Major's gift horse looks down in the mouth

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JOHN MAJOR must know that this is not his year. His gift horse has developed a problem with its mouth.

Maksad, a birthday present from the President of Turkmenistan, faces an X-ray and a possible operation this week on what a vet has diagnosed as a 'mal-errupted incisor'. This trouble, minor in itself, adds another embarrassing twist to the story of a beast that has mocked the Prime Minister from a distance with inconvenience and inappropriateness, not to mention inspiring wordplays about stalking horses.

The four-year-old stallion, a rare Akhal-Teke, was given to Mr Major in March last year by President Saparmurat Niyazov, presumably on the assumption that a national leader appreciates a fine horse and knows what to do with it. Iran's president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, proved the point in October: when given a similar horse, he immediately leapt on to its back in delight.

Mr Major, however, has nothing other than tenuous circus antecedents to link his first 50 years with horseflesh, and took several months even to get round to arranging collection of the animal. Although Maksad finally arrived in Britain in mid- January, Mr Major has yet to meet him, but according to Downing Street sources the Prime Minister is taking an interest in his progress, with a view to a photo-opportunity at some stage in the future.

The care of Maksad has been entrusted to the Household Cavalry, which has billeted him with the Ministry of Defence Animal Centre in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, where the Princess Royal has visited him.

The Prime Minister's office insists Meksad will serve a 'useful working life' with the Household Cavalry, but exactly how useful remains unclear.

The principal virtue of Akhal-Tekes is their ability to cover thousands of miles quickly on very little food and water: not strictly relevant to ceremonial duties in London. Col Paul Jepson, Commandant at Melton Mowbray, said it was not for him to speculate on Maksad's future role, but confessed: 'You would be right in thinking he doesn't have any military potential as such. He's the wrong colour, he's the wrong size, he's the wrong sort of horse.'