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.
We didn’t know what would greet us at Del Mar Racetrack, and what we encountered was the best greeting we could have dreamed of.
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.
We saw grooms who were battered and bruised themselves, but were still there at 4am the next morning to do treatments, hand walk, and muck out.
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.
I woke up this morning to numerous Facebook messages. From various people. Various industry affiliations. Various ways in which they were connected to me.
And all were writing of the same thing: The Denny Emerson Drama.
And I clicked on the links sending me to his Facebook page, or Doug Payne’s status and just sat at my desk with my jaw dropped. I slowly tucked my hands under my ass and twitched for a few moments, demanding my brain to stop writing.
Do not blog. DO NOT GET involved.
And then in true Carleigh fashion, my anger level rose, and my willpower diminished.
So here we are.
For all of you out there blissfully unaware of the events which happened this weekend, here is the cut and dry.
Pau – a 4* event in France – was underway. We had three Americans contest the windy and intense cross country course overseas, and all three were competent and skilled equestrians. Boyd Martin, one of our best cross country riders to ever grace American soil, kicked off from the start box and put down a nearly flawless round.
…until just a few fences from the finish.
Because – as part of this course – the riders leave the fresh grass of the French countryside, and enter the dirt dressage complex. And as his mount Crackerjack’s hoof hit the differing surface, he stumbled, and Boyd quickly pulled him up.
For any of us who work in the thoroughbred racing industry – it was quite obvious what happened. We see it occur time and time again in the training and racing of our precious young stock, leading us to turn away from the rail thinking “not again.”
Many of these end up as fractured sesamoids – which are the small supportive bones in the ankle. Some are condylar fractures of the cannon bone, which can spiral up to the knee. And sometimes, just sometimes, the rider or jockey can get off quickly enough to maintain the infrastructure of the leg and prevent further damage. This leads to the best prognosis and outcome. But continue to run, and you devastate all of the tendons and ligaments which attach the lower limb to the body.
But that is exactly what Boyd did. He swung off and screamed for a medic. He supported his mount while waiting for help. And all of us watching the live stream, or worse – present – just closed our eyes and sent a prayer up to the Horse Gods.
We heard soon after that it was in fact catastrophic. There was no chance in saving Crackers life, and he was humanely euthanized with both Boyd and his owner Lucy there.
It was, quite simply, devastating.
So many of us in this sport feel a legitimate connection to these riders and their mounts due to the invention of social media. We watch the live stream, we stalk the live scoring, we peruse Eventing Nation, and if we are lucky, we even Facebook friend the riders. It is the beauty of this sport – the nearness we get to the greats. Walk around any event, and you will find a 4* rider with a smile and a helping hand. It is awesome.
And as the outpouring of sympathy and well wishes for Boyd and the horses connections began, there was one person who deterred to the opposite spectrum. Who went into the situation with cat claws instead of sympathy: Denny Emerson.
Denny, who posts under his Tamarack Hill Farm, has quite the social media presence and following – and thousands upon thousands of equestrians turn to him for guidance and information. He never sugar coats things, he cuts to the chase, and he calls it like he sees it.
And 90% of the time, I appreciate that. Because I truly believe that criticism is key to progress. It does not mean that you do not love something or someone if you choose to call it out for a flaw. I always refer to this as my “Fatherly Advice.”
I don’t know how many times during my teenage years that my father would sit me on the couch and tell me that I was epically screwing up. That I was to be punished. That I needed disciplined. Whether it was for simply staying out past curfew, wrecking his car, or *possibly* underage drinking, he was quick with a verbal lashing and a grounding.
Did it mean he didn’t love me? Hell no. It meant the opposite. That he expected change. That he expected improvement. That he expected better from me. And 99% of the time, that Come to Jesus talk worked.
And the majority of the time, that is how I see Denny Emerson.
But this time, he took it too far.
He posted that Boyd treated his horses as disposable – as many upper level riders do these days.
He posted that the upper levels were a bastardized version of the sport he used to love, leaving horses and riders crippled and dead.
And he posted that it was the removal of the long format which led to this demise.
And as comment after comment under his page supported these statements, I watched as my jaw dropped lower and lower. I am but a measly lower level rider, but one who has gotten to befriend and follow many an upper level rider in their journey towards success.
And I have watched grown men cry as their Rolex dreams are shattered due to a horse tripping on the cement on the way in from the paddock a week out.
I have seen young girls place their dreams of Team victory to the side after seeing one lame hiccup in a dressage school.
I have witnessed grooms stay awake for 72 hours straight in order to see their mounts get to the final day of stadium in tip top shape.
And I have watched young women wake up at 5 am in order to ride all 10 of their horses before throwing on their khakis and black shirt to go waitress the dinner service – just to pay the bills for that next FEI event.
And do we all acknowledge the fact that this sport is dangerous? Hell yes. We do.
But what is Denny doing? Nothing.
Because while he bemoans on Facebook of the dangers of upper level riders, he is still training them. Breeding their mounts. Actively teaching, clinicking, and riding. Profiting off of the sport he degrades. And at the same time that he incites his followers to attack grieving riders and owners, his “opposition” is hard at work to physically improve the sport.
His supporters are enraged that Doug Payne, Dom Schramm, and Will Faudree (among many others) are pointing out the flaws in Denny’s arguments through quotes from his own mouth, claiming that he ran his upper level mounts injured and lame just for fame and glory.
