Wild about horses

Mike Tucker reaches for the head of Bird, the retired racehorse that boards in his barn. SAMUEL PICCOLO PHOTO

Mike Tucker looks back—and ahead


In more than 40 years of working with horses, Mike Tucker has only once been truly afraid. One day in 1985, acquired a horse that had been giving the previous owners trouble. It could be perfectly calm, and then, without warning, throw a fit. Tucker seeks to establish relationships with every new horse he encounters, and this one was no different. He had gotten to know it well, and began riding it without trouble around the paddock at his 11-acre North Pelham farm.

And then, suddenly, the horse flipped out.

As Tucker stepped down from the saddle, it charged, chasing him to the fence, stomping on his leg as he scrambled to get away, breaking his fibula. Had he not made it through the fence, the horse would likely have killed him. Tucker was troubled.

“I just couldn’t figure out what was going on,” he said. “So I went to someone who knew the horse’s history, and he told me, ‘that horse had his tongue cut.’”

Sure enough, when Tucker looked in its mouth, the horse had a great scar running across its tongue, leaving exposed nerve endings. Tucker realized that the horse’s problem had been the bit—the rod of metal put in a horse’s mouth to allow a rider to steer. In most cases, the pulling of the bit causes only minor discomfort, but with this horse it was causing extreme pain and likely flashbacks to the cutting.

“Once I knew what the problem was, he never wore a bit again. And he never got upset again, either.”

Tucker will never try to break the spirit of a horse, or try to bully it into obedience. He approaches training a horse more like navigating a marriage than driving a car, spending time learning a horse’s past, what it likes and doesn’t like, and to what sort of pressure it will respond.

The living room of his home is a shrine to all things equine. There are horse-coasters which sit inside horse-boxes which sit atop picture books of horses that sit on the coffee table. There are pen-and-ink horse sketches framed on the wall, and coloured paintings of horses too. There are little horse statues and plates with horse illustrations, and horse trophies, some of which were won by Tucker, and others, like one of Secretariat, that commemorate the achievements of famous horses. A cowboy hat and lasso hang on the wall, and nearby there is a stand with a leather silver-plated saddle on display. The entire effect of this horse-room is so overwhelming that at first it seems as though the only thing in the room not covered in horses is the television—yet surely it is no stranger to horse programming.

Tucker’s passion for the animals is not superficial. There is a retired racehorse that boards in his barn, and the farm is also home to three miniature ponies that belong to him and his wife, Carol Bennett. He has loved horses for nearly his entire life. When he was a child growing up on a dairy farm near Beamsville, he always wanted a pony.

“My father wouldn’t buy me one,” Tucker said. “Once, we went out to a farm, just to look, but it cost too much money.”

Tucker gives a scratch to Jackson, a miniature. SAMUEL PICCOLO PHOTO

When he was about seven or eight, Tucker went out into his father’s field and found the most placid cow of the bunch. He managed to put a bridle and a set of reins on it. “I’d get on that cow and steer left and right and make it go forward with an apple switch. And it went around pretty nicely. I trained that cow well.”

Many years later, when he was being interviewed to become a judge of Paint Horses—a specific breed often in competition—Tucker proudly told the panel that his first horse was a cow. This made them laugh, and he could also hear chortles from the other room where even more representatives of the American Paint Horse Association were watching his interview. Horse show judging is a serious business—over $600,000 was awarded at this year’s World Paint Horse Championship. Despite having begun his career atop a pseudo-horse, Tucker was soon accredited by the association. He began judging in Canada even before that, in 1981, and has worked competitions in every province but PEI.

Horse shows are deeply political events, and so organizers will typically enlist judges on a rotating schedule to ensure that the same person does not work the same show in consecutive years. To help eliminate biases, judges are brought in from great distances to work competitions, with the idea being that the further from home the judge is, the less likely it is that they know one of the competitors.

“I stay completely out of the politics,” said Tucker. “I’ve never owed any favours, and I’ve never had any owed to me, either. That’s the way I like it.”

Tucker’s sinewy arms and compact chest make him appear perfectly proportioned. At 69, his hair has gone thoroughly grey, but it is still dense enough that it resembles the many grooming brushes that populate his barn. He favours jeans and polos—and more often wears a baseball cap than a cowboy hat. This combination means that he doesn’t seem out of place walking around Fenwick, where he meets a group every morning for coffee, but the smears of rust and flecks of paint that tend to dot his denim make him look at home on the farm too.

