Nov 19, 2009

Anky Reining, Part Deux

Another Anky reining video.  Embedding has been disabled unfortunately (booooo!), but you can watch it here.  It's her first reining competition and it's funny for me to watch, since I've recently taken up the sport myself.  I feel like I know exactly where all her mistakes are coming from:  the desire to make corrections with both legs when you just need to take your legs off and use the reins.  The getting ahead of yourself (i.e. already thinking about the next movement when you should be focusing solely on the task at hand).  And the hard time you have sitting back sometimes; seriously, it's hard to get that behind the motion.  Well, you're not really, but it is a totally different feeling to that of other disciplines. 

But good job on Anky all around!  I hope to look half as good at this at my first reining competition.  Hell, who am I kidding?!  With my ego, I plan to look as good as her.  :)

Also, what is with people's compulsions to shield top riders from criticism?  (I am assuming that that was the intent in disabling the embedding.)  I mean, dudes...she's a grown woman who has existed in the public eye for long enough that I think she can handle any critiques people choose to throw her way. 

Pony Round-Up

Odds and ends that I've been holding onto for the past week:
  • Interesting article from the New York Times about how racehorse trainers seem to get barred and/or fined for drugs, yet still find an easy return to the track.  Asmussen, Rachel Alexandra's trainer, is cited as a prime example and I have to admit I've always felt a bit uneasy about praising RA's connections knowing that drug charge was hanging over him.
  • An LA Times article that I briefly mentioned in my Zenyatta / Breeder's Cup post a couple of weeks ago.  The debate about whether synthetic has done anything beneficial at all is still raging on -- you all know where I fall on the issue, but it does appear (at least anecdotally) that synthetic didn't really live up to the hype and in some ways quite severely (I'm speaking here of the possibility, cited in the article, that hind-leg injuries appear to be more prevalent to horses running on synthetic versus dirt).
  • Summer Bird will run in the December 6th Japan Dirt Cup.  Good on him and his connections!  I am glad to see he hasn't made an early exit to the stud farm.
  • Today the FEI approved a new doping test program.  Glad to hear it, but will be happier when I see more details on the program.  But.It does appear that riders will be required to keep a logbook of their horses' treatments.  Suck it, Isabell Werth!
  • Speaking of drug testing, there's this phenomenal Onion article skewering the NY Marathon pseudo-controversy as well as performance enhancers.  Totally absurd, but you can't help but get a kick out of it.

Nov 18, 2009

The Wisdom of C.W. Anderson - Part 1

I picked up a ratty old copy of "Complete Book of Horses and Horsemanship" by C.W. Anderson that was languishing in my pile of as-yet-unread children's books, and was delighted to find it was a delightful little read, charming in its selective choices of topics and peppered liberally with wise-sounding axioms, ancedotes and second-hand stories, such as:

"The horse is a dignified animal.  Tell him he is a fine fellow in good English - not baby talk."

"The true horseman sees much and says little.  We can emulate him to some degree if knowing little, we say little."

"There have been many fine horses.  Swaps, the Derby winner from California, and his archrival Nashua, considered by the veteran trainer "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons the most powerful stayer he ever trained.  Bald Eagle was a splendid Cup horse and Kelso was one of the best.  Then there were the great ones of other days.  Those who saw Hindoo, Syonsby, Hanover, and Domino are gone.  And the tracks are so different that comparisons can have no meaning.  There is no way of accurately evaluating horses of different eras; possibly not even of different years.  Only if they could appear on the same track, all in top condition, might we get the answer.  And possibly not even then." 

You can't help but be delighted by the simple finality with which he makes his proclamations.  When I write my book, I should want it to be exactly the same.

Nov 11, 2009

Okay, So How Do We Fix Dressage?

  • Educate yourself.  Read books, read articles in print magazines and on the Internet.  Watch videos and study photos.  Ask questions from people you trust when you may not understand something.  It is so important to first have an understanding of what constitutes correct dressage training and I'm not talking FEI rules here.  I'm talking the centuries of available dressage (or riding) theory that existed far before we set up competitive rulebooks. 
  • Make small changes in every aspect of your riding:  This can be as simple as buying a drop noseband instead of a crank noseband.  Loosen the reins on a regular basis and check to see whether your horse is in proper self-carriage.  Don't overbend the neck in your corners.  If you're an upper-level rider, train in the snaffle more often.  Your goal is to be at or slightly above the vertical.  Don't be afraid to let that poll come up; encourage it to. 
  • Don't be afraid to speak up.  If your friend / trainer / barnmate is doing something that you feel strongly against, discuss it with them.  Question them.  You won't be able to change everyone's mind, but you can voice your opinion.  Keeping quiet just adds to the problem.  If you are unhappy with your trainer, you can say so and you can find a new coach.  You have the power and if you have the education to back yourself up, you have nothing to feel guilty about.
  • Write letters to the FEI, to the USDF, to any high-level trainers and riders you may know.  Express your feelings on hyperflexion.  Don't rant, don't make pseudo-scientific declarations.  Explain simply why you don't feel that it ascribes to the classical traditions of training and its use should not be rewarded.
  • Challenge riders and trainers at clinics and lectures when you see them riding BTV or in more extreme cases of hyperflexion.  Don't take clinics from people who do not ascribe to the same philosophy of training as you.  Don't waver on your dedication to your beliefs, no matter what anyone may say against you.
These are just some of the things that you and I can do on a small-scale that can effect change.  There are probably others -- feel free to leave comments!  Remember, this is not just about banning rollkur.  Sure, if you want to sign the petition going around, then feel free if it makes you sleep better at night.  But banning rollkur at the warm-up in FEI events isn't going to change dressage.  You can still train rollkur up until the final days of showing and then ride differently.  I'm not saying it's not a good idea, but it won't get rid of rollkur. 

What needs to happen is for all of us to write letters to the FEI, to magazines, to high-level judges and trainers which outline the need for a better judging and scoring system.  We need to be able to (and empower judges to) eliminate horses who have blow-ups in the show ring (like the rears and running backwards at the last Olympics); score very severely horses whose noses are behind the vertical (whether by a little or a lot); reward harmony and correctness over flash and showiness.  I admit that I don't have all the answers as to how we put this into place, but someone else can and will do.  But only if we demand it.

Oh, by the way, remember this?  This is how a competitive frame should look:


Clarifications on the Blue Tongue Controversy

Following up on the heels of yesterday's post, I thought of a couple of clarifications I wanted to make before delving into solutions for the FEI.  Firstly, the blue tongue in and of itself is not good, but a lot of people who have been riders all their lives have had horses slip their tongues between bits, over bits, stuck their tongues out to flap in the breeze, etc...  These things happen.  Blaming it on rollkur is going a bit overboard.  At the Syracuse Invitational there was a horse with his tongue flapping in the wind who performed great.  At the paddocks prior to every horserace are thoroughbreds with tongues hanging out, swollen and bluish whether from having tight chain shanks pulling on their mouths or horses biting their tongues out of pre-race nerves.  This is not uncommon and though I don't ever like seeing it, I can't deny that it happens and that it's not one thing that causes these issues.  I don't know that hyperflexion caused the blue tongue, so I'm not going to speculate on that and, frankly, I don't see that as the ultimate issue at stake.  That being said, had it happened to me I would have probably stopped my horse and checked to make sure there was no larger problem at hand.  At the very least I would have stopped and had a walk break.  That Patrik did neither of those things troubles me.

