• 2009 Christmas story:
But everyone knew the weight of responsibility spread far beyond the 20 hectares they quietly grazed at Yuletide Stud in lush hills north of Auckland.
Comet had a secret. He admitted that much. But he was not about to tell his paddock mates.
Every Christmas Eve he was seen scanning the horizon as the stars twinkled into life. No one knew why, and no one dared ask.
The horses always enjoyed their extra rations as each new Christmas dawned, but nothing could prepare them for the magic of this night.
Christmas Eve had begun like any other. A cool sea breeze added a chill to the night air.
Midnight came and the horses watched the moon creep above the horizon. It was just after 2am when the wind suddenly died away. For a moment the stars appeared to shine even brighter.
Then, the unmistakable sound of hooves could be heard in the paddock! The horses swung around to see what the moonlight would reveal.
There, barely visible in the gloom, was Santa's sleigh, parked in their very own paddock!
The reindeer shuffled about, keen to pick at the grass. The Old Man made a sprightly leap from his seat and set about rummaging through the mountain of toys at the back of his sleigh.
Why was Santa visiting them?
"Merry Christmas, my fine equine friends," he said.
Everyone was speechless - everyone, that is, except Comet.
"Santa," he said. "It's great to see you again."
"Likewise, Comet," he replied. "And what a fine bunch of young horses you have here."
Comet nodded in agreement.
"I guess we have some explaining to do," said Santa. "These young horses need a little lesson on the magic of Christmas."
Santa, they discovered, was a great storyteller.
He took them back five years, to that fateful day in 2003 when he was sitting in his executive suite ...
Christmas Inc is the biggest corporation in the Arctic Circle. Its high-rise ice skyscraper is one of the great engineering wonders of the northern hemisphere. Global warming has melted the top two storeys but it's still the tallest building in the Arctic.
Santa occupies the executive suite on the 93rd floor. Two weeks before Christmas, 2003, Santa was sitting at his desk.
The numbers on his spreadsheet did not look good. The 50,000 elves employed in toy-making were four days behind the production schedule that ensured all toys were completed and checked by Christmas Eve.
He was way over budget with raw materials and the toy wrappers were behind, too. What more could possibly go wrong, he wondered?
The phone rang. It was his reindeer stable foreman. Santa knew all of his 75,000 staff by name. "James," he said. "How are the reindeer, my friend?" he asked.
"The news is not good, Santa," James replied. "They have all caught a very nasty cold. It could be the flu. I'm not sure we can get them well enough for Christmas Eve."
Santa slumped in his chair. Why now, he thought? Why right on the verge of Christmas?
James assured Santa that he could find plenty of other reindeer to pull the sleigh.
"That just won't do," Santa explained. "Without the magic, we have nothing."
With that, Santa called an emergency meeting of his Christmas board. Back-up reindeer would not do, he explained. He needed big, powerful animals able to get the sleigh to 30kmh before lift-off.
"What about horses?" asked his chief accountant, Penny Moneybags.
"That's a fine idea," said Santa, "but they must be special horses. Here's what I want you to do ..."
Santa issued very specific instructions and, within minutes, his personal jet, a Boeing 747 resplendent with a big red nose, was taxiing for take-off.
As the next three or four days unfolded, the mysterious red-nosed jet was seen landing at airports all over the world, always in the dead of night.
It was seen in Auckland, London and Copenhagen. It even made the news in New York, but no-one knew who owned the plane or what it was doing.
With four days to Christmas, the giant jet touched down back in the frozen north and eight bewildered horses walked off the plane into the chill Arctic air.
Santa was there to greet them. "You are here to save Christmas," he told them. "You must pull the sleigh."
"But Santa," replied one, "none of us can fly!"
Santa was unperturbed. "Our stable foreman will give you all the training you need."
None of horses pretended it was easy. They were broken to harness in a day and, while unused to snow and ice, were able to pull Santa's sleigh at a reasonable speed once they had studded shoes fitted. But could they fly?
Not a chance.
Christmas Eve dawned and none of the horses had any idea how they were going to take Santa's sleigh, laden with so many toys, around the world that night.
They ate a hearty dinner of alfalfa hay before Santa, his red outfit fresh back from the drycleaners, arrived to talk to them.
"Santa," said one, "I fear we are going to disappoint you. Not one of us can fly!"
"Please," said Santa. "tell me your names"
"I'm Dasher," said one.
"I'm Dancer," said another.
Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen also introduced themselves to the grand old man.
"The magic," said Santa, "is in your names."
"There was no way we could ever find eight reindeer with the same names to replace my sick friends. But I knew if we scoured the globe we could find eight horses," Santa explained.
