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?

Archive for the category “horse health”

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.  

 

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Larger Than Life

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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.  

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.

Ten Habits of Highly Effective Riders, for Dummies

Over at this blog (the subtitle for which rather confusingly defines it as being about “politics, men, Detroit, horses, and prayer” — um, okay), author Nancy Kotting has written a post defining the “Ten Habits of Highly Effective Dressage Riders”.  Being an inveterate Facebook-link-follower, I read through it.  It’s a wellypretty good list.  There’s a lot I like about it.  But in the usual manner of those devoted to dress-AHHHGGE (soft g, please, peasants), it’s … well, a little stuffy.  An eensy bit wordy and idealistic and brimming with the supposed nobility of the Classical Art of Dressage Which Is Always Capitalized.  All of which can get a smidge tiresome when you are a no-bullshit, “Give It Some Wellie” A-type eventer who’s aware that the vast majority of people calling themselves dress-AHHHGGE riders are total wannabes on an unending Quest For the Perfect Twenty Metre Circle.

(Is that harsh?  It’s probably harsh.  But then again this is a snarky blog.  Here be dragons.  Sorry.)

Because I’m forever and ever an editor at heart, regardless of my current shortage of employment in this area, I decided to re-write the post for the real world (and all riders as opposed to just those OCD and flatwork-obsessed), make it all a little more succinct and practical and easy to remember.  So without further ado, here’s the For Dummies version:

10.  There are no failures, only Teachable Moments.  AKA:  Every horse will teach you something.

9.  Leave your baggage in the car.  Your job blows?  Your boyfriend is bumping uglies with your yoga instructor?  Your parents won the lottery grumpycat1and absconded for Argentina, leaving you a diabetic Himalayan cat and 43 Murder, She Wrote VHS tapes?  Your horse is supposed to be your escape from all things wretched.  Don’t take it out on him.  Nothing productive is going to come of broadcasting your frustration, your rage, or your fear while in the saddle.  Admittedly, it’s a tall order, but one of the most valuable skills a rider can learn is the ability to let it go (or at least stuff it all into a remote broom-closet in a back corner of your medulla oblongata and slam the door).  When you put a foot in a stirrup, you have to Live in the Now, at least until you dismount.  (Or as an instructor of mine once told me, “The Pope has just come by in his Popemobile?  Doesn’t matter; carry on.”)  Essentially:  leave the tension in your skull and don’t let it reach your muscles.

8.  Be the boss mare.  Horses like a nice, clear hierarchical structure.  They like having a calm, confident leader to follow.  Be that leader, be firm but kind and not a pyschopath, and your horse will trust you to the ends of the earth.

7.  Corollary:  Don’t be a pussy.  It’s oft observed that the trouble with parents today is that they want to be a friend to their kids instead of a leader and a role model.  Similarly, an animal who outweighs you by 1100 lbs or so can easily lean towards taking advantage of popemobilethat little disparity if you prove to have the constitution of last week’s Yorkshire pudding.  I do not confuse horse ownership with parenting, and I hate the “fur kids” mindset, but the Boss Mare job description is accurate.  It means that you don’t let your horse use you as his personal scratching post, you don’t let him run all over you because he doesn’t like those horrid, restricting cross-ties, and you don’t let him abuse your farrier or your vet, either.  By all means, spoil your beastie within reason (I do not subscribe, for example, to the notion that hand-feeding treats is an appalling breach of discipline — horses are enormously food-motivated and I, for one, am not going to give up that powerful a training tool), but set firm boundaries on safe behaviour and be consistent about those rules.  As my own critters hear repeatedly, well-mannered horses live long and happy lives.  Nasty, dangerous ones, not so much.

6.  End each ride on a positive note.  Some days, that might mean you settle for a half-way obedient halt.  It’s good to have a plan for every ride — otherwise many people tend to just putter aimlessly around the arena for 15 minutes and then give up when ennui sets in — but when you’re dealing with horses, you can’t be rigid about said plan.  Maybe you began your ride hoping to work on your canter transitions, but your tom_corbett_space_cadet_comic_bookhorse is being such a space cadet that you realize you’re going to be lucky just to keep the shiny side up.  So throttle back, adjust your expectations, accept what your horse is able to offer mentally and physically on that day, and finish up with something you know he can do well, no matter how basic that might be.  Horses are short on rational thought, but aches and pains, opinions, and emotions, they have in abundance, and any of those plus whatever’s going on in the environment can influence your ride.  It’s okay.  Tomorrow is another day.

5.  There are no short-cuts.  It takes work to produce a horse properly, regardless of discipline.  Skimp on the basics and it will come back to bite you in the ass somewhere down the line.  Try not to get ahead of yourself and expect things from your horse that he has neither the strength nor the understanding to offer you yet.  Stop bitching and get your tender tush out the door every single day and do the work.  It’s amazing how horses respond to consistency.

4.  There’s more than one way to skin a cat.  It’s true that the basic principles of riding are the basic principles of riding because, by and large, they work.  They’ve done so for hundreds of years.  But horses are individuals, and not every critter responds to the old Training Pyramid exactly according to the equitation manuals of old.  Avoid the cliched definition of insanity, and be pyramid2prepared to change it up if something’s not working.  Horse just isn’t getting it when you ask for leg-yield down the long side of the arena?  Try asking on a circle instead.  Be flexible enough to approach some problems by the back door. If it’s true that the brilliant horses are always a little quirky, then why do we expect them all to be conformists?  You just have to keep your eyes on the prize (in other words, the end result has to be somewhere in the vicinity of correct).

3.  Don’t be your horse’s biggest handicap.  Be fit enough to do the work.  Gawd knows I’m nobody’s poster child for fitness, but I make an effort, on the theory that you really can’t ask your horse to give his athletic best if you are his biggest impediment.  See #5, No Short-Cuts.  If you can’t sit a trot, if your energy level fizzles before you ride that good downward transition, if your hands aren’t steady enough to allow your horse to trust that he’s not going to get whacked in the molars — in short, if you don’t spend enough time in the saddle to be solid and confident and have a truly independent seat, you really can’t expect Trigger to pick up the slack.  And the reality is, riding one horse once a day doesn’t cut it for most people.  Either find more horses to ride, or do some cross-training no stirrupsof your choice, both cardio and strength work.  (Oh, and it’s “No Stirrups November” — remember all that stuff you used to do in Pony Club, and don’t make yourself do anymore?)