The simple fact that he rode his horse for 90 minutes to 2 hours does not bother me greatly.  If that was indeed the case, then the horse did not appear unduly stressed, breathing heavily or sweaty.  Clearly he was in the kind of condition that would allow him to work for that long.  The thing that does bother me is the assertion that the horse was ridden in rollkur for the entire length of that time, with only one walk break (as explained in their FAQ).  That definitely changes things for me.  I don't think any horse should be ridden in any working frame for that length of time without several breaks.

Syracuse Invitational, Day 2

Last night's posting reminded me that I hadn't yet discussed the "clinic" on October 28th at the Syracuse Invitational.  The topic was "Riding the Top-level Performance Horse in Every Discipline" and was demonstrated by Anne Kursinski, Ian Millar and Courtney King-Dye.  And I could go through the entire event, moment by moment, but that's precisely the reason why I've been holding off on writing this post -- that seems kinda boring to do.  So, let me just give you my impressions of it and why my post on the blue tongue controversy reminded me of that night. 

See, the basic conceit of the evening was to demonstrate how riders in Hunter, Jumpers and Dressage all use the same foundation to training their horses.  The idea was for the audience to watch the warm-up portion of the session to observe the similarities in training and riding.  Straightness, throughness, lateral softness, good transitions, true bends and so forth and so on.  And I don't knock it.  It's all true.  However, I just want to point out that Ian Millar was simply outstanding and completely outshadowed his fellow ringmates.  His reins were droopy, his horse forward and super responsive, and he sat there extremely quietly as if doing nothing.  And yet, the whenever John Madden (the announcer) would direct our attention to the beauty and art of riding, he immediately directed our attention to Courtney King-Dye.

Dressage, in theory, is supposed to equal harmony.  But when reflected into reality, this is not the case.  When will we feel confident enough to acknowledge that?  Ian Millar epitomized all of the tenets of what good high-level dressage should be, and here I was being instructed to worship Courtney.  She was fine, end of story.  The horse looked a tad tense and she looked like she was very active in a workmanlike way.  Not my idea of beauty in motion, but not terrible.  Just not my dressage ideal.  Particularly (and this brings me to the point of the blue tongue controversy) when you realize that her horse was ever so slightly behind the vertical during the entire ride that night.  That's really what gets my goat.  We have gotten to a point in dressage where our we don't even seem to remember what a proper frame looks like anymore.  And the problem is exacerbated by riders showing and giving public demonstrations with their horses behind the vertical slightly.

Sometimes a rider does long and low, stretchy frames.  Sometimes you might ask for a slightly deeper frame than you would compete in.  Everyone does this; it's called training.  The problem I have is when a training frame replaces the competition frame.  When you are a top rider it is your responsibility to educate your audience and ensure they are viewing a correct representation of your sport.  Mistakes happen, no doubt.  But 45 minutes of a horse never coming in front of the vertical should NEVER happen.  On the vertical at the very least, but BTV for 35 min of the entire ride is amateurish.  If you can ride at Grand Prix, surely your horse is strong enough to carry himself properly.  If not, you have no business doing demonstrations or showing.  You need to stay at home and put some more work into the horse. 

Ian Millar's horse, by comparison, was lovely to watch because his frame was up, nose poked out more often than not.  Sure, he wasn't as collected as Courtney's horse, but his movement was free and joyous to watch.  Dressage is present in a variety of riding styles; it is the harmonious elevation of a natural way of going.  And if you ask me Ian Millar's jumper embodied that expression in a way that Courtney King-Dye's horse did not. 

This though, is the deeper problem within dressage itself and is what leads to people riding deeper and deeper and eventually trying rollkur.  It is the absolute fear (for lack of a better word) that the horse should ever approach the vertical, let alone come above the vertical.  We are so busy softening and suppling that we seem to forget to ride up and out.  And if the general public only sees riding like this, then not many people can distinguish between what's right and wrong. 

Nov 10, 2009

On Blue Tongues and Other Controversies

Ah, yes.  It is positively viral; the roar heard around the world directed at Patrik Kittel, with the full ire and venom of an audience who feigned absolute innocence of such a phenomenon heretofore.  Okay, most of you probably already know I'm speaking of the infamous "blue tongue" event at the World Cup Qualifier in Denmark.

Firstly, I just want to say that the absolute hatred being directed towards Patrik Kittel is shameful.  He is being scapegoated by just about everyone in the equestrian industry and it's a very unfortunate position to have to be in.  I don't condone what he did and I think his riding was reprehensible.  BUT.  As I have discussed before, Patrik is certainly not the only rider training in this manner.  He is one of many, in fact.  He is doing nothing that hasn't been seen before.  Only now spectators have suddenly awoken from their dressage reverie and just about declared, "OFF WITH HIS HEAD!"  I admit I find that a bit unfair.  Frankly, he is just another symptom of a broken system.  This is a system that seems to find no fault to the rollkur system of training even though it basically goes against every basic tenet of classical dressage training.  A system that turns a blind eye to such an incident in the warm-up of a major international event, even though a complaint was allegedly lodged against what was occuring.  A system that rewards such training methods simply by giving high scores in the show ring.  (Is not dressage the art of training?  So, awarding any score to a horse trained in the hyperflexion manner is rewarding that style of training.)

The problem is not Patrik Kittel.  He deserves to be punished, of course, but we all share responsibility for the "blue tongue" incident.  We share it when every time we revel in Anky's wins.  We share it every time we don't speak up about any trainer or rider whose horses are always behind the vertical (and that goes doubly for all those collective cries of "When you ride at his/her level, then you can critique him/her.  Otherwise keep your mouth shut!" every time the average layperson dares to critique a professional rider)  We share it every time we assume that dressage implicity equals beauty and oneness and lightness.  Dressage is the same as every other discipline; there is the good and the bad and we must not think we cannot criticize a person simply because dressage is an exalted art. 

And might I point out that with the exception of a couple of riders walking out on a long rein, there is NOT ONE rider riding in the "blue tongue" video whose horse is at or in front of the vertical.  How did we get to this place in this sport?  Rollkur is just the natural extension of our collective amnesia as to how dressage is supposed to be ridden.  Hypeflexion is despicable, but there is a larger problem in our sport and it has been left unchecked for far too long.  Why did it take a blue tongue for us to realize that?!  Patrik is not the problem.  Dressage is the problem.  Even rollkur (in and of itself) is not the problem.  A governing body that does not take action against all riders riding even behind the vertical is the problem.  A scoring system that can overlook terrible training techniques is the problem.  It's lovely that suddenly everyone stood up and took notice of our ailing sport, but scapegoating one man is not how we will solve this.  And frankly, banning rollkur is going to be nigh to impossible as well as just a symptomatic fix.  I'll post tomorrow about what I think we could do specifically to change dressage, but then again, I covered it before here and here.  It's not rocket science.  It's requires a complete overhaul of our sport and specifically our scoring system.

If you would like to watch the video, it is here.  And the filmakers FAQ is located here.  (Also, you best believe that as a spectator -- unlike the filmakers -- I would have so been in an uproar about what I saw to anyone who would listen.  I find their explanation -- the incident had already been reported and journalists aren't supposed to interfere -- is an insufficient response.  Believe you me, I would have caused a major scene, lodging more complaints, filming, as well as verbally shaming him every time he passed.)

