Beyond the Homestretch: What Saving Racehorses Taught Me About Starting Over, Facing Fear and Finding My Inner Cowgirl

New World Library, 304 pgs
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“After reading this book, you won’t look at horses – or life – in the same way again” Linda Kohanov, author of The Tao of Equus

Seabiscuit was a bad-tempered rogue, a willful loser at the track — until he found a trainer and jockey who understood him. From then on, he was unstoppable, a fierce competitor who consistently outran horses of much better physiques and pedigrees. He was the ultimate underdog. The crowds loved his cocky spirit and working-class ethos. Seabiscuit also loved Pumpkin, his kindly palomino pony horse, and he had a sweet habit of falling asleep on his cross-country train rides.

Secretariat was born on a lost coin toss, his birth representing a second-choice foal for his owner. He blasted the racing world like no other horse, with his tremendous height, deep stride, and overpowering Triple Crown win. Affectionately dubbed “Big Red,” he was the Muhammad Ali of racehorses, brash, charismatic, and full of himself. His jockey, Ron Turcotte, rarely had to raise his crop or urge him on verbally — Big Red had a deep passion to win on his own. His autopsy revealed a heart three times the size of a normal horse’s, a discovery that surprised no one who knew him or watched him win.

Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, was born plain but athletic. One visitor commented that he had legs like telephone poles, straight, thick, and strong. A dynamic personality, Slew became so excited before each race that he would pirouette madly in the post-parade, a striking display of such strutting machismo that viewers christened it “the war dance.” Tremendously intelligent, Slew was well-mannered off the track, showing special gentleness with children visitors. And for some odd reason, he loved snow and cold weather, seeming to happily anticipate each winter.

But what if Secretariat or Seattle Slew had been injured as two-year-olds? Or if Seabiscuit had never found Tom Smith and Red Pollard? We would never have known their incredible spirits and capacity for greatness, not to mention their entertaining quirks, such as loving snow or napping on freight cars. They still would have had all of that personality, that fire, that potential — just no racing career to bring it out, to give them purpose and challenge. What would have happened to Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Seabiscuit then?

Every year, thousands of Thoroughbreds wash out of racing due to age, lack of speed, or injury. Often left to uncertain fates with auction houses, used-horse dealers, and inexperienced racehorse owners, they can even be at risk for the slaughter pens in Mexico or Canada. An equine athlete is a terrible thing to waste, especially one bred to give his all, to excel, to be the best.

I work with these athletes every day. Our organization — LOPE, or LoneStar Outreach to Place Ex-Racers — is a nonprofit devoted to finding Texas racehorses new jobs after their racing careers are over. We do this through our online services and adoption ranch. Over 145 horses have come to our ranch since 2004.

At the ranch, I have worked with every kind of racehorse — from the two-year-old youngster who is too slow to the game champion who still races at age nine to the twenty-year-old broodmare who ran in 114 races. I have seen all types of injuries and ailments: bowed tendons, bone chips, torn ligaments, slab fractures, paralyzed flappers, even tracheotomies.

To me, racehorses are winners even after their racing careers end. They have so much heart, athleticism, and intelligence — all they need is a chance to find that second career after the finish line. Of course, they could use a little help making that transition. Because it can be hard to change careers at first.

I can sympathize with that.

I used to have an accounting career, working in a Washington, DC, cubicle. Pale, stressed, and full of suburban angst, I was the least likely candidate to run a racehorse adoption ranch in Texas. Back then, horses were just my outlet, my weekend respite from spreadsheets. Only learning to ride as an adult, I took group horseback-riding lessons and strained to master the most basic equestrian skills.

But even then, I was drawn to racehorses — several resided at that stable, in training to become show jumpers and polo mounts. They charmed and inspired me, with their intelligent faces, beautiful conformation, and dark reputations as risky rides.

From childhood, I had secretly wanted to be a horse trainer. But I was a horse geek, a real goober around the barn. The instructors and trainers hid their smiles at my barn gaffes and painfully anxious riding style. Every trainer at the barn had grown up with horses, usually turning professional by their teens, a formidable résumé́ of equine mastery. I would never fit that mold — how could someone like me be a trainer? It seemed like an impossible, silly dream, plausible only in a Disney film.

I worked hard to improve my skills anyway: exercising polo ponies for free, trading barn work for lessons, teaching at a horse summer camp, anything to learn more on my modest budget. Slowly, my horse activities morphed into a vocation, a calling I could no longer ignore, however ridiculous it seemed to others — and often even to me.

Finally, I took the plunge, moved halfway across the country, and opened the racehorse adoption program. At first I was an inept career counselor for the racehorses. My background in horse training was sketchy, and I had no experience managing a farm. So many racehorses came to our little farm so quickly, almost forty in the first year alone. I had to figure out how to work with them in spite of my poor skills, my fears, and my persistent sense of being an impostor.

Ashamed of my beginner status, I searched far and wide for horsemanship gurus, hoping to find training “Obi-Wans” who could turn me into a sophisticated professional. I longed to be more like the trainers I knew — brave, tough, full of expertise.

Meanwhile, more and more racehorses kept coming with their assorted ailments, sports injuries, and high-strung natures, all clamoring for help and intervention. They didn’t have time to wait around for me to find the perfect tutor. So my on-the-job training program began immediately — run by the very best mentors of all.

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