2.  The cure for everything is forward.  I subscribe to this to the point where it’s on my business cards (the riding instructor ones, not the editing/writing ones).  When in doubt, close your leg and kick on!  If your horse is truly, truly working from your leg into your hand then his options for being naughty are minimized and productive things will likely start to happen.

1.  The horse comes first.  I was taught this from an early age:  feed your horse before you feed yourself, ensure his well-being before your own.  It’s not enough to be a competent rider.  You need to be a knowledgeable horseperson too.  Understand that your horse’s welfare thelwell icecreamtrumps all other considerations — like, say, ribbons, convenience, expense, and having a life.  If you didn’t sign up for that, I hear ATVs are sorta fun.

Well.  That really wasn’t any more succinct than the original post.  Thanks for the inspiration anyway, Nancy.  

 

 

The Yearling Whisperer

The search phrase that apparently brought someone to this blog last week was, “What is Karen Briggs doing now?”cheshire-cat-300x240

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.

2014-yearling-saleLast 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 This be a young horse wearing a chifney.  Getting one in said young horse's mouth is a Special Skill.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.

"Hey Denise.  Look.  Humans coming.  Lots of them." "Oh, relax, Lorraine.  I'm sure it's fine.  They probably just want to feed us."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 yearlings2Pearson 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.

Photo by Dave Landry.

Photo by Dave Landry.

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 exhausted-by-stupid-peoplehave 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.

 

 

 

 

Survival of the Stupidest

sleighGIFLast winter, we here in Ontario got off comparatively lightly.  It didn’t snow in any sort of serious way until after Xmas.

I knew we were gonna pay for that.

This year, my farm got hit with the first big snowstorm — completely un-forecast by The Weather Network and similar geniuses (just sayin’) — in mid-November.  Which is simply not kosher.  And I’m talking an honest-to-gawd 50 cm worth — over the tops of my boots and up to my knees in spots.  A week later, another 30 cm.

I’m sensing a trend.

As much as it’s part of the Canadian identity to pride oneself on one’s hardiness (and ability to steer out of a skid on black ice without ever having to put one’s double-double back in the cup holder) — and as much as we can’t help sniggering uncontrollably whenever we see news footage of civilization grinding to a halt as soon as there’s a dusting of white stuff on some American road (because pfffffttt, amateurs!) — the truth is that all the riders I know ’round here who can afford to, pack up house, horses, and hounds, and head to Aiken or Ocala for the winter months.

The rest of us poor sods? We tough it out.  And kvetch.  A lot.

four seasons 2Hey, it’s only four (cough) months of hellish horsekeeping.  How bad could it get?

(Truth be told, politics and religion have gotten so polarized and just plain creepy in the States that I wouldn’t set up shop there even if I could.  Fundamentalism weirds me out.  But I digress.)

Eight short weeks ago, Spike and I were competing at the fall Grandview Horse Trials, where we successfully upgraded to Pre-Training (go on, admit it, you’re impressed).  Considering it was accomplished in a biblical deluge, I was actually pretty impressed with us, especially Spike, who had never had to do a dressage test or jump in conditions like that.   The warm-up rings were literally under water, the competition areas no better, the heavens were just relentless, and while the cross-country course footing at Grandview is superlative, even it can only take so much.  Young Master Spike squelched around in his usual unflappable, good-natured way (my previous partner, Toddy, hated heavy rain with a passion and probably would have flattened his ears to his head jumpallthethingsand said, ‘Hell no, you crazy woman’), jumped clean in both stadium and cross-country despite the fences being a bit bigger than he’d been used to, and brought home a seventh-place ribbon, which under the circumstances was nothing to sneeze at.

He also demonstrated to me some hitherto-undiscovered scope — otherwise known as HOLY SHIT! fences.  There were two obstacles on cross-country where he clearly didn’t much like the look of the chopped-up footing at the base, so he simply left out a stride (or, um, five) and launched himself skyward.  Now, while my cardiovascular system could do without that kind of excitement, it did indicate that Spike’s been hiding his light under a bushel to some extent, and that’s useful information for the future, when the fences actually begin to require that sort of power.  Spike’s the type of horse who always seems to be at the limit of his athletic abilities, and then surprises you by kicking it up a notch … my personal little Stealth Bomber.  So there was that.  Overall, it was as positive an experience as I could have asked for considering the rain never let up for two fricking minutes, and I’m feeling good about going out at Pre-Training in the spring and upgrading to Training before the end of the season.

So that was eight weeks ago.  Eight weeks.  And now my semi-sleek event horse looks like a yak, Parker has already shredded three blankets (not on himself, but on his filly friend, two-year-old Trixie, because he appears to get off on the sound of ripping fabric), my metabolism has bottomed out and is packing on the pounds just in case this is the next Ice Age, and it’s abundantly clear that this is going to be one long sunuvabitch of a winter.

There are some tricks of the trade, when it comes to winter horsekeeping in Ontario.  (Yeah, I know, I’m probably going to hear the fingerfrom some folks in Edmonton, or Yellowknife, telling me I’ve got it ridiculously easy.  Winter one-upmanship is also part and parcel of the Canadian identity.)  I’ve actually been compiling ideas about winter stable management for about a decade now, because there’s a half-formed idea in my head to write a book called Northern Horsekeeping.  If you gentle readers think you’d actually purchase such a book, leave me a comment to that effect and maybe I’ll get motivated to get off my ass and finally pull that proposal and sample chapters together and send it off to some publishers …

Given that this nebulous book concept is still floating around my cranium, I probably shouldn’t give away all the best ideas in a blog post, but here are some random survival strategies for getting through four (or more) months of frost-bitten misery:

1. Designate your biggest, ugliest, heaviest winter coat the Barn Coat.  By the middle of the season it will completely reek, so designate another the Being Seen in Public Coat and keep it away from the barn.

