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. 

Sep 2, 2009

PhotoPhobia - Just Because I Like That Word

I need to apologize to anyone waiting for the Saratoga posts. Apparently Saratoga also gave me a debilitating upper respiratory infection and conjunctivitis in both eyes. So, yeah, I am living like a vampire. Which when I was 14 seemed like it should have been kinda cool. Now it's pretty painful and lame. I hope to be recovered in another couple of days and can approach my laptop without sunglasses. Until then, please be patient.