Friday, April 30, 2010

I Found Her - Part III, or What She Told Me

It became obvious very quickly that I had on the line a woman who was passionate about thoroughbreds and racing. With an encyclopedic knowledge of bloodlines, her recall was truly awe-inspiring. On any other day, I would have been content to just listen to her rattle off race records and track stories but I was after something specific, and she was happy to oblige.

What She Told Me #1: How Legs Got His Name
"Read My Legs" raises a snicker every time someone sees it on his halter plate. It is a silly name, especially for a race horse. What had puzzled me was where it came from. Neither his sire or his dam had any component of that name in theirs. The story goes like this: at the time of Legs' birth, Ms. S had a foreman who was fond of mocking a certain president by declaring "read my lips!" before just about anything profound (or not) he had to say. When Legs stood for the first time on his wobbly foal legs, the foreman proclaimed, "Read my lips! I mean legs! Look at the stems on that one! He's going to run!" And so Legs was named.

WSTM #2: Why He Started "Late" to Racing
I mentioned in the last post that Legs was well past his "real" 2 year birth date before he ran his first race, and that Ms. S was a big believer in holding off on pushing them too hard. But there was more to Legs' story.

"He was a nervous one," she explained, "really cautious. Had to be sure my most confident riders were on him. Just needed encouragement. Once he was confident there was nothing he would not do for you, but it took a lot to gain that confidence. The first time we took him to Delta I had the girl just walk him around the track, and he literally trembled the whole time! We let him hang out for a week then brought him home. The next time we took him, he wouldn't unload! Thought we would never get him off that trailer, but we did. And this time he was less nervous. Once we actually put him to work he got to liking it - a lot! Glad we took our time with him. Horse like that - once he's lost the nerve he won't likely get it back."

I'm glad too, Ms. S. In that respect, he's not changed a whole lot.

WSTM #3: Big Potential = Big Frustration
"Once we got him really working he impressed. My foreman was right - he could run! Blew everyone away. A week or so before his first race I had him worked out with 3 or 4 other 2 year olds he would be up against, and he out and out smoked them! Left them in the dust! I was of course all excited, thinking this is the one! Then came race day and that booger finished dead last - against the same horses and at a slower pace than he ran the week before!" She paused for a laugh, "He was a frustrating one, but that's horse racing."

WSTM #4: Family History
"I wasn't too worried about his first start though. All [dam's] foals were late bloomers. Let me ask you this - what does he prefer, hay or grass?"

This totally threw me. One of Leg's many nicknames is "Hay Head", because no matter how deep or lush the grass may be, if hay is offered he will stand there until every last straw is consumed before wandering off to graze. I related this to Ms. S, who laughed again. "Yeah, I'm standing here right now looking out at his half sister. Knee deep in grass and hanging her head over the fence waiting for her hay..."

Hold the phone! Did she just say his half sister??

"Yep, Indy, she's still here. Last foal out of [dam]. Sweet girl - they all are. She's 17 now. Raced a couple seasons and did well. I brought her home to breed her, but she had difficulties. When it happened the first time...OK, but when she had trouble with the second one I said 'no more'". Didn't want her going back into racing again - she was already 8 by that time and had been off the track for 4 years. So here she is, babysitting the young ones, eating hay. Spitting image of yours. Course [dam] threw nothing but big chestnuts, no matter who we bred her too."

So, Legs' dam was known for her big, chestnut, good natured, hay loving babies. That right there explained so much.

WSTM #5: Lost...and Found
"I hated to let him go, but I had a bunch running and had to make a choice. Never an easy one. I knew as long as he kept running I could keep up with him - and I did: Louisiana, Florida, Ohio, finally West Virginia, I always knew what he was up to. Course he started doing well the year after I let him go!" She laughs again, "late bloomer."

"So when Mr. C called me from the Mountaineer to tell me he was retiring him and had a buyer in NC, of course I contacted her too - told her to keep in touch. Sounded like a good place. Lady knew what she was doing with a track baby."

Here I had to laugh - Legs retired at age 10, hardly a "track baby!" Ms. S giggled too.

"Yeah, he sure held up. So anyway this lady in NC bought him and we kept in touch for a while. Then I get an email from her that she - or her husband, one of the two - were to be stationed overseas for a while and she was selling him. I don't check my email often, so by the time I got the message she was gone and so was he. That's where I lost him..." For the first time in over an hour, she paused. "But, I'm glad we found each other now."

Me too, Ms. S.

