Oh the Star Gazer. Remember that term? I remember it from “My Friend Flicka,” (when Rob describes Rocket’s high head carriage at the gallop) and actually I don’t recall ever hearing it again, but it’s always stuck in my head.
The Star Gazer doesn’t put his head down and run, he keeps it up high where he can pay attention to everything around him. I think it suits a short-backed, long-legged horse, because they don’t have to stretch their spine out as much to achieve a ground-covering stride.
I’ve always preferred riding these horses to the lower-headed ones. For one thing, they feel more athletic – even if they aren’t – and for another thing, I have a deep distrust and a jaw that still aches me stemming from a bucking fit by a very dishonest, head-down filly.
Back when doing my initial research on Final Call, I pulled up the You Tube video of his three starts as a two-year-old at Calder Race Course. Here he is in a Maiden Claiming in July of 2007. He breaks first, goes to the lead, and gallops hard – with his head straight up. And his jockey is anything but subtle. He’s working that horse with everything he’s got – and his reins are loose.
Now I’m feeling what that jockey was feeling when he was scrabbling all over Final Call’s back and neck. Final Call doesn’t get subtlety. And he doesn’t want to put his head down, not to work, not to concentrate, not for anything. He likes his head high. And he needs big extravagant cues. High-head and lazy. A class act all the way.
Today in our trot session Final Call made two things very clear to me: 1) I don’t respond to a squeeze, but I will respond to a kick; and 2) Don’t touch my face!
Now, I would just like to point out that in the case of the latter, I am blameless. I do not touch his face. But he’s waiting for me to. And he will not tolerate anything more than the slightest touch of my ring finger before tossing his head up.
In the case of the former, well, that’s not altogether surprising. When I was an exercise rider, a very earnest and nice young woman happened to be married to the farm owner. She would say sweet things to us like, “Do you really need to carry a whip?” And she hated how we rode the yearlings with our heels going bump-bump-bump into their sides, alternating from side to side as they walked. “Aren’t you annoying them?” she would ask. “Why do you do that?”
Well for one thing, my dear girl, if you don’t bump-bump-bump a yearling, the yearling will stop and start eating grass. And then, well, they just get used to it. In the riding school, we call it dead sides, don’t we class?
Here’s the good part – you may start out with dead sides, but they’re going to be pretty high up – like, say, cross-country stirrup length. Which is, of course, where you’re probably starting out with your OTTB. And to get them going it may take some pretty serious heel-ribcage contact. But be patient. You’re going to lengthen your stirrups. You’re going to start feeling those sensitive sides soon enough. Maybe tomorrow.