The Yearling Whisperer
I can take a hint.
It’s possible, of course, that the searcher was desperately seeking info on my doppelgänger Karen Briggs, a jazz violinist of colour who toured with (yeek) Yanni. Or perhaps Karen Briggs, the British judo champion who won numerous European championships in the 1990s. All three of us were born in 1963, which probably multiplies the potential for Google to scramble us, and who knows how many others — my own occasional self-Googling, undertaken in a now-mostly-futile attempt to keep a lid on my copyrighted material, also turns up an uber-religious American military wife whose interests include crochet and semi-automatic weapons, the drug addict daughter of British actor Johnny Briggs (of Coronation Street fame), and a math professor at the University of Northern Georgia, and that’s just the first couple of search engine pages. If you want to find me as opposed to them, the best approach is to add the word “horse” to my name, et voila.
Last week, you could also have found me down at the back end of the backstretch of Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, in the barns adjoining the sales pavilion, where I was working the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society’s annual yearling sale. It’s a once-a-year opportunity to put a little extra cash in one’s pocket, if one doesn’t mind 16 hour days that start at 3:30 in the morning, being barked at and condescended to, and being bashed against the walls by huge, hulking, terrified, and often testosterone-addled yearling Thoroughbreds. By which I mean, it’s not for everyone.
This was not my first rodeo — I’d worked the sale previously for the well-regarded Park Stud, before I made a random, semi-complimentary remark about former Woodbine Entertainment Group CEO, David Willmot, which evidently rendered me persona non grata with the boss lady. Teach me to say nice things about people. Never mind — I hated their forest-green-and-pink polo shirts anyway. Terrible colours on me.
This year, I’d been recruited, via the Interwebz, by a smaller operation called Willow Ridge Farm, which had 12 youngsters entered in the sale, half of whom they’d raised themselves, and half of whom they had prepped and were selling on behalf of other owners. Five had been deemed worthy, by virtue of their pedigrees and conformation, of being included in Tuesday’s Select Sale, while the other seven entered the auction ring the following evening in the Open Sale session. (Select Sale yearlings generally fetch higher prices, though that’s not always the case — two of Willow Ridge’s Open entries went for just about as much as the two Select yearlings they’d pinned their hopes on.)
The drill with working a yearling sale is this: the horses ship in to the sales facility several days ahead of the actual auction. Buyers, some serious, some tire-kickers, catalogues in hand (the catalogues having been published weeks in advance, which means the yearlings have been entered into the sale months ago), cruise up and down the shedrows behind the sales pavilion during those preview days and ask to view the babies whose pedigrees they like. Farms consigning yearlings generally hire on extra hands to help show those yearlings to their best advantage. The job description includes:
* enough confidence in horse-handling that you are not intimidated by surprisingly large, totally spun baby horses with raging hormones and tenuous (if any) manners
* the ability to muck a straw-bedded stall with ruthless efficiency in the pitch black of pre-dawn, onto a tarp which you then drag the length of the shedrow and tie up in a neat bow (which, depending on the age of the tarp and how torn the corners are, can be an art form in itself)
* an extensive knowledge of making horses pretty with hot towels, brushes, scissors, hoofpicks, sponges, peroxide, and enough silicon hairspray to lube an entire Pride parade
* really long arms, with which to gently but insistently insert Chifney bits (brass rings with halter clips, used for extra control) into the mouths of the afore-mentioned, neck-craning, spun babies, often dozens of times per day (a casual indifference towards having your thumbs chomped helps here too)
* a tolerant stomach which can function on greasy peameal sandwiches and bad tea for five days straight
* steel-toed boots and quick reflexes, the better not to get stepped on, kicked, bitten, squished, dragged, or otherwise humiliated
* a talent for cleaning up tolerably well — the standard uniform for showing yearlings being a polo shirt representing the farm or agency, and stupidly impractical khaki pants, which you change into after you’ve done all the before-dawn dirty work (this was not the first time I’ve used a mane comb to pull the tangles out of my own hair)
* the ability to run on three hours’ sleep for extended periods of time and stay polite about it
* and of course, the proverbial patience of the saints.