Last week, once the seemingly endless late-September heatwave had finally broken, Tucker went through his barn, out to the paddock, to find the retired racehorse skipping about the grass.

“He’s just a little frisky now that the weather’s better,” he said.

Tucker bought the 11 acres of farmland in 1972, and then built the house three years later. He currently uses just three of the acres, letting another farmer in North Pelham grow soybeans on the other eight, free of charge. This way, he can keep his agricultural classification, and in the winter the farmer is happy to clear his yard of snow in exchange.

“I built the barn in the ‘70s, too,” he said, walking back towards it. The cool air inside was noticeably missing that sharp barn smell. The farmer who grows on his land also removes the horses’ manure regularly, and evidently had just taken a load away. Cobwebs collected in the corners, and bits of hay were strewn about the floor.

Though it is still home to the retiree and the three miniatures, the barn is emptier than it once was. Six weeks ago, Tucker and Burnett lost their prized horse, Zip. Tucker’s voice dropped as he explained what happened.

Horses groom themselves by rolling around on their backs, but sometimes, on unfortunate occasions, they can jolt their intestines out of place and create a blockage. If this is caught quickly enough, a veterinarian can conduct life-saving, $10,000 surgery. Horses can be extremely valuable—Zip himself was worth $10,000—but the prohibitive cost of the surgery means that few horse-owners have it done.

Since Zip’s ailment was an accident, Tucker would have been required to pay the cost on his own, though in other circumstances, municipalities can be required to compensate livestock owners. Since 1977, Tucker has worked for the Town of Pelham in this capacity. When farmers report instances of their animals hurt or killed by coyotes or other wild predators, Tucker determines whether compensation is warranted. He also investigates cases in which domesticated dogs have killed or caused injury to livestock.

“Most people don’t know that they’re liable for what their dogs do,” Tucker said. “And if they refuse to pay for vet bills or to replace animals that have been killed, the Town can assess the dog owners this amount on their property taxes.”

This is easiest to imagine happening with chickens or other birds, but horses are easily spooked by aggressive dogs too, and will often injure themselves while running away. Tucker has seen many horses who tried to jump a fence make it just halfway, leaving their hindquarters suspended in the air and badly bruised. “They have a natural instinct to flee,” he said. “And this can lead to real disasters.”

His concern for animals is earnest, that of one who developed an affection as a child and has held on to this youthful tenderness ever since.

“I’ve seen pretty cruel things done to horses at shows,” he said. “I’ve told people that they have to take the rigging of a horse or they’ll be off the grounds.” Firmness is important, but patience and kindness are even more essential.

Tucker was an electrician, and when he worked for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers he made sure to take the time off needed to travel to horse shows. Even though he retired from the IBEW in 2014, he intends to keep working horse shows for at least another five years. The work can be gruelling—some competitions Tucker has judged have him work four days in a row, from eight in the morning until after midnight—and for a time rheumatoid arthritis made any movement painful. But he has been taking a trial medication for three years that he said has brought his life back.

Last week, Tucker’s horses were pleased with the cooler temperatures, and so was he. During the day, when his wife is working and the house is quiet, and there are no competitions to be judged, Tucker putters around the farm and looks for projects. His latest is restoring old one-horse ploughs, which he finds in various stages of decrepitude and sands and paints until the machines look as if they’d never been used.

Tucker opened up the back of a trailer parked in his driveway and stepped up to stand beside a plough he had just bought.

“This is a #17 McCormick,” he said, running his hand along the worn wooden handles. “They were made in Brantford.” Looking pleased, he locked up the trailer again.

A cat that had previously been in the barn trotted up to press itself against Tucker’s ankles. He bent down to stroke its ears. Tucker’s dog, a pug, was sleeping inside the house.

“He thinks he’s my dog,” he said of the cat, as it purred, and then, satiated, sauntered away. “The horse we just lost, Zip, was exactly the same way, following me around the yard.”

Tucker didn’t sigh, but he did stop for moment to exhale silently. He looked at the barn. “Zip was my bud.”

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