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.