My mother text messaged me the other night and reminded me of something that literally made my breath catch. She told me, “Thank you for taking me on the best ride of my life 6 years ago…” and I was instantly transported to the worst week of my life. My father was losing his battle to the leukemia that ravaged his body, and my family had not had a break from sitting vigil at his side, praying for a miracle. One of his best friends from his residency showed up, prepared to relieve us from our post, and I begged my mom to take a break from the pain, the suffering, and even from life – just for a few hours. We went and tacked up my faithful Levi and my best friends horse Cory and began meandering around the trails surrounding the barn, ambling at times, galloping at others, barely talking, and just taking in the serenity that comes with a good ride on a great horse. It was the first time in 11 months that I think she had the chance to breathe.
Two days later, in a last effort to fix any aspect of my relationship with my father that suffered, I loaded Levi up and hauled him 6 hours back to Canton, NY to give him to one of my professors. My horse, and the money spent on him, was the one hitch in my relationship with my father, and I thought that by giving him away I would leave my father with less stress in his worry about how I would support my horse addiction post-college as I embarked on my own into adulthood. I was never able to tell my dad that I did this for him, for when I returned from my trip to Canton, my father had entered into a coma and would pass away three days later. It was September 5th, 2008 – 6 years ago. I was devastated to lose my father and my horse in the same week, but possibly more devastating was that I had given up my coping mechanism, my therapy, and my stress release at the one moment in time that I needed those things most. To say that I crashed and burned without this support would put it mildly.
I moved to Lexington, KY two weeks later, and quickly quit the job I had lined up and sank into a pretty severe depression. I never vocalized my pain, and put on a brave face for everyone – my family, my boyfriend at the time, and the friends that I still let into my life. I tried to be the rock that everyone expected me to be, but there were days where I didn’t want to wake up and nights where I couldn’t sleep for the memory of my father taking his last breath would roll on a loop in my brain. I felt I had no escape, until I made the realization that while the depression might have been caused by my father’s death, I wasn’t healing because of my lack of therapy – and in my case, that therapy was my horse. I began to make the valiant effort to get hired on a farm – any farm – and finally found myself as a groom at Chesapeake – nothing glamorous, but something that changed my life for forever, possibly even saving it. I have desperately wanted to have a conversation with my father and explain to him why I not only haven’t kicked this horse addiction, but how it has saved, shaped, and changed my life since his death – making me the woman that I am, hopefully one that he would be proud of.
I want to start by trying to explain Lexingon, KY and the eye opening experience I had when moving here. Horses are not a hobby here, they are a lifestyle, and a multi-billion dollar industry that is not scoffed at. I remember telling someone that I rode horses and for the first time I wasn’t asked if I was a jockey – they actually asked if I was a jumper, did dressage, or evented. I was appalled. The statement “riding is a not a sport” was quickly replaced with “who is your horse by?” or “how many left to foal?” I felt home for the first time in months, surrounded by people that finally got me.
I got my first real job out of college in the thoroughbred industry. It was full of mundane tasks – mucking stalls, feeding mares, grooming yearlings. I walked horses into and out of fields, with a pitchfork and a tractor in between – but I made a salary. I was one of very few kids who graduated college in the recession that wasn’t calling home every month for money from their parents. I didn’t live luxuriously, but I LIVED. I began to meet people – famous trainers, Sheikhs, people that I had idolized growing up reading books like “Funny Cide” and “Secretariat.” Each time I called home to talk to my mom, my voice gained animation as happiness began to seep back into my veins. One of my favorite calls was when I sold my filly for $625,000 and she got to watch the entire thing on Keeneland’s live stream – screaming that she saw “that man from the Kentucky Derby with the dark sunglasses” bidding higher and higher. I wish you had been there for those calls.
Which leads me to the fact that I met the love of my life at soccer game on Darby Dan Farm. He’s a horse person as well, but I think you would like him. He is the first boy that understands my life – although he might also be the only one who knows when I’m lying when I tell him that my horses shoes only cost $20! He is a farm manager – we spend our weekends mowing fields, turning out yearlings, treating wounds, and going to the races or the sales, and I couldn’t love it more. He understands my passion, and he supports it – while also reining me and my “free spirit” in when needed. I think you would appreciate that side of him – he keeps me in check, but he loves me unabashedly, something that I was desperately lacking when you left.
Two years ago I finally used all of this horse nonsense for good and went back to school to get my doctorate in – what else – equine reproduction. I may not end up a veterinarian like you had hoped, but I will still have Dr. in front of my name just like you. The day I was admitted, I wanted to tell you first – something that pained me to no end that I was not able to. I am surrounded by other educated people who also love these animals that you had abhorred, and I hope to eventually be a professor in an animal or equine science department – teaching physiology and endocrinology. I even got to travel to New Zealand and present my research at a large international meeting – something I know you would have been so proud of. I have written dozens of papers, abstracts, and presentations – each time wishing you were there to edit them. I have to learned to do it on my own though, my independence since you left has only increased.
