Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Horses have always been a status symbol. Even today, with cars as "beast of burden," the horse you ride says something about you. Whether its fair, nice or deserved isn't the point. It just is.

A friend and I were recently playing the always entertaining game of What If Money Was No Object. This while watching our daughters take a riding lesson. What kind of horse would we buy for our girls? My friend thought, without doubt, that she would purchase a finely bred, professionally trained, guaranteed-to-win-the-ribbons horse that riders of lesser animals love to hate. As I watched my daughter struggle to perfect the choppy lope of our rescued-mediocre-conformation-does-not-play-well-with-others little Chance I hesitated. Part of me enthusiastically agrees. Wouldn't it be nice to simply show up to play days and 4H fair and collect prizes? Sign me up for that. Horses, after all, are not created equal. Spend a few minutes with a highly talented, well-bred equine athlete and you suddenly realize the huge gap between the have and have nots when it comes to horse flesh. What do I want for my daughter? To have, of course.

At a time like this I can't help reflecting on my childhood and the Motley Crew of "blue collar" (okay, red neck) horses we amassed over time. The horses that, despite their flaws, ignited my passion and honed my skills as a horse woman. My parents didn't have the option of shopping on, happily clicking the skills they were searching for in a mount for their young daughter. With three other siblings there were more important considerations--food, shelter, and clothing, for instance. Our criteria was simple--four-legged horse.

My first mount was a contrary Shetland of unknown origins (see, Ode to a Shetland Pony) who enjoyed scraping me off on trees, among other things. When I survived Sally, I graduated to the neighbors green broke Arabian gelding who had sat in a pasture for two years after being broke to saddle. Oh goody. I must have been about ten when Sunny came to live with us. My first ride on him is made especially vivid because of the stomach turning mix of abject fear and total excitement that marinated my insides as I perched on his prancing back. Equally vivid is the memory of watching my father--a man with no affinity for horseback riding--attempting to break Sunny of his habit of bolting not long afterward. Good times.

After a stint at "the trainers," lessons, and a year of bonding, Sunny turned into my very best friend. We went on to show at local fun shows and 4H, eventually qualifying for the state fair team two years in a row. You'd have thought I made the Olympics. Looking back, I can see that Sunny wasn't really all that special. He was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill kind of guy whose greatest accomplishment was helping a little girl grow up.

Other members of our colorful crew in those days included these gems--Tigerbell and Alla. Tigerbell was a 25-year-old half Arab, 1/4 Appy, 1/4 Tennessee Walking Horse (whose idea was that?). She was a nobby, temperamental gal with a rubbed off mane, and creaky joints. With a wicked old lady backbone and withers, you wouldn't dare ride her bareback. A freebie, Alla was a leopard Appy with a hammer head, sway back, and pigeon toes. Her neck seemed to come straight out of an especially straight shoulder. Her trot could shake the teeth right out of your head. I'm not sure why we named her Alla, only that we couldn't bear to add the "h" at the end. This out of respect, I'm sure, for a religion whose sacred book states that Allah, "took a handful of the southwind and created the horse." Our Alla was more on the earthy side.

Curiously, the "top dollar" Thoroughbred, bought for me as a teenager for the astronomical sum of $2,500 (a huge sacrifice on my parents part), never found a place in my heart. I rode her for barely two years before she was sold. Guess I'm a blue collar kinda horse gal.

But lets be real. Memory has a way of turning things rosy-colored. In the here and now, money no object, would I purchase a fancier horse for my precious 10-year-old or continue with an animal whose talents are definitely mediocre? I cannot tell a lie.

A horse provides much more for a child than simply putting them, "in the ribbons." And the right horse just may be the blue collar animal. I can't help thinking of two girls I knew in 4H who rode geldings named Nacho and Rocky. Now, it doesn't take a genius to figure out which horse was prettier and more talented. Let that be a lesson to you breeders--names matter. Rocky had a gleaming bay coat that rippled with muscle. He had the perfect Quarter Horse "dopey lope" that won all the pleasure classes and was grand champion in trail. His owner, whose name I have long forgotten (see post, Horse Names), was the girl I loved to hate at 4H fair time. I don't know for sure but I'd be willing to bet money that Rocky's training was done by someone else (not that it matters....I've since matured and am so over that). Nacho, on the other hand, was furry and fat. Utterly forgettable. His neck was nearly as wide as it was long. Let's just say "flexing at the poll" was not something this horse would be doing. In his lifetime. But I don't remember Nacho's owner enjoying her horse any less than Rocky's. They both rode, won (or not), loved their geldings and grew up with sweet memories of life on horseback. That is a gift.