2. The layering thing:  pretty obvious.  The tricky part:  finding layers you can still move well enough in to a) muck stalls, drag hoses, schlep hay, and b) actually ride.  These two requirements are vastly different.  The boots and gloves you wear for chores will be way too bulky to ride in, and probably so will the coat, so have stuff to transition into when you get on a horse.  At which point it becomes a race to see whether your toes give out first, or  your fingers.

3.  Frozen leadshanks.  Leave ’em out hanging on the gate and you will inevitably have to deal with this.  You can thaw the snaps by sacrificing precious hand warmth, but ain’t nothing to be done about the fact that it’s going to be like leading your horse with a broom handle instead of a rope.

4.  Hot Shots:  those little chemical packets which are supposed to heat up when you shake them, and can be tucked inside your mitts and boots and pockets.  Buy many.  They’re useful — when they actually work (which is something of a crapshoot).

5. Snowmobile sleds are your friend.  These are like toboggans on steroids, with high sides, and they’re heavy and rather expensive, but sturdy and can hold a couple of bales of hay per trip.  Beats the hell out of trying to push a wheelbarrow through the drifts.  Canadian Tire puts them on sale at the beginning of the season.

6.  Absolutely no Canadian barn should be without a hot water heater.  They’re not that expensive to install, people, and you can’t even imagine the ways in which even a little hot water is useful from December to March (and often beyond).

7.  There has to be some fitness benefit to slogging through snowdrifts in 15 kg Frankenstein boots.  There just has to be.

8. Why doesn’t anyone sell (women’s) Frankenstein boots that are actually tall enough to slog through those snowdrifts in?

9.  As confirmed on another blog recently:  when filling troughs and buckets, you need at least three pairs of gloves on the go.  One waterproof pair for wrassling the hoses, a second pair to switch to when the first pair gets soaked and freezes solid, and a third pair of regular gloves to resort to after all that nastiness is (temporarily) taken care of.

10.  Four wheel drive.  Not optional.

11.  Ways to keep from freezing while in the saddle:  a) forego the metal stirrups and put cheap wooden Western ones on your leathers, or just ride a lot without stirrups (good for the circulation).  Thaw fingers by tucking them between nice fuzzy horse and saddlepad on a regular basis.  What’s a 1200 lb. beast good for if not sharing body heat?

12.  Also:  ride bareback.

13.  Beware the dismount.  OMFG it hurts when your feet are frozen.

hosers14.  Designate a cheap, washable scarf the barn scarf.  Its purpose is two-fold:  to keep your face from freezing as you bring horses in out of the latest blizzard, and to breathe through when you’re mucking stalls.  Frozen manure makes for simplified mucking, in a way (you can easily find the shitballs you’ve missed because they feel like hockey pucks under your feet, even through the Frankenstein boots and three pairs of socks), but also makes for very dusty bedding.  Scarf warning:  make sure the ends tuck safely into your jacket when riding or working around the beasties.  Parker tried to throttle me last year.

15.  You know you’re Canadian when you’ve mastered leading a horse while wearing snowshoes.  Bonus points if you can lead two.

16.  Hoses are from hell.  Frozen hoses, ninth circle of hell.

17.  Options for dealing with frozen water hydrants:  a) hair dryer; b) the hot water dump (see #6, above); c) the boiling water dump (best to have two working kettles on hand at all times);  and d) the little propane torch that once lived in your kitchen and had only one function, to caramelize the sugar on your creme brulee.   Like that’s ever gonna happen again.  Try not to set the barn on fire.

18.  Horses do not feel the cold as acutely as we do.  Duh.  They’re not nekkid.  And they originated on the frozen steppes, not in the desert.  So don’t judge their discomfort by your own.  And don’t get stupid about the number of blankets you pile on them.  They really would rather not be trussed up like the Christmas goose.

19.  Serving warm beet pulp makes you feel like Mother Teresa.

20.  Sometimes the only way to thaw out properly is to throw yourself into a scalding hot bath.  Though red wine and dark chocolate are also forces for good.

And here are a few of the notions that keep me in Ontario when it’s bleakest:

1. Frozen everything means no worms, and no need to deworm, for at least four months.

shaving2. Ditto mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases.  We don’t have to vaccinate for West Nile or EEE year-round.

3. No fire ants.

4. Virtually no sand colic.

5. No anhydrosis.

6.  Lots of good grazing (well, for six months of the year, anyway) and good hay the rest of the time.  Some places would kill for our hay.

7.  Fuzzy horses are kinda cute and Gund-like and pettable.

8.  Sometimes, it’s actually really nice and soul-restorative to go for a boogie in the snow.  Sometimes.

9. Is it bad that that’s all I can come up with?

Right now, I’m trying to focus on the upcoming winter solstice, after which the days start getting longer and I might start to enjoy enough daylight again to actually complete all the bloody barn chores that take six times as long to do in winter.  So in that spirit: Happy Solstice.  And cheers.

You’re Doing It Wrong

Just for a change … a little rant.

The writing biz has sucked sufficiently lately that I have had to return to giving riding lessons in order to pay my internet bill.  That’s not really what the rant’s about.  I enjoy coaching for the most part, though it’s making it virtually impossible to keep office hours anymore.

The substance of the rant is that, like parenthood, horse ownership ought to have an entrance exam.  With a 75% flunk rate.

People get into horses for all kinds of reasons.  I get that.  I was a horse-crazy kid once myself.  Read all the Black Stallion novels, fantasized about taming a wild Chincoteague pony, imagined I’d be a Triple Crown-winning jockey.  Every cliche in the book.

Thing is, though.  Because my parents weren’t quite as susceptible to my Misty_of_Chincoteague_coverpre-pubescent persuasive powers as I might have preferred, I did what I could.  I read.  Voraciously.  I absorbed everything I could about the science of riding, the art of horsemanship, the nuts and bolts of stable management and health care.  My opportunities to actually ride were fairly limited, but I did everything I could to prepare myself for the day that I could change that.  Including buying halters and leadshanks and brushes and bell boots and every little semi-affordable do-dad I could collect for my future Phar Lap.  I begged for lessons whenever I could get them, and for years I pedaled my bike over a 3 km route at 6 a.m., delivering the Globe And Mail for tuppence a week, so I could put the money towards summer camp — my only opportunity for concentrated horse exposure every summer.

