Two years ago today, I sat on my couch and began thinking.
About what I wanted from my riding career. About the improvements I had made in the last year. About the two horses in my stable, and which I could afford.
I had just gotten home from the first show of the season, and realized I had some hard decisions to make.
My young horse had risen above all expectations, and in his first real show with jumps involved, he had come home with the blue in both his divisions—finishing on dressage scores of 20 and 26. And vice versa, my seasoned show pony had had a temper tantrum in the dressage to finish at novice on something like a 40.
And I started to wonder.
Did my seasoned show horse (who was only 8 at the time) really want to event? He seemed to hate dressage, and was about as unsupple as they came.
And vice versa, my young horse was what every upper level rider dreamed of. Big. Strong. Balanced. Opinionated. Scopey. Fancy.
So I did what I thought was necessary. I sold my “heart horse,” the plain Jane, the safe one to be a hunter, and I decided to keep the fancy one. Thinking I was heading to Rolex. Thinking I was making the right choice.
And two years later, I just have to shake my head at the ludicrousness of it all.
Because I just got back from that same show, with those two same horses. And oh how the tides have turned, and how karma has a fantastic way of smacking you upside the head.
Because Mak is back; and in two years he has gone from barely bending in a 20m circle at novice to scoring a respectable 35 in preliminary. And while his career as a hunter might have been short lasted, his knees in stadium are second to none. I couldn’t imagine a day where I didn’t have access to the ride on this horse, and just have to laugh at the fact that there was ever a time I considered him sellable.
In two years, he hasn’t just learned to bend, he has become downright fancy. In two years, he has chosen to not only to succeed as an event horse, but to enjoy it. And in two years, he has earned the love and support of so many along the way.
And vice versa, in two years, Nixon has selectively hit every road block that a horse possibly could. The most talented horse I have ever sat on, our journey has been filled with so many ups and downs. Broken bones and shattered dreams.
And yet this weekend, we made our journey around a redemption ride. Because although his improvement isn’t as apparent on paper, it is so apparent to everyone who has followed this journey.
Because for the first time in 18 months, Nixon was able to jump around a course. For the first time in 18 months, we finished on a number and not a letter. For the first time in 18 months Nixon didn’t have a broken bone, loaded on a trailer, entered a dressage ring on all 4 feet, and jumped all the jumps.
Two years ago, Nixon scored almost 20 points lower than he did yesterday. But two years ago, he was a different horse.
One year ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of entering a combined test, as I barely had control at home. But one year ago, he hadn’t scared himself (literally) to (almost) death.
So yesterday; while my dressage tests may have been more tense than I planned, and my stadium trips a bit more enthusiastic than I had wished for, I was so pleased.
Pleased that I could not only finish a show, but more importantly enter one.
Two years later, I somehow still own these two same horses. Both of their journeys have been rocky—one because of me and one because of himself. Both of their futures have been unstable at one point in time or another—one because of me and one because of himself. And both of them have come around.
Two years ago, I brought home two blue ribbbons, and today I have none. But my pride in these horses is somehow greater than it was two years ago.
Both of them have overcome. Both of them have turned a corner. And both of them are back. Maybe even better than ever.
So now, instead of looking at two years ago, I’m staring straight ahead. And I’m so excited for the future.
I hear it all the time.
“How do you do it?”
“How do you make time for it?”
“How do you juggle it all?”
And every time, I laugh. Because to me, it isn’t a question of how, but why.
Three inches of snow fell today in Lexington, Kentucky, and was still coming down at 4pm when I left the lab-having started my day at 7am on the research farm.
My plan has always been to give my horses the day off. The arena was white, the temperature was below freezing, and they didn’t “need” the exercise per se.
But then, one after another, my day crumbled. I received a medical bill. I got bad data from a project. I read a comment on Facebook that made my blood boil. And after hours of nothing but negativity, distress, and poor outcomes, I threw my laptop into my bag and called it a day.
And I drove to barn shaking my head. Trying to rationalize my bad day, the stress that comes with it, and the negativity seemed to seap into every other aspect of my life. I just felt like I couldn’t win, and didn’t know what to do to change that outcome.
But there was thing I could do-that I could change. I could change my decision to not ride. I could throw my bridle on my trustworthy Mak, and swing on over his thick winter blanket. I could take him through the gates of the farm and just let the world dissipate as I roamed the roads surrounding.
For it is not how I do it. No, no. That’s not even close. But it is why.
These animals, and the hours I have clocked both on them and alongside them, have gotten me through so much.
They have picked me up off the cold hard floor when the world drops me there unceremoniously. They have gotten me through break ups, the loss of friendships, a qualifying exam, and unfortunately death.
They are there when I feel as though I can’t get any lower, and each time, they recalibrate my soul. I know that they have been there at my absolute lowest, so I never question if they will be there on a less drastic day.
I don’t have them in my life to win fancy ribbons, or to be able to add stars in my name. Mak will never go above prelim, Nixon might never even complete an event, and lord knows Frank might not ever leave the farm. I don’t care if they are the prettiest, or the fanciest mover. I just care that they provide me an escape.
The distraction of a tough jump school. The quiet that comes from a long flat. The calm serenity of a good road hack. The bicep ache of a curry, or the world that is lost as you pull a mane.
I do my best thinking, I find my stability, and I recalibrate during that time.
So no, it’s not how. It’s why.
Because I have to. Just like eating. Or breathing. Or sleeping. That is riding for me. There is no other option.
A week ago, I was invited to speak to aspiring equine industry members on the topic of communications.
Scientist, I am. Farm manager, I am. OTTB retrainer, I am.
Communications person, I am not.
Yes, I am a blogger. And yes, I got a dual degree from my alma mater-one in both biology and creative English writing, but I felt as though I was a fraud.
Immediately next door to me sat Jen Roytz, and her business partner Sarah Coleman sat downstairs. Together they created Topline Communications, and singularly they were better suited for this talk than I.
So instead, I did what I’m good at. I advised.
I asked the students what their background was, and recommended future careers and goals. I was brutally honest about this lifestyle, and recommended paths away from many of the careers they dreamt of. It was hard. It was blunt. It was me.
And then I got a group of Kentucky Equine Management Interns (KEMIs) in. A group entirely made up of women this year, and a bright group that I always enjoy lecturing too. I had met this group of 30 women in January when I delivered their inaugural reproduction lecture, so they had already been introduced to me and my no nonsense attitude.
I began my talk by giving them a “how-to” in communications as a farm staff member.
Don’t post pictures you’re not allowed to (aka get clients permission).
Check your photos to make sure they have nothing in the background that would indicate poor horsemanship, management, or care of a farm.
Don’t post any photos of horses with catheters, bandages, or treatments of any kind.
Hesitantly mention the sire, but rarely state the mares name.
And finally, get good at conformation photos-few owners will refuse a stunning photo of their horse that highlights the good.
That was my communications talk. And it took all of 8 minutes out of my 30.
So I moved onto my one-woman show about various farm things. How to properly hold a hickory twitch. Why you shouldn’t give acepromazine to male horses. How to keep yourself safe while scoping a yearling. Why we don’t pull placentas.
Ya know, the fun stuff.
But then I asked them if they wanted to ask me any questions.
One student bravely volunteered and asked me what I thought the 5 greatest issues that the thoroughbred industry faces. And for a solid minute, I paused. It was a hard question, and one that wasn’t an easy list to make. So I started hesitantly, and then grew more passionate as I went.
1. Race Day Medications, an understanding of mass spectrometry, and the scientific setting of thresholds.
2. A National governing body that can set those race day medication thresholds, and standardize the treatment and care of all horses racing.
3. A ((more)) transparent industry that combats untruths spewed about them such as the Nursemare myth that has more followers on social media than The Bloodhorse or The Paulick Report.
4. Aftercare. We’ve made SO much progress, but so many tracks just aren’t getting the hint, or just don’t care. The situation down in Louisiana is both appalling and disgusting.
I had warned this same group of 20 22 yo’s of sexism after lecturing them about the reproductive physiology of the mare in January. I had watched their eyes slightly roll as I told them stories of my own experiences. Fast forward two months and the eye roll moved to incessant chatter about their own experiences.
But unlike what you might think, I didn’t tell them to whine, or panic. I told them to put their head down and do the work. I told them that they would want to cry on numerous occasions, but to wait until they were alone to do so, and then splash some water on their face and get back to their fork.
I told them that so many girls, and then women, had battled hard for them, even if they didn’t realize they were battling. People like Sandy Hatfield gaining stallion management positions, women like Veronica Reed following under her tutelage and most recently running the shed at Winstar.
