Horse in the city

Carefully hidden away in one of Scarborough’s quiet neighbourhoods is a secret of equine proportions

In a hidden, sequestered patch of land tucked away in the vast neighbourhoods of suburban Scarborough, lives what the owner likes to call his “best kept secrets.”

Its surrounding environment helps conceal one of John Hardy’s homes. Towering oak trees and a steep, grass rampart shroud what lies beyond one side of the wooden gate, while a wired fence on the other side and a seven-foot, wooden palisade he recently built encloses the rest of his property — just low enough for his neighbours at the back to peek in from time to time.

Apart from the sounds of the occasional car driving past and one of the neighbours’ dogs barking at the rare sight of a pedestrian, only the smell of grass and the faint whiff of dirt fill the air.

For Hardy though, housing horses is more than enough attention to call to himself.

“When I was growing up this place used to be called the Hardy horse house,” he said. “I had to straighten a few guys out once in a while.”

These days, the 56-year-old Hardy is retired and owns two horses for more leisurely but no less reserved purposes: Toddles, a brown, four-year-old thoroughbred with a blaze running down his face, and Concho, a chestnut, six-year-old quarter horse, with a Star marking.

Toddles, a name he obtained as a purebred, was acquired through a friend of Hardy’s who worked as a head of sales at Magna Entertainment Corp. The company is owned by multimillionaire Frank Stronach and specializes in horse-racing entertainment across North America. The company is headquartered in Aurora, Ontario but filed for bankruptcy protection in the United States in 2009. At the time of acquisition, Toddles was not fit or old enough to race at two-and-a-half years old (racehorses cannot be ridden until they are at least three) and so was given to Hardy for free.

“Race horses are nuts, a lot of them, but this guy is the nicest horse,” Hardy said. “He’s very quiet… I could put my baby underneath him.”

The larger, more robust looking Concho, who also got his name as a purebred, was bought for $10,000 at the behest of his wife who specifically took riding lessons before the purchase less than two years ago.

As with most horses that meet each other for the first time, Hardy said a relationship to establish superiority and pecking order had to be struck up.

“[Concho’s] a bully to Toddles. Horses are always bullies, there’s always one in charge. When they first get together they have to work it out,” he said. “This guy’s eating this and he’s got to go over there and stuff like that. That’s just the way horses are.”

Hardy attends to his horses every day in order to feed them hay. With live feed cameras set up around the vicinity that he can access from his iPhone to monitor the horses.

Hardy said he usually leaves them to roam around in the paddock and sometimes plays them music from his house rather than work them out on a regular basis.

“We leave them outside mostly. Horses are better outside, as long as they can get out of the rain and the wind,” Hardy said, referring to a shelter he had built for them next to the paddock.

Toddles and Concho each have a stall for themselves. Hardy’s cat, Taffy, his only other pet, has a little perched trough filled with hay in which to rest. It leads up from the ground through a handcrafted conduit inside one of the stalls, and Hardy says they cohabitate amicably.

But everyone down the street used to say that’s the best thing about living here: we’ve got a horse as our neighbour.

—John Hardy

Hardy also had two dogs until about two years ago, both of which lived until they were around 14 years old.

However, Hardy says one of the many problems his animals encounter is the presence of coyotes – a nuisance he says is responsible for the deaths of two per cent of all livestock in North America – and raccoons.

One year, after apparently sensing a coyote was hunting for a deer close by, “[Toddles’s] whole chest was ripped wide open trying to break the boards [to escape].”

Taffy was not spared the harassment, either.

“The cat goes in and out of the barn but the bloody raccoons go in there and makes a mess and craps all over,” he said, adding that Taffy has been caught in the trap more times than the raccoons.

To help him with the task of cleaning the barn and paddock, he has people volunteering to clean for him but has so far gone through three helpers in the past year.

Hardy says, though, that he has now found a reliable young woman who is very keen on cleaning up after the horses’ mess every week, although she is only four weeks in to the job.