More Zenyatta

Finally!  Steve Haskin has published a really lovely Breeder's Cup Classic recap.  One of the only truly recaps that just exudes pure joy without falling back to comparisons between her and Rachel Alexandra.  In this case, I would rather just dwell on the positive and inspiring, not the inevitable infighting.  Definitely worth a read for a story that captures the mood for those who couldn't be physically present.

Yes, I Am Also a Nerd

Who else is ridiculously psyched about the fact that the horse genome has been mapped out in full and will be published in full in Science?  This could have an amazing impact in the way we understand and treat equine diseases.  It's terribly exciting and I'm hoping I can get my hands on a copy of the Journal. 

I Love Cats

Nov 8, 2009

It's About the Campaign, Not the Horse

It's official!  Zenyatta won the Breeder's Cup Classic, making history as the first female horse to win that race.  I admit I was a bit surprised - not necessarily because she won, but because she had never been tested against boys before and you just never completely know how a mare might perform in that instance.  But she won.  And impressively.  Her owners and trainers should be commended for finally putting her up against a higher class of horses.  Not that she didn't race good fillies and mares.  I just don't see the point of segregrating the sexes, especially when you've got such a spectacular horse as Zenyatta.  It was beyond time to challenge her at a higher level. 

As to who should win Horse of the Year honors...well, I still believe that title needs to go to Rachel Alexandra.  She won the Kentucky Oaks by the largest margin ever recorded for the race.  She won a triple crown race from a post position that no horse, regardless of sex, had ever won from before.  She won twice against Summer Bird, the only other horse that could pretend to have a shot at the title.  She is only 3 and managed to be the first filly to win the Woodward and against older male horses.  Okay, she didn't show up for the Breeder's Cup, but I fully respect and agree with that decision.  It has been proven on enough occasions that dirt horses with no prior races on synthetic or turf are at a disadvantage on synthetic surfaces.  And though I haven't read it in full yet, I recently skimmed the results of a study just published that synthetic has not been proven to be very useful in the battle against racing fatalities.  Unfortunate, but not unexpected.  You don't solve problems by treating the symptoms.

And so the point remains....Rachel Alexandra has performed magnificently over the course of the year at a far younger age than her rival.  Look, it's ridiculously unfair to have to compare these two super-horses.  You cannot fault them on anything.  They are both brilliant girls and the fact that they are racing in the same year should make us take pause and be grateful at having the chance to be connected with both of them.  We always moan about the lack of talent and public appeal, but now we have it and instead of lauding them, we are picking sides and pointing out the rivals' faults.  It's silly.  I do believe Rachel Alexandra deserves to win HOY, but not because Zenyatta didn't win well-enough.  If I have to admit it, I believe it's because Jess Jackson chose to push Rachel Alexandra beyond her limits before he really needed to.  He was never content to let her rest on her laurels; he risked her losing very early on.  Zenyatta is 5 and has only been racing in California against fillies up until now.  And I have to ask why.  That's what ended up hurting her in my opinion.  Her campaign was waged far more cautiously than it needed to be.  Not by her fault, obviously, but her relations should have been quicker to push the mare.  She had nothing to lose and everything to gain from it.  And she proved that yesterday by winning the BC Classic.  Imagine if she had been doing this all along throughout this year...  Then, there would be room for debate as to who is horse of the year. 

Nov 2, 2009

Judging the Hunt-Seat Horse -- A Lesson We Could All Stand to Learn

So, as I mentioned last week (and if you’ve been following my Twitter), I attended the Wednesday seminar entitled, “Judging the Hunt-Seat Horse” being offered at the Syracuse Invitational. I have to admit I walked into the class expecting to be bored out of my mind. I mainly registered for it just because it seemed like the most interesting of all the seminars being offered all week and I wanted to feel involved with the show in a greater capacity than simply as a spectator. What I discovered about halfway through, though, was that it was actually a very fun, interesting course run by a couple of thoughtful, opinionated hunt-seat judges – Greg Franklin and Diane Carney. They both train out of stables in Illinois and I hope to have occasion to perhaps interview them for the blog at some point.

The audience wasn’t just a bunch of hunter snobs, but rather a unique mix of 4-H’ers studying for their judging certificates (and their moms), Cazenovia College students of all disciplines, a young girl whose family raises Arabians, a young man who had a Western riding background and an adorable little girl who came with her mom to learn how to better train her pony. Can I mention again how adorable she was?

And so began the lecture. After introductions were out of the way, we got down to business and for the most part Diane led the bulk of the discussions. It seemed pretty apparent from the start that her intention in teaching this class was to give the average horseperson (okay, yes, the average hunt-seat rider) better insight into the rationalizations for scores and placings and to gently remind everyone that being a judge is a very difficult and demanding position. It was obvious that above all they really wanted to dispel some lingering misconceptions about the hunt-seat scoring system, namely that a judge played favorites and/or that scoring was not founded on a sound, rational system. If anything, I think Diane spent a little too much time trying to defend the system from a non-existent firing squad. It immediately made me suspect that she was going to tell us judging was not subjective. She did not (of course), but even so she spent such a long time trying to build the case that hunt-seat judging was so very structured and rigorous that it kind of was lost in the fray a little later when she stated matter-of-factly that, yes, judging is, in fact, subjective. If they had gotten that aspect out of the way firstly and then discussed how judges had to act reasonably and responsibly in spite of the inherent subjectivity to their sport, I think it might have made a bit more sense. More on that later, but I do want to just note that despite my critiques they were extremely candid about their jobs and responsibilities and tried to provide a thoughtful discussion about the inherent personal choices involved in judging.

For instance, Diane made the point that her judging standards (and presumably all judging standards) stem from her personal values as a horsewoman. She is a stickler for the rules, first and foremost and that informs nearly every scoring decision she will make. If the rulebook says only one courtesy circle, then she expects only one. She expects the correct lead upon entering the ring and beginning the course. And so forth and so on. She readily acknowledged that another judge may be more or less lenient than she on certain aspects of the rulebook.

She then took us through the minor and major faults listed in the rulebook and what she thought should be the judging rationale on each aspect. Again, while I appreciated what she had to say on the matter, I still feel like it was a bit of equivocation on the issue. Sure, they could tell me all day long what their opinions were on each fault, but it didn’t make it ‘correct.’ There was no 100% correct or incorrect. Well, not entirely. A rail down is pretty clear, but I think you get what I mean. As Diane and Greg finally came around to saying late in the afternoon – this is totally subjective. One judge’s ideal is not the same as another’s. What is important is that each judge be fair and consistent in their own set of values. And moreover, in some ways, the scores are not the important part of the judging. At the end of the day, you want to ensure that the horse who deserves first is placed first, that the horse who deserves second places second, etc… That resonated with me deeply and made an enormous amount of sense. Yeah, as long as I (as a theoretical judge) have a value system, judge all the horses consistently against that system, ensure that the horses place in the correct order according to that value system, and, most importantly, I can give my explanation for every decision that I make, then I have succeeded in being the best judge that I can be. I liked the candor with which they described this process. More importantly, I like that they each made the declaration that a good judge has an opinion. It may not be a popular opinion, but it is a clear, decided opinion. What say you readers? I think I could excel at this judging stuff.  :)  Okay, all joking aside, it is 100% true and I was glad that they spelled it out so clearly to the audience of mainly younger exhibitors. You may not always agree with the judge’s decision, but it is an educated decision and it must be respected.

