Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the category “horses”

Project Mojo

austin mojoBeen trying to get my mojo back.

Turning 50 is one of those things that messes with your head.  It’s not that the body is actually significantly more decrepit than it was at 49.  But that number, man.  It feels like a 16 tonne weight.

Truth be told, my mojo has been a bit elusive for a few years now.  In my case, what I mean is that I’ve become something of a chickenshit in the saddle.  Oh, I still break and ride silly young horses, and I still go out hacking, and I don’t need a fence around me to feel secure when I’m schooling, and I frequently ride by myself (cel phone in pocket) because if I always waited for someone else to turn up I’d never bloody ride at all ….

And I still feel like I’ve got a secure galloping position, and I still jump.  But when you’ve been out of the competitive world for a few years, and decrepitude is creeping up on you, and you mostly ride on your own, and there’s often no-one around to move the jumps around for you (and you get seriously fed up with mounting and dismounting and mounting and dismounting to do it yourself) … well, both the frequency and the quality of the schooling over fences begins to suffer a bit.

Consequently, jumps that used to look pretty do-able to you, start to look positively formidable.  You ‘lose your eye’, so to speak.

I’m not claiming I was ever a hero out there on a cross-country course.  I have friends who are utterly fearless … year after year, they’re competing at the highest levels and no fence seems to be too massive.  I admire and envy that, but recognize that my mojo, even at its common senseshiniest and most splendid, has limitations, and more importantly, so does my athleticism.  (I like to think that my common sense, on the other hand, runs pretty deep…. which is perhaps why Preliminary level, which is just a weensie bit death-defying, as opposed to utterly and insanely death-defying Advanced level, is as far as I’ve gotten in the sport.)

Eventing, after all, is a little more extreme than some of the other equestrian disciplines.  Not gonna claim it’s as mind-bogglingly extreme as, say, steeplechase racing (I’ve always maintained that the advantage of my sport over that one is there’s relatively little risk that you’ll collide with another 500 kg animal hurtling around at the same time you are), but still, on the hard-core side, and it tends to attract Type A adrenaline junkies who lean towards the ‘live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse’ philosophy of life.  Many before me have pointed out that it’s practically the only sport where you’re required to have your medical information strapped to your arm at all times.

If the corpse thing doesn’t come to pass, though, it’s generally acknowledged that, at some point, most eventers start to become dimly aware of their own mortality, and become DQs (dressage queens) or take up some other (ahem) gentler art, like (cough) combined driving.  Though lately, riders like Mark Todd (age 57) and Andrew Nicholson (age 52) are bucking that trend … something in the water in New Zealand, perhaps?

I’m not ready to become a DQ.  Much as I enjoy dressage (and seriously, I do — no, really), if it were the only thing I did on a horse, I would eventually go postal and take out a Wal-Mart with a semi-automatic something-or-other.  And so would my beasties.  (I can easily picture DSC_0799 driving marathon4Parker with an Uzi.)  One of the nicest things about eventing is that horses rarely get sour, because they always have something different to work on.  Flatwork one day, jump the next, gallop sets the third, go out on a hack the fourth, have a cross-country school the fifth, lather, rinse, repeat, not necessarily in that order.  It’s good for the brain.

So … not ready to give it up, but feeling the athletic equivalent of my biological clock ticking this spring (oddly, I never felt one when it came to my uterus, but that’s another tale), I cast my gaze upon Young Master Spike, grazing in radiant obliviousness (obliviosity?) in his field this spring, and declared, “Enough is enough.”

Spike, who is 11, hasn’t been to a show since he was five, and probably hasn’t missed it, helpfully raised his head and said, “Huh?”

For the past half-decade, one stupid thing or another has kept us from competing.  Injury to him, injury to me, work conflicts, and general destitution chief among them.  (The destitution hasn’t changed, but let’s face it, I’ve really never let that stop me before.)  But I’m sound at the moment (and have even lost some weight chasing around after clients and their ponies, so feeling slightly less lumpy and ungraceful than the last few springs — plus my show clothes actually fit again, or are even slightly loose, which is a bonus), Spike is sound but getting no younger, and I figured if I paid up all my memberships, I would feel a sense of obligation to actually compete.

Time to kick my mojo in the ass.

Honestly, I hadn’t jumped a cross-country fence in almost five years.  Even my knock-down fences at home had rarely inched above the 2’6″ level.  So the first order of business was to arrange a schooling session at a nearby farm.  A friend and fellow coach indulged me and my confession that I was feeling, ahem, rusty and ancient, and pointed me at some nicely inconsequential logs and ditches and things on a June afternoon, saying encouraging things, and pretty soon the muscle memory started to kick in.  Just a little.