But the difference between the two? While Denny is lashing out on Facebook, Doug is designing tables with frangible pins. While Denny is lamenting over the good old days for the long format, Dom is attending the annual conference to improve the short. And while Denny is hypocritically and CONSTANTLY claiming that he is done with the upper levels, all three of these men are training students to improve their skill set and therefore safety.
Denny’s most recent post claims that he is “done with upper level eventing and the upper level riders who watch and do nothing.” And I can’t sit here without writing of the hypocrisy in this.
Denny has both trained upper level riders (many of which I am friends with and respect to the highest degree) as well as bred upper level horses. His livelihood has depended on this connection to the upper levels, and his bread and butter is in his showcasing of these success stories.
I am sorry that he stood the sire of Crackerjack and that this is taken an emotional toll on him. I am sorry that he feels pain over this loss, even though he has not personally handled the horse himself.
But just like any political discussion in the past 12 months, unless you are doing, you are just spewing.
We cannot make progress without change – something that many of the upper level riders are heavily invested in. And we cannot make these changes without funding and grants given to these brilliant men and women who want to progress the sport, not just throw it in the trash. There are so many things that can be, and should be studied.
This horse did not “succumb” to the sport as Denny would like you to believe. He had a catastrophic injury to a forelimb that researchers have been attempting to preemptively diagnose for the last decade. It was unrelated to a jump, and honestly had nothing to do with “The Sport.” It could have happened in a field, or even in the dressage arena.
And had it been due to a jump, there are talented course designers and engineers which are attempting to make those safer. Had it been to a cardiac event, there are brilliant scientists and practitioners studying that as well. We have the people that want to learn. That want to improve. That want progress.
With the key word being progress. Not degradation.
I am horrified that Denny used this specific injury as his basis for the demise of this sport, and his ammunition for why the long format was so necessary. The long format which left us with no data to even find a correlation on safety, something that the current generation of leaders in our sport are attempting to fix.
We cannot make progress without change. We should not make change without science. Without data. And we cannot do either without this sport coming together instead of tearing itself apart.
This divisive rhetoric needs to end. And it currently looks as though it is the informed masses against one. So maybe that one, and I mean you Mr. Emerson, needs to respectively bow out. Mind your manners. Wind down your social media and screw on your constructive thinking cap.
And find a way to make progress.
Our thoughts and prayers are needed. For Boyd. For Crackers. For his owner Lucy. For the entire Windurra team.
Our skill sets and abilities are required. For researchers. For USEA. And for a damned good epidemiologist and engineer.
And finally, our manners need assessed. Rehabilitated. But that just goes to you Mr. Emerson.
“I hauled him back and tacked him up, hesitantly walking to the warm-up. I was petrified of even the most minor error. A bad distance. A downed rail. Or GASP, a stop.
But even in my blind terror, in the back of my mind I knew I had the greatest ally. The greatest team.
I went into the Novice division with my shoulders hunched and my eyes down. I glanced around at the fences wondering how they could possibly be only 3 feet tall. I kicked my horse into a canter, mumbled a prayer to the Horse Gods, and tried to keep my hands low. I told myself that as long as I didn’t tell Mak to stop, he would go.”
–an excerpt from Vicious Cycles, published February 2017.
This was my life only 9 months ago. I was scared of jumping my horse. I was scared of showing my horse. I was scared of what people would see, or think, or say.
I was scared of the very essence of my sport, and because of this, I had stopped competing him. I had placed him directly in the epicenter of the swirl that is a vicious cycle, and due to it, on a scale of 1-100, my confidence was at a -15.
I had entered him in one combined test in 2016: Octoberfest at the Kentucky Horse Park. Although we had competed at training level successfully in 2015, we had crumbled in the confidence game due to time off, harsh winters, bad schedules, and more importantly my inner psychological devilish banter.
I told myself over and over that people were judging. That people knew he was for sale and therefore even a small blemish like a rail was laughed about or sarcastically spoken of over dinner. I thought everyone was watching, and I couldn’t take the heat.
So I entered him in the novice level combined test, too scared to even do XC. And I warmed up for the dressage last year thinking “he’s tense, this is going to be terrible” and “if he scores a 40, no one will want him.”
And then I trotted down centerline, tracked right, and raised my hand.
The judge stuck her head out and asked me what was wrong. He was sound. He was steady. I needed to carry on.
But my mental instability had gotten too great. My anxiety too high. My need for perfection too much. And I withdrew.
That was a year ago. 12 months. A short time by anyone’s count, but a million miles away for me.
Because, with the encouragement of an amazing group of friends, I decided to kick my own ass this year.
I needed to get over myself. I needed to get help. I needed to remember why I used to love this horse, and I needed to remember why riding and competing was fun.
So we did those low pressure jumper shows all winter and I got my mojo back at 3′, and then 3’3. I saved my nickles and dimes and tried to take more regular lessons with amazing 4* riders who could help every level of my riding. And I asked friends to come XC school with me, and get my gallop back.
And in May, I entered Mak into his first event in two years. At training level.
It didn’t go perfectly. Our dressage wasn’t phenomenal, and we had a rail in stadium. And when I came up on a large table on a half stride, I pulled him off of it, resulting in a big fat 20 on our record.
But I came off the XC course with a smile instead of a tear. I had remembered why this sport was so fun in the first place. And for the first time in a long time, I didn’t really care what everyone reading the scores thought.