So that, I guess, is where the story begins. It will end with me - someday. Encouraged by my success at tracing his roots, I feel ready to really seek out that elusive "middle" portion of Legs' life that still holds a bunch of question marks - the scar on his neck, for example. Ms. S has offered to help in any way she can.

And because everything else she has told me so far makes perfect sense, I believe that too.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I Found Her - Part II, or Why I Love This Woman

When I received the message on my phone that my five year search had finally come to an end, the butterflies that had occupied my stomach suddenly morphed into grasshoppers. Her message stated that I could call her anytime that day IF I wanted to. Driving through the valley I literally laughed out loud, letting the grasshoppers out for some much needed exercise.

I had 20 minutes left in my commute to run through the plethora of questions that I had accumulated over the years, to prepare myself for this conversation. But nothing could have prepared me for what followed.

This blog was born from the idea that horse people share a connection - a weirdness if you will - not understood by those who do not have horses in their lives. The next two hours of my life would prove this more than the combined experiences of my prior 30 some odd years. How else do you explain how two people who have never met, who are separated by hundreds of miles and several decades, who share nothing more than a past and present relationship with one horse, could spend so much time on the phone and somehow understand each other so completely?

Reason #1 Why I Love This Woman: She knows horses, hers in particular
Within moments of getting her on the phone, I knew I had a real horse person on the line. Ms. S had that breathless, exhausting way of speaking that is so typical of anyone who has spent anytime on the backstretch. After exchanging the briefest of pleasantries, she got right down to business.

"So, who is it that you have?"

When I told her Read My Legs, she let out a mini-shriek. "Oh my God! I've been wondering what happened to him!" She then went into full on info mode, telling me all about his sire, dam, siblings, and all their track records: number of races run/won, money earned, years they ran and where. Her recall is impressive - keep in mind Legs was foaled 21 years ago this month.

Reason #2 WILTW: She is a good owner
Ms. S went on to tell me that in 40 years of breeding, she has brought into this world almost 300 foals; out of those, she has lost track of only 5 (4 now). The rest she knows about completely, from where they ran their last race to when they passed on, and every new career in between. Every foal she has ever sold has had a buy back clause, and she has made good on that on numerous occasions.

Reason #3 WILTW: She breeds and trains for quality and longevity
I knew from Legs' Jockey Club records that he was nearly 3 before he ran his first race and I had always wondered why that was, since most trainers would have had him running at 18 months. Ms. S informed me that the believes in waiting, as well as breeding for soundness over speed, and the logic behind "intermittent training"; that is, she doesn't run the youngsters hard, merely allows them to get used to the track and learn their job. Few of her horses ever won a race before the age of 5, but a great many of them had long track careers. With very few exceptions, those that left the track early remained rideable well into their twenties, some even into their thirties. And she has never, ever had one break down on the track - a fact you can tell she is immensely (and rightfully) proud of.

Reason #4 WILTW: It's all about the horses' best interests
Ms. S sold off her last stallion a few years ago when the economy started to really put a damper on, well everything. People just were not investing in horses anymore. She is no longer actively breeding for this reason. Furthermore, right now she has all she can take care of - 5 at the track, and 22 at the farm. Most of these are retired broodmares, whom she will care of forever. After all, they gave her a lot over the years. A few are "babies" that came back home to live after their track years were over, and she will see them through for the same reason. Although technically retired at the age of 70, Ms. S still works to insure that the horses are well fed and cared for. That's dedication.

Basically, she was everything I had hoped to find. Somehow I just knew a horse like Legs' was no fluke - that someone had truly put a lot of thought into him and prepared him to lead the fullest life possible. Everything she told me about her life with horses mirrored my own beliefs. In an alternate world - had I become a TB breeder - she is exactly the type I would have wanted to be.

We talked about many other things, and through her I learned a LOT about Legs. But once again I have rambled on, and most of us really should get back to work now ;o)

Coming up - "What She Told Me"

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I Found Her!!!

The past few weeks have been quite full and exciting, in both bad and good ways. Things are slowly returning to "normal" (is there such a thing in the horse world?) and I am so pleased to finally be able to write today's post containing the Best News Ever.

After nearly five years of searching, I have finally connected with the lady who bred Legs!