Women like Mary Stewart, who become the first female in a management position at Claiborne, or women like Belinda Locke, who works her ass off in the position of yearling manager and enjoys the most of her time with the colts.
Women like Carrie Brogden who has shown the mind of a woman in the world of breeding, pinhooking, and sales. Or hell, Liz Crowe, who has done more in only a few years running her own bloodstock services than I could dream of in a lifetime.
In a nutshell, it is possible. Women are out there crushing it.
Does that mean that sexism doesn’t exist? Hell no. It’s there. And it’s strong.
Some farms still won’t hire women. Many didn’t allow women into the breeding shed until only 20 years ago. Clinics didn’t make females partners until about that same time, and many still don’t understand the meaning of maternity leave for their female vets. Harassment is still readily apparent on the backside and at the sales, and was something that Natalie Voss covered so well with Paulick.
But that doesn’t mean that women should run away from this industry.
Because this industry needs women.
From a “Women is Power” movement-they need people who are organized, empathetic, impassioned, and smart.
From a “By the Numbers” movement-90% of the current veterinary school admissions are women, 100% of the KEMI program, and 80% of the UK Ag Equine Programs are women. Women are who WANT to work with horses, so we need to let them.
That is the talk I have given so many of my students as I have lectured at Midway, Georgetown, KEMI, or UK.
You WILL meet sexism. But part of that sexism is believing that we are weaker, more emotional, less rationale, and unable to do the job.
So by being as strong as your counterparts (muck the same number of stalls, carry the same buckets of water, and buck the same number of bales), not bursting into tears (lets be honest, I have seen grown men cry at the track too), and being constantly organized, on track, and with the group—they can’t deny us.
The farms won’t be able to deny that you are capable. And others will see that capability at places like the sales, the shed, and the paddock. You WILL get there. And I truly believe this next generation will.
Times are changing. Minds are changing. And so many amazing women have lifted those bales, choked back those outbursts, and lifted their progeny into this world in order to get us to this point.
The glass ceiling of this business has been cracked, but it needs shattered.
Are you ready to be the one to take that task?
A little over a year ago, I received a Facebook message from a girl named Caroline.
She started by saying that we had been introduced via her boyfriend, whom I had known for years, and then quickly began her line of questions. She wondered if I taught lessons, and if I had lesson horses available to take those lessons on.
She explained that she had just committed to taking a Horse off the track, and although she had been an avid rider in Ireland during her childhood, adulthood had kicked in, and as she rose up the ranks of the thoroughbred breeding and racing industry, her riding career was placed aside.
I truly had a negative answer to both—as I was neither an avid “trainer” nor did I truly have lesson horses, but seeing something so similar to my own situation in her, I said yes.
We met at a local riding park and I tossed her up on my Mak-a horse that might run around the 1.10m with me one day, but can be used in an up/down lesson the next. Walk, trot, canter, and over a few fences we went.
I quickly realized that she was a better rider than she gave herself credit for, but that her confidence was shot.
But I knew that feeling.
That had been me. That had been 2011.
I hadn’t competed in an event since 2003. I hadn’t jumped a fence since 2007. I hadn’t polished a boot or braided a mane in as much time.
But just like Caroline, I was friends with people who had. And for one blissful summer, I reimmersed myself.
And just like Caroline, my goals in 2011 were limited.
I just wanted the escape of a horse; to feel the adrenaline of a good ride over a nice course. I wanted to compete at beginner novice max, and just not make an ass of myself.
I didn’t know if I could afford even the ownership on one horse, nonetheless 3. I had an old Crosby, a borrowed trailer, pull on tall boots that were purchased at Schneider’s in the year 2000.
And I had a BLAST.
Flash forward 7 years and I now own 3.5 horses. I am hoping to move up to preliminary on one, and 2nd level on another.
I look back at those pictures and am horrified of a lot.
My lower leg. My terrible braids. My jump saddle in a dressage ring. My ghetto fabulous illfitting cavesson. I note my brush boots on my XC schools, my child sized safety vest and my sombrero like helmet.
And a few months ago, Caroline lamented of these same inadequacies to none other than my boyfriend.
She told him that she felt like she would never get to the point where she could afford that trailer, or that dressage saddle. She said that she just wanted to go beginner novice and not fall off. She felt like she would never get “there,” that mythical land of comfort, confidence, and ability.
And Luke just turned to her and laughed.
He told her that those words sounded so similar to a girl he used to know. One who cried herself to sleep because she didn’t think she could afford one single horse. The girl who had to gulp 3 beers before being sent out on her first BN XC course in 10 years. The girl who never matched. Never had the newest tack. The one who arrived slightly disheveled but smiling.
Because while that girls tack was older, and her stock tie was askew, one thing was always there—and that was her smile.
7 years later, it’s still there.
If someone had told me 7 years ago that I would be considering a move up to prelim, I would have fallen to the ground laughing. If someone had told me 7 years ago that I would sacrifice every dinner out, vacation, and new fashion in order to afford a truck, trailer, board, and entry fees to make that possible, I would have rolled my eyes.
But if someone had told me 7 years ago that I had finally re-introduced myself to happiness, I would have agreed.
Hindsight is 20/20, but it can be viewed at any stage of your life. You might not see the future that lies ahead of you, but know that if you’re truly passionate and loving every second of the journey, that the road ahead is lined with things you would have never thought imaginable—or possible.
My path has been far from linear, but oh so enjoyable. And the best part is getting to watch others follow in the wake of it. People like Caroline, who are in the beginning of that secondary journey, or even the many who I know who are beginning their breaks.
Horses are always, and will always be, something you can come back to. It might seem far off. It might seem impossible. But while the future is blurry, it is possible. Hindsight is 20/20, but the road ahead is nicely laid with ascending oxers and passage.
You might not be able to see that futuristic place ahead, but just know that it’s there. All you have to do is keep your eyes up, your shoulders back, and keep kicking.
Recently, a story broke about animal neglect in Indiana.
A woman named Chrissy Francies had first ten, and then an additional six, horses seized from her property after a neighbor called the local animal control because he was alarmed at how many horses were being buried on her property.
He reported having seen seven horses die in the past year, and three within the month of January, and finally decided to do something.
Animal control came to the farm and found ten horses with a body condition score of 1- and yet almost all of their bodies hidden with thick winter blankets. But once those blankets were pulled, a horror scene was noticed underneath. Pelvises which showed months, if not years, of malnourishment. Ribs protruding. Spines standing alone, unattended by muscle or fat. And soulless eyes of these animals wondering if anyone cared. Two have already died since being seized.
But the truly horrifying thing was that, in almost each of these cases, someone did care. And still does.
So many of these horses were given to Chrissy by a legitimate source. Adoption agencies like New Vocations, or a trainer like Jen Roberto. People who rehome, rehab, and resource thoroughbreds for a living. People who have been doing this their whole lives, like Stacy Emory or Michelle Craig. People who are impassioned by finding the perfect home for the perfect mount.
People like me.
I almost gave Chrissy my own horses. She had inquired about a friends HenryTheNavigator. She had inquired of a farms retired broodmare. Hell, she had inquired about Kennedy—my very own homebred that I was so adamant about finding a life of love for.
And each time, I was excited that she was interested. We had hundreds of mutual friends. I had met her at a local charity show sponsored by a rehoming organization. She messaged me frequently with questions regarding veterinary care, breeding, and genetics. And she showed no signs of being anything other than what I thought she was. A good person.
Chrissy appeared to take the horses that were so hard to rehome-so hard to find a permanent fix for. She offered to lease, or buy, the ones with injuries. The older broodmare. The War Horse.
And because we knew of nothing out of sort, we gave them to her.
And honestly, I do not know what is worse. The fact that this woman, who apparently suffers from some form of mental illness predisposing her towards hoarding, had so many horses in her care which suffered endlessly-some resulting in death.
Or the fact that apparently so many people knew of her transgressions and never said a word.
We have read in the comments that she was referred to as Crazy Chrissy. That she was run out of boarding facilities, and that it was known that she had too many horses and that none of them were receiving proper care. It was known that she didn’t pay her bills and that her social media was a spectacular joke.
But that was local.
And it is 2018. We live in a globalized world. And so many horses had to suffer because no one was willing to take a risk. To stick their neck out. To be the bad guy and cry foul.
I know what that’s like. I am usually exactly that guy. I have been the one to stick my neck out and receive the threats. I have been sent letters from attorneys, and comments threatening injury to my body and my home. I have been sent messages from friends telling me that I am in the wrong.
That the number of times I risk sticking my neck out for the betterment of the horse will be directly proportionate to my inability to make it in this business.
And to that, I say fine.