So I entered him in another, and another, and another event. I took another, and another lesson. And I worked my ass off, week in and week out.
I worked on our dressage-something that we have always struggled with. Mak is not the fanciest mover, and his conformation encourages him to fall on his forehand. But this year we got him more supple, more forward, and more accurate. And my 38’s and 40’s were replaced with 33’s. I even shaved it down to a 31 at Flying Cross.
I worked on our stadium–something that has never historically been a problem for him, but one which is psychological warfare for me. I always ended up with ONE rail, and knew that he was too tidy of a jumper to deserve that. But Mak is a soft and cadenced jumper with a flawless 12′ stride, so I always just kicked and prayed. And this year I decided to instead ride. We taught that stride to constrict, for me to ride to the base; and also the begin the lesson of staying out of his way over the jump instead of doing my happy release: the praying mantis.
And finally on XC, we worked on loving it again. Mak is a careful horse, one who thinks about things as he approaches them, as he goes over them, and as he gallops away. He will never be the type that runs blindly at a jump and then just hops over. Instead, he needs a confident ride, a forward ride, and an accurate distance.
And this led to a stop here and a stop there on my record. Two of which were 100% my fault, two of which were his. All of which I decided were justifiable and not the end of the world, because a 20 doesn’t seem so bad when you stop riding for your record.
Because if you looked on my record on USEA, it wouldn’t look great. You might not think Mak is a packer or perfect.
But what he is? And what I love him for? He’s safe.
He will never take a jump from an unsafe distance that he can’t clear. He will never blindly run at a jump without knowing he can safely jump it. And he won’t dart off the side at the last minute, or stop sliding into it. And I might have some 20’s, but I also have that.
I also know that my horse has my back.
And this weekend, he definitely did.
I decided to end the 2017 season on a highlight. So we entered that same Octoberfest CT, only this time at the preliminary level. A vast improvement from being scared at novice. Preliminary, a level that for the last 31 years I didn’t think would be plausible.
I have always owned the horses that would either do the dressage and never jump that height; or vice versa. But I have never owned the horse that could do both.
Mak went into the dressage test with his ears forward and a studious face on. His leg yields were flawless; his trot work earning him 8’s. He stayed on his correct lead during all of the counter canter work-something that I never thought would be possible. And in his lengthening, he actually lengthened.
And then we went into stadium and I looked around the jumps, assessing the fact that they still looked massive.
The oxers looked wide, the verticals looked tall. The triple looked daunting, and the turns looked tight.
But unlike 9 months ago, I wasn’t scared, I was excited. I knew I had an amazing horse underneath me who was ready. I knew I had an amazing team of friends outside of the in-gate to cheer me on. And at the end of the day, I knew that this show was just the cherry on top of an otherwise goal-cracking season.
And as we cantered around this massive course, ticking off fence by fence, I realized just how much each represented an individual small goal that I had achieved.
1. Improve his canter work.
2. Find comfort in combinations in stadium.
3. Improve suppleness.
4. Learn not to pick to big tables.
5. Get comfortable on drops into water.
6. Actually lengthen his stride when asked.
7. Stay centered over his back over fences.
8. Improve gallop and find his happy speed.
9. Do 10,000,000 transitions to improve downward transitions.
And 10. Have fun.
I left the ring feeling like Mak and I were 100% in sync with a massive smile on my face, because all of these goals had been accomplished if not improved, and I was FINALLY having a blast again.
I had gotten over my own mental issues and found my horse again. I had found a way to afford multiple competitions and then forced myself to enter them instead of letting money, or time, or energy be an excuse. And I had learned to love this sport…again.
2017 was an amazing season for me and Mak. My record might look mediocre, but my record is not my brain. It’s not my heart. It’s not my truth.
My horse is back. My mind is better. And my season was amazing. I kept my goals small and obtainable, and because of that, I accomplished them one after another.
I hope you did too.
HORSE FOR SALE:
Are you looking for the proverbial unicorn? Well look no further, as Lucky Strike, or “Sig” is exactly that.
Sig is the best of all worlds – he is 100% thoroughbred, by the esteemed stallion Northern Afleet out of the Chilean mare Godiva, but unlike the many other thoroughbreds in the world, Sig was not bred to race. In fact, he was bred to play polo for ten goal players, and therefore was conceived via artificial insemination, and is not registered with the Jockey Club. He even has a brand on his hip – a star with “KY” in the middle – leading us to affectionately call him our Kentucky Warmblood.
Sig was allowed to grow up as the warmbloods do, had 30 days under tack as a 2 year old, and then was brought in this summer for another 60 only to find that he had *gasp* grown. Sig now stands roughly 16.1hh, and will most likely finish around 16.2 – which is perfect for you and me, but not so much a polo pony.
So his breeders offered him to me. And for the past month, Sig has learned the ropes of being a sport horse. He has a soft mouth at all three gaits, has zero stop and has now schooled small XC fences in addition to being entered in his first show in the 2’3 jumpers – where he exceeded my expectations. Sig goes in a rubber snaffle, is sound barefoot, and fat off of air – but maybe more importantly, he has that polo pony brain – nothing ruffles his feathers, he can tie for hours, and truly seems to enjoy any and all attention.
He is located in Lexington, Kentucky and will be competing in the Octoberfest HT at the Kentucky Horse Park October 28th. Asking $7,500, and price will increase with training, as the sky is truly the limit for this shiny unicorn.