It helps that Spike is a Steady Eddie sort of character.  Nowhere near as athletic or dynamic as my previous partner, Toddy, but at the same time not nearly the obstreperous bastard Toddy could be, either.  Despite his lack of mileage, Spike is dead honest … if you point him at an obstacle and halfway have your shit together, he will jump.  It might not be pretty, but he will go, bless his little cotton socks.  I was counting on that.

I set my sights on competing at Entry level (max height 2’9″), to begin with.  Which, yes, is mildly embarrassing for someone who’s been at it as long as I have.  But while Spike is getting to the point where he’s pretty broke on the flat, thanks to my reluctant-dragon-ness he was a little behind on his jumping skills and I didn’t want to overface him right off the top and damage that honesty of his … and also, he might be a Thoroughbred but he doesn’t have that baseline of fitness that a TB who has actually raced, always seems to maintain.  (This is my subtle way of saying he is built like a Sherman tank and is likely the most difficult TB in the world to get fit.)

So, Entry level.  Not because I was still feeling like a chickenshit.  No sir.

Our first attempt, I’m sad to report, was a non-starter.  I selected a horse trials at Wit’s End, a farm a mere two concessions over from mine,130818_831 thinking that would be a lovely place to start.  Spike disagreed.  I came home from teaching on Friday evening, ready to ride and then bathe and braid and hook up the trailer and do all that show-prep stuff that was as natural as breathing, once upon a time … and Spike was a gimp.

He hadn’t been bothered by his sticky left stifle in more than four years, but having developed an unerring instinct for detecting when a $200 entry fee has been mailed, he just couldn’t resist, I guess.  I ended up spending the day at Wit’s End helping with the timing in the stadium ring.  And Spike was sound by Monday.

Mercifully, he has held together just fine since then.  We re-routed to a ‘short course’ at nearby Equus 3D Farm the following week.  A short course is sort of a hybrid competition, more casual than a proper horse trials, and a nice way to ease in.  You ride a dressage test, as per usual, and then jump a few stadium fences, leave the ring, and jump a few cross-country fences.  Spike was nervous, a bit neurotic, screamed his head off throughout his dressage test and was momentarily startled at the transition between coloured poles and solid logs out in the hayfield … but his honesty kicked in and he improved as he went ’round.  We took home a sixth-place ribbon.  Yay us.

Mojo:  still a work in progress.

Since then we’ve done two more horse trials, two cross-country clinics, and a dressage lesson for good measure, and it’s starting to come together.  At Will O’Wind in July, I felt Spike looking for the next fence and taking me to it for the first time, instead of landing and going, “Now are we done?  No?  There’s another one?”, all stutters and starts.  That’s what a good event horse should do, what Toddy always did.  Woe betide you if you pointed Toddy at the wrong fence, because he would lock on the line like an electromagnet and it would take a herculean effort to pull him away.

It’s an amazing feeling when a green horse starts to understand the job and love it.  (Even if the green horse in question is 11.)

I got some pictures back from the first few competitions, and it convinced me of something:  them fences ain’t so intimidating after all.  Spike’s just stepping over them.  They’re …. little.

Why, mojo, that’s where you’ve been hiding, you slippery little bastard.

So it’s time to upgrade.  All the way from Entry level to Pre-Training (gasp).  Where the fences are max three foot.  But I had planned, if all went well, to do one event a month this summer (that being all my budget can withstand) and upgrade by the end of the season — so Spike 130818_834and I are on target.  Next year, we can start out at Pre-Training and finish up going Training level, at which point perhaps I will no longer be mortified.

There have been a number of little things to be proud of, thus far in Project Mojo.  Spike is becoming a horse show veteran.  A couple of months ago he was screaming and freaking out … now he gets off the trailer and says, “Where’s my hay net?” and is learning not to get his panties in a bunch.  My student-slash-groom, Sarah, is much relieved.

Our dressage scores are steadily improving — not that an Entry level test gives him anything much to do, but mentally, Spike has not been ready to show off his fancier moves in front of an audience just yet.  At the beginning of the summer it was all I could do just to keep him in the ring.  Now he’s over that and I’m starting to be able to really ride him through.

And I think that I’m more relaxed, and subsequently riding better, than I sometimes did in the past.  Being one of those A type personalities, I used to produce enough adrenaline at an event to light a small city, and that tended to make my legs creep up the saddle flaps and my lower back go rigid … and though admittedly, that was when I was showing at the Prelim level and there might have legitimately been a fence or two to be worried about at the time, now I’m finding that the absurdity of starting over at Entry level is allowing me to just laugh about it all.  I’m not getting nearly as wound up as I used to about the whole showing thing, and it feels good.