As I mentioned earlier, I almost wish that the structure of their course had been changed around a bit. I really think that I would have been hooked FAR SOONER if Diane and Greg had simply stated from the beginning: “Look, hunt-seat judging (like a lot of other equestrian disciplines) is almost entirely subjective. We want to explain how we, as judges, work within the confines of such subjectivity. Just because we base our scores and placings on our opinions and on our personal values as horsemen, that does not mean that there is not a clear rationale behind every single one of our choices. And that is what we want to talk about today – the rigorous structure that backs up each and every one of our decisions.”

Ultimately though, I suppose it didn’t really matter because by the very end, I completely understood all of the above and more. I had a far less biased opinion against the hunt-seat system. Hell, I think I even came away thinking that hunt-seat judging is fairer than dressage scorings. I questioned Greg about how he approaches the start of every new class. You have an ideal in your head, but in the end, few people will approach that ideal. What happens if you judge, for instance, the first rider a little harshly and then realize later in the class that, in fact, the horse and rider combination actually better approached the ideal than the rest of the competition? He was perfectly candid about this and noted that it does happen and that you are perfectly able to change the placings around after the fact (though before any ribbons or announcements or whatnot), especially if you decide that a particular horse deserves to place higher than another. In some ways, I wish that we could do that for dressage. I know we all like to pretend that competing in dressage is a competition against yourself. But that’s a real crock of shit. We pretend that because the scores are calculated mathematically at the end of the test that each ride is judged in a perfect vacuum of objectivity and pure, absolute visceral reaction. The problem is that that simply is not true. The dressage judge must use the same basis as what Greg and Diane outlined to me. It is just as subjective – each judge has a different set of standards, a different ideal of perfection. So, not only are our judges grappling with the same issues, they also lack any control over the final placings. What if that one horse and rider combination really didn’t perform spectacularly, but did display the overall sense of togetherness, lightness and submission that should be representative of the sport?  Just like in hunt seat there should be an overall rhythm and pleasantness to the ride that demands to be compared against the other competitors. Why not? Would that really and truly ruin the sport? Or would it perchance just encourage riders to work more on how the individual movements in a test work together as a whole and flow more smoothly and elegantly together instead of just executing a series of movements as if in a vacuum?  Surely we all learned a lesson from last year's silver medal-winning Olympic ride in which the horse managed to rear up and run backwards?  I am certain that such a ride would have been excused from the ring in hunt-seat.  And rightly so.  So, maybe we can all stand to learn something from our fellow disciplines and be open enough to do so.  

Oct 31, 2009

Syracuse Invitational, Day Two -- Photos

Again, courtesy of The Syracuse Post-Standard.

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Syracuse Invitational, Day One -- Photos

Courtesy of the local newspaper, The Post-Standard, as my camera decided it would do exactly opposite of what I asked it to do....

Oct 28, 2009

Syracuse Invitational - Day One

Also, I'll be at two of the ticketed events at the Syracuse Invitational today.  I'll be taking notes and photos for you.  The first thing I'm attending is this afternoon at 2:30 -- "Judging the Hunter Seat Horse".  And then, later today (at 7pm) is the big event -- "How It’s Done - Dressage and Jumping by George Morris, Ian Millar & Courtney King-Dye, presented by Practical Horseman."  Although apparently George Morris has subsequently canceled due to illness.  But in his place we'll have Anne Kursinski.  I used to love watching her and Starman in the 80s.  Anyone remember Starman?  He was one of those few jumpers I becomed obsessed with as a kid.  Him, Big Ben, Milton and Abdullah.  Maybe there were a couple more, but not a lot.  I wasn't as enamored with the showjumpers, but every so often one would come along to whom I would just become so attached.

And I'm dragging my poor parents along to the Budweiser World Cup Qualifier on Saturday.  This, I am SOOOOO excited for.  I grew up watching the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden and by the time I was ready to attend in in NYC, it moved!  So, I will finally realize another childhood dream. 

2009 US Arabian Nationals

FYI, for all those Arabian fans out there.  Nationals are currently going on (through October 31st) in Tulsa, OK.  All the details are here.  And if you can't make the trip to OK (likely the majority of us) they are offering live web streaming of the show here.  I rather love the energy and excitement of a big Arabian show and they don't really come bigger than this.  It's worth seeing once, even if Show Hack and Park aren't your thing.  There are some impressive animals out there.

Oct 27, 2009

Plus ça change...

An excerpt from William Youatt's "The Horse" on the demise of the racehorse industry:

"Childers and Eclipse did not appear until they were 5 years old; but many of our best horse, and those, perhaps, who would have shown equal excellence with the most celebrated races, are foundered and destroyed before that period.

Whether the introduction of short races, and to young horses, be advantageous, and whether slowness and usefulness may not thus be somewhat too sacrificed to speed: whether there may be danfer that an animal designed for service may, in process of time, be frittered away almost to a shadow of what he was, in order that at 2 years old, over the 1-mile-course, he may astonish the crowd by his fleetness..."

Still rings true today, doesn't it.  Amazing that we have been grappling with the same issues for over 100 years now.  I've been quick to defend early 20th century racing and breeding as superior to our own, but maybe it's all been on a slow decline since the late 1800s.  Kind of astonishing to think about.

Oct 20, 2009

Have You Ever Considered How People Clipped Horses Before Electricity?

Has it ever occurred to you to wonder about whether people used to clip their horses?  And if so, how did they do it?  I had always seen those mechanical hand clippers that looked a misery to have to use.  You still see them for sale in vet supply catalogs and I was always curious as to who still bought the damn things.  Also, how did the blades stay sharp enough to keep cutting for what I assume must take hours and days to clip a full coat?  These are the things that keep me up at night. 

And yet, until today I had never seen this -- a foot-operated clipper. 

How new-fangled and complicated-y! It's like some joker tried to come up with the scariest, most dangerous looking piece of equipment to perform a clip job. Well, in my mind he succeeded greatly.  This particular device was featured in the 1899 edition of The Private Stable by Jorrocks (a pseudonym -- which I find especially funny; would it have been just that terrifically shocking to publish this work under his real name?). 

And accompanying the picture is this description: "The process of clipping was formerly done with a pair of shears and a comb, but the hand and foot power machines have, except in remote districts, superseded this primitive method. [...]  Although there are men who make a speciality of clipping horses, any competent stable servant  should be able to perform this task in a satisfactory manner.  [...]  It is said that the record time for clipping a horse with the hand machine is one hour and twelve minutes."  Seriously?!  Dude, that really puts me to shame.  I think the fastest clip job I have done took me two days.  Granted my horse was not the most cooperative, but still....I AM SLOW.

Oct 19, 2009

Endust and a Dream of Shiny Ponies

I was cleaning my room over the weekend, aghast at the frighteningly large dust bunnies I unearthed under and behind the furniture, when suddenly in what could possibly be termed an Endust-induced halluncination I was suddenly transported back to when I was a very small child.  Every weekend I had the exact same ritual:  I took down every single of my Breyer model horses from their shelves, inspected them thoroughly (some were in need of constant medical attention, as my Breyers were not show ponies, but hard workers that invariably suffered broken bones -- I still feel the guilt, mom) and polished them until they gleamed.  I trotted out the Endust and a clean rag and set to work, making those coats shine.  Actually, my parents made me use Endust, which I secretly hated because to my mind it only added a satiny finish, not that slick, corn-oil glossyness that I coveted.  So, when my parents weren't looking I'd sneak into the cleaning cabinet and pull out the Pledge.  They probably could have cared less frankly, but I somehow thought I was doing something incredibly naughty, which probably only fueled my pleasure.  The Pledge was where it was at.  My horses were nearly greasy with product, but they shone.  They looked like the halter Arabians I was so trying to mimic.

