Aug 27, 2009

Saratoga Raceway and Zombies


So, I admit that I completely forgot the camera the night we went to see the harness racing. Honestly we weren't even planning on going that evening. It just turns out we had just the right amount of alcohol and good food to decide that we could stay out all night. Over to the Saratoga Raceway it was.

Firstly, I want to note that Saratoga doesn't seem to do the best job of advertising the harness racing. Maybe it's different when the flat racing isn't in season, but no one appears that informed about the raceway. Questions about it seem to result in a faraway, glassy-eyed look. That in combination with a very noncommittal "oh, yeah" had me prepared for the worst. At least I did know that it was a raceway / casino. That's pretty obvious from just going to their website. If you didn't know better, it might even seem like the place is all slots machines and nightclub. You'd be hard-pressed to find any relevant data on the actual harness racing, which is quite sad really. The harness racing should be placed front and center. I don't care that it's not a money-making proposition anymore or that it doesn't draw the crowds; to be perfectly blunt, those horses and drivers are the only reason that racino was built. They are the ones out there every evening, offering a formidable display of skill and bravery that should be promoted, not willed into obscurity. I think the least we can do is offer them a prominent showcase and a semblance of respect. Can we not in this day and age come up with a marketing plan that purports to make harness racing cool again? Where is the harness racing equivalent of the Seabiscuit book? Greyhound anyone? Niatross? Bret Hanover? Dan Patch -- there was a great book written recently about him. Let's parlay that into some coolness factor for the harness racing world.

But I digress. As usual. Anyway, the Saratoga Raceway was a pleasant surprise. In fact, I am reluctant to admit I might even like it a bit better than the main track. But only because the crowds are smaller, the track is smaller and you get a great view of the entire track no matter where you are positioned, and, because the horses circle the track twice during the course of the race, you feel more involved with the outcome. Again, this is just my opinion, but the action does manage to really captivate you in a manner that I've only really felt in flat racing during the final stretch run. Of course, you can't really compare the two. They are two different animals and the skill of the harness racers seems to come into play even more than during flat racing. People can argue this point, of course, but it seems that strategy plays a much larger role in harness racing. It's not so easy as you might think to break out of the jumbled, flying mess of wheels and limbs without some real forethought. And I'm not saying that flatracing doesn't take skill and strategy. I'm just saying that it seems to be a lot more difficult for a longshot to take control of a harness race, and that there is no room for error at all. Sometimes there's a little more breathing room in a flat race to be able to make a bit of an error, correct it and still win. Maybe I'm wrong, but harness racing appears to be a bit less forgiving.

While the harness racing itself was a lovely excursion that I will be sure to be repeating, the casino aspect of the facility was kind of like being an extra on a 'z'-level horror movie. Scores of people sitting transfixed in front of vibrant computer screens, pressing buttons and winning a couple of dollars here and there. If you think "Shaun of the Dead" was an absurdist satire on the zombifying of our society, then you need look no farther than the slots machines at the casino to see it come to life. I fully admit I don't go to casinos, nor am I much of a gambler, but I can readily understand the appeal of a poker game or betting on horses. The dead eyes and stupor of a person mesmerized by the screen in front of them is downright creepy to me. I suppose it just comes down to my irritation at these people completely oblivious to the action happening all around them (I'm speaking of the horses obviously), lost in their computer screens. Why come to a harness track at all? It seems more leisurely to stay at home and attain the same dazed state in front of the television or your gaming console.

But what do I know? I can't understand not being mesmerized by the fleet horses racing not 300 feet away from the slot machines.

Aug 26, 2009

I Gave a Thumbs Up to Calvin Borel

So, I'm back from Saratoga with a million things to report. AND PICTURES! That's right! I am learning to be more blog-savvy, y'all.

But first things first. I SAW CALVIN BOREL! Somehow we made it to the track at just the right moment on Saturday to end up standing right next to him as he was being given a leg up. Someone next to me called out to him and for some reason he thought it was me and he grinned and gave me a thumbs-up. What a sweetheart. He just oozes charm and goodheartedness. I adore him and, while I realize I'm totally biaised, I just think he can do no wrong riding-wise. He has an amazing work ethic, seems to really believe in his mounts and appears to have an uncanny sixth sense that lets him bring the best out of an animal.

