Jul 30, 2009

Battle of Track Surfaces - Which Will Reign Supreme

Everyone seeing the news that 6 breakdowns have occurred at Del Mar racetrack since the start of the meet 10 days ago? Ugh. I never actually had a problem with synthetic racetracks -- I just hated them because they were attempting to fix a symptom, not address the underlying problem (i.e. that we are breeding too much for speed, not for the accompanying strength of bone necessary to sustain it). But in reading the above-tagged article, something very interesting struck me: "Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, said while there are not yet studies to scientifically prove it, breakdowns will often cluster at the beginning of a meet because of a change in racetrack surface. Southern California has three different synthetic main tracks. Del Mar has Polytrack, Santa Anita has Pro-Ride, and Hollywood Park (whose meet closed July 19) has Cushion Track. The Cushion Track this year has been playing more like a traditional dirt surface.

'In the 1980s, the HBPA (Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association) funded a survey that had good data," said Arthur. "It showed that the first two weeks of meets were when most fatalities occurred. That was back when the Southern California dirt tracks were very different from each other. The way I interpret the data, horses had to adjust to the new track. That was never confirmed. It is simply a hypothesis.'"

You know that had never occurred to me before, but it seems completely obvious. I constantly fretted over footing when it got colder, when more horses were riding on the track tamping down the surface, when someone watered it too much.... My horses weren't running full speed, but they were certainly affected by even subtle differences in footing. I can't imagine the stress that could occur on a horse's bones from moving between different surfaces and, to top it all off, Southern CA tracks are using 3 different kinds of synthetic surfaces! Frankly, that doesn't actually seem to be all that helpful in the end-goal of preventing tragic accidents.

By this logic, I fully understand the controversy inherent in switching champion dirt racers to synthetic tracks. And while I always completely supported Jess Jackson's decision not to race Rachel Alexandra in the Breeder's Cup over a synthetic surface, it makes even more sense in light of this theory.

And yes, I realize it's still just a theory. But superficially it seems like it could have legs and until more studies are done, I think it is certainly a valid argument in the ongoing battle of track surfaces.

Jul 29, 2009

On the Importance of Holding Lectures on Riding

Another Excerpt from School for Horse and Rider by Captain J.E. Hance, regarding the necessity of having lectures as part of the curriculum of any good riding instructor.

"I have what I call, for lack of a better term, a lecture. For this lecture, however, I do not have set subjects, but use it to make clear any difficulties encountered during the day and why, and also to make any explanation on any subject desired by pupils, if I am able to do so. If I did not have this hour's lecture, I could not teach and get good results. It is this daily explaining of things appertaining to riding which has given me what success I have had as an instructor, because during this period I have been able to make clear matters which were misunderstood, and by explaining the object of other exercises which could be practised after leacing, ensure that subsequent riding was not pointless."

This is my belief exactly.

Jul 28, 2009

Giddyup Cowgirl!

I seriously just can't stop searching for more cowgirl photos. I LOVE THEM. I'm not even a fan of the majority fo rodeo events, but who cares...these photos are gorgeous. I think the thing I love best about them is the genuine happiness and freedom that is plainly evident on their faces. I can't recall a riding photo I've seen recently with the same sort of joy.

Tillie Baldwin, born in Norway, came to the US as a hairdresser, learned to ride and by 1912 she was a cowgirl star. Below she is defeating her rivals at a Roman Standing race.

Prairie Rose Henderson was just about as well-known for her flamboyant outfits (often decorated with ostrick feathers, sequins and beads) as her rodeo talent. A girl after my own heart...

There's just something about this picture that is pure beauty. Kitty Canutt was even more famous for having diamonds in her two front teeth. The story was that she pawned them out every time money got tight; I suppose she eventually bought them back when money was flush again. She totally had grillz way before y'all be frontin'.

And my favorite, Fox Hastings. She was touted as the world's first and only bulldogger (in which you leap off your horse and wrestle a steer to the ground. In actuality, she wasn't, but she was likely the most famous female bulldogger.

