Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The power of passion

The face, the horse, that has launched way more than a thousand words
With all the bad press lately about horse racing, it can be a brave thing to utter the words, "I like horse racing." But I do. And I'm not just spouting silliness when I say there are good people on the track who care about their horses--I actually have seen them with my own two eyeballs. Heck, Bar could have ended up on a slaughter truck and yet his owner/trainer kept him, cared for him, for three years after he bowed his tendon because, and I quote here, "He is just such a cool horse!"

If he weren't, if he hadn't ended up in my life, I wouldn't be so passionate about horses in general and Off-Track Thoroughbreds in particular.

If he hadn't ended up in my life, I wouldn't have been driven to trying to help promote OTTBs--show their value beyond the track--so there are reasons to retire them sound as well as places for them to go  to help make that transition.

I am not alone in this. My friends Karen, Keri, Devon and Katie (technically also my daughter) are my cohorts in this grand adventure and--besides a shared passion for the breed and the wonders they can do--we have a really impressive skill set. Not to brag too much, but really? We rock. From actually riding speeding on-track Thoroughbreds on a daily basis, to massage and farrier work, to training in both English and Western disciplines, all the way to marketing and PR.  There may be an overly-healthy dose of stubbornness in all of us, too.

Since Devon has to ride said speeding horses early, Karen, Keri, Katie and I braved really nasty weather to drive over an hour tonight to meet with a group called Neigh Savers about what we all might do to work together.

Turns out, it might be a lot. Including re-homing the horses from the HBO series Luck who now need new jobs after the show was cancelled. (I do wonder where the folks who want to shut down racing think all those horses will go if that actually happens, but that's for a different blog post.)

More later, but there is much planning that needs to occur and sleep that must happen.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

There is a dark side

The good side of the racing industry coin, sadly not the only side
As I said in my last post, I am not a Pollyanna about the racing industry. There are beautiful, wonderful, caring people in it who do right by their horses, but there is a hideous dark side as well--a shadow that obscures the good people and that will eventually destroy the industry it purports to feed.

This New York Times article hits on nearly every bad part of horse racing: drugs, pushing horses that shouldn't run, running them until they break, and injuring them beyond repair, where they often take a human down with them.

Natalie at Retired Racehorse does a beautiful, if heart-wrenching job of summarizing the article here. Such a good job of describing the video, in fact, that I think I will have to skip it. Visions of Calabar dance in my head when I watch breakdowns and Steve once banned me from reading rescue blogs after watching me sob at each new example of the cruelty inherent in my own species.

But it's not really about cruelty, or not just about cruelty. It's about an industry that needs strong, fair, realistic and honest oversight and guidelines. Consequences for stepping outside the guidelines should be fair, swift and mandatory based on the offense--not how much money your stable makes. There needs to be a balance of people in the industry, as well as some from outside it. Those on the outside will offer perspective and serve as a reminder that the world is indeed watching, but the industry can only change, will only change, with pressure from the inside. There are enough good people to help with that.

It's more possible now than it has ever been. Social media, OTTB rescue groups, retraining organizations like the Retired Racehorse Training Project showing off what these talented horses can do once they come off the track--even the demise of the HBO series, Luck--are helping shine light on the darkness in the industry. As with any festering wound, light and air are the best medicine and I expect people like Arthur B. Hancock III (quoted in the NYT article), the Moss' and Team Zenyatta, and Jess Jackson's (owners of Curlin and Rachel Alexandra) estate to get in there and fight with the rest of us.

And what, you might ask, would be their motivation for that? How about turning their image around so people LIKE to go to the races? Not just to bet, not just for the casinos, but to watch these magnificent athletes run. To feel the thunder through the soles of their feet as the horses come down the stretch. Power, grace, pure energy--that prick of ears forward as a horse takes the lead and realizes he's in front. It's magic. Those of us who truly love the sport and love the horses know that and we will fight for it.

And maybe that will begin to heal the sport, bring honesty and integrity--and from there, new spectators--to the Sport of Kings.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Milazzo -- a real live happy racehorse

Milazzo raced again today and Steve and I made our way down to Golden Gate Fields on a clear, cold and breezy day to watch him run. We haven't seen him in person since before he really started training, back when he was a big cuddly teddy bear of a horse. His run today was good, and it reminds me that some horses really love what they do--despite what P.E.T.A. might think. Yes, folks, there is a tiny rant coming.