I'm working on getting up the nerve to call his agent and see if I can't score an interview. The worst he could say (and likely will) is no.

Aug 20, 2009

Saratoga, Bishes!

Yay! I am off to Saratoga tomorrow. Hopefully I'll come back with loads of pictures and stories for you.

PS - I will just die of happiness if I get to see Rachel Alexandra!

Phar Lap - The Lure of Taxidermy

Dead Horse “Lives” in Marvel of Taxidermy (Dec, 1932)

I love this!! It's the original story of how the taxidermists prepared and mounted Phar Lap. I agree it's creepy, but that's part of the appeal for me, too.

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Aug 19, 2009

Drilling for Oil: Or, The Other Side of Horseracing

So, this is the story of a racehorse that doesn't have a high profile. In fact, I never heard of him before a week ago. Born in 2003, out of Won't She Tell, a half-sister to Affirmed and by Giant's Causeway, a stallion who raced in Europe and won 5 straight Group 1 races in 2000, earning European Horse of the Year honors. High and mighty connections, it would seem.

But Drilling for Oil was, as Ken McPeek, his trainer, was quoted in this Bloodhorse article from May 2007, "an extremely difficult horse to train." Maybe that had something to do with the fact that he didn't make his first start until the age of 3. It was an inauspicious debut, finishing 8th. He broke his maiden a month later, perhaps ready to finally show his worth, but it wasn't until his 4-year-old year that he would win a stakes race. Two in fact. The Grade 3 Elkhorn Stakes and the Grade 3 Louisville Handicap. Alas, these were his only career wins. He seemed destined only to be the runner-up in his subsequent outings.

His is the story of many a racehorse. Had you heard of him prior to this? Really? Think long and hard about that. But I suppose I'm being unfair, honestly. Compared to the thousands of un-noteworthy claimers around the country, Drilling for Oil led a privileged life. His were legitimate brushes with fame; a Grade 3 win is not to be sneezed at. Then again, he never saw the kind of glory of a Kentucky Derby or Breeder's Cup winner. His winnings only totaled around $266k. You could say that he was always fated for ignominy. Well, except for maybe in the breeding shed. His connections were probably worth an admirable figure there, at least in some countries.

So, he was bought and shipped off to Peru where he would perform stallion duty. His previous owner, Lansdon Robbins, was quoted as saying: "'We are very happy to see Drilling for Oil go to a farm that truly appreciates all of his accomplishments,' Robbins said. 'We have retained the Northern Hemisphere breeding rights to the horse, and we wish them the best of luck.'" Wow, be a little less effusive about the horse, will ya? I mean, who doesn't see through this canned statement for its true meaning? Hey, thanks for taking him off our hands. No blue-blood American breeder is going to bother retaining his services, so go ahead and do what you will with him.

And no, I don't really have a problem with that. At least in theory. Yeah, it's a business. Your job is to make a profit where you can. A new owner was willing to purchase Drilling for Oil and maybe his bloodlines were precious to Peru. Good on them for recognizing that.

Alas, you've all surely read the headlines by now. It's the only reason I'm writing this piece, unfortunately. Drilling for Oil was stolen and slaughtered for meat. I want desperately to conjecture on the circumstances surrounding his death and what could seem like a severe lack of security at his new home. I would love to pass judgment on an industry that churns out perfect athletes and then spits them out, letting them fan out to all parts of the globe when their career is perhaps less than illustrious. No one certainly foresaw that end when he was just a colt grazing in the pastures of South Carolina. Back then his future was full of hope.

But I can't pass judgment. Not really. Not without being hypocritical. Because who among us hasn't sold a horse without that cold fear and shame passing over us, even for an brief instant. Once that money exchanges hands you have no control over the future of that animal you tried to care for and protect the best you could. That doesn't mean that Drilling for Oil deserved this fate. Or that there was no gross incompetence on the part of his current owner for letting this happen. Then again, sometimes these things happen.

