You Little You-Know-What

I cussed out a horse today.

I cussed, I cursed, I swore. I debated the legitimacy of his parentage. I cast doubt on his future as a racehorse, as a lesson horse, as a pack mule. I was, as a romance novel hero is often described, eloquent. I dug deep into my impressive – if I do say so myself – vocabulary, and brought it all out at full tilt, at full volume.

The horse, ashamed, lowered his head and had to be prodded in to finishing his jog.

No, really.

Let me tell you about the ride.

The barns sit perpendicular to what is, evidently, a very scary horse path. The horse path runs parallel (aren’t you glad you remember high school geometry?) to the backstretch of the racetrack. There are entrances to the racetrack at either end. Both, let me assure you, are innocent little hills that lead to wide spaces in the fence, guarded by benevolent ponies serving as outriders. Both, let the racehorse assure you, are very, VERY SCARY.

So you ride your brave, impetuous, gallant steed out of the barn and into the terrible world of the open-air. Having escaped the hidden dangers of the shedrow (the horse-eating bucket, the dive-bombing pigeon, the ankle-biting chicken of doom) one would expect some sort of pleasure at the wide-open spaces promised ahead. But of course, going to the racetrack is scary.

With kicking and prodding, with fits and starts, with the feeling that you are riding along with a person unfamiliar with driving a manual transmission, you make it up the hill and onto the deep sandy backstretch. There is a pause (or not) as you allow your mount to survey the scene – horses galloping along the rail from left to right, horses jogging from right to left, horses pirouetting, caprioling, courbette-ing in various directions. Then you move off to the left in a decorous working trot of your own (or not) and join the fray.

All is well until you pass the chute and turn towards the grandstand. This is, generally, where the rot sets in. There is, on one hand, the horse’s knowledge that somewhere near the wire is where he might – just might! – get pulled up and turned around for a gallop. There is, on the other hand, that great, empty, echoing building of doom to contend with.

Some horses will merely slip into a gentle canter, and this is permissible. Some will burst upwards into an ornery little temper tantrum, fighting against your restraint with athletic lead changes and dodges from side to side. This is, of course, what your horse will try to do.

You know he doesn’t like to have his face yanked around, so that option is out. Some horses will canter all the way around the track bowed in two, noses to the rail, the rider’s left rein six inches shorter than the right. This horse would sooner fling himself to the ground than tolerate this. You must finesse your bronco. You stand up, put your weight somewhere in the vicinity of his croup, keep the reins taut, but the real pressure is on the yoke, pulling back against his chest, and eventually the plunging smoothes off into galloping, easy and comfortable, and as the grandstand slips behind you, back to a jog.

A mile goes by, and you congratulate yourself. The horse has long-since settled into a workmanlike trot. His neck is arched, his back is round, his hindquarters churn beneath him. The dreaded haunted grandstand comes up, complete with a group of horses who are supposed to be pulling up at the wire, but who have decided instead to engage in haute-ecole movements. You slip between them, going sideways, to be sure, but still without incident, and let him slip again into a gentle little canter, standing up in the stirrups, guarding against holding the reins so tight that you cause him to shake his furious little head and start looking for a way out.

And then, on the final turn, riding from blinding morning sun to deep forested shade, with the metallic rattle of the flea market tents to your left and horses breezing along the rail to your right, his composure slips. He makes a bid to bolt forward, hits your hands, jumps up and switches to the left lead, then swerves to the right, swaps leads again. From behind you, out of nowhere, a horse canters by in the five feet between your fierce little mount and the rail. Too restrained to buck or rear, he hops frantically in some sort of unpleasant motion somewhere in between.

So close to home, yet so far. What do you do? Panic?

No, you get mad.

You kick, you shout, you may (blush) scream. You swear with everything you’ve got. You verbally abuse with deeply unladylike, highly inappropriate, utterly satisfying epithets. And you kick, you kick, you kick, as you do it, hands on his neck, wrapped around the strap of the yoke – go on and bolt, you bloody little…. I dare you…

And it works. It works! The most cocksure of horses simply hate to be screamed at. They can’t yell back. They’re helpless. They feel sorry for themselves. They jog back to the gap utterly dejected, ears sideways, demoted to packmule, second class, and well-aware. And you sit up a little straighter, and ask for statue-still obedience before allowing him to walk through the gap, and allow yourself a smile as he paces gently down the scary horsepath and into the scary barn on a loose rein.

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14 responses to “You Little You-Know-What

  1. You make it sound so easy. I love the image of the stick shift, and later, of how a litany of well aimed curses can humble such a giant athlete.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      It isn’t easy? Haha….

      The thing is, we’ve all been on a bad horse in the riding ring and just gotten off and lived to fight another day.

      But a quarter mile from the gap, on a racehorse, on a public racetrack? You don’t have that option. You have to hang on and fight it out.

      And that CAN be a good thing, of course…

  2. laurie

    Well timed piece as I was “speaking in tongues” at my own gallant steed last evening on a a very eventful trail ride!

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Have I ever mentioned how much I hate trail rides? It’s true.

      There was a SPRINKLER on the hedges next to Aqueduct’s winner’s circle. A little garden sprinkler. Can you imagine the upset this caused this morning?

  3. blob

    haha, I’ve definitely had a horse scream back. But he was a special case!

    So I turned around and gave him the silent treatment– that worked.

  4. Honestly? I think this is my most favorite blog post I’ve ever read. Ever. On any blog. I thought it was going to be sad that you were no longer writing about retraining OTTB’s, but this is even better! Absolutely loving the inside perspective of life in the city racetrack.

  5. If only I was a morning person, and lived by a racetrack, I would be highly entertained every morning. Haute-ecole? Education in epithets? What more do you need?

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Shannon, the correct answer is, of course, New York City + racehorses = true and utter contentment.

  6. Suzanne

    Hi Natalie, I’m so glad you made it back to New York, good to hear that you are doing what you love! I know Florida misses you, but I know you don’t miss the heat.

  7. How did I miss this post of yours? Holy hell you can recreate an experience with words!

    Isn’t it weird how we turn into different animals when other people are around (and of course they are ALL watching you, with nothing better to do;). You handled it beautifully, if I do say so-of course, as you say, what choice did you have? I don’t think I could handle the track. In my mind, it’s like a horse show everyday without the (official) judging:)

    What’s a little cursing, anyway? I would’ve been cheering you on if I were there! Beats the heck out of ripping on a horse’s mouth anytime.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Hah, thank you Sarah!

      How did I miss this post of yours? Holy hell you can recreate an experience with words!

      That goes down as one of my favorite compliments of all time!

      It’s soooo not like a horse show – everyone rides differently. And a lot of the people learned to ride there, so their equitation is… questionable? LOL An assistant trainer said to me, “You used to ride show horses, didn’t you?” I said yes, what gave it away – my heels? 🙂

      Today I was riding alongside a guy.. we were just chatting away, blah blah blah, and my horse went into a little hissy fit, carrying on, trying to run off. I pulled his nose back around to my boot and proceeded to tell him WHOA WHOA WHOA YOU ARE A BAD HORSE FOR SHAME and then a few more colorful word choices in my deep scary man voice. That guy laughed so hard. He said, “You sound just like a mean guy on the street!”

      Yup, that’s me.

  8. Well, if it’s NOT like a horse show I am even more intrigued:) One of these days I would love to just walk through the shedrows….I’ve only been to one racetrack (Arlington) for an afternoon so my experience is rather limited. I would LOVE to watch an early morning workout though. Michigan is just not a hubub of racing though. Tis a good and bad thing:)

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