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 tag “Thoroughbreds”

A-Hunting We Have Went

hunting_scene_largeSeveral months after the fact, I’m finally getting around to sharing this little factoid:  Young Master Spike can now add foxhunting to his resume of experiences.

Hunting and eventing are a fairly easy fit together.  An event horse is usually already a) fit enough to cope with being out with the hunt for three to five hours, b) accustomed to galloping over open ground and uneven footing, c) trained to jump pretty much anything in his path, and d) won’t lose his marbles over the prospect of being (gasp) outdoors in nasty weather.  The traditional approach is that hunting teaches all these things which later translate well to eventing competition, but with Spike, I needed to take the opposite approach.  Only when he was eventing fairly successfully did I start to feel like perhaps he was capable of going out in the hunt field and not getting us both killed.

See, in his youth Spike was a bit of a space cadet.  Not in a bad way, exactly.  He just tended to be a smidge inattentive.  Didn’t always register where he was putting his feet.  Blundered in, cheerfully oblivious, where angels feared to tread.  It’s taken him ages to hone his attention span, but lots of hacking, some actual eventing, and a dash of endurance riding last summer (that’s a tale for another blog post) finally convinced me that he was ready to cope with riding to hounds.  And that’s rather a nice thing, because I hadn’t been hunting since, oh, sometime in the early 1990s, and while it’s never been the main focus of my riding (cough) career, such as it is, I do enjoy hunting’s unique set of challenges:  riding in company (a test of your horse’s manners, and, I suppose, your own), handling whatever sort of terrain is thrown at you, potentially getting the adrenaline rush of foxhunting bridgeactually galloping after quarry.  Even observing all of hunting’s rather quaint and arcane rules:  it’s fun to wallow in that tradition, as generations of riders around the world before me have done.

Also, the pageantry of the whole thing is honest-to-gawd stirring.  In my humble opinion, there are few things as gorgeous in this world as a field of bays and grays and chestnuts, the hunt staff in their scarlet, and sleek foxhounds spreading out over a fall landscape.  Seriously, it’s just a stunning thing to witness (which is probably why every fake English pub in North America is adorned with fake Victorian hunting prints), and even more so when you’re playing your part in the panto.

I guess here is where the paragraph defending the barbarism of foxhunting needs to go.  Or maybe we could take it as read, gentle readers??  Here’s my take on the moral turpitude, unspeakable-in-pursuit-of-uneatable, argument (short version):  the Canadian brand of foxhunting is either drag-hunting (as in, only the fake scent of a fox’s urine was harmed in the making of this sport), or, if it’s “live”, the intent is to have a merry chase and then call the hounds off so we can chase the critter — whether fox or coyote — again the following week.  We’re not so well supplied with foxes, in particular, in Ontario that we can afford to do them in on a regular basis, and the business is more about sport these days here than about exterminating vermin on behalf of the local landowners.  Not that I don’t agree that said vermin probably has the flaming christ on a cracker scared out of itself while fleeing a pack of baying foxhounds, but unless it’s terminally stupid and gets itself cornered, it’s going to live to see dinner, and thus my conscience is fairly clear, cruelty-wise.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Should you disagree, please feel free to tell me I’m morally and ethically bankrupt, utterly revolting, and probably in favour of poisoning the earth with GMO crops and chemtrails, in the comments below. Because, you know, she with the most comments wins.

Besides, she added not at all defensively, many a time when foxhunting, you encounter no quarry at all.  It ends up being several hours of trotting from cornfield to cornfield, standing around a while in each while the hounds are cast and then reeled in by the huntsman, with a certain amount of passing the flask around.  Followed by a big potluck meal.  And really, what’s to complain about there?

The last horse I hunted was my big chestnut gelding, Sweeney Todd, who had been a reasonably successful racehorse yonks ago, before I introduced him to eventing.  He had more gallop and jump in him than I ever knew what to do with, thought the coops in the hunt field were childsplay (to be fair, Canadian foxhunters rarely encounter anything bigger than a metre tall; it’s not the death-defying version of hunting they have in Ireland, with those five-foot blind hedges and stone walls all over the damn place), and never quite understood the concept of guests staying conservatively and politely at the back of the field.  One of the cardinal sins of foxhunting is to pass the Master of Foxhounds (MFH), He or She Who Controls the Field (the “field” being the average schmoes following the hounds for a fee, as opposed to those employed to do so).  Passing the Master is simply Not Done.  And Toddy and I never did it … but only by virtue of my cramming Toddy`s firebreathing nostrils up the Master’s horse’s passing the masterass on a number of occasions.  The bit has not yet been designed that would have made a difference once the field got galloping.  As far as Toddy was concerned, the whole experience was a track flashback, avec canines … but in his defence, he was otherwise wonderful out there.  He was one of the most intelligent critters I’ve ever had the privilege of sitting on, and remarkably focused on self-preservation.  That, combined with extraordinary balance and nimbleness for his size, made him sure-footed and safe out there and I trusted him with my life.