And while I'm sitting here writing about Drilling for Oil's tragic story, there just happens to be a glut of thoroughbreds across the country who are broken down, desperate for new life, abandoned or abused. We churn out far more of the animals than the racing industry can support, and its a travesty really. That's the result of the thousands of press-worthy rags-to-riches stories that clog our national consciousness. The thought that maybe, just maybe the underdog will blossom into a hero. America eats that up. Even I can't help but be swayed by the narrative sometimes. I guess we just can't pretend to be surprised by the consequences.

Aug 14, 2009

As If Riding Is Not Enough - My Fear Credentials

So. My logical next step here is to explain why I consider myself to be so qualified in talking about, deconstructing and helping people to overcome their fears. Well, here goes...

I suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of working in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Weird, right? That I've been writing for about two years now and never though to mention that fact before? Well, honestly, it's because the event may have changed me and informed a lot of my actions since, but I don't want it to define who I am. I don't really want to be known as that rider/blogger who was there on September 11th. I mention it only insofar as it explains why I feel so strongly about this subject.

Anyway, let's not pretend that I was a perfect human being prior to this date, which spontaneously triggered shock, depression and high-level daily anxiety totally from out of the blue. That's silly talk. I was always wound a bit tightly. A bit nervous by nature, but nothing that interfered with normal daily activities. After September 11th though, it was a completely different story. It was as if everything posed an equally lethal threat to me. There was no differentiation between, for example, my worry about tripping on the sidewalk in heels and the potential for being trapped on subway car with a suicide bomber. Both prospects held an absolutely equal amount of terror for me. Every day that I managed to survive seemed like a complete miracle to me.

In the midst of this, I had to essentially re-learn how to do virtually everything. From learning to walk down the street again, to entering public spaces, to listening to loud music. Obviously I 'knew' how to do all of these things. Everyone does, right? But suddenly I had to learn to do them whilst attempting to block out the alarms in my head that screamed: "THIS IS A BAD IDEA! DON'T DO THIS! YOU'RE TOTALLY GOING TO DIE! SHIT, WHAT WAS THAT?!!" And somehow I managed to do this, but even I recognize that I am not the same person I was before that day. I have think about everything just a bit differently; I move just a tad more cautiously...

So, what does this have to do with riding, you ask? Well, good question. My PTSD caused me also to ride differently. I was suddenly anxious and tense on horseback. With a flight response that probably rivaled that of my horse. I felt myself looking at everything suspiciously, considering its ability to scare myself or my horse. My years of riding knowledge were desperately trying to tell me brain how silly I was being, but my body just would not respond.

At first, like any normal, passionate, ambitious equestrian I was devastated. I convinced myself that I was damaged and stupid. I convinced myself that I HAD to give up riding, as what I was doing was dangerous and distracting. I told myself that I would never overcome this overwhelming fear.

Oddly enough, it was then that I re-discovered my strengths through teaching. My experience has given me an empathy for timid, fearful riders that I'm sure that I would have otherwise developed, and these riders flourished under my eye. And honestly, all it comes down to is this basic point -- when fear kicks in, there is no differentiation between small fears and big fears. Essentially this means that you lose all perspective. Most riding instructors don't seem to grasp this simple, but important concept. Once I have been struck by those panic pangs, I can no longer differentiate between what would normally be a generally anxiety about my foot slipping out of the stirrup or a complete terror at having a horse bolt full-speed across the arena. In those moments, the level of danger posed to you is THE SAME.

This is of the ultimate importance for a teacher to understand -- when your student is gripped in the throes of a fear, you could be dealing with someone who may not be completely rational at that moment; they may have lost their perspective. Therefore, you cannot disregard a student's fear. You cannot place a hierarchy on it. There are no small fears. Your job, in this moment, is to validate their fear first and foremost. Unless you can do that, you aren't ever going to fix the problem, simply cover up the outward symptoms.

