Thursday, April 21, 2011

One Hoof Forward...

Sometimes I just don't know what to think of the horse industry. We have made so many strides with our equines, in health, safety and welfare practices. We are as a whole committed to the humane husbandry of our animals, and the blogosphere is always alight with stories about the latest new measures intended to bring peace and understanding to our horse lives. Natural horsemanship, barefoot shoeing, gobs of research into horse behavior, a slew of food products and training gear -- all are available to help us keep our horses at their best. Even the flat racing industry, once so intensely the bane of equine activists, has made huge strides in the years since the Eight Belles and Barbaro disasters, to the point that the Kentucky racing commission is currently considering a full race-day ban on drugs so that horses will run free from all medical substances.

But just when a horse lover begins to feel like humans are finally getting it RIGHT, and starting to see that our horses are not disposable relics of a bygone age, but animals with which we can develop profound partnerships, we have the running of the 2011 Grand National Steeplechase. In which two horses died over fences from a broken neck and a broken back. And in which the race continued to be run even as participants had to zig and zag around the horses' prostrate tarp-covered figures. As Erin Gilmore pointed out in her blog On The Line, horse fatalities happen in that same way almost every year at the Grand National. But we just keep running it. And we remain glued to our televisions, dumbfounded as horses go down, full of sadness and anger in the wake of yet another preventable equine tragedy, but seemingly not capable of doing anything to change it.

We can change it, however, if we are willing. If we let our horses carry us there as they have carried us before through wars, and storms, and life's darkest moments. If we listen to our horses, and think about a future that doesn't put them so dramatically in harm's way. Granted most horses aren't asked to race to near exhaustion over treacherous obstacles. But really, none of them should be. And we hold the power to change steeplechasing as we have changed flat racing, western pleasure, gaited pleasure, show jumping, eventing and a host of other events. By putting our horses first.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Spring Has Sprung!

And with it clouds and clouds of shedding horsehair. I encounter more of it every weekend now that I am back in the saddle and working with a lovely OTTB mare named Willow at a facility on Long Island. Willow is one of only a few mares that I have ridden consistently in my time, and her sensitive, feminine demeanor might just sway me to give up geldings for life! Of course to this point I've only gotten her on her good days...I haven't had any encounters of the mare kind while she's been feeling witchy or cranky, so perhaps that joke will one day be on me. But for now, I'm falling in love in the springtime sunshine with her sweet, giving temperament.

And I give big kudos to her owner for that -- she has painstakingly worked to turn Willow from a racetrack reject, dead lame from a chipped up front knee that required 10 months of tedious rehabilitation, to a well-behaved lady who is learning every week more about how to give and bend and transition with the grace of a show ring hunter. I even (almost successfully, due more to my learning her cues than her ignoring mine) sidepassed her at a trot last Saturday. I'd say she's come a long way.

Her biggest issue right now is her canter. She definitely tends to "rev it up" and get racehorsey when I ask her into that gear. She'll come back down and give and collect and then she'll want to rev up and go, go, go. She's also remarkably stiff and difficult to bend (this might partially be a side effect of lingering stiffness in the now healed knee). Circling her at the canter is sort of like riding a pogo stick. Bounce, bounce, bounce in a straight line and then a big lean to the inside at the corner. We'll keep working on it, but I welcome any suggestions about how to encourage her to soften and bend at this gait.

Willow is definitely a reminder to me of why it's so important for racetracks and the racing industry to continue to support efforts to rehome OTTB horses. They still have so much to give once their baby careers are over. I look forward to continuing my relationship with this big, beautiful grey mare, and know that many others like her can offer the same gifts to other lucky riders just like me.