And finally, I filled Levi’s void with another horse and his name is Mak. They look a lot alike, but this time I pay for everything – not you, and I appreciate the price of these animals all the more for it. In return for my bank account, Mak got me through every never ending day of Uncle Bob’s battle with cancer – and for that I will be forever grateful for him, for the struggle of life has not gotten any easier since you left – but you left us with the strength to cope, and my horses assisted that with long trail rides and hours in a quiet barn meditating.
I don’t think I will ever attempt to go without the therapy that is a horse in my life again – I learned the hard way that my brain and soul are not wired for that. The thoroughbred industry accepted me and nurtured me back to health, and I am forever grateful to them for that. I try to repay the industry in many ways – and who knows – maybe one day my research will cure infertility or a life threatening disease. I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t walked onto Chesapeake Farm and begged for work, or if I hadn’t taken the chance on a gangly 4yo that my friend asked me to ride, but I know that if any crisis were to ever happen in my life again – I know where to go. I can walk down the quiet aisleways of my barns full of equine royalty, hearing horses gently munch on hay, sneak into Mak’s stall, and take a seat in the corner. He will come over and put his head in my hands like he always does, and I will be able to find peace and quiet from the outside world.
I wish you were here to experience this journey with me. I hope that you would approve of where my life has strayed off to. You and I didn’t know about anything in this world besides the Kentucky Derby before you passed away – but I saw out of the corner of my eye that year that Funny Cide won – you were screaming just as hard as I was, and I think you would have come to love this world of breeding, raising, and racing thoroughbreds. I met his breeder a few years ago – and you would have loved to hear that he went to Cornell. I think you would have loved these little intricacies that have tied my world of horses to a world full of good people, an amazing man, an education, and a full life. I wish with all of my heart that you could have been a part of it, but know that you would be relieved to know that the mischievous smile that you loved so much has been restored – something that took grooming a lot of yearlings, mucking a lot of stalls, and posting a lot of trot sets – but its there, and I am ok again.
I read a comment the other day under one of these blogs that said “don’t disrespect all of western riding just because you have only ever loped along in western pleasure” and beer was almost snorted out of my nose. I understand how this confusion could be perceived – I do currently ride English, I did post pictures of me four beating along in a sparkly saddle, and yes, I do have voluptuous blonde hair that looks FABULOUS under a silverbelly. I almost hit reply to defend myself, ready to admonish the commenter for their lack of knowledge and insensitivity, but then realized with a giggle that my non-western pleasure cowgirl time deserved more than a comment, it deserved a story.
My teenage years, as already described, were spent doing a little bit of all English disciplines – hunters, a bit of jumpers, quite a lot of dressage, and if my horse decided that he was not afraid of the horse-eating sharks and snakes in the water complex, we even evented (if the sharks existed, we ATTEMPTED eventing — and failed…miserably). Where I boarded trails were sparse, and the crowd was made up of other teenagers just like me – we circled, and circled again, and circled some more around a nice dirt arena – making sure our helmets were on and the gates were locked before picking up a trot. It was fun, it was slightly challenging, but lord it was SAFE. And as the years ticked on, I became more and more petrified of the GREAT OUTDOORS. There was only one answer — to literally take a leap into the wilderness, and sink, or swim. I did a little bit of both at Paradise Ranch.
I applied for, and was given, the position of wrangler at Paradise in Buffalo, Wyoming in the summer of 2006. I was a college junior, I was determined, and a little bit too egotistical for my own good. Making the move from Buffalo, NY to Buffalo, WY took me for the greatest adventure of my life. Here are some of my stories.
1. Don’t get cocky — I will never forget my first day of sauntering up to the (quite large) ranch foreman and telling him that I could “ride anything” – a nice east coast term for “I ain’t scared.” He looked down on me with a smirk and told me to saddle up. I was ready. I knew I could stick a buck – because, c’mon, I had previously ridden 12hh Chocolate – or “Bucker” in my childhood. Putting my foot in the stirrup on an albino horse named Casper (real original guys), I shifted my weight, put my belly on the saddle, wiggled a bit – testing him for his reaction, and then swung up. I gave a little head nod, proud of my amazing riding ability, gave a nudge with my rowels, and WHAM. I was off. With only one full buck, I was slammed to the ground and staring up at the white chest above me. I quickly learned that these horses were not the NORM. They bucked not out of excitable energy or rude stubbornness, but because they thought I was a mountain lion and they were attempting to SAVE THEIR LIVES. He would be the first of seven that I fell off of that first day. I never once again have said “I can ride anything”.
Casper post-meltdown, my special albino friend.
