The Yearlings

I adore yearlings.

When I was younger and just getting started in horse breeding, I despised yearlings. What’s to like, after all? Yearlings are pushy, snotty, adolescent thugs who like to shove people around, who bite and kick without provocation, who are big enough to smash you like a bug but really “just want to play with you.”

"I'm not sure I want to go that way" - by Infidelic on Flickr

When I started riding racehorses, I started out on yearlings. I started in August 2001, on the long yearlings who were already about 18 months old. Yearlings are not terrible to break, as long as they don’t figure out how to buck or prop. Few of them will get into a fight with you when you slip onto their back. They are more astonished than anything.

But it was when we started going to the sales that we really fell for yearlings. All the promise and potential of a horse are standing there, glowing before you, when you see those well-bred youngsters at the yearling sales. Keeneland is going on this week, and we tuned in on the first night to see the royal little brats, anxiously spinning in dizzy little circles around their handlers, while the elite dropped fortunes on them. You can’t help but be awestruck.

I am reading Blood Horses by John Jeremiah Sullivan, a truly gifted writer whose father was a Louisville turf writer, and who used this book to explore the world of Thoroughbreds on his own terms. Today I reached the section on Keeneland’s yearling sales, and was hard-pressed to determine which passage I wanted to share most. I want to share the whole book. Here is what I decided upon:

The yearlings themselves pace back and forth, occasionally rearing, their hooves clacking on the hardwood of the stage, their dark eyes roving crazily in their sockets, swallowing the crowd like the eyes of the panther in the Rilke poem. Somehow it is much, much stranger and more unsettling to be in the presence of a Thoroughbred than in the presence of, say, a giraffe or some other novelty animal whose defining character is its weirdness. These horses are mystical in their beauty; I cannot help nothing how much, despite their tails, they resemble enormous deer. Every motion of their limbs is a kind of flickering, so that one blinks and expects them to vanish.

All the promise and power that is a Thoroughbred, you see in the yearling. Their wildness is still present, although they are ready to be put to saddle and bridle. They are half-tamed, they are children, they are athletes, they want you to comfort them and they want to bite you. The more time that I spent with them, the more I came to love the yearlings best.



Filed under Selling Horses, writing

12 responses to “The Yearlings

  1. I always figured I would rather break a colt when it’s a baby and its reaction is “Whoa. I didn’t know you could do THAT” than when it’s five and figures “WHY should I do that? And you and what army are going to make me?”

  2. What a beautiful passage- they really are like deer, aren’t they?

    I’m close to finishing “The Head and Not the Heart,” I’ll get a post up on it once I finish.

    Oh, and I want that bay in the background. I probably only needed about a million to buy him.

  3. Shannon, that bay in the background looks like a painting, doesn’t he? I don’t actually know when this photo is from, I just searched “Keeneland, yearling” in Flickr. Something I could do ALL DAY.

    If only Belmont had a yearly sale, I would work every second of it. As it is I sit and wonder how I can work at the Saratoga sale. Next year I will go, at the very least, as a bystander, to write about it.

    @The Author, you are SO right! A five year old horse is just too old to break. Maybe just the right age to start over jumps, but mentally, he’s thinking of all the clever ways he knows how to manipulate his body and how to use them on you.

  4. Great post, love the roan, want the roan, will never own the roan…

  5. Wonderful review, stunning passage. Thank you for sharing!

  6. jim culpepper

    Best quote in ” Bloodhorses” was, I believe, John Ward at the Keeneland sale, who said, “Look at them, they are all beautiful.”

  7. jim culpepper

    I suspect a hug might puzzle a thoroughbred, but on 10 sept 11 at Kentucky Downs, my film camera captured a colt who seems intent on snuggling with a catnapping groom.

    • Don’t get me started on hugging Thoroughbreds! That’s where this blog got started! They are eminently huggable – although the yearlings do tend to explode backwards a bit!

      Where can we see this photo? Self-promote Jim!!

  8. jim culpepper

    I am only just starting to learn digital anything which is why I am stll using a film camera. If you have a P.O. Box for snail mail I’ll send you a print.

  9. Wow, that is so beautifully written! I have my OTTB that I got hot off the track…I would have LOVED to see him as a yearling. What a breed they are. The best.

  10. Zoe

    Thank you, really. I start a yearling sales prep job in a month and I’m a little apprehensive – I rode trackwork a couple of years ago, but they were mainly two and three-year-olds and some of them were absolute terrors, so I’ve been wondering how bad yearlings can be. You post just reminded me that, as ridiculous, horse-obsessed beings, we’re still going to love something that elegant and aristocratic, no matter how often it tries to kick us in the head. 😛

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