Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Or Not...

Two or three days after coming back from his triumph at Ram Tap, the “real” Grady started showing up. He’d been out on the trail a few times now without a problem so Michelle thought nothing of it when she tacked him up and took him for a hack in Happy Camp. What she hadn’t counted on was the fact that Grady felt comfortable enough to have sent out his change of address cards and put up new drapes – the ranch was now definitely his home and he saw no reason to leave it. Once the other horses in his “herd” and his comfy stall (and food) were out of sight, Grady had a melt down. He spun and ran backwards, sideways, upside down, anyway he could think to run and a few that he probably hadn’t put a lot of thought into. Years of experience taught Michelle that in some cases, it’s best just to sit quietly, stay balanced and ride it out. No amount of aggression was going to get this particular horse to re-engage his brain; he was going to have to do that on his own. On the other hand, there was a significant cliff fast approaching and Grady didn’t seem to notice or care.

Thinking quickly, Michelle jumped off and tried to calm him down from the ground. Grady freaked out even more, running backwards even faster with a terrified look in his eyes. He stands at 17.2hh; running backwards with his head straight up in the air he’s much, much taller. Michelle couldn’t even touch his nose and at 5’ 7”, she’s not used to being vertically challenged. All Michelle could see was the edge of the cliff getting closer and closer. Twenty feet, fifteen – it looked like it was going to be the end of the shortest eventing career ever (not to mention the end of her custom saddle!). Fortunately, his self-preservation instinct kicked in and Grady stopped a mere ten feet from the edge.

After getting him to calm down, Michelle got back on and immediately put him to work bending, moving from side to side, whatever task the terrain would allow. As long as Grady has something to think about, apparently, he didn’t think about how unhappy he was to leave home. The trot home was uneventful but the question remained – had Grady learned the lesson that it was ok to leave home or was there repeat performances in store?

The next time Michelle took him out for a walk up the road gave her the answer she didn’t want to know. A horse who had willingly gone out into the vast nearby park just a week ago now completely freaked out just going a few hundred yards away from home. So, with the help of another trainer, Michelle tried taking him out with some company. With another horse along, he was the perfect gentleman. Nothing on the trail bothered him, he’d just go along as calm and relaxed as a veteran packhorse. But if the other horse left, as soon as Grady figured out he was alone a major shit storm would erupt. For a hunter or a dressage horse this might not be a problem. At shows, he’d always be in the presence of other horses. But for eventing, he’s got to be able to go out on that cross-country course alone. Michelle was beginning to see the problems that his previous riders had.

The problem was that so far, other than the issue of leaving home, he’d proven to be a sweet horse, the kind that really get under your skin so just giving up and moving on to a more likely prospect was harder than it sounded. If his problems stemmed from too many years of racing permanently etching in his head that there was only safety in numbers, then it seemed unlikely there’d be any hope of retraining him at his age. But if his issue was due to the fact that his whole life was a patchwork of being passed around from one barn to another, never having a real home before, then it was reasonable to assume once he figured he had a real home and Michelle was his herd, that he’d settle in just fine. For Michelle, there was something about him, something in his eyes that made her willing to take that chance.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Bright Future Ahead

Michelle knew that at the grand old age of ten and with less than perfect hocks from six years of being over-raced, Grady was never going to be a two star horse. However, Michelle has a knack for “re-jobbing” horses who’d run out of chances at their former careers. It’s always a crap shoot, but with his impressive movement, kind eye and willing attitude there was no reason Grady couldn’t make a great eventer for an amateur with more modest aspirations.

Underweight and out of shape, there wasn’t much Michelle could do with Grady when he first arrived at the ranch until she got some weight on him. Just putting a saddle on his bony back required a lot of consideration and some serious padding. So she took him out on the trails that are easily accessible from the ranch. He hacked out like a gentleman, responsive to cues just from her core muscles and extraordinarily light in the mouth for an ex-racehorse. Most horses off the track will grab the bit, going faster when you pull on the reins to stop because that’s the way they’re trained at the track but Grady didn’t do any of that. (Hmmmm, perhaps that’s why he sucked on the track.) Quiet and willing, he was perfectly content to wander away from home for short trail rides.