I get that not everyone makes the perfect choice for their first horse, too.  When I fnally became a horse-owner, at age 16, I was not picky.  That Pokey had four hooves and a pulse was more than enough for me.  Size?  Conformation?  Age?  Training?  Soundness?  Suitability?  Mere quibbles.  He was in my price range.

Fortunately, though he was far less broke than the schoolies which pretty much summed up my prior experience, Pokey proved to have a heart of gold, and we managed to progress together in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kinda way.  If you asked me today, I’d tell you green horse + green rider = trainwreck … but if you get lucky, sometimes it’s just a single car sliding gently into a ditch (no harm, no foul, call CAA and it’s all better) rather than a scene of mass destruction.  I got lucky.  Dear youre-doing-it-wrong_o_1092729little Poke taught me an enormous number of valuable lessons about horsemanship, and prepared me well for the many, many beasties I would ride later.  In that regard, he did the opposite of what my parents were hoping he’d do, which was dissuade me.

But.

I fail to fathom what it is that possesses some people to get into horses.  It’s like they just wake up one morning and go, “Hey, how about I go play with some plutonium?  Cuz that suddenly seems like a great idea.”

Because, you see, they’ve been having fantasies about just how beautiful and majestic and noble and cuddly plutonium is, since they were in utero, and now that they’re grown-ups they can have some plutonium for their very, very own and no-one can tell them not to.

OMFG.

So without consulting anything resembling, say, a nuclear scientist, or even a Wiki entry, off they go, money merrily burning a hole in their pockets, big red sign on their foreheads saying, “I’m a fucking idiot; please take advantage of me and get me killed,” … and believe you me, there are plutonium merchants out there who see these people coming a nuclear mile away and are more than delighted to oblige.

Think I’m exaggerating with the plutonium analogy?  I bet the horsepeople reading this don’t.  Horses weigh an average of 500 kg.  They are a prey species, and they’re stupid.  (I say that with love.)

This is not like picking out a gerbil at the pet store, folks.  And if you select the wrong one … well, this variety of plutonium has a long, long half-life.

The hook-up:  not always a success.

So … common sense might suggest that before you take the plunge on horse ownership, that you might, um, consult an expert.  Get some lessons.  Figure out what sort of animal might suit your needs, be within your capacity to handle, makes you happy.  Get a clue about some basic safety rules when dealing with a half-tonne juggernaut which tends to freak out first and think later (if at all).  Apply yourself to learning a bit about what you’re getting into.

Or, you know, you could just go out there and drag home the first homicidal quadruped you stumble across with a price tag on its halter.  Cuz how bad could it be, really?

I know a guy for whom owning a horse — multiple horses, now — is all about the bragging rights.  He sold a cottage and bought himself a horse farm, because basically, he could get all those acres for that price?  Not because he had the first fucking clue what to do with a horse farm.  Except, of course, buy some pretty horses to put on it, even though he had no idea what horses required and no intention of ever finding out, and he was only there on the weekends anyway and wanted to entertain his Rosedale buddies when he was.  He manufactured for himself the excuse that his kids were interested in riding — which of course, they are totally not.

Now he can go to the office and off-handedly toss off his vast sum of knowledge of gaited breeds and what the farrier is costing him — getting all the details laughably wrong, of course (here’s a hint:  there is no such thing as “fourteen five hands high”) — and he’s just smugger than shit about being a Horse Owner.

Then there’s the “rescue” scenario.  As in, I am going to rescue an abused, abandoned critter from a lifetime of neglect and restore its broken spirit (you know you’re in trouble the second you hear one of these well-intentioned whackjobs use the word “spirit”) by pouring oceans of unconditional love and treats at it.

So much virtue it makes your teeth hurt, right?

Given the current state of the economy, it’s only getting worse. People are giving horses away right, left, and centre.  It pushes all the right buttons.  Not only are you getting a bargain, but you’re doing a Good Deed.

I may set a new record here for the number of times I use “OMFG” in a single post.

Here’s the thing. Good intentions are sooooo not enough. If your facilities are unsuitable for the animal, if you don’t have the knowledge to care for the animal (and refuse to leave its care in the hands of paid professionals who do know how), if you’re not going to train the animal to be pleasant to be around, you are doing it no favours.  None.

And you’re gonna get yourself hurt.

I say it frequently to my own horses when they’re being asshats, and I preach it to my students all the time:  a well-mannered horse is a horse with good odds of having a long and contented life.

It’s simple economics.  Horses are expensive to keep.  Those who are a joy to be around, generally continue to be fed, handled, and appreciated.  Rude, ill-mannered, fearful, aggressive, or just plain ignorant and untrained horses are not so pleasant to be around.  And once they hurt someone (because see above: 500 kg, prey, stupid), they have started themselves down the road to the slaughter pipeline.  I’m not going to get into a debate in this post as to whether that’s good or bad, btw — that’s a subject for another day.  All I’m saying is, some of the horses who end up in the pen at the Ontario Livestock Exchange (our local “kill auction”, aka OLEX), are there for a reason.

And of course that’s also where the well-intentioned whackjobs tend to pick them up … having absolutely no idea that they have bitten off far, far more than they can chew.

It puzzles me that even people who readily agree that well-trained dogs are better than untrained ones … and who find sharing a supermarket aisle with a squalling, tantrum-throwing brat an appalling affront … never seem to make the correlation with the horse grammar doingitwrongwho just took a chunk out of an arm and then dragged them out of the washrack and across a gravel parking lot on the end of a nylon leadshank.

At the boarding stable where I kept Pokey, once upon a time, we used to call this No Star No Syndrome … after a fellow boarder who was regularly victimized by her nasty, aggressive mare and whose defense seemed to be tugging feebly at said leadshank and pleading, “No, Star, no!”

I am not saying that horses who’ve been abused, neglected, or otherwise screwed up can’t be rehabbed.  Absolutely they can.  I do it all the time.  So do lots of other people.