I am sick of living in a world where we ignore criminal action. I am sick of living in a world where we fear doing the right thing because it might highlight your wrongdoings in the past. I am sick of living in a world where we attempt to dig dirt on anyone who casts a stone. And I’m sick of living in a world where our consciences can’t be clear enough to cast that first stone.
So here I am to say it.
If you hear something, search with your own two eyes.
If you smell something, there’s probably something rotting.
And if you see something, say something.
We live in a strange world. One where 50% of our industry is made up of 4-legged creatures which can’t fight for themselves. Which can’t leave a job they detest. Which can’t forage for themselves.
And animal cruelty laws are weak, but public notoriety is strong. We might not be able to change the laws, but we can most certainly change the path. For our fellow equestrians. For our beloved horses.
The government might not protect them, but we can protect each other. We can alert each other.
We just need to be stronger.
And the biggest advocate for the horses we love.
Because at the end of the day, if you know abuse or neglect is occurring and you’re turning the other way, you are no better than the abuser themselves. Remember that. Live with that. Take that to heart. And do something. Say something.
But until you do, I will.
There are horses you love for yourself. There are horses you love for others. And there are horses that you have never met and feel a connection to. And when we lose that love, that connection to one of the greats, it hurts more than a shot to the heart.
This morning, we lost one. And today, so many of us are feeling that pain.
A few weeks ago, while lamenting at the decline of our sport of eventing, I got into an argument with a group of friends. They argued that our sport has become one of money. The wealthy can afford the imports, the FEI events, and the fancy trainers. And while the wealthy rise, us lowly average middle-classed people stays stagnant.
We can’t afford to go south for the winter. We can’t afford to buy a 3* horse, or go shopping in Europe. And because of that, our chances at the big leagues are infinitesimal.
But I argued. I had seen it happen. I had seen one get there – both rider and horse. And I had had the honor of following it simply by luck.
Kelly Sult and I had grown up in Pony Club together, both members of the Lost Hounds Pony Club. We competed against each other on similar type ponies – hers named Hooter and mine named Chocolate, and we both outgrew them at roughly the same time. And then as so many do, we both moved onto bay thoroughbreds.Only hers was different.
Because I remember Reggie before he was Hollywood. Before he had jumped around some of the largest tracks in North America. I remember him as the recusant maverick of the barn. The horse no one wanted to ride, nonetheless own. I remember his tall lanky body, and his feared hind legs. I remember his owner lamenting of her fear of him, and the trainers response that he was nuts.
And I remember Kelly coming and taking him, and beginning their journey. She wasn’t a professional rider by any means, in fact, she was just a kid. But in a family where a retired 4* horse or an import wasn’t an option, she took a chance.
Because where others saw fear, Kelly saw the look of eagles.And she will be the first to say that it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies at first. They were eliminated from their first event with three stops at the water. Added another 60 at their second event at that same obstacle. But once they got him over that fear, there was no looking back.
And she just ticked off the levels, one at a time.
Kelly and I moved into different phases of our lives at this time, but I always followed along from afar. I appreciated her try. I appreciated knowing that someone could get up the levels with little more than natural ability, help from family and friends, a good horse, and a whole hell of a lot of try.
I journeyed North for college while she kept riding. Kept trying. She didn’t train with the big boys, and she didn’t buy the fanciest tack. Her father, a truck driver, purchased every book he could find on eventing, and he became her eyes on the ground. Her mother and sister came and groomed at every event they could. And her team from back in Erie, PA and its surrounding areas cheered from afar whenever we could.And I remember sitting in my fathers hospital room in Pittsburgh in 2008 trying to convince him to watch Rolex. With one eye on the screen and the other on the chemotherapy dripping into his veins, I can vividly remember hearing the name “Kelly Sult” come over the quiet volume, and turning my eyes up to the screen. I remember my fathers lack of interest in the Rolex Kentucky 3 Day event suddenly being perked when he realized we knew “that girl” from home. For a few hours my father pretended to be interested in eventing. For a few hours we spoke of horses without fighting. Without screaming. For a few hours, this daring young rider covered in purple and her rugged thoroughbred distracted us from the world. From the pain. And I will forever be indebted to them for that.
Soon after that inaugural Rolex (where she placed 14th and was the highest placed young rider) I moved to Lexington, Ky and got to see Kelly more often. With Area 8 Eventing extending from Northwestern, PA all the way to The Bluegrass, we attended many of the same events, and her family was always quick to lend a helping hand to a fellow Lost Hounder, or video a round for me. We would get to catch up, and I would always ask about Reggie, that bullish thoroughbred I had known since way back. She would always giggle, and say that Reggie was still Reggie. The man of the barn. Her heart horse.
And each April, my family would reconvene around the rolling hills of the Kentucky Horse Park, along with hundreds of other riders from my home grounds of PA, we would all search for that beautiful glistening bay with his ears up and his eyes searching. We would all cheer for Team Hollywood and scream as “one of us” made it around from one massive obstacle to the next.
Reggie ran his last Rolex in 2011, at the age of 19. He didn’t know his own age, but Kelly knew he was ready. He deserved a retirement of lush grass and turn out. Occasionally he packed around her kids for up/down lessons. Occasionally she swung on for a hack or to pony a young horse. But at the end of the day, he just enjoyed his time as the leader of the farm. The big man. The one who turned her into the rider she now was and forever will be.And this morning, after a beautiful day of sunshine in Pennsylvania yesterday, Reggie took him last breath. He did it with poise. He did it with grace. Just like he had done so much of his career.
For almost twenty years now, we have all been blessed by this horse. And now, on January 30th, 2018, we are all heartbroken.
And I say we because this team, this duo of unlikely ability, was an emblem to so many of us. For all of us at Erie Hunt & Saddle Club. All of us at Lost Hounds Pony Club. All of us in the Tri-State Region, and all of us from Area 8 Eventing.
Reggie and Kelly showed us that you didn’t need a last name. You didn’t need a fancy pedigree. You didn’t need to train with an Olympian. You didn’t need to have a team of working students, or a trust fund.Reggie was a beacon of the heart and soul that the thoroughbred breed encompasses. He showed so many what was possible if the horse is matched with the right rider. He proved to so many that taking a chance doesn’t always equate failure. He was everything that we hope to find in our next mount, and more. And at the end of the day, Kelly allowed him to be that horse.
I am so saddened for Kelly.
I am so saddened for her sister and her parents.
I am so saddened for her entire support crew.
But at the same time, I’m so happy.
I’m so happy I got to witness this journey. I am so happy Kelly got to be on it. I am so happy that we got to see this unfold. To see the path that can be paved if you just match the right rider with the right horse, work your ass off, and believe.
I am so happy that Reggie found his girl. And I am so happy that he left us with grace. In peace.
They say that when horses die of old age, they are finally free. From the aches and pains of a long career. From the slow and steady gaits they used to never know. I believe that is true here, and that Reggie is finally freed of a body that has aged more quickly than a mind.
So today, I hope he is running that Rolex track yet again. Soaring over the hammock and diving into the head of the lake. And if we look into the sky tonight, maybe we’ll just see a streak of purple as the sun sets and the clouds fade on another day. I know that’ll be Reggie racing the clouds. Running free. Running happy.
We’ll miss you Reggie. You were truly one of the greats.
I’m sure by now, many of you have seen the video about cloning and genetic engineering.
Published by the World Economic Forum in a short 60 second video, it proclaimed that a company was only two years from producing the first genetically engineered super horse. That through the use of cloning and altering the genome of our great runners and jumpers, we could produce horses that jump higher, run faster, turn tighter, and altogether are BETTER than the horses we have in existence.
Soon after this was posted, it was tagged along with the idea that these horses would be allowed in the *gasp* Olympics, and equestrian fans everywhere ran to their keyboards to say just how unfair this would be. How grotesque it would be. How we were all about to play God.
And I had to do everything in my power not to throw a little bit of science smackdown on the outpouring of rage.
I told myself that it wasn’t worth it, that the general public wouldn’t understand just how radicalized this video had made one companies mission statement.
But then I realized that this is exactly what this blog SHOULD be. Science. Written in a way for the mass public to understand it. So here I go. I shall try to talk you all off of your ledges, and hopefully educate some in between the lines.
Cloning: Single Cell Nuclear Transfer
Cloning is a quite simple idea, wrapped in some crazy complex science in order to get it to work. But in a nutshell, it begins with a horse that you want to clone. Now, as the procedure costs upwards of $100,000, it would be believed that only a horse of tremendous value would be considered. This horse, this valuable creature, is considered the “Somatic Donor” and donates their DNA through a variety of cell types – but usually hair.
Now, in addition to this horse, another cell from another horse is retrieved – specifically the oocyte, or egg. This horses DNA should not matter, as the nucleus – or the organelle filled with the genetic material, will be removed before it is ever utilized.
