For those of us whose hearts belong to critters, this has been a very sad spring. I’m still stinging from the loss of Trixie, whose absence makes itself known in strange, small ways as I navigate my weeks. Several friends have lost long-time companions — dogs, cats, a sheep with a personality bigger than she was.
And then came utterly tragic news in the early morning hours of Victoria Day (May 21). This time my grief is shared with thousands of others, because as well as I knew the horses who perished, they were also loved by half of Toronto.
You might know where I’m going with this. It made national, even international headlines (in fact, the friend who first alerted me, did so from Germany).
Sunnybrook Stables, a place where I taught beginner riders a couple of days a week, in a park in the heart of Toronto, burnt to the ground early that morning, trapping 16 of my good friends inside with no hope of escape.
Here’s what I wrote for The Rider, an Ontario-based equine newspaper.
HISTORIC TORONTO STABLE BURNS IN VICTORIA DAY FIRE
In the 21st century, horses and urban humans don’t often mix. But Toronto’s Sunnybrook Stables, located in the lush Sunnybrook Park at Leslie and Eglinton, gave inner-city kids (and adults) a chance to interact with horses and learn to ride. Along with its sister facility, the Riding Academy, located at Exhibition Place near the Lake Ontario waterfront, Sunnybrook offered a unique opportunity to Toronto’s urbanites: stables that can be reached by mass transit.
The two-alarm fire that destroyed Sunnybrook’s historic bank barn in the wee hours of Victoria Day, May 21st, 2018, made international news. Quick action by Toronto firefighters and police, who were summoned after an observer in a nearby apartment complex saw the flames, saved the newer barn which adjoins Sunnybrook’s indoor arena, and the 13 horses inside. The Toronto Police Mounted Unit swiftly mobilized their own trailers to relocate the survivors to the stables at the Horse Palace. Sixteen school horses, however, lost their lives in the fire, which totally consumed the bank barn.
The barn, which was built around 1910 as part of the estate of Major Joseph Kilgour, and was donated to the city of Toronto in 1928, became part of Sunnybrook Park, an urban oasis of trees, trails, picnic grounds, soccer fields … and a riding school.
Walter Shanly founded Sunnybrook Stables Ltd. in 1979, leasing the facility from the city. Shanly passed away in September 2017, and his widow, Jacquelynn, now operates the school.
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined. It is not considered to have been suspicious, despite the rumoured presence of individuals setting off fireworks in the park that evening.
At this time, with future plans for rebuilding uncertain, Sunnybrook Stables has asked that fund-raising be put on hold. If you wish to make a contribution, they suggest Greenhawk gift cards, which can be used towards replacing the lost tack for the surviving horses. A permanent memorial for the horses, in the park, is in the planning stages.
When a privately-owned horse passes away, those closest to that animal grieve, of course. But the school horses at Sunnybrook were known, and loved, by literally thousands of Torontonians, each with their own special memories of a favourite horse or pony. Some of the Sunnybrook mounts had been resident in the park for upwards of 20 years. The outpouring of sorrow on social media has been overwhelming, as have been the offers of funds, supplies, and green field time for the survivors.
I only had 1000 words to work with for the story, and I included a very brief description of each of the schoolies who were my work partners and my friends. I could easily have written a thousand words on each of them. So here, where no-one’s policing my wordcount, I thought I’d say a little more, so that they are not forgotten.
Sugar – one of Sunnybrook’s beginner specialists, Sugar was a red roan mare with a dished face and a big blaze. Her history as a Western pleasure mount gave her a super-slow trot and a rocking-chair canter, perfect for nervous riders. She had a sensitive mouth, which taught her young charges an important element of empathy.
Axel – a chestnut paint gelding, narrow and long-backed. A legendary grouch in the barn, Axel had to be caught in his stall by the staff, as he’d turn his butt and threaten to kick kids who entered his stall. But he was a surprisingly willing partner for Sunnybrook’s intermediate riders in the arena, giving them just enough challenge without ever verging on unsafe. He really shone over fences.
Sampson – one of the barn’s newer recruits, a cheeky black-and-white large pony who was a little green. He provided a nice challenge for the school’s more advanced riders, as he could get a little on the muscle — a change from the horses they had to kick to get moving.
Sandy – a little Appaloosa pony mare who was winding down to retirement and only used lightly in the school. I’ll be honest: riding Sandy was like a free chiropractic adjustment: she was that uncomfortable. But those who loved her, loved her fiercely.