I knew built-for-comfort-not-for-speed Spike would be a horse of a different colour.  He is a Thoroughbred, all appearances to the contrary, but never having gone to the track, he has no competitive instinct to speak of.  Getting to the front of the field is not something that would ever cross his mind, and he’s never needed anything stronger than a Dr. Bristol snaffle on cross-country. Spike is probably not Toddy’s intellectual equal, but he’s also not the obstreperous bastard that Toddy could be, and his congeniality, I figured, would be an asset when it came to standing around in cornfields with a bunch of other horses he’d never met before.  He’s reasonably good at handling his feet now, is pretty unflappable, and he’s solid as a brick shithouse, which is a useful quality for a hunt horse (horses with matchsticks for legs aren’t typically the best choice in questionable, mucky terrain, which it’s very likely you will encounter in late fall in Ontario).

The biggest question, really, was how Spike would react to the sight and sound of hounds.  This isn’t really something you can prepare a horse for ahead of time.  Sure, you can ask your neighbour to let her Schnauzerdoodle loose, I guess, but 12 couple of foxhounds is another matter entirely.  (Um, for the uninitiated, one always describes the hounds as “hounds”, horse vs. dognever never never as dogs, and they are always counted in pairs.  Twelve couple is 24 hounds; some hunts use more, some less, depending on the day — it’s the huntsman’s call.  Not sure why the couple thing; it is Written, as they say.)  Anyway, when hound music (um, that’s when they all start baying and howling at the same time, as when they find a scent) starts up, it can be unnerving for some horses, as can the sudden appearance of a working hound from out of the brush and right under their legs, which happens regularly.  And if there’s one Cardinal Sin worse than passing the Master, it’s your horse kicking or stepping on a hound.  That, my friend, will force you to hang your head in utter disgrace forevermore.

So I’m pleased to report that while Young Master Spike did, indeed, find hounds darting under his nose and his heels rather unnerving at first — and at one point raised a front foot as if he were considering teaching the cheeky buggers a lesson — he was very obedient about putting down said hoof when I growled at him, and subsequently earned himself a gold star for rookie hound manners.  He stood politely at the checks (okay, I had to circle him a bit at first), pulled my arms out of their sockets only occasionally (and stopped when I reminded him of his balance and his manners by asking for a few steps of shoulder-in), and dutifully put his head down and kept trotting when we were hit by periodic bouts of (ugh) sleet.  At one point, we were even encouraged by the hunt secretary to keep up with the field a little more closely!  Now that’s something that never would have happened with Toddy …

Alas, the territory we were hunting that day in November was a new one for the hunt club, and there was not a single coop to jump.  So I can’t really report on Spike’s manners in that situation (past experience tells me that you often have to line up, single file, to jump such obstacles in the hunt field, which can lead to a certain amount of hysteria with some horses).  He did, however, comport himself with honour when we found ourselves booking it across an open field in pursuit of a lone coyote and a lone hound (not sure where the rest of the pack had buggered off to!).  Viewing the quarry is considered something of a rare bit of luck, and we indeed had a lovely view as we plunged across a hayfield, more or less keeping up with the field, though to be honest I was more concerned with scanning the ground for groundhog holes (of which there were several) than admiring the critter’s retreating fur.

The coyote gave us the slip, the sleet got heavier (though hunting does at least convince you that wearing a black wool sidesaddle huntingriding jacket isn’t always utterly impractical), and when the majority of the field said, “Want. Hot. Beverage.”, Spike and I concurred and headed back for my trailer, while the hunt staff turned the other direction to gather up the scattered hounds.  

We didn’t stay for the hunt breakfast, as I wasn’t confident about leaving Spike alone in the trailer in a parking lot … that’s something that we’ll have to practice, aided considerably by the fact that I managed over the winter to acquire a larger trailer with a box stall arrangement in front for his comfort and convenience.  Next year, we’ll partake. But overall, we didn’t disgrace ourselves.  Spike didn’t set the world on fire, but he was Mr. Congeniality and that, in my humble opinion, makes him worth his weight in gold.