She's pointing the camera at us, dude
Milazzo looks a little different these days from when we first met him. He is now 17+ hands of racing fit Thoroughbred and is hard to miss as he comes bouncing along the track on the way to the paddock before the race. Actually, he's plain hard to miss anywhere. And he knows it. "That lady is taking our picture," he whispered to his groom before he know who I was. Once he figured out I was part of his herd--or at least an admirer with good taste--then he just posed.
"Ohai, make sure you get my good side. Luckily, that's every side,"
He won his last race quite handily and had a 5-furlong work last week that clocked in at just over a minute and gave Devon "goosebumps." But--as those in the world of Thoroughbred racing know--every race is a new adventure. Actually, that doesn't apply just to racing--every day with a horse is a brand new adventure. Just ask Calabar.

Milazzo didn't break as well today and that cost him some ground, but at the tail end of the race he made up a length at least with (maybe) three big strides, finished third and was still picking up steam at the pole--another furlong and he'd have had the race. He then spent his entire cool down looking back at the track, trying to out-pace the hot-walker and doing his best to convince us to take him back up to run.

Real life on the backside--love and green scarves.
This is a horse that knows his job and loves it. Loves it. This is a horse--a Thoroughbred racehorse--with owners and trainers that love him and take fantastic care of him. He was not stressed today, he was not overly-anxious. He ran well, he ran comfortably and even though he didn't win, he got love and affection and good care. And by everything I saw, he'll be ready to go again as soon as he's asked.

There has been a lot of controversy lately over the HBO series, Luck, and the horses that died during filming. It has, of course, brought more criticism of the racing industry. The picture above is a real face of the racing industry. Racing is public, racing is televised. It is not--as pointed out on this Retired Racehorse post--the only venue where there is abuse and it is not the only place bad things happen. Let's not forget it is also a place where good people love good horses and do good and wonderful things with those horses. Horses that were bred to run, bred to reach out and fly above the earth with grace, power and beauty.

I am not a Pollyanna. I know bad things happen to a lot of racehorses (and other horses), but I also know there are good people on the track and horses that absolutely love what they are doing. Milazzo is one of them. Calabar was one of them for a little while, too. They are both blessed to have had owners and trainers that do love their horses and will take care of them on the track and then try to find good homes for them after it's all over.

Demonizing racing really isn't the answer. Just coming up with a realistic conversation isn't the answer, either, but it will sure as heck get us a lot closer than closing our eyes, sticking our fingers in our ears and saying, "La la la la la."

Friday, March 16, 2012

Feeling the try and trying to feel

Bar really wishes I would stop steering him like a bus
Calabar is a trying horse, and not in the way it sounds. (Though sometimes that, too.)  He is usually trying very hard to do what is asked, even when it does not make any sense in his universe. Learning to recognize that try and reward him enough to move on to the next thing is the first step, followed closely by learning what the right thing actually feels like, and--as all of this wasn't enough for my pea-brain--knowing when to give him a break before he gets bored. Or frustrated. Either is no bueno and catching it before is way better than after. Way. Better.

To do that sometimes requires letting go of "he needs to do this all perfectly first" and also "well, he can't do that until we master this." Those voices are so irritating, aren't they?

Case in point is our current work on the turn and the trot, fundamentally getting him to use his hind end and respond to more subtle cues from the reins. It is not easy for either one of us, but he's working with me and listening. It's important, however, to get out of my own head and give him a break, not keep drilling him over and over on the same thing.

So when we've done several rounds in both directions and he knows he's done it right, we do something else. Sometimes we wander around over obstacles at a walk, on a loose rein and sometimes I let him canter. It's rarely a perfect uphill canter, but he's happy, his ears are up and he's relaxed.

I was feeling guilty about the above--letting him canter willy nilly however he felt like it, giving him a mental break before we get something perfect--and then I read this guest post by Katie Hill on Retired Racehorse. Her ten tips are golden, and not just because many of them are things Bar taught me along our journey. They make sense! They are easy to do! I don't need to buy side reins (which would likely have been an unmitigated disaster with two klutzes on either end of them.)

There are so many more things for Bar and me to learn, but we are muddling through better than I dared hope in some of my darker moments. In fact, we even may be doing a little better than muddling through.

I'll leave you with a great bit of word knowledge from Katie as an added bonus--describes both my horses quite well, actually.
"(According to the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins the origin of the word shenanigans is likely the Irish sionnachuighim — “I play the fox” or “I play tricks” – inspired by an Irish Thoroughbred, perhaps?)"

