Toytown, who died last week, is known throughout the equestrian world for his individual gold medals with Zara Tindall, but he wasn’t always a saint — in fact, Meryl Connaughton (née Winter), who produced him from a four-year-old until she sold him to Zara and her family says at one stage he was “absolutely lethal”.
At the time when she bought Toytown, Meryl was in her early 20s and based near Hartley Wintney in Hampshire.
“A friend of mine, Ali Hawksworth, phoned up and said she had this really nice horse — she had bought him out of a field and he was really poor, nearly an RSPCA case,” says Meryl. “I went to see him and he was a wishy-washy, skinny, ugly chestnut horse tied up outside the stable, with mane down to his shoulders and no tail because the cows had eaten it. I couldn’t believe I’d driven all the way there to see that.”
Meryl whiled away the time with no desire to ride the horse, but after three cups of coffee she felt she had to see “Noddy” ridden.
“He trotted off and I thought, ‘Flipping heck, this moves.’ My interest was piqued, then he went up over the wings at a little fence and I thought, ‘This will do’,” she remembers.
Meryl had £2,000 in her car at the time, money she’d received from having a horse out on loan, and so she handed that over and put the rest of Toytown’s £4,500 price tag on hire purchase “until my student loan came in”.
‘He was big, strong and lethal’
Back home, Meryl made the “biggest mistake” of putting this big, weak, poor horse out in the field.
“When I brought him back up into work, he was bigger and stronger and he was absolutely lethal. I think he’d been kept poor for a reason by the owner before Ali,” she remembers. “Every day he’d come back to the yard without me having got rid of me somewhere — he’d bolt, buck, nap and rear. I would have sold him, but who’d ride him?”
Having bought the horse in September and brought him back up in January as a five-year-old, Meryl had “six months of hell” with Toytown being “a complete toad” before the turning point.
She explains: “I’d had a particularly horrific ride — I had to cross a busy main road from the school I used and he wouldn’t stop at the road. He bolted and I stayed on, as he bucked and reared all the way home. Eventually, he pulled me off under a tree. I managed to get back on and arrived back at the yard with my watch having been pulled off, in floods of tears, covered in cuts and bruises.
“My farrier was there and sat me down, handed me a cigarette and said, ‘You need this’ , although I don’t smoke. He said, ‘If I met the biggest man in the pub and he beat me up, the next time I saw him I’d buy him a pint.’ This made no sense to me, but he said, ‘You’re never going to beat him, you’ve got to be his friend.’ I thought about that and the next time he started acting up I laughed instead of giving him a kick. He never did anything bad again. It’s a true story and after that he was amazing.”
Meryl started eventing Toytown as a six-year-old and says he was “like a robot across country”.
“It was just a case of sitting there and thinking where you were going and he’d lock onto the fence,” she says.
Then she incurred an injury.
“The bank manager rang and said I had no money,” she remembers. “I was starting to make a name for myself eventing, but everything was resting on this horse and it was so precarious — he was worth quite a lot and could get injured. I decided to look at selling him.”
The ‘if only’ stories
Several riders have “if only” stories to tell about nearly buying Toytown. Lucinda Green said Meryl could “phone me back when he’s less expensive”, Bridget and Katie Parker tried him, but didn’t think he was good enough and made a low offer. The horse was based with Meryl’s trainer Keith Doyle at one stage and Keith told William Funnell he had a horse that would suit Pippa, but she never made it over to try him. After he won the World Championships in 2006, Keith told William that was the horse he kept telling William — his reply was unprintable.
Funnily enough, Meryl’s account of how Toytown was actually bought for Zara differs a little from Mark Phillips’, which has become the stuff of legend. Mark recalls spotting the horse at a clinic and asking Meryl to let him know if she ever wanted to sell, Meryl says Mark had trained her on another horse, so she wondered if he might be interested in him when she came to sell, thinking of him for an American client as Mark was trainer to the US team at the time.
Whichever way, Zara and Toytown came together and, as Mark says, “The rest is history.”
“Zara kept me informed and I really enjoyed following Toytown,” says Meryl. “I wrote to her after the World Championships and said thank you — I always knew how good he was and it was very satisfying to see that justified.”
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Meryl now lives in Co. Roscommon, Ireland and is “flat out” working as an horse-finding agent, with her clients including Sam Griffiths and Nick Gauntlett. She also has three children — baby Cara, four-year-old Fergus and eight-year-old Rory.
“I’m lucky that Noddy set me up — plan A was to ride myself, but plan B was to produce and source horses and I’d like to think I could source horses who could replicate what he did,” she says. “Noddy taught me you can’t ride in a domineering way — that you’ve got to get horses on side and be a team. But I definitely wouldn’t have got there without my farrier’s wise words!”
Read a full Toytown tribute, including memories from Yogi Breisner, Daisy Berkeley and Jeanette Brakewell, in today’s issue of Horse & Hound magazine (6 July 2017)