I say that sometimes you have to stand on the edge of insanity to really understand it. Okay, maybe it doesn't need to go that far, but using that standard, please just call me the fear expert. :) If I can claw my way back from a person who couldn't get out of bed in the morning and face all of the terrors of the day to who I am now, then I believe anyone can. And those are not hollow words.

Aug 13, 2009

The Great Match Race Pin

Yay! I have been trying to post this for days and blogger kept returning error messages. Anyway, I just wanted to share one of my lovely finds with you. I bought this pin at a flea market in Brooklyn. For a dollar. They had no idea what it was, and though I'm pretty sure it's not a major collector's item, I was thrilled to find it. Do a google search and virtually none of these come up, for sale or otherwise.

For those of you who maybe aren't in the know, these pins were given out free on the day of the tragic match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure. And though I really wish I owned the Ruffian pin, I'm pretty happy to just own this tiny piece of history. I guess it's even more fun to know that I discovered it buried amidst a pile of hundreds of other absurd pins. I unearthed it and am giving it back a bit of its original glory.

Aug 12, 2009

Fear and the Rider

This will be only the first in a long and ongoing series revolving around fear and horseback riding -- my own personal fears, my struggles with reconciling those fears with being a successful rider and instructor, my coping mechanisms, my experiences with fellow riders and trainers and their attempts to belittle / undermine me for having these problems, my disbelief at finding few texts willing to address fear and riding, and, foremost, my empathy for fearful students, which has resulted in some very successful methods to help conquer their own personal demons. All of this probably sounds self-helpy, but hopefully that will prove to be farthest from the truth. Let me say it now: I do not find that visualizing a good ride will ensure that I have a good ride. Repeating positive statements to myself do not, in fact, boost my self-confidence and create positive endorphins. Maybe I have more than my share of skepticism at such methods or maybe I just believe that, at least in my case, my fears and anxieties have taken such a deep hold on me that positive-thinking is about the last thing that is going to have any effect on me.

Anyway, my hope is just to challenge a lot of what is fundamentally wrong about how we think about, speak about and teach horseback riding. But first, I want to spend the remainder of this post making a few confessions / declarations:

- I have been riding all my life and yet there are many a day when just the prospect of mounting a horse has struck me with a paralyzing, incapacitating fear. I can remember having a particularly bad day in which the best I could do was walk around the arena a couple of times, mounted, and then call it day.

- I am an excellent rider with great talent and exceptional feel, but my trials with overcoming fear have: caused me to consider myself worthless in comparison to other instructors, lost me many an opportunity to further my riding education, and caused many of my peers (and people whom I considered friends) to call me a 'pussy,' stupid, weak and that, more generally, I didn't really want success enough if I wasn't willing to overmount myself.

To add insult to injury, I do not, nor have I ever, shied away from saying, "No, I don't feel confident / strong enough to ride that horse,' or ' You know what? This may seem silly to you, but I'm too scared to do that right now.' But years of experience with this have taught me that people do not perceive knowing your limits as a strength, but a major fault in your character. To this day I have never, ever heard uttered from a professional rider's mouth, the words 'I am afraid.' In equestrian culture this is taboo. I think this is patently absurd and by making these declarations, I hope it will, at the very least, open a dialogue. Maybe a few people will recognize themselves in my own experiences and if I can help just one person, that would be worth it. And if that one person is only myself, well so be it...

Aug 11, 2009

Just Another Example of Population Control


You know, some people might call this dangerous, but I like to think of it as a form of population control. :)

The best part is the caption, which reads: "This young man of Sussex, England, mounted on his shaggy steed, has attended fox meets strapped in his hunting saddle-chair since he was a year old. The white horse has apparently turned away in disgust at the novel arrangement."

I ADORE that last line. Why can't people still write non-fiction books that offer awesome judgments in the guise of detached scientific observation?

Aug 6, 2009

I Want to Be This Little Girl

"See what Prince will do for me." Prince Albert, Ida Cuthbertson's "famous educated horse." Brown Studio, Riverside, circa 1909.

