Bill Maxwell

Happiness in the horse latitudes

As a former horse owner, I love the whole equine species. And although I'm a horse racing fan, I care about the welfare of thoroughbreds.

Along with millions of other television viewers worldwide, I watched as Da' Tara won the 140th Belmont Stakes, the final leg in the Triple Crown. And like most avid fans, I was surprised by Big Brown's last-place finish.

Although disappointed that Big Brown didn't capture the Triple Crown, I was glad that this beautiful horse wasn't about to suffer the fate of Eight Belles, the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby. The 3-year-old filly was euthanized on the track after she broke down following the race. When Big Brown was pulled up by his jockey, Kent Desormeaux, I thought he had broken down. No, Desormeaux had executed a humane and smart move.

Later justifying his action to race officials, Desormeaux reassured me that a modicum of decency remains in horse racing. When he failed to get his mount to respond, he sensed that he "had no horse" and thought "something was amiss," he said. "I thought in this horse's best interests. Let's just get him back to the barn and recharge his batteries."

Desormeaux's concern for Big Brown reminded me of my experiences with horses as a child and as an adult. In Putnam County, I got to know Jesse Woods, one of a handful of black cowboys in the area. He was employed by a small ranch that shipped Simmental cattle abroad. He worked the cows with a palomino American quarter horse named Crawdad.

I watched Mr. Jesse through the fence so often that Jesse taught me to ride. In time, I learned to wash Crawdad with a hose, groom him and pick rocks and other objects from his hoofs. He was gentle, even docile, but he became an animated, precision machine during roundup and cutting. Sometimes, I'd take my hands off the reins and let Crawdad move the cows by instinct.

Never forgetting my time with Crawdad, I bought my own horse in 1988, when I lived in Bronson. After my daughter had watched Pippi Longstocking videos, she begged me to buy an appaloosa just like Pippi's Little Old Man. I didn't find an appaloosa just like Pippi's, but close.

Our horse's story made me sympathetic from the beginning. A neighbor told me about a man who had two foals for sale "real cheap." We went to the hard-scrabble farm, where I saw two foals, a quarter and an appaloosa, in a grassless pen. The quarter looked healthy. She walked up to me and nudged my arm with her nose. The appaloosa, however, sprinted away. She was tiny and looked like a woolly mammoth.

She'd been taken from her mother at 3 weeks old, and she'd been fed by bottle and on whatever grass and grain her young stomach could handle. Her mother was being used as the adoptive mare for a thoroughbred foal. Its mother wouldn't nurse.

Our appaloosa was funny-looking, yet somehow beautiful. We named her Fancy Pants. She was so sickly at first that I boarded her at a stable for four months, during which time I prepared our pasture and built a small barn and a stable.

After bringing Fancy Pants home, I learned that the cheapest part of owning a horse is purchasing it. After that, money starts flying out the door for labor-intensive nurturing: high-quality feed, clean water, pasture upkeep, farrier and veterinarian visits, grooming, riding gear and exercise.

I hired a man to train Fancy Pants for dressage, but because of the abuse and neglect she suffered as a foal, she remained wary of humans and was unsuited for the sophisticated, controlled demands of dressage. To keep her happy, I rode her at least three days a week, often galloping nearly a mile. She loved the dirt roads and the woods surrounding our home as much as I did.

When I moved to St. Petersburg in 1994, I had to sell Fancy Pants. A lot of folks get heartbroken over the loss of a dog? Well, I still miss that appaloosa after all these years.

As to Big Brown, my hope is that he safely completes his racing career to enjoy the rest of his life.

Happiness in the horse latitudes 06/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 7:48pm]

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