“The biggest thing is cleaning up, that’s the one thing I hate,” he said. “It’s a bushel of crap per day. If you don’t pick it up you’ll have your field ruined.”

While Hardy does not pay the city any money to keep the horses, the costs to keep and maintain a horse per year is approximately $2,000.

Hardy is able to own his horses because the house and land his father purchased from its original owners has maintained its zone designation for agricultural, homesteading purposes that was set in 1820, before the municipality of Toronto was formed. Hardy said his father used to purchase multiple houses and renovate them and, when the current one became available, decided to relocate to it.

“It was a dump,” he said of his first impression of the property.

After moving in, his father bought the then five-year-old Hardy a Welsh Mountain Pony called Lady until he was in Grade 9.

Their property accommodated other ponies and horses as he was growing up. He moved out at the age of 16 to study and, after graduating at 24, he returned to the house his father had left and purchased Prince, a purebred Arabian, who was six months old and cost $600.

“I had him since he was a baby,” Hardy said. “I put up the fencing and built the stalls and everything.”

Hardy said he was bemused when the person they sold their old property to tried to file a petition with the local councillor to get the horse removed.

“But everyone down the street used to say that’s the best thing about living here: we got a horse as our best neighbour,” he said.

Hardy would often take Prince on walking trips around the area.

By the city’s laws, he is allowed to walk and ride his horses along roads but not on sidewalks, highways or parks.

“Most people see a horse and they like it, right, as long as you don’t go galloping up the side scaring the living daylights out of them,” Hardy said.

He rode Prince until he was around 27 years old but stopped riding him after he was afflicted with a sore foot. He was allowed to wander outside the paddock because walking on the roads caused him considerable pain.

During this time, when Prince “slept 20 hours a day,” Hardy says people used to contact the Humane Society and Animal Cruelty Prevention, who requested he be put down, when they found Prince lying flat near the gate during the winter.

“I had people phoning the police saying they saw a dead horse out there,” Hardy said. “One lady yelled at me, ‘You don’t get a medal for keeping an animal alive!’ but I told them nothing was wrong.”

One late night two years ago, however, Prince, who also suffered from congestive heart failure in his latter years, had a substantial amount of fluid discharge from his nasal passages.

Hardy called his long-time vet, Dr. Watt, who came down from near Lake Simcoe after he couldn’t bear to hear Prince’s groans of distress any longer.

“If he was your dog or your horse, you wouldn’t want him to suffer like that for an hour,” Hardy said. “I wanted to put a pillow over his head.”

Prince lived until he was about 30 years old — a remarkably long life for a horse — and Hardy says he has nothing but fond memories of him. “We used to just let him come around the house in the morning. He’d be looking in through the window and we’d give him treats like chocolate bars every day and he would love to eat hot dogs.

“Horses don’t usually eat meat or hot dogs, but he was just a real pet,” Hardy said.

According to Hardy, he was not the first in the family to own horses.

Hardy’s great grandfather arrived from Great Britain and after marrying his great grandmother, a Hardman, they started, owned and operated a company together called Christie Sand and Gravel from 1790 until the early 1900s at what is now known as Christie Pits.

In order to cultivate the sand and gravel out of the now defunct quarry, which was then outside city limits, Hardy says the company used eight teams — or 16 horses — to extract the materials.

“I remember my grandmother telling me about them giving the horses bran that they cooked everyday for them after working,” Hardy said.

The Hardy family is not unused to attracting attention and interest, with family ties linking them to Thomas Hardy, the English poet and playwright, as well as Arthur S. Hardy, the fourth premier of Ontario who served from 1896 to 1899.

These days, though, Hardy prefers his property and horses be kept under wraps for privacy reasons. Although he didn’t erect the taller fence as a way to block out his long-time neighbours, admiring his horses doesn’t come cheap, he says.

“My neighbours are all ticked off at me now because I put up that fence. I said ‘Hey, you had a good run of 30 years, now get your own horse!’”

Nonetheless, Hardy is proud of what he’s been able to provide for his pets.

“We like to keep the place spotless,” he said. “We keep it like a park here.”