2. Learn the cowboy way — I went out to Wyoming to do a few things – one was to learn how to be a more efficient, braver, rider – another was to experience the wild west, and the third was to enhance my applications to vet school. I knew the general “pony club” methods of treatment before heading out to the ranch – and by that, I mean that I could bandage absolutely everything, diagnose quite a bit, but the general rule of thumb had always been CALL THE VET. At the ranch that wasn’t always an option, in fact, it rarely was. We were the sole providers for these 200 horses, and if one of them was lame, sick, or injured – we were to assess, diagnose, AND treat. I saw everything from fractures, to colics, to massive lacerations, and just about everything in between. We vaccinated ourselves, we wormed ourselves, and we had to plan these schedules ourselves – something I had always depended on a vet for. We had a cabinet with bandaging materials, some sedation, some pain medications, some banamine, a tube for oiling, and a gun – and that got us through the summer. I learned more about thinking on my feet, trusting my instincts, and using my brain that summer than I think I ever have before, or maybe since.
Showing my surgeon of a father how to give an injection of penicillin.
3. Cowgirls don’t cry — during my summers (yes, plural – I actually went back for a second round the following summer) I encountered more physical and emotional stress than I was ever prepared for. From traumatic falls, to homesickness, euthanizing loved horses and falling in love with others, friendships gained, and eventually going back to college and drifting away – it was a hell of a ride. But through it all I learned the definition of “cowgirl tough.” Numerous horses came with problems, and it was our job to solve them. There were no “trainers” to come to your rescue or time to spare – their job was to be ridden, and eventually ridden by a less experience guest, and if they could not accomplish that – they were an expenditure that served no purpose. I learned how to assess problem horses, how to properly work through them, and most importantly – I learned to get back on. There were no tears in Wyoming. No one was going to sympathize with your sore butt when they had screws in their wrist or a broken femur. We rallied together and worked as a team, and picked each other up without the need for crying…at least in public.
Some of these amazing friends who were there to always give a leg back up.
4. Work hard, play harder — This job was not for the faint of heart, or the faint of muscle for that matter either. Most days we were up hours before the sun, heading to the corrals to tack up and head out to push the horses back into the corrals as they were turned out to pasture at night. We started our days around 5, and were usually heading back to the bunks around 6 or 7 — 7 days a week. Did this burn us out? Heck yes. But we rallied. Many of the staff had grown up in rodeo, and I decided to join the “circus” — first with barrels, then with quarter mile races, and eventually roping. We would head to the arena after dinner and continue riding into the night, working together and honing skills that hadn’t been worked on throughout the day during the guest activities. And I realized that I LOVED roping. We roped the horses out of the corral every morning, so I was able to learn in a slow motion practice – more of a ranch roping – eventually moving on to steers and team roping. The group of wranglers on the ranch was amazing in teaching me their knowledge, and I thrived in the environment — it was, and still is, one of the coolest things to do on horseback, and something I wish I was still able to do.
Roping practice at the ranch as well as evening rodeo at the weekly rodeos.
5. The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man — Finally, my time in Wyoming taught me how to RIDE. I have recommended this position to any of the younger girls that I see at events fearful of water, ditches, galloping downhill, or any other “natural hazard.” I came back from my summer and went to ride with my trainer only to have her admonish me and ask where my equitation had done — I couldn’t answer, but I could promise her that I wasn’t coming off. I learned how to handle just about any terrain, and at any speed. When you are working with horses – herding them for miles at a time – you do not amble, you GALLOP. And you learn to shut up or get out. I also learned that this was something that I loved- that horses were going to be part of my life, for the REST of my life. I craved waking up for the next day. I loved being in the mountains, on my favorite horse, with nothing but the sound of horses grazing and the fog lifting up over the Big Horn Mountains. It was, quite simply, good for the soul.
I ended up leaving the ranch in August 2007 knowing that I was entering into my senior year of college and would most likely not return. I kept my rope, my saddle, and my chinks – and they are hanging proudly in my tack room. Every once in a while, especially when I am having a bad day, I crave the feeling of my Billy Cook and a gallop through the mountains, and I pull down the tack, dust it off, and tack up my thoroughbred for a long hack through the fields. It is my time for reflection – where I have come since my cowgirling days, where I plan to go, and how I hope to someday get back to my mountains. Cause everyone knows, you can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl.
When I was five years old, my Aunt Holly and Uncle Bob recommended to my mother that I begin REAL riding lessons – and specifically with a local woman that they knew from the Quarter Horse industry, Rose Watt. Up until this point my “riding” had consisted of my weekends with my grandparents – climbing up on, and falling off of, my Shetland pony Shana.