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Weather-induced Thoroughbred antics or ?

Looking for that perfect spot..
Calabar and I have a routine. He likes our routine, it soothes his OCD-like tendencies. I like it because it can help me see trouble before it starts.

Can does not equal always.

It's simple, really. We go down to the round pen and if he's saddled, (better for him to carry it than me, right?) I remove the saddle so he can roll while I make a pit stop. His trot, though it's improving, is murder without having to contend with full bladder. He either rolls while I'm in the bathroom, or he waits until I come back so I can watch over him. Sometimes both. Sometimes he doesn't appear to roll at all--usually when it's a nice day out and he's not blanketed and has had the chance to lay in the dirt in his paddock.

Aahhh, that's it
After that, I let him warm up without the saddle for a few minutes, then saddle and warm him up a tiny bit more (you know, until the cinch actually fits right), then get on and ride. If this seems like a long time, it's usually not, and it lets me see where his head is on any given evening.

The operative word in that last sentence is "usually."

The other day, the wind was blowing cold in front of a storm front and all the horses were a little on the wild side. But not Bar, nope. He went with me calmly and we got all the way through the routine to the re-saddling part. I sent him out to warm up and he decided that was the time to roll. With the saddle on. Which he hasn't tried in, I don't know, years?

"What are you doing?!" I may have sounded vaguely exasperated.

Snort, squeal, buck, spin. Paw, paw, paw, round back, knees bend.. "NO!"

I kept him moving, changing directions, until he stopped trying to maim my saddle and calmed down enough to come to me. I admit it, I took off the saddle and checked the pad--we were trying a new one--and he went right over and rolled. Then came right back to me and let me saddle him again and proceeded to be quite well-behaved.

That is likely not the best training I could have done but it was how it played out and he hasn't tried it since. Maybe it was the pad, maybe it was just him being weird. And maybe it was just his answer to the universe at that particular second.

Life with horses--full of constant enigmas to unravel and new twists to the story. I can only imagine what might be next!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hobo bundle

Hobo bundle, with a side of boots
Weather in Northern California this time of year can range from torrential rain to freezing temperatures at night and near 80-degree temperatures during the day.

I have to wear nice clothes to work. High heels and horses are not a good combination.

Hence what I lovingly refer to as the hobo bundle.

It consists of every possible layer I might need in order to be the right temperature when it's time to ride. A t-shirt alone if it's warm. A long-sleeved cowboy shirt if it's a little bit cooler. A pair of fleece lined riding tights and a pair of regular cotton riding breeches. Two liner layers, a fleece vest, and a sweatshirt. The rain jacket lives in the car this time of year, so is not an integral part of the hobo bundle, nor are the stocking cap or baseball hat--both permanent wardrobe components.

The wrapping itself is a bit of an art, enabling ease of transport. Sweatshirt lays out flat, vest next, the rest piled in the middle then tied up neatly.

In the summer, the hobo bundle will be encased in the long-sleeved cowboy shirt--unless it's as cold as last summer. Then the sweatshirt will simply have to remain in play.

Life in Northern California requires layers. Many and variable. Like an onion. Or an ogre? Either way, the hobo bundle is a way of life.

At least until I can convince my boss grubby, rumpled clothes that smell of horse are an important asset to the business.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Simple exercises

Ignore the bus driver on your back, Bar--you're doing great!
The other day, in the midst of finding my balance again in the English saddle and helping Calabar ignore another horse bouncing around the arena screaming loudly and continuously for his herd-mate, I had a revelation.

Riding is fun again. 

It is something I look forward to, not something to talk myself into. It is an opportunity to learn, not a time to beat myself up over being afraid. There isn't anyone in my head saying "should" anymore. Or at least not nearly as often.

What's there is instead is a new mantra. "What can we do to get to the next stage?" This breaks down into smaller pieces, as it must for the two of us. What can I do better to communicate to him how to do X? And once he's done X, what's next and how do I tell him how to do that? Then how do we tie it all together in a more seamless way so we're building, not just repeating?

That's a really nice change, and we've had a lot of help getting there from a few good trainers and some great friends. It turns out, there is a lot in both our heads, we just need to put it all together.

Ellen really helped us do that in the two lessons we had, so I treated myself to her (and Betty Staley's) book/DVD combo to bone up for the next clinic. "Bringing It Together: An approach to a lighter and happier dressage horse."  It may say dressage, but the exercises she teaches are simple, work for any horse and--best of all--do just what we needed. This, then this, try this when that doesn't work. And then build on it with this. (Being specific would be boring and Ellen is much better at describing it all in any case.)