Two days later, Michelle decided to take him schooling in Fresno at Ram Tap. She hadn’t planned on taking him but another client’s horse had pulled out so there was an open space in the trailer. What the heck, just trailering him to a new situation is a good test to see what all the fuss was about. So far, he’d shown none of the erratic behavior that made her former client give up on him. The one thing the client mentioned when Michelle picked him up was that Grady had shown a tendency to bolt away from the mounting block. But their dressage trainer, an avid reader, brought a book out with her and after getting on she’d make him stand at the mounting block while she read a chapter. Though he was only at her barn for a short time, the habit disappeared. This told Michelle that the horse was trainable and made her curious to see what he was really like.

The weekend at Ram Tap was clear and bright but without the sweltering temperatures that could make schooling miserable. There were a number of students on the trip so Michelle opted to take Grady out by himself and ride first before teaching. Riding away from the barns to head out to the cross-country course, Grady started spinning and clearly wanted to go back to the group but it was nothing unusual. A lot of horses tend to get attached to the barn mates, especially when they’re away from home in a show-type situation. Michelle easily rode it through and took him out on the course. Mindful of his lack of conditioning, Michelle stuck to her plan of riding him conservatively but man could this horse jump! Grady had only gone over a few fences in his entire life prior to this weekend but he willingly went over everything Michelle pointed him at. She started with a few novice fences but he went over those so easily she tried the training level half-coffin and he sailed over the combination without blinking. He was so much fun to ride that Michelle had to make herself stop after only 5 or 6 fences. In his condition, it wouldn’t be fair to ask him to do more but once he got muscled up, he was clearly going to be a great horse.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Grady’s Last Chance

“I’ve got your next two-star horse!” a former student exclaimed over the phone to Moorpark event trainer Michelle Emmermann. Michelle shook her head; ever since she’d sold her previous two-star horse, Knight, seven years ago she’d heard this more than once. She’d even tried a few of them but all the horses that were “perfect” for her price range either mentally had a few screws loose or had physical problems that made them a poor match for the rigors of three-day eventing. She was pretty sure this one would be no different but listened patiently to her student’s story.

Her student, who had moved from Los Angeles to a tiny central California town, was hauling back home from a show when she stopped at a gas station to fill up. An older man, seeing the horses in the trailer, struck up a conversation with her. He told her he owned racehorses and had a terrific Thoroughbred for sale. The man had recently had open-heart surgery and couldn’t afford to keep all of his horses and this one was too old to race anymore. If she could help him sell the horse, named Hot Burn, he’d give her half the money. All she had to do was come by his barn and see the horse for herself. The student, with good reason, assumed the guy was just coming on to her and tried to ignore him but the man was persistent. Finally, after his third call, she gave up and made the trip out to the fairground track where he kept his horses. After all, it’s a small town and there’s not much to anyway.

The trip to the barn was ultimately horrifying. Hot Burn turned out to be a ten-year old Thoroughbred who might have been handsome if he weren’t so emaciated. The big dapple-grey gelding had an open sore on his neck that was infested with maggots. It had been so long since he’d been shod that his feet had grown around his old shoes, embedding them in his hooves. He’d literally stood in his stall for four or five months since the man’s surgery with no one to look after him or even take him out for a walk. Michelle’s student didn’t know what she was going to do with him but the one thing she knew for sure was that the horse wasn’t going to spend another minute there. She immediately agreed to the older man’s deal, loaded the gelding into her trailer and took him home.

This wasn’t the first time Michelle’s student had been able to successfully “re-job” a horse so she held out hope that the same could be done for Hot Burn. After all, if his papers were to be believed, he shared a grandsire on his dam’s side with the tragically late, great Le Samurai. The question wasn’t could a horse with that breeding be great; the real question was how did he end up in such horrible circumstances in the first place?