And in its place, the nucleus of the valuable animal will be implanted. This allows for the genetic material of one animal to be within the cellular structure of another. And this can then grow within the laboratory in a nice little petri dish full of fun nutrients at a specific temperature. And if the embryo survives, this is about where the cloning aspect of the procedure ends, and the embryo transfer aspect begins.
Because, just like in a standard embryo transfer procedure, this embryo is then implanted into a recipient mare. A mare that is chosen for her reproductive soundness, her physical soundness, her temperament, and her mothering ability. This is usually done at roughly day 7 after the clone is made, and when the recipient mare is heavily in diestrus and producing that magical progesterone which will both nurture the embryo while also telling the mare that she is pregnant!
And then, if all goes perfectly, in roughly 340 days, we have a beautiful baby pony.
Now, none of this is new. There are many famous clones walking amongst us – and there are quite a few commercial companies which will do this for you. The famous racier Storm Cat has a handful of clones existing in Argentina as polo sires, William Fox Pitts event mount Tamarillo has been recreated, and the first clone of jumper Gem Twist was born 10 years ago in 2008.
So where is the outrage stemming from?
It’s not the cloning. Its the genetic engineering.
CRISPR/Cas9: Genetic Engineering
For the past couple of years, researchers have been using a technique called CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the genes of research animals with the hopes of potentially being able to edit them in humans. Is this playing with God? Maybe. But when your child has a genetic mutation that can lead to life ending diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis, and you can change this by altering one gene within their genome, it sounds pretty amazing.
And this is where the science gets tough, and I won’t delve too deep.
In a nutshell, the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system allows us to cut, implant, or replace genetic material that we want to change. It has been successAnd in a life/death situation, this is fascinating. In a run fast/jump higher situation, it sounds simply ridiculous.
But that is where we all need to pause, and think about what exactly we intend to engineer.
There is only one gene that has been found to correlate with “running faster” and it is myostatin. Only the myostatin gene doesn’t predict if your horse will win races, it simply predicts which distance your horse will be best suited for, and this was well studied and found by Dr. Emmeline Hill in Ireland.
There are 4 types of molecules which make up our double stranded DNA: Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine, or A, C, G, and T. And these are what come together to create our genes.
The Genes to Engineer:
And in the gene for myostatin — an important aspect of muscle development — researchers found that C/C horses are suited to fast, short-distance races; C/T horses compete favorably in middle-distance races; and T/T horses have greater stamina and may be best suited to longer distances. Their take away? C/C and C/T horses will do better in the 2 year-old sales, while T/T horses *might* just be more well suited to marathon distance and possibly steeplechase.
Does this mean that we *could* genetically engineer a racehorse specifically to suit our distance preference? Sure. Except the Jockey Club won’t allow it.
And this is one of the main reasons why. While so many people lament the fact that the Jockey Club only allows the use of natural live cover breeding with no assisted reproductive techniques, at the root of it was because of something like this. In the thoroughbred industry, we do not want anyone to play God. And while everyone misunderstands the demand that we do not perform artificial insemination, or embryo transfer, or cloning, at the base of it is to avoid something like this.
But in the sport horse disciplines, we can.
Only in the sport horse disciplines, this information is fairly useless, at least now. The eventer, jumper, reiner, or dressage horse doesn’t just run. They also jump, turn, spin, and passage. And there is no gene that has been found to specifically correlate to success in any of these things in the way that myostatin was found to correlate with distance of race for the thoroughbred.
Therefore, there’s simply nothing to mutate, or engineer….now.
It is not the Olympic Committee, or FEI’s, job to discern whether a cloned horse can or cannot compete, as it is the breed industries and organizations which govern the actual registration of the animal, and just how that animal was created.
Because one could already say that the warmbloods which are bred with embryo transfer are also at an advantage over anyone bringing an OTTB to an FEI event.
With embryo transfer, we can also discern the sex of the embryo, and are perilously close to testing embryos for genetic disorders and allowing the owner to choose which embryo they would like the veterinarian to implant into the recipient. And this is playing God nearly as much as genetic engineering with CRISPR/Cas9.
There is only one breed organization which does not allow assisted reproductive techniques, and as stated previously, that is the thoroughbred.
But even the thoroughbred uses therapeutics and drug interference to get mares which would otherwise be considered infertile, pregnant. Even the thoroughbred manipulates the stallions via hormonal therapy to get a stallion with low sperm count to cover the desired amount of mares. We’ve all given ovulation-inducing drugs like hCG or deslorelin. We’ve all administered Regumate to a mare with an incompetent cervix. We’ve all used immunomodulators on a horse that pools fluid.
In a way, we are all playing God.
We are a far, far, way away from finding specific genes which actually impact the success of a show horse. So much of it is because its not just one gene, so much of it is because of the nature surrounding a horse.
And you can take a genetically superb horse and it can get into a trailer accident and never again like confined spaces. You can clone Gem Twist and miss a distance to a jump at the age of 4 and train him to not enjoy the process. You can clone Tamarillo and have him find a divot in the water complex and choose to never go back in one.
Now what can/should genetic engineering be used for? Well, any genetic disease which has been found disastrous for the breed. HYPP in quarter horses, Lavender Foal Syndrome in Arabians, and maybe even diseases that have always had assumed genetic components without any scientific basis: like cryptorchidism, or Wobblers Syndrome. It would be possible to take a horse that you intend to use as a breeding stallion, but will not be allowed into the breed book due to a genetic issue, and clone him to produce a stallion who will.
Those reasons are legit, and will be interesting to study.
Will we one day find the genes which make a horse great performers? I don’t know, but honestly I don’t think so. So many horses have overcome bad genetics, while others have never risen to the fame of their siblings. This hasn’t been overcome by breeding with statistics or science. This won’t be overcome by cloning. This won’t be overcome by genetic engineering.
Because at the end of the day, the most important aspect of the horse isn’t the genes for its speed, or its jump. It’s the genes that transcribe to the heart.
And that, my friends, can never be engineered.
In 1988 my father bought season tickets to the Buffalo Bills.
And ten years after that, the Buffalo Bills are making their first playoff bid in my adult life.
It’s 2018. It’s time to BILLieve again.
The following week I submitted an essay on my belief system. I scripted my way through that first weekend in October spent far far away from campus.
My dad had been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia after attending a Buffalo Bills game. We sat in the 27th row in front of the 30 yard line, and he had walked up the same flight of stairs he had every other game of the 19 years of his reign there – but for the first time, he felt winded.
He had left the game, scheduled an appointment with his general physician, and waited. His physician told him he was the epitome of health. His weight was down. His cholesterol was better. His BP great for a 51 year old man. He didn’t see the problem.
But my father remembered the exhaustion he had felt climbing those stairs and demanded further testing. And a surgeon himself, he wrote up his own bloodwork. Twelve hours later I received the worst phone call of my life.
My dad had cancer.
And so I travelled to Pittsburgh, Pa to be by his side, and I wrote.
I didn’t know what to believe. I wasn’t my father, and my faith in God wasn’t strong. I wasn’t my sister, who was finishing up her medical school to become a surgeon like my father, and my faith in medicine was weak. I didn’t have much to cling on to.
The internet told me that my father had a 27% chance at life. The doctors told us it was maybe a tiny bit higher due to his age and health. So maybe a 35% chance, or 40%.
The odds were stacked against him. The chances were not good.
And I sat down in front of the television that Sunday night thinking terrible thoughts. My father was going to die. My family was going to shatter.
And then I turned on the TV and began to cheer for my Buffalo Bills.
They played the Cowboys that night, and I knew their chances were terrible. The Buffalo Bills had lost their street cred considerably since the time my father began cheering for them.
He had gone to all 4 Super Bowls. He had seen them in all of their glory. But, in 2007 that glory was gone. They were pretty terrible.
And yet every season, every game, I cheered again. I adorned myself in the Kelly, and then the Flutie, and then the McGahee jersey. I drove to Buffalo from wherever I was living at the time. And I screamed.
I screamed in hope. I screamed in exasperation. I screamed in elatement. And I screamed in anger.
But I kept screaming.
Because I BILLieved.
I believed in a team that repeatedly was 6-10, or 7-9. A team that never had the odds in their favor but showed up to play every weekend, year in and year out. A team whose fans never gave up hope—even if we were playing the Pats or the Steelers. A team who never tired, even if they were jumping snow drifts into the end zone.
He might only have a 30% chance at beating that disease, but I was a Bills fan. I had rooted for worse. I had seen greater upsets. I knew it was possible.
And for 11 months, I held that firmly in my mind.
