Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Authority Figure

coloring-book1So I’m sitting here watching a gaggle of students angst and squirm over the final exam I’ve just handed them.  Some of them are making the most bizarre faces as they cogitate.  Which I guess means I have just about made it through my first semester as an instructor at the U of Guelph/Ridgetown College/Clinton Campus outpost on the furthest edge of the back of beyond.  Good christ on a cracker, how did that happen?

This is rhetorical.  I’m cognizant of how it happened.  I just haven’t quite transitioned in my head, yet, to Fully Employed Person, having been an itinerant freelancer of one sort or another for, like, yonks.  It’s likely that my credit rating hasn’t quite caught up with the news either, so I haven’t attempted to get myself a slightly-less-decrepit truck yet.  Current truck is, saints be praised, soldiering on quite admirably, with 374,000 klicks on the odometer as of this morning, and I’m invoking a variety of deities (with gifts of incense, Passion Flakie wrappers, and Timmie’s pumpkin muffins) to encourage it to continue in good faith until spring, when perhaps the creditors will be open to treating me like an actual grown-up with predictable renumeration.

That’s not to say that the U of Goo might not pull the plug on our little program at any time.  I really have no idea what the economics of running it might be, or if Guelph is more invested in its relatively shiny four-year Bachelor of Bio-Resource Management degree program, which has an “equine management” specialization and is jack blackbeing run out of the main campus (which on an academic level, is far better equipped, but which lacks the equine facilities we have here in Clinton).  To some degree (no pun intended) the two-year Diploma program we offer is rather awkward, given that the first year happens in Clinton, and the second, on the campus of Ridgetown College, about two hours away.  Ridgetown has the advantage of being able to offer student housing, while in Clinton the students have to scramble for rooms to rent … but Ridgetown isn’t really set up for horses.  There are two ancient Standardbreds housed in a corner of the dairy barn, and that’s it.  Meanwhile, if we could solve the student housing issue, we’d still have a challenge with classroom space on our campus, because we share the building with London’s Fanshawe College, which runs a couple of programs here.  They have dibs on the bulk of the classrooms; we have exactly two (plus the barn, paranoidof course).

It’s possible, of course, that I’m just naturally paranoid, after having had more than my share of rugs pulled out from under me over the years.  Then again, it’s possible that the enrollment we currently enjoy is not enough to justify keeping the program running.  I’m only on a year-to-year contract, which means that I could be cut loose this coming May with very little trouble.  It’s hard to get super comfortable under those conditions.

But here it is, December, and I have officially survived one semester, which is a pleasant surprise.  It hasn’t been seamless, exactly, but given that most of us are rookie instructors, it definitely could have been worse. (Um, the total complement on the staff side is five … plus one brave individual doing the whole second-year program in Ridgetown.)  I managed to find something to teach for every one of my lectures, I don’t think the students hate me, and after 18 weeks or so I feel like I’m approaching competency with the U of Goo’s “CourseLink” system, which allows me to post course notes and announcements and marks and such that the students can access.  That’s been a steep learning curve.

OTOH, I have utterly failed to find a place to live closer to Clinton, which is a double-edged sword.  I’d be very annoyed if I did pull up stakes and move everything, only to too much stufffind myself given the ‘here’s your hat and what’s your hurry’ come spring … and that could definitely happen.  Moving everything, in my case, doesn’t just mean the contents of my little house … it also means five horses, two hay feeders, six rubber mats, five troughs, whothefuckknows how many jumps, multiple feed bins, six huge Rubbermaid containers just of blankets and rainsheets, the contents of an entire tack room, and two trailers.  Bit daunting, that.

Nonetheless, I am continuing to look (though if I don’t find something in December, I might as well resign myself to doing the road warrior thing until the spring, as utterly idiotic as that will be, because moving all that shit in winter weather is going to be unfathomably difficult).  I’ve turned down a couple of places that just were too expensive or didn’t make the drive any easier than my current two-hour trek each way (which at least is on main roads which are likely to get ploughed).  I did find one place with an absolutely beautiful Victorian farmhouse that was basically my dream abode, and the place had a barn, arena, the works.  It was close to London, too, which would have been ideal.  Alas, the owners decided they couldn’t accommodate all five of my beasties.  I console myself with the thought that I could never have really afforded it anyway, but dammit-jesus.jpgarrrggghhhhh.  I have lots of helpful people who’ve been keeping their ears to the ground for me, but suitable spots are proving elusive.

I’m trying to be philosophical about the stupidity of my commute.  I mean, I get to see quite a lot of Ontario this way.  (Perspective:  In order to listen to the CBC all the way across from home to work, I have to change the station three times — from the Toronto 99.1, to Kitchener/Waterloo 98.7, and then to London’s 93.5 when I get to Wingham and turn south.)  People are starting to put up their Xmas lights now, so that’s pretty, given that lately I have been leaving when it’s dark and coming home when it’s dark.  I get to see some interesting Mennonite vehicles and ponies on the side of the highway.  Apart from them and the

commute

This is literally what I do 10 times a week.

occasional tractor the size of Montreal, there’s very little traffic to contend with on my route.  And I’m getting a lot of podcasts listened to.  Seriously, a lot.  I welcome podcast recommendations, especially anything science-y or historical or science fiction-y, or anything about journalism (because I might be a professor these days but I will always on some level consider myself a journalist); please post below in the comments.

puffer-vest-streetstyle-450x600

Is it working?

But the commute is also beating me up.  I’ve gone up till now in my life without having developed a caffeine addiction, but green tea is now the only thing keeping me from crossing the median and slamming into a combine some nights.  Four hours a day in a truck also ain’t doing the credit card any favours (I get about three one-way commutes to a $110 tank of gas), nor the muffin top.  I’m really only able to ride on the weekends now, and I’m so knackered by the time I get home that the treadmill is a ludicrous fantasy.  So I am thankful beyond measure that this is the season of big, camouflaging down vests, because, ugh.

So I’m understating it when I say I am ecstatic that for the month of December, I don’t have to go in every day.  I have two more exams to give in the coming week, and there will be meetings and the submission of final marks and such, but until the winter semester begins on January 7th, I can work from home a fair bit.  The batteries need a serious recharge.  And my hair needs cutting.  And maybe I should find myself a dentist too, because that hasn’t been happening for the past couple years.

Advertisements

Cone of Shame

cubicleSo much to tell you, gentle readers.  So little time and energy available to do so.  So, short version.  Possibly to be expanded on at some future (relatively soon) date.  

I’m employed.

I know, right?  Like, real employment.  The kind with a T4 (that’s the standard tax form reporting your yearly income, non-Canuck visitors).  Can’t remember the last time I had a T4.

After eight years (ish … if I’m honest, it was probably more) of marginal employment of various kinds, strangely and suddenly I’m in demand.  A bit, anyway.