After a couple of weeks of living in clean, open pasture and eating as much food as he wanted, the gelding was still a few hundred pounds under weight but beginning to come back to life. Seeing his big movement and tremendous presence, the student immediately thought of Michelle. She called, adamant that Hot Burn could be Michelle’s next two-star horse. But another of Michelle’s clients had been looking for a resale project or possibly an event horse for her daughter so Michelle arranged for them all to meet up at a Northern California event facility to give the horse a try.

Michelle got her first look at the horse when he clamored out of the trailer and it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. Despite the best care, the horse was still a bag of bones. He was also nicked and scarred from living in pasture with other horses – a reminder that when horses live together things can get ugly sometimes. Michelle felt bad putting a saddle on the horse’s razor thin withers no matter how much padding she put on him. Finally they opted to ride and jump him in a dressage saddle because it was the best fit. To Michelle’s surprise, the green, off-the-track horse willingly jumped everything she put him to, including a few training level fences. The horse, it seemed, was a natural born jumper. His only issue seemed to be that he was slightly herd bound; he would spin and wanted to go back to the other horses but it seemed like a minor problem that he overcame once he was put to work. Against her will and better judgment, Michelle was hooked. But she already had two horses she was trying to sell at that moment and didn’t have time for another. Still, there was something about the horse that she couldn’t ignore, something that got under her skin after that first fence. The client looking for a resale project ended up taking the horse on trial with the iron clad understanding that if she didn’t take the horse or decided to sell him, Michelle would be the first person she would call.

The first problem arose when the client had the horse, which became known as “Grateful Grady” or “Grey Goose” (after the client’s favorite vodka) vet-checked; while his flexion tests were great his X-rays revealed that years of racing had taken their toll. There was no way that a horse with this little training and this bad of X-rays was worth the $5,000 asking price the old man had set. The client countered with $1,500 but the man refused and demanded the horse be sent back to him immediately. He would rather sell him at auction to the slaughterhouse by the pound then “give him away” for $1,500. It took them a while but finally the man realized that there was no way he’d make $1,500 even selling Grady by the pound. He relented and the horse stayed in southern California.

In the meantime, the client and her daughter left Michelle’s barn to go ride with another local event trainer who had other students her daughter’s age. Michelle’s Sapphire Eventing didn’t have any other young riders so the choice was logical. Under the tutelage of the other trainer, Grady and the young rider went to their first event. Like most young eventers, this kid is tough to scare but Grady’s herd bound issues revealed themselves to be a full-blown neurosis; the horse reared and spun in the starting box trying to get back to the barn. Once on course, he refused to jump the very first jump and they were eliminated. Grady’s eventing career seemed to have ended before it even begun.

It’s unclear exactly what happened to Grady over the next few months. He did well whenever the question was jumping, but his mental glitches made it impossible in good conscience to sell him to just any of the several people who offered to buy him. Finally, some months after she’d last seen Grady, Michelle got the call from the client offering to give her Grady in lieu of her commission for selling another of their horses. Michelle found the horse a terrific home in short order. Despite the fact that she could have used the money to fix a broken tooth or have work done on her truck (affectionately called “Goldie”), Michelle immediately agreed to take the horse in trade.

Loading and unloading the lanky gelding was the first challenge. Now a lot more fit than when he left the track, Grady clearly made his objection to trailers known. A little over 17.2hh, the grey had a habit of bonking his head on the roofs of trailers, which only made his dislike of small spaces even worse. Michelle instantly felt sympathy for the jockey’s who had to have ridden him into starting gates but with a little coaxing, a head bumper and a lot of patience, she finally brought him home. He got off the trailer a thin, poorly muscled, gawky horse but something about the look in his eye made Michelle think that despite his hock issues and tendency to be herd bound, there could be something truly great about this horse. The question was had too much happened to him already? Was it too late to reach him or could Michelle break through all the past bad experiences to form the connection needed for a horse and rider to be a team? Only time would tell.