My father ended up losing that battle, but not without trying to make that 55 yard field goal kick at the very end. Just like my team.
He was cremated in his jersey, and we demanded the opening game of 2008 be played at his calling hours.
For three hours, as people attempted to say their goodbyes to a great man and sympathesize with his family, our eyes were trained to the televisions that we demanded the funeral home have. And we watched as OUR team stomped on Seattle that day. We knew it was for our dad. We knew it was for the Bills greatest fan. We knew he was smiling in heaven.
It’s been 10 years now since the Bills true Twelth man left us. Ten years where we’ve kept those season tickets, and kept the faith.
My father created a strong family. A family who doesn’t give up. A family who roots for the underdog, who doesn’t care when the odds are stacked against them.
My little brother thinks my dad was holding up that ball that Dalton passed. My sister thinks he was smiling on the sidelines. My mother cried, and I screamed. We were all in different states and different worlds, but we were together on that field.
We were going to Jacksonville.
We were going to that game.
We didn’t care how much the tickets, or the flights, or the hotels would cost.
We were going to reunite on the side of that field, and we were going to scream.
This belief system has gotten us through so much. It has gotten us through decades of grief and pain, the good and the bad. It has gotten us through devastation and regret. Losing our #1 fan.
It has gotten us through life.
So on Sunday, I BILLieve.
On Sunday, I’ll throw my faith behind a team who’s odds are stacked against them. Who’s chances are small. I’ll scream for the team my father learned to love in the 80’s and for the team his children have learned to love since.
I’ll be surrounded by the biggest Bills fans I know to exist, and missing the biggest Bills fan that used to.
He’ll be watching.
He’ll be BILLieving.
I hope you will too.
About two weeks ago, I sold a horse.
It’s been a few years since I have actually sold one, although a few have been for sale, and one even left my care only to return quickly.
And through that processes: the showings, the vettings, the negotiations, the panicked phone calls and the trek to Virginia, I started to think that maybe horse sales were not for me.
Two years ago I thought I could sell anything, and so I took on a horse that didn’t fit the majority of my prerequisites of what was a good project horse. Nixon was a little bit too old, a little bit too angry, and a little bit too much of a pro ride to be an easy or quick sale.
But like the rest, I put the blood, sweat, and tears into him. What he lacked in rideability, he made up for in good looks. What he lacked in amateur friendly bevahior, he made up for in athleticism that a professional would crave.
And yet when push came to shove, he was both too good and too unmarketable to sell. On a good day, Nixon is worth $50,000, and on a bad, I wouldn’t be able to get him on the trailer to even head to auction.
So, after 12 months of hard work, numerous tear-ridden phone calls to friends and family, and one blue ribbon at the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover, I took him off the market.
Mak was everything Nixon was not. He was kind, he was calm. He was amateur friendly and a packer type.
And just as quickly, he was home.
I don’t know who suffered more in that escapade: Mak or me. While Mak came home fairly unphased by his month in Virginia, I was left fairly traumatized by the whole process and the aftermath.
Because I have always considered myself two things: a good baby trainer, and a good match maker. I do not consider myself a horse seller or trader, and never take on more than one at a time.
I am not good at teaching horses upper level movements or selecting the ones that will go to the international stage, but I am good at selecting a sound body, a good brain (well, minus Nixon), and then putting a solid foundation on that young horse.
And once that foundation is there, I used to love nothing more than finding the perfect match to take that horse to the next level. And I love following them in their journey. The Ainsleys and Skylars of my resume have brought me so much joy, and knowing that we found a great horse for that perfect rider and then watching them blossom together has been so rewarding.
But with Nixon, and then Mak, I began to question every aspect of this process that I used to enjoy. I hadn’t selected the best brain in Nixon. I hadn’t found the best match for Mak. And because of my delinquency, I believed my horses had suffered.
I always wondered about what Mak went through during his trip to Virginia, and if he resented me for putting him in that situation. I always wondered if Nixon could be at the 2* level by now if he had gone to a better rider, someone more capable than me.
So for two years I stayed away from it. I didn’t take on a project and I didn’t sell a horse.
But then I began to realize just how much I missed the journey. How much I missed watching that perfect person sit on a horse you created yourself the first time. The first time you get to cheer them on at a show. The first time you get to watch them tackle that next level or new movement.
So I got another project horse. A polo pony who had grown too tall was bestowed upon me by the farm my boyfriend is a manager of, and on October 1st, I began to lay the cement of this foundation.
And for 2 months we bonded.
I took Sig for his first trailer ride, his first horse show. I showed him his first Dressage ring and his first cross country fence. I put his first blanket on him, and his first brush boot. We went for first hacks and first gallops, and everything in between.
And after a little bit of time, I had a pretty good idea of who I wanted to match him with. I wanted a capable rider who could bring out the best in him, while understanding that he didn’t need a professional to finish the job. I wanted someone who would do the things he loved while understanding that he was a blank slate that could go in any direction. And most importantly, I wanted someone who would love him as much as myself, my friends, and this farm had come to.
And I found her.
Lindsey contacted me a few weeks ago and inquired about the big baby. She asked all of the right questions, and I answered as honestly as I had ever done. I knew that I was never going to be the sketchy seller, who lies through their teeth. My prior failed sales had taught me that a bad sale was worse than no sale at all, and I responded as such.
I told her he could be a turd to bridle. I told her that he had gone through a phase where we couldn’t catch him. I told her that he had only ever been on a trailer with a ramp. And I told her that he would do just about anything if grain was involved. I told her he hated saddlebreds dressed as peacocks, and he demanded to be in the lead.
And she responded by saying that none of that phased her—he was only 3, wasn’t he?
So she made travel arrangements and drove to Lexington less than 48 hours later. And we bonded the minute that we met. We talked ponies and politics, relationships and friendships, and then I threw her up on the sweet baby and knew from the first circle that it was meant to be.
Sig shipped out last weekend to Maryland where he will pursue a life full of mystery. Lindsey has prehistorically done the jumpers, but has also dabbled in fox hunting, eventing, and dresssage, and I’m sure Sig and I will be able to convince her to do all of the above.
And for a week now, I have been reminded of why I used to love this. The comfort in knowing your horse is safe. In knowing he is loved. The excitement over what lies ahead and what updates you will receive. And the enjoyment you get out of watching the journey from afar.
I don’t know if or when I’ll get another project horse, but I do know that my heart, my conscience, and my soul are ever so slightly healed. Sig and Lindsey showed me that I do have a purpose in this massive world that we live on.
That I am still good at laying that foundation. At making that match. And at watching it unfold.
So who knows, maybe I’ll get back in the game. In the meantime, there’s one more horse out there that I get to cheer on. That I get to point to and say “I helped him find her.” And that I get to love from afar, knowing how good his life will be because of that good start. That solid foundation. And the love that went into it.
I awakened on Friday morning and just stared at the comments. Thursday evening had been spent in a state of distress; a state of overwhelming fear, sadness, and this sick sense of loss.
I am not good at ignoring things. I am not good at not doing. I am not good at sitting on my hands. I am not good at being still while watching others suffer.
And therefore watching the barns of San Luis Reys Training Center burn was excruciating for a doer like me.
I had been through barn fires before. I had watched as the entire 2yo crop of a farm my partner managed go up in flames. I had watched a trainer need to be sedated as he heard his horses scream. And I had seen the devastation afterwards.
And yet this time it was bigger. It was greater. It was scarier.
But I didn’t know what to do, sitting in Lexington Kentucky.
So I shared a few Facebook statuses of where donations could be made. I asked my California blog followers and numerous friends which this writing has connected me to to go help. I begged for clothes and toiletries to be shipped. And then I sat on my hands, not knowing what else to do.
Until I saw a Facebook status of a kindred spirit-another horsewoman who felt the same. Renee Dailey had posted that she was in a state of distress watching her fellow horsemen suffer, and wanted to help. She wanted to gather a group of horsemen and women from Kentucky and get them there.
So I called her.
I had worked sales for Renee and her partner Tom VanMeter before, and asked if I was what she was looking for, and she immediately said yes.
She wanted horsemen who could handle a 3yo intact colt, bandage a leg, and triage a case. She wanted someone who could stay calm under pressure, and not be unraveled by the severity of the situation. I made the cut, as did my significant other Luke Sullivan, who needed to do little more than tell his boss Greg Goodman of Mt. Brilliant Farm that he had been offered an opportunity to help the horses in California to be given the time off.
Renee found the people — and quite easily. But what she then needed were the money and supplies, and the way to get us there.
So she hit the pavement. She and Tom called every connection they could think of. And what started as a simple Facebook plea and a phone call quickly became a thing in it of itself.