I'll admit, my search has not been continuous, nor has it been exhaustive. More intermittent and somewhat - well, can't really say lazy, but cautious. When I first took Legs over from his previous owner I got his Jockey papers transferred to me, so I had the breeder lady's name. At the time I was curious, but not really sure who I would encounter. Thoroughbred breeders come in a variety of types. Would this be a representative of some big conglomerate who could care less? A sketchy one time back yard breeder type? Who was this person? And more importantly, what did she know of Legs? Was she still around? Would she remember Legs at all? Would she be happy or bothered at hearing from me? These questions kept my search efforts at bay.

The catalyst for our connection came in the form of a hasty email fired off on April 17th, Legs official 21st birthday. I had gone for a ride and - I admit it - split a beer with the old boy. Hey, he is 21 now! Chef came home from work early and we had a bit of a celebration. A few beers later I decided it was appropriate to continue my search.

I pulled out the old file I had on him, and looked through all of the dead ends I had encountered over the years. I had a name (a very common one as it turned out - a Google and white pages search listed literally hundreds!), and knew he was bred in Texas. On a whim, I shot an email off to LOPE, a TB rescue in Texas run by Lynn Reardon, author of Beyond the Homestretch: What I've Learned from Saving Racehorses (a wonderful read - highly recommended by this discerning and avid reader!). I asked if anyone there had ever heard of this lady and knew how to get a hold of her. Not really expecting too much, I then passed out went to bed.

The next morning, after washing down some ibuprofen with coffee, I opened my email to a pleasant surprise - an email from Lynn herself! While she was not familiar with the lady in question, she did give me some links to various Texas Thoroughbred breeder sites and wished me luck.

Low and behold, one of those links turned up a farm that shared a name with the lady in question. After looking at the farm profile, I saw that they were certainly in business when Legs was born. As a bonus, I found out that they used to stand his sire! This had to be it. There was an email and phone number listed. Being still a bit unsure of my reception, I thought to try an email first. Unfortunately, the emails would end up bouncing as an invalid address. So, it would be phone call or nothing.

It took a few days to work up the courage. I looked at that number until I could stand it no more, then took a big breath and dialed. On the fourth ring a pleasant sounding gentleman answered. After explaining that I was not sure if I had the right number, I told him I was looking for a lady named S.S. who was breeding racehorses in the late 80's, that I had a horse of hers and was looking for information on him. A small chuckle preceded his response.

"Yes, you've got the right place. She's not in right now, but I'm sure she could help you out. She's pretty in touch with her horses." He took my name and number and said he expected her in later that evening.

It was already almost 8:00 NC time, and while I did not really expect a call that same night I laid awake well past midnight listening for the phone, excited an nervous at the same time.

The phone did not ring that night, but the next day on my way home from work I turned my cell phone on to a missed call and new message (I usually keep my phone off during the day - no reception on the mountain I work on and it just runs the battery down searching for signal). It was her, and she would be around all day if I wanted to call her back.

If I wanted to call her back? I could hardly wait to get home and make that call.

I spent almost two hours on the phone with her that evening. She is an amazing woman with equally amazing stories to tell. She very much remembers a horse foaled on her farm named Read My Legs, and told me all about him. But, as I have rambled for way too long as it is, I will leave that for another day.

Coming up..."Why I Love This Woman and What She Told Me".

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Taking the Bad with the Good

Sorry no post last week. It was one hell of a week. I've posted before about how I'm pretty superstitious, and last week only confirmed one of my many irrational fears - that bad things happen in threes.

The Bad
1. Monday
Sophie, my sweet little 16 month old Rotti/Cattle Dog mix, has had a funny lump on her forehead for a couple of weeks. We had it checked out when it popped up, but a return trip to the vet confirmed that it was pretty suspicious looking - more tumor-like than lump-like. Surgery was scheduled for the following week.

2. Tuesday
One of my mother-in-law's Shelties was diagnosed with lung cancer. He will not have long. MIL is totally freaked and upset. Her dogs are her life, especially since she lost her husband two years ago. She is 86 years old and has some health problems of her own. Chef and I really fear for her state of mind/will to live if she loses the little guy.

3. Thursday
Skylar got out of his stall overnight. He's always been a bit of an escape artist, but we are very careful to keep the aisle door to his stall double latched. On occasion, he has let himself out the back door into the pasture, but Wednesday night the little booger outdid himself. Apparently, he opened the back door, went around to Dusty's back door, opened it, let Dusty out into the pasture, then let himself out Dusty's front door and was basically free. Dusty, bless him, stayed put in the pasture, but Skylar gorged himself on some alfalfa in the aisle and the ultra rich grass around the barn. He also had no access to water for many hours. When V got there Thursday morning not only was he showing signs of colic, but laminitis as well.

