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 “racing under saddle”

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.

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A Soft Spot for Standardbreds

DSC_3003_1420 sportswriterI have a big, squishy soft spot for Standardbreds. (Like the banner photo at the top of the blog wasn’t a bloody obvious tipoff on that.)

Probably has something to do with having grown up just a few klicks down the road from Windsor Raceway.  Essex County was jughead country, once upon a time — that’s really all there was in terms of horseflesh, apart from a smattering of Quarter Horses.  I did my time grooming at the track, learning to adjust hobbles and wrap legs and clean a shit tonne of harness and pretending to drink the nasty coffee the farriers were kind enough to hand me when I took my charges to the backstretch shed to get their shoes reset. (Never been a coffee drinker.)  And I dealt with my share of razzing from the other grooms, who figured I was just a clueless ridin’ hoss kid.  (Yeah, guys, I knew there was no such thing as stifle boots.  I wasn’t that green.)

Of course, my rescuing instincts kicked in early, encouraged by the fact that newbie grooms aren’t generally handed the stable’s superstars to rub on.  Of the four under-performing horses I was responsible for, I found après-racing homes for two in short order — a gorgeous gray Laag descendant who had two of the worst bowed tendons I’d ever seen, and a cute little bay nicknamed Toby, who looked more like a Morgan than a Standardbred, and became a beloved trail horse for a friend of mine.  The first horses I ever broke to ride on my own were Standardbreds, too — the very first being a 13-year-old pacer named O O Charlie, who swung his head around to peer at me when I first climbed on his back, raised one sardonic eyebrow which clearly said, “Humans and their damn fool ideas”, and then quietly got on with his new job.

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I’ve always done what I could to promote the idea of Standardbreds as riding horses — because, let’s face it, without that opportunity for them once their racing careers are done, the only other options are a can … or a home with the Mennonites.  There’s a large Mennonite community west of Toronto, and they go through a lot of horses, but in many cases they buy them for practically nothing off the track, pound them into the ground in a year or two (you only have to see the condition of some of these horses, trotting or pacing furiously down the side of Highway 86 next to the transport trucks and school buses, to know they’re not long for this world), and then dump them for meat price at the auction in St. Jacob’s, pick up another, and start the cycle all over again.  I’m not saying the entire Mennonite community subscribes to this approach — there are some amazing horsemen among them — but too many do for anyone to think that such a fate is likely to be good news for an ex-racehorse who’s already given his all.

As riding horses, though, Standardbreds suffer from something of a branding problem.  To some degree, I blame the gallo blue chiplack of chrome.  Standies tend to come in bay, bay, or bay, with a minimum of white markings to bling them up.  Chestnuts are rare, grays and roans even rarer.  Not a lot of flash there to attract the average ammie owner.

Historically, they’re also … well, kind of ugly.  Jughead, buckethead … at one time, the name fit.  They don’t race on their faces, so it was never an issue at the track, but given the choice between a big Roman nose and a little Arab-y dished face, most riders will go for pretty.  The reality is that Standardbreds over the past 30 years or so have become far, far more refined and elegant than they used to be, and the big clunky heads are all but gone from the gene pool, but a lot of people don’t realize that.

Then there’s the gaited thing.  Standardbreds come in two varieties:  trotters, and pacers.  Trotters have the normal three gaits — walk, trot, and canter — but the pacers have an extra gear, the lateral two-beat gait that endows them with blinding speed (pacers are generally a second or two faster over a mile than trotters are, which is why there are separate divisions for each gait and they don’t race each other).  The tendency to pace is there even in some of the trotters, and the pacers can be taught to trot; in fact, they often prefer it when not in racing hobbles, but tend to revert to pacing when they get discombobulated.  Trouble with that is, pacing ain’t the most comfortable thing under saddle, and most DSC_3180_1563 admirals express1competitive horse sports require trotting.  There are few dressage tests, for example, written for “trot or alternate gait”. (Interestingly, many pacers can be encouraged, with the right training and shoeing, to perform some version of a single-foot or racking gait, like many other types of gaited horses.  It’s kind of an intermediate between trotting and pacing, and very smooth to sit to when done correctly.  Not a whole lot of call for it here in Ontario, though, where interest in gaited horses is a fringe thing at best.)

In addition, while Standardbreds are absolutely capable of cantering and galloping, they have been actively discouraged from doing so all of their racing lives.  To go from trotting or pacing, to galloping, in a race, is called ‘making a break’, and it means the driver must get the hell out of the way of the horses who are still moving their feet in the approved way, drop to the back of the pack, and resume trotting or pacing before rejoining the race.  Generally, it means you’ve got no shot at a paycheque, so in harness racing, galloping is verboten, and it can be a tough training hurdle to convince an ex-racehorse that it’s now okay to use that gear, both because of the inhibition cemented in their brains by race training, and because most of them are frankly rusty at doing it.  Canter can be added to any Standardbred’s repertoire, but it takes patience and persistence (and sometimes some creativity) to make it happen.

So those are the marketing challenges. On the up side, there’s lots to like.  Standardbreds are tough, athletic, intelligent, eager to please, and temperament-wise I have to admit they are way more tolerant and sensible than your average off-the-track Thoroughbred.  (As a lifelong owner of OTTBs, I say that with love.)  Those who have racing experience will cross-tie, stand for the vet and the farrier, load on any trailer.  And not to overstate the obvious, but they come broke to drive.  Riding is a pretty simple transition for horses who already understand voice commands, rein aids, and mouth contact.

Plus, they’re generally dirt cheap.  Or free to a good home.