Knowledgeable, experienced people.

People who know how to gain a horse’s trust while setting up firm boundaries.  People who know how not to get hurt in the process (not that that is ever guaranteed … but at least when you understand how a horse thinks, what its body language means, what sort of discipline/correction makes sense to a horse, and how to establish yourself as the sympathetic but strict Alpha Mare, you have a fighting chance of coming out unscathed).

What never ceases to amaze me is the capacity of people who’ve been involved with horses for three minutes, to judge the actions of those who’ve been working successfully with them for decades.

Newsflash to the newbies:  there is absolutely nothing new or revolutionary coming out of the mouths of those bullshit-artist ’round pen guys’ you’ve all adopted as gurus.  There’s nothing genius about the idea of training a horse without cruelty.  It’s been done for thousands of years, with patience, good judgement, and a thorough understanding of how horses work (and how they don’t work).  Horses, being herd animals, understand cooperation, and they like to follow the mare in charge.  You start by being that mare.

This does not make you a monster.brenda starr

So when You the Newbie find yourself about to apply a snap judgement based on sweet fuck-all (one of the latest ones I encountered was, “Bits are cruel.  I don’t want to use bits on my horses,” and when I asked on what she’d based that opinion, she replied, “Well, they’re metal and I don’t think they like them,” …), take a moment,  remind yourself that there’s a lot of crap on the internet … then shut your mouth, open your ears, and try to learn from the Alpha Mare.

Haven’t got one?  Get one.  You ain’t it.

(I’m also not saying there aren’t bad professionals out there, people with short tempers and harsh methods.  There are some, no question.  But part of the education process is finding out what is appropriate, and what’s not.)

Don’t:

* assume there’s nothing to it

* think that kisses on the muzzle and handfuls of gummy worms are enough to make your horse’s trust and training issues magically resolve

* try to train a horse without the proper facilities, restraint (a set of cross-ties, people!  Is that so much to ask?), and equipment (and yeah, that might include the ultimate torture instrument, a bit!) because you’ve already dismissed all of those things as harsh, inhumane, and/or unnecessary

* refuse to admit when you’re in way over your head

* resign yourself to living with a horse who is incapable of cooperating for the most routine of procedures, such as having hooves trimmed or getting vaccinated

* further burden the health-care system with the gratuitous and inevitable results of your stubbornness.

This is not a cash grab.  Truth be told, I don’t really want (all that badly) to work with your ill-mannered, misbegotten critter.  I’m getting too old for that shit.  Given my druthers, I’d prefer to spend my days working with my own reasonably well-trained, self-confident, trustworthy, though admittedly quirky horses, than with your piece of work.  But I do take considerable satisfaction in turning bad horses around and making them good ones, and even more in saving clueless newbies from themselves.  (Ideally, of course, by not letting them buy that piece of work in the first place and finding them something actually suited to them.)

The trick is you have to be willing to listen.

(Could shit like the below be part of the problem, btw?)

Rocknroll Memories

In racing, it’s the trainers and the drivers (or jockeys) who get all the press and all the credit when a horse emerges as a superstar.  But it’s the overworked, underpaid grooms, or caretakers, who bond with these horses and devote themselves to their every need, who live out of suitcases for months at a time, who clean harness and shovel shit and know their horses inside out, and sometimes check themselves out of the hospital to be there for a race …. and then watch them head off in triumph to the breeding shed.  

They’re also the ones who, when their charges are unexpectedly euthanized far too young, sometimes have to find out through Facebook.

My friend Sarah Lauren Scott is one such caretaker.  She was the unsung hero behind the career of $3 million pacer, Rocknroll Hanover, winner of the North America Cup, the Meadowlands Pace, and the Metro Pace in 2004 and 2005, and she was shocked to hear, last week, that her horse of a lifetime had suffered a fatal bout of colic.  He was only 11.

There were lots of articles published about Rocknroll Hanover’s demise which dissected his racing talents and featured quotes from his owners and the management at the breeding farm where he stood at stud.  This story, however, is about a woman and the horse she loved.  It’s an expanded version of a column I wrote about her memories of ‘Rock’, for the United States Trotting Association.  The photos are from Sarah’s collection on Facebook.

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Of all the people who were shocked and saddened by Thursday, March 14’s news of the untimely death of champion pacer and sire, Rocknroll Hanover (Western Ideal – Rich N Elegant), no-one felt the loss more keenly than the young woman who experienced his two-year odyssey at the very top echelon of the sport first-hand.

Sarah Lauren Scott, of Milton, Ontario, was the caretaker for the burly colt she called Rock, from almost the beginning of his two-year-old campaign, down to his final triumph in the Breeders Crown as a sophomore, and remembers every detail as if it was yesterday.

“I had just started working for Brett Pelling in 2004, and he told me there were two horses coming up from New Jersey – a free-for-all trotter, and a ‘wild two-year-old’,” Scott recalls.  “He gave me the choice of which one I could take on.  I said I’d leave it up to him, and I ended up with the two-year-old.  The reason everyone considered him wild was that he had gotten loose at the Meadowlands, destroyed the paddock, and stopped the whole fourth race.

“When Rock first came off the truck, I thought, ‘He doesn’t look as bad as they were saying’.  He was kind of awkward because he looked like two different animals – very heavy in front, but lean and athletic behind.  But he didn’t act like a two-year-old.  He was actually quite educated and well-mannered.”

Well-mannered might be a relative term, for Rocknroll Hanover did have one worrisome habit:  he spent a lot of time on his hind legs.  So much so, in fact, that his new caretaker soon decided that it was safer to lead him with a 30-foot longe line clipped to his halter, rather than a standard leadshank.

But she insists, “His rearing was never nasty.  He was just playing. I just preferred to be overprepared.”

With just two baby races under his belt, yielding a first and an eighth place finish, the inexperienced Rocknroll Hanover made his Canadian debut in a two-year-old condition dash at Woodbine, after a single qualifier at nearby Mohawk.  He finished a respectable but hardly dazzling third in that August effort, which was enough for Pelling to enter the colt in the following week’s elimination for the $1,211,800 Metro Pace.  Once again Rock stuck well enough with his peers to finish third and squeak into the final.

