SEMINOLE — In the spring of 1978, a time when Jimmy Carter was president and Annie Hall was named the best picture of the year, a group of vocational students were taking shifts in a pasture behind Seminole Vocational Education Center.
A horse named Sugar was expected to deliver a foal.
It happened at night. Toby, a black Appaloosa with white spots, was the first horse ever born at the school.
A year later, his coat had lightened to a mottled gray.
"He was an ornery guy in his younger years, but he was always a very loving guy," said Peggy Biram, a teacher in the school's veterinary program for 23 years.
As he matured, Toby displayed a personality both gentle and stubborn. Instead of jumping over a rail with an equestrian rider aboard, he was known to slam on the brakes and lower his head.
When anyone tried to lead him onto a trailer, he walked right past it, taking handlers with him.
"He always went around it the first time," Biram said, "so that it was his idea and not the human's idea. Every single time."
Yet the same horse was often used by Horses for Handicapped, a Kiwanis program, standing patiently as physically challenged children climbed on his back.
Toby also trotted in parades and helped students win ribbons in horse shows.
He was the kind of ambassador every school program needs. "Toby was the horse that, if a kid had never been around one and was a little bit leery, they weren't afraid of him because he was so calm and so tolerant," Biram said.
Over the years, thousands of children came to love Toby.
"He was one of those horses where you really felt safe around him," said Brandi Sclafani, 15, who represents the second generation of Seminole Vo-Ed students in her family to know Toby. Her mother, Sue Sclafani, was among the students taking shifts when the horse was born.
All knew Toby as unflappable — a trait only some horses share.
"Nothing startled Toby," Biram said. "A transformer could blow up, and he would go, 'Oh, really?' "
In recent years he remained healthy but not as strong. He could have supported a person of light weight, but Biram had not put a rider on his back in three years.
Because he had lost some teeth, students fed Toby mashed carrots and apples, his favorite food.
Toby was healthy at 8 a.m. Saturday when Biram checked on him and his pasture mates Chaps, Indy, Ellie and Jessie. But when she returned at 1:30 p.m., she found Toby in pain.
He was not putting weight on a foreleg. Nearby, a high board on a wooden fence had broken in pieces. A large wood splinter was hanging from Toby's chest.
Within minutes, Brandi Sclafani, who was working on a neighboring farm, got a message: Toby is hurt.
She hurried to the school.
A veterinarian removed the splinter, which left a dime-sized hole in Toby's chest, administered pain medications and started an IV. Biram borrowed a trailer from Sue Sclafani, who had also rushed to the scene.
Sue Sclafani and her daughter drove Toby to an equine hospital in Brandon.
No one know why Toby shattered part of the fence. Perhaps he got his leg caught, then panicked. Workers at Surgi-Care Center for Horses found a 6-inch puncture wound in the horse's chest, but no fractures.
By Sunday, however, Toby's heart rate had not gone down. Instead, it rose to 115 beats a minute. A horse's normal resting heart rate is more like 40 beats per minute.
"It was because of pain," Biram said.
Due to his age, he would not likely recover quickly from surgery. Sunday night, veterinarians euthanized Toby.
He was 33.
Word of the incident spread quickly Monday. Former students dropped by to offer consolation for the loss of the equine ambassador and elder statesman. Photos of the horse and sympathy cards lie on Biram's desk.
The loss brings back memories for her. In 2006, she discovered that three horses at the school had been killed in a lightning strike. Now she and the students are mourning another.
She cannot talk about Toby without crying.
At the same time, she said, students need to experience events like these.
"For some of them," she said, "this might be the first animal that they really had an attachment to that they lost. And unfortunately, that's a part of life."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]