Video of Sig
Any and all inquiries can be made to CarleighFedorka@gmail.com!
I was involved in one of the scariest moments of my life on Friday afternoon.
Having just walked my cross country course in preparation for Saturday, I was hustling up the hill to the trailer area at the Kentucky Horse Park.
With the immense growth of the infrastructure of this park, those of us who haul in daily for the shows are relegated a good mile or two from the stadium and dressage rings, and our hacks back to the trailers can be long, can be relaxing, or can be dangerous.
And as I hurried up the hill, I looked over to see a horse and rider heading back to the trailers themselves. In jump tack and with a smile, I assumed they were heading home from a good stadium round and gave a head nod–recognizing the rider but not knowing her well enough to actually speak.
And then I heard the deep exhale of a horse that was either spooking, or running, or bucking. And I turned and just froze.
I watched the rider sit the horse for a solid 4-5 bucks even though her reins were on the buckle and she was holding a drink in one hand. And then she was unseated, falling, and finally–the worst part–drug.
And I stood there with this horrible realization that there was nothing I could do. Nothing I could make better. I was too far away. Too helpless.
And so I simply watched as she finally came off and the horse went running up the hill.
I screamed over the fenceline to her to see if she was ok, but she did not respond.
I looked over the fence line to see if she was moving, but she was not.
So I threw my body into motion and jumped the two fence lines separating me from her and ran to her side. And what I saw made my stomach churn.
She had landed face down in the gravelly sod, and was not moving. I yelled her name and she did not respond. But my CPR and emergency training from the dude ranch kicked in, and I began to triage.
I checked her breathing and saw that she was, and knew that meant to leave her where she was lying. I did not want to risk placing her neck or spine in any malposition and risk paralyzing her.
Her pulse was strong and I didn’t see any gaping wounds that would need pressure applied to, but still didn’t move her arms or legs to investigate further.
But she still wasn’t responding or conscious, and I knew I needed help.
I screamed at golf carts passing by to no avail, as they either (hopefully) didn’t hear me or didn’t care.
So I pulled out my phone and dialed every number of every rider I knew that was at the stadium arena–only 500 meters away, but oh so far.
I finally reached one of my best friends Courtney Calnan, and she picked up on the first ring.
And it was the best person to reach. I simply said “I need the ambulance and medics on the horse path across from the Walnut Ring NOW” and she just hung up.
She didn’t ask questions. She didn’t try to get gossip. She just hit End on the call and went into motion.
I knew that Courtney would not only know how to get medical assistance, but that she also personally knew every show official, judge, and member of the board.
I could focus on the woman lying next to me while I trusted my friend to do the rest.
What felt like an hour, but was actually only a few minutes passed by before the EMTs arrived. And as they hurried to her side, they asked me her name-which I fortunately knew. And then they asked me her age, which I had no clue.
I stepped away, trying to continue to hold it together, and looked to my left to see Courtney running up the hill towards me. She grabbed me in a hug, and with that exchange, she took over and I took off to find the riders loose horse.
I called another dear friend Holly and quickly told her what happened and asked that she begin the hunt for the horse from the opposite direction, and she, like Courtney, just hung up and began searching.
The horse was caught, and quickly brought back to the trailer where a team of amazing women and men untacked him and got him settled. And as he was walked towards his rig, I noticed one man standing there looking confused.
It was the riders husband, awaiting his wife from her hack from the ring. And I calmly walked up to him and told him that his wife had fallen, and that the EMT’s would need information from him. Without a word, he jumped into his car and hurried down the hill to his wife.
And then I sat at my own trailer and just dissolved. All of the adrenaline seeped out of me in tears and I just weeped.
But suddenly my phone rang and I looked down to see it was Courtney and answered. She wanted to know how the rider had fallen, how long she had been unconscious, and how long she had been unresponsive even after coming to.
I gave her my answers and then looked at my own horse, realizing I needed to head to stadium myself.
Courtney texted me updates throughout the next hour, letting me know that the rider was finally talking, or being placed on the backboard to go into the ambulance. And I watched the police escort the rider out as I made my own hack down the horse path on my way to stadium, just trying to focus and hold it together.I learned a lot from this situation; a situation I will never forget. I am far from a safety obsessed rider-but Friday changed me.
First and foremost, I believe that riders should be required to wear medical arm bands in ALL phases of showing-and this goes for dressage riders, hunters, and jumpers. Maybe more importantly, that we should be wearing these armbands OUTSIDE of the show ring.
These medical arm bands should NOT require scanning in order to access pivotal information such as your ICE (in case of emergency) contact or essential medical information such as allergies, heart conditions, or the decision to be an organ donor.
I used to believe that these bands were useless, as I was in the arena and had already written this information down on my entry. But I realized on Friday that after her horse left, no one knew what number this rider was. Her information would not have been found had she not been surrounded by people who knew her by name.
These barcoded or scanner arm bands are smaller, and therefore popular in our discipline, and that is fine. But either on the opposing side of that plate or in an additional band, your name, DOB, and ICE number should be easily accessible, as none of the first responders who able to scan this code at this specific event to access any of this information.
I also realized just how scary this situation would have been had this not been my home turf, and had I not been literally surrounded by my contact list. Had I not known that Courtney was on the grounds and near the ambulance, who would I have called?