Organizations like the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society are doing excellent work promoting Standies as Hillary Lunn Call To Dance Gingerpotential riding horses, and the recent upswing in interest in “racing under saddle” (RUS) in Ontario is helping too.  “Monte” races (as they’re called in Europe) have always been popular in Scandinavia, and the RUS circuit here is growing every year.  (Note to trainers:  I so want to do this!  Gimme a horse and some silks, and I will give it my best shot!)

So as I’ve expanded my interest in judging over the past few years, it was kind of a natural development for me to end up judging schooling shows for Standardbreds.

Yes, Standardbred shows are a thing.  A fairly recent thing, in Ontario at least, but it’s evolving into a nice little circuit of a half-dozen shows or so over the course of each summer.  The idea is to showcase the versatility of the breed, so as a judge, you better be pretty damn versatile yourself.  

So how does that work?  At a minimum, you’ve got to be prepared to cover showmanship, halter, leadline classes, pleasure and equitation, dressage, trail, gaming (barrel racing, pole bending, and the like), pleasure driving, obstacle driving (aka “cones”), hunter and jumper classes over fences, costume classes … and pretty much anything else the show organizers can come up with. We’re talking both English and Western classes, open and youth (under 18) … with allowances made for gaits.  For many of these horses, canter or lope is still a work in progress, so competitors can enter a flat class which only requires walk, and trot or pace (pacing is not penalized as long as it is consistent), or they can be brave and go for the walk/trot-or-pace/canter option (or walk/jog-or-pace/lope in the case of Western classes).  

You do need to be open-minded to do this job.  Some of the horses who’ll turn up in the show ring have had years of mileage under saddle, and could easily compete in open shows anywhere without anyone being the wiser about their former careers (unless, of course, the white freezebrands on their necks give them away).  Some of them do. Others are still fairly fresh to this whole riding thing, and are coping with the new requirements as best they can.  Some — and this still blows me away — compete in these shows while still maintaining active racing careers!   So, you know, you make allowances.  On the whole, I find most Standardbreds adapt to the requirements of English classes a little more easily than they do Western — I have yet to judge a Western pleasure class at a Standardbred show where any of the horses was really delivering a slow jog or a balanced, slow lope (but then again, given the current state of the ‘real’ Western pleasure industry, that’s not entirely a bad thing, methinks).  There’s a fair bit of zooming around, and refraining from posting to that big trot (or pace) is a tall order, but on the up side, a fair number of Standardbreds do suit Western fringes and sequins surprisingly well.  And lemmee tell you, I enjoy the hell out of those blingy outfits, because it helps me differentiate between all the bay entries on my judge’s card.  I can scribble “turquoise hat” or “purple saddle pad” or “giant silver hearts” at the beginning of the class, and it makes finding each entry at a glance a lot easier. Not so with the English classes, where the attire tends to be much of a muchness just like the horses!  

cryoThe halter classes are something of a challenge, too.  Generally, in a halter class, you are rewarding conformation of a certain type, and blemishes are penalized.  If I penalized blemishes in a Standardbred halter class, there’d be no-one left to pin a ribbon to.  Most of these old warriors have some sort of track jewellery on display — so my job is more about deciding whether pin-fire marks on the front cannons are less or more objectionable than a big knee or a pair of extensively cryo’ed hocks.  (Cryo is about treating injuries with super-cold liquid nitrogen, and it leaves tell-tale white marks when the hair grows back in.)  I try to step back and take in the big picture on each horse, rather than nitpick about the scars.  Is he balanced and athletic?  Does he look the part for the class in which he’s entered (ie. is he more of an English type, or Western, or even Saddleseat)?  Can he keep out of his own way, and is he groomed within an inch of his life and presented with pride?   That’s my thought process for these classes.

The awesome thing about these horses, and their extremely devoted owners, is that they’ll often compete in just about every class for which they’re eligible, all day long, and never complain. They’ll often do all the English classes in the morning (mom in the open classes, and a son or daughter in the tack for the junior division), switch to Western in the afternoon, and hook up to a jog-bike or a Meadowbrook for the end-of-day driving classes … and then come back in the costume class festooned with feather boas, finger paint, and giant sunflowers.  That’s a tall order for any horse, let alone one who came to his or her riding career relatively late in life.  I’ll be honest:  they may not necessarily be fulfilling all the requirements of every class extraordinarily well.  Sometimes what’s happening in front of me wouldn’t quite cut it in an open show, competing against other breeds.  But that’s kind of the point:  the Standardbred shows give them a place to try out new skills in front of people who are going to cheer rather than sneer.  It’s a hugely supportive environment, and everyone tries so damn hard, I often have tremendous difficulty awarding the placings.  I want them all to win. What’s more, they’re upping their game every year.  When I compare what I saw at the first of these shows I ever judged, five or six years ago, to what I witnessed in 2015, I’m amazed at how far so many of these riders and horses have come.  

It’s not a judging gig that everyone would relish.  It’s a little outside the norm of a typical hunter schooling show, where I generally watch horses go over the same one or two outside-diagonal-outside-diagonal courses all fricking day, first at two feet, then two-foot-three, then two-foot-six, then … you get the gist.  With so many classes, Standardbred shows can also make for a helluva long day.  But I get a huge kick out of them, and I hope we start to see more of them outside Ontario soon. (Ahem. Have clipboard, will travel …)

Further reading on second careers for Standardbreds:  

From Trot magazine: My article on the adoption of Primetime Bobcat: Ninth Life of One Cool Cat

From the United States Trotting Association website, my coverage of one of the first RUS races in Ontario in 2011:  Trotters Do It Under Saddle At Georgian Downs

From the Daily Racing Form:  Plenty of Life After Racing

From Standardbred Canada:  Life After Racing

Info on the Ontario Standardbred show series:  Standardbred Showcase

And here’s a new article which sheds some light on the canter thing:  Why Some Standardbreds Canter More Easily Than Others

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