The pet I’ll never forget: Tony the carthorse shared our breakfasts – and our war with the Nazis | Life and style

Tony was a magnificent white carthorse who, every morning of my early childhood, knocked his head on our kitchen window for a sugar buttie – a thick piece of white sliced, thinly spread with margarine and dipped in sugar. How we must have loved that horse, as this was just a few years after the second world war ended, and sugar was still rationed.

Tony was one of a dozen or so horses looked after by my father, used to haul goods from Liverpool’s docks to the various warehouses along the waterfront. He needed to be on hand continually, and so we lived in a tied house across the stable yard. Our home was a sort of unofficial refuge for lost, unwanted or injured animals, and there was often a blanket-lined box containing a recovering bird or animal close to the warmth of the kitchen range. We had, among others, a one-eyed cat, a neurotic dog and even a parrot that whistled Colonel Bogey, all rescued by my dad, who couldn’t bear to turn an animal away. He’d inherited his job from his own father, who had also been a horsekeeper for many years.

Tony had had a narrow escape in 1941, when Hitler was doing his best to annihilate Liverpool’s port. The peak of devastation came in May, when, for seven consecutive nights, bombers dropped many tonnes of high explosives.

Our home was just off the Dock Road, surrounded by timber yards and right in the target area. One night bombs were raining down, fires were blazing all around and, inevitably, the hayloft above the stable caught fire.

The horses were tied in their stalls and so my dad rushed into the burning building and released the terrified animals, who bolted off through the flame-filled streets. The next day, most found their own way home and my dad set off, with rope lariats over his shoulder, to find the others. All returned except Tony.

It was thought that maybe he had been crushed under collapsing masonry – like so many others that night.

Then, a little later, word came that a local coal merchant had a new dapple grey horse out delivering bags of nutty slack and such. Suspicious, my dad mounted a midnight raid on the coalman’s stable and, sure enough, there stood his old pal, coal dust artfully rubbed into his lovely white coat. He came home to a very warm welcome and I guess that was when the sugar buttie routine started. He remained a favourite and was always first for the warm bran mash treat that I loved to help with on Saturday mornings. I still remember the gentle nuzzles from his velvety nose, and the rides around the stableyard on his enormous wide back, my five- or six-year-old legs sticking out almost horizontally.

Tony lived a long and healthy life and was always a favourite in the May Day parade – beautifully groomed, his white mane and tail carefully brushed and his show gear gleaming. He even put in an appearance at the Grand National, as for a few years in retirement, proudly led by my dad, he was part of a team that pulled the traditional horse ambulance on race days.

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