I thought about calling 911, and was told by numerous people that that was actually the worst thing I could do. The horse park, like many other large breeding farms in our area, are a literal nightmare for these first responders. Addresses to individual barns or arenas are not accessible, and the ambulance driver then ends up driving in circles as crucial minutes tick by.
The show officials can call 911 and then send an escort to the main entrance to give the ambulance a lead, but not me.
And I didn’t have the contact info of any show official in my contact list. In retrospect, could I have logged onto USEventing and found this information? Yes. But in the heat of the moment, that was the last thing I thought of.
My boyfriend made a good point that (if possible) it might be prudent for these large horse parks and show grounds to create their own security number, or emergency number, and then advertise/promote the crap out of it. Have it hanging in every barn and every phone pole.
Make it 311, or 411, and have it immediately call either the security office, or the show office. Have it easy to remember, easy to access, and readily available in situations like this. We have medics on the grounds for these shows for a reason, but we need to be able to access them swiftly and easily.
And finally, find the safest route with your horse. I realized while watching this happen that we were so lucky. That she was so lucky. She had taken the horse path when so many others take the shorter route on the actual paved road. She had landed on grass, albeit hard grass, instead of cement. And that simple decision may have saved her life.
But this accident didn’t involve a high pace or a large fence, just a simple spook with a rider who wasn’t ready for it. And that can happen to any of us.
I am so thankful it was on grass. I am so thankful that she was wearing not only a helmet but also tall boots-proper footwear that can get you out of a drag more easily. And in a strange way, I am so thankful I was there.
I learned that night that this rider will be ok. She was concussed, and obviously banged up and bruised, but she was talking and she was with her family and friends. And I read that message and just closed my eyes and thanked whatever guardian angel was watching over her that day.
But we can all learn from this.
We should all take a first aid/CPR/triage class, and be prepared.
We should all ride with proper identification on us, whether it is at a show or at home.
We should all know how to access medical assistance at these shows, whether it is through a show official or a friend.
We should all ride with proper safety gear-helmets, footwear, etc, on EVERY RIDE.
And we should all hug our ponies and our loved ones tonight, because anything can happen in the blink of an eye.
That is what I learned this weekend. I hope you learned something too.
Almost a year ago I entered my talented but obnoxious horse into a clinic with one of the top eventers in America. I had ridden with this man numerous times with this horse and knew that he just “got him.”
Good ride or bad ride, I came home with plenty of homework and tools in our arsenal for when my horse woke up on the wrong side of the stall.
And on this particular day, he not only woke up on the wrong side of the stall, but also the wrong side of his paddock and perhaps the great state of Kentucky.
But in true Doug Payne fashion, he swung on my majestic steed with a smile and put him through his paces. And I stood on the ground, watching my pony try his damndest to enrage even cold blooded Doug. It didn’t work, and after their conversation, I got back on and had a good jump school.
But as I walked him back to the trailer to untack and process, a complete stranger came up to me and in an obnoxious voice told me that my horse was dangerous. That I needed to get rid of him. And that life was too short for “horses like him.”
I stared at her with my jaw slack and eyes bugging out of my head, finished the final 30 foot walk to my trailer, and promptly burst into tears.
A part of me fearful that she was right, another part of me sad if she was. A part of me horrified at being called out in public. But a third, and final part, just appalled that someone had the nerve to say that.
I did not know her. I did not ask her for her opinion. I was not paying to take a lesson with her. And maybe most important was the fact that she was making this obstinant opinion of my horse based on a snapshot in time.
She was not my trainer. She was not my barn owner. Hell, she wasn’t even my friend. I didn’t ask her for advice, and I sure as hell wasnt paying her for it.
Had Doug gotten off of my horse and said “I think this is a recipe for disaster. You are way over horsed and this will end with one of you getting hurt” my head would have snapped to attention, and I would have listened.
But he hadn’t. He had giggled while saying “wow, you were right about him being in a mood today. The talented ones are never easy.”
Because he had seen him before. He had seen the good days alongside this one bad. He had witnessed the talent and appreciated my ability as a rider and my horses ability to be (yes) a dick, but also not malicious in his intent.
And yet this woman; this STRANGER, felt differently about my horse and my skills and made her voice known.
And for what?
It didn’t appear to be in my best interests based on the tone in her voice and the look on her face.
It wasn’t solicited by me or any of “my team” and therefore not encouraged.
And it didn’t sit well, as I still think about it to this day.
Yes, I shrugged it off and carried on. Yes, I still own this horse. But no, I am obviously not over it. It still affects me.
And isn’t that the world we live in?
Just this week an heiress to billions of dollars fell off of her horse.
She proceeded to get up, chase him towards an oxer, and belly kick him before dragging him from the ring at a jog.
And the social media peanut gallery came out of their dark dungeons and caves and attacked.
Was it pretty to watch? No.
Should she have been reprimanded and not allowed to show for the remainder of the show? Yes.
Should it be called animal abuse and should we demand she be barred from USEF? No.
It was gross. I won’t sugar coat it. I can remember my mother ripping me off of my pony for lesser behavior at the age of 8 and locking me in her minivan.
I can remember having my mouth washed out with soap for talking back to my trainer at the age of five.
And I think of those things every time I feel my blood boil for a miscommunication between my horse and I.
And this woman was 36, on a VERY nice hunter.
But we all have bad days. We have all felt road rage or wanted to punch a wall. We have all picked fights with loved ones because we are enraged by another aspect of our lives.