Spendthrift offered their private jet to get us horsemen and women to California. Ron and Barbara Perry offered their home in addition to their truck and trailer for once we got there. And countless companies and farms offered their money, supplies, and medications to help us once we got there. Hagyard Pharmacy immediately gathered boxes of meds, KBC Horse supplies gathered bandages and supplies, and we packed our bags with a change of clothes and chain shanks.
We were off.
And as I looked around the plane flying there, I couldn’t think of a more miscellaneous crew of people from Kentucky. Or a more perfect.
We had a broodmare manager in Luke-but someone who was also skilled in hauling and handling dangerous horses. We had a business manager from PM Advertising in Caroline Walsh, but someone who was a skilled horse handler herself and whom had unlimited connections. We had the Thoroughbred specialist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER) in Erin Hogan, but a woman who had worked as a veterinary technician for decades, and who had triaged countless other disasters. We had Twin Creeks farm and stallion owner Randy Gullett, who had trained countless racehorses himself and knew the backside like the back of his hand. We had bloodstock agent Sean Feld, who knew California racing and had a limitless supply of connections to get supplies and donations. And we met up with Allegra Lee and Renee Dailey once we arrived. Two fierce, impassioned, and driven women who were ready to delegate.
And we had me. Previously a farm manager, currently a scientist, and continuously associated with every entity that is this breed.
Renee was truly the woman in charge, and got us arranged and on our missions.
None of us had a famous pedigree. None of us had a famous last name. No one came for a publicity stunt or for good PR.
So we simply unloaded our trash bags and cardboard boxes of supplies from the fancy airplane and hit the ground running.
The Racing Office was well organized and knew exactly what they needed us to go hunting for. Horses had already been triaged by the time we arrived and the medical need from our side was limited.
But what was needed were THINGS.
Trainers had not only lost horses, but also tack rooms full of supplies. From their own saddles and bridles to their personal medical supplies, blankets, desks, and grooming kits.
Grooms lived in the barns and dormitories and lost even more. These men and women who stayed behind to save and rescue their horses had taken the hardest hit and lost everything but the clothes on their backs. They needed, and will continue to need, everything from clothing to supplies like microwaves, hot plates, food, and assistance.
But if they were lucky and didn’t have their living quarters burned down, they were now tasked with the additional commute from where they lived around SLR to Del Mar, which takes 30 minutes on a good day, and 60 in traffic. Men and women who were accustomed to, and could afford, a 5-10 minute commute are now draining their accounts just to get to the horses that they love and the jobs they need.
And some of those horses were still missing. Still unidentified. Still lost to the world and unknown if they were dead or alive.
So our groups divided and conquered. Erin to help the veterinarians. Allegra, Renee, and Sean to gather and deliver supplies. And Luke, Caroline, and I utilized our donated microchip scanners from The Jockey Club and various Lexington veterinarians to go identify missing horses—3 of which we were able to locate and return to their trainer, which was one of the most emotional and gratifying experiences of my life.
It was a whirlwind few days, and yet we were happy to realize that we were mostly unneeded, and have now begun our return to Lexington and the Bluegrass. The horsemen and women of California had it under control.
If there was anything that we learned or saw the most of while in Southern California, it was their tenacity and resilience. They had lost almost 50 horses, with a handful still missing. They were tired, they were grieving, but they were strong, and tough, and would be ok.
I also learned other things during my travels up and down the Pacific coast trying to find horses. Trying to relieve owners of their pain. Trying to assess, organize and help the situation. Many of these things need to be discussed on another day, many need to be handled now.
One: Please, microchip all of your horses. We learned in our whirlwind weekend how helpful this was in the identification of them. And this goes for young and old, expensive or cheap, thoroughbred or none. The microchips cost between $25-50 and are invaluable in the identification of horses in scary, extreme, and dangerous situations.
Two: Have a plan. And stick to it. I watched the video of the horses being turned loose and was just in shock and awe of how they ran together and for the most part stayed uninjured and intelligent. It was the best plan for the horses, and the men and women who did it did the right thing, and saved hundreds of lives. So sit down with your staff and talk about these things. What do we want them to do in a fire. A tornado. A flood.
Three: This is the hardest one for me, and I know I will get enraged comments to type it, but here goes. We need a national governing body for thoroughbred breeding, racing, and everything in between. There were so many people doing so many things, and while it stayed relatively organized, there were still moments of chaos and confusion.
We cannot always rely on donations from farms and owners. We cannot always assume that the racing office will have the time, energy, or ability to alert the troops. We cannot always turn to Thoroughbred Charities of America and ask them to man disasters and problems as if they were the Red Cross. Or FEMA for thoroughbreds. We will not always have a Trifecta Farm across the road from the disaster, or a team of capable horsemen within driving distance. We need a plan in place for ourselves. Our industry. Our horses.
The men and women of California were shocked and appalled that horsemen and women came all of the way from Kentucky. We heard constant thanks and a lot of gratitude, but moreso we just heard their stories.
Stories of bravery. Stories of heroics. Stories of desperation, and of despair.
We found trainers in a panic that they still hadn’t found their horses, and heard their tears when we called them back to say we had the horses and they were alive.
And we saw an industry that, yet again, came together. An industry that is constantly berated for only being “in it” for the money. An industry that made no profit off of these last few days, and in fact lost tremendously. But an industry that rallied together, raised over a half a million dollars, jumped into cars and planes, and simply HELPED.
That is my take away from this experience. They are battered. They are bruised. They are bleeding. But we, the entity that is this beautiful, tragic, amazing game of thoroughbreds will rebuild. We will be full again. We will be back.
To donate to the relief of these men, women, horses, and industry, please donate to Thoroughbred Charities of America Horses First Fund.
On Thanksgiving Day, while the turkey roasted and my family gathered, my significant other and I huddled on the couch with shoulders touching and a tiny iPhone in front of us.
We screamed at the tiny screen, and smacked our thighs as a plain bay swapped leads and surged to the front of the field. And when he streaked past the finish line with his head at another horses saddle cloth, we smiled and embraced.
It was the first time that “our” boy had placed. It was the first time he showed any true effort. And although it was only a $5,000 claimer, “our” boy finally showed some promise.
I put apostrophes around “our”, because we have never actually owned this horse. But as is the life of a farm manager, we became immensely attached to the overgrown heathen from birth, which I blogged about in Loving and Letting Go. In fact, Luke no longer even managed the farm that did in fact breed him, and we haven’t seen him since he sold as a beautiful yearling at the Keeneland September Sales of 2015 for $150,000.
But he is ours. And we are his. And every time that he changes hands, I reach out to the new owners, or their trainer. I send the cliche message that I always have, complimenting them on any success they have experienced with the horse, and then proposing that if – or when, the horse is ready for retirement or a second career, that they can reach out to us – no questions asked.
And I have sent this message out countless times, for countless horses, and countless farms. I have done it for Chesapeake breds, and Hinkle breds – farms which I personally worked for. I have done it for foals born on Don Alberto, Alastar, and Mt. Brilliant – farms which I have no personal connection to besides through my boyfriend Luke and his managerial position. We are tightly connected to the breeders, and yet we usually do it without any affiliation to them.
About 10% of the time, the trainer or owner will respond. And only twice have I actually secured the horse. Often we have resorted to offering money, or even claiming the horse ourselves. But many times, the horses disappear and we are left bereft and confused. Wondering what it was we could have done more of.
And each time that that happens, I message a little bit more often. I call a little bit louder. And I try a bit harder.
Because there is a fine line between communicating with the current owners and their trainers and harassment. And it is unfair to always equate cost, or level of race, with level of care. I have seen horses who never won a race in their life come home looking like a shiny show pony, and I have seen horses retire after winning graded stakes races who deteriorate rapidly. I have seen horses who need years of rehabilitation, and horses who can head to the showgrounds after only mere weeks from their last race.
There is no tried or true equation to the madness, and there will never be a standard with which to make assumptions on the thoroughbred breeding and race industry.
And yet, time and time again, I see one common statement about this industry. It is usually from the naysayers, or from the external fans surrounding the business.
It is that the breeder is responsible for the entirety the horses life.
And I can’t tell you how much I disagree with that statement.
Now, this is not because I do not think that the breeders shouldn’t care, or that they shouldn’t give a thought about the horses entire life as they select matings, or produce these foals. I don’t think that breeders should consider their horses life over at the yearling sales, or when they turn five.
But I do believe that a horses care, livelihood, safety, and welfare lie on one person and one person only’s shoulders – and that is the owner at that moment of time. The one name on the sales contract. The one who is currently paying the bills and securing the care.
By saying that it is the breeders responsibility for the horses life, we are not only enabling the current owner to be irresponsible, but we are also running the breeder through an impossible gauntlet. One where they are spending their time picking up the pieces of others shattered messes.