Being now five years old, you know – an age of such maturity, athleticism, and attention span – my mother decided that yes, indeed I was ready to begin weekly lessons and rigorous training. We went and met with Rose at her farm – Edgewood Stables – and not only became enamored with her, but with her pony Chocolate – the latter having already been described as “Heathen Pony” or “Bucker.” And with that one meeting, I moved on from aimlessly wandering around paddocks, to aimlessly wandering around show rings attempting to understand WHY you had to always go left first when entering a pleasure class, WHY you had to go AROUND the barrels individually and not all at once, and WHO told people that ponies couldn’t jump 6′ fences. Looking back, I realize that my lessons must have exhausted her, but good lord I was cute.
The years rolled on, and my relationship with Rose, and her family, quickly moved on from that of trainer/student to that of mother/daughter. My teenage years were spent rebelling against my parents, and my horse was always the first thing to be threatened against curfews, boys, and bad grades. My summers were spent in full “barn rat” mode, hanging out with her daughters, sleeping on their couch, and smuggling myself and my horse into her truck and trailer to get to horse shows. I roamed around the different disciplines, making my thoroughbred do an event one weekend, a hunter show the next, we ran barrels, we did western pleasure, and I even (sorry Rose) roped her goat. I have fond memories of playing “knock out” with a single fence against her daughter, attempting bronced out bareback trail rides on green broke ponies, and numerous trips to the hospital. Needless to say, I look back on those formative years with a giggle, but I would probably murder the teenager that tried these things on my farm.
Last Friday I received a panicked phone call from her daughter that spun my world and left me full of emotions that I couldn’t even describe: Rose had been in a bad riding accident and was being life flighted to the hospital. Amy knew nothing else, and I was told nothing more. I have already realized in my short 28 years how much Rose has taught me as a horse woman – it was so much more apparent as I made the trek to Lexington and began taking lessons with others – people that I thought would teach me SO much more than my small upbringing in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania. And yet I was quickly made aware that my foundation was just as strong as someone who had trained with an Olympian all of their life. But these emotions had so little to do with riding and so much more to do with LIFE. Each memory indicative of Rose and the woman that she was, the woman that she taught her daughters and many surrogate barn rats like me to be. These are only a few of them.
Gumption: When I was a very young girl, only 8 or 9, we received a phone call in the late evening telling us that the barn had collapsed. The ice compounded with wet heavy snow had been too much for the structure, and they needed all hands on deck to get the horses out before the remaining beams collapsed. My mother left me and my sister at home and raced to the farm, ready to help. They got every single horse out, but the barn was completely destroyed. Rose moved the horses to a friends stable almost 20 minutes away from her home and continued on in her lessons and boarding immediately. Looking back, she must have been devastated with the loss of her home, her income, and her blood, sweat, and tears, but none of us students ever saw her falter.
Work Ethic: Our barn, like most, was inhabited with a plethora of girls – so we all became teenagers right around the same time, and the arguments over boys, ponies, and other senseless things began. And yet Rose showed up every afternoon after a long day as a counselor at a local school with a smile on her face and a boisterous laugh. She must have been exhausted after already putting in 12 hours in her “career”, but her love of teaching, and her love of horses, pushed her forward as she taught lessons well into the evenings, and then she gave up 50 weekends a year to haul us all to shows and rallies both near and far. I rarely saw her take a vacation, but I also rarely saw the smile come off of her face.
Compassion: Rose essentially became a second mother to me, but this was never more apparent to me than throughout the year that my father was battling cancer, and the years following his death as I attempted to regroup in my life. She herself had encountered many similar battles, through the loss of her husband among many others. I knew during those long, lonely months, that I could call her, or even just show up at the barn that I now no longer even boarded at, and she would listen for hours, or simply throw me up on one of her training horses and begin barking orders, allowing me to push back any depression or anger at the world and simply ride. Every time a new event occurred in my life that made me question my place in the world, my faith, or my bravery to push through – I thought of two people: my mother, and my second mother Rose. Her daughter and I spoke often, the only other person in the world who could say “I know how you feel” and I could believe them. And each time, when one of us was feeling especially down, we would remind the other to “think of our mothers.” These women who could endure SO much, and yet wake up each morning with a smile and a mission – to improve their own lives as well as the lives around them.
And this leads me to endurance: I have witnessed Rose endure so much in life, but from an outsiders view you would never know. There are so many people in this day and age who feel the need to complain about the slightest thing – their horse being lame, their car getting a dent in it, waking up late, or having a bad hair day. And yet the people who are struggling through the hardest battles in life remain mum. These are the people that are there when you need them, take the shirt off their backs, and are laughing boisterously over a glass of wine at the end of the day – because these are the people who understand what it is like to have nothing, and still enjoy the gift of a new day and a beautiful sunset. She still remains one of my dearest friends, a shift from the mother/daughter dynamic to a true friendship as I grow older.