What I’m doing is teaching, at the college level.  I’ve been given the title of professor (which no doubt my father the Ph.D. finds insulting, but just go with it, Dad, cuz tenure isn’t a thing anymore).  It’s a two-year diploma program run under the auspices of the great and terrible machine that is the University of Guelph.  Though it’s actually in tiny Clinton, which teeters on the edge of the Ontario map somewhere near the Lake Huron shore.  We’re a subset of the subset of Ridgetown College (the old Ontario Agricultural College, down relatively close to my ancestral stomping grounds of Essex County), which is itself a subset of the University.  Not at all confusing.  Nuh-uh.

Anyway, it’s weird and wonderful to realize that I know when I’m going to get paid.  Andflabbergasted-cat-270x300 also to realize that, as a result of that, I can for the first time in years indulge myself in one or two tiny things that I’ve been putting off buying pretty much forever.  Nothing big — just stuff like a pot of Clinique moisturizer for my increasingly crinkly face.  A new external hard drive (two terrabytes and it’s smaller than my phone … whoa).  A couple of CDs that have been on my Amazon wish list (it’s a live link, feel free to indulge me) since Stephen Harper was in office.  A second Kiva loan, and a donation to a friend who did the Toronto Walk to Conquer CancerGawd it feels decadent.  But given that it’s still gonna be six or seven decades (conservatively) before I dig myself out financially, I am not exactly getting unhinged.   It’s just nice to have slightly less complex knots coiling in my digestive tract whenever I click on my bank balance.  

So this post isn’t really about that.  Instead, it’s about the other job opportunity that came up almost at the same time that I was interviewing for the U of Guelph gig.

The posting was for a gubbermint job — federal, thankfully, rather than provincial.  (Given that Ontario has inexplicably elected a noxious, tantruming Trump wannabe as Premier, ain’t nobody feeling terribly secure in provincial positions these days.)  A small equine research farm affiliated with the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency was looking for a ‘farm operations manager’.  Could I look after 12 retired Standardbreds who occasionally have to give a blood or a urine sample, and could I do it for $30-$35 an hour?  Why, yes, I believe I could manage that, especially given my fabulous experience as a Test Inspector (I Stare At Dicks).  The job didn’t even require competence in French (unusual for any government position).  I mean, sign me the fuck up, right?

Now, I rarely expect to actually get called in for interviews anymore.  Suffice to say I have learned to keep my expectations subterranean.  But of course no sooner had I accepted the Guelph position, than I got contacted about the farm manager position, too.

Except that the invitation to interview read rather more like a summons to a parole hearing.  I mean, I expect federal communications to be a smidge on the officious side, but fuck me.  I thought at first I must be misinterpreting it, but I sent a copy to a couple of friends and they both thought the tone was a bit NQR too.  So, not just me then.

Here it is, verbatim:

Selection process number: AGR18J-016947-000353

Position title:                          Farm Operations Manager
Group, sub-group and level: GL-MAN-10

 

Dear Karen Briggs:

I am pleased to inform you that your application has been assessed and that you are invited to an interview on:

        Date:                  July xx, 2018
        Interview time:    TBA upon confirmation

        Location:            Jerseyville, Ontario 
        Language of Assessment:  English

*It is your responsibility to confirm your availability.  You must reply to this email by July xx, 2018 to confirm participation.  All travel expenses will be your responsibility.

 The interview is designed to assess the following merit criteria: 

  • Ability to supervise
  • Concern for safety
  • Initiative
  • Interactive communication
  • Planning and organizing
  • Problem solving
  • Team Leadership
  • Written communication/Attention to detail

Knowledge of administrative procedures and human resources practices related to the operation of a horse farm.

Knowledge of the general operation and maintenance of farm equipment

Knowledge of the mandate of the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency’s Equine Drug Control Program.

Please bring the following information: 

1.         Names and telephone numbers of 3 references, indicating what type of reference, i.e. Previous Supervisors, Co-workers, Clients or others) as reference checks will be part of the assessment process. 
2.         The original of the Personnel Screening, Consent and Authorization Form completed (Level required: Reliability Status) (form attached).
3.         Proof of Education and Certification.
4.         Proof of Canadian citizenship.
5.         Your valid Driver’s Licence.

6.  Others (First Aid Certification, if applicable).

hitlerFailure to attend without advance notification and sufficient justification will constitute withdrawal from this appointment process.   Acceptable reasons include:

– Medical reasons with doctor’s certificate; 
– Death in the immediate family;
– Confirmation of pre-approved travel plans;
– Religious reasons.

Should you require accommodation during the assessment, you are strongly encouraged to contact Joyce Adam atJxxx.xxxx@agr.gc.ca (preferred) or by phone at 613-xxx-xxxx as soon as possible.

Should any situations arise on July xx affecting your ability to attend the interview, please inform Cxxxxx.Cxxxxx@canada.ca or phone 905-xxx-xxxx.

Joyce Adam

Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency / Government of Canada
Agence canadienne du pari mutuel / Gouvernement du Canada

I was a bit put off, frankly.  Where were the warm fuzzies?  But I figured maybe that was just the sort of passive-aggressive language that multiple layers of bureaucracy generate, so I decided not to take it personally.  It was probably spit out by an automatic interview-invite-generator bot.  Not having had a death in the family, I went to the interview, basically for shits and giggles since I hadn’t officially started my job with the U of Guelph yet, and because I figured I shouldn’t cut off my nose to spite my face.  

The actual interview was also a little strange, though not as off-putting as the language of my engraved invitation.  There were two real women who asked me questions, and mercifully refrained from trotting out those cliché HR phrases (“Where do you see yourself in five years?  What do you consider your greatest flaw?  Tell us about a poster_Show_CFA_2018.jpgsituation where your boss royally fucked you over and how you handled that?”), for which I was grateful.  I got the nickel tour of the farm — which incidentally is very clandestine, tucked away in a suburb the other side of Hamilton with no signs or indications of any kind that it is a government facility — and then I went back into the city and took myself to see Come From Away (since I was dressed for an interview and all).  Go see it.  It’s good.

They’d told me they weren’t going to make any decisions till mid-October, which I figured was par for the course for the Feds.  No worries.  I had a curriculum to pull out of my ass together and really didn’t give it much more thought.  Until I got the following in my inbox today:

18-AGR-ON-EA-CM-35 (GL-MAN-10) Farm Operations Manager

Inbox x

Harris, Lisa (AAFC/AAC) <xxx.xxxx@canada.ca>

6:06 PM (3 hours ago)
to karen@kxxxxxx.ca, Ryckenboer

Subject

Selection process number:                18-AGR-ON-EA-CM-35
Position title:                                      Farm Operations Manager
Group, sub-group and level:             GL-MAN-10

Dear Ms. Briggs,

Following your interview, we regret to inform you that your application will not be given further consideration as you do not meet the following requirement:

  • Ability to Supervise
  • Attention to Detail
  • Interactive Communication
  • Written Communication
  • Planning and Organizing
  • Problem Solving
  • Team Leadership

Should you require additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me at carol.ryckenboerbarsalou@canada.ca

Yours sincerely,

 

Carol Ryckenboer Barsalou 

Staffing Operations

Corporate Management Branch
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada / Government of Canada
E-mail Address / Tel: 204-259-5564 / TTY: 613-773-2600

Opérations de dotation

Direction générale de la gestion intégrée
Agriculture et Agroalimentaire Canada / Gouvernement du Canada
Adresse de courriel / Tél. : 204-259-5564 / ATS : 613-773-2600

[Message clipped]  amount of stupidity

Well, I could have gotten insulted.  My squeeze certainly was — incensed, actually — when I read it out loud to him.  But honestly, I’m pretty committed to my new teaching responsibilities (read:  I am treading water as fast and creatively as I can), so Ag Canada and the CPMA are not breaking my wee fragile heart here.  I suspect, actually, that someone fired this form letter off without remembering to further personalize it beyond my name at the top, and that they didn’t actually intend to malign basically every job skill I’ve got.  