The consignors and agents at the sale have a lot at stake — for many of them, the proceeds from the annual yearling sale represent their whole year’s earnings, or nearly so. (There are two other sales, a Winter Mixed Sale closer to Xmas which offers weanlings, broodmares, stallions, and horses of racing age, and another in the spring for two-year-olds in training, but for most the yearlings are the money-makers.) Therefore, they are stressed-out, even more so because the racing industry in Ontario took such a kick in the teeth from the provincial government back in 2012 and the last few sales have been, frankly, bloodbaths. Hence, they are demanding, short-tempered, and also not paying anywhere near what they used to for the labours of the extra hands. Once upon a time, or so I’ve been led to believe, $250 a day was the usual rate, with bonuses given to the handlers of any horse who sold for a particularly good price. Hotel rooms close to the track were generally offered as well (not that that has ever been useful to me — since I have horses of my own at home to care for, too, I’ve always had to do the 60 minute drive back and forth). This year, I was lucky to get $15 an hour, and the number of hours I expected to work, versus what I was actually offered, worked out to about half the earnings I was hoping for. But in my current state of employment beggars cannot be choosers.
One of the toughest things for me personally at the yearling sale is the condescension. I have more than 40 years of experience handling horses. Old ones, young ones, baby ones, studdy ones, rude ones, dangerous ones. I feel fairly confident in saying that I know my shit. Now, I get that the Thoroughbred racing world is just slightly off-centre from the world of performance horses, showing and eventing, and I get that everyone has their own preferred way of doing things, from how to spray the Showsheen into a tail to how to attach a leadshank. But I have played in the Thoroughbred sandbox as well as the Standardbred (ahem, not that that gets me any respect with the TB racing folks, but that’s another stupid story). And I daresay I’ve made more horses pretty for show than the average backstretch worker. So being treated as if I’m a newbie who doesn’t have a clue … it chaps my ass, a bit. Why should I bother wearing khakis that are only going to get filthy, if you’re going to hide me in the back of the shedrow and not let me show the horses? But hey. For the space of five days I can bite my tongue and find another tangle-less tail to comb out. Again. Even though the poor beleaguered baby horse is just begging to be LEFT ALONE FOR FIVE MINUTES FOR THE LOVE OF GAWD.
The thing about the yearling sale is that I really, really feel sorry for the poor baby horses, so my priority is making their lives just a little bit less hellish, if I can, for the period of time that they are trapped in a stall in an unfamiliar environment, being poked and prodded and stressed to the max even before they enter the actual sales pavilion, which is noisy and crowded and a whole ‘nuther level of utterly terrifying, ulcer-inducing hell for them. There are deep and abiding levels of stupid here in the way Thoroughbred yearlings are traditionally shown and sold, levels that make me think there must be a better way. A couple of months ago, these poor kids were minding their own business in grassy fields somewhere. Other than having been taught to lead and (sometimes) pick up their feet politely for the farrier, the demands made on them had been minimal, post-weaning. Then suddenly they get whisked into the barn, confined for long periods of time, groomed and grained and transformed from semi-wild yaklings into some semblance of presentable … and after a few weeks of that, they’re all stuffed into trailers (almost invariably for the first time ever) and hauled into an urban environment where low-flying planes howl overhead about every 90 seconds (Woodbine being about a minute and a half from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and right on the flight path for take-off and landing). Tragically, it only gets weirder and scarier for them after they leave the sales barn, post-auction. They’ll move to somewhere new, with a whole host of unfamiliar people, and most will shortly begin their training in earnest: girths and bits and someone on their backs well before they’ve turned two.
I am emphatically not one of those horsepeople who bemoans the cruelty of the racing industry. I’m well aware of the economic necessity of things being done the way they are, that the performance horse industry in Ontario only exists in what health it does because the racing industry is there to anchor it, and that the majority of people involved in racing are compassionate horsepeople who love their animals and want to do right by them. Furthermore, racing is a fantastic proving ground for the horses I myself want to buy and compete. If they have survived the track with legs and brains intact, they are wonderful prospects for what I want to do.
But still. For a yearling, it’s a lot.
