The joys of riding a racehorse cannot be over-exaggerated.
And while I love riding horses, in general, I am often exasperated by the subjective rules of sport riding – this year everyone has to use D-bits, or this judge likes a slower, springier trot than that judge. In fact, even though I love riding dressage, every now and then I’ll be trotting along, getting everything in a test right, nailing every transition, and suddenly go “Why am I doing this?” – thus sparking an internal philosophical debate that can mess with my riding for months.
I know, I know, I overthink. Everything.
But if dressage is a way of enhancing and cueing a horse’s natural movements – I suppose – racing is a way of enhancing and cueing a horse’s natural desire - and it is in a horse’s desire to be first, fastest, strongest, most dominant that the pleasure and fire of the animal truly comes to the surface. To me, anyway.
And so back to Aqueduct, where it was, if you’ll recall, a cold and cloudy morning, and I was shivering in the shedrow under a fleece sweater and a leather jacket (looking pleasingly goth in all black, you’ll be happy to know) enjoying the attentions of some very happy racehorses in Joe Parker’s care. Carrots! Candy! Kisses! they demanded, and I was happy to comply. But it was morning, after all, and morningtime is worktime at the racetrack, as we all know. And a dark bay fellow named Buddy was being tacked up, and I was buckling on my hard hat – did I mention I never go anywhere without my hard hat – and zipping up my vest – ditto – and getting a leg up, settling down into the soft little exercise saddle on the big hard horse. And off – we – went!
And so I say to you again, the joy of riding a racehorse cannot be over-exaggerated. All that swing and step and energy – how hard do we work for that in the arena? In the deep comfortable sand of the track, the horse is in his element. There is no little chain rope listlessly marking out twenty meters’ width. There is no trim board fence surrounding a course of outside-inside-inside-outside. There is just happy, happy horse, sinking to his coronets in raked clay and sand, and you deep in his back, on the cantle of the little toy saddle, knees and heels before you, hands on neck, fingers loose, looking between two pricked ears at the empty grandstand in the distance.
Just a trot – just a jog around the mile loop – but every stride a joy. Stick to the outside rail, jog along counter-clockwise, from backstretch to turn to the loom of the grandstand. To the right the finish post, and working horses cantering by along the inside rail. “Good morning!” and a smile to the other riders. The slow awakening of the horse, as you pass the stands and start looping back towards home – tug tug tug – oh no you don’t, you shan’t get me to pull back, and loop your fingers into the neck strap, slow your posting, tug back against his chest. The forgotten pressure point, that we lose when we eschew “gadgets” and throw away the martingales, not realizing that a valuable tool in our OTTB’s training history has just been overlooked.
I won’t say I didn’t ache when I got Buddy back to the barn! But when I was offered a second ride, I didn’t hesitate, either. I was given a round little horse named Whopper, taut as a bow string, arched like a dressage horse, who danced and cavorted around the track with no malice but plenty of mischief. Keeping him to a trot was a challenge – cantering sideways was more his style. But a few dance steps that might have given me pause at home were nothing to ride in that nice flat exercise saddle, sitting down on his back and connected from seatbones to knee in a way that I just can’t replicate in a jumping or dressage saddle. Sit down – kick on – and around we went.
To ride these two fantastic horses was a pleasing reminder that riding retired racehorses might be great, but riding gainfully employed racehorses is incomparable! And there will be plenty more to come. Stick around!