But I did figure it merited some sort of response.  And since I enjoy a nice bit of fuckery, when aimed towards those who deserve it, this is what I sent:

9:37 PM (0 minutes ago)
to lisa.harris, carol.ryckenboerbarsalou 

Dear Ms. Ryckenboer Barsalou (and, presumably, Ms. Harris),

Thank you for your correspondence.  That is QUITE a list of personal failings, and I appreciate you bringing them to my attention.  I’m particularly embarrassed by my inadequate written communication skills:  six published books and some 5000 published magazine and newspaper articles are, really, too humiliating a total to mention on a curriculum vitae, and obviously indicate that the demands of the position would have had me floundering.  Please accept my gratitude for the narrow escape.

All is not lost, however.  I recently accepted a position as a college professor with the University of Guelph’s diploma program in Equine Care and Management, where I’m confident my multiple deficiencies in communication and leadership will go largely unnoticed.

All the best to your successful candidate.  

Cordially,

Karen Briggs.

 

buttercupI can pretty much guarantee you I will never be considered for another government job.

 

Out of the Mouths of Babes

kids and foals2.jpgA couple of months ago, I was tapped to be one of the judges in something called the Youth Literary Derby — a writing contest for kids, meant to encourage their interest in Standardbreds and harness racing.  Yes, I can be flattered.  It’s nice when someone remembers that I write, and edit, and have some peripheral connection to the sport.  I sent back my three top picks, on the poetry and prose sides, this morning, and it was quite possibly one of the hardest bloody things I’ve ever done, editorially speaking.

Reading the submissions, from kids in grades five through eight, I tried to imagine the classroom set-up for this.  Some of the entries were photocopies of handwritten efforts, and I gather at least a few of these were from schools catering to Mennonite kids who will have had some actual contact with horses.  Most, however, would have had no prior experience with horses or racing at all.  Several Ontario Standardbred farms hosted Open Houses for the kids in May, and that experience showed in the essays of the kids who were lucky enough to go.

Others, I think, were just asked to watch the video above, and then wing it — and the results ranged from touching, to a little bit scary, to hilarious.  Many didn’t quite get the difference between Thoroughbred racing and harness racing, and spent a lot of time describing jockeys.  There were a lot of immaculate conceptions, too, with owners suddenly discovering their beloved horse was giving birth right now, apparently with no previous, um, intervention.  And sometimes it seemed like the kids just took whatever plotline had most recently stuck in their heads from a cartoon, and inserted Standardbreds as the characters.  On more than one story, I attached a post-it note to myself which said, “Is this about horses?”

superheroes on horseback

I’m not sure of the legalities of a) outing myself as one of the judges or b) sharing the submissions (which were rendered anonymous before I received them), but I can’t resist at least giving you a few excerpts from some of the ones that most tickled me.   For the actual winners, you’ll have to wait till September 18Apparently there’s $2000 in prizes up for grabs.

Here’s one of the poems (verbatim): 

The Horses of Ancient Times
Baby horses are small,
Smaller than a small wall.
They all live in stalls,
But they grow to be taller than some walls.
They are quite fast,
They will be panting at last.
But not to hard,
After listening to the bard.
And now they are calm
They moved less than my palm.
Because they were sleeping
Because it’s hard to be leaping
But they wake in the morning
But not to be mourning.
But to have fun with their friends,
And this this is where the story ends.

And if that didn’t float your boat, try Little Foal:

I’m a little Standardbred foal,
I like to watch my mother roll,
Or watch her race all day long,
She must be very tough and strong.
I like to lie in the shade,
Which the big, tall trees have made,
While my mother is at work,
Which she never tries to shirk.
I like to watch a magpie,Ping-pong-tongue-animated-frogs-breakfast
Or some late nights a firefly.
They make a very funny glow.
Often times they fly quite low.
In the creek I saw a bass,
The water was as clear as glass,
Near it was a pollywog.
It was not quite yet a frog.
When I’m big I hope to be,
A race horse who earns money.
I’m just a little foal yet,
Who has never seen a jet!

Kudos to that young writer for knowing the difference between “lay” and “lie”, btw.

But this entry, in the prose category, is totally my favourite.  Because, All.  The. Drama!!

A Boy And a Horse
Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Jerry.  He had just woken up and was extremely excited because he was going to go see his grandparents from out of town.  Jerry and his mom and dad were taking a train to get there.  Also on that day, there was a horse farmer that lived nearby.  He had 8 colts.  One was just turning 4 and his name was “Flash”.  Flash was being prepared for the big race that was being held later that day.  The colt was very fast and had won two other races before and duck_tales_runaway_trainwanted to win this one.  Later on he was just waiting in his starting gate with the other horses, when he saw a train go by.  Jerry was in it and he ran to the caboose of the train to watch the race.  Flash was in third place on the final turn and Jerry was on top of the rail waiting to see what would happen.  All of a sudden the train started moving, sending Jerry flying off the back of the train.  When Flash saw this, he bounced the driver off his sulky, snapping the reins and once free he ran over to get Jerry.  He hopped the fence and started running and flung Jerry up on his back, following the train.  In 5 minutes the train had reached the station and Flash was not far behind.  He ran as fast as he cold and 2 minutes later he was there.  Sensing Jerry was barely conscious, Flash tried to find his parents.  It did not take him long.  Flash saw two people looking panicked.  Mom and Dad saw Jerry and ran over to get their son.  They rushed him to a hospital and the following day Jerry came back out thanking Flash for saving him.  Flash went back to his ranch and even though he didn’t win, he still felt like he did and Jerry went over to the ranch everyday to see Flash from that day on.  Best friends.

And if you aren’t stirred by that, we can’t be friends.

 

 

 

 

 

Lost Souls

sunnybrook bank barnFor those of us whose hearts belong to critters, this has been a very sad spring.  I’m still stinging from the loss of Trixie, whose absence makes itself known in strange, small ways as I navigate my weeks.  Several friends have lost long-time companions — dogs, cats, a sheep with a personality bigger than she was. 

And then came utterly tragic news in the early morning hours of Victoria Day (May 21).  This time my grief is shared with thousands of others, because as well as I knew the horses who perished, they were also loved by half of Toronto.

You might know where I’m going with this.  It made national, even international headlines (in fact, the friend who first alerted me, did so from Germany).  

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sunnybrook Stables, a place where I taught beginner riders a couple of days a week, in a park in the heart of Toronto, burnt to the ground early that morning, trapping 16 of my good friends inside with no hope of escape.  