Many thanks to the Toronto and North York Hunt (the second-oldest hunt in North America, by the by) for the invitation to hunt as a guest; I look forward to joining you again.  Now that I have a bonafide hunt horse.

The Yearling Whisperer

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

I can take a hint.

It’s possible, of course, that the searcher was desperately seeking info on my doppelgänger Karen Briggs, a jazz violinist of colour who toured with (yeek) Yanni.  Or perhaps Karen Briggs, the British judo champion who won numerous European championships in the 1990s.  All three of us were born in 1963, which probably multiplies the potential for Google to scramble us, and who knows how many others — my own occasional self-Googling, undertaken in a now-mostly-futile attempt to keep a lid on my copyrighted material, also turns up an uber-religious American military wife whose interests include crochet and semi-automatic weapons, the drug addict daughter of British actor Johnny Briggs (of Coronation Street fame), and a math professor at the University of Northern Georgia, and that’s just the first couple of search engine pages.  If you want to find me as opposed to them, the best approach is to add the word “horse” to my name, et voila.

2014-yearling-saleLast week, you could also have found me down at the back end of the backstretch of Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, in the barns adjoining the sales pavilion, where I was working the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society’s annual yearling sale.  It’s a once-a-year opportunity to put a little extra cash in one’s pocket, if one doesn’t mind 16 hour days that start at 3:30 in the morning, being barked at and condescended to, and being bashed against the walls by huge, hulking, terrified, and often testosterone-addled yearling Thoroughbreds.  By which I mean, it’s not for everyone.

This was not my first rodeo — I’d worked the sale previously for the well-regarded Park Stud, before I made a random, semi-complimentary remark about former Woodbine Entertainment Group CEO, David Willmot, which evidently rendered me persona non grata with the boss lady.  Teach me to say nice things about people.  Never mind — I hated their forest-green-and-pink polo shirts anyway.  Terrible colours on me.

This year, I’d been recruited, via the Interwebz, by a smaller operation called Willow Ridge Farm, which had 12 youngsters entered in the sale, half of whom they’d raised themselves, and half of whom they had prepped and were selling on behalf of other owners.  Five had been deemed worthy, by virtue of their pedigrees and conformation, of being included in Tuesday’s Select Sale, while the other seven entered the auction ring the following evening in the Open Sale session.  (Select Sale yearlings generally fetch higher prices, though that’s not always the case — two of Willow Ridge’s Open entries went for just about as much as the two Select yearlings they’d pinned their hopes on.)

The drill with working a yearling sale is this:  the horses ship in to the sales facility several days ahead of the actual auction.  Buyers, some serious, some tire-kickers, catalogues in hand (the catalogues having been published weeks in advance, which means the yearlings have been entered into the sale months ago), cruise up and down the shedrows behind the sales pavilion during those preview days and ask to view the babies whose pedigrees they like.  Farms consigning yearlings generally hire on extra hands to help show those yearlings to their best advantage.  The job description includes:

* enough confidence in horse-handling that you are not intimidated by surprisingly large, totally spun baby horses with raging hormones and tenuous (if any) manners

* the ability to muck a straw-bedded stall with ruthless efficiency in the pitch black of pre-dawn, onto a tarp which you then drag the length of the shedrow and tie up in a neat bow (which, depending on the age of the tarp and how torn the corners are, can be an art form in itself)

* an extensive knowledge of making horses pretty with hot towels, brushes, scissors, hoofpicks, sponges, peroxide, and enough silicon hairspray to lube an entire Pride parade

* really long arms, with which to gently but insistently insert Chifney bits (brass rings with halter clips, used for extra control) into the mouths This be a young horse wearing a chifney.  Getting one in said young horse's mouth is a Special Skill.of the afore-mentioned, neck-craning, spun babies, often dozens of times per day (a casual indifference towards having your thumbs chomped helps here too)

* a tolerant stomach which can function on greasy peameal sandwiches and bad tea for five days straight

* steel-toed boots and quick reflexes, the better not to get stepped on, kicked, bitten, squished, dragged, or otherwise humiliated

* a talent for cleaning up tolerably well — the standard uniform for showing yearlings being a polo shirt representing the farm or agency, and stupidly impractical khaki pants, which you change into after you’ve done all the before-dawn dirty work (this was not the first time I’ve used a mane comb to pull the tangles out of my own hair)

* the ability to run on three hours’ sleep for extended periods of time and stay polite about it

* and of course, the proverbial patience of the saints.