I need to know about this! Stat! Interwebz are totally failing me now.
PS - If this wasn't clearly printed 1909, I would claim this girl as me.

Common Ground

Apparently the editors over at Horse and Hound have been thinking the same thing I have lately about modern competitive dressage. They embedded the video of the Reiner Klimke / Ahlerich gold-medal winning performance on their site and remarked:

"How times have changed in the dressage world! Take a look back at the gold medal-winning performance of Reiner Klimke on Ahlerich at the 1984 Olympic Games. While the horse's movement is far less dramatic than today's top dressage horses, it is a clear picture of harmony between horse and rider with the poll at the highest point throughout and impressive levels of relaxation.

Not only have the standards of performance changed, the type of horse has also moved on. Ahlerich is a lighter framed horse compared to the powerful warmbloods seen today at this level.
So do you think that the development of dressage and dressage horses over the past 25 years is a good thing, or do you hark back to a return to 'good old days'?"

LOVE IT! Though I do take offense at the traditionalist sentiment inherent to the phrase 'good old days.' As if good, solid riding is somehow old-fashioned. Hopefully that was meant tongue-in-cheek.

This does serve as a reminder to note that whenever I review a modern dressage performance (like Totilas') I always refer back to my 'guide' -- this particular ride. It is my guideline for everything and if it isn't for you, well, all I can say is it should be. The ride itself is not without mistakes, but I don't care about mistakes. No ride will be perfection. What is important is the level of harmony and relaxation; the mistakes that are permitted and corrected simultaneously. I always felt that this test was likely not very different from how Ahlerich was ridden in his home arena. And that's what I always thought competitive dressage was supposed to be, just a venue to exhibit the level of training you consistently achieve at home.

Pony Round-Up

If you haven't seen this link to a BBC news report, you must. It was filmed by tourists in Israel as they were driving down the highway. For some bizzare reason, horses were galloping down the road, and for some even stranger reason all the cars on the road were still in motion. Maybe I'm just a horse nut, but if I saw horses galloping down a road I was driving along I would most certainly stop and pull over. They are simply too unpredictable, and in the video this is demonstrated by the horse's attempt to jump on and over a car. Shockingly, horse and driver are both okay.

The saddest part about the whole thing is that (because I knew everyone was okay after the accident), the only thing I could focus on throughout the video was just how pretty the pinto horse is and what a lovely jump he tried to make.

Aug 5, 2009

New World Record for Freestyle Dressage

Ah yes. Did anyone really think I would not join in on this particular discussion? How little faith ye have. So, Edward Gal and Totilas. 89.40% And how do all of you feel about this, hmmm?

There are moments when I doubt myself. Awww...hell, I doubt myself a lot. But when I saw the video of their freestyle at Hickstead, something just didn't sit right with me. He's a beautiful horse and he seems a pleasant enough lad, so I wanted to be able to just enjoy the video and congratulate their success. But the fact of the matter is that this pair just achieved a new world record score and even though I know I won't like the majority of dressage rides I subject myself to anymore, I made the effort to click over and watch their ride, perhaps looking for some brilliant display of a talented newcomer. And let me reiterate, I do love the horse. I think he is beautiful, talented and appears to have a good head on his shoulders.

However. It is greatly dismaying to me to see this ride score so highly. In fact, I suppose it's dismaying to me to see dressage still stuck in the exact same place it was last year during the Olympics fiasco / disaster. I guess it's partly my bruised ego that is fueling my irritation at seeing this ride score such a high score. You know -- didn't the dressage officials get a copy of my memo? Ultimately however, it's just a general disenchantment with the sport I used to so love. Totilas is a lovely horse and could be a very good dressage horse, but in the manner he is being ridden currently, they did not merit that score.