Here’s what I wrote for The Rider, an Ontario-based equine newspaper.  

HISTORIC TORONTO STABLE BURNS IN VICTORIA DAY FIRE

In the 21st century, horses and urban humans don’t often mix.  But Toronto’s Sunnybrook Stables, located in the lush Sunnybrook Park at Leslie and Eglinton, gave inner-city kids (and adults) a chance to interact with horses and learn to ride.  Along with its sister facility, the Riding Academy, located at Exhibition Place near the Lake Ontario waterfront, Sunnybrook offered a unique opportunity to Toronto’s urbanites:  stables that can be reached by mass transit.
The two-alarm fire that destroyed Sunnybrook’s historic bank barn in the wee hours of Victoria Day, May 21st, 2018, made international news.  Quick action by Toronto firefighters and police, who were summoned after an observer in a nearby apartment complex saw the flames, saved the newer barn which adjoins Sunnybrook’s indoor arena, and the 13 horses inside.  The Toronto Police Mounted Unit swiftly mobilized their own trailers to relocate the survivors to the stables at the Horse Palace.  Sixteen school horses, however, lost their lives in the fire, which totally consumed the bank barn.
The barn, which was built around 1910 as part of the estate of Major Joseph Kilgour, and was donated to the city of Toronto in 1928, became part of Sunnybrook Park, an urban oasis of trees, trails, picnic grounds, soccer fields … and a riding school. 
Walter Shanly founded Sunnybrook Stables Ltd. in 1979, leasing the facility from the city.  Shanly passed away in September 2017, and his widow, Jacquelynn, now operates the school.
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined.  It is not considered to have been suspicious, despite the rumoured presence of individuals setting off fireworks in the park that evening.
At this time, with future plans for rebuilding uncertain, Sunnybrook Stables has asked that fund-raising be put on hold.  If you wish to make a contribution, they suggest Greenhawk gift cards, which can be used towards replacing the lost tack for the surviving horses.  A permanent memorial for the horses, in the park, is in the planning stages. 

 

Axel Sampson SandyWhen a privately-owned horse passes away, those closest to that animal grieve, of course.  But the school horses at Sunnybrook were known, and loved, by literally thousands of Torontonians, each with their own special memories of a favourite horse or pony.  Some of the Sunnybrook mounts had been resident in the park for upwards of 20 years.  The outpouring of sorrow on social media has been overwhelming, as have been the offers of funds, supplies, and green field time for the survivors. 

I only had 1000 words to work with for the story, and I included a very brief description of each of the schoolies who were my work partners and my friends.  I could easily have written a thousand words on each of them.  So here, where no-one’s policing my wordcount, I thought I’d say a little more, so that they are not forgotten.schoolies

Sugar – one of Sunnybrook’s beginner specialists, Sugar was a red roan mare with a dished face and a big blaze.  Her history as a Western pleasure mount gave her a super-slow trot and a rocking-chair canter, perfect for nervous riders.  She had a sensitive mouth, which taught her young charges an important element of empathy.  

Axel – a chestnut paint gelding, narrow and long-backed.  A legendary grouch in the barn, Axel had to be caught in his stall by the staff, as he’d turn his butt and threaten to kick kids who entered his stall.  But he was a surprisingly willing partner for Sunnybrook’s intermediate riders in the arena, giving them just enough challenge without ever verging on unsafe.  He really shone over fences.

Sampson – one of the barn’s newer recruits, a cheeky black-and-white large pony who was a little green. He provided a nice challenge for the school’s more advanced riders, as he could get a little on the muscle — a change from the horses they had to kick to get moving.  

Sandy – a little Appaloosa pony mare who was winding down to retirement and only used lightly in the school.  I’ll be honest:  riding Sandy was like a free chiropractic adjustment:  she was that uncomfortable.  But those who loved her, loved her fiercely.  

Sutherland – the absolutely indispensible “Sudsy”, a 20-something gray Percheron/Arab cross, was beginner-friendly but forward, which is a fairly rare combination.  Sutherland had been at Sunnybrook so long that few remembered a time before him.  Low to the ground but sturdy, he carried adults and tiny kids with equal aplomb.  He wouldn’t bother heaving himself into the air over cross-rails and little verticals, preferring just to trot over them.  The jumps had to reach a certain height before he’d make an effort.  I loved him for that.

Hercules – a liver chestnut Welsh cross, Herc could shuffle in slow-motion or turn it up a notch.  He would mess with his small riders by drifting off the rail into the middle of the ring to test their steering skills.  I had to laugh at him.  If you can learn to ride a pony well, you can ride anything.

Poomba – 12 hands of pure cheek! Flaxen chestnut Poomba, much prettier than the Disney warthog, would babysit to a degree, but he could also be a handful.  Over fences, he was on springs, rocketing kids out of the saddle with his exuberance.   He also had a wicked set of brakes.

Blossom – a black-and-white medium pony mare with a kind heart and enough quality to have not been out of place on the A circuit.  She took exceptional care of the kids on her back and seldom displayed much pony-tude.  

Apollo – of Pony of the Americas breeding, freckled Apollo was under 10, but behaved like a much more seasoned pony.  We could always count on his level head — and we instructors thanked gawd for him sometimes.  

Phoenix — one of Sunnybrook’s more recent recruits, Phoenix was a gray Arabian mare who had been there just under a year.  Something of a nervous Nellie in the barn, she was surprisingly well-trained and confident under saddle.  A fun ride for the more advanced kids.

Tess – a bay Quarter Horse mare with a downhill build, Tess played the grumpy mare card but was very well-schooled, with some fancy dressage moves in her repertoire.  I sympathized with her lack of enthusiasm for ham-handed, bratty kids, and tried to make my students appreciate her as a hidden gem.

Misty – a red roan mare of predominantly QH breeding, with one split ear, Misty was goey, sensitive, and a little spooky, not for a beginner.  She knew her stuff over fences, and was a favourite of the instructors as a mount for themselves.

Marty – a dark bay Thoroughbred mare who was a nice junior hunter before arthritic hocks slowed her down, Marty was also for the more advanced students.  She defended her stall space like a barracuda, and gave students a taste of ‘more go than whoa’.

Gifford – Sunnybrook’s mini mascot, reputed to be about 38 years old, was adored by everyone.

Beau – an irreplaceable beginner hero, this big yellow Appaloosa gelding trucked around tiny children and large, awkward adults with equal equanimity.  For a first taste of canter, you couldn’t do better than Beau, who went off instructor voice commands.  On the list of horses who should be nominated for sainthood, Beau was near the top of the list.

Mr. T – another stalwart who had been at Sunnybrook almost longer than anyone could remember.  T was an almost-black Clyde cross, with a dignified Roman nose and the kindest eyes you could imagine.  The extra white hairs sprinkled around those eyes spoke to his long years of service.  Thanks to his size, T was another kind soul who got riders both large and small hoisted on his back, and he was our go-to for anyone who was special-needs, because we could trust him to the ends of the earth.  T never got grumpy about his lot as an uber-dependable beginner mount, and viewed the world with quiet bemusement.   I will miss him most of all.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Rabbit Hole

Adjala-Tosorontio-20140616-00161

There’s one serving less of beet pulp soaking in the yellow bucket this morning.  An empty halter, and an abandoned rainsheet, on a straw bale in the barn.  Her absence is everywhere.

