Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Good Life for an Ex-Racehorse

This is my friend, Mary, and her horse, Whirley. Talk about getting back into riding in a huge way--I will never forget when she acquired him. She came over to my house for dinner and blurted out, “Holy crap, I just bought a horse!” I have to admit, I knew she wanted to get back into riding, but, boy, did she ever catch me off guard with that news. What did you just say??

Mary and Whirley at a horse show.

She was also caught off guard—she had no intention of owning a horse until her sister called her out of the blue and told her about this horse who was all alone in a pasture. He had been cared for, but essentially was a lawn ornament, and the owners wanted to find him a good home. Mary didn’t really know why, but she just had to have him.
I would not describe Mary as impulsive, but she bought him—sight unseen--for the cost of trailering him from Charlottesville to Northern Virginia and a vet exam. Her family thought she had lost her mind, and so did I, frankly. She was elated when he got off the trailer. Despite his shaggy condition and light weight, he was very handsome and had a big personality. He had a lip tattoo. In her research, Mary learned about his former career as a race horse. He had a track record (not bad) and was also descended from Secretariat (even better).
She found a nice barn with an available stall and then discovered the hard way that race horses are not taught any ground manners. Nor are they trained in the ways of ring etiquette or proper trail riding behavior. Despite Mary’s vast experience (a self-professed Army brat, she lived in Germany while she was growing up and learned to ride there), she realized right away that she needed the help of a professional trainer to get Whirley on the right track.

I really admire her perseverance. She spent a lot of time with Whirley on the ground and on his back, with and without her trainer. She also found out that he was gelded very late (just before she bought him at the age of 10), an interesting fact that explains some of his quirky behavior. And, although he was coming along, something was still not quite right. He seemed unhappy until she had the brilliant idea to move him from the barn to field board. It made all the difference in the world. Perhaps a horse accustomed to the outside prefers to stay outside.

It wasn’t long before he learned his new job well enough to go on short trail rides without bolting or dumping his rider. He calmed down (perhaps due to his new status as a gelding) and started winning many ribbons in the local schooling shows. Mary helped him find his purpose after being alone for so long, and he liked it.

“What I loved most about Whirley was his intelligence,” says Mary, “He was so smart—and instinctive. He learned so quickly. I had to figure out what he liked best and then the rest was easy.”

 My daughter leading Mary's daughter on Whirley for a walk around the barn.

Whirley blossomed into a wonderful horse. I rode him once, and he was so smooth and responsive. Eventually, Mary decided to sell him for a variety of reasons. As a full-time working mom herself, juggling the demands (and expense) of re-training a horse and her family were a strain. She also discovered her own interests; she wanted to trail ride more often and possibly join the local hunt. Whirley, while capable, very clearly told her what he liked best and that was jumping. A lot.

Mary’s solution was ideal. She found an amateur-owner hunter/jumper rider who could complete his training and take him to shows. His new owner loved him dearly and for many months sent enthusiastic training updates and photos. We were very sad when we learned a year later that he passed away from a condition that was previously undiagnosed. It involved a hole in his trachea, and he could not be saved.

Mary still has her saddle and all of her equipment at the ready for dashing out to a friend’s barn at a moment’s notice. She rides with friends on the trail and has gone on a few pre-season fox hunts which are like practices for the real thing. I envy her as she has that confidence to jump on any horse and hack out in the open.

Mary gave an ex-race horse a good life. If only all of them were that lucky. But, Whirley gave a lot back to my friend, too. Anyone reading this who has shared a special relationship with a horse knows what I’m talking about.

I am just waiting for her to walk into my house again someday soon and tell me she has bought another horse…

Footnote: Happy Birthday, Mary!

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