(I could have tossed the Rocky theme in here or something, i suppose, but I’d rather have some more Austin Powers.)

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.”

A Wynne Lose

Normally, I don’t use this blog to highlight local politics.  How relevant is it going to be, really, to a Gentle Reader in St. Vincent (I got two hits from the island a few days ago — hi guys!) or Croatia (where I seem to have a regular reader or two)?

Here’s why I’m making an exception.  I make at least a percentage of my living, writing for racing magazines.  I cover both Thoroughbred racing and harness racing (which is why I like the banner photo at the top of the blog — Standardbred racing under saddle, while only a novelty thing at present here in North America, strikes me as a fun hybrid that more-or-less sums up what I do.  Neither fish nor fowl, in other words).  I’ve even dabbled in Quarter Horse racing coverage, also a fringe activity here in Ontario, and Trottingbred pony racing in Bermuda (harness racing with the added benefit of cute ponies in lots of outrageous colours!).   I’ve worked at the track, done lots of exercise riding, and most of my own mounts are refugees from the racing industry.  All of which to say, I’m invested.

I’ll make the background to the following article as brief as I can manage.  Some of it you can glean from the article itself:  my home province of Ontario once had a sweetheart deal, a win-win-win, with the provincial government, in which its 17 racetracks accommodated rooms full of pinging, flashing, gurgling slot machines, in exchange for a percentage of the revenue, which they invested in purses for racing.  In exchange for hosting another gambling option which essentially cannibalized its betting revenue, the racetracks got fatter purses, which attracted better quality horses, made it possible to offer world-class stakes races … and the local municipalities which hosted each racetrack also got a share of the cut for infrastructure, road improvement, whatever.

The Ontario government made out like a bandit on this deal, too, to the tune of $1.1 billion a year — about a 70% return on what it gave the racing industry.  This was money which was available to be invested in health care, education, roads, parks, anything our little semi-socialist Canadian hearts desired.

The Slots At Racetracks program came about because most Ontario cities didn’t want slots parlours in their urban centres.  Racetracks, which tend to be located on the city fringes or in rural locales, were ideal — and they already had the electricity, the parking lots, the washrooms (and the property taxes) that the body which governs gambling, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corp (OLG), didn’t want to invest in.  It was so wildly successful that in the 14 years since it was instituted, Ontario became one of the most envied racing jurisdictions in North America, particularly on the Standardbred side.  The Ontario Sires Stakes program was the envy of the continent, stallions were flocking in to stand at stud here, we had the richest harness race offered anywhere (the $1.5 million Pepsi North America Cup, for three-year-old pacing colts), and basically the whole thing was bad-ass, apart from the fact that actual interest in live racing, from a spectator’s point of view, has been waning for a while.  Empty grandstands have been more the norm than the exception, and yes, that needed to be addressed … but in terms of the quality of the product, the contentment level of the horsepeople, and the health of the breeding industry, there was little to criticize about Ontario racing.

But we have a provincial government which has managed to bury itself in debt, with one snafu after another.  Obscenely expensive power plants which get half-built and abandoned — check.  An air ambulance service which purchases dizzyingly over-priced helicopters which don’t even allow EMTs enough room in which to perform CPR on the hapless passengers — check.  An eHealth system which gives its CEO an outrageous salary and Prince-Rainier-style perks, and delivers practically nothing — check.  I could go on.  So long story short, they’re buried in scandal and up to their yin-yang in deficit, so they have to be seen to be cutting something.  And DSC_4859 crowd4horseracing … well, it doesn’t have very good optics anyway, right?  It’s seedy and corrupt and they break down all the pretty horses, and no-one’s really going to miss it.

So without any consultation with the 55,000-odd people who make a living, either directly or indirectly, from racing in this province, nor with any of racing’s governing bodies, nor anyone in the Ministry of Agriculture who might have known squat about racing, they yanked the rug out from under the industry in February, 2012, by announcing they were cancelling the SARP program and instead would be investing in building huge, foreign-owned full-service casinos in urban locations across the province.  Never mind that the existing five or six casinos in Ontario all lose money.  It’s going to be a much better strategy, and we’re tired of “subsidizing” horseracing to the tune of $345 million a year which is taking money away from hospitals and all-day kindergarten for our wee ones.