Only our temper tantrums aren’t videod. Our last names aren’t Johnson. And at the end of the day, most of us get to sleep it off and move on as better people.
But for some reason horses bring out the best of the peanut gallery. And the wealthier you are, or the better rider you are, or the higher podium you have stood on, the more we love to weigh in. To tear down. To criticize and critique.
The comments I have read barely even focus on the actual issue. They’re too busy criticizing her riding (based on one jump) to really even notice the belly kick. A kick that most likely hurt her big toe more than his rib cage. They harass her for being unbalanced, unseated, sitting too low with legs too far back. They pretend to be God’s and Goddesses of this sport who have never had a bad day. A bad jump.
But is it facebooks job to do so? No. Is it the armchair quarterbacks who visit their own horses once a month for a carrot? No.
It is up to her team to criticize. It is up to show organizers and governing bodies to reprimand. And it is up to herself to change.
This world that we live in needs to change. We need to do more and talk less. Mind our own business when matters are insignificant and demand change from our government bodies when they aren’t. Find empathy for both teams in the picture: horse and rider.
Social media can change things when done appropriately; I have seen it happen. But it can also tear apart people who don’t deserve it. Who are judged for a snapshot of an otherwise good life. I have no dog in this fight and don’t know if that is the case here, but I do try to see the best in people. Maybe we should all try to see the best in people.
And maybe at the end of the day, we all need to turn off those computers and go ride. So here I am to say: logging off, I’m tacking up.
I hum this in my head to the tune of “Where have all the Cowboys gone” by Paula Cole at least once a week, and even moreso this last week as I worked the Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
The leg man.
The horse whisperer.
The foaling guy.
The breaking girl.
The bread and butter of our industries, people who used to be revered and applauded. The cowboy you would send to get your horses broke, or the barn foreman who could feel a tendon strain weeks before an ultrasound would pick anything up.
The men and women whom we hear are missing from our vocal elders. Men like Denny Emerson and George Morris. Those who are willing to stick their neck out to the guillotine as they lament the good old days. Where riders were horsemen and women first and foremost and equitators second.
And this goes out to so many aspects of this equine industry.
I watch as the majority of my friends move off away from the barns of the Thoroughbred breeding industry. Men and women who I considered the good ones, who I considered the true horsemen, moving away from the daily chores of mucking and bandaging for the comfort of heated offices and 9-5’s. Christmas off and open toed shoes.
I lamented of this to a fellow farm manager last week during the sales when he asked about my manfriend and what his plans were. His plans? He planned to do what he was phenomenal at. Being a horseman.
Luke is a broodmare manager, and one of the best birth attendants I have ever seen in a foaling stall–and that is coming from me, someone who has her doctorate in equine reproduction.
Year in and year out, Luke is the first human face that these future champions see. He can reposition the worst dystocia, calm the most panicked mare, and assist the first steps of the most leggy foal. And I watch in appreciation of this greatness. This skill set. This mastery.
But this mastery will never make him millions. His job is one that is at best under-appreciated and at worst over worked. From January 1st until July, he works 100 hour weeks. A herd of broodmares and their progeny depend on him never sleeping in, never being ill, and never taking a personal day. It does not matter if there are 2 feet of snow on the ground or 100 degrees with 80% humidity-he is there.
I have seen him leave the house after cradling the porcelain gods, riddled with the flu. I have seen him put chains on his tires and haul a generator to the barn without electricity. And I have seen him miss weddings, funerals, births, and parties simply to give that foal a good chance at a great life.
But in exchange for this, the rewards are simple. He appreciates the first gutteral whinny of a filly and the first wobbly steps of a colt. He earns smiles as they accept their first bit and a pat on the back when they sell well. And occasionally, very occasionally, he gets a mention in an article if they win.
It is not a lucrative lifestyle. It is not a comfortable existence. It is filled with constant sleep deprivation, long hot days and even colder nights. A phone permanently attached to your hip and truck keys in your fist.
Not many want to do it.
And because of that, few do. And fewer stick around.
But that is the problem. We are losing those fine men and women who are innately born with these gifts. The feel of a hot leg. The scent of impending parturition. The detection of a disgruntled stomach.
And why? Because it’s undervalued.
These men and women are worth their weight in gold and grain, and yet they are often dismissed for someone cheaper, albeit less experienced. Or they are under appreciated and dismissed for their undying effort to keep their herds well, leaving them disgruntled and restless.
You look around the horse shows and see fewer and fewer of these select few to exist. You look around the yearling sales and see a similar predicament.
And it is not because we are not creating these magical creatures. No, no-they exist. But they are choosing to move off into other realms. They find those jobs in the comfy offices with weekends off. Weekends where they can compete themselves or watch their horses gallop across the wire from a covered box.
Its the duality of the job. Those who love the creatures the most are found caring for those that they do not claim ownership of.
I was one of them. I devoted my entire life to 30 mares and their progeny that I would never get to call my own.
And in exchange for my undying devotion, I never got to ride my own horse. I never had a weekend day off to compete my own horse. And at the end of the day, I couldn’t afford either.
I sacrificed my own personal equestrianism in order to encompass and assist a larger herd. And it wore on me.
I loved being a farm manager. I loved being a horseman. I still work the sales, even now having finished my doctorate and being considered “above” the job of yearling showman. But I love reading those young horses too much. Getting into their brains and unlocking the chains. Figuring out how to make them walk better, stand better, behave better. It’s an addiction for a true horseman. An addiction that’s impossible to break.
