True Vocations

Horses hate running.

Running a horse is intrinsically wrong and goes against their deepest nature.

We may race horses for financial gain, but deep down we know that we are sinning against these animals who would all be better off in the show ring or off making babies.

This is the vibe I’m getting from a lot of people, racing enthusiasts and otherwise.

It’s annoying when it comes from the uninformed; it’s a bit more frightening when it comes from people who are actually interested in, let alone engaged in, the racing industry. The tipping point, for me, is the reaction to the 12-year-old mare who has returned to galloping at Keeneland after a nine year layoff. Not that the stewards want to further investigate the mare before they allow her to race; they have a responsibility to protect their business model (i.e: the betting public) and not allow some sort of side stage act to muscle its way into the spotlight of their track. The issue comes from people’s comments on the issue, most recently, querying when this crosses the line into animal abuse.

I find this troubling, since there is no indication that this is anything other than a healthy, sound mare.

Is there a segment of the racing community who honestly feel that horse racing is, at its heart, abusive?

There is always a flurry of commentary whenever horses are retired: “Well, thank God he wasn’t injured,” or “Great that he’s getting out now before he gets hurt,” as if there is some sort of expiration date that we’re all running our horses against, an assumption that the things we do to them are unnatural and wrong and will hurt them. Racing is a horse enthusiast’s most guilty pleasure, because the media has told us for years that racing kills, maims, and destroys the most swift and beautiful of our animals.

I don’t see this relief expressed when great event horses are retired. Here are horses, often retired racehorses, that are asked to be racing fit, to jump logs bolted together with railroad stakes, and to compete under the same conditions as a racehorse: from a 12x12 stall at a competition grounds, with little to no provision for turn-out. They are iced and poulticed and medicated and provided with therapeutic shoes and magnetic treatments and massage and chiropractics. They are injured and go out to pasture for six months and return to compete again. He’s not a full Thoroughbred, but Ringwood Cockatoo completed Rolex in the top 3 - at age 18. Would you consider a five-star event maybe just as tough as a race? They try their hearts out in this as in anything else. It’s what horses do

Let me assure you that I feel no guilt over racing my horses.

Racing, to me, is the most natural expression of the horse. It is their competitive desire to be in front, to be leader of the herd, to be the most swift and, in basest evolutionary terms, the most fit to carry on the bloodline. The fastest and most sure-footed horse is the horse that lives the longest when the wolf pack is at their heels. Their very natures compel them to gallop. Go and observe a paddock of horses for an hour or two. Someone will burst into a canter at some point. It’s what they do.

Let me say that I do not think jumping, or dressage, or barrel racing is wrong for horses either. But bear with me when I point out that horses in a field are rather less likely to perform a series of tempi changes, or to jump a 3’6” course, or to wheel around three barrels are quickly as possible, while they are turned out in a field. Horses run. Horses race. It’s what they do.

And so when someone pulls a moderately successful horse out of retirement and says, let’s go back to the racetrack and give it another whirl, I fail to see what the problem is. How is a carefully managed 12 year old different from a carefully managed 2 year old? For that matter, which is more offensive, racing a mature 12 year old or an immature, growing 2 year old? Can someone please pick a battle and stick with it?

Let us look at it logically: if I retire a sound five year old Thoroughbred because he just isn’t winning anymore, and send him off to be an eventer, or a show jumper, he is going to be galloping miles and pounding on hard surfaces just as hard as he was when he was in race training. Possibly harder. Have you ever jumped a horse over six foot oxers on an unforgiving indoor arena surface? You want to talk about filling around the tendons in the morning. Have you ever ran a horse advanced level on clay footing after a two-month drought? Better bring extra ice and some spare muck tubs to cool those legs out with. How’s my 12 year old retiree galloping a couple of miles a day on a synthetic surface looking now?

Racing is not, and should not be, restricted to the young. The wants of the breeding industry make it more likely to be populated by young horses. But that by no means should indicate a mandatory retirement age. And racing should not be considered any less of a long-term, worthwhile vocation for a horse than showing. Like carefully managing a show horse, a race horse can be carefully managed and kept happy, healthy, and reasonably sound. Horses have issues. Horses get hurt. It’s what they do. But they also love to run. And put their noses in front. It’s an unassailable fact.

It’s what they do.

A Championship-Worthy Surface?

