The real pleasure of taking Final Call to his first hunter pace – in fact, his first foray off the farm since his arrival in January – was witnessing and feeling the growing confidence of a young horse, as he discovered not just his ability to function in a strange setting, but his own athleticism.
Going to a new place was deeply unsettling for Final Call. He has deep bonds with the yearlings that he lives with, especially the filly and future Boss Mare, and while he’s always cheerful enough about leaving their pasture and being worked on and ridden, he also always knows the routine ends with his eventual return. Leaving the farm in a trailer had no precedent – how could he know what the end would look like?
Add to that the natural reaction of a racehorse to a busy atmosphere filled with horse trailers and strange horses… I think we can all guess his expectations!
In fact, getting on Final Call and taking him in some circles around the trailer was a lot like getting on a racehorse in the shedrow. He was still shaking a little and his gait was not quite a walk, not quite a jog, not quite forward or backwards… not quite a piaffe either… I suppose at times I could call it canter in place? It was athletic, that’s for sure.
I was grateful for the couple of racehorses that I sat at Aqueduct a few weeks before. When Final Call curled himself up and threatened Airs Above the Ground, I was able to sit well back, put my legs before me in a nice safe seat, and ignore him. Like any bully, ignoring his antics simply wilted his desire to act up.
After about five minutes, he was quiet enough to walk over to the registration area – still with his head straight up, still looking quite excited. But it wasn’t a bad thing – he was excited¸ not scared. And don’t we want our horses to be excited and happy? Can we give our horses jobs that they look forward to – and isn’t that an amazing feeling?
We were paired up with a lovely girl named Morgan. Just the sort of girl we all love – a horsey adolescent whose idea of fun is schooling over fences, not buying nail polish. She knew the course by heart, and so did her gentlemanly little horse Baxter, who regarded Final Call with one long, appraising gaze, and then turned from him and paid him no more mind for the remainder of the morning. “I’ve seen Thoroughbreds like you come and go,” I imagined him thinking. “You’re all the same.”
The toughest part of a hunter pace, to me, is that you pace yourself. Cross-country is easy. Cross-country is galloping. Hunter paces require ups and downs, long walks, long trots, shorter canters and gallops. This can be tough for a green ex-racehorse. “I am galloping now – why are we walking? Wait – we were galloping, and now we’re walking? This is an open field. This makes no sense!”
He was so busy jogging sideways, frothing to pass sleepy little Baxter, who was walking along evidently dreaming of morning coffee, that he didn’t notice the long row of round hay bales that we went past. Ah, I thought. No spooking at the round bales. Nice.
Then we came upon a coop set in the fence line, 2’3” or 2’6”, and Morgan set Baxter to a jog and popped over it. Final Call watched in astonishment. World framed by two pricked ears, I sent the started Thoroughbred towards the coop. Two strides out he said, “Oh no, I don’t know how to deal with this,” and ducked to the left. Fair enough. His experience with jumping was a homemade little gate and some cavelletti. He didn’t really know how to jump yet. Yet.
The second try, he managed to scrape, wild-eyed and long-bodied, over the coop. We went on walking and into the woods.
I won’t describe every inch of the ride. But he went from there jumping every coop, ditch, and log we put him to. He galloped along hard-packed roads, between canals of water lazy with dozing alligators and hung with live oaks and Spanish Moss. We trotted through tall grass beneath groves of oak trees and through rows of planted pines. We cantered up steep hills and slid down sandy banks. We were in a postcard – “Visit Florida” – on two horses on a May morning, and my horse was discovering his own athleticism.
The first six jumps were slippery, nervous things – lunges instead of careful bascules. I rode them like a steeplechaser, apologizing to his mouth and back along the way, prepared for refusals that didn’t come and balancing over chips and long spots.
The middle jumps became more calm, and we became more adventurous in turn. A bending line? Why not? An angle over a coop into a forest of planted pines? Sounds good! That log looks pretty big – okay let’s try it anyway! Good boy!
And at last, over the third last fence, a large rolltop in a fence line, headed up a hill towards a big Novice log, I felt his mind really connect to his body. It was a fabulous, back-breaking bascule of a jump, and I was slung over his neck like a hunter from one of those old black-and-white photos, arms stretched out to give his mouth as much space as possible. He cantered triumphantly up the hill, not even bothering to break down to a trot, and slithered over the log – it was bigger than it looked, and wide, and uphill – and spotting the next fence, another four strides up the hill, went on and tackled it as well.
The horse I rode back on was just as hot and bothered (nearly two hours later!) as the horse I rode out on. But it was a different kind of excitement. The worried tension was gone. This was a horse who knew what he could do. He’d gone out unsure of how to get his big body over the jumps. He came in completely engaged with his body, aware of his ability. Like a racehorse after its first fast work – I can run! – he moved with a swagger that was new and thrilling.