It was a shameful degree of spin which elicited howls from the racing industry right from day one.  Suddenly discretionary spending on slots machines, a portion of which went to racing, had become the Ontario government propping up our game.  The word “subsidy” was gleefully seized upon by the mainstream media, and racing instantly became the bad guy, taking flu shots from the tender little arms of babes.  And never mind that by hosting slots parlours, racing contributed billions to exactly those programs, far more than was invested.

Not to mention never mind the grooms who are in the barn by 6 a.m. every day, shovelling shit and hosing down horses and cleaning harness, and then packing up the trailer most afternoons and driving for hours in order to race into the late hours of the night … all for staggeringly less than minimum wage.  Those are the real faces of racing, folks, not the Frank Stronachs of the world.

Anyway, you can imagine the fallout.  Basically, without the SARP, Ontario racing was a dead duck.  The fall yearling sales were a bloodbath.  Stallions who had barely set up shop, packed up and left again.  People started giving horses away right, left, and centre, or shipping the less productive ones for meat.  Cases of neglect multiplied as people ran out of money to feed their horses.  Drivers and jockeys headed south of the border where they could be better assured of making a living.  And Windsor Raceway, once one of the most vibrant harness racing ovals in North America — and a place where I worked as a groom, back in the day — locked its doors and became a ghost town, with others soon to follow.

Fast forward almost a year and the Liberal premier who wreaked all this havoc has resigned and slunk away.  The new leader of his party, Kathleen Wynne, has been in power a couple of weeks.  As she had also taken on the portfolio of the Ministry of Agriculture, Ontario horsemen hoped against hope that she had some interest in rural Ontario and in the entirely avoidable plight of racing industry participants.

So when there was an eleventh-hour announcement late this week, of an “invited media only” press conference to be held at one of Ontario’s racetracks on Friday, with the shiny new premier …. well.

Below is my report of the gulf between dreams and reality.  The decent thing to do would have been to admit the whole plan had been ill-thought-out and a huge fucking mistake, but one can’t expect expressions of culpability from politicians, I guess.

I wrote this piece for the United States Trotting Association, for whom I crank out an irregular column on Canadian harness racing news.  (Search my name on the site if you’d like to read some of them.)  But the USTA preferred to go with the more diplomatically worded press release.  Hence, this article has no home.  Rather than have Friday be a completely wasted effort on my part, I present it here, for what it’s worth.

****************************************************************

FROM THE GREAT WHITE NORTH:  SAME NEWS, DIFFERENT DAY FOR ONTARIO

big-revealWith the surprise announcement on Thursday afternoon (March 7, 2013) of a press conference to be held the following day at Elora, Ontario’s Grand River Raceway, with new provincial premier Kathleen Wynne, the hearts of Ontario horsemen got an unexpected jolt.

Within hours, the rumour mill was hinting that perhaps the ruling Liberals had finally crunched the numbers, and realized that their decision, a year ago, to summarily cancel the wildly successful Slots At Racetracks program (SARP) which had pumped $345 million per year into the racing industry and $1.1 billion into provincial coffers, had been … well, stupid.

Local news outlets reported that SARP was about to be restored, ending 12 months of anxiety, uncertainty, and anger for some 55,000 people whose livelihoods hung in the balance.

Alas, wishful thinking couldn’t make it so.  The news delivered from the well-lit podium on the second floor of the Grand River grandstand, did almost nothing to dispel that uncertainty.

Premier Wynne, who took over the Liberal leadership from the retreating Dalton McGuinty a month ago, also took on the portfolio of the Minister of Agriculture … so the concerns of rural Ontario have clearly been on her mind to some degree.

But she continues to buy into the essential fallacy created by her predecessor, and perpetuated by the three-member “Transition Board” appointed to assess the state of Ontario horseracing after the decision had been made to pull the plug, that racing was not sustainable in this province as it stood, that it was in need of shrinkage, and that the revenue-sharing agreement which was carved out 14 years ago to compensate racetracks for hosting slots parlours, was a “subsidy”.

In fact, Ontario stood until a year ago as one of the most successful racing jurisdictions in North America, if not the most successful.  With an exemplary Sires Stakes program and 17 tracks, many of which operated year-round, Ontario was a racing destination that was the envy of many.

The Liberals have apparently never heard the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  And a year later, the damage has been done.

Wynne’s speech on Friday, March 8 to the media offered little more than a photo op of her cuddling with two ‘ambassador’ horses from the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society.  In terms of substance, there was little.  She assured her audience that Ontario racing will survive, but will have to become smaller, delivered some platitudes about how rental agreements (to keep the doors of the existing slots parlours open) have been reached with most of the surviving 14 tracks, and that “transition agreements” had been reached with five of them – six, if you count Woodbine and Mohawk as separate ovals (they are both owned by the Woodbine Entertainment Group).