(That ought to be enough foreshadowing to induce you to stop here, gentle reader, if you don’t like stories that don’t end well.)

Trixie came to me as a freebie yearling, from a very nice, knowledgeable small breeder of Thoroughbreds.  She was not destined for a racing career, so needed a home.  She was nicely put together, and a lovely mover, but there were three strikes against her right from the start.  One, she was congenitally swaybacked.  Two, her dam — through no fault of her own, from what I could tell — had produced two or three other offspring who IMG_20150823_094449hadn’t made it to the races.  (That usually makes buyers at a yearling sale hesitant to take a chance, especially on a filly with, um, unusual conformation, despite the fact that there have been several very successful racehorses who were swaybacked.)

And three, she was a chestnut Thoroughbred mare.  That’s not a curse from a racing point of view, but certainly something of a hindrance in the sport horse world, where there’s a widespread belief that chestnut mares are … well, legendarily squirrelly.

With then-two-year-old Parker on stall rest with a hind ankle injury, I was looking for a project.  I was thinking of a three- or four-year-old off the track, but when Trixie came along, I thought, well, a yearling is a clean slate, and that could be a very good thing.  I did do my research on swaybacks before I agreed to take her:  though it’s a saddle-fitting challenge, it’s not actually an unsoundness, and most congenitally swaybacked horses are just as sound and capable as those whose vertebrae are more conventionally designed.  Plus, I admit, I thought she might grow out of some of it;  they don’t call them ‘yaklings’ for nothing, and many an ugly duckling at 15 months turns out to be a stunning specimen later.  (She didn’t grow out of it, but that was okay.)

The chestnut mare thing didn’t scare me particularly either.  My horse of a lifetime was a copper chestnut with chrome.  I’ve worked with a lot of chestnut mares, and I like their feistiness.  But in all honesty, Trixie turned out to be every bad cliché of a chestnut Thoroughbred mare, ever, temperament-wise.  That assumption has to come from somewhere, after all.

Trixie was a skittish little thing when she first came home to me, but I initially chalked that up to her having not had a lot of handling;  when it became clear she wasn’t a candidate for the fall yearling sale, she stayed out in the field while her compatriots were brought in and given a crash course on being haltered, groomed, led, and otherwise fondled and harassed by humans.  I started to work a little at a time on her ground manners.  It took months before I could safely pick up her hind feet, and I never did get her to cross-tie reliably.  Unfortunately, the flightiness she exhibited as a yearling never really went IMG_20160805_193854away.  It was progress by centimetres with her, with just about everything; she was quick to panic, and when her fearfulness took over, her brain shut down.  She did learn new skills, but because her panic button was so hair-trigger, it seemed to take her far longer  than average to assimilate information, and she had more trouble retaining that information than most, too.  The typical horse, after some time off, picks up right where she left off in her training, but Trixie always regressed to square one, so I would have to repeat the same lessons over and over.  I wonder now whether she didn’t have a bona fide learning disability.  She behaved in some ways like a horse who had been abused, but I knew for a fact that she never had been.

But when she wasn’t a hazard to herself and others because she was freaking out, Trixie could be a terribly sweet soul.  There was no malice in her; she never meant to hurt anyone, and if she was feeling confident she would be the first to approach you, lick your hand, and ask for wither scritches.   My student, Sarah Bernath, who’s in the photos above, fell in love with her gentle side, and was the first person on her back — a development which took far longer than usual for a young horse, given the amount of time it took for Trixie to accept wearing a saddle and bridle, and learn to longe without resembling a 1200 lb. orange marlin on a hook.  In Trixie’s universe, there were lions, tigers, and bears in every corner, and a pole on the ground was cause for hysteria…. every. Single. Time.

IMG_20170116_114318And then, of course, there was the challenge of fitting her saddle.  That took some experimentation.  She not only was swaybacked but also had massive shoulder-blades, so she was a seriously weird shape.  I tried a number of ways of filling in the hollow in the middle of her back to prevent a saddle from bridging, finally settling on some customization of an EcoGold half-pad that I was lucky enough to win in a little Facebook contest.  When I received the pad in the mail, I noticed that it had openings on each side, with velcro closures; that meant that you could remove, replace, and move around the foam inserts inside.  I contacted the company to ask whether they had other thicknesses of foam for the pad, and they very kindly sent me, without charge, all of the other inserts available for that shape of pad.  With a bit of fiddling, I came up with a pad which was thinnest near the withers, thickest in the middle, and sort-of-medium thickness under the cantle.  The saddle sat rather high on top of the resulting pad, but it sat level, and it seemed to work.  (Many thanks again to EcoGold.)

Essentially, Trixie’s problem was not her back … it was what was between her ears.  Though we did get her started under saddle, progress was always one step forward, five steps back; she remained volatile, untrustworthy, and uber-sensitive.  She would stand to be mounted but lose her shit when a rider’s right leg touched her side in search of the stirrup.  I’m a bit old and creaky to be ploughed into the ground repeatedly, so I relied on brave volunteers to get on her … and if they could ride out the first 90 seconds, then usually Trixie would take a breath and become willing to be piloted after that.  We got as far as cantering her under saddle, a couple of times.  But I gave up all hope of her ever becoming an event horse; she was simply too fearful.  Athletically, she was more than capable — hell, she was by far the nicest mover of my gang of six.  Mentally, however, she just didn’t have the tools.  I decided I would be happy just to make her a productive citizen of any kind. 

So I kept chipping away at her, in hopes that things would improve with maturity, despite the urging of my boyfriend to stop putting effort and energy into her.  “What am I going to do, just relegate her to pasture potato and feed her till she’s 30?”, I said.

IMG_20160120_003444Some horses just seem to be born under a black cloud.  In addition to all of her other challenges, Trixie’s tendency to shut her brain off at the slightest hint of stress, resulted in this (left), the winter before last.  I had hung a new feed bucket on the fenceline of her field, since she was now turned out with her BFF, Vivian (a bay OTTB filly a year Trixie’s junior).  I belatedly realized I had not taped the handles of said bucket, which all good Pony Clubbers know you must do to avoid horses getting their halters snagged on the bucket and panicking. 

The electrical tape was up at the house.  I went up to get it.  20 minutes is all it took.  She got hooked on the bucket, freaked out, went through two fencelines, sliced the shit out of the front of her knee, and galloped in blind hysteria all over the property, leaving a trail of blood in the snow.  The bucket eventually surrendered, and even more eventually Trixie was caught along with her BFF, but the knee needed stitching, and after that it was three weeks of frankly hellish stall rest, with her leg trussed up like a Christmas goose in an attempt to keep her from popping the stitching.  Medicating her was a daily nightmare, and every-other-day bandage changes required sedation that didn’t always work.  It healed beautifully in the end, but the whole event was kind of Trixie in a nutshell.