But I left the role as farm manager because of the lifestyle-just like so many before me. I wanted to own my own horses. Have time to ride my own horses. Afford my own broodmare or racing stock.
I fear for these industries if this is the path we continue to head down. Dismissing those skilled horse whisperers and allowing them to run away and leave the cherished cement walls of the foaling barns and training tracks for a more comfortable existence.
I don’t know what the solution is, but a part of it is in celebrating the true horseman. Thanking them for their expertise. Praising them for a job well done. And acknowledging that without them, our industry will fail. Because I know where all of the horsemen have gone-away. And we’ll never get them back. Let’s keep the good ones we still have.
I walk up the show ring – back and forward, back and forward. Stand and pose.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
It is the annual Keeneland September Yearling Sales, or as us thoroughbred officienados refer to it: The Marathon.
18 days of 5-5. A hundred shows a day per horse. Millions of dollars sold, and hopefully millions of dollars earned.
And each time that I arrive on that first day, I have this wave of awe overcome me. I watch these 1000 pound yearlings tolerate so much with so little prep. There is no schooling show or warm up round.
They ship here to a new place–many times their first trip off of the farms they were born on. Happily loading on and off the scary trailer.
And they step out of their stalls for the that first day and run the gauntlet of what anyone would consider good horse behavior:
They stand for a bath in an unfamiliar place.
They accept the bit and a change of halter.
They lead to and from an environment they’ve never seen without putting a foot wrong.
And at the end of the day, they are happily bandaged and bedded down, waiting for the next.
I have long been a supporter of this magnificent breed known as the thoroughbred and am a hardcore advocate for retraining the ex racehorse. And when people ask me what I love so much about that journey, I always respond that it’s because it’s usually so easy.
The racehorse is so exposed by the time they get to you. They’ve seen numerous tracks, numerous riders, numerous routines, and numerous lifestyles. They have a lead change and 4 beautiful gaits–the least of which is the gallop. They travel both ways happily and take things in stride.
But even before they get to that first start, these animals are so trained. And why is that? That is because of the breeder, and maybe more importantly the broodmare manager, yearling manager, and plentiful staff that lays their hands on these horses every day.
After these pivotal few weeks the breeder gets much less press than is deserved. Occasionally they get the shout out in the TDN or DRF. And sure, if the horse runs in the Derby, there may be background story on NBC. It is short, it is brief, and the blurb is simply not enough.
But where the breeder does get the attention is potentially moreso in the negative ways that are undeserved. The entity that is the breeders gets blamed for the seeming abundance of thoroughbreds (crop size is down almost 40% since a decade ago). They get blamed when a horse is found in a bad situation, even if the horse has exchanged hands countless times since it left that pivotal homeplace. And they get blamed for the route of the horses life–from the nursery, to the sales, and then the track. Being told that it is too much, too quick, too careless.
So much of this animosity or targeted behavior is so unwarranted. So much of it is unfair.
But what is maybe more unfair is the lack of thanks that we give these men and women for the amazing horses that we now have access too, and the behavioral attributes that we relish so much. Things we take advantage of without considering where they originated.
Because of Mill Ridge, Mak loads on a trailer and happily stands for hours.
Because of Chesapeake Farm, Kennedy lowers his 18hh head and willingly accepts a bit and bridle.
Because of Shadowlawn Farm, Nixon happily ties and stands for an hour long bath.
And because of Hinkle Farms, I get to spend my September showing some of the classiest and well behaved young horses. Horses that put most fancy show ponies to shame.
We all need to thank those men and women a bit more often. Look on Equibase, find your horses origins, and then whisper a thank you into the universe. Each of them was mated with purpose, foaled with care, and then raised with the upmost consideration and thought.
Your horses race trainer might have taught your horse to break from a gate. And your horses retrainer may have taught him how to jump a crossrail. But it was your horses breeder who gave your horse his first mint, taught him his first steps on a shank, and nurtured him through his first wound.
So thank them. They deserve it. Every single ounce of it.
I walked off my XC course on Sunday and just shook my head. A grimace was plastered across my face, and my reins draped across my horses neck. Sweat dripped from his neck and mine, and I took one deep slow breath.
Because two jumps from the end, we had had a stop. And not just one stop, but two.
Mak had never seen the duck pond at the Kentucky Horse Park, and yet at the Area 8 Championships, it had popped up on course. We had a log pile 1 stride to a severe decline into the boggy water. And the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey had deposited an additional 4″ to the bog.
We had cruised around the first 7/8ths of the course in harmony. It was our 4th event at training level, and our goals were finally starting to synchronize.
It was less kicking and praying and more plotting and organizing.
It was less “let’s get through this” and more “let’s improve on our training.”
And it was less “finish on a number” and more “finish strong.”
And I thought we were.
Until my horse decided he was petrified of that bog, and I mentally watched that glaring TWENTY pop up in front of my cerebellum.
I circled back, tried to get him in front of my leg, popped him off his forehand and approached again.
And he stopped…again.
The twenty switched to sixty, and I felt my shoulders drop and my brain shut down. I was fully prepared for my horses first elimination in his 5 years of eventing, and contemplated simply retiring. He was legitimately scared of this obstacle in front of him, and rightfully so.
I almost raised my hand, and then quickly lowered it back down.
Because I realized something in that millisecond.
My horse was still young, and in a sense, green.