Some of the other Ontario racetracks are still in negotiations, with Rideau Carleton (in Ottawa) and the now-shuttered Windsor Raceway refusing to play ball.

Wynne steadfastly refused to talk money, deflecting repeatedly when asked by the media whether the transitional funding – now truly a government subsidy – would approach previous levels provided by the revenue-sharing agreement.  And the timeframe of three years she provided for these transitional agreements, does nothing for Ontario breeders, who work on a five-year cycle and have been perhaps the hardest hit of all the industry segments.

“We are continuing to work with the transition panel, to integrate racing with the provincial gaming strategy,” she reiterated, to the dismay of most of the racing media who understand that the ill-informed transition panel is a big part of the problem.

“And we want to ensure racetracks have access to revenues from new gaming applications.

“We want to make sure that there aren’t enormous unintended consequences as the industry evolves,” she concluded.

While it’s of some small comfort that the government now recognizes there might be consequences, one can’t help but feel as if they pulled the plug and only now are making a half-hearted effort to save the baby who is circling the drain with the bathwater.  The consequences are here, unintended or not, and Friday’s non-announcement, unfortunately, will do virtually nothing to change that.

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.

On the Sidelines

Spent part of last weekend being selfless and virtuous.  A veritable paragon of crunchy humanitarian goodness.

See, I can already tell you’re impressed.

Okay, I spent it sitting in a lawn chair in the rain, writing down which horses jumped fence #5abc cleanly, and which had refusals.  (For the record, there were a total of two refusals in the Open Intermediate division,  no falls, and no breaking of the frangible pins, which was mildly disappointing because #5abc was a fairly technical fence — the sort of thing that we used to call a ‘coffin’, though apparently that appellation is no longer politically correct and I’m not sure what we’re supposed to call them now other than vertical-ditch-vertical combinations.)  I was expecting more interesting, if not teachable, moments, since #5abc had the potential for a certain amount of mayhem.  But hey, any day that the ambulance doesn’t budge all day is a good one in eventing.

Lawnchair-occupation, with clipboard, is called jump-judging.  The average weekend horse trials or one-day event needs a small army of hapless intrepid volunteers not only to record what transpires at every jump on every course in every division of the competition, but also to fulfill a wide array of other duties, from timing their progress from start box to finish line, to writing down the words of wisdom which issue forth from the dressage judges’ mouths, to transporting brown bag lunches out to the far reaches (via four-wheel drive pickup or ATV, generally), to making sure the competitor’s gear conforms to the rules before they embark on their cross-country canter.  (This last one is called being a tack-check steward, and I did a few hours of that on Saturday before retiring to my lawn chair in the boonies on Sunday.  It’s pretty light work, though you do have to endure a certain amount of green slime.)

Over the years, I’ve done a fair bit of ‘giving back to the sport’.  I’m not the volunteer of the decade or anything, but at one time or another I’ve done just about every job you don’t get paid for, which helps make a horse trials run.  My feeling is this:  I can’t afford to give money, but at least I can give my time.

Seeing the armies of volunteers recruited for the London Olympics (can I now use those words in a blog without getting drawn and quartered by the IOC’s marketing SS?) makes one ponder their motivation for serving.  It must’ve been popular — I read somewhere that there were something like 70,000 people who assisted in one way or another, so many in fact that the volunteer committees actually had trouble finding things for some of them to do.  I imagine you get an outfit and access to at least one venue out of it, though whether you actually get to witness much of the competition is questionable.  You might also get a box lunch or two, the loan of a two-way radio, and the temporary illusion of power.  Are there other perks, or is just saying you were part of the Olympic Games, sufficient in terms of bragging rights?  Is there opportunity for collecting autographs or surreptitiously taking pictures?  (Or taking other people’s cameras away when they violate the rules and then pocketing them, maybe?  I should monitor eBay … might be a glut of cheap point-n-shoots popping up from UK sellers any time now.)

Volunteering at the Wit’s End Horse Trials doesn’t have quite the same cachet, though the site did host a three-star CIC*** which was on the calendar for the eventing World Cup series, for a number of years.   A bit too much disrespect from the FEI (the governing body for international equestrian sport, which remains convinced that Canada is a godless tundra not worthy of its estimable gaze) put the kibosh on the international level stuff a couple of years ago, but the locals continue to enjoy the facilities on a slightly less ambitious level, and I have reasonable evidence that the organizers don’t much miss jumping through the FEI’s hoops (not to be confused with Olympic rings, although there are some uncanny similarities).