Given his lukewarm efforts to that point, it’s no surprise that the colt left the gate in the September 4 Metro Pace final a lightly regarded 31-1.  History, of course, records that Rocknroll Hanover, in rein to Brian Sears, rode the helmet of Ron Pierce and the considerably more experienced Village Jolt, and then powered past them in the stretch to prevail by a length in a then-world-record 1:49.4.

“That was pretty special,” says Scott, simply.  “All the talk had been about Village Jolt.  We just felt lucky to have even gotten into the final.”

Rocknroll Hanover turned three in a snowy paddock in Ontario.  “He came out in the spring looking like a hairy teddy bear with a big belly,” says Scott.  “But it didn’t take him long to get fit.” He began his sophomore campaign with a New Jersey Sires Stakes win and from there quickly became a superstar, winning both the $1.5 million Pepsi North America Cup, and the $1,000,000 Meadowlands Pace.

“It was a dream come true for me to be there at the Meadowlands Pace with a real contender.  He had earned everyone’s respect by then, all the other trainers.  Everyone knew he was something special.”

Soon Rock had legions of admirers.  “I really enjoyed sharing him with people,” Scott remembers.  “I’d bring him over to the fence so he could be admired and people would pet his nose.  They were just in awe of him, and he was always a gentleman … I never had to worry about him doing anything dirty.

“He was a once-in-a-lifetime horse, no question.  I can’t say enough about how smart and classy he was.”

Scott established a strict routine with her charge, which included, after he suffered an episode of tying up, either early-evening turnout or hand-grazing.  That became the pair’s quality time together, when the shedrow was quiet.  “I’d park around the back and turn my car radio on.  It was usually either Andrea Bocelli, or Sinatra.  And it would just be me, Rock, and my dog, every night.  That was our downtime from the spotlight.  It’s probably my favourite memory of him.

“You know, I was young, and I had moved down to the States by myself to work with him during his three-year-old campaign.  So he was my family.  I did a lot of growing up.  I learned to stand up for myself.”

The only disappointment in Rocknroll Hanover’s career was the 2005 Little Brown Jug (won by P Forty Seven). Scott almost shudders at the memory even now.

“That was an absolute heartbreak on a lot of levels,” she says.  “First of all it was extremely hot.  He was in the last heat and had to leave from the six hole.  A shoe slid off the side of his foot and I saw his head come up and I could just tell he was sore.  We had to get him reshod between heats. Very stressful.  It was hard for me to send him back out because I knew he wasn’t 100%, but there had been so much build-up all week … fans coming to take pictures of him, everyone expected him to win.”

Rocknroll Hanover finished third in the Jug final, and the experience soured Scott on heat racing, but fortunately the colt bounced back beautifully.  “That was good management,” she says.  “He was as fresh at the end of the year as he had been at the beginning, and that’s part of Brett’s genius.”

Rocknroll Hanover ended his racing career with a bang, capturing his Breeders Crown division at the Meadowlands by one and a quarter lengths over Leading X Ample, and retiring with a bankroll in excess of $3 million.

Scott made her way back to Ontario, having had her fill of the spotlight for the time being, but she has kept close tabs on her favourite’s offspring and has gone out of her way to work with them when possible.  “I took care of World Of Rocknroll for a little while, and I paddocked Pet Rock last year for the Confederation Cup.

“People say he stamped his babies, but to me, they’re all very different.  I keep looking for my Rock in all of them, and I see pieces of him, but I haven’t seen the whole package yet.  Look at Rock N Roll Heaven – they used to call him ‘little hot dog’.  And then there’s Put On A Show, who’s so dark and sleek and aggressive.  I follow them all very closely.”

The depth of Scott’s dedication to Rocknroll Hanover is also evident by the collection of memorabilia she treasures.  “I kept everything,” she confesses.  “I have numbers, blankets, saddle pad numbers with his name on them.  I have his yearling halter.  And I have the last set of shoes he wore, from the Breeders Crown.

“I last saw him in 2011, and I never imagined that he would be gone so soon.  I’m just devastated … I couldn’t even have talked to you about this yesterday.  But I’m glad I kept these things now.  They’re all very special to me.”

Intestinal Fortitude

How to provide an update to my gentle readers, those of you who hang upon my every dulcet word?  I know I haven’t been posting, and if you don’t want to be bummed out you might not want to read this one.  Fair warning.

Like the rest of North America, manners and civility are much on my mind thanks to an overdose of Downton Abbey.  Never mind, my dear, we all shall muddle through.  Muddling is pretty much all I ever manage, and especially so over the past month.

I’ll spare you the garden-variety whining about winter.  Canada has admirable universal health-care, a degree of gun control, a tolerant and mostly-secular society, and is in a whole bunch of ways an excellent place to live … and winter is just the trade-off.  So be it.  I’ve been through enough of them to know that winter eventually ends, and unlike a lot of people who get very depressed in February, I tend to look at it as the light at the end of the tunnel.  (It’s November that really gets me down.)

My difficulty with generating any witticisms stems from a more sober realization I had to make a few weeks back.

I had a lovely pony mare.

She came with the name Nysa, but that always sounded to me like a bad straight-to-video Disney heroine, so she was nicknamed Trouble (because she was, you know, a pony) and it gradually became her true name.  Despite that, she was actually the least evil pony I’ve ever met — a gentle little bay Hackney/Shetland cross, just 11:3 hands, who had been abused in her early life (I never understood just what sort of asshat would feel compelled to thump on such a petite creature) and needed a home.   She was so squirrely when we first met that I could barely get a hand on her … but as she learned to trust me, I discovered she was canny and clever, great with kids, and an exceptional nanny pony for the two weanlings I (she) have raised.  She was patient and tolerant with each of them up to a point, but she never hesitated to teach them some manners when necessary, a quality I admired in her very much.  Neither Spike nor Parker would be half as nice a horse today were it not for her tough love.

Trouble was also a holy terror with dogs.  They never invaded her space more than once.  I once saw her bowl over a 150 lb. Newf who was foolish enough to venture into her territory.  The Newf, who had never been one to learn lessons the first time, was uninjured but absorbed a whole new respect for equines that day.