Another, probably her most famous, photo:

Pride and joy just exude out from this photo -- if you just glance briefly, you can only see that beautiful face. Your mind just blanks out the poor cow.

I suppose, in the end, the real reason I love these women is that they commanded power and respect in an age where women were relegated to mainly caretaker roles. Or, perhaps more importantly, they were people who were doing something physically remarkable regardless of gender. They were a force to be reckoned with and the audiences loved them for it. These were not women you look to and say, "Well, what they were doing was important at the time because X wasn't allowed." No, there's no hedging here. These ladies flew in the face of convention and were successful because of it, not in spite of it.

Prairie Rose Henderson

I just became a huge fan of The Lone Cowgirl blog. There aren't that many posts, but what is there is just thrilling to read. In just the last couple of days I have become obsessed with stories of woman bronco and trick riders around the turn of the century. Their stories are amazing and I cannot look away from the dozens upon dozens of photos I am turning up of them. But so far this blog has done the best job of writing an amazing story of "Prairie Rose" Henderson that is MUST READ.

If nothing else, you just have to glance through the old photos and postcards that this blogger has amassed.

FYI. She is also hard at work on a book and documentary. The trailer looks fun!

Jul 27, 2009

The Black Stallion's Filly

I just love all the Black Stallion books and not just for nostalgia's sake. There was something in the way Walter Farley wrote that truly conveyed his deep affection for and knowledge of horses. On the whole he never made those same ghastly errors of horsemanship that other young adult writers so often did. I rarely felt the need to cringe at his descriptions or force myself to overlook an error of judgement. And he never sacrificed sensical plot structure in favor of exciting heroics.

But wait! Before you crucify me for that statement, let me point out that I am not saying Farley strayed from formula - yes, the odds may be stacked against him, but the underdog will always win - but the thing is, I never had a problem with that formula, at least in theory. The problems come when, too often, in practice authors forget to properly set the scene and they leave dramatic tension by the wayside. Look, the outcome may never really be in doubt, but I need to feel as if it were. Walter Farley understood that and rarely made a mistake in that area.

So, it should come as no surprise when I say that The Black Stallion's Filly has a fairly simplistic plot, easily summed up in a few sentences: The Black is retired to stud. Satan, his phenomenal son, has just been forced into retirement due to a seismoidal fracture. Alec Ramsay and his trainer, Henry Dailey are fretting with boredom at the thought of just being relegated to managing the breeding farm, at least until the next batch of youngsters is ready to race. Lo and behold, it comes out that a 2 year old filly, sired by The Black, is up for auction and Henry is especially excited to purchase her for himself -- he is dreaming of his very own Derby contender. In reality, Black Minx (a name which I adore, by the way; I apologize in advance to any future black mare I may own, as this may well end up being your name) is an uneducated, lazy, spoiled brat of a horse, with a bit of a hot temper. Months of training produces little results and the two men begin to doubt whether the filly has what it takes to win the Kentucky Derby. Well, obviously they persevere and Black Minx is coaxed into becoming a real racehorse and winning the Derby.

Formulaic, yes. But Walter Farley has a way of making you feel just a tinge of doubt about whether the filly will indeed win. He spends a great deail of time describing just how temperamental and spoiled she is -- and take it from me, she is a handful...and realistically so. I see every one of my own mares' idiosyncracies reflected back in Black Minx. The impatient stomping at having to stand and be groomed for longer than 15 minutes, the playful nipping that you just can't seem to correct out of her, the unpredictable workout sessions in which the mare may or not give it her all, but under no circumstances can you force it out of her. Yet, through it all there is that occasional flash of brilliance that keeps your hope alive. What is it they say? When you have a good gelding, you have a good horse. When you have a good mare, you have a great horse. Believe. It.

But beyond that, Farley doesn't dwell on her performance much. The point is to make you doubt whether she is much of a runner and whether she can outgrow her willfullness. Instead he focuses on the other potential contenders for the Derby and their respective prep races. And that brings me to the other great thing about his books - he has an uncanny ability to teach without lecturing or slowing down the story.