These days, I seem to spend a lot more time on the sidelines — or in the weeds, really — assisting others in enjoying the sport of eventing, than I do participating.  The reason’s no mystery.  I have the horse, I have the equipment, and I have the ambition.  I just don’t have the money for all the memberships and the entry fees.  Which is a huge, huge drag, because I’m not getting any younger and neither is Spike.  Every time I hear about another Big Name Rider bringing an eight- or nine-year-old horse to compete at Rolex (or some similar multi-starred big dance) I get a little pang about now 10-year-old Spike, grazing in his pudgily oblivious way in his field.

Not that I have Team ambitions anymore … I gave those up a looooong time ago when it became clear that I had neither the talent, the time, nor the backing to make it to that level …. and not that Spike is a world-class talent who is wasting away.  (I had one of those, once, and there were several BNRs who went out of their way to make it clear to me that I was doing no justice to a horse whose cleverness and athleticism far exceeded mine … quite a guilt trip.  But no-one has yet voiced similar admiration for my gentle, solid citizen Spike.)

Just, you know, generally.  That I should be doing more with him before we’re both too old and creaky to do any of it.  That I should be out there jumping the jumps before my decrepitude finally forces me to become what most old eventers morph into — a DQ.  (That’s “dressage queen”, for the uninitiated.)  I am not quite ready to enter the pursuit for the perfect 20 metre circle.   I don’t harbour any hankerings to run at the Advanced level anymore, but I would like at least to be competitive at the lower levels and keeping up with the ‘fossils over fences’ crowd, if not the immortal twentysomethings.

Poverty sucks.

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And Then It Happened

I always knew it would, someday.   Not that it makes it any less humiliating.

I have one brother.  He is very Busy and Important and has a nuclear family which elicits him no end of sympathy and babysitting from our collective parental units.

Me?  Single with cats and horses.  Only two cats, I hasten to add.  I have not yet veered off the rails into Crazy Cat Lady territory, and besides, my place is too small to accommodate any more.  There would be squabbles.  The current two are littermates and thus get on rather well.

And four horses.  All of whom, for one reason or another, have rendered themselves virtually unsellable.

There’s a damaged-goods broodmare, who is very well bred but got herself badly torn up delivering Son #1 and had to endure four surgeries at the U of Guelph, to put her back together.  (My bank balance also had to endure it.  And so did a lot of vet students whom Roxy tried to murder in cold blood prior to, and during, the aforementioned surgeries.)  My vet has now forbidden me to breed her again, and besides, she’s 16 and as a riding horse she is a hard mare to love.  Though I do.  If she were my only rideable beast, she would drive me fucking nuts because she’s a peculiar combo pack of Alpha Mare and total neurotic, which is rather like tossing random acids together to see just how noxious a green cloud you can manufacture.  Yup, I love her.

Then there’s the laminitic pony, Trouble; she’s a Hackney/Shetland cross whose main function ’round here is to be a babysitter.  She is the world’s least evil pony, which is to her credit.  Trouble foundered despite all my best efforts, a number of years ago, and my farrier tries to console me by saying, “There are only two types of ponies — the ones who are foundered and the ones who are going to founder.”  Most of the year, she does just fine, but she does experience episodes of foot pain for a few weeks at a time and requires nursing and coddling … hence, unsellable.

Spike, who is Son #1 out of Roxy, would probably be the most marketable of the bunch except that he decided, inexplicably, to become a headshaker this past spring.  Headshaking is a neurological thing which seems to involve the trigeminal nerve in the face; it makes horses toss their heads up and down uncontrollably, or rub their muzzles on any available object, and it also makes them a pain in the ass to ride.  Spike’s symptoms seem to come and go, and they’ve abated for the moment, which is great, but I couldn’t in good conscience sell him, which is my excuse for keeping him till he expires.

And finally, there’s Parker, second and last issue of Roxy, who has just turned three and is like a shiny little loonie of potential.  Except for two things.  One (I sincerely hope) is temporary:  back in February he did something to his left hind leg, and he has been gimpy ever since.  All attempts at diagnosis have thus far, failed miserably in the way that only expensive but utterly unproductive vet bills can, but I have faith that he will come sound in his own good time, whether it’s a bone bruise, or some wee weird little ligament tear that evaded the ultrasound wand, or something even more exotic.  For the moment, though, he’s benched, with the launch of his under-saddle career on hold.  The other thing appears to be more permanent, though I could be wrong:  he’s beautifully put together, as handsome a picture of athletic Thoroughbred conformation as you could want to see, but he’s … well, petite.  Barely 15 hands right now.  Butt-high, so there may still be some growing to do (horses don’t tend to shoot up evenly when they’re maturing — they get taller in their hindquarters first and then their front ends catch up, or at least you pray to Epona that they do).  But on the whole, disappointingly petite, which is not likely to make him appeal to the current market either.