The consignors and agents at the sale have a lot at stake — for many of them, the proceeds from the annual yearling sale represent their whole year’s earnings, or nearly so.  (There are two other sales, a Winter Mixed Sale closer to Xmas which offers weanlings, broodmares, stallions, and horses of racing age, and another in the spring for two-year-olds in training, but for most the yearlings are the money-makers.)  Therefore, they are stressed-out, even more so because the racing industry in Ontario took such a kick in the teeth from the provincial government back in 2012 and the last few sales have been, frankly, bloodbaths.  Hence, they are demanding, short-tempered, and also not paying anywhere near what they used to for the labours of the extra hands.  Once upon a time, or so I’ve been led to believe, $250 a day was the usual rate, with bonuses given to the handlers of any horse who sold for a particularly good price.  Hotel rooms close to the track were generally offered as well (not that that has ever been useful to me — since I have horses of my own at home to care for, too, I’ve always had to do the 60 minute drive back and forth).  This year, I was lucky to get $15 an hour, and the number of hours I expected to work, versus what I was actually offered, worked out to about half the earnings I was hoping for.  But in my current state of employment beggars cannot be choosers.

One of the toughest things for me personally at the yearling sale is the condescension.  I have more than 40 years of experience handling horses.  Old ones, young ones, baby ones, studdy ones, rude ones, dangerous ones.  I feel fairly confident in saying that I know my shit.  Now, I get that the Thoroughbred racing world is just slightly off-centre from the world of performance horses, showing and eventing, and I get that everyone has their own preferred way of doing things, from how to spray the Showsheen into a tail to how to attach a leadshank.  But I have played in the Thoroughbred sandbox as well as the Standardbred (ahem, not that that gets me any respect with the TB racing folks, but that’s another stupid story).  And I daresay I’ve made more horses pretty for show than the average backstretch worker.  So being treated as if I’m a newbie who doesn’t have a clue … it chaps my ass, a bit.  Why should I bother wearing khakis that are only going to get filthy, if you’re going to hide me in the back of the shedrow and not let me show the horses?  But hey.  For the space of five days I can bite my tongue and find another tangle-less tail to comb out.  Again.  Even though the poor beleaguered baby horse is just begging to be LEFT ALONE FOR FIVE MINUTES FOR THE LOVE OF GAWD.

"Hey Denise.  Look.  Humans coming.  Lots of them." "Oh, relax, Lorraine.  I'm sure it's fine.  They probably just want to feed us."The thing about the yearling sale is that I really, really feel sorry for the poor baby horses, so my priority is making their lives just a little bit less hellish, if I can, for the period of time that they are trapped in a stall in an unfamiliar environment, being poked and prodded and stressed to the max even before they enter the actual sales pavilion, which is noisy and crowded and a whole ‘nuther level of utterly terrifying, ulcer-inducing hell for them.  There are deep and abiding levels of stupid here in the way Thoroughbred yearlings are traditionally shown and sold, levels that make me think there must be a better way.  A couple of months ago, these poor kids were minding their own business in grassy fields somewhere.  Other than having been taught to lead and (sometimes) pick up their feet politely for the farrier, the demands made on them had been minimal, post-weaning.  Then suddenly they get whisked into the barn, confined for long periods of time, groomed and grained and transformed from semi-wild yaklings into some semblance of presentable … and after a few weeks of that, they’re all stuffed into trailers (almost invariably for the first time ever) and hauled into an urban environment where low-flying planes howl overhead about every 90 seconds (Woodbine being about a minute and a half from Toronto’s yearlings2Pearson International Airport and right on the flight path for take-off and landing).  Tragically, it only gets weirder and scarier for them after they leave the sales barn, post-auction.  They’ll move to somewhere new, with a whole host of unfamiliar people, and most will shortly begin their training in earnest:  girths and bits and someone on their backs well before they’ve turned two.

I am emphatically not one of those horsepeople who bemoans the cruelty of the racing industry.  I’m well aware of the economic necessity of things being done the way they are, that the performance horse industry in Ontario only exists in what health it does because the racing industry is there to anchor it, and that the majority of people involved in racing are compassionate horsepeople who love their animals and want to do right by them.  Furthermore, racing is a fantastic proving ground for the horses I myself want to buy and compete.  If they have survived the track with legs and brains intact, they are wonderful prospects for what I want to do.