My riding was still improving, and I was by no means a professional.
And I needed to stop caring about the record and start caring about the progress.
I circled back one more time and achieved the canter I had wanted the first. I picked Mak up, wrapped his barrel with my legs, half halted 4 strides out, and DROVE.
And in 3, 2, 1 he lifted from the ground, popped over the log pile, took one stride to the water and cantered right through.
We popped over the last two fences in a strong gallop and then came back to the walk to cool out.
And as I shook my head, trying to dissipate the grimace from my face, I saw my trainer Allie. And where I expected a similar expression on her own face, instead I saw a huge smile.
Because Allie told me that she finally saw me RIDE. She has watched my riding progress for the last 5 years and knows that when I panic, I PANIC. I go into the fetal position and lean, instead of sitting up and driving.
And yet this time, it was different. This time, my brain functioned like a true equestrian. She said she could see my thought process from 100 yards away and that it was awesome to finally see me think my way through a problem instead of growl.
And with those simple words, I realized that I had accomplished yet another goal of this year.
My record might not be progressing, but my riding is.
And isn’t that why we are supposed to be in this game? 90% of us are out there competing as a hobby, and those 4’s and 40’s don’t effect anything but our brains and ego’s.
And yet this “hobby” is all consuming to so many. We live and die by it, and therefore we log onto our accounts on USEventing and grimace and sigh at those blemishes.
I jokingly said on Sunday night that I wish there was a comment box next to each event on my record.
Next to our stop at the down bank 3 years ago I would write: “Rider developed strange phobia of down banks and halted willing horse.”
Next to our 12 jump faults from two years ago I would write: “Rider decided to enter horse into in and out at angle, and then epically failed.”
And next to this past weekend I would write: “Boggy water had actual swimming sharks, and after an initial appraisal, rider remembered how to ride and convinced horse to go swimming with them.”
Because that is how I feel right now. My horse was legitimately scared of something, and yet he trusted me enough to try it. It might have taken 2 circles and 45 seconds, but he did it.
And we both grew from the experience.
I know that the next time that damned bog is on course that Mak will be much more willing.
And I know that the next time I am faced with an issue like that that I will ride.
For the record, I am a better eventer than I give myself credit for.
For the record, I own a horse that is trying his heart out every time I saddle him.
For the record, I had a lot of fun this weekend even if my record looks like I should be frowning.
Because for the record, I’m done riding for my record.
I was at the doctors this morning, and upon leaving I stopped at the front desk to schedule my next appointment, knowing that in 5 days my allergy testing were to be read.”
“Carleigh, we’ll see you next Tuesday, September 5th.”
My head snapped up. September 5th. THE September 5th.
My dark day.
I guess it is a sign of healing that I have been blissfully unaware of its approach. For 9 years now I have slowly become less intense in my await of its arrival. For 9 years now I have lessened the tears and increased the smiles.
I don’t remember the first anniversary. It was spent in a black out, enraged with the world and its living inhabitants. Not healthy; but I survived.
But I remember the second like it was yesterday. I had just moved to the namesake of this blog, Paris, Kentucky to be the yearling manager of Hinkle Farms. I had all of two friends who inhabited this tiny town with me: two guys named Luke and Dan.
And Luke texted me that morning and asked if I wanted to do anything. If I wanted a distraction or an adventure. But I had planned to make it my annual mission to be numb. To compartmentalize the pain instead of processing it, and I said no.
I went to work at 6am. I hand walked a thousand yearlings. I curried hair until blisters arose on my palms. And then I returned home to sit on my couch and pour a drink.
But before I could even open the door of my truck, there was a man standing on the front porch. It was Luke, and he was holding a pizza and a case of beer.
For hours we sat on my back porch and talked. Two newer friends, having only really known each other from the sales and the social scene of the industry.
But for hours I told him about my fathers life and death. Explaining the man he was and the woman he had made me be.
And for hours Luke just sat there and listened.
My emotions ranged from devastation and dry heaves to giggles rising up my throat as I described scenes of humor watching my father untangle fly rods and screaming at my mother to get his other flies.
I laughed. I cried. And maybe more importantly, I felt.
And I stared across the porch at that friend and realized just how amazing of a man he was. How good of a friend he was.
That friendship quickly became much more, and for seven years now I have had him as my life partner. The most important person in my life.
And that is what I like to think of as this dark day approaches. Yes, there will be tears. And there will be anger. But as the years progress, and the sadness dissipates, there is also a lot of good.
Because of that loss in my life, I moved to Lexington, Kentucky.
Because of that loss in my life, I found therapy in horses.
Because of that loss in my life, I strengthened relationships with my mother and my siblings.
Because of that loss in my life, I found renewed passion for my own. Leading me to an intense focus on everything from my career to my hobbies.
And because of that loss in my life, I realized how amazing of a man I had sitting across a tiny porch from me.
I used to say that I would do anything to get my dad back, and a large part of me still feels that way. But as I age, mature, and grow as a person, I begin to realize that there is truth in the saying that everything happens for a reason.
I am a stronger person because of what I have lost. I am a better person because of what I lost.
I wake up every morning and realize that life is a blessing, and that there is always happiness found if you search hard enough.
In a sunset.
In the cast of a fly on a stream.
In a good gallop over a massive table.
And in a slice of pizza and a beer with a good man. A good friend.
Those are the things I take away with me now. And those are the things that will get me through the dark days. I hope you have found yours.