Byway Boy – a horse story

When I was in Junior High (1973-1976) I had a friend who worked part time in the stables at the local race track near Port Elgin, New Brunswick (Canada). The track was, as far as I knew at the time, a training track for Harness Racing. My friend was especially fond of a beautiful gelding there named Byway Boy. Byway Boy was golden brown and was young; only two or three years old.


A painting by my father Bernard Safran, aptly called Harness Racing. It depicts the former racetrack Brunswick Downs, in Dieppe, New Brunswick, Canada. Oil on masonite, approx 24″ x 41.5″, October 1991.

One night someone stole into the stables and slit Byway Boy’s tendons on his hind legs – a cruel, horrible thing to do. The wounds healed but he was never able to race again and his owner, unable to use the damaged horse, was going to have him destroyed. My friend asked the owner to give him some time to see if someone would buy the horse – the owner agreed and offered to sell Byway Boy to anyone for a few dollars.

I was heartbroken by the story.

I told my cousin about the horse, hoping she’d be able to help somehow, as she had her own horse and knew people in the area. Byway Boy had not been trained as yet for pleasure riding, but he could be with patience.

Soon after, it was arranged for us to go see him  – he’d been taken to a pasture near a friend’s house in the Port Elgin area, where we could look him over. So my cousin and sister and I went.

stubbs whistlejacket

This is a portrait of a famous English racehorse of the 18th century named Whistlejacket. I remember Byway Boy being very handsome with a similar shining, golden-hued coat. Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, c 1762 – life size portrait, National Gallery, London.

He was easily spooked and skittish, and was not used to being saddled or ridden. I vaguely remember several people were there to try the horse, and they rode him first – they got rocky rides and were not impressed with the difficult horse. I remember my cousin riding him too – and her experience showed, as she took him through his paces and he behaved for her. And then it was my turn.

I calmed myself and approached him quietly. He let me get on him and I rode him without thought – just feeling – leaving him enough room in the reins to move his head, guiding him with my legs and weight. We cantered around the field. It felt right and he didn’t fight me, and I fell in love with him.

I wanted him so badly. I wanted to take him home with me – he was so beautiful.

Eatons catalogue 1976

Eaton’s was a Canadian company much like Sears.

Even before I knew about Byway Boy, I’d already taken the Eaton’s and Sears catalogues and figured out how much fencing would cost for pasturing a horse; we lived in a farmhouse with a number of barns at the time so that wasn’t a problem; and hay and straw weren’t too expensive, especially since we lived in the country (of course I never considered the cost of a farrier or a vet or any of the other myriad expenses of having a horse). My father had already said no to me having my own horse – he didn’t want to have the extra expense and responsibility, and what would happen when I went off to school?

Someone eventually did take Byway Boy, but after that I don’t know what happened to him. It was a sad story, but unfortunately not that unusual for the racing business – race horses are for making money – they are a commodity – not pets. And to some people animals are even less than that…

… and some people will do anything for money.

Even in the sport of show jumping there are stories of atrocities to the horses – anywhere people can make money there can be someone corrupt and hardened enough to hurt animals.

I was at Spruce Meadows during a competition years ago, and found myself sitting in the stands next to a few farriers. When one well known competitor came onto the field they told me that he sometimes taped tacks onto the backs of his horses’ legs to make them jump higher.

Equestrian legs

This is a random picture of three equestrian riders in competition – it isn’t of the “bad guy” in my story.

It may have just been innuendo and nasty rumor, but the other things they told me about this man were true and came to light a few years later in the press. I could never stand to watch him ride after that.

No wonder when years later I was reading the book Black Beauty to my daughters, that I got to a part where I just couldn’t stop sobbing (when Ginger dies) – and my youngest took the book from me and read it out loud – braver than me, or perhaps still too innocent to understand the agony that animals endure at the hands of people.

horses london 19th c

The book Black Beauty was written by Anna Sewell in 18 77 to educate the public on the abuse and suffering of horses. It became a best seller, and has since been lauded as one of the most influential books of all times in the battle against animal cruelty. The eponymous horse, Black Beauty worked as a cab horse in London after he was injured in an accident. This photograph shows a street scene in London, England, from the 19th century – taken around the time that Black Beauty was written. You get a sense of the multitude of horses that were used everywhere. (Note that the double decked buses in the picture are being pulled by only two horses each)