I had a load of favorites, but I remember Ginger (pictured above) from the Black Beauty Collection as being my first.  Even as a kid I always loved the crazy chestnuts.  But I think what really drew me in was the balanced, collected canter.  What can I say?  I was always obsessed.  It was beauty incarnate to me, regardless of her vaguely ugly head and thin mane and tail.  And she was a TOTAL WORKHORSE.  She never broke down (I'm looking at you, Black Beauty) under the stresses of competition.  Hey, she was the total package. 

Oct 15, 2009

Drool-worthy: Keeneland Library

Here's a nice little article on the Keeneland Library, devoted solely to the Thoroughbred horse and its history.  It had me literally drooling.  Sign me up to live in those archives.  In fact, I am considering writing a book on a thoroughbred horse just so that I can do research in those vast stacks.

Oct 14, 2009

Embarrassing Post #5 Billion

I fully admit that I will be purchasing at least one bottle of the special "Rachel Alexandra" wines that Kendall Jackson is putting out.  Possibly two.  A large part of me knows how incredibly silly this is, but I also love Rachel A. and I love to drink wine.  So, my fear of looking silly is far outweighed by my desire for good wine.  And yet, on a more serious note, I know how emotionally overwhelmed I get when I encounter some old collectible that was attached to a famous racehorse in history.  So, okay, on one hand it's just a way for her connections to cash in on a marketable brand.  But on the other, I know from experience that it's a legitimate way to connect yourself to a legend in her own time.  I want to be that person who trots this bottle out 40 years from now and proudly shows it off to someone for whom Rachel Alexandra is just a stuffy name in a horse book.

On How I Simply Overlooked Sea the Stars

I had trouble sleeping a few nights ago and my mind became obsessed with the idea that until October 4th I hadn't been very familiar with Sea the Stars and certainly hadn't yet started to follow his career.  As any good horseracing fan knows, he won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on October 4th and was proclaimed the next great thing, a horse for the ages.  And the first thing that struck me was that we seem to have a very strong group of horses racing this year, so many so that I can't seem to follow them all.  Look, I fully admit that I am just a casual, but passionate, fan.  I only have so much time left in my day after I finish working, blogging, riding, reading, devote a modicum of my attention to racing news.  It occurs to me, however, that the majority of people who are already casual horseracing fans, or who could be favorably inclined to do so, simply don't have the capacity to follow the hundreds of races running every week.  We can't filter out the great horses from the merely good.  It takes time and effort.  I'm not saying this is bad -- it's just reality.

The problem really is that there is a glut of racing going on constantly everywhere.  Most other sports are not being run every day, all day, even competing with one another for audience attention.  Sure, sometimes baseball or football games overlap, but not maybe 2 or 3 are running concurrently.  Not 5 or 10 or 20.  If you work in the industry, then sure you might be able to devote the time and energy to follow all these races, but if, like me, you have limited capacity, you're going to get terribly frustrated.  And in the case of Sea the Stars you'll become a fan just as his career peaks, and in a dramatic anticlimax he will be retired shortly after, for all the wrong reasons.

I hate to say it, but this is why racing doesn't bring in the fans like it used to.  Too many races.  Racemeets that are far too long.  Too many mediocre animals out there racing.  A casual observer doesn't stand a chance.  Okay, yeah, I understand that part of the appeal to the sport is that it takes a certain kind of person to be a true fan; one who is willing to do more than pick a side and hope to win.  Horseracing attracts the kind of person who likes the work and formulating a method.  That's all well and fine, but there is a limited number of people out there who fall into this category.  I need focus.  And I believe that it is partly up to the industry to focus me.  I simply cannot and will not be able to follow 50 races over the course of a weekend and keep up with the stats.  The thought is simply overwhelming.  5 races?  Sure, I can do that.  Cull the races, I say.  So some tracks go out of business and mediocre horses are retired.  That's very unfortunate, but in the overall grand scheme of things, it would be a boon to the industry as a whole. 

And then, maybe more money would be focused in fewer races that remain to encourage and support those owners to continue racing their animals.  Because all of these changes are for naught if the next great superstar is simply retired for stud duty. 

Oct 9, 2009

Antimony - Poison or Coat Conditioner?

I was watching "A Most Mysterious Murder" the other night, a delightful little british series that re-enacts real crimes in history -- not famous ones, just ones that held a bit of infamy in their day for having never been solved -- and attempts to deduce who perpetrated the crime and why.  Well, the very first episode (The Death of Charles Bravo -- Google it and you'll come up with loads of informative articles and sites about the circumstances of the murder) hinges on a bottle of antimony being used by a groom on the horses in the yard.  The stable-boy is rubbing his horse down with a rag soaked in the stuff to, as he describes, make their coat healthy and shiny.  I immediately was interested -- I love looking up old remedies for horse care -- and you can well imagine my surprise when not a few minutes later the narrator explained how antimony is, in fact, a deadly poison.  You should watch the movie if you want to know the rest of the story (and if you love murder-mysteries and documentaries, this should be right up your alley), however I was incredibly intrigued by this substance that was ostensibly as poisonous as arsenic (if not more so), but in wide-spread use on horses.  Inquiring minds need to know.

So, I spent the week studying old veterinary remedy texts dating from the mid-1700s to the very early 1900s (I love you, Google books) and have discovered that the poison was indeed used to improve a horse's coat and condition, amongst a myriad of other uses.  As excerpted from The Pharmaceutical Journal, Fourth Series, Volume 12, January - June 1901:  "Their action has never been understood, that is to say their modus operandi, their effects, are visible enough and despite the uncertainty of their action in human practice and the abandonment of these forma of antimony by the medical profession, they are found to assist markedly in producing a good coat, a soft thriving skin, in horses when mixed with sulphur and other simple ingredients.  That the peculiar silkiness of the hair is due to antimony is demonstrable and only one other agent is there which can produce a like effect - arsenic."  Now there is no mention anywhere of the stuff being rubbed directly onto the skin of any animal.  In fact, it was also known to be quite caustic and also used in cases of canker and thrush in an external application to the frog of the hoof.  For coat conditioning, it was always to be ingested, either ground to a fine powder or made into a liquid solution, but I imagine that the dramatic elements of the movie needed a more insidious looking application of the stuff.  But they preserved the overall reasoning behind using the poison, for an improved coat.  I read several texts that indicated that the hair of such animals would veritably sparkle.

And while very extremely poisonous to humans, antimony was given in much larger doses to horses without ill effect.  Though in large enough doses it does still kill.  Interesting how in small doses poisons can sometimes produce appealing effects (at least to a human eye).  However, it must be noted that an other common use of antimony, in tartar emetic, was as a wormer.  It is easy then to draw the conclusion that dosing with antimony would simply kill off the worms in a horse, thereby improving the horse's overall constitution, fatten him up a bit and put a healthy shine on the coat. 

Sep 28, 2009

Just When You Think You've Seen It All -- Tap Dancing Horses on Film

This comes to you via the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's pet/film blog: FilmHound -- Eleanor Powell tap-dancing with a horse in the 1945 musical, "Sensations."  Amazing.  Really.  You have to get about 3 minutes into the clip to see it, but the first three minutes are worthwhile viewing.  If only for possibly the only musical featuring ladies dressed entirely in hunt attire, from the skin-tight breeches to the well-appointed tails.  Kind of awesomely hilarious to view at least once. 