So what might Chance be doing for Haley in the here and now? Of course I've thought about it, as I consider the "perfect" animal on Dreamhorse and the fact that I can use Pay Pal. There are two things Haley is learning and it has nothing to do with competition. First, there is a true friendship building between her and Chance. In the same way of human relationships, not all partnerships--however fancy the horse--become a friendship. Believe me, I know. Chance will leave a field of grass to meet Haley at the gate and soaks up her love like the sun. Second, Haley's character has been honed because of this particular animal. She's learning that soft hands and a deserved rest go farthest in training and that green horses will usually dump the rider who spurs them in a fit of temper. She's learned that victory at a show is a happy, calm horse and rider, not a blue ribbon.

I won't deny I'd love for Haley to win the blues, be rodeo queen, go to the Olympics, be "the best." It is unlikely the abilities of her current mount will take her there (if I win the Lotto find me surfing Dreamhorse). But Chance, with all his flaws, may turn out to be the "sure thing" that helps a little girl grow up. That is enough.

Monday, May 18, 2009


I would suggest that not since the days of Sea Biscuit has Thoroughbred racing been so inspirational. First there was the stunning victory of 50-1 long shot, Mine That Bird, in the Kentucky Derby. This horse's improbable success--he was a mediocre performer--was largely made possible by the intuitive talents of jockey Calvin Borel who guided him to the 6 and 3/4 length win on May second--largest in Derby history since Assault in 1946. At a time when the economy is plunging and moral is sagging, the sport of kings provides inspiring entertainment. Lately I'm wishing for a race track closer to home.

There was no doubt that "The Bird" would make a bid for the Triple crown by running next in the Preakness. Surely nothing would stop Calvin Borel from climbing aboard the bay gelding and collecting another jewel in the crown (not to mention a whole lot of cash).


Borel would become the first rider to leave a Derby champion at the Preakness. In what was called an "unprecedented step," he chose to ride Rachel Alexandra, a horse he calls, "The greatest racehorse I've been on in my life." A filly? Those unfamiliar with racing may not realize the less than favored status fillies get saddled with (pun intended). Colts are overwhelmingly favored for racing, testosterone apparently giving them an edge over most fillies. And the Preakness--at 13/16 mile--is the ultimate challenge. Only three fillies have attempted the Preakness since 1939. Borel knew what he was doing. Last weekend Rachel Alexandra became the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness. Mine That Bird finished second. Right now I'm singing: R-E-S-P-E-C-T--Can you hear it?? Here's to Girl Power.

My favorite quote from Borel regarding the filly he loves (he rode her to a 201/2 length finish in the Kentucky Oaks-a race for fillies-the day before the Derby) is this: "When you look into her eyes its unbelievable. You win."

What does an 8th grade drop out who can barely read and write know about winning? A lot. He knows that what sits at the core of a winning spirit is something nobody can give, or takeaway from you--Heart. Combine this with a willingness to work and success will come. Borel's skill at recognizing heart in a racehorse must come as a result of this quality in his own life. It has moved him from three decades toiling in obscurity to the highest echelons of his sport. Heart is what made it possible for him to keep riding after a horrific accident as a young jockey; heart is also what motivated a "lesser" choice in mounts for a high stakes race--a choice that seemed largely based on pure love of a horse.

But don't forget the work. Only a stellar work ethic prompts a jockey to wake up early to visit his horses so he can be in tune to their nuances. Work ethic prompted Borel to return to Churchill Downs the day after his victory to ride horses of much lesser ability rather than bask in the glory of his six-figure win. At age 42, this winner of over 4,000 races still mucks stalls for his trainer brother, Cecil.

An "over night success?" Hardly. Calvin Borel has more than earned his place in the spotlight.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


There seems to be no end to the things people collect.--antique farm tools, chopsticks, 50's lunch boxes, milk glass(always a favorite), Mickey Mouse memorabilia, the list goes on. In lieu of having a really interesting collection (say, umbrellas or rhinestone broaches or velvet pictures of Elvis) I collect horse names. Not officially, mentally. They stick in my brain like tacky magnets or running text on an electric sign, refusing to disappear into oblivion as other more important information does on a daily basis. My drivers license number, for instance. Birthdays, wedding days, names of people I do know, appointments, all fodder for my mental Black Hole. But a horse's name? Won't be forgetting that. Yes, I know I'm sick. The first step is admitting I have a problem.