For instance, "Alec said, 'I doubt that I can rate her, Henry. When she takes the bit she'll work the limit of her spped.' He knew the difference between a work and a breeze, but the filly didn't. And there was no way of teaching her. When Henry called for 'breezing' he wanted his horse to move fast, but at the same time to be held under a snug hold and not allowed to reach the limit of his speed. When he called for a 'work' he wanted his horse to go at top speed, with urging if necessary."

Or this exchance between Alex and Henry, in which Alex asks if any horse had ever won the Derby without racing prior to that in their 3 year-old year: "Henry didn't answer immediately, and Alec knew his friedn was either thinking about the question put to him or wasn't going to bother to reply. [...] Finally Henry said, 'I'm not going back over thirty years, but during that time, there were three horses who won the Derby the first time out, if I remember correctly. Exterminator did it in nineteen-eighteen, Sir Barton the following year, and then Morvich in nineteen twenty-two.'"

Farley has a gift for writing expository passages that don't slow down the plot and educate just enough to keep the unintiated engaged. I have seen so many poor examples of this over the years, that it positively surprised me that the Black Stallion books were different. I guess I hadn't re-read one in a while.

Of course Black Minx wins the Kentucky Derby. Call it predictable if you will, but Walter Farley can still make you savor the journey to the win. The book may be geared to young adults / children, but it can be enjoyed equally as well by any horse-loving adult. The fact is that this series is written by a horse-lover for horse-lovers, without glazing over facts or skipping over good horse-y common sense. He clearly had an innate respect for his audience's horse knowledge and frankly, that's all I really want from my horse books. Unfortunately it's often in short supply.

So, dudes....seriously. Read it. It's rad. And if you've already read it as a child, then re-read it. I guarantee you'll be surprised at how good it is, and maybe you'll come away with a newfound respect for Walter Farley's books.

Quote of the Day

"Instructors should teach people exercises such as they can practise at any time after leaving their instructor. Instead of riding about in the pointless way that so many people do, by means of these exercises the instructed rider can always be improving himself because he will always have an object. It is the practice which follows instruction that eventually gives satisfactory results and produces the finished horseman."

Excerpted from School for Horse and Rider by Captain J.E. Hance

Jul 23, 2009

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

So, I have been traipsing from room to room with my lovely National Geographic horse book, trying to decide what to write about next on my blog. And right there, on page 16 is a photo of a woman in jockey silks, weighing in. The first time I saw it I did a literal double-take. Mind, this book was published in 1923, so it was a bit shocking to me to think that women jockeys existed prior to the 1960s. There's no context for the photo, no commentary. It's as if the authors randomly put it in at the last minute, like "What? What's the big deal?! Girl jockeys, they're totally everywhere."

The funny thing is that they're not. Run a Google search. Go ahead, I'm waiting. Seriously, there are slim findings when you run any permutation of girl, woman, female, jockey. You come up with the biggies the the latter part of the century, but what about this woman? The one staring out at me from page 16?! Clearly some women, somewhere were racing horses.

So, that was the start of the fact-finding mission yesterday that caused me to waste several hours of my afternoon. But the important thing is that it bore fruit, in the digging up of a couple of names of female jockeys prior to the 1960s.

The first was the first female jockey ever recorded, Alicia Meynell, in 1804. Hell yeah, I said 1804. It all started entirely by accident, as she was out for a leisurely ride through the country with her sister's husband (ahhh, yes, doing things with a sibling's spouse has been the cause of many an argument in my own personal life) when they quarreled about who had the better horse. Apparently, they decided to answer that question on the spot, and Alicia emerged victorious. The brother-in-law's ego was quite bruised and he, of course, challenged her to a 'real' re-match at a proper track. (As a sidenote: this totally sounds like the set-up for a Harlequin romance, doesn't it? And it totally gets better. I'm serious, any romance authors, you need to be on this.) In kind of the best part of the story, which I am hoping is true and if it isn't, then don't spoil the awesomeness of this fantasy, Alicia turns up to the match, "in a dress designed to look like leopard-skin, with blue sleeves, a buff-colored vest and a blue cap." Okay, so she loses the race, but COME ON. Obviously she was fabulous and totally before her time. She was made for Dynasty. She did race again and won, again dressed fabulously. You HAVE to read the whole story here, in Sports Illustrated. She's pretty much my hero now.

