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My Father & Other Animals [Dubliner, 09/01]

This article was written as a tribute to the Veterinary Paddock in the Dublin Horse Show. It featured in The Dubliner in September 2001.
I have of late developed a fascination for speed. And I don’t mean the fine white powder British squaddies whipped up their nostrils in order to beat Rommel in the Desert War. I mean the speed of life, the pace by which seconds tick, hours tock, newborn babies wail, old folk don’t and cops and robbers keep getting younger and meaner while the four great, glorious and increasingly identical seasons just keep whizzing around and around and around, gathering speed all the time.

Aye. Sometimes I sneak a glance at my blurry blue eyeballs in misty mirrors and I feel like a tomcat in a tumble-drier.

Which is why it’s nice to have a few consistencies in life. A few of those rock-solid set ups that you know and hope and hope to God you know will never ever change.

The Veterinary Paddock of the Dublin Horse Show might sound like an unusual contender for the above but, for me, its up there with the best of them.
I am not a man famed for consistency. I very rarely know what I’m going to be doing until I’m actually doing it. Quite often, I don’t even know what I’m doing while I’m doing it. On the plus side, this means people rarely expect me to be anything other than a spur-of-the-moment scallywag. If ever I turn up on time or accidentally do what I said I’d do, then I’m treated like man of the match and drinks are on the house. It’s an irresponsible approach to life but it seems to be working reasonably well.

There are only a small handful of folk who can halt me once I’m off and stumbling down my spontaneously combusting autobahns.

One of them is the Chief Steward of the Veterinary Paddock, a fine-looking and dapper dressed fellow who, coincidentally, doubles up as my father.

A brief explanation of the Veterinary Paddock. It is the policy of the Royal Dublin Society that all horses intending to compete in the Dublin Horse Show be given a thorough examination by a vet beforehand. Hence, the Veterinary Paddock’s function is to entertain some 200 hunters, lightweights and heavyweights, each one of whom must be comprehensively tickled and squeezed for 15 minutes by a vet who will conclude with either a “Yes” or a “No” verdict. Rather like the Nice Treaty, a “No” vote means the horse gets a second chance to become a “Yes”. In this case, a Referee Vet is called in to perform further tickle and squeezage. If the Ref says “No”, then the offending horse is taken to a corrugated warehouse in Donnybrook and shot. I jest. It’s quite straightforward. “No” means tough titty long-face, go home. “Yes” means clap clap, more power to your shanks, merry jumping.

As a Veterinary Steward, my job is to wear a suit, look faintly pompous and bellow out orders when ordered to do so. I am an equine traffic cop. I simply gander about the paddock locating horses and directing them to vets. I don’t have to do any menial tasks. They have people called “Officials” to do that bit. Officials don’t wear suits and I’ve yet to meet a pompous one.

As horses don’t usually understand humans, most of them come equipped with a Human Interpreter. By and large these are Horse Women who can themselves be broadly divided into two groups. The vast majority are sweet-natured Thelwell types with admirably shaped buttocks and an inspirational zest for life.

For every ying, there is a yang. And the most frightening thing about being a Veterinary Steward is the inevitable encounter with the second type, an Angry Horse Woman. You can identify these types fairly easily. The terror-inducing pedigree is clearly etched on their striking but haughty faces. For centuries they have risen from their beds at the crack of a sparrow’s fart and mercilessly galloped their trusty steeds across rocky rivers and muddy fields. The immense power that they wield over their equine is second only to the stern authority they wield over their humble husbands. They are most commonly found in front of a Steward, leather handbags poised for a facial wallop, demanding to know why the bloody hell they’re horse failed. The Talibans would be hard pushed to look scarier. I find the best method of dealing with this situation is to sympathetically about turn and leg it.

I’ve been stewarding at the Horse Show since I was 17. I have only missed one year and that is because I was trying to establish a small guesthouse in Cambodia at the time.

Harsher types would say my consistent showing at the Veterinary Paddock is purely because they have a free bar there for the stewards and vets. And I suppose there is a small truth in that. My vision of Heaven is that of the Great Big Free Bar in the Sky so why should I not enjoy these fleeting glimpses of paradise on earth.

But I will stand my ground and insist that the fluffy yellow rosette on my lapel saying “Steward” means more to me than free grog. I serve as a Steward of the Veterinary Paddock because I know it’s going to be exactly the same sort of genteel shenanigans every year. Dubliners will watch from the sidelines in gob-smacked awe as these sublime and beautiful creatures neigh and rear and snort and gallop and buck their way around the Ballsbridge paddocks. Angry Horse Women will rugby-tackle me as I try to flee and threaten me with tranquillisers. The vets will get howling drunk in the Free Bar. The bells will ring in the Pembroke Tower behind us but that’s one of the few tick-tocking clock that don’t bother me. The Veterinary Paddock is about the only thing I know in Dublin that hasn’t changed in the last decade. And I love that.