With the recent running of the 135th Kentucky Derby, I had the chance to indulge my love of horse names. What could be more interesting than the names and cooresponding stories attached to Thoroughbred race horses? Elvis has nothing on the dreams, despair, blood, sweat and tears of the sport of kings. And naming a race horse isn't simple. The name is a wish, a prediction, an anouncement, or even a joke. It may stick in history, or inside somebody's head,(like mine) for eternity. If you're lucky. The horse's name says alot about the owner. How about the very unsubtle, I Want Revenge, or more wishful, Hold Me Back. A lighthearted, Chocolate Candy, suggests an owner with a sweet tooth and then there's the simple, get-to-point name of, Run. The filly Regret forever recorded her owners disappointment that she hadn't been born a colt (colts being favored for racing). I think the horse deserved a name change when she became the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby.

A name is a stab at immortality, the immortal horses that have gone before reading like labels in an exclusive clothing store (gotta get me that brand)--Northern Dancer, Eclipse, Aristides (first Derby winner), Storm Cat, Sea Biscuit, Secretariet, Bold Ruler, Barbaro. The list goes on. Not simply monikers but titles of a story--somebody's, somewhere. The names suggest attributes shared equally between equines and their caretakers--hope, heart, tenacity.

Breeding the Thoroughbred is as much of a science as man can muster. Imperfect but imperative. For lineage buffs(and other freaks of nature), I suggest the book, Stud: Adventures in Breeding, by Kevin Conley. Fascinating look into the Thoroughbred race horse. This years Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird, wasn't conceived by accident. By Birdstone and out of Mining My Own, Mine That Bird did exactly what his father did, upset everyone's best predictions (Birdstone foiled Smarty Jones's bid for the Triple Crown). Many betters at The Downs were crying into their Mint Juleps Saturday when the bay gelding confounded the experts, coming from behind and winning in a spectacular burst of speed. I love when horses do that. But then I didn't have any money on the race. Bravo to the brave souls who bucked the crowds and put their money on the 50-1 longshot. I'm also happy for the horse who, like other long shots before him, decided Saturday was his day.

Mine That Bird reminds me of two other phenominal racehorse geldings whose names, and the stories behind them, are noteworthy. John Henry and Funny Cide. Funny Cide, by Distorted Humor, won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Owned by a circle of middle class friends who never expected to win with the horse they love, Funny Cide has a bit of a Cinderella story. It is detailed in Chicken Soup for the Horselovers Soul, II. But John Henry has to be my all time favorite. Talk about rags to riches, nothing horse becomes a celebrity. John Henry's breeding has been called, "phebian." This means middle or lower class. To be blunt, his owners couldn't afford Nordstrom and settled for JC Penny. Bought as a yearling for $1,100, the horse was named after the folk hero, John Henry, described as a "steel drivin' man." John Henry, the horse, also had a fondness for steel. He enjoyed ripping his steel feed containers off the wall and stomping them flat. With lack of breeding, an ornery spirit, and noteworthy conformation defects, John Henry was gelded, his "label" neatly ripped off and disposed of. This decision certainly resulted in the owner kicking himself black and blue. For the rest of his life. The horse went on to become the richest gelding of any breed in history. Racing until an unheard of age of 9, John Henry won two horse of the year titles and became the first racehorse to surpass 4 million in career earnings. Not bad for an off brand.

I visited Churchill Downs in May of 2007, just a few days before the 133rd Derby. I will never forget it. It was early, before the museum opened, so I followed a few others to the track to watch what was left of warmups. It was chilly but the sun shone brightly, working hard to burn off the early morning mist still clinging to the track. Grounds keepers were quietly hard at work to mulch and prepare the flower beds for the upcoming crowds. What struck me was the almost reverant quiet trackside. As if nobody wanted to disturb a sort of holy effort being exerted--like the hush before athletic events at the Olympics. Then I heard pounding hooves breaking through the fog. Two horses breezed their way around. They ran easily, joyfully. Because it felt good, because that is what God created them to do. I felt my throat tighten. Tears stung my eyes. Why? It was beautiful. That is all. For an instant I experienced the dream, the emotion, the tremendous heart that beats behind the sport of kings.