So, if that's too much of a silly, romance-worthy story for you, then I present my next subject, Wantha Davis. She, too, was equally fabulous in a less obviously girly way. This woman raced in TB & QH tracks from Tijuana to Vancouver throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Her application for a license were repeatedly denied in state after state, despite winning over 500 races and against some prestigious male jockeys. Check this snippet out: "In 1949 thousands of spectators crossed the border from San Diego to Agua Caliente, Mexico, to watch her outrace the great Hall of Famer Johnny Longden by a length and three-quarters in a six furlong match race. The three-time national champion was so mad he yanked off his tack and refused to weigh out. Hall of Famer Glen Lasswell was also defeated by her at Agua Caliente, as was Hall of Fame rider Basil James in Nebraska." KICK ASS.

But mainly, without a license, she was relegated to the terrifyingly rough-and-tumble backwoods tracks, where I am hugely impressed that she thrived and had a solid career, despite what I imagine were majorly tough circumstances. You can read about her at her website. She has some awesome photos here, and if you don't look at anything else, you have to see this phenomenal video of her at Ladies' Day for the 9th Pimlico Classic.

There are more, but I won't tax your eyes and just stick with these gals today.

Jul 21, 2009

Kanye Has Got Nothing on Me

Also, how cute is this?! I love this man! Maybe I kind of want to be him.

EVERYONE NEEDS TO KNOW AT THIS POINT THAT I MANAGED TO SCORE A COPY OF "THE HORSES OF THE WORLD" PUBLISHED BY THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY!!! Yes, that did require all caps. Sorry for that -- but it was a phenomenal score, especially after realizing how amazing the dog version of this book is. I am in heaven -- thousands of random facts and awesome photos. I will try to share one of each a day, my pets. The one above clearly illustrates (as the caption reads): "The horse has been the companion and servant of man in nearly all his migrations and conquests, and has always played an important part in the development of the civilization which is based upon intelligent cultivation of the soil."

Or it's just a little man-horse love! Oh yeah! (Yes, I am five. I thought we had established that.)

My Noble Stewball

Randomly, we were barbecuing in the backyard the other day and my father's iPod was playing. Suddenly "Stewball" as sung by Joan Baez came on and it just transported me back to being a tiny child, absolutely transfixed by that song. As a child, it just seemed so thrilling that anyone would sing a song about a horse; clearly he had to be famous! And though the lyrics confused the hell out of me (I thought it was a tragic story where he died at the end -- listening comprehension FTW), it quite obvciously made a big impact on me.

Hearing it again made me want to get to the bottom of the story about the song's origins. And I learned that Stewball (or Skewball, as per some -- he might have been a paint!) was a REAL HORSE! Born in 1741, he won some fairly big races and a little notoriety, but why he was chosen as the subject of a song versus a plethora of other big names...well, who knows? But wikipedia states that "[t]here are two major different versions of the sporting ballad, generally titled either "Skewball" or "Stewball"; the latter is more popular in America. There are multiple variations within the two major divisions. Versions date at least as far back as the 18th century[...] In both songs the title horse is the underdog in the race, up against a favored grey mare [...]and although in most versions of Stewball the winning horse triumphs due to the stumbling of the lead horse, Skewball wins simply by being the faster horse in the end." I guess that sort of explains my childhood belief that the stumble was actually code for "death."