A permanent surface - or home - for the Breeders’ Cup? Almost as hot as the Zenyatta v. Rachel Alexandra debate (which, quite frankly, seems to be settling into a demand that both receive shared Horse of the Year honors), is the question of the synthetic course of Santa Anita, and Joe Drape's suggestion in The New York Times that it become the permanent home of the travelling championship series.

In the photo, European-trained Man of Iron edges out American entry Cloudy's Knight in the Breeders' Cup Marathon.

Santa Anita, the beautiful Art Deco racing palace in Arcadia, California, has played host to several Breeders’ Cup Championships, including the two most recent years’ events. The southern California audience is always appreciative of good horses; the weather is, climatologically speaking, fantastic for horses; and the Oak Tree Racing Association, whose racing meet hosts the two-day event, have proven to be valuable partners to the Breeders’ Cup organizers.

And despite two beautiful days of horse racing, the stands packed with frenzied fans and horseplayers (more than a few packing colorful signs urging on racing’s own Hollywood star, Zenyatta), critics still point to Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride synthetic track surface and say, “No good.”

The casual observer would say that it is hard to argue with the numbers. The most recent study of racing fatalities in California shows synthetic tracks, in place since 2006, standing at 1.70 per 1,000 starts, versus 3.09 per 1,000 starts on the old dirt courses.

In other words: in about one thousand races, one horse less will die on a synthetic track, than on a dirt track - a forty percent decline.

But this is the horse business, where old habits die hard, and in fine stables you will still find that used motor oil is the hoof dressing of choice, or that pressing hot needles into damaged shin bones is considered an acceptable remedy for rapid healing and bone growth. You can argue that motor oil is a carcinogen and ought not be rubbed into a horse’s coronary band, where it will surely be absorbed into the circulatory system. You can argue that pin-firing is an obsolete method of counter-irritant and possibly even that bucked shins are not a necessary right of passage for a horse entering hard training, but a sign that the bones were green and unprepared for the workout. You can argue it, but will anyone listen? For those who are convinced, there is no turning back.

In The New York Times, Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella sums up the synthetic track argument: “It’s like gun rights. You have people deeply opposed on either side and no conversation is going to change minds.”

It’s a striking feature of American racing, this obsession with dirt, even as two hundred years of racing has made little difference in the safety of the surface. And its argued inadequacies always seem to show up just when thoroughbred enthusiasts think that they’ve got a home run, a real star, to captivate the television audience and bring them back begging for more.

In 2007, horseracing fans roared home Curlin, the eventual Horse of the Year and winner of the Dubai World Cup, as he crossed under the wire in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. Curlin, a flashy chestnut colt, had achieved fame already in his gutsy stretch battle - and loss - to tough filly Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes. He was the kind of horse you could pin up a poster of. Here was a good-looking colt to snag those horse-crazy girls while they were still young and impressionable!

As Curlin walked into the Winner’s Circle, a dirt champion for his owner, the adamantly anti-synthetic Jess Jackson, a horse named George Washington was quietly euthanized on the backstretch, ankle broken.

To follow up the death of George Washington with two injury-free, fatality-free years at Santa Anita ought to have placed favor purely in the synthetic camp. As written by Julian Muscat in The Independent (U.K.) two years ago, "A fatality-free renewal would surely represent the last rites for traditional dirt. The Breeders' Cup, already creaking from international competition, can ill afford another scene that saw Curlin's connections celebrate their triumph while George Washington lay prostrate in the shadows.”

There are, of course, other variables in the accomplishment of Santa Anita’s tragedy-free Breeders’ Cup weekends. Significantly, there is the drug and steroid ban, which has grown in power and size, to emulate the more stringent rules of European racing. All the 2009 winners would eventually test clean.

But the synthetic surface can also lay claim, many contend, to the rising number of European entries - and winners - at the Santa Anita editions. In 2008, they won five of the fourteen championships, and in 2009, they won six.

One of the biggest surprises and longest shots of the weekend, Vale of York, came bounding up in an out-of-nowhere nose to win the Juvenile, and many are attributing his promising win to training on synthetic tracks at home in - where else? - Europe.

The Breeders’ Cup is one of the few days of racing that is televised on broadcast networks - second, of course, to the Triple Crown races, and the fatalities that have marred these three races, all run on dirt surfaces, are part and parcel of multiple arguments: the medication issue, the age issue, the breeding issue. The Triple Crown can keep all those issues, for now, as the New York Racing Association has announced that it has no plans to change any of its tracks, including the mile and a half oval at Belmont Park, from the traditional dirt to synthetic, and Churchill Downs has not committed to altering any of its tracks outside of Arlington, which converted to a synthetic surface, and so far has inconclusive data on reducing the break-down rate.

