I used to do a lot of showing in hand with Connemara breeding stock that belonged to a family friend called John. Generally speaking, we won practically everything. However, there was one memorable class when we really didn't did do well. John had decided to enter Barney, who was two. An absolute stunner, he eventually ended up in Denmark where he was very successful. However, his first outing was an unmitigated disaster.
John, following his usual habit, didn't tell me until the day before the show that he had entered Barney. He informed me, with his customary lack of concern, 'We'd need to put a headcollar on that colt.' Barney wasn't halter broken and his handling mostly consisted of being herded from one field to another. I had already had to halter break several yearlings at the last minute and miraculously, they all did well. The same could not be said for Barney. Admittedly he was an extra year older, less handled, considerably stronger, not gelded and John had been 'feeding him up a bit' in the lead up to the show. Unlike previous occasions, I issued a disclaimer from the off and told John he could lead the colt himself. I didn't fancy wrestling, in front of a substantial audience, with a virtually untouched colt who had never been out of his quiet environment.
To cut a long story short, we caught Barney, got a headcollar on him and I managed to turn him out quite well, considering he'd never seen a brush in his life. In retrospect, the ease with which he loaded the next morning shouldn't have been encouraging. He had stomped up the ramp, treating the trailer like something to be conquered rather than feared, which should have been a sign. Anyway, our mares and foals won their classes and Barney was the last to come out. He'd been in the trailer for quite a while and when unloaded he charged down the ramp like a bull elephant, eyes rolling and nostrils flaring. He swung his head about, surveying the whole scene and pawing lumps out of the grass. En route to the ring he upset the sheepdog trials by snorting loudly at the sheep, who changed course abruptly and missed the gate they were supposed to pass through.
The weather was gorgeous and since it was John's local show most of his family, friends and neighbours were there. They were grouped around the ring to see 'the wee stallion', who made a dramatic entrance by bumping a more civilised competitor out of his way as he barged in the narrow gate. One look at John told me he was beginning to realise this might have been a bad idea.
John's heels ploughed trenches in the ring as he skied around trying to keep Barney in check. The filly classes were in the adjoining ring and Barney was very obviously attracted to them. He called and squealed until his turn to trot up for the judge, a small, elderly man. He didn't really get to see Barney because, when isolated in the middle of the ring, Barney halted, head snapped up and four legs squarely planted, squealing into the next ring. John made a move to take him forward and the next minute Barney charged. He almost pulled John off his feet as he towed him along. Barging straight ahead, he made directly for the fillies, making no attempt to avoid the judge and steward who had to jump out of the way. Similarly, the other competitors lined up and waiting were scattered in all directions. There was chaos as everyone tried to dodge everyone else.
The handlers in the filly class saw Barney bearing down on them and swiftly shifted away from the rope, getting as far away as possible. The resistance as he hit the rope seemed to throw Barney off balance and he hesitated enough to allow John to pull him around, but not before he'd uprooted several fence posts. People jumped in to fix the dangling rope and replace the posts as John managed to haul Barney to the far end of the ring, near the exit. I wasn't fit to help, I was hanging over the remaining bit of fence laughing so hard I almost wet myself. John's family, friends and other onlookers, who all seemed to be in shock, stared disapprovingly at me.
To his credit, the traumatised judge finished the class and didn't disqualify Barney although John, unbelievably, was annoyed when told that if the colt had behaved himself he'd have won by a mile. The poor judge announced a short break after the class and as the ponies filed out (Barney still squealing and stomping) I could see the wee man's hand shaking as he struggled to light a cigarette. He sat down, trembling, and was brought a jug of water. Taking off his cap he leant forward, elbows on his knees, and held his bald head in his hands briefly before wiping the sweat off his face with his sleeve. He was still sheet white and shaking when I left to follow John, who was wrestling a rowdy Barney back to the trailer.
Unfortunately, the drama wasn't over once Barney left the ring. When he dislodged the fence, the rope had gone slack enough to allow a few of the sheep in the sheepdog trial to escape. Breaking with tradition, they didn't stay together but broke up and headed in three different directions. You would expect, with the number of highly trained working sheepdogs in attendance, that recovering the sheep would be easy. However, the dogs were left redundant and chased back with shouts of 'get out of it dog!' and 'get away Shep!' as a horde of farmers took off to run down the sheep on foot. A black sheep gatecrashed the Shetland class, where it almost blended in. Another two ended up in the tea tent. I sat on the grass and laughed so hard it hurt.
To this day I've only seen one incident at a show to rival Barney's debut. That was at a large agricultural show when an Irish Draught youngster- an overfed, overgrown, overexcited giant- got loose and went on the rampage from one end of the field to the next, uprooting three fences as he went and scattering everything in his way. I've lost count of the number of show classes I've won. I don't even remember all the ponies I prepared but I'll never forget Barney. The worst show day I've ever had was also one of the best, for the sheer entertainment value and the fact that I'm still laughing about it 15 years later.