Trouble was never much more than green-broke, through no fault of her own — it’s just that her Hackney blood made her a hot little thing, and I never found a hotshot kid who was small enough, and could stick well enough, to get her going properly.  They grow kids at such a size these days, by the time they have the skills to ride something like Trouble, they’re six feet tall.  It’s a shame, because I always suspected she would jump like a little stag.  (Most Hackneys can.)  I did try to get her going as a driving pony, but we had an Unfortunate Incident on the day we first soloed with the cart.  Okay, a trainwreck.  My neighbour let loose his dog, who ran right under poor Trouble’s feet while she was trying rather nervously to concentrate on pulling my little Greenhawk breaking cart … and let’s just say it didn’t end well.  She never quite recovered, and neither did the cart.

I may have mentioned that she had issues with dogs.

There are so many more stories I could tell you about Trouble; we were together 13 years and there were lots of them.  She was lion-hearted enough to stand up to Toddy’s initial hostility (and 16:3 hands of copper Thoroughbred bearing down on you with ears laced back and teeth bared would have put the fear of god into most ponies — but she just dipped and dodged across the pasture and stayed just out of reach of those teeth till he relented).  She was the consummate babysitter for any horse on stall rest, accepting that she had to be incarcerated in the adjacent stall, until company was no longer necessary.   She knew her job and did it with quiet competence.  And she was absolutely the perfect size for hugging.

Like most ponies, Trouble was a case of laminitis looking for a time to happen, and eventually, it did, despite all my best efforts:  thyroid meds which sped up her metabolism, to some degree, and a grazing muzzle to limit her access to grass (which only worked until she managed to ditch it, and she was very, very skilled at ditching it).  Also like most ponies, Trouble was as tough as nails, and she bounced back from each episode with her usual determination.  We sort of fell into a routine of, uh-oh, ouchy feet again, better incarcerate her in a stall and put her on bute and give her a couple of weeks, and then she’ll be back to normal.  And for 10 years or more, that was our reality, Trouble and I, and neither of us minded all that much because she always bounced back.

Until she didn’t.  Chronic laminitis is not something you cure, as a rule.  With each episode, there’s a little more damage to the laminae, the fringey, frondy tissues that attach the interior of the hoof wall to the bony structures inside the foot.  And there comes a point of no return.

unicorn_rainbow

Trouble reached that point this fall.  Weeks came and went with no improvement, and as we wore on into January I could see that her toughness was wearing thin.  Above all, laminitis is a miserable, painful thing, and after years of being stoic and relentlessly cheerful, Trouble was finally starting to look weary, stressed, and drawn.  I kept hoping she would rally.  When we had the first decent snowstorm of the season, I was delighted, because it meant that she could be turned out in a small paddock and be knee-deep in snow, which frankly had always been the most therapeutic thing I could do for her feet. The constant cold always relieved her discomfort and  made winter her best season … and with no worries about grass overload she generally had a comfortable few months without the accursed grazing muzzle.

But this time, the snow made no difference.  Neither did the inadvisably high doses of bute she’d been on.  And I knew it was time.

The horror of putting a horse down in the winter, in this part of the world anyway, is that there’s not much prospect of giving them a dignified burial, what with the ground frozen.  Instead I was faced with calling the ‘deadstock guys’.  It’s a call I’ve had to make once before, and I’ll just say this:  if you never have to make that call yourself for one of your animals, count your blessings.

And I don’t want to go over all the wretchedness of the whole thing, but at the risk of going into TMI territory I will say that of course Trouble came out of her stall that afternoon more cheerful and willing to walk on those poor feet of hers than she had in weeks.  Because, of course, that’s what they do when you’ve made the decision.  She also did not go gentle into that good night.  It took three doses of what the vets still call ‘blue juice’ (though it hasn’t been blue in ages) to finally stop her heart, and it was pretty much the most awful, awful euthanasia I have had to witness.   I’m not blaming my veterinarian, because I know there’s always a possibility that an animal won’t respond to the usual dosage in the usual way.  But still, she didn’t deserve so drawn-out a death.

It’s part of what we sign up for, when we take these critters into our lives.  Mind you, I have friends who have gone miles out of their way to shirk that responsibility — to the point of giving away geriatric horses who have served them unbelievably well, to people they don’t even know, just to spare themselves the discomfort of having to put them down one day.  I don’t have a lot of respect for that.

And I’m grateful that we at least have the option of a kind death for our animals.  We don’t yet have that right for our fellow humans (though I hope that Canada will arrive at it eventually, probably long before the United States does), and that makes you ponder the whole meaning of the word ‘humane’.

hybrid-founder-open

But still, I’m verklempt and probably will be for some time.  Hell, I have critters who’ve been gone for 10 years that I can’t mention without my voice shaking.  I don’t buy into the Rainbow Bridge nonsense any more than I buy into the Pearly Gates, and I don’t expect to see Trouble again, so please, no platitudes of that nature if you comment.  But I hope I will always be able to remember the particular quality of her nicker, the way that unruly pony mane flopped over to the left side of her neck no matter what I did to try to train it otherwise, her pony kisses, and how she would curl up her tongue and suck on it after she’d had a sip of water — it was the cutest damn thing and I’ve never seen another horse do it quite like that.

In a way, Trouble donated her organs, which is also some solace.  I asked my farrier whether she could contribute to laminitis education in some way, and he was very keen to assist.  Not to put too fine a point on it … after her death, he arrived as promised to harvest her front feet, which he is freeze-drying to serve as teaching tools.  One in vertical cross-section, the other in horizontal slices, demonstrating the anatomy of the disease.  There was no way I could stay there for the harvesting — I excused myself and went to the library, coward that I am —  but I think I will want to see the end result when they’re ready.  I’ve seen freeze-dried limbs before and they are fascinating, but I’ve never held one in my hand that came from a horse I knew and loved.  Wish me a little intestinal fortitude on that one.