I know that Rose will make it through this next trial in her life with these same traits, battling through and anxious to get back to the barn, back to her horses, her students, and her life, we can all be assured that she will be back in the saddle again – and in no time. But beyond that, I hope that every other young girl has that trainer – the one the not only teaches you half pass and pirouette, how to get a flying change and how to find a distance, but the one that teaches you how to LIVE life – a life that means something, and a life that impacts so many around you. I know she has impacted mine, and I know so many others who would agree. Get better Rose, your Edgewood Team that encompasses such a great area around the world now, is rooting for you. We love you.
Four years ago, almost to the day, I began dating my boyfriend Luke. We were both managing farms in Paris, KY and it seemed predetermined for us to find each other – both from Pennsylvania, both managing thoroughbred breeding farms, both slightly obsessed with his yellow lab Bailey – fate took over, and our relationship took off.
Flash forward four years later, and he has moved from my boyfriend to my manfriend (he might kill me for writing that) or as my Australian friend calls it, my partner. Not much has changed besides the fact that I have returned to school to obtain my PhD in veterinary sciences, but he continues to manage a thoroughbred breeding farm, oh, and I guess we now have TWO lab’s to love! I spend my free time getting my farm fix on his farm by helping him – I assist with foaling all of the mares, I pull the yearlings manes/clip them prior to the sales, do turn out, come out on most Sundays to help feed, and if I’m feeling extra awesome I’ll help muck stalls (I know what you’re all thinking, I TOTALLY deserve The Girlfriend of the Year award – I KNOW). So nothing was out of the ordinary when his phone rang at 11PM on a freezing night in February this year. We threw on our bibs, hopped into his truck, and ventured into the night.
We arrived to the barn and I proceeded to the mares stall while Luke ran to the tack room to turn off the foaling alert monitor while also grabbing the foaling kit. The mare was well into the second stage of delivery – the front feet were presented with the amnion, and the mare was lying down and pushing – we wrapped the mares tail, reached into the birth canal to check the rest of the presentation of the foal, making sure that he was “diving out” as necessary for equine birth, and then walked out of the stall – allowing the mare to have as natural of a birth process as possible. But nothing happened. The mare stopped pushing and the foal never progressed outwards – and we knew that human assistance would be required and we went into the stall and began pulling. Rotating left leg, right leg, left leg, right leg, we attempted to dislodge the shoulders from her pelvis to no avail. We attached OB chains and began pulling with more strength – but still, nothing. Luke looked at me and nodded his head – our system was well oiled enough that I knew what this meant – he was hooking up the trailer, and I was to get her up and loaded – we were off to the clinic.
The trailer ride was one of the longest, and possibly the coldest of my life. I offered to ride in the trailer with the mare in case she began having contractions again during the ride, and Luke raced down the back roads of Kentucky in fast pursuit of veterinary assistance. We arrived at the clinic prepared for surgical intervention, and the vets were sent off to begin to prepare the sedatives and possible anesthesia – but in a miraculous display of human strength and ingenuity, two more strong men added their weight to the chains and attempted one last pull and into the world came BODE.
We all stared at the monstrosity that was the foal in front of us. One of the interns summed it up by simply stating “WHOA. Now that’s a big’n.” He was HUGE, a solid 150 lbs. But there was no time to ogle, the foal was quickly taken to a stall to receive oxygen and other essential nutrients/medications as we all believed that he had been oxygen deprived while being in the birth canal for almost an hour and a half – we knew that in an ideal birth, he would have been breathing within thirty minutes of the mares water breaking! Luke and I stayed with the mare and the rest of the veterinarians, making sure that she was not hemorrhaging or showing signs of colic – both of which are quite common post-dystocia. Suddenly one of the interns came into the room and turned to the main theriogenologist and the surgeon stating, “We might need to wait til he calms down to get the catheter in…oh, and I don’t think he needs oxygen.” I stormed to the stall, wondering how a 15 minute old foal could possibly be “too hyper” for medical intervention – especially a foal that we were certain would be a “dummy foal” and oxygen deprived, and I arrived to the stall and saw it surrounded by grooms, techs, and vets – all staring in and smiling. I peered around the corner and saw what the fuss was all about – not only was Bode already standing, he was PLAYING. Snorting at the straw, hopping around, and attempting to trot out the stall door, I just knew deep down that any apprehension of this foals survival could dissipate. He was a fighter.
Bode and his mom were discharged from the hospital rather quickly as neither of them appeared to be harmed in any way from the more stressful than normal foaling, and he arrived at Luke’s farm ready to take over the world. He was a monster of a foal, but quite possibly the most affectionate and loving colt I had ever met. I admit to helping Luke more often than I had previously, but most of my “help” came in the form of me sitting in Bode’s stall – grooming him, picking his feet, but just loving on him in general.
And Bode, in return, loved on me back. When he was 2 months old, he went through a rebellious streak and I received a phone call from a disgruntled Luke tell me that “my colt” was not letting anyone catch him, and that he was more of a jerk than I let on to people. I hopped into my truck and drove to the farm, walked out into the field and called out “BODE!” – chuckling as my boyfriend glared at the colt jogging up to me and giving me an affectionate head butt.