"Did you know that we have horses here from every continent, from Shetlands to Clydesdales?" he added.
Dusk began to fall and Santa's team was loading the last late toys on to the sleigh.
Overtime and extra shifts had got toy-making back on schedule.
The horses nervously shuffled about as they waited in harness, the massive sleigh hitched up behind.
The last sliver of sun disappeared below the horizon and, on Santa's orders, the horses moved off. They gathered speed across the ice.
They heard Santa's raised voice from behind: "Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!"
Onward they pressed, their trot turning to a canter. At 25kmh their legs felt strangely lighter. At 30 they were airborne!
Santa later confessed to a serious strategic error.
While the horses had been trained to use harness, he confessed he should have put a little more effort into the flying.
No-one pretended it was pretty. At times, they had a lot of trouble stopping and knocked off hundreds of roof tiles. They bowled a few front fences and Santa left a special gift for a Mrs Harrison in Sydney because they accidentally trampled her award-winning flower garden.
But there was also a pleasant surprise. Santa discovered that the horses were much quicker than reindeer! The team crossed the Pacific in a record 96 minutes, passing airliners as if they were going backwards.
Miraculously, as the sun warmed the eastern skyline at dawn, they found themselves flashing across the sky on their way back to the North Pole.
What an adventure!
As dawn broke the horses were tucking into the tastiest hay they had ever enjoyed.
"You have all done a fantastic job," said Santa. "But there is only 364 days to next Christmas and I have much to do. There are budgets to be worked out, contracts to sign. Many thanks for doing such a splendid job."
"Comet," he said, "could I have a word with you before you all board my jet for the trip home."
Within three days, the eight horses had been returned home, each one sworn to secrecy - including Comet.
The horses gathered around Santa could scarcely believe what they had heard.
"So you know Comet because he pulled your sleigh?" asked one.
"That's right," said Santa.
"So why are you telling us all this?" asked another.
"Because I need your help," Santa explained.
"The day may come again when I need horses to pull my sleigh. I may not have the time to send my jet around the world finding horses with the eight magical names.
"We figured it would be best if we created a herd specially to pull my sleigh in an emergency. And you're it!"
The horses looked puzzled.
"But Santa," said one. "My name is Bubbles!"
"And mine is Sam," said another.
"I'm Sparky," added a third.
"And I'm called Rocket," said another.
At that moment a light came on at the farmhouse.
Noel, their caregiver, had risen and was pulling on his farm gear. Before long he was making his way across the paddock with a bundle of paperwork under his arm.
"Santa, it's good to see you again."
The horses were amazed that he, too, knew Santa.
"It's great to see you, too, Noel," replied Santa. "You've done a great job with the horses. They're looking fantastic."
"It's very nice of you to say so. How are flying conditions tonight?"
"There's a hurricane over the Atlantic that I had to skirt around and a nasty cold front in the Tasman Sea, but apart from that the going has been pretty good."
The horses were restless, still waiting for a full explanation.
"Bubbles, Rocket, all of you, these are your paddock names," explained Santa. "Noel has your official registration papers. Take a look."
The herd gathered around and could not believe their eyes. Bubbles was really named Yuletide Donner, Rocket was Yuletide Blitzen. Sparky discovered he was Yuletide Prancer!
"You all share your names with my reindeer. One day, you too may well be called upon to save Christmas," explained Santa.
The horses were lost for words. One day, the responsibility of getting presents to children all around the world could rest on their withers!
Santa glanced at his watch. "I do have a problem," he confessed. "Which of you is Blitzen?"
"That's me!" cried Rocket.
Santa smiled. "Blitzen has a badly sprained ankle. He caught it in some spouting and he's not good. We're falling behind. Do you think you'd be able to help out?"
Within minutes, Rocket was in harness and, in the twinkle of a star, the team was gone.
Christmas dawned and a few locals commented on the strange-looking deer grazing with the horses at Yuletide Farm.
A few days later, in the dead of night, that mysterious jumbo jet with the red nose touched down at Auckland Airport. Staff enjoying a coffee in the cafeteria were certain they heard the sound of hooves but no one could see anything in the moonless night.
Next morning, the reindeer was gone from Yuletide Farm and Rocket was quietly grazing back with his mates.
It transpired that Santa wasn't the only good storyteller! Rocket dined out for weeks on tales of his adventures across Africa, Australia and Europe.
The excitement eventually died away and life returned to normal on Yuletide Farm.
But the horses knew that it was only a matter of time.
One day, all eight of them would be called upon to save Christmas.