Today’s Guest Blogger is Fiona Farrell, who has written a beautiful piece on that lost Thoroughbred. We all have one that got away. Mine, like Fiona’s, was a very self-possessed Thoroughbred with an unknown identity.
My fascination with OTTBs began with the forbidden fruit syndrome, or the similar grass is always greener syndrome. My uncle had a few racing Thoroughbreds throughout my childhood, actually until I was 40, and he died in the late 1990s. He always found homes for them, even if it meant claiming them back to retire them. Different times, different values. Until he was elderly and his original trainer had died, his horses never ran during the winter. They would spend a few months at Windfields Farm which always gave me a vicarious thrill – wow, birthplace of Northern Dancer! My uncle would not give one of his old racers to me because they would not be suitable for our rough Vermont settings or what he regarded as my lack of horsemanship. I disagreed vehemently but to no avail.
You know the next chapter: The first chance I got to buy a horse unsupervised I bought an OTTB mare. We’re going to skip her chapter today. She lived happily ever after with her next owner. I rode a few OTTBs in the meantime. One spring I leased a Thoroughbred for six months from a big Vermont horse dealer. I got the horse, tack, and his papers, delivered for $450. I called him Cypress. It was April. Cypress was to go back in November or I would buy him.
I have two great regrets over Cypress. He was a tall chestnut, slightly more copper than Secretariat red, and lankier. The only picture I have is of his head.
I had his papers and never remembered or wrote down his Jockey Club name or his pedigree. I can’t remember how old he was. Five, six, seven? I do remember he had last been racing at Arlington Park. This was 1989, long before one could pop onto the Internet to look up pedigrees or race or sales records. I so regret not keeping track of who he was. Cypress was one of the best horses I ever rode. We rode in a completely unstructured environment, never had a lesson, never went in a ring, never had a bad ride (bad walk home yes, ride up ‘till I was thrown was wonderful). We shared some of my most memorable riding experiences.
I took Fridays off from work that summer. We would head out three days a week exploring. Old “thrown up” roads no longer maintained with gaping holes where culverts had rotted through. Snowmobile trails that petered out into impassable swamps or bridges too fragile for horses. The “old railroad bed” with a long, narrow, bridge so high over a ravine I have no idea how I ever rode over it, let alone by myself. All kinds of other bridges; rotting, slippery, hold your breath you don’t take a step wrong kind; echoing covered ones; the respite of solid, wide, fenced, non-rattling ones. We enjoyed winding paths through airy conifer forests; straight ones in more formal pine plantations; short, steep, muddy, rocky, logging roads through tangled second growth; all kinds of barely used back roads; and my favorites, farm tracks along the ridge across from my place. We rode past and through commercial dairy farms, glassmakers’ fields full of exotically colored Highland Cattle, the intellectual bakers, the musical weavers, the trailers, the abandoned cars, the evangelical preacher’s place, the hydro-power developer, the Monty Roberts disciple (another weaver), the organic Jersey and sauerkraut farm. And that was all within two miles of home. We’d usually be out for two or three hours, sometimes as long as five hours. Usually alone, sometimes with my neighbor Jenny on Casper, Cypress’s pasture mate.
My favorite trail started across the road from my front door. Follow along the edge of hay field at a walk, trot along the base of an almost cliff, climb one end of a steep trail at a choice of gait depending on conditioning. Going up that hill was always a measuring point for fitness, heat index, and, willingness. Arrive at the height of land to crumbling massive maples and brambles. If the timing was right we would be rewarded with ripe raspberries or blackberries at the crest. Picking berries from an OTTB is an easily mastered training basic. Motivating the human with treats is a rarely discussed but key method of achieving success with the horse. After the woods and brush two miles or so of farm tracks through rolling hayfields.
I’ll never forget a peak experience Cypress and I shared out alone one day. It was about this time of year. The hay was high and headed up, mostly timothy. Galloping along easily we were joined by a herd of deer. Seamlessly, suddenly, there we all were moving along together. I felt Cypress adjust his stride. It became more up and down, more jump, a different kind of flow. We were in the midst of six to eight deer, on the left of us, slightly in front, yet engulfed. It probably only lasted about thirty seconds, less than a quarter of a mile. Yet we were truly transported. It was marvelous, ecstasy, never to be repeated, always to be remembered.
I wonder, slightly tongue in cheek: Was Cypress’s ease in the situation because he was off the track? Did running in a herd remind him of being in a pack along the rail? I never took in how long it had been since he’d raced. I may never have known. I’m surmising it was a matter of months. All I knew is he was very opposed to taking one particular lead. He kicked at Casper in the field, he was not your warm and fuzzy herd mate. He was polite but somewhat distant with humans.
My first set of regrets would have been moot had I not my even deeper regrets over Cypress. I, unlike Natalie, have always been of the pre-purchase vet check school. Well, almost always. Why didn’t Cypress fall into the almost category?
Why didn’t I say to myself,”What does it matter how sound he is. We have a blast together. He’s never been close to being off with me, just that pesky not picking up a lead, that kicking and irritability with other horses.”
I attributed his lack of two leads and kicking to pain. I may have been right but now surmise — not know – they might have been the effect of coming off medications at the track or being recently gelded or merely adjusting to living in a field with a run-in compared to the backside of Arlington Park or something in my handling or stable management. And that lack of lead, why did I not consider rider error and lack of actually working on it in a ring? Instead, I listening to my vet when I had Cypress checked out prior to buying him outright. “That hock just doesn’t flex well enough. I’d advise you not to buy him.” I think of Cypress whenever I read about the limitations of flexion tests. Was the one my trusted veterinarian did an unreliable indicator? I’ll never know. I mourn never having the chance to find that other lead, explore fun in a ring or jumping. Most of all I regret Cypress never again taking me on those wonderful long rides.