It was determined – we were besties.
The months rolled on, and Bode blossomed into an amazing, and still quite large colt. His owner comes to visit him often, usually walking away mumbling “gosh, that’s a good looking colt,” and the owners of his sire visited, letting us know that he was, indeed, a gorgeous foal. It wasn’t just me – the general consensus was that this foal was COOL. He towered over his playmates, and was put together beautifully.
Two weeks ago I was having lunch with Luke when he suddenly got somber and said, “I have something to tell you.” I stared across the table at him, prepared for the worst with thoughts of illness, infidelity, and other traumatizing ideas when he said the ultimate: “We have entered Bode in the November sale.”
I was completely shocked – first at the information that I was receiving, and then secondly at the emotions that were running through my system. I used to be a yearling manager, and as part of my job, nearly 90% of the horses that I raised were sold at either Keeneland or a Fasig Tipton sale. On top of that, I myself have sold quite a few sport horses in the past few years, something that I quite enjoy doing – taking horses off the track and providing them with the training for a second career. But this hit me like a rock. I had been prepared for Bode to eventually leave the farm – maybe as a yearling at the sales, or (hopefully) even as a two year old to be broke and run under my boyfriends farms silks – but I had never considered that he would sell so soon.
I understood from an owners point of view why he was being sold. He is gorgeous, he is well bred, and at this moment in time he is healthy. Selling horses is a tricky game, one made with decisions of the heart as well as decisions of the brain and the bank. Not everyone is equipped to handle the emotional, or the financial, gain – and mostly – loss of this game, but most enter in with the understanding that in order to provide funds for the horses that you intend to keep, race, and breed, you must sell some to financially support this – as it isn’t a cheap or a quick process. Many farms keep the fillies with the idea that they can be bred and continue on the pedigrees of a great mare of the past, and therefore it is usually the colts that don’t make the cut as a “keeper.” Colts are a much more risky game – as such a small percentage ever make it to the breeding shed to pass on their lineage, and recent mares like Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, as well as the more current Untapable, have shown breeders that the girls can step up to the plate just as well as the boys! This might not be understood by the outside world, but the money that Bode brings at the sales will provide for a lengthy career and future for the smaller percentage of horses that the farm is able to keep as a runner, and eventually a broodmare, providing for their veterinary care, their stud fees, their training, and their management (ie, my boyfriend). In exchange, we put for sale these other horses and hope that they are nice enough to meet the criteria of the great bloodstock agents, who therefore inform the amazing owners to purchase these horses, and the owners put them in the barns of the trainers like Graham Motion, Larry Jones, or Christophe Clement – among others – the “good guys.” It is a gamble, but it is the game of breeding and raising racehorses.
So here I am, three months from the November sales, and contemplating this life that I have obtained within this industry. I have never been this attached to a horse that I don’t even OWN, and I understand the owners decision with my brain, while my heart may take a few years to catch up. I pray that one of the good guys buys him, and I hope that they are prepared for me to stalk their every move (I say this only jokingly…kinda…not really). I am also going to talk to the owner and ask if I could put my own personal number on his jockey club papers with a note asking that it be called if he is ever in a bad place or ready for retirement from the track. Besides those two things, and maybe the handy websites like my VirtualStable and Keeneland Sales results, that is pretty much all that I can do (besides cry myself to sleep and see a therapist, but those are off the subject). I hope to write a blog in 4 years with the title “I GOT BODE BACK” with my family and friends in a picture smiling ear to ear as I take him over his first XC fence. Until then, I will follow him through his race career, hopefully as an insider – a non-interest gaining partner, but someone that the owners can tolerate via email, but at worst as the person on the outside of the paddock and winners circle surrounded by strangers who wouldn’t know him from Distorted Humor, but with my iPhone taking video and tears streaming down my face. And to all of you – if you see that person in the next three or four years at the races, put some money on Bode – for he wasn’t just brought into this world as an entity. He was brought in with love.
Photo’s Copyright Susan Black Photography
I am a member of many of these “OTTB” groups on social media, and do so hoping to be a voice from the inside, one that can maybe answer questions on pedigree, or connect these people with their horses breeder or owner – usually in the hopes of a foal picture or some information on a quirk. I tell each of them to please be respectful during these inquiries – that the quickest way to injure this connection that we are trying to harbor between the racing industry and the sport horse world, is to convince all of the breeders, trainers, and owners that the metaphorical “WE” of the sport horse world is actually a world full of PETA activists who wants to shut down the industry in its entirety. Many of these people are quick to say that they “rescued” their horses, or that their horses were “in bad shape” and I hope to advise them that their breeder was probably not their last owner on the track, nor were they a money hungry mob man. I find it may be easier to simply make a list of things that I wish I could say to all future OTTB owners/caretakers:
1. Your horses breeder/owner was in the business to “make millions.”
This is Dynamaker as a yearling. He is my personal OTTB, so I will base most of these off of him. His dam Dynamist is by Dynaformer, who stood at Three Chimneys for his final breeding season at $150,000 per live foal. He himself is by Empire Maker, who stood at Juddmonte during his INITIAL breeding season at $100,000, but was more likely around $30,000 by 2007 when Dynamaker was conceived. His dam Dynamist was sold the year Dynamaker was born at the Keeneland November sale for $360,000. Did you know that the average price to board one of these weanlings/yearlings/mares at an elite breeding farm is approximately $30-$40/day? So board for the year for ONE horse is approximately $14,000? And that’s not including vet/farrier/dentist? So his breeder had spent approximately $500,000 by the time Dynamaker had made it to the track – and he won a whopping $6,040 before being retired and rehomed as a jumper where I found him. So, lets see, $500,000 – $6,040 = a $493,960 deficit. I don’t think many financial advisors would recommend this specific investment!
2. You horses breeder/owner thought of his/her animal as a commodity and did not love them.
Each of these animals is loved, adored, and cared for surrounded by the most educated horsemen, veterinarians, nutritionists, and farriers known to the industry. We may send them to the sales to allow someone else to enjoy them in their racing endeavors, but you will never see a more full “Virtual Stable” than that of a breeders or farm managers.
3. Your horses breeder/owner does not care about their horse post-racing.
I have had the privilege of being in contact with the breeders as well as the farm where my Dynamaker was foaled/raised/and raced for and can assure you that this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. The day I purchased him, I woke up to an email with this:
And two years later, I received a gorgeous competition saddle pad paying homage to his breeder and his racing career, with Dr. Chandler’s silks as well as his JC name embroidered on them for all to see:
Through email, running into each other at the sales, instagram, and facebook – I stay in contact with my horses breeder and farm and they are THRILLED with his success post-racing. As a manager of a different farm, I can guarantee you that I enjoy nothing more than finding out that one of mine has been rehomed to a second career, and will bend over backwards to give them any information/pictures that I can get my hands on!
4. Your horses breeder/owner simply “didn’t care” to follow their horses career or know what happened to it.
I was recently told that a foal that I had bonded slightly too strongly with would be going through the November sale, and had to choke back the tears as I realized that not only do I only have 4 more months of having immediate access to him – but that I would also potentially be losing any interaction at all, as the system is not set up to have information made public when horses are bought/sold/moved.
As the farm manager (or in this case, the farm managers girlfriend) I have zero say in what is chosen to be done with this foal, and I know that the owner has to do what is right for him and his herd of horses. I am currently plotting how I am going to maintain track of him during this transitional time until he is named and on the track where I can follow him through works and races, but it is not a perfect world and I understand that there is a chance that I may lose him. Does that mean that I won’t be devastated if that happens? Absolutely not. Does that mean that whoever gets ahold of him 4 years from now should assume that he was never loved? Well I hope that it is my name next to OWNER in that case, but otherwise I think that these pictures are evidence enough for that answer.
I understand that in just with every other industry, there are bad people in the thoroughbred industry, and these people tend to flood over any information about the good. The good people who have endured through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, just to be a part in the crazy, spectacular, and at times heart breaking world that is horses. I have seen owners cry after selling a mare, I have seen grooms spend the night in a stall to watch a colicky weanling, and I have seen farm managers walk away sobbing after losing one of “their own”.
We are attempting to clean up the industry bit by bit – just a few days ago a group of the top trainers signed a pledge to stand behind the elimination of race day medication by 2016 – and in the past few years more farms and tracks have pledged their assistance to thoroughbred aftercare. We still have a ways to go – but the path is slowly being chiseled away, something that needs to be done from both sides. We as breeders need to support and build aftercare, but the sport horse world and fellow second careers need to respect and not be disillusioned about the breeding and racing industries as well. One day I hope that we can meet in the middle, but until then I will continue to assist others in their journey with their ex-racehorses and hopefully remain a bridge between these two worlds.
I consider myself a strong advocate for the thoroughbred industry, and have stood behind the industry more times than I can count in the past few years as it is attacked from every side – the economy, journalism, extremist groups like PETA, and yet there is one horse in my virtual stable that constantly makes me question everything I defend: Marilyn’s Guy.