I have blogged time and time again of the current state of affairs in this industry and just how difficult it is to track a horse. And this is coming from someone who attempts to track from the get go – from the first moment in which the horse leaves my care. I have watched horses trade hands over ten times from the moment they leave my care – and shown just how difficult it is to secure that horse back into that care without spending thousands of dollars just on a purchase.
I have let you follow my journeys with horses like Marilyn’s Guy – who was only retired once he was injured after we begged and pleaded for his retirement for years. I have let you in on the details of Called to Serve – who’s prior race owners took it upon themselves to claim the 6 yo gelding for $5,000 just to secure a safe and sound retirement.
But what I haven’t blogged about are the countless others who I have watched fall through the cracks, and through no fault of the breeders.
The horses that we have purchased for $2,500 only to find out that after the injections wore off, the horse was unable to even withstand turn out. The horses that I have reached out to numerous connections of only to find out he had been purchased privately and to the sisters, cousins, brother in laws, neighbor. The horses that we have found at auction ten, fifteen, or even twenty years after they last walked off of our four planked fence line.
This is not to say that “we” – and by we, I mean the breeder, their farms staff, and the team which surrounds them – hasn’t tried. That is not to say that we haven’t lost claiming hand shakes, or had our propositions fall on deaf ears. That is not to say that we do not care, or are not pounding the pavement.
Many farms spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on aftercare. The breeders like Stonestreet, and Adena, and Darley. These mass producers which the naysayers lament for breeding such a large crop are actually following their horses and beseeching for their sound retirement. They are then either rehoming themselves, or donating massive grants to organizations like New Vocations, Second Stride, or ReRun. Or the breeders like Stone Farm and Hinkle, which place a note on every foals Jockey Club paper with a contact number to call if the horse is ever at need. The ones who bring them home to their own farm.
But they can only secure this aftercare for the horses who’s current connections are cooperative. Who do not desire that one last race, or that one last turf circuit. They can only help the owners who want helped. They can only assist the horses who can be assisted.
And on 90% of breeding farms in central Kentucky, there exists a field full of geldings which could not be brought home in time. Which could not be rehomed through the adoption agencies or their friends. A field full of large ankles and screws. A field full of horses which ran that one last race….or twenty.
So no, I do not think that the responsibility lies on the breeders shoulders. The breeders which are already attempting to fix the problem. The breeders which have cut the foal crop down to almost 50% of what it was only a decade ago. The breeders which pledge mass amounts of money to aftercare and the TAA.
No, it does not rest on them. Instead, hold your owners accountable. Hold your trainers accountable. And hold your racetracks accountable.
Enforce their anti-slaughter policies. Enforce their drug restraints. Enforce the vetting that happens before a race, and disallow any injured or obviously neglected horse from running. Open their minds to legit punishments, that are more than a smack on the wrist and a fine that can be paid off mucking stalls for a day.
Increase the transparency over the options these owners and trainers have. Show them the CANTER website and inform them of competitions such as the Retired Racehorse Projects Thoroughbred Makeover. Increase the number of “End of the Meet Showcase Days”, where trainers can highlight their horses which are ready for retirement while attracting local equestrians to attend.
And at the end of the day, a sound horse is a safer horse. A sound horse has a 90% chance of finding a second home – a second career. Us breeders have to prove our horses soundness before they are purchased at the mass auction houses like Keeneland and Fasig Tipton. They leave our farms able and ready. But they do not always leave the track in the same fashion.
So encourage your owners, trainers, racetracks, and any fan affiliated with the sport to support the One Last Race campaign. Retire the horses before they need retired. Let them come off the track fresh faced and ready to jump a jump, run a barrel, or play a chukker.
That is what needs to change. And that does not lie on the breeders shoulder. Our sport can always improve, but lets target and attack the pieces that are missing, not the parts of the picture which are already being painted. A beautiful piece of artwork exists if we all work together – the breeders, the buyers, the owners, the trainers, and the tracks. Now we just need to find the appropriate colors and paint the piece.
With the Northern Hemisphere breeding season fast approaching, I am seeing more and more comments on various social media platforms that make my eyes roll back in my head. With the invention of globalized news and social media platforms, it appears as though every one is an expert in the world of breeding, raising, and owning horses, and although their opinions from the outside weigh nothing in the actual breeding selections or foaling outcomes of the breeders and owners of these great horses, they type nonetheless.
But then I realize I should not be frustrated, as I am different from the masses. And even just ten years ago, I would have known no different from their opinions. I was also an outsider to the game, and an ignorant one at that. Farm management of commercial establishments changed much of that, but that I went to graduate school. And my education at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center opened my eyes.
Here are just a few of the things that I learned.
(DISCLAIMER – These are just my opinions, based on science. And no, I am not a vet. Just a pensioned farm manager with a PhD.)
One: Breeding a small mare to a big stallion will not give you a big foal.
This was discovered through a really awesome (and convincing) study done in the beginning of last century. The researchers bred pony mares to draft stallions, and draft mares to pony stallions. None of the pony mares died during parturition to what should have been a monstrosity of a foal, and more surprisingly, the fetuses that resulted mimicked the mares size – not the sires. The draft mares produced draft sized foals, and the pony mares delivered pony sized foals.
And this is because fetal stress is imperative for parturition. The fetus dictates when it is done cooking, and once there is not much more room for it inside that uterus, it begins to secrete cortisol – aka the hormone of stress. This cortisol production then triggers the cascade of hormones needed for parturition to ensue from the mare, and she begins to produce that essential oxytocin, prostaglandins, and other steroids.This is why the maiden mare tends to produce the smallest foal – her uterus has not been stretched out by prior foals, and therefore is its smallest. As the mare produces more foals, each one stretches the uterus a bit more, and the fetus can grow a bit larger. This will generally increase as the years pass by, but there is a threshold or plateau, because we also know that the uterus ages as the mare ages. Age correlates with endometrial quality – and so after a certain period, we will tend to see this fetal size drop back down. This is due to the glands of the uterus not being able to pass on those essential nutrients and hormones at quite the level they had in the past, and the foal therefore doesn’t get as much of what I call “happy juice.”
Now obviously, there are outliers to this principal. We will have maiden mares with large uteruses, and we will also have older mares who have GREAT endometrial quality and continue to produce beasts, but in general, a mare will produce a smaller foal first, and this will increase in size for the next 5-7 years where it will then plateau. Following this, the mare will produce smaller foals in her late teens and early twenties.
Aka – Size Matters. At least for the female in the equation.
Two: Regumate is the most overused drug in equine reproduction.
GASP! Don’t say its so, said every farm manager I ever said this to.
Equine pregnancy is both simple and complex at the same time – and we are learning more and more about what hormones are necessary for it every day. Here is what we currently know in a nutshell:
For the first 35 days, the corpus luteum (CL) that is produced after ovulation creates progesterone, and this supports pregnancy – I tell my students, it literally stands for PRO-GESTATION. If the pregnancy is healthy and developing correctly, it will produce endometrial cups around day 35, and these secret equine chorionic gonadotropin, or eCG. This eCG mimics the ovulation-inducing luteinizing hormone (LH) and causes accessory CL’s to develop. These produce additional progesterone for upwards of 100-150 days, and at this stage of pregnancy, we consider it to be of ovarian control – as it is the CL’s on the ovaries that are supporting the fetus.
But this shifts around day 100, as the endometrial cups are eaten away by cells of the immune system, and stop producing that awesome eCG. Simultaneously, the fetus has matured tremendously, and the fetal gonads (ovaries or testis), the fetal adrenal, in addition to the placenta are now quite functional and can produce hormones themselves. But this also coincides with a drastic decrease in progesterone, and an increase in estrogens – which is shown on this image that was published by Twink Allen.
Now right before parturition, this does shift, and we see a surge in progestins, or metabolites of progesterone.. But for the most part, during mid to late gestation, progesterone is negligible. And I know, I know, you will say “but I sent out bloodwork for my mare, and she had a LOT of progesterone at 250 days!”
Well, good for you. But sorry, what you’re seeing is not progesterone, but the progestins.
Unless the laboratory that you sent your sample off to is using a technique called “Mass Spectrometry”, what they are detecting is basically anything that looks like progesterone due to cross reactivity. And while progesterone is quite low during this time in gestation, we do see a lot of PROGESTINS – specifically DHP and 5a-20P – in mid gestation.
So what does that mean to all of you farm managers who are pulling progesterone levels after 150 days gestation and then treating the mares with “low” progesterone with Regumate? It means you’re literally squirting liquid-nothing in your horses mouth, because we SHOULD see low levels of progesterone at this point.