The Breeders’ Cup organizers, then, are left with this: after a quarter of a century, it has finally become a truly international event, an affair that attracts the best horses in the world to the United States, to run against American horses on a level playing field. To achieve a beautiful, clean, safe event like the one run this year, they had to go to Europe for the best practices in drug bans, in testing, and, one can argue, in surfaces. That they achieved a fair surface for European horses to compete with American horses is undeniable. Can they achieve a fair surface for American horses? Not, it would seem, until the synthetic nay-sayers can be convinced that the tracks across the country can be better, safer places for horses to run on.

Who Else? Zenyatta

A Breeders' Cup recap can't start with anything else. Here is a picture of Zenyatta (courtesy of, crossing that invisible line in the sand (synthetic sand, they'll remind you) ahead of America's top turf horse, Gio Ponti, and with the rest of the best American colts in shambles behind her. One ear on Mike Smith, one ear pricked forward. No attention to spare for the horses she has left reeling in her wake.

I had to wait for the replay to hear Trevor Denham's call: "Un - be - lievable!" as I was too busy screaming myself hoarse to hear it live.

The beginning of the race was rather more thrilling than anyone would have liked. An incident-free Breeders' Cup, what a marvel! And then in the load for the last race of the event, the feature race, the king-maker (queen-maker), no one seemed particularly eager to load - after all, the gate for a mile and a quarter race at Santa Anita is directly next to the barn entrance, and it's half past dinner hour by post time for the Classic - and Quality Road said, "No."

Some horses say no with a wink and allow themselves to be shoved into the gate with a shrug. These are the sorts of horses that duck out of crossrails because it is entertaining. They don't particularly want to dump you, but gosh - it is funny the way you yell and flap your arms when you're losing your balance! Can you do it again, please?
Some horses say no with a sharp buck and a few kicks, and allow themselves to be shoved into the gate after a determined gate crew grabs hold of ear and tail and whip and sends them in. These are the sorts of horses that duck out of serious fences because they simply don't want to jump. They want to dump you and they are deeply pleased with themselves when you hit the ground. Dirty, we call these horses, and while they're easily cowed by an assertive rider, a novice can't get anywhere with them.

And some horses say no with expletives. They'd sooner kill you than go in the gate, and even if you're clever enough to blindfold and disorient them, they know once they've gone in and they're going to tear the place down.

Quality Road was the latter horse at the Classic. He had hands over faces, he had hearts pounding, he had tears welling. The crowd had come to see Zenyatta demolish the field, not to see a good three-year-old tear himself to pieces in the starting gate.

The look on his face from the start was more than the usual mulish expression of the naughty horse. Anyone who has dealt with Thoroughbreds can tell you - when you see that face, you better keep that horse in motion, because if he is allowed to halt, he will explode.

Quality Road exploded in a million pieces, outraged, kicking out sharply, aiming at the gate crew. No one could get hold of an ear - he would have flipped over if they had. They finally got a blindfold on him - turned him in a quick circle - got him into the gate - and he lost his mind.

I almost hope we didn't gain any newbie viewers for the Classic this time around, because heaven only knows what they were thinking. The gate isn't ideal, we all know that, but it's all we have besides the jog up starts that the steeplechases have, and that's less than perfect, as well. It seemed to take a quarter of an hour for the last Grand National to get away.

Eventually, after the gate shook and shuddered under his blows, after the blindfolded colt broke through the front gate and managed to stumble out, shuddering and kicking, after the crewman who caught him managed to slide the blindfold off, the trembling, adrenaline-charged colt was led away, stripped of tack, and diagnosed with a scrape. The rest of us? Palpitations.

And in the aftermath, the anti-climactic realization that the greatest race of the year was yet to be run. The horses were backed out of the gate and, surly, re-loaded. Zenyatta was back in Spanish-walk mode; Mike Smith had to let the crew load her before he could climb up on the gate, reach over her broad back, and gently step a toe into the right stirrup of her polished saddle. There was a creeping knowledge that anything could happen. Quality Road had been the acknowledged pace in the race. Zenyatta seemed off her game, unhappy in the gate. All the variables and unknowns - Gio Ponti, the turf king come to synthetic; Einstein, the elder statesman, who'd blown himself out in a work earlier in the week; Summer Bird, the champion of the summer (as long as Miss Alexandra wasn't in the equation) loomed even larger.

They broke.

Zenyatta broke last.