Must I harp on this? Totilas is behind the vertical throughout the entire test. His poll is never at the highest point. His trot extensions are ALL FOREARM. And please, do not chime in to tell me that a horse can have huge shoulder movement (this word shoulder, I do not think it means what you think it means -- please start referring to it as FOREARM) and equal push from behind. Yes, I think that this horse is adequately pushing from behind. But what is totally unnecessary and actually hinders his freedom of movement is his giant "park trot" forearm extension. I would love to see the difference in movement if he was allowed to lift his forehand more (sorry, but in order to do what you are seeing, there is too much weight on the forehand), actually lengthen his neck and come up slightly in front of the vertical. I guarantee that level of stretch and relaxation would wipe out that showy trot.

Let's talk about this tight frame for a second. His nose is too cranked in, his neck is far too constricted. No doubt this horse does have a nice passage and piaffe, but in the form in which it is presented here, NO WAY! That "hang time" of his in the passage is artificial, folks. That is not what a passage should look like. Please watch it frame by frame and you will easily see what I mean. The problem stems from the way he is ridden, too short in the frame and poll too low (absolute elevation). He cannot properly lift the forehand and sink the croup. In order to compensate he has to hollow out and pull himself forward with his shoulders (not that there isn't push from behind; there is, but not enough). The same happens during his piaffe, where it really counts! He looks like he is being ridden downhill; the poor boy tries valiantly, but he just cannot achieve true collection. The best stride of piaffe was the one taken just before he transitioned back into passage. It transformed him instantly. And I do realize that EVERYONE and their mother is praising this boy's piaffe and passage. I am not blind, people. The fact is that he is remarkably good at faking the collection and suspension; it is far less obvious than it would be in other horses. But you need only look at the frame, the elevation of the front-end and the angles of the hind legs. It cannot allow the purity of movement that everyone is praising about him. He's very clearly incredibly athletic and built close-quartered enough that he can fake it better than some of the recent modern warmbloods.

I fully admit that in order to see a lot of this, I had to review the video, frame-by-frame. And, you know what, there is no shame in that. I knew that something was off in his performance, but it took closer examination to discern exactly what that was. I tend to believe that sometimes we can think that a movement is correct because the overall outcome or picture appears successful. Dressage is far more complicated than that though. Often our impressions are simply wrong. Our eyes are not quick enough to see the individual parts that make up the whole. This problem is leading us down a very slippery slope and rewarding training methods that are not correct, balanced and harmonious. That is something that our current competitive dressage scoring system cannot correct for and cannot cope with. And it results in a pair like Edward Gal and Totilas. Beauty and showmanship galore, but false underlying fundamentals.

Aug 3, 2009

My Rachel Alexandra

I am not ashamed to say that I did two ridiculously absurd things yesterday: the first being that I seriously woke up at 6:30am and could not get back to sleep, giddy with anticipation with being able to see Rachel Alexandra race later that day; the second was that I gave a completely unironic fist pump upon learning she had romped to victory. Need I say more?

I fully admit that I am obsessed with this big, handsome filly with the broken blaze. She's like my Ruffian, my Secretariat, my Damascus....the list could go on and on, but the point is really just this: I feel like I have been waiting for years to find that one racehorse that I could believe in and on whom I could pin all of my hopes of glory. There have been other horses that I liked and rooted for, but none that caused my heart to skip a beat or made my chest tighten with a fearful combination of anxiety, pride and joy. I unabashedly love her, though what I actually know about her could probably fit on a postcard...with room to spare. I am witnessing a legendary horse during her prime. Not old videos of awesome performances by racing's greats. This is greatness in the present tense and words cannot express how grateful I am to be this lucky.

The funny thing is that she is in a completely different realm, racing-wise, than all of her competitors. When she kicks into a higher gear, the other horses just appear to be standing still. And, like Calvin Borel has said, I do not think that we have seen the limits of her abilities. That thought alone should be both awe-inspiring and terrifying in its implications.

Anyway, here is the video from the Haskell yesterday. Just watch the way she flits over the sloppy track on a loose rein. Calvin Borel is just a remarkable rider and probably a major factor in why she is so successful. I can't put my finger on it, but something in the way he rides her is just so masterful. He is relaxed, quiet, guiding her without interfering with her. I am not a race rider, but I recognize in Borel my own methods of riding good mares by staying out of their way and letting them feel completely in control.