So, four horses, an income which is erratic, at best, and a part-time boyfriend who lives two hours down the highway.  Maybe it’s no wonder it happened.

I’m obsfucating, you say, gentle reader?  Okay.  Um …

My parents are getting older.  No way, yours too?  The hell you say.

Also, my parents live in a place where I do not wish to live.  It’s a city that feels like a huge, irrevocable 16-tonne-weight dead end to me (and the stats bear me out — it currently holds the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment levels in the province).

Of course, it’s not like my proximity to Toronto has really paid off in terms of employment, either.  I’m going on three years now without anything resembling a full-time, non-contract, non-short-term, job, in my field or out of it.  But at least with the largest metropolis in Canada in commutable territory, one can fantasize that there might be a spine-tingling opportunity justttttt …. around the corner.

(Re:  the above — What the hell is up with the subtitles?  What, are Sondheim’s lyrics not clear?)

Mind you, this sort of thinking immediately reminds me of the ex-boyfriend who got himself brainwashed by the Amway zombies (“We’re not selling the products, we’re selling the opportunity“).  That tantalizing, magic moment where all the money he was shoveling into a bottomless pit was suddenly going to come shooting back up to him in ejaculatory wonder was always dangling just out of reach, OMFG he could almost taste it, and his upline — formerly his Xerox-repair guy — kept promising he was doing so well, he’d be Going Diamond and walking the beaches of the world in a week, maybe two …. well, in a word, feh.

If there’s anything I loathe more than multi-level-marketing fucktards and their bags of batshit, I cannot for the life of me think what it might be.

But there I go, digressing again.

The thing is, I always knew that there would come a point where my parents would need one of their offspring to come home and pitch in on the things that had become difficult for them to do.  And that my brother, being Busy and Important and a Parent and all, would not be the one volunteered.  Nope.

I don’t think my parents are actually at that point yet, though their house — a split-split-split-level product of the 60’s — is now presenting some challenges since every damn room is connected to the next with a flight of stairs.  That’s a few too many stair chairs.

But last week, my father came out with it.

“I think you should consider moving back home.”

And he must’ve seen the colour just drain out of my face, but he forged ahead anyway because that’s what he does.  “You have no steady income, you’re having trouble meeting expenses, you could whittle the horses down to, maybe, two? ….”  and the piece de resistance, “… and your mother could use the help.”

And I know the latter is starting to be true, but at what point is the humiliation of one’s failed career so fulsome and complete that moving back into one’s parents’ house in suburbia, kissing any vestige of an adult lifestyle sayonara, preferable to, say, flinging oneself in front of a cattle truck or signing up to flog noni juice to your former friends?

“Just think about it,” he said.

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Mind Candy’s Top Blogs You Should Be Reading

I don’t normally re-blog, but I got some utterly unsolicited egoboo today courtesy of Amanda Fox, and had to share.

To whit:  “If you visit Karen’s blog and all you take from it is that there is a bunch of stuff about horses on it, you’re missing out. There is so much more to explore – and the horse stuff is good too! Karen does great book reviews, has some on the spot posts about journalism and her selections on freelancing are must read for anyone in the trade. She is witty and sharp, bites from time to time, but you’ll like it! I do, and that is why she is must read material!”

Thanks, Mandy!  (The other blogs she recommends are pretty good, too!)

(Oh, and for my gentle followers … I’m reposting this because the formatting somehow got screwed up on the original post and I lost my Wayne’s World video.  I just couldn’t cope with being without it!)

The Unimportance of Being Earnest

The National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE) has decreed that it is “Words Matter Week 2012“.

Why?  Guess we couldn’t wait for March break for the festivities to begin.

NAIWE has posted a “Blog Challenge”, the prize for which is an Amazon gift card which is more than likely not useable by non-Americans.

So why would I bother responding to the five daily blog questions in the Blog Challenge?  Well, it: a) beats coming up with a blog topic of my own; and b) could be an interesting exercise in seeing whether I can remain sincere, earnest, and non-snarky (my money’s on ‘no’).

Ready, gang?  Of course you are.  I can see you’re on the edge of your seats.  Here are the Qs:

Monday, March 5

Writers craft words into memorable phrases, stories, poems and plays. What writers make your heart sing? Why?