The vet was called and got there quickly. They started him on IV fluids (he was really dehydrated) and a DMSO drip. He perked up later, and passed some poo, but still acting ouchy on the front feet. We bedded him up, iced his feet, and hoped for the best.

Friday morning he colicked again, and off to the emergency clinic he went. Vets there confirmed that he may have partial blockage and set to watching him. They continued to ice his feet, and initial X-rays showed no rotation. I know that does not mean much; it's really too early to tell if any damage was done. We are truly blessed to have such a great clinic just 40 minutes away.

Anyway, I wanted to wait until I had some good news again before posted anything about this horrible week. Unfortunately, there is not much good to say about the Sheltie; he will most likely be put down later on this week (he's already having some difficulty breathing). We will just have to take it one day at a time with MIL.

Sophie came through surgery just fine and is home annoying her big brother Burton (our 3 year old Shepherd/Husky mix) and the cat. She's been drinking and peeing a lot, but the vet says that is probably an after effect of the anesthesia and should clear up in a day or so. We should have the biopsy results next week, so I am crossing my fingers until then.

Skylar is home - stall bound, bedded up to his knees, and on limited hay and no grain, but home. Vet will be out Friday to do more X-rays, and time will tell if we caught it in time.

The Good
Sunday night I just really needed to get to my happy place. It was a lovely evening and I jumped on Legs bareback for a twilight ride by the river. A cool breeze kept the bugs at bay, the whippoorwills called softly in the distance, and while the sun was setting the bats began their nightly dance overhead. As we wandered aimlessly I was reminded just why we go through everything we do for our four-legged family members.

Despite all the downs, the ups are always worth it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

An April Fool's Story

I promise that I do not have a horse related story for every single holiday. Or maybe I do. At any rate if you are reading this blog chances are you are a horse-crazed "fool" (see also "weirdo") and what better way of celebrating this crazy holiday than with a good crazy horse story. Bear with me, for we are about to embark on a topic very near and dear to my heart. My first (love) pony - Daisy.

Remember Daisy?
I could, and probably should, write a whole series of children's books based on my Daisy stories, but today I will focus on how she came into my life and ultimately - almost three decades ago this very day - she became mine.

Mom was working at a large riding academy and summer camp as an instructor at the time. When I say large I ain't kidding - 30+ lesson horses, 5 instructors, 3 rings. Tueday through Thursday they ran two morning adult sessions and two afternoon kid sessions, all three rings with 6 to 10 students. Saturday lessons ran hourly from 9 until noon, then from 1 until 4. It was literally a three-ring circus, and to a horseless horse crazed kid like me it was heaven. I could ride in as many lessons as I wanted in exchange for helping to groom and tack horses, taking them to get a drink between classes, and helping take care of the "old guys", a collection of horses who had retired from the lesson program. It was all the horsiness a kid could want, except...none of them were really "mine".

During these years Mom also had a little side business of buying cheap, unbroke or unfinished horses, putting some miles on them, and reselling. Mom always had a good eye, and sometimes she did not have to go far to find her projects. One day Mr. Brown, the owner of the small boarding facility next door, approached her about a mare (not Daisy - I'm getting to her) on his property whose owner was older with health problems, and was having trouble paying the mare's bills on top of her own medical expenses. The mare was a teenaged grade-type liver chestnut whose name is now lost to both Mom and I.

According to the owner, she was broke and quiet but had not been ridden in a few years. Mr. Brown remembered when she was being ridden that she had a sweet and nurturing disposition, took good care of her inexperienced rider, and he thought she might make a good addition to the lesson program. So later that week, Mom went next door with a halter brought the mare to the school. Of course, I tagged along. And on that eventful walk from one pasture to the next we met Daisy.

It started out normal enough, the mare walking next to Mom, ears pricked, curious as to what exactly was happening, but quiet and trusting nonetheless. We were so engrossed with her that at first we did not notice the commotion going on back at Mr. Brown's. Then...crashing, yelling, high-pitched panicked horse calls, and galloping hoofbeats behind us. We turned around and there she was - Daisy, all 13 hands of dappled cuteness at a full gallop, running to catch her friend.

She stopped as soon as she reached us. Mom handed the other mare to me and slipped her belt around Daisy's neck. Mr. Brown was not far behind. "I was afraid that might happen," he chuckled as he slipped the halter on Daisy. "I put her in the stall, but she jumped out. She's pretty attached to this one" he nods to the mare at Mom's side.

