saying I thought he might have to be put down.
As an experienced endurance rider, Megan agreed it was a shame to destroy such a beautiful and tough horse. She took him to her own place where she had better facilities for training youngsters. His hip healed, though always remained lower than the other one. Megan broke him in and fell in love with MV. Delighted he had found a ‘forever’ home, I watched the pair bond as she trained him for endurance, a sport he adapted to with fervour. Although small, his floating trot carried him at speed over any terrain. He completed a 40km training ride with ease.
One day, when preparing MV for his first 80km competition, Megan went to catch him in his rocky hill paddock. Instead of the usual game of chase, he didn’t move. One of his legs hung at an awkward angle. He must have broken it when hooning over boulders with the other horses, a pastime he excelled at. With much regret Megan had to have MV put down, just as he was coming to enjoy life at only five years old. He was buried alongside Megan’s old dogs, always to be remembered.
Brumbies in the Snow is dedicated to Midnight Velvet, the toughest little brumby in Australia.