And then the tap-dancing scene is a bit surreal.  The poor horse is piaffing like his life depends on it.  Or perhaps like he just got stung by a bee.  It's a bit giggle-inducing even though you're left feeling a bit sorry for the little fella.

Sep 17, 2009

Shameless Product Review - Blankets!

So, blanketing season is just around the corner, as my mother likes to remind me constantly.  In her mind, starting from July onwards, each passing day is just one step closer to 80 inches of snow.  I hate to even begin to consider that prospect.

I always hated to blanket my horses.  Mainly because I've always had cranky mares that snapped at me everytime I even thought about the word blanket.  But I've also never been one of those people who felt the need to body clip and blanket the hell out of my horses.  I mean, if you're going to work your horse in the winter (which I assume you are), he or she should be comfortable, not sweat and be able to cool out easily.  This is not rocket science.  Sometimes this is fairly easily accomplished simply by blanketing slightly more heavily throughout the season, to prevent excessive hair growth.  But some horses' coats get a little out of control, and some horses run extra hot and sweat at the drop of a hat.  So I can understand the need for some judicious body clipping, but people can also take it out of control.  The majority of amateur horses in barns do not need a full body clip.  It's silly.  I particularly cringe at the prople who do a unnecessary full clip and then have to put so many blankets on the poor horse to keep him warm, that the weight alone is probably more aggravating to him than a bit of cold.

Regardless, whatever route you choose, we ALL blanket our horses at some point.  And of course, the blankets get ripped and destroyed before you even put the horse back in his stall.  Horses have an uncanny ability to discern the weakness inherent to every blanket and immediately exploit it.  You may infer from all this that I am not a fan of spending a lot of money on a blanket that I know I will have to replace before I can even pay it off on my credit card.  So, what's a girl to do?

Well, ebay is a great place to go for blankets, of course.  But as much fun as I have browsing on ebay, I find I don't actually buy a lot on that site.  All the major tack stores have great online sales obviously, but I find that my favorite blankets, the ones that have held up the best and have an awful lot of thought put into their design, are actually those from Schneiders.  I know, I know.  Arabian trainers swear by this outfitter, but if you tell anyone from outside of that world about this place, their eyes sort of glaze over.  It's like you've suddenly started speaking a foreign language. 

That is crazypants!  Schneiders has some of the best prices you're going to find on high-quality blankets.  Most of the prices hover somewhere between $60 - $120 and they have amazing post-season blowouts where I've gotten deals at half off the above prices.  If you think that just because they are known as an Arabian & QH tack store that they don't have bigger sizes, think again.  In fact, I find that they cater to alot of problem-sizes.  They have "Big Fella" sizes (sizes up to 94) that aren't like your typical large sizings, in that they actually add on 2" for broader shoulders and 3-4" to the sides.  They have pony sizing, foal sizing, even mini sizing.  Those ranges are typically better than your typical tack shop.  And one of my very favorite features is the adjusta-fit system, available on an awful lot of their wares.  THIS IS GENIUS!  And it will do wonders towards preventing rubs on the withers and shoulders.  Honestly, all this 'system' consists of is an adjustable strap right where the horse's neck meets its shoulder.  The strap controls the amount of pressure on the horse's back and withers, which is a literal lifesaver for the difficult to fit horse.  I am not kidding.  You must see it to believe me on this.  Add all of to this their 1-year guarantee on many of the blankets and I don't really see how you can go wrong.   

So, for all of you contemplating your winter blankets purchases, you would do really well to snoop around at their site.  If you don't find what you want, well, there are plenty of options elsewhere.  But I think of Schneiders as my little secret (ensconced as I am in the land of dressage queens and hunter princesses) and I really hope to give the tack shop more exposure outside of the non-Arabian & QH crowd.

Sep 15, 2009

R.I.P. Patrick Swayze

I got a little teary at the news of Patrick Swayze's death this morning, though I'm not entirely sure why.  I was never obsessed with him as many girls were.  I never thought he was much of an actor.  Though I admit he did floor me with his performance in Donnie Darko as Jim Cunningham, the motivational speaker and closet pedophile. 

But I suppose I did love him simply because he was so involved with his Arabians throughout his life.  I have a soft spot for anyone who loves horses, and in particular Arabians, since that's the breed I grew up around.  So, here's to the tremendous love and gentleness of Patrick Swayze's spirit -- it's on full display here in this video of him showing a baby halter horse.

Sep 14, 2009

Edward Gal and Totilas: Or, My Break-Up With Dressage

So, Edward Gal and Totilas.  What to say?  No, really, I mean that.  I have been at a loss for words these past 2 weeks.  I think the future me may well be able to point to this moment and say that this is when I lost my appetite for competitive dressage entirely.  I'm not going to post some long rant about this, but this is not what I aspired to when I started my long journey into the world of dressage.  I want it to be known that I wish to take nothing away from Totilas -- he is beautiful, powerful, calm and happy.  He is a remarkable horse and will win over the hearts of many.

But this is also the dressage of a showman, not a craftsman.  And it is clear now that this is the future of competitive dressage.  This dressage values flash, a horse that is so gifted that he can literally blind us to the fact that his movement is more show and spark rather than truly correct.  Indeed, I am more impressed at how effortlessly he can spring up and fling out his limbs without once changing his frame.  Ah, silly me.  I am still entrenched in old dressage, where I thought that extended trots required lengthening of frame.  I suppose the horse does deserve a new record mark for having the sheer power to execute to near-perfection, tricking our collective eyes to see what I would have sworn was the impossible.  It is as I have always said since day 1 of this blog: horses will eventually willingly adapt to execute everything we ask of them.  Totilas is a prime example of this - his sheer power is such that he manages to perform semblances of movements that can almost trick you into thinking they are correct.  I have not yet seen such a dizzyingly, gorgeous example of my own warning.  The power of his passage and extended trot are a very convincing smoke and mirrors act.

I accept that this is the new direction of dressage.  I accept that this will win over the hearts of far more people than previously imagined, perhaps making the sport more exciting to the masses.  But I will call this dressage and its practitioners out on their hypocrisy.  I was duped into thinking that at the end of my quest for oneness with my horse, I would find my place in a room full of nameless artists, slaving away at their craft.  In fact, I was actually greeted by a troop of neo-Victorian conjurers that envelop me in their excitement and mystery.  It is all at once charming and disappointing.  I am excluded from this dressage.  Or maybe I am excluding myself.  It's unimportant really.  I do not give up on dressage per se.  I just give up on competitive dressage riding.  I prefer to seek the truth of harmonious riding via good equitation, no matter what discipline or who may wish to guide me -- from the self-taught jockey to the Saumur master.

Hey, no tears!  We might be breaking up, but dressage and I will always remain good friends.  

Moments I Am Grateful Horses Are Prey Animals

This has totally nothing to do with horses, but I couldn't resist embedding this incredibly disturbing video. Animal instinct is so much more powerful than you even realize. Humans have so lost touch with a vast portion of body language that even experts are not always in control of a situation.

Sep 11, 2009

The Perils of Riding a Racehorse

Okay, so I didn't actually ride a racehorse at Saratoga, though I was offered a couple of opportunities to mount up on a pony or even exercise a horse.  But fuck that!  Seriously.  I do not stick to narrow thoroughbreds at high speeds.  And for God's sake I've tried, but that is one thing I know is totally beyond my abilities.  Put me on a nice wide-barreled horse and I am good to go, but thoroughbreds are a different story. 