It's given me ways to teach Bar and have him become more and more willing to learn--more cooperative--even if he's not sure what I'm asking or why. Seeing those brown ears pointed back at me, patiently (mostly, anyway) waiting, asking what to do even as I try to figure that out myself--it's like a whole new chapter. 

It's even gotten me feeling more relaxed in the saddle--my shoulders have rolled back and my chest is no longer curled defensively over my stomach. 

It's not really a culmination of everything we've learned so far, it's more like being able to pull it all together again outside the foggy, fearful place and having the future open back up to us. 

I've likely thanked all these folks before, but they deserve another shout out because somewhere along the line, they all were there when I needed them. 

Peter, who rode Bar and told me "He's a good horse, he just doesn't know much," released a huge knot in my chest I barely knew was there. Ellen, helping Bar engage his big brain and think, taking us a little further.  Ike and Cheri for not being afraid to let a "crazy" Thoroughbred get in front of cows.

And of course there are the folks in the background--my own little cheer-leading and coaching section. Steve gently supporting me and pushing just enough. Katie congratulating me on some of my smallest victories with more enthusiasm than was likely warranted. Karen and Devon reminding me how far I've come with him and pointing out the bond we have. Joan for talking through some of the fear with me and giving suggestions and help and letting me know it was okay to get off sometimes.

Yes, Bar and I both deserve credit, too. I'm too stubborn to give up on him and he's too stubborn to let me. And soft. And fuzzy. And adorable. (Him, not me.)

It's been a road that sometimes felt long and frustrating, like we'd never get up the hill again. But we did. And I can look out at the horizon from between a pair of big, brown ears (and sometimes spotty ones, too) and know we have lots of adventures we will take together, one simple step at a time. 

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Horse barometers

Not to state the obvious, but horses sense changes with much more subtlety than we humans could ever dream of. My knee may ache when the weather is about to shift, but Bar seems to sense the change with his entire body--crackling with it some days. Where I may notice something off about someone, he is crystal clear about who makes him uncomfortable and who he trusts--even if he has never met them.

Weather changes make more sense, of course. Air pressure changes, wind carries new smells and distant sounds past flared nostrils and semaphore ears, some even say ions change polarity--something I'm sure horses can feel on their very skin.

But why do some people set horses off? In "Raja, Story of  a Racehorse," the equine protagonist always feels something off with the many unsavory characters that cross his path, sensing their bad juju even before they act it out.

Some of it is likely conditioning and how they were raised. Lena is quite convinced that everyone was put on the planet to worship her and will never do her harm. Except the vet. She is a little suspicious of the vet.

Calabar is very, very people oriented--even more than Lena, actually. The racetrack has a constant flow of humans, many of them there to tend to your bidding. He has been known to stuff his nose in people's faces on the trail (if I don't catch him first), assuming they will have treats for him. Oh, and I'm pretty sure he speaks Spanish, too. Still, there are people that make him tense up, wide-eyed and nervous--right before he hides behind me.

I haven't pinpointed any one thing, really. Loud kids running around tend to worry him, but that's somewhat understandable. Often it is someone who is tense themselves or humming under the skin with their own energy level. He reacts to voices when he can't see the person, too, though tone seems more a trigger than volume.

There was only once that I know of when Calabar and Lena were in perfect agreement about a person. The four of us were out on a trail ride and a guy on a bike came towards us. Both horses are really good about bikes and yet both spooked a little. Then, as we were finishing up the ride, both horses suddenly stopped in the middle of the trail--heads up and ears back. I heard a noise from behind us and here came the same guy. His energy and aura was so odd, dark even, that Steve and I both picked up on it, too.

Being herd animals, creatures who survive based on sensing movement and intent--indeed it is part and parcel of their physical make-up--it should not be surprising they can "feel" mood and energy from a human being. Bar certainly senses my mood, my distraction level, the buzz in my brain. He in fact has been a big part of my learning to control it and channel it to better things, much as I have worked to teach him the same tactic.

In the movie Avatar, the riders connected to their steeds with a biological link. Some days I really wish for that level of connection. Other days I realize figuring it all out is part of the dance.

In the meantime, the horsey-barometer continues to teach me about myself, other humans and what may be coming down the line in terms of weather.