I have to confess, a month ago, going into the starting gate was the farthest thing from my mind.
One of those things best left to professionals. You know, the hardened types with the gnarled fingers from clutching reins four hours a day, seven days a week, for untold decades. I was having a nice time and all, and surprising myself every day, but… a starting gate?
Have you seen those things?
I’ve been in them before, actually, but just to walk babies through. With the doors open front and back. And I didn’t like it then. I’m claustrophobic, horses are claustrophobic – it’s just a bad combination, I’m thinking.
Somewhere in the past month, though, I developed a very strong desire to get into one of those terrible metal contraptions with a young, hot-tempered racehorse, and wait for the door to open so that we could burst out.
I’ve gotten crazy. That’s the only explanation.I had the same anticipation to take a horse to the gate that I imagine a child has who is standing on line for their first roller coaster. It looks awful, it looks like a terrible decision, but I just had to do it. All the cool kids go to the starting gate, right?
So this morning I took out a horse for a jog around the track and, when we came back to the chute, turned down the chute instead of heading back to the barn. She immediately knew what was up. Most horses were walking decorously around behind the gate, just as they would before a race. My horse? Oh no. Sideways. She’s – um – excitable. It would annoy me more than it does if she wasn’t so thrillingly competitive. She isn’t meaning to misbehave – she just has so much heart that she truly can’t contain herself. There’s a lot to be said for that, and it has to overcome a multitude of sins. Even the jigging frantic misbehavior she was throwing at me.
There’s a whole crowd of trainers and miscellaneous observers by the rail of the chute, and I hated being on display like this, mainly because I had no idea what to expect. All I could do was follow the example of the other riders. And wish I wasn’t on the only horse that was behaving like a complete fool. Finally, someone called that we were next. I rode up to the gate with serious misgivings, just like that kid must feel when he finally gets to the head of the line, and sees the attendant ready to drop the safety bar over his head.
“You want to lift up your feet up really high, to avoid the padding,” the crewman told me, taking the horse’s bridle. He knew I’d never been there before – either someone had told him, or he just knew he’d never seen me before. I experimented with lifting my stirrups near the withers, as I saw jockeys do every afternoon at the races. Only – it’s really high. Try it sometime. You have to lift your heels all the way to the withers. While being led into a metal box. On a racehorse. There’s letting someone lead your horse, and then there’s ceding all control and all possibility of handling a situation yourself. That’s going into a starting gate.
Thus terrified, we got into the gate, and the doors were closed behind me. My horse stood still, ears pricked. She wasn’t terribly experienced at the gate, but she’d been in it before. And, presumably, she’d seen other horses do it. And I assumed she’d follow the lead of the horse next to her – that is, if he had any idea what to do.
The crewman stood in front of the door – another one had clambered up next to me, and was holding the bridle. “Okay,” he said. “Whatever she does, just go with it, okay?”
“Okay,” I breathed.
He opened the gate.
There was no bell, no bursting open with a cessation of magnetic charge. It was just some guys opening a gate. But it’s like magic to a horse, when you open the gate. They leave – they don’t always leave straight off the mark, galloping like hell, sometimes they leave and turn right, sometimes they leave and stop dead – but generally, they leave.
The filly jumped out. I lurched up onto her neck, gave her rein, and she jumped again. Somewhere to my left I saw the neighboring horse come out easily and then take off. I asked the filly to give chase. I shook the reins at her. I should have used my stick to straighten her out, but I was flustered. She went on jumping, hopping, but we were galloping, finally, going forward, and as she went plunging down the track, I started laughing.
“Go with it, go with it, go with it!” I sang out, letting her leap as she pleased. “Go catch him!”
I’ve always been a noisy rider, I confess, a person who was dumped not once but twice in a row by a green pony because every time I got him to canter, I let out a triumphant whoop that sent him into a bucking fest. There’s something about the glee of a horse in their foolishness, when they’re clearly having fun, when they’re obviously living with me on their back as they would in an endless field, as if I’ve been invited into their own private world of sun and grass and limitless strength and four fleet legs to devour the distance with. It is the feeling that others describe as wings, as the sensation of flight. Of leaving the human experience for something altogether more earthy and exciting.
And we were suddenly eating up the ground, flying across the clay and sand, and the distance between us and the front-running horse melted away, until we had caught up, and sailed on by, whirling into the turn, all hot hot heat and rushing heart.
The starting gate seems to somehow compound the horse’s notorious need for freedom. That thirty seconds of claustrophobia creates an explosion of emotion and power that can’t be replicated.
Do give it a try.