So I wasn’t surprised when, this past November, Trixie developed a persistent, but otherwise minor-looking, snotty nose.  Just the one nostril.  She’d had a similar bout of respiratory infection the previous fall, and it had cleared up on its own.  This one didn’t.  And while she was otherwise healthy, it began to influence her energy level; she just seemed a little subdued (which, given that it was Trixie, wasn’t an entirely unwelcome thing and I was loathe to mess with it at first, I admit!).  Knowing what a gawdawful patient she was, I hesitated to consult my vet because I knew antibiotics would likely be prescribed.  By January, though, I caved, and my worst fears were realized:  the Rx was two weeks of twice-daily sulfa pills, which had to be dissolved in boiling water, mixed with baby food, and syringed into her mouth.  Suffice to say it was a battle (Every.  Single.  Time.) and occasionally I lost.

So we went through 250 pills or so, some of which actually got into her (some is still decorating the walls of her stall), and still had a sinus infection.  At this point, my vet recommended more aggressive treatment.  Which is when we went down the rabbit hole.  I should not have been surprised.

I don’t have any photos of my heavily-sedated Trixie with two holes drilled into her skull.  It was fairly awful and I held her head, but had to look fixedly at the stall wall, lest I get tunnel vision.  We irrigated the sinus directly with a pump and hose inserted into the holes.  Water and crud and blood splattered everywhere and began to freeze to the stall floor.  My vet introduced antibiotic into the sinus cavity, and we put her back on the sulfa as well.  And a week later, we repeated the irrigation with a device that was not unlike a pressure washer.  More crud came out, but the radiographs showed more had stayed in. We tried a second, long-acting injectable antibiotic.  Couldn’t seem to get ahead of the infection.  I think we irrigated it three times in total, each episode a little more miserable than the last.  She would perk up for a day or two, and then the discharge would return.  Somehow, the simple snotty nose had become something life-threatening.  (And of course, the bill was starting to add up, too …)

IMG_20160224_122648And then the culture came back from the lab, showing that the infection in her sinus was fungal.  Which meant that there was nothing more, medicinally, that we could throw at it.

The only other treatment option, at that point, was an invasive bone flap surgery which would have had to have been performed at the University of Guelph’s large animal hospital:  open up a much larger hole in her skull to scrape out all the infectious material from her sinus.  It would have been invasive, would require weeks of hospitalization, and would likely cost me $4000 to $6000.

If it had been any of my other horses, I would have found the money somehow.  But any of my other horses would have tolerated the hospitalization and the treatment.  I couldn’t see how Trixie was going to.  Hell, I hadn’t even been able to successfully get her on a trailer, so even getting her to Guelph was a fantasy.  And the kicker, according to my vet, was that when the infection was fungal, the success rate on this surgery wasn’t great.  Often, the fungus found a way to come back.  

So I cried.  A fair bit.  I had often joked that I needed a way out for this sweet, frustrating, troubled mare, that I could accept with a clear conscience.  I didn’t really mean it.  With all of her quirks, I still was very fond of her.  And she was only seven, with years and years ahead of her.  But there were no good answers at the bottom of the rabbit hole.IMG_0303_1 trixie july 2017 (1)On Trixie’s last day, towards the end of February, I did all the expected things:  carrots, cookies, grooming, fussing.  Took a chunk of hair from her tail.  But Trixie wanted to hang with her BFF, out in the field, more than anything — she had spent a lot of time confined to her stall during treatment — so mostly I left her alone so she could do that. 

She went down with better grace than she had done most things, and quietly breathed her last while I shivered, standing watch.  My vet was fantastically kind in making the arrangements.  

And it’s taken me till now to complete this blog post about Trixie, because she broke my heart a little.  I’ve had to put three horses down, now, in the seven years I’ve been at this farm, and that is just too fucking many.   And to some extent I squirm at all the animal memorials all over social media; I didn’t want to inflict my sadness on everyone.  But at the same time, I don’t want the life of this horse to have been absolutely unacknowledged.  Only a handful of people met her, and even fewer loved her — just me, and Sarah, really (and Vivian, who is soldiering on).  She was a hard mare to love.  But she was here, and she was real, if only for an ill-fated few years.  

I gave her her registered name, which was Mexican Wine, after the Fountains of Wayne song.  It’s a fatalistic little tune.  

 

So I Did A Podcast …

on air… for Emma Van Wyngarden’s The Horse Cure:

 

I hope I don’t sound like an idiot.  Emma was great — many thanks to her!  Go listen to her other podcasts, and share that shit around, after you listen to this one.  

Groundhog Day Grumblings

Not gonna lie.  karma fairy.jpgWe had it easy here in Ontario last winter:  no significant amount of snowfall until after Christmas, and temperatures that dropped below -15 C only for a couple of days, really.  We didn’t even have what I dread the most, which is freezing rain (one of the few weather scenarios from which I rescue my True Canadian-bred beasties from the nasty, foul outdoors).  And we had quite a few scattered thaws throughout the season to beat back the accumulated snow to a (mostly) manageable level.

But karma, as they say, is a bitch.  And she is slapping us repeatedly, upside the head.  So I beg your indulgence, gentle readers:  forgive me the following rant.  By the first week of January — barely a quarter of the way through this year’s edition of the seventh circle of hell — I was fucking exhausted.  And vitamin D-deprived, which, you know, doesn’t exactly make you a sunbeam for Jesus.

We had three significant snowfalls in November.  That’s just not fair.  Anything after December 1st is fair game, but November??  No-one in Ontario is cognitively prepared for that, and it leads to a lot of bad driving and really bad decisions, among other things.  Coming home from Toronto one evening mid-November, I drove straight into a wall o’ snow, the likes of which I have not encountered in years.  It was a total white-out on a stretch of highway that runs 17 km between exits — so basically, there’s no escape.  My tires were sketchy, my windshield wipers were crusted over and barely managing, the visibility was essentially zero, and if I hadn’t had four-wheel drive and the tail-lights of a Purolator truck to follow, my odds of staying on the actual road would not have been worth calculating.  (May all the deities favour you and bring you salted caramel brownies, Purolator person.)  By the time I did reach my exit, I was vibrating.  Had to pull over at the first gas station and quietly hyperventilate for about 15 minutes.   The gas station attendant, ensconced as he was in his little oasis of calm, looked at me like I had lost the plot.  Which I totally had.

groundhog winter

So then that little episode of joy was immediately followed by about three years of absolutely-fucking-inhuman temperatures in December.  I mean, I’m Canadian.  I get that it gets cold in winter, and I have the gear to deal with it, but (honestly) two and a half weeks of temperatures unrelentingly below -22 Celsius, without respite … it’s a lot.  Water hydrants which have never frozen before, did.  The barn doors froze shut.  My truck refused to start even though it had had the block heater plugged in all night.  My slow-feeder nets for the round bales froze in interesting sculptural free-form shapes, but couldn’t be removed from the ground.  The air hurt my face.  And I couldn’t do much about mucking the stalls because pretty much everything had welded itself to the floors.  The horses toughed it out (remarkably well, considering they are Thoroughbreds), but zero riding happened during the Christmas break — it was too freaking cold to even contemplate it.  