Even the culture of showing the babies is a bit stupid. The more popular yearlings in the catalogue might be dragged out of their stalls to be shown to potential buyers dozens of times a day. Granted, they only have to walk up and down and stand quietly for inspection (the odds of either actually happening varying wildly depending on the colt or filly, what other stupid things might be happening in the vicinity at the time — like, say, an ill-timed garbage truck dumping its load 50 metres away — and the patience of the handler), but there’s this culture that says if you’ve requested to see a horse, you get to stare it on your own, and anyone else who might be interested has to wait his or her turn. What harm it does to examine the horse at the same time as someone else who’s presumably making his/her own notes in his/her own catalogue, I can’t imagine, but it is somehow important to put the horse through more stress in order to cater to this fuckery. It’s even worse when you’re asked to “show all” — which for me this year, meant dragging all 12 yearlings out of their stalls in order of their assigned hip numbers (and bloody quickly, too, doesn’t do to keep the client waiting), and then potentially doing it all over again three minutes after I’d finished. Seems to me you could schedule shows of all the horses you’re offering at particular times, like, you know, a tour at the Ontario Science Centre: viewings at 12:30, 3:00, and 5:30, and it’s show up then, or be SOL. Not that the ideas of a lowly stall-mucker are likely to be given any currency.
Some of the yearlings handle it remarkably well. Some, not so much. The horses Willow Ridge had raised themselves were, for the most part, well-behaved, though a couple of the colts were typically testosterone-riddled, nippy and rude and one would be unwise to turn one’s back on either of them. Par for the course. One filly was sunshine and roses one minute, an ears-pinned banshee when she’d had enough of humanity; she was the one who crowded me up against the wall and tried to drill me in the head, only as I say, not my first rodeo and I got out from under her, amateur that she was. Another elegant little chestnut filly I’d been warned about, turned out to be a sweetheart as long as you did everything in slow motion with her … a third, dark bay with chrome, just wanted to be cuddled and reassured, and out of the 12 was the one I’d have wanted to take home with me.
The consigned horses who came from elsewhere were all over the map, too. There was a filly who’d received practically no handling, but plenty of sedatives, most of her life up till that point. Sadly, she had to remain on chemical assistance during her time at the sale because she started to melt down in withdrawal otherwise; I hope whoever bought her gives her some downtime in a field to get clean before her education begins. On the other end of the spectrum was a big, burly colt who clearly had been beautifully brought up. He had lovely manners for his age, wasn’t aggressive in the slightest, took everything in stride, and was quickly nicknamed “the Dude”. He might not be able to run his way out of a wet paper bag, but he’ll make an outstanding riding horse for someone someday.
Some youngsters learn fast in the pre-sale and sale environment, becoming more and more comfortable with the routine as the days pass, and easier to handle. Others get, well, fried. By the time the actual auction rolls around, the professionals take over to get them in the sales ring. I found out a few years ago that there are actually professional handlers who do nothing but go from sale to sale, being hired to grapple with yearlings in the sales ring and make it look easy. I had no idea, until then, that this was a thing, and I’m not enthusiastic enough about life on the road to do it myself, but if you like hotel rooms and being jerked around, then I gather you can make decent money doing it …
In the end, a couple of Willow Ridge’s horses sold for the kind of money they’d been hoping for, a few went for disappointingly less, two were pleasant surprises, and three who had reserves placed on them didn’t sell at all. Overall, however, the sale was up about 50% from last year, which is outstanding news for the industry, even if no-one exactly feels like it can trust the provincial government’s current short-term commitment to the Ontario breeding program. Once you’ve had the rug pulled out from you once, it’s rather difficult to expect the footing to remain stable ever again …
As for me? Helped a couple of the new owners load their purchases onto trailers, wished all of the babies good homes and good luck and tried not to think too hard about the alternative — even after five days, I get invested (though it’s difficult to follow their careers when none of them have names yet). Pocketed my cheque, and staggered home to wash the khakis and sleep for a day and a half. And I’ll probably do it again next year, because I’m told it’s kinda like childbirth: if you really remembered what it was like, you’d never do it again, but a year from now the exhaustion and the abuse will have faded from my memory. It’s possible.