I guess it's just sort of neat to me that a real racehorse somehow spawned so many versions of a pretty-well-famous song that I loved as a child. And though I'm not so fond of Joan Baez now, I was pretty excited to find a couple of other versions of the song, one of which is posted above. Leadbelly!! He's singing the Americanized version of this song, which takes place in California --the lyrics are pretty different from the English version and it utilizes an African "call and response" type of style that I hadn't been familiar with before.

The traditional English version is below:

So, anyway that's what I'm obsessed with today.

Jul 16, 2009

Who Needs the Real Thing?!

There have been other blogs posting about this before me, but I just had to give my own 2 cents when I saw this article in Jersey news on the Dressage simulator. Firstly, let it be said that if this sucker did not cost GBP 50,000 I would so have one installed in my house. That can go on my wish list for when I win the lottery, okay? Because frankly, the thing looks awesome; there is video of it as well. It works your core muscles, makes you aware of even the slightest of weight shift or movement. I think it has a MAJOR use as a teaching tool. So many students are completely unaware that their bodies are moving a certain way, preventing them from truly 'getting the feel of it.' I think this could really open their eyes. I know from first-hand that sometimes in order to 'get' a concept, sometimes you have to feel it correctly just once. Everything else will click into place. Alas, not many of us have access to schoolmasters.

The one thing I would say, which should be pretty obvious to everyone, is that there is a weird disconnect inherent in such a tool. There is no horse feedback, so to speak. Your movements are interpreted back to you visually via a screen in front of you, but when I actually ride that doesn't occur -- I have to feel whether I am correct and how the horse feels under me and how he is responding to me. It's knowing what your body is doing in relation to the horse, not in relation to a set of visual data. From my experience as a teacher I could see many students not being capable of bridging that gap in understanding. You have to be able to feel correctness as you are performing it; and more importantly, you have to be able to do so on a living, breathing animal who will be distracted, tired, cranky, etc...

I had so many students tell me that they were applying the aids correctly and nothing was happening. This used to drive me nuts because I guess I always wanted my role as a teacher to be someone who gave her students a set of tools in order for them to empower themselves and begin to solve their own problems. And so many times many of my students just wanted to be so scientific about it all, to quantify each maneuver. I get why that would be so appealing; I really do. But unfortunately that's not how riding can be. A great deal of it relies on the rider's ability to connect a 'feel' with an action (be it on her part or the horse's). I think it could be very easy for a beginner / intermediate student to use something like the dressage simulator to train themselves in perfect circumstances, but yet have everything fall apart when confronted with a real animals with his own set of opinions. Obviously no one is saying that the simulator should be in place of a real animal, but I'm just pointing out the flaw in the machine. The fact is it's like playing an ultra-realistic video-game. When I play my car racing game (which is actually quite sophisticated) I can trick myself into thinking I could be an amazing Formula 1 driver which just a bit of training. Then I get into my little sedan and I actually 'feel' the grip of the road and the wheel that pulls a tad to the right. And I realize that simply because I perfected the set of conditions and movements required of me for winning the game doesn't actually make me a Formula 1 driver.

And that's the disconnect. The dressage simulator would get me in great shape and I could be working high-level movements while I am in a period of having no horse. BUT. My fear is that it might be a tad too easy to 'forget' the stimuli I rely on -- the feel of a horse dropping his inside shoulder, the tilt of the poll, a hind leg that is being carried slightly to the inside. These are like second nature for me. Becoming reliant on what a screen (which is probably significantly more accurate with all its sensors, but still disconnected from my actual body) tells me would probably give me pause.

I guess I contradicted myself a bit, but what I wrote still stands. This could be a great tool for teachers and many of their students. But for those who are too cerebral and too stuck on a rigid set of guidelines, or even those students who aren't fully connected with their bodies, this could really be a hindrance to their training. Luckily I won't have to worry about that for quite awhile since it's bloody expensive!