No one watched the race. Did anyone watch the race? I didn't. I watched Zenyatta. I watched her loping along, lengths behind the pack, with a loose rein and floppy ears, out for an afternoon gallop, with all the enthusiasm of a foxhunter freshening before the fall meet. There were fractions - slow early times, I remember that. And yet the race was won in just over two minutes - in very good time - which means that the last few furlongs - the short Santa Anita stretch run - must have been very fast indeed.
She was on the rail at the final turn, making her move. Mike Smith shook out his reins and away she went. Between horses - between, instead of around the pack! - and suddenly her way was closed to her. Mike asked her, "Go to the right, please," and she took a hard right, galloped around the horse in her way, and found herself five or six wide, with all the path before her wide open, and less than an eighth of a mile to go. And she went. With ears pricked, in great leaps and bounds, all seventeen hands of her afloat in mid-air, she went.

The crowd roared, went wild, lost their minds. She paused to listen and savor the love. Mike gave her a few taps with the stick: "This is urgent, dear, you must go faster." And faster she went. With an ear on Mike and an ear pricked towards the finish line, she went.

The drama of two minutes before was forgotten. Quality Road, in disgrace at the barn, forgotten. All that was left was the mare of a lifetime, the Horse of the Decade, as Mike Smith would call her. There was no love left for Gio Ponti, second to the Queen, for the third place finisher - does anyone even remember who finished third? His connections, no doubt. But when you fall to a champion, you truly fall from view. The best that can be said of you is, "Second to Zenyatta," and for those who saw her run, that is high praise indeed.

One Ride is Plenty, Thanks

Next week are the OBS Fall Mixed Sales in Ocala, and Hobeau Farm is listed as dispersing their breeding stock. There aren't many horses, and it's hard to believe that such a massive breeding and racing operation can be reduced down to this tiny dozen or so band of weanlings, yearlings, and broodmares.

Jack Dreyfus started Hobeau in the sixties. Dreyfus (yes, the Dreyfus of Dreyfus Funds) created an empire of 300 Thoroughbreds galloping across 1800 acres of northwestern Marion County. He bred Onion, and Prove Out, both of whom would defeat Secretariat in major stakes races; another horse would defeat Kelso, and he had a respected sprinter in the more recent Kelly Kip.

In the broodmare band that his estate is selling - Mr. Dreyfus died in the spring - is the mare Miss Shoplifter, dam of Florida sire Put It Back. We're fans of Put It Back and we're looking forward to seeing her in person.

When you are rich enough, you can be as eccentric as you please, and so Hobeau Farm had appalling sky-blue post-and-rail fences surrounding the whole astonishing acreage. You could see them from multiple roadsides, and it used to throw my bearings off - if that’s Hobeau Farm, I must be way off my route. Hobeau is clear over on the other side! That is how big the place was.

When I drove to Lambholm South a few years ago to look at mares, I wasn't sure where it was. When I drove in the farm lane, I thought the barns looked familiar. When I pulled up at the office, I saw, to my astonishment, the iconic blue fencing straggling under the oak trees. In my absence, Hobeau had been sold, renamed, and refenced - but they'd left some of the blue post-and-rail fencing, in tribute to this mighty Ocala institution.

I rode there just one morning, in 2001. I rode in Ariats and half-chaps, which got me some looks everywhere I went, but hey - it was what I was used to, and I saw no reason to change after ten years just because it wasn’t the style the race trackers affected. There was one wiry little man, with a sharp Boston accent that would raise blisters on your skin, and one good-looking young groom, as metro and urbane as the rider was rough-edged and blue-collar.

The barn was an enclosed, with covered, windowed shedrows and a center aisle, like you might find up north. It was ill-designed for hot Florida days, too much wood standing in the way of the breezes that the hill-tops ought to attract. Most of the Ocala training barns have open shedrows, begging for the slightest breath of wind on a still August morning.

After a rough look up and down from the Boston jockey, and a cheery good morning from the groom, I went into the tack room and found a battered old exercise saddle. The stirrup irons had no pads, and no latex, just plain aluminum grips. I went to the jockey.

“Do we have any latex wraps?” I asked.

“Latex?” He looked at me, perplexed. “Whaddya want latex for?”

“The stirrups,” I said, annoyed. Who didn’t put latex on their stirrup irons? I learned that in eventing, for heaven’s sakes. From steeplechase riders, thank you very much. I didn’t like being talked down to at 18. I was very insecure, and being alone with a grizzled old jockey wasn’t doing a lot for my self-confidence anyway. I knew I’d screw something up.