Just a quick recap for those of you who do not know me. I am an event riding pony clubber by upbringing, and took the plunge into the thoroughbred industry in 2009 when I was employed at Chesapeake Farm. I then moved on to manage other farms and am now currently getting my doctorate in veterinary sciences – so horses are still, and will always be forefront in my life. Many people now know me as someone to contact when they have a horse who is ready to retire from the racetrack, either for myself or for my connections, so few realize that only a few years ago I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Storm Cat and an AP Indy. But this all changed when I began working on a breeding farm, and more specifically, with the lay ups that were coming off of the track for miscellaneous injuries or time off and I met Marilyn’s Guy, or Larry. Larry was a leggy 3 year old in 2009, and had just won his maiden at Hawthorne by a whopping 13 lengths the week that I began my job. He was all we talked about during vet work- he had been bred by the farm, and was quickly becoming our next “big hope” for his dam, Marilyn Merlot – a gorgeous grey by Unbridled’s Song who need a bit of a push for her page. But, as is horse racing, it was detected that he had an issue with his throat, and he was brought back to the farm for some treatment and R&R. When I met Larry he was a gentle giant; at 3 years old, he was 17.2hh and dwarfed me, but his demeanor during his treatments had us bond immediately. Through medications, hand walking, and grazing, he quickly became my favorite on the farm. The horse that I would go visit and groom even after hours. I craved nothing more than to swing a leg over his back and take him for a hack.
But as it is with these athletes, he was sent back to training at the end of the summer with a hug and a kiss, and after a bumpy start, found his stride and began winning allowance races in good company. It was during this stretch that I rarely got to see him, only occasionally when he would have a layover at the farm between shipping up north or down south.
I would get to hand walk him, redo his bandages, and wish him good luck as I loaded him on his next van and onto his next track. He was 4 years old, still a gentle giant, and just sparkled with enthusiasm for the life that we have spent hundreds of years breeding into these horses. My last hug was spent loading him up to Arlington, and it is to this day one of my favorite pictures. He just exudes class and athleticism, a horse that is noticeable well taken care of – an emblem of what we fight for daily when we tell the outside world that our animals are LOVED and treated with respect.
Larry was bought from his breeder, but I continued to follow him, set on the idea that this was my future “Rolex” pony, an exaggerated version of me saying that I loved this horse and hoped to one day retrain him for a life of XC schools and trail rides, maybe even with an event or two if he was able to stay sound – which I worried about on a daily basis as his now 17.3hh frame deceived gravity.
Fast forward a few years and many updates and I had hope that maybe, just maybe, he was soon to be done – but then suddenly Larry started moving UP the ranks and into stakes class. I was appalled – he was 6, and wasn’t even consistently placing in the lower classed races, but began to put in bullet works. I went and put 10 dollars on him in the Excelsior Stakes at Aqueduct on a whim and in support for my now “old man” and watched without breathing as Larry put his heart and soul across the wire to win and officially become a graded stakes winner! I had tears in my eyes as I screamed at the TV for the horse that had gotten me hooked into this life.
Larry would not win a race after the Excelsior. He continued to run at good tracks and with upstanding trainers for a few more months and I waited impatiently to see him possibly ship to Churchill or Keeneland so that I could go see him in person and make an offer to his trainer, but he was claimed, and then claimed again until finally ending up in cheap claimers at Parx. He is now 8 years old, and has earnings of $430,000 dollars, but only $1,500 of that is from this year. He will start on Saturday with a tag of $12,000 at Parx for his 36th race.
THESE are the horses that cause disgusted looks from the outside world. They see them as pathetic and “discarded” without realizing that people still love them. I have contacted numerous people in the pursuit of Larry, letting them know that he would have a forever home if and when he was retired – whether it be with me or someone that I can trust. But every time that he is claimed, or drops a rank at the track, I begin to feel my own passion for this sport waiver. It should not be this way, I should not have to falter from my platform screaming to the masses of the goodness in this industry. I’m sure that we’ve all had a “Larry” in our early careers – that first horse that we would scream unabashedly for as they came around the final turn, that horse that you bet on even when they were at 35-1, or just that horse that made you take a step back and honestly think about just how beautiful these creatures are they we spend our lives around.
I hope to one day have some closure for this story and that it does not end with tragedy or grief. If he is ready for retirement, I hope that the owners are responsible – as if any horse is a deserving “War Horse” it is Larry. But if he is still sound and happy in his career – let him run. I will keep cheering for you Larry, I promise.
UPDATE: Larry’s breeder Drew as well as myself have reached out to every hand that takes a part in Larry and have tried to secure him aftercare, getting more aggressive as the months, and now years, tick on. He has a permanent home lined up for him on Chesapeake Farm, amazingly offered by his breeder. He has shipping lined up (either through Brook Ledge, or my own personal truck and trailer if needed). And he has plenty of carrots and Fruit Loops awaiting him here in Lexington, along with the best farrier and veterinary care in the world. What we don’t have are owners who are receptive to the idea of retiring him, even though he is an 8yo GSW running for a $5k tag, and we are therefore acknowledging the idea that we might need to claim/purchase him to get him home. Please leave rude comments about the fact that we have not bought him yet off of this site, it is in the works–but scraping together $5,000 on a graduate school budget (approximately 1/3 of my annual income) is a hard decision to make. Thank you.