But still.  For a yearling, it’s a lot.

Even the culture of showing the babies is a bit stupid.  The more popular yearlings in the catalogue might be dragged out of their stalls to be shown to potential buyers dozens of times a day.  Granted, they only have to walk up and down and stand quietly for inspection (the odds of either actually happening varying wildly depending on the colt or filly, what other stupid things might be happening in the vicinity at the time — like, say, an ill-timed garbage truck dumping its load 50 metres away — and the patience of the handler), but there’s this culture that says if you’ve requested to see a horse, you get to stare it on your own, and anyone else who might be interested has to wait his or her turn.  What harm it does to examine the horse at the same time as someone else who’s presumably making his/her own notes in his/her own catalogue, I can’t imagine, but it is somehow important to put the horse through more stress in order to cater to this fuckery.  It’s even worse when you’re asked to “show all” — which for me this year, meant dragging all 12 yearlings out of their stalls in order of their assigned hip numbers (and bloody quickly, too, doesn’t do to keep the client waiting), and then potentially doing it all over again three minutes after I’d finished.  Seems to me you could schedule shows of all the horses you’re offering at particular times, like, you know, a tour at the Ontario Science Centre:  viewings at 12:30, 3:00, and 5:30, and it’s show up then, or be SOL.  Not that the ideas of a lowly stall-mucker are likely to be given any currency.

Some of the yearlings handle it remarkably well.  Some, not so much.  The horses Willow Ridge had raised themselves were, for the most part, well-behaved, though a couple of the colts were typically testosterone-riddled, nippy and rude and one would be unwise to turn one’s back on either of them.  Par for the course.  One filly was sunshine and roses one minute, an ears-pinned banshee when she’d had enough of humanity; she was the one who crowded me up against the wall and tried to drill me in the head, only as I say, not my first rodeo and I got out from under her, amateur that she was.   Another elegant little chestnut filly I’d been warned about, turned out to be a sweetheart as long as you did everything in slow motion with her … a third, dark bay with chrome, just wanted to be cuddled and reassured, and out of the 12 was the one I’d have wanted to take home with me.

The consigned horses who came from elsewhere were all over the map, too.  There was a filly who’d received practically no handling, but plenty of sedatives, most of her life up till that point.  Sadly, she had to remain on chemical assistance during her time at the sale because she started to melt down in withdrawal otherwise; I hope whoever bought her gives her some downtime in a field to get clean before her education begins.  On the other end of the spectrum was a big, burly colt who clearly had been beautifully brought up.  He had lovely manners for his age, wasn’t aggressive in the slightest, took everything in stride, and was quickly nicknamed “the Dude”.  He might not be able to run his way out of a wet paper bag, but he’ll make an outstanding riding horse for someone someday.

Photo by Dave Landry.

Photo by Dave Landry.

Some youngsters learn fast in the pre-sale and sale environment, becoming more and more comfortable with the routine as the days pass, and easier to handle.  Others get, well, fried.  By the time the actual auction rolls around, the professionals take over to get them in the sales ring.  I found out a few years ago that there are actually professional handlers who do nothing but go from sale to sale, being hired to grapple with yearlings in the sales ring and make it look easy.  I had no idea, until then, that this was a thing, and I’m not enthusiastic enough about life on the road to do it myself, but if you like hotel rooms and being jerked around, then I gather you can make decent money doing it …

In the end, a couple of Willow Ridge’s horses sold for the kind of money they’d been hoping for, a few went for disappointingly less, two were pleasant surprises, and three who had reserves placed on them didn’t sell at all.  Overall, however, the sale was up about 50% from last year, which is outstanding news for the industry, even if no-one exactly feels like it can trust the provincial government’s current short-term commitment to the Ontario breeding program.  Once you’ve had the rug pulled out from you once, it’s rather difficult to expect the footing to remain stable ever again …

As for me?  Helped a couple of the new owners load their purchases onto trailers, wished all of the babies good homes and good luck and tried not to think too hard about the alternative — even after five days, I get invested (though it’s difficult to follow their careers when none of them exhausted-by-stupid-peoplehave names yet).  Pocketed my cheque, and staggered home to wash the khakis and sleep for a day and a half.  And I’ll probably do it again next year, because I’m told it’s kinda like childbirth:  if you really remembered what it was like, you’d never do it again, but a year from now the exhaustion and the abuse will have faded from my memory.  It’s possible.

 

 

 

 

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