Exceptions to this rule? If your mare has a compromised cervix, Regumate will still help to keep it high and tight – which we want. And if your horse is diagnosed with Ascending Placentitis, Regumate is still recommended as part of the treatment.
But otherwise? For a normal pregnancy in a normal mare? Stop thinking your mare NEEDS progesterone. What she NEEDS is for you to spend your money more wisely. Like on carrots. Or cookies. (I’m kind of kidding, she is probably not).
Three: Antibiotics are not always necessary post-breeding.
This was the topic of my dissertation, and to this day I treat myself with omeprazole for the ulcer that both veterinarians and farm managers cause me.
And I used to be one of you. We would breed a mare at 2 or 6 PM, and ultrasound for ovulation the following morning at 7 AM. On one farm, we simply infused EVERY mare with penicillin and gentamicin immediately after scanning her, and on another, we infused anything that had even trace amounts of fluid in their uterus at that time.
And then I went to graduate school, and learned about this thing called breeding-induced endometritis, a disease that my advisor Dr. Mats Troedsson was considered The Godfather of – and what he taught me was both fascination and infuriating.
I learned that mares will naturally have an immune response to the deposition of semen into their body. This is because everything from bacteria to sperm, and even STERILE solutions, are considered foreign to the immune cells that are floating around the body just waiting for battle. So when we put 100mLs of semen – consisting of sperm, gel, seminal plasma, and even some bacteria – the immune system charges with bayonets extended.
And we need it to. Because only one sperm is necessary for fertilization, and the other billion need to go away. So the immune system tells the body to not only bind to and eat the excess sperm and bacteria, but it also tells the uterus to contract, and the fluid, cells, and other unnecessary garbage to be sent back out the cervix.
In the normal mare, this takes between 24 and 36 hours to accomplish. But in the abnormal, or unhealthy mare, this can take even longer than 4 days (96 hours).
The problem is, we usually don’t know which mare is truly abnormal, because we rush to treatment the minute we see fluid. And this fluid might be perfectly normal, and more importantly, is probably not even caused by dangerous bacteria. So not only are the antibiotics not helping – as they will not assist in the digestion of sperm, but they are also assisting with the ever-increasing resistance that we are already causing in our every day bacteria.
And this could be outright dangerous.
Now, physiologically, the embryo lives within the oviduct for 5.5-6 days after fertilization, and the cervix stays relatively open for 24-48 hours post-ovulation. So we have a grace period to get that fluid out before it is actually hindering the success of your future pregnancy. Therefore, I’ve learned to slow my roll. Take a culture AND cytology of the fluid (double guarded), give oxytocin while waiting for culture results, and then treat according to plan.
These mares that are innately diseased and have a dysfunctional immune response will not always be helped by shoving more things into their uterus. This just causes the immune system to begin its job over and over, and therefore you can actually prolong the time it takes to clean them up. On the other hand, oxytocin is given systemically and therefore doesn’t exasperate that.
My motto? When in doubt, oxytocin it out.
Now, there are obviously extenuating circumstances in this regard as well, and a good vet will know to take it case by case. But the best thing you can do is have a full history of your mare, do full diagnostics on her, and go from there. And if you do get too anxious waiting for results, and are desperate to begin treatment – think about turning towards an immunomodulator, or a mucolytic, or even simple dilution (lavage with LRS/saline) before immediately turning towards antibiotics. Our future generations will thank you.
Four: Foal heat breedings are not a simple yes or no question.
I have heard a lot of farm managers say “we don’t do foal heat breedings” or “we have no problem with foal heat breedings” and I now roll my eyes and/or giggle when I hear this.
Foal heat is what we in the industry call the first estrous cycle after the mare delivers her foal. These tend to occur roughly 7-10 days after parturition, and I always teach my students in my Reproduction class that this leads us to some simple math. Because while historically foal heat breedings led to a lower pregnancy rate, with the invention of ultrasonography and diagnostics, we have much great success as long as the math is both completed and adhered to.
Because immediately after parturition, the mare experiences a process where her uterus must cleanse itself and return back to its normal elasticity after carrying a 120 lb foal, and we call this process involution. On average, this takes 14 days after foaling.
And as I’ve already mentioned, the embryo lives in the oviduct for the first 5.5-6 days after fertilization.
So simple math – if she ovulates at 7 days post foaling, then the embryo will arrive to the uterus when, and to what?
7 + 5.5 = 12.5 days
If involution truly requires 14 days in your mare, then that embryo is arriving to a pretty volatile location. A fairly damaged endometrium, potentially some leftover fluid full of immune cells, and it will therefore probably not survive.
But if the mare waits and doesn’t ovulate until 10 days post foaling, we have some different math.
10 + 5.5 = 15.5 days
With this mare, if involution truly occurs within 14 days post foaling, will have a much happier and healthy uterine environment for that embryo, and the embryo is much more likely to survive.
14 Day Embryo, as taken from Ginther et al. (1998) AAEP PROCEEDINGS
So the rule of thumb for foal heat breedings? A) Monitor involution, and B) Attempt on ovulations that occur further along post foaling. If the mare appears to be ready to be bred greater than 10 days post foaling, your pregnancy outcome can be quite successful.
Five: Stallions will limit their own book size
I do slightly hate teaching this aspect to my students, because I truly do believe that we are pushing it with stallion book sizes as they creep upwards of 200+ mares per breeding season, but with that being said, I try to teach the science and not the opinion (which I fail at doing. Often).
I hope that it is generally known that stallions produce sperm, and sperm is required for fertilization, and fertilization then (hopefully) results in a pregnancy.
One way that we can predict how many sperm a stallion will produce in a day is by measuring that specific horses testicular volume, and applying it to a simple mathematical equation.
Testicular Volume (TV) = 0.52 x L x W x H
Daily Sperm Output (DSO) = (0.024 x TV – 0.76) x 10^9
A normal stallion that is post pubertal but who has not undergone any testicular degeneration caused by age will produce between 3-8 billion sperm per day, meaning that if we intend to utilize a 500 million sperm “breeding dose” that the average stallion could breed 8-16 mares per day successfully, which we obviously do not do.What we do instead is take this testicular volume calculation and combine it with knowledge of the horses history and the farms management, taking into consideration things like libido, prior seasonal pregnancy rates, per cycle conception rates, and then adjust book size with that knowledge.
You can see in this table that a stallions daily sperm output doesn’t always correlate with their pregnancy rate, and that it takes numerous variables to properly predict a book size.
Stallion 1 and Stallion 4 have similar DSO, but differ greatly in their pregnancy rates, leaving them with considerably different seasonal pregnancy rates. Stallion 1 still competently fulfilled his book size of 200, while Stallion 4 only achieved a 79% pregnancy rate for a smaller book size.
And at the very top of the predictor for book size is, quite simply, libido.
We can have a stallion who has great DSO and pregnancy rates, but if we cannot coerce him to breed a mare, his entire season will slow down.
And breedings, or trips to the shed, do not pad the pockets of the stallion owners – viable foals who stand and nurse do. So while it might seem fully business oriented to increase a stallions book size to 200 mares, unless the stallion can withstand that lifestyle with a high libido, great DSO, and successfully “stop” mares, no one is profiting – neither mare nor stallion owner.
It is expected that a stallion should have at least an 80% live foal rate, and if this drops, book sizes should be adjusted. Breeders can look up this number for stallions they are interested in using the Jockey Clubs Fact Book.
But the greatest take away is that it is not only bad management, but bad business, to set a stallions book size to a number that is unsustainable for him. While it might alarm the masses when American Pharoahs first book was 208 mares, his 2017 foal crop was an almost 80% viable foaling rate – which is right on target for assessment of a good book size.
I can’t reiterate any more that an improperly set book size rarely hurts the stallion, it only hurts the time spent of the providers and the bank accounts of the owners. The stallion will simply stop breeding before his sperm output ever truly dissipates, and will show his disinterest quite readily. And if he won’t breed, he can’t service mares, and if mares don’t get serviced, they can’t get pregnant. And if mares can’t get pregnant, they can’t have foals. And if they can’t have foals, stallion owners don’t get paid.
Simple economics guys. Simple economics.
On a daily basis, I am amazed at the simple knowledge I have learned during the course of my doctorate, and yet at the same time, I am usually just as disturbed by how little of this education is both given to and absorbed by the general public. How often our breeders, their managers, and even their veterinarians, are ignoring the basic science.
Obviously, there are outliers to each of these principals, and if you breed enough horses over enough years, you will see the exception to the rule. But you can never lose with education, because it gives you the ammunition to create a fully formed opinion instead of a shot in the dark, and for that, I will try to keep firing away.