Irving Layton‘s poetry is unabashedly randy.  You can imagine him flinging off his khakis and running naked through a park, little Irving flapping merrily in the breeze, just for the sheer helluvit, and that amazed and tickled me when I was an undergrad.  Who knew CanLit could be naughty?

Michael Ondaatje is hard wading, but if you’re in the right frame of mind, you can submerse yourself completely in his imagery.  Like swimming through the most gloriously textured jello.  You might only get through six pages in a sitting, but they will stick with you for days afterwards.

But I have to admit that I seek out cleverness in much of what I read.  That’s why the late Douglas Adams is still top of my list of ‘people living or dead I’d invite to my ultimate dinner party’.  You can read Hitchhiker’s 30 times and it will still give you the giggles … his turn of phrase was just that good, his logic just that twisted.  I mean:  “Here, put this fish in your ear.”  “What?  Ewww!”  “Oh, come on, it’s only a little one.”  

Pure genius in words of two syllables or less.

Cynthia Heimel, the American queen of snark, is another one, and a personal role-model.  When I dial the snark up to 11, I try to channel her.

Tuesday, March 6  
What word, said or unsaid, has or could change your life? How?

Okay, the editor in me immediately wants to change this to “What word, said or unsaid, has changed, or could change, your life?”

I mean, it’s supposed to be the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors.

But I digress.

Should I be uber-obvious and say “You won the lottery”?  Nah, I’m better than that.  (Though I really, really think it would rank up there in terms of life-changing events, and I would like to humbly encourage the universe to consider my worthiness …)

So how about “reason”, because that’s what rules my life.  Or at least I attempt to let it rule my life.  Reason, as in rejecting superstition (the preceding paragraph, ahem, notwithstanding). Reason, as in refusing to let fear rule.  Reason, as in not taking anything on faith, and not accepting faith as a virtue — at least, not the faith that demands unwavering, unquestioning acceptance of things that make no sense.  Reason, as in understanding the difference between anecdotal evidence and repeatable fact.  Reason, as in question everything.  And reason, as in presenting both (or many) sides of an argument or issue in my writing, with as little bias as I can possibly muster, and letting my readership make up its own mind.  Preferably with its critical thinking skills fully engaged. This, as I see it, is what journalists are mandated to do.

I was not always reasonable.  I had to do some growing up first to understand the difference between doctrine and truth.

Wednesday, March 7
Communication breaks down when words are misused. What is the funniest or worst breakdown you’ve ever observed?

Well, there was the flyer from the local garage promising “complete insurrections” of my truck’s engine …

And one from my editor at the Canadian Sportsman, a magazine which focuses on harness racing (in which horses move at the trot or pace) and thus rarely talks about any of the other gears an equine might display.  In an article about retired racehorses going on to second careers as riding horses, said editor used the word “cantor” throughout.  I am unclear as to the religious significance of this.  (Should I out this editor as my brother?  Nah, better not.)

Thursday, March 8
What person in your life helped you understand the importance of choosing words carefully? What would you say to them if you met them today?

If I’m a grammar Nazi, I’m mere infantry compared to my mother, who would probably not be in the least amused to be compared to the head of the Gestapo.  (Fortunately Mom doesn’t venture onto the Interwebz, having developed something of a phobia for mousing.)  Throughout my childhood, and to this day, no grammatical error ever goes unnoticed or uncorrected by her eagle ear.  She is a devotee of the English language and abhors its abuse.  In the process of this constant and unrelenting policing, she created two career journalists.  And so at some point soon (because as I say, she will not see this) … I’ll thank her for never giving me an inch, and I’ll do it in person.

Friday, March 9
If you had to eliminate one word or phrase from the English language, what would it be? Why?

I have to pick just one?

Personal pet peeves include “orientate”, “hopefully” (which is a perfectly good word, used extremely imperfectly), and “irregardless”.  That people don’t get the difference between lay and lie drives me nuts, too, though I don’t suppose you can really eliminate either one from the language …

As for phrases, “It is what it is” irritates the snot out of me.  It’s meaningless!  But the vast majority of cliches make my skin crawl, truth be told (see what I did there?).

English is a malleable magpie of a tongue.  It borrows freely from more (and less) romantic languages and scripts, and changes with the tides … you only have to read a bit of Shakespeare, or even Dickens, to see how much it has transformed in a few short centuries.  So while we can try to prevail upon it with rules and admonish those who butcher it, the reality is that it’s impossible to be too unforgiving.  What you hate today will probably be either gone, or gospel, in a decade or two.

(Did I achieve the right mix of snark and sincerity?  Do tell. And l’chaim.)

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