However, I did do something I had been desperate to do ever since my last visit to Saratoga. I finally got on that racehorse simulator at the Racing Museum. Actually, I need to put a caveat in at this point. I was desperate to do it, but was also scared silly, especially at the prospect of many people gathered around to watch me.  But my parents, as always, sort of pushed me to do it, all at my drunken request the night before.  And that's how we got to this point:

Do not hate.  I may not have the jockey physique or form down (also, yes, I do have a hair net on), but I am of the utmost seriousness when I tell you that THESE SIMULATORS ARE NO FREAKING JOKE!  Your balance and strength are tested like you would not believe.  And the patented jockey crouch is no help while cantering and galloping along.  At one point, I believe I sat down and tried to adopt a pseudo-dressage position (well, as best I could with tiny stirrups) just to remind myself that, why yes, I did know how to ride.  But the kindly simulator operator did not stand for such circus riding; it would be the jockey way or the highway, miss.

For those of you who've never done this before, the museum puts you on the non-robotic horse first.  That's the one pictured above.  They just want to test your strength and ability to get the rhythm of a galloping horse.  The above horse is the Equicizer -- you can find more information on it here.  It is not a mechanized horse; the only way it moves is via your own motion, so you are completely in control on this particular animal.  And honestly because of that, it felt much more comfortable to ride.  I think it also helped that the stirrups on this model were of a more realistic length (i.e. shorter) so that I could better imagine what it was I supposed to be doing.
And just when I got the hang of that, we switched over to this bad boy:
See what I mean about the stirrups being a lot longer on this model.  They've wrapped them around the iron to make them shorter, but the museum really needs to shorten them even more.  I struggled more with this horse, not only because I was no longer in control of the motion, but also because my stirrup length was sort of a very short jumping position.  So, the entire time my mind kept snapping back to my old days of two-point sessions.  The bottom line is that I think I prevented myself from being able to share the full experience because the entire time I kept telling myself: "Sit up and away from the horse.  Heels down.  Eyes up."  When in reality I should have jammed my toes down, thrown my seat way back, flattened my back, hunkered my head down and launched my arms well away from my body.  But old habits die hard and damned if I have ever tried to do anything like this style of riding before. 

Anyway, the above-pictured horse is, I believe, the one made by this company (albeit an older version at this point; I think the racing museum's simulator was installed nearly three years ago).  This version is mechanized and was controlled by the afore-mentioned operator.  To add to the excitement, it also has a video monitor that gives you a visual reference for the movement that you're feeling.  First they do a couple of seconds of a slow gallop, just so you get your bearings on this new machine.  Then, they load up a training ride, which is essentially an exercise on the Oklahoma Training Track.  It all seems good and not that fast and you're totally tricked into thinking at this point that it'll be fairly easy and fun.  But as soon as you're about 15 seconds into the training ride, the operator said I should save my legs for the real stuff - the two and a half minute race simulation.  Okay, it's true I was feeling the twinges of fatigue in my legs, but I'm thinking that I'm totally strong and I workout and ride and all that.  Who wouldn't be able to do this?

Yeah, right.  The screen flips to the confines of a starting gate and the mechanized animal is shifting slightly.  At least I think it moved; the video tricks your senses into feeling things that aren't perhaps there (I learned that while during the training ride, my horse veered sideways and I was all prepped to follow when I realized the animal beneath me was still straight as an arrow).  And it suddenly dawned on me that I had literally just finished reading a poster in the museum that said a horse could jump from 0 to 50 mph in just over two seconds.  Fear gripped me suddenly.  What was I thinking; this robot packed the equivalent strength and power of a real animal and I was far out of my league on how to handle a full-out galloping horse, while propped up on my stirrups.

Dear reader, when the gate opened, I cannot possibly tell you the sheer force that propels you forward.  All my riding instincts just kicked into survival mode and didn't let up for the rest of the race.  I held my stomach as tight as possible, plunged as much weight through my heels as I could bear and held on for dear life with my calf muscles.  Not pretty, not my typical riding methods, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.  Within 20 seconds, I think I wanted to cry.  Within 30 seconds, my legs started to go numb.  After about 45 seconds I started to think that maybe this was a huge mistake and I was not going to make it.  It's funny --- to my parents (and the rest of the several dozen people gathered to watch) it looks deceptively easy.  But I kid you not.  There is a massive amount of speed and force being thrown at you that you have to try to process so quickly and stay with.  At the minute mark, I had to quietly order the operator to slow the machine down.  He hesitated, let me know that it couldn't be sped back up, and I (think) I barked, "I don't want it to go faster!"  So, slow it down he did, but to my fatigued muscles it felt like no respite at all.  To cope I started to blow the air in and out of my lungs, slowly and steadily, just trying to focus on something besides the excruciating pain of movement.  By the 2 minute mark, the horse lunges forward and your muscles are so numb that you're hanging on by sheer force of will. 

And then, something snaps.  The finish line comes into view on the screen and you know you're at the homestretch and you suddenly get this wave of euphoria.  You suddenly want to win and despite the intense fatigue, you throw your entire body into the rhythm, handriding all the way to the wire.

My muscles are dying here, as you can witness by my hunched-over upper body.

But I have never been prouder of myself than having conquered that entire race.  I found physical reserves that I never thought I possessed.  I might have had sweat pouring down my back, legs that were like jelly for hours afterwards, a heartrate that would have spooked my doctor (and which took at least a half-hour to normalize) and the thirst of a man stranded in the desert for several days, but I did it.  Let no one ever laugh at the physical stature of any jockey within my presence.  I had a taste of their job and it is intense, to say the very least.  Every step for days afterwards served to remind me of that.

Also, I would DIE to have a riding simulator at home now.  I WILL find the werewithal to finance such a thing one day.  I just have to.   

Horse Sculpture in North Carolina

My husband is currently on tour with a band and found this really neat horse sculpture outside a gallery in Greensboro, NC.  Of course, he knows well enough that I prefer pictures of horse-y things to pictures of band stuff. 

I quite adore it.

Sep 10, 2009

Pictures! And Did I Mention How Nice Everyone in Saratoga Is?

See, it's not that the barn and stalls look bad.  They obviously don't.  It's just that I expected them to look like the most spectacularly immaculate facility I have ever seen.  In fact, it looked like several fairground facilities that I have shown at before.  Which is fine....just not imposing.
The lovely man above was a real doll. He grinned and told the guys behind him to "Smile for the lady!"
Me and John T. Ward's wife, Donna.  She invited me to her farm in Kentucky, so she'd better watch out for my imminent visit.  Also, yes, I do realize the irony inherent in posting my photo on an anonymous blog.
The best picture I could take of Bill Mott.  Yes, it's crap, I know.  But he didn't seem to want his photo taken.  I can't imagine why.  It's not as if he's not busy training racehorses.
This is like the shittiest photo I have ever taken.  But I had to post it for two reasons.  A) the horse was gorgeous.  B) The jock was the sweetest man in the whole world.  He must have posed for about 5 photos for me, all of which got totally ruined.  So, anyways...I'm sorry jockey-dude.  I really appreciated how sweet you were.  I just obviously shouldn't be in charge of the camera.
The Phipps barn.  A step above, obviously.
D. Wayne Lucas' stables.  Again, it's just a tad nicer back here.  :)
I have a soft spot for Lucas.  Don't ask me why.  Childhood nostalgia maybe?
Gorgeous horse.  Originally I had thought he was looking at his blackberry and I was going to make some clever quip about how even the outriders are addicted to the crackberry, but then I realized he was just reading a piece of paper.  So, I haz a fail there.
The track was disgustingly sloppy, but the day was super hot and muggy.  Poor horses were coming back so hot and exhausted from struggling with the slop and the humidity.