horses are fedAnd then there was the Night of the Freezing Rain, which, see above.  That meant bedding down stalls, running hoses all over hell’s half-acre in order to fill water buckets (because all the convenient ones are uncooperatively seized by ice) and angsting over whether I had enough small bales of hay to see them through the night and following day, being as those bales are in short supply this year.  I did get everyone (headcount is currently seven, btw) cosily inside for the night, and the freezing rain turned out to me mostly the non-freezing kind, and thus not full-scale Ice Storm (though trust me, we’ve had those too), but naturally everything seized up again — gate fastenings, every single fucking leadshank snap and halter snap on the property, my windshield wipers, my truck’s door locks, the automatic windows, the lock on my front door — when the temps dropped again 24 hours later.  Plus, my horses don’t deal especially well with incarceration, and were absolutely psycho to turn out again when I decided it was safe to do so. These are the days when you think wistfully about how super-awfully nice it would be to have a little help around here…

But hey, it’s February now, so there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.  Wiarton Willie this

wiarton willie

Wiarton mayor Janice Jackson with Wiarton Willie, earlier. Photo credit: Hannah Yoon, Canadian Press. (Because I always acknowledge the work of my fellow journos.)

morning predicted six more weeks of winter, but really, that’s a given for Ontario.  When have we not had six more weeks of winter after February 2nd?  Six weeks would be a bloody miracle around here.  I’d sacrifice a goat with a stapler if I thought it would guarantee us signs of spring by mid-March.Some people find February the most depressing month, but for me it at least means this wretchedness is more than half over.  It’s a short month, as well, so there’s that.  Plus I usually get a little cash infusion in February, from the Public Lending Rights Commission, which gives authors a little something-something if their books are found (on a random sampling) in Canadian libraries.  It’s nice to be Canadian.  Even if you fucking hate the weather.

love my horse

 

Larger Than Life

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In 2007 and 2008, I was the communications coordinator for harness racing at the Woodbine Entertainment Group in Toronto.  I was on the front lines of the upper echelons of the sport, attending some of the richest stakes races in North America, and it was through that lens that I got to witness a truly extraordinary equine athlete — an Ontario-bred pacing colt named Somebeachsomewhere.

If you have any sort of Standardbred background, the name (however unwieldy — it came from a country song, I’m told) needs no introduction.  If you don’t, let me put it in perspective for you:  this horse was harness racing’s answer to Secretariat.  Not just the horse of a generation, but of a lifetime — and owned by a small collective of car dealership owners and assorted friends from tiny Truro, Nova Scotia.  Gawd, it wrote itself.

I watched this colt burst on the scene in Ontario as a two-year-old, winning the Metro Pace like a tornado.  Even then, he was a bruiser, almost twice the size and bulk of his juvenile competitors, and his gait was effortless.  There was a sense of enormous power that just rippled off this horse. 

I watched him win the Pepsi North America Cup, then a $1.5 million dollar mile, the following June.  I interviewed his trainer and part-owner, Brent MacGrath, and his driver, Paul MacDonell, a couple of dozen times at least, and wrote about the horse almost weekly, either for WEG (which was riding the wave of his career with everything it could muster, given that Mohawk — WEG’s “summer” track just west of Toronto — was more-or-less Beach’s home oval) or for other publications like the Canadian Sportsman, Trot, or Hoof Beats, the US Trotting Association’s magazine.   

If you click on either of the links above, you’ll get a complete synopsis of the horse’s career.  (There was tons in the Sportsman, too, of course, but that archive, alas, is no longer with us.)  He lost only one race — the $1 million Meadowlands Pace — to Art Official, but the effort was so valiant that it only enhanced his reputation.  Towards the end of his three-year-old year, MacGrath sent Somebeachsomewhere to Kentucky to the Red Mile — renowned for being the fastest track in North America, if not the world — specifically to chase the world record.  Watch how effortlessly Beach paces a 1:46.4 mile to smash the record for three-year-old pacing colts and equal the world record for any horse of any age:

Now, a horse like this almost never gets to race beyond his three-year-old year.  He was simply too valuable to risk breaking down on the racetrack.  So off went Somebeachsomewhere to stand at stud in the United States.  Click on that link for stats and video of some of the more prominent of his progeny.  None have dominated the sport quite so completely as their sire, but many have been damned impressive (one son, Captaintreacherous, captured the 2013 NA Cup), and as far as we knew, the best was yet to come.

Unfortunately, the news came on Sunday, January 14th, that The Beach had been euthanized thanks to the discovery of large cell lymphoma in his intestine.  The stallion was 13, and there had been only a brief mention of health issues in the news prior to this, back in November.  To say his death was unexpected is an understatement.

The photos at the top of this post have never seen the light of day before … they’re shots I took of Beach and his trainer and biggest fan and promoter, Brent MacGrath, warming up on the track at Mohawk in the late afternoon, before the 2008 North America Cup.  Hard to believe that’s a three-year-old.  

Most years, one or two horses emerge in the ranks of three-year-old trotters and pacers to dominate to some degree.  But we’re not going to see the likes of Somebeachsomewhere again.  I’m grateful I got to be a small part of that ride, which I’ll always consider to be one of the highlights of my media career.

A few more photos I found in my archives, from spring, 2008.  The other colt with Somebeachsomewhere is Deweycheatumnhowe, who was just as dominant that year on the trotting side of things.  I think I was one of only two photographers to get some shots of the two of them in close proximity.  It really was an extraordinary season.  

So I Wrote a Guest Post ….

esrr-invert-black (1)

… for Sarah Cuthbertson and Ashley Tomaszewski’s blog, Eat Sleep Ride Repeat.  

9 Really Good Reasons Why Endurance Riders Need To Embrace Dressage

Go have a look, and cruise around the rest of their blog, which focuses on long-distance riding but has lots of interesting tangents, too!  (Oh, and if you like the logo, they have lots of lovely merch available.  Happy Winter-Celebration-Of-Your-Choosing!)

I Stare At Dicks

Yup.  That’s my new job.anime stare

I do a lot of staring at dicks these days.  Not so much vulvas, because those are covered by tails as a rule until such time as a mare decides to lift said appendage and squat.

I stare at the dicks of geldings and colts, and the general nether regions of fillies and mares, because I am now a Test Inspector (if there were truth in advertising, I’d be more honestly designated a Pee Catcher) at Woodbine racetrack.  And you do need to catch the pee, every time.

Equine body language is something you need to be familiar with, if you’re going to work in the Test Barn.  In particular the very specific body language which says, “I’m about to pee”, but also the body language which might telegraph that you’re about to get kicked or savaged by a horse for whom urinating is the last thing on his mind.  (That has actually happened very rarely thus far, because I am working with Standardbreds, who for the most part are nice horses to work with, and the handlers generally warn me if that’s not the case.  I hear the risk factor with the Thoroughbreds is higher.)

penisesSo, yeah, the staring part is something of a necessity.  It’s not perving, though of course with a topic like this I am going to take every opportunity to insert (sorry) tasteless and juvenile JPGs throughout the text … honestly, I kind of have to, because the Test Barn is a security area, so I can’t actually take pictures of what goes on there.  Or consume beverages.  Or bring in my purse.  I start every shift by taking a breathalyzer test, because the results of the drug testing are quite serious and all of the interested parties would like all the Test Inspectors to be Not Shitfaced, Thanks Very Much.