He evidently had never in his life heard of putting latex on stirrup irons, which to this day I find somewhat hard to believe, and waved me away. I walked back to my first horse in a huff. The horse wasn’t thrilled to see me, but I knocked the dirt off gently and then tacked up slowly and thoughtfully. Too slowly: the old jockey was riding by. “Let’s go, let’s go,” he said excitedly, waving his whip around his mount’s ears.

I gave the girth one more hole, leaving it loose enough to not upset the long yearling, and then vaulted into the saddle. Or so I meant to. At the other stables I’d ridden at, the exercise riders were expected to mount by themselves, and the horses were accustomed to this.

Evidently here, even with one groom for twenty horses, the groom still gave a leg-up.

I found this out after I got up from the corner of the stall where I’d landed, brushed the shavings off my vest and behind, and straightened my saddle. The groom was standing in the doorway. “You didn’t wait for a leg-up,” he said, amused. “What were you thinking?”

“Jerry Bailey didn’t give leg-ups,” I muttered, and put my hands on the pommel and saddle, proferring my knee for him to bounce up with cupped hands. The horse stood beautifully for him, and, ducking under the low frame of the door, out I rode.

The filly danced down the steep hill after the jockey and his colt; he did not seem predisposed to wait for me, and I could see that the annoying chivalry that accompanied many mornings at racing stables would not be present here - perhaps I would find that it wasn’t so annoying after all, to be waited upon and worried about, as a delicate little female in a big scary man’s world, on big scary Thoroughbreds! I wasn’t enjoying the jog down the hill, the filly’s head straight up, her ears framing my vision, headed towards the jock who blithely sat his colt with his legs dangling, not a care in the world.

And the stirrups were already giving me grief as well. I had no grip at all on the slippery aluminum and it was worrisome trying to keep my foot shoved home while we slid and stumbled on the wet turf. I started to feel afraid of the gallop ahead.

The training track at the time sat down in the cup of a valley, with woods along the far turn and backstretch, and in the infield. You could leave a trainer at the gate, gallop around the backstretch, disappear from view, and if anything happened to you back there, the trainer wouldn’t know until the horse arrived home again, riderless.

I had only ridden under the careful eyes of progressive trainers, who took things slowly with their yearlings, but there was no trainer here, only the nameless old jockey, and as soon our horses hooves touched the sand of the track he was gone like a flash, galloping the colt flat out. I’d never gone so fast in my life. I tried to keep my filly down to a decent hand-gallop, in deference to her age, and lack of warm-up, and common sense, and everything everyone had ever taught me, but he turned his head and shouted, “COME ON! CATCH UP NOW!”

So I shook out the reins, and the filly leapt forward and took me around the track at a breakneck speed, breezing when she should have been cantering. I’d already marked this entire farm as a bad job, and wasn’t really planning on riding another horse, when we came around the first turn. There in the corner, in the worst possible spot, was a second gate in the fence, and a pathway coming out of the cursed woods. And there were five horses standing there, waiting to come onto the track.

My filly dodged towards the inner rail and kept running. In that single athletic move, my toes gave up their tenuous hold on the slippery aluminum of the stirrup irons, and I was galloping, at more than thirty miles an hour, without stirrups.

This is the day I realized that I am a damn good rider.

I let my legs slip down around her like I was riding bareback, pressing my knees against what little saddle I had, and prayed the leather inseams of my breeches would give me enough grip against the saddle leather to withstand a stumble. The filly didn’t understand what my feet were doing down around her forelegs and accelerated, into a full bolt, even faster than we had been going before. The colt had disappeared around the far turn and was heading for home, and she was frightened and determined to catch him.

I clung on, heart in my mouth, while she freight-trained around the turn and came into the stretch. When she saw the colt standing by the gate (why he was standing, after that hard gallop, I do not know) she settled, and I was able to bring her down to a bone-rattling trot, and finally walk up.

The jockey and another man, the manager I suppose, since no trainer had materialized, were looking at me with horror.

“You can’t ride,” the manager said. “I’m sorry, but that’s too dangerous. You’re not what we were looking for.”

“No,” I said. “I’m not.”

Fresh Horses

In previous posts, I shared some stories about my own favorite boy, Amarillo.

Well, I've shared as much as I care to, for now. I'm not a sentimental person, but. . . I miss that horse.

Starting fresh, here are some new stories of living with Thoroughbreds.