Oklahoma Training Track Tour

Jesus, having infections throughout your head just about kills any drive to do anything.  And knowing that my job is particularly busy right now is not helping.  Anyway, now that I can see properly I wanted to belatedly get to the rest of my Saratoga posting. 

Maybe I'm just so far removed from the real racing world that I just sound like a clueless hick when I discuss it, but I hadn't heard about the Oklahoma Training Track Tour ever before this last trip to the Spa.  It was about a week before I was due to leave when I just had a slight break-down -- I just HAD to see the training stables, the view from behind-the-scenes.  However, it just wasn't apparent how to go about doing that, so I ended up googling a myriad of different boolean combinations, when PRESTO!  The Oklahoma Training Track Tour run by the horse racing museum popped up.  I signed us up instantly.  That was how it came to be that my poor, obliging parents were forced to get up at 6am on their vacation so that I could get a glimpse of what the racing scene is like from the inside.  I can't speak for them -- there was some definite fatigue and yawning -- but I loved every second of it.  Though I feel like I should go move to Saratoga and run the tour myself, I couldn't fault the gentleman who led the guided tour.  He had more patience than I when fielding questions such as: "Is that statue of Seabiscuit life-size?  I heard he was very small."  Or "Do horses like to stand on their hind legs?"  I know, I know.  I'm terribly impatient when it comes to people whose only knowledge of a horse is which end is the front and which is the back.  But.Seriously.People.  Think a bit before you speak.  If Seabiscuit was really as small as the statue in their courtyard he would be racing against dogs, fool!  I would just feel the need to smack people in the middle of my tour -- which may be entertaining, but not good for business.  (Also, as a sidenote, I just want to point out that everyone on my tour was only interested in racing because they had read SeabiscuitAnd wasn't that just the best book you've ever read?  Wasn't that an amazing story?  I have an internal battle with myself constantly about that book.  On the one hand it was really fascinating and well-written.  On the other hand, it seems to be many people's only reference point for the horse world, and in particular racing.  There are other books.  Other movies.  If you loved it that much, learn more about that world.  Maybe it's my obsessive-compulsive personality, but I cannot fathom having even the slightest interest in something without diving into it feet-first until I have either devoured everything on the subject, or eventually tired of the subject.  This is spoken by a woman who became obsessed with pigeon racing which spilled over into a fascination with Mike Tyson that continues to this day.)

I just coped by pretending the tour guide and the other participants had mystically disappeared and just lost myself in my obsession for the track.  I almost felt like I wasn't an obvious outsider and that somehow I belonged there.  Ha!  I know I stuck out like a sore thumb.  I was the one with a giddy smile on my face, taking notes and photographing everything. 

So what did I learn?  Well, for one it was strange to learn that one mustn't waste precious stall space on a pony, so they occupy makeshift shelters that are tacked on literally everywhere you look.  I felt a bit sorry for their pathetic quarters, especially in relation to the beautfied stalls occupied by their more valuable counterparts.

I was also a bit taken aback at the condition of all the stalls.  I just always imagined that the thoroughbreds of Saratoga always lived in the lap of luxury and frankly, their stalls were just meh.  In fact, if I were an owner I'd be a little squicked out by the obvious wear and tear on the barns there.  The wash racks are just cement blocks, the manure piles are giant and out-of-control.  It was just like at every show facility I've ever been to.  Which I suppose is normal, but it just really struck me as odd.  Some of those horses are probably worth twice what those barns cost -- seems like it would be worth updating them in order to reflect the money inherent to the sport.

I don't even think I want to talk about the grooms' and hotwalkers' quarters.  Obviously that wasn't part of the tour, but what I saw was pretty bad and I felt really terrible about that.  How can you ask people to care for your expensive when their own conditions are so bad?  You know, I can't even think about this because I realize that I, too, have been guilty of this behavior in the past with the staff caring for my boarded horses.  I continue to be really conflicted and hope that I'm wrong about their quarters. 

BUT.  The MOST IMPORTANT thing that struck me throughout the entire tour was watching the riders exercising their horses.  Those are some damn fine riders.  They put me to shame.  They put some top dressage riders I know to shame.  I submit that if anyone wants to see a prime example of what it is to be a light, ultra-balanced rider that knows how to stay out of his horse's way, you simply need to go to a racetrack.  I would kill to ride like that.  And it just cemented my firm belief that excellent equitation is not owned by any one discipline.  Years of lessons and study do not a rider make.  After watching these talented individuals, I wholeheartedly believe in the notion that there are simply riders and trainers who are self-taught masters.  They may not understand the theory behind what they do; they may call the techniques by a different name, but they are most definitely classical riders. 

Sep 7, 2009

Trust and Love - The Story of Calvin Borel and Rachel Alexandra

So, what can I say about Rachel Alexandra that I haven't said before?  What can I possibly add to the chorus of adulation ever since her win in the Woodward Stakes Saturday? 

She is everything, and more, that I thought her to be.  Prior to Saturday, I constantly proclaimed to anyone who would listen how historical her run in the race would be, regardless of whether she won.  I became so practiced at listing dozens of reasons why she couldn't win that I nearly forgot to just be excited about the race.  Hell, let's face it, I was worried sick.  It's not that I didn't believe in her.  I've just become so accustomed to having my heroes torn down when I least expect it -- I do love tragedies, mind -- that I find it hard to keep the hope alive.  Secretariat, Native Dancer, Spectacular Bid, Citation, Man o'War...they all lost at least once while on their winning streaks.  But my Rachel Alexandra eked out a victory.  A small one, but a victory just the same.  Her place in history is now guaranteed, as it should be.  Books will be written.  Maybe a movie made.  I feel she is my generation's only superhorse, pushed to her limits and rising to the challenge.  She is not simply a good or great racehorse.  She is a champion, a tough champion that isn't going to be retired after two wins with a bowed tendon or some such.  She is the perfect combination of speed, gameness, and physical toughness. 

Despite my hatred for large crowds, I wish I could have been at Saratoga to have seen the race live.  I wish I could have felt the crowd's energy swell when she entered the track, and heard the wall of noise that cheered for her.  The story is that the filly got so spooked by the intense roar that she dumped Calvin.  I wish I could see video of that somewhere, but really...that's just a perfect touch to her entire story.  The tense dramatic moment that could be interpreted as a bad omen. 

I just know Steve Asmussen's heart dropped when he saw the blistering pace being set in the first quarter mile.  I can't blame the man -- I'd have been hyperventilating (I saw it on replay, so I was spared the fear of an unknown outcome).  People can (and most likely will) critique Calvin all they want for this ride, but I think he is a genius.  A bloody lucky genius, to be sure, but a genius all the same.  That race was all set up to exhaust Rachel Alexandra with two sprinters determined to gun her early, box her in and leave her struggling to recover ground at the very end.  But Calvin just beat them at their own game -- he simply outran the sprinters.  It was an incredibly brave thing to do, to think you could do that and still have enough horse left over to pull out a victory.  Part of it was probably blind faith, but I think you have to realize just how important his relationship is to their partnership.  Working her regularly in the mornings can only give Calvin the edge when the duo is tested.  There is trust there and love.  And sometimes those are the only two things you need to pull off the impossible.