Welcome to the Press Tent

Normally, on this particular week of the year, I would be feeling a little like I’d been run over by a herd of rampaging wildebeest.  That’s because this is normally the day after I would have gotten home from the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, at the Horse Park in Lexington.  It’s an annual pilgrimage, except that due to other commitments (and a serious shortage of funds) I didn’t make it this year.

Not that I’m not still running on a sleep deficit and generally feeling like death warmed over … it’s just that I don’t have any unpacking to do.

I do the 10- or 11-hour trek  to Kentucky every year for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, it’s usually because I have scraped up some assignments to write about it and/or submit photographs.  Being of a generally destitute demeanour, I’m not sure I’d go if I had to pay $30 (or whatever it is, these days) to get in the gate, but if I have a press pass, as I have had for the past 20 years or so, that makes it a smidge more affordable.

Secondly, despite the fact that going south on I75 through Ohio is one of the most stultifying stretches of driving in the world (and that includes the notoriously soporific Hwy 401 between London and Windsor, a drive I have done many, many, many, many thousands of times), it all begins to improve as you approach Cincinnatti.  The endless stretches of flat, nothing farmland give way to rolling hills and blooming redbud trees along the highway …and your snow-numbed Canadian brain goes, “Yes!  Spring!  Foliage!  Signs of life!”

It can be very refreshing to see a bit of green, a couple of weeks early.

Tragically, though, I no longer get to enjoy one of the legendary landmarks of I75 near Cincinnati:  The Big Butter Jesus (just typed “Big Bugger”, oops — my bad), aka Touchdown Jesus, who used to emerge like a 60 foot Lady of the Lake, from an artificial pond in front of the Solid Rock Church right by the interstate.  Jesus used to tell me I was just an hour and a half away from Lexington.  But that was before he was struck by lightning and went up in flames a few years ago, leaving behind only a macabre metal skeleton.

Heywood Banks explains in song:

(Ooh, had to edit to add:  Big Butter Jesus has his own blog!  Dayam!)

The third reason for going to what is always called just “Rolex” by its aficionados: I like eventing.  To me there is absolutely no piece of horseflesh more thrilling than an upper-level event horse, usually a big strapping, ridiculously fit Thoroughbred with veins busting out of his coat, eating up the ground  in a nice easy gallop and jumping humongously massive, diabolically evil things that don’t come down when you hit them, like it was child’s play.

I also like the horsemanship and the mindset of eventers. Even at the international level, they’re all pretty self-deprecating, down-to-earth folks.  They like to party and they know every square centimetre of their horse’s bodies better than they know their own. You can’t ride cross-country with a stick up your ass, which is probably why I would much rather interview eventers than dressage riders or showjumpers, any day of the week.

If there’s a downside to covering eventing, it’s that the sport is dangerous. As much as the high muckety-mucks of the game have toiled (and they have toiled, tirelessly) to improve course design, equipment, and the rules over the last few decades, shit still happens. Not often. But it happens. Horses get injured. Rarely, they get killed, usually by catastrophic injuries such as when Laine Ashker’s horse, Frodo Baggins, flipped over a fence a few years ago and broke his neck. And because, at the three- and four-star level it’s just about the most strenuous thing you can ask a horse to do, there’s the odd aortic rupture, too, resulting in a horse’s sudden death. It’s devastating, just devastating.

And yes, riders get hurt and killed too, though I confess it’s the horse injuries that trash me … perhaps because, although (contrary to the perspective of the great unwashed who have no background in eventing) you cannot force a horse to jump cross-country fences, and the ones that rise to this level do it for the sheer joy of doing it, at the same time you can never really sit a horse down and explain the risks to him. Riders go out on course knowing full well what obstacles lie before them, but the horses just go out trusting their riders. But damn, that’s also what makes it heroic.

Every time I do witness a crash, and get that horrible sick feeling in my stomach over it, I swear I’m never going to cover this sport again. I just can’t deal with the downside.

But I always end up coming back.

(As an aside, when a wreck does happen on course, and I’m not ridiculous miles away from it, I always try to make my way over there as quickly as I can.  Some of my fellow photographers on course have accused me of being ghoulish for doing so.  But honestly, I’m not ambulance-chasing.  When an accident happens and it’s something relatively serious, the announcers usually go all quiet.  The competition stops while the emergency personnel get to work, and there’s no blow-by-blow update over the loudspeaker.  The longer the silence drags on, the more ominous it all becomes.  And because I am generally writing about the event as well as taking photos, I know I will eventually have to report on what happened.  There will be an official FEI press release about it at the end of the day, but generally these are so vague as to be useless.  So I would rather see firsthand what the situation is, as much as it makes me feel ill, than have to report based on rumour and hearsay.  And I do take pictures, but I NEVER publish those.  They are for my own information only.  Just in case you were wondering.)

Now it occurred to me that some (both?) of my gentle readers might not have experienced what, to me, has become normalcy:  the slightly surreal world of the horse show press tent.  And who am I not to share my delight with the universe?

I’m sure that, depending on the sport(s) you cover, you have different levels of expectation for the facilities set up for journalists.  Those who cover Formula One racing or pro football or yachting, for example, likely get wined and dined on a regular basis, courted with swag from Nikon and Canon, and take home little sponsor’s bags full of goodies. At least that’s what we idiots who cover eventing, jealously suspect.

Equestrian sports may have a hoity-toity reputation, but the reality for horsey journalists is more about leaky wellies and muddy  jeans, plastic bags duct-taped around your camera because you forgot the fitted little raincoat at home, surviving on granola bars, coffee, and overpriced bratwurst that repeats on you all afternoon, and waddling around the back forty of a cross-country course lugging three camera bodies and six 40 kg lenses wearing every single item of clothing you brought with you because it’s suddenly -5 Celsius.

And then there’s the sunburn, the shin splints, and weighing whether you can sprint to the extremely nasty porta-loo and back with all your equipment in the three minutes between horses on course … because of course the one single horse you don’t shoot in seven hours of competition, will inevitably be the one who wins and the only one anyone wants to purchase a photo of.

Oh, the glamour!

I can see this is going to be another one of my novel-length rants, so I’m going to save the particulars of the press tent for another post in the very near future.  Meanwhile, here’s another gratuitous eventing shot.

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