"She jumped out?" Mom was stunned. Mr. Brown's stall doors were a good 4' high at the window, and the stalls themselves were small enough that even a little pony would have had to jump from a standstill.

"Yeah, she'll do that," Mr. Brown laughed again, "I'll put her back up and close the upper door for a while. She'll calm down in a bit." And he led her away back down the road.

Mr. Brown was a good enough horse person to know that you can't keep a pony cooped up in a stall forever, so the next day when she seemed calmer he turned her back out in the pasture, where she proceeded to jump the fence (again, a solid 4') and come next door to find her friend. We brought her home, but this scenerio would play out every day for the next week. The first time Mom actually saw her do this, her eyes about popped out of her head.

"Damn, that pony can jump!" Mom never was one to watch her mouth, especially around her own child. The very next day she walked next door to speak to Mr. Brown.

Turns out Mr. Brown did not own Daisy. The full story of Daisy's past is worthy of its own post, so I will leave it for another day. Or maybe I will make you buy the book. Let's just say it involved a green pony, a young child, and a wild ride resulting in the child's desire to never ride a horse again. At any rate, she was basically hanging out in Mr. Brown's pasture, not doing a thing. Mom has always believed that a horse needs a job, and Daisy being only 6 years old at the time was certainly working material.

Mom and Mr. Brown spoke for a while, and he called up Daisy's owner. It seemed logical that since Daisy was going to continue to jump the fence she might as well stay where she was. It would also make it easier for Mom (who was 5' and all of 95 lbs) to work with her some. If they could get her sellable, Mom would split the sale price with the owner. He agreed and Mom got to work.

Although I was allowed to brush on and do some groundwork with Daisy, it was several months before Mom felt she was ready for me and I for her. Daisy was still green, and I was very young, but keep in mind I had more riding miles under my belt at 10 than many people do at 20, so it wasn't history gearing up to repeat itself.

Or was it.

The first ride started off well. I was riding in the big arena with a few other kids. We did some trot work: circles, serpentines, work over poles. All fine and dandy. Cantering - fine. A bit quick in the corners, but she came right back to me. Things were going so well that Mom decided to let us trot over a VERY small crossrail. I don't even think the poles were in jump cups, but were rather just laying on the supports. It was that small. Daisy, however, saw a very different jump.

To this day, Mom swears that pony cleared the standards. Completely caught off guard (no lesson horse ever did THAT) I took a tumble, and Daisy took off. And somehow, in the middle of all the ensuing choas, I fell in love.

For the next month, I continued to ride Daisy in every lesson I could. Every lesson went about the same as that first ride: it all fell apart once we started jumping. Eventually she would trot quietly over the Very Small Crossrail, but anytime we raised the bar so to speak she would act like she was at the Olympic trials.

I fell off every day that month, and while I was no stranger to the unplanned dismount my quota was full and then some.

Dad was getting a little fed up with all my bumps and bruises, and he was not the only one who noticed them. After an embarrassing PTA meeting where my teacher asked if there were problems at home he had enough. The pony would be sold by the end of the month or she was going back to Mr. Brown's.

I continued to ride her, because despite the jumping issues she really was getting better under saddle. She was a joy on the trails, and being turned out with a herd of 50 or so horses seemed to have helped her separation issues; she hardly noticed her old mare friend at all (side note - that grade mare did turn out to be a wonderful lesson horse!). I cherished every moment with Daisy, even the ones spent on the ground, partly because I knew our time together was limited.

And then it was here - the last day, the last ride. No buyers. Daisy would go back to Mr. Brown's the next day. It was April 1st.

I showed up for my lesson and lingered just a bit longer tacking up. All through warm up my mind was elsewhere, remembering all the fun (yes, FUN) we had had the past few weeks. When we lined up to jump the little 2' vertical I was a million miles away. Maybe that was the difference. Maybe Daisy felt it too. She did over jump, but not as much as before. We had turned the corner and were heading back to the end of the line when it hit me and everyone else in the ring.

"You stayed on!"

We jumped that little vertical several more times that day. Daisy still jumped big, but not standard-clearing big. And I stayed on. Every. Single. Time.

To this day I have no idea how Mom talked Dad into it, but later that night she came into my room and asked if I wanted to go out and ride MY pony the next day. It took a minute for what she was saying to register, but when it did I sat straight up in bed and said:

"Mom, if this is a joke it's not funny!"

It wasn't.

Happy April Fool's Day, ya'llDaisy and I cleaning up in the Medium Pony division. She really could jump!