Sutherland – the absolutely indispensible “Sudsy”, a 20-something gray Percheron/Arab cross, was beginner-friendly but forward, which is a fairly rare combination. Sutherland had been at Sunnybrook so long that few remembered a time before him. Low to the ground but sturdy, he carried adults and tiny kids with equal aplomb. He wouldn’t bother heaving himself into the air over cross-rails and little verticals, preferring just to trot over them. The jumps had to reach a certain height before he’d make an effort. I loved him for that.
Hercules – a liver chestnut Welsh cross, Herc could shuffle in slow-motion or turn it up a notch. He would mess with his small riders by drifting off the rail into the middle of the ring to test their steering skills. I had to laugh at him. If you can learn to ride a pony well, you can ride anything.
Poomba – 12 hands of pure cheek! Flaxen chestnut Poomba, much prettier than the Disney warthog, would babysit to a degree, but he could also be a handful. Over fences, he was on springs, rocketing kids out of the saddle with his exuberance. He also had a wicked set of brakes.
Blossom – a black-and-white medium pony mare with a kind heart and enough quality to have not been out of place on the A circuit. She took exceptional care of the kids on her back and seldom displayed much pony-tude.
Apollo – of Pony of the Americas breeding, freckled Apollo was under 10, but behaved like a much more seasoned pony. We could always count on his level head — and we instructors thanked gawd for him sometimes.
Phoenix — one of Sunnybrook’s more recent recruits, Phoenix was a gray Arabian mare who had been there just under a year. Something of a nervous Nellie in the barn, she was surprisingly well-trained and confident under saddle. A fun ride for the more advanced kids.
Tess – a bay Quarter Horse mare with a downhill build, Tess played the grumpy mare card but was very well-schooled, with some fancy dressage moves in her repertoire. I sympathized with her lack of enthusiasm for ham-handed, bratty kids, and tried to make my students appreciate her as a hidden gem.
Misty – a red roan mare of predominantly QH breeding, with one split ear, Misty was goey, sensitive, and a little spooky, not for a beginner. She knew her stuff over fences, and was a favourite of the instructors as a mount for themselves.
Marty – a dark bay Thoroughbred mare who was a nice junior hunter before arthritic hocks slowed her down, Marty was also for the more advanced students. She defended her stall space like a barracuda, and gave students a taste of ‘more go than whoa’.
Gifford – Sunnybrook’s mini mascot, reputed to be about 38 years old, was adored by everyone.
Beau – an irreplaceable beginner hero, this big yellow Appaloosa gelding trucked around tiny children and large, awkward adults with equal equanimity. For a first taste of canter, you couldn’t do better than Beau, who went off instructor voice commands. On the list of horses who should be nominated for sainthood, Beau was near the top of the list.
Mr. T – another stalwart who had been at Sunnybrook almost longer than anyone could remember. T was an almost-black Clyde cross, with a dignified Roman nose and the kindest eyes you could imagine. The extra white hairs sprinkled around those eyes spoke to his long years of service. Thanks to his size, T was another kind soul who got riders both large and small hoisted on his back, and he was our go-to for anyone who was special-needs, because we could trust him to the ends of the earth. T never got grumpy about his lot as an uber-dependable beginner mount, and viewed the world with quiet bemusement. I will miss him most of all.
Very nice Karen. Your descriptions of them are lovely.
Thanks, Cyncee. You know how protective I always was about the schoolies. Miss their faces. Hope you’re doing okay.
Utterly heartbreaking. Really, no words even come to mind other than I’m so terribly sorry for this tragic and sad loss. Thanks for saying some words about each individual horse and pony. It shows they were loved and appreciated and their lives made a difference for many. I’ll be hugging my horses tonight for sure.
As always, your words let us share in your life and experiences, and in this case, your sorrow. Your individual tributes to these marvellous horses allowed us to glimpse the joy they brought to so many students. And then I shed a tear or two myself.
Hi Karen – I just came across this recently – so beautifully written – thank you
(You coached me up at Sunnybrook – it’s Jacky from Saturday mornings – I miss these beautiful creatures so much)
Thanks, Jacky — nice to hear from you. I miss my schoolies intensely as well, but I also miss so many of my students. Hope you have found somewhere to ride; there seems to be some doubt right now even as to the future of the school at the Horse Palace, from what I’m hearing.
Hi Karen – I had been riding at the Horse Palace until they closed for the summer – I hear that they are likely to re-open – just the timing is unknown – at least that’s the latest that I heard – I hope you’re well Dash Jacky
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jacky, that is ☺️
I only decided to read up on the incident today, over a year later. I was a student way back when I was in elementary school. Your descriptions of some of these horses brought back fond memories: Beau crushing my toe and being mad only for a short while, Poomba throwing me and dragging me during practice for a summer show… Thank you for writing about this.
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