Jul 15, 2009

All the World is a Stage

I am in the throes of a terrible summer cold. I always say that summer colds are the worst, but honestly all colds are the worst. Anyway, did anyone see the New York Times article Monday on a new play in London, called War Horse? It sounds amazing and I fully admit to being someone who has no patience for plays, musicals and whatnot... They essentially created giant horse puppets that are remarkably lifelike in that they appear to breath and are capable of moving exactly like a real horse, even going so far to construct passive tendons and joints that make for amazingly realistic movement. They aren't prettified; there is an dark industrial look to them that seems very menacing, but meshes perfectly with my aesthetic.

They are considering trying to bring the play to NYC in 2011 and I would seriously try to make it out for that. Read the article and check out the phenomenal slideshow.

Jul 14, 2009

Making Racing Cool Again

You know, about a year ago, when I dragged my husband to Belmont racetrack (he had an amazing time, by the way), we were both sort of dismayed to see just how few people show up to the track on a regular weekend race-day. I mean, part of me just loves the seedy loneliness of the modern racetrack, but ultimately I would give that up just to ensure that horse racing won't entirely die out.

My husband was musing on the fact that young hipsters everywhere would probably turn out in droves if racetracks would try to lure them with some sort of retro nostalgia -- concerts, fancy dress-up events, unique hat contests (not just on Derby days), retro cocktails, etc.... You know, just tap into the cool factor of racing's heyday.

Enter Del Mar racetrack. From this article: "'The racetrack in Del Mar, one of America’s classic tracks, has managed to reshape the perception of horse racing through clever ad campaigns giving the sport a classic retro appeal. Along with the shift in marketing strategies came a series of live concerts, free with admission to the track.'" They even gave themselves a new slogan, "Cool as Ever." The strategy is working -- the younger crowds account for 30% of overall attendance. And just go to the official website. It draws you in with a kitschy appeal.

I think this is a fabulous new direction and it's a way for some of the older tracks to lure in new fans. They should be mining their rich histories to their advantage. In addition to the things I mentioned above, you could add fun, booze-filled 'classes' on betting and handicapping; themed days (for costumes, drinks, food, etc...); have local trainers and jockeys do fancy meet and greet sessions; even embrace the local serious bettors and figure out a way for them to share their 'systems' with the masses (I guarantee hipsters that I know would spend hours listening to these guys pontificate)....the list could be endless.

I know this isn't the only thing that can save horse racing -- let's face it, young hipsters aren't exactly going to bet large sums of money -- but it's a great start and it gets people thinking of going to the tracks as exactly the same sort of entertainment (or better) as going out to dinner or to a bar. And isn't Churchill Downs doing night racing now? That's a super idea! I would totally go out to the track for an evening and I could definitely drag my non-horsey friends to something like that. The fact is that horse racing will do well to remember that it needs to court the non-horsey people. The ones who are there for the thrill and fun of it all. You really shouldn't have to know horses to enjoy racing. It should just be something cool to do. I can't wait to start bringing my nieces to the track, but I know that there is a chance they may never be that into it. However, they definitely could be if there was more of a cool image and set of rituals that they could feel privy to.

I Knew Someone Out There Had to Like Me

So while in NYC on business, I got this totally unexpected, sweet gesture -- The "Honest Scrap" Award from Equine Ink. I feel totally honored by this and am excited to welcome any new readers to the blog.

It also opened my eyes up to a new world of equine bloggers, which I am very happy to see. Accordingly, I have updated my blogroll to add all these new names. Please check them out!

I'm going to be totally honest and say that I am probably too lazy (or insanely crazed) to pass the award on to other deserving bloggers, but if I had any spare time I would certainly try to.

Jul 10, 2009

Rachel Alexandra Baby Picture

I just couldn't resist when I came across this picture (dated Feb 2006) of baby Rachel Alexandra. Too cute!

Jul 8, 2009

Hugs & Kisses

Sorry my pets! I've had to travel for my job and can't spend time blogging, but you can follow my updates on twitter. It will be back to regularly scheduled programming next week. And I splurged on nearly $200 worth of vintage / antique horse books, so I have LOADS of fun topics to pick through...

Until next week....XXOO