Back to the Beginning, Again

And what you have to understand is, he changed everything. Everything, overnight.

He stepped off of the trailer the morning after we met him, at seven o'clock, the sun barely up and the mockingbirds just beginning to stir. It was cold. It was muddy. He barely had any hair. I wonder, on this hot June afternoon, how he felt on the stock-trailer ride up I-95, without a blanket to block the December wind.

I took the cotton lead rope from Curtis, the Plum Crazy Cowboy, and there he was, my horse, blinking gently in the sunrise, ears pricked, looking from empty fields to the double barns and the sounds of breakfasting horses.

There he was, my horse.

Poor Smuckers, it was like he never existed, his quiet lack of personality, his ambling walk, his gentle acceptance of everything except rolltops. He was forgotten. I remember so little of Smuckers, and the amnesia started that morning.

Rillo - we already called him Rillo, we named him that on the drive home, there was never any thought of changing his name from Amarillo - Rillo walked quietly beside me into the barn, into the first stall on the right, and I took off his halter, handed it back to Curtis, and wrote on the dry-erase stall sign. "Amarillo. Owner, Natalie Keller." I hung Smucker's leather halter on the peg, and the red-and-white striped nylon lead rope. I hung an anti-sweat sheet on the blanket bar. I did everything I could to personalize the stall, make it look like the other ones in the barn, to shout, "Here is MY horse, and here are HIS things, and he is just as good as your horse!"

Curtis sold my mother a bareback pad he just happened to have in the truck - I needed one because one of my friends had one, and they were very much in vogue in Brevard County pre-teen hunter riding circles at the time. I put it in my locker, with my cheap little wide tree close-contact that had fit Smuckers but would probably not fit Rillo, and my $19.95 Essex bridle with a plain raised noseband and laced reins from State Line Tack, fitted with a loose-ring snaffle that looked a quarter-inch too small for Rillo, and a couple of Grooma brushes that said "Smuckers" in permanent marker on them. That was my locker. It wasn't bursting full like the other boarders' yet, but I had good faith that it would in time.

I went back to my horse and watched him look out the window, watched him eat his hay cautiously, pressed my finger to his nose everytime he blew at me through the bars.

My horse, my horse, my horse.

I am tearing up a little thinking about him.

The picture is from Canterbury Horse Trials in 2000. I am laughing at a rank bay trying to buck Ralph Hill off on the other side of the warm-up ring. Ralph was laughing, too.

Head-long Towards the Crash

In 1996 I was boarding Rillo at an under-supervised eventing barn/riding school filled with horse-crazy teenagers running completely wild. We had spent the previous summer there from dawn to dusk, dumped off by our parents who all commuted "down the road" to D.C., some to perform important government functions and some to sell things to the government.

A long-haired Jesus look-alike named Edgar took care of the horses. He welcomed our presence in the summers - we did all the morning chores and he slept in. I'm not sure what the agreement was - our parents were all paying for full board - but as soon as we got to the barn, we started bringing in horses, dumping feed, and filling watering buckets. Edgar, in exchange, kept the radio on DC101 and educated us about alternative music and the Grateful Dead. Coming from Florida, which was still stuck on grunge and where the Dead were unheard of, I found this useful information.

Up until this point, Rillo and I had been doing dressage, with the occasional fence thrown in, but I had not had any formal jumping training with him. I feverishly rushed my mother to Maryland Saddlery, where we selected a deep-seated all purpose saddle that I jump in to this day. I love that saddle. You can call in no-purpose if you like, and it absolutely puts my lower-leg too far forward, but for Rillo and I, this position suited me admirably.

Why? Because we settled right into a weekly riding lesson with my "advanced" friends. . . and began jumping completely on talent and without any preparation. To the very last fence we took together, this gap in his education would show. Rillo took every fence headlong, with passionate abandon and fierce concentration, but without any recognition of the fence to follow. The gridwork and poles that might have taught him to keep his head up and his velocity down were skipped over in favor of fun and excitement.

In my defense, I was fifteen and had a crowd of like-minded friends for the first time in my life. I had to keep up with them. And the two years of dressage meant that I could bring him back to me and that I did indeed learn to shorten and lengthen him - but he would never do it without being told to.

So we galloped cross-country, we crashed through jumper shows, collecting ribbons, we practiced "puissance" in the indoor arena, inadvertently jumping six feet after someone swore that the standards were only five foot, and we prepped for the first event of the season: Red Hills Pony Club. April 26. Some days you do not forget.