But let’s back up a bit, and explain the OCD approach to urine.  All three varieties of horse racing (Thoroughbred, Standardbred, Quarter Horse) in Ontario are very tightly controlled when it comes to substance abuse.  It’s never really a level playing field because there are always some chemists out there who stay one step ahead of the folks developing tests for every new noxious brew that someone comes up with to enhance a racehorse’s performance … but the regulations are strict enough, and the penalties for a positive test serious enough, that it discourages the majority of players from trying (or at least that’s the hope).  It’s not just a matter of making wagering fair for the bettors; it’s also a matter of health and welfare for the horses.  The illegal performance-enhancing stuff has the potential to take its toll on the equine athletes who aren’t given a vote as to whether to be under its influence. 

Take EPO (erythropoietin), for example — a drug also rather famously abused by long-distance cyclists in the 1990s (oh, Lance, where have all our heroes gone?) —  which forces the body to massively increase its output of lancered blood cells.  That can have a short-term performance-enhancing effect, but it also turns the blood to sludge, which can have lethal consequences, especially for horses on the diuretic Lasix (furosemide).  It can also backfire into severe anemia since the immune system starts to recognize and destroy EPO-laden blood.  EPO is difficult to detect, and a test for its presence in horses wasn’t developed till around 2004, by which point several sudden deaths were suspected, but never proven, to have been caused by it. Once the test became available, EPO more or less disappeared from the backstretch.  (Though let’s not kid ourselves, it was probably just replaced by something newer and even tougher to detect.)

So the nuts and bolts of the drug testing program at Woodbine are this:  at the conclusion of every race, the winner, and one other horse chosen more-or-less at random by the paddock judges, are sent to the Test Barn, which occupies the far end of the Standardbred paddock to which all the horses ship in each afternoon prior to the start of the evening race card.  There, the horse’s handlers are informed of their rights by friendly people like me.  (There’s a little speech we have to recite.)  If the horse has had Lasix administered before the race (that’s another tightly controlled program, and every horse on Lasix has to be so declared in the racing program so it’s transparent to the bettors), then the vet tech on duty does a three-tube blood draw minutes after the race, in order to verify that the amount of the diuretic in the horse’s system is commensurate with the amount that was officially administered (otherwise, some people would be tempted to top up, to the detriment of the horse).   I act as a witness/helper for the blood draw, recording the horse’s freezemark tattoo from the right side of the neck, putting coded stickers on the blood vials, getting signatures from everyone, and packaging up the total sample to send off to a central lab for testing.

Then the handlers are allowed to finish stripping off harness, bathe their horses, give them water, and walk them cool if they choose.  They can’t leave the Test Barn, however, without providing a sample.  So at some point after horses and handlers go walkies, they enter a stall, under my supervision, and then we let the staring commence.  Along with whistling.  Most racehorses are trained to associate a continuous, repetitive whistle from their handlers horse to peewith camping out to pee (or at least that’s what we hope as we’re standing there looking expectant with our cups and sticks). 

The whistling’s kind of annoying, frankly, and I think the horses largely just roll their eyes at it, but it’s part of the drill.

Some horses oblige almost immediately when they’re provided with bedding in which to take a leak (most horses dislike peeing on a hard surface like the wash rack, because they tend to splash their legs).  Some have to have a roll in the bedding first.  Some fidget and paw.  Some walk in circles.  Some lick the walls.  Some eat the bedding.  Some fall asleep.  The routines vary quite a lot.  But the gist is that they have an hour, from the time they check in, to produce enough urine to fill my little cup half-way.  If that doesn’t happen, then the vet tech gets called back in and another blood draw is done.  These horses are used to being pincushions, so the blood draw isn’t that big a deal, but it does mean that the handler has by that point been stuck with my charming company for a solid hour and would probably like very much either to a) get back to whatever other horses she has to handle that night, or b) load up and go home already.  So peeing is always the preference.  

Catching the pee is, in itself, something of an art form.  A surprising number of horses are shy, and will shut down if you make a big move towards them. So you have to sort of sidle up against their flank and sneak-attack them rather than brandish your stick like a scimitar aimed at their tender bits.  Mares have a talent for flourishing their tails in exactly the right way to totally obscure your view of the pee-stream, while reacting very badly to your touching their tails to get them out of the way.  (Mares, of course, are divas and easily insulted.) The other night I had a gelding who had ‘run down’ on his hind ankles and was basically hamburger.  He clearly thought that squatting was gonna be a bad idea, so he did everything in his power to avoid Assuming The Position while trying valiantly to relieve himself. 

We’re not supposed to editorialize as to the condition or soundness of the horses we’re sampling, but I admit, sometimes it’s hard to keep one’s mouth shut (especially when the handler is royally pissed off at the trainer about it and is looking for someone with whom to commiserate).  One of the more common things we can sorta make the handlers aware of, though, is when we get a urine sample that’s very dark:  that usually means the horse has ‘tied up’ to some degree.  

To cut down on the mystery a bit, each horse hasA veterinarian takes a urine sample during the demonstration of a doping test for horses in a stable in Riesenbeck, Germany, 09 January 2013. The German National Anti-Soping Agency (NADA) and the German Olympic Committee for Equestrian Sport (DOKR) demons a card on file in a big, old-school desktop filing cabinet, describing in intricate hieroglyphics his or her past performance in the pee department.  I’m still learning to decipher the codes from the other Test Inspectors, so sometimes they’re not much help … but they do at least give you an idea of whether the horse is a superstar who’ll whizz up a storm for you within two minutes, or whether it’s gonna be a long fucking night, and whether he prefers shavings or straw, being held or being let loose, Bach or Bartok.  We pull the cards as soon as we hear from the paddock judges which horses are going to be sent our way, and add new apocryphal notations afterwards. 

So once I’ve got a sample, it’s a matter of labeling it, sealing it up (the cups are persnickety and tend to leak so you have to put the lids on just so, and I still struggle with dribbles), stripping off your nitrile gloves, getting a bunch more signatures, and filing the horse’s card.  Everything gets triple-checked, and then checked again at the end of the night before the samples are tucked into their coolers to be overnighted to the lab, and one lucky TI each night has to stay after school to do that.  I suspect that newbies get that duty disproportionately often, based on current evidence, but fair enough, I guess.

So, you know, as jobs go, I’ve done worse.  It’s less hard on the body than shoveling shit, and the evening hours suit my screwed-up circadian rhythms.  I’m still fucking up little details here and there, but as it gets to be more routine my comfort zone is improving.  And it might just tide me over, financially, this winter as my teaching gigs start to dry up (either because my students have no indoor arena, have an indoor but are wimping out anyway, or are buggering off to warmer climes for the duration).  Gawd knows the writing biz isn’t showing any signs of rebounding.  So here I am, pee-catching a couple nights a week.  And it’s okay.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: