Category Archives: Sport Horses

Ask Questions

keep-calm-and-ask-questions-5Originally posted at:

Recently, tragedy struck twice at an event. Two horses died at The Fork, an upper-level event in South Carolina. Conair following an accident on the cross-country course; Powderhound following his show-jumping round.

Immediately after each horses’ death was announced, social media (generally Facebook, although I’m sure Twitter got involved) was abuzz. Mass messages of sympathy were intermingled with questions about how these deaths could have happened. And admittedly, neither was straightforward: Conair reportedly got up and galloped around after his fall; he collapsed and died after a preliminary vet exam. Powderhound collapsed and died after his show-jumping round, narrowly avoiding injuring his rider.

It looked weird. It looked scary. And people had questions.



An urge to twitch back the blinds and make sure their own horses were safe.

As things will do, of course, sympathy and fear divided into factions. Familiar ones, in Eventing: the Long Format vs the Short Format.

Simply put, Short Format Eventing is the current version of the Three Day Event, which does away with the massive endurance requirement once required. It places a greater emphasis on dressage and a more technical cross-country course.

Long Format proponents don’t need much to start talking about Long Format, anyway, so it was only to be expected that this would renew the debate. Questions like: Are the horses still fit enough to compete at high speeds? Are the courses asking the horses questions with solid fences that should only be asked with movable jump poles?

Short Format replies tended to be more succinct: now is not the time to bring this up.

I understand that the Eventing community is close-knit, and that when one horse dies, many horsemen grieve. That’s the way it should be. That’s how communities work.

But here’s what I want to say: it’s okay to ask questions, and it’s going to be done in public, on social media, because that is where people ask questions these days. There isn’t going to be an official period of discreet social media silence. And there shouldn’t be, because in this short-term-memory society, if an incident isn’t discussed within a fairly immediate time period, it won’t be discussed at all. It will be buried by the next story, for better or for worse.

It’s not okay to lay blame, or make assertions without proof, or tout oneself as an expert when one is not, or lay claim to a death as a symbolic martyr of a cause.

But it is okay to ask questions.

Questions, well-worded ones anyway, can lead to conversation amongst people who care about the problem. Conversation amongst people who care about the problem can lead to the answers… sometimes, the answers to questions far removed from the original one.

We should always be asking questions, and exploring the issues that concern us, or hell, scare us. A horse drops dead under a rider — that’s scary. Could it happen to you? Could it happen to me? We need to talk about this. Let’s discuss conditioning techniques. Discuss feeding practices. Share ideas. Share best practices. This, a time of worry and crisis and personal doubt, is when we are most likely to come together and share, instead of hiding away our fears (from shame) and our secrets (with jealousy).

Here’s how I see it: analyzing our own practices is good.

Coming together and sharing ideas is good.

Sometimes it takes a tragic event to start conversations about our own lives.

This argument has absolutely zero to do with making assumptions about the deaths of Conair and Powderhound. It has nothing to do with changing Short Format to Long Format. It’s not a statement about whether the comments section of an article announcing a tragedy is the right place to question the cause. It’s simply about the power crisis holds, that it can inspire us to examine our own practices and to talk more frankly with one another about our thoughts and fears.

And to not be afraid to ask questions.

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Filed under eventing, horsepeople, Media Coverage, Sport Horses

Thoroughbreds For All! Has Found a Winning Formula

Many thanks to Kirsten Collins for this great report from Thoroughbreds for All. Kirsten shares her life with three OTTBs at her own Harmony Farm. 

First, a confession:  I bought my ticket for Thoroughbreds For All! before I bought my Rolex tickets.  I offer this as testament as to how great this event was last year.  The event is built around show-casing Thoroughbreds transitioning from the track into new careers.  Here, the horses are the stars of the show and I couldn’t wait to experience it again.

Thoroughbreds for All 2013 West Wind Farm arena

Thoroughbreds for All! 2013 was held in the West Wind Farm arena. Photo: Kirsten Collins

I was not disappointed.   The event drew an even larger crowd this year, around 500 people, but West Wind Farm was easily able to handle it.  I can’t imagine a better venue than West Wind’s covered arena with its views of the lush spring Kentucky landscape as well as the ability to accommodate dozens of tables, caterers, a cash bar, and best of all, an enormous barn aisle that facilitated a close look at a nice crop of New Vocations Thoroughbreds.

Chris McCarron aboard Bilan

Chris McCarron aboard Bilan. Photo: Kirsten Collins

The program followed last year’s winning formula with minor changes.  Everyone enjoyed Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron getting legged up immediately on a very pretty Bilan.  Chris asked Bilan to stay close to the spectators (we had been reminded at the start to hold our applause so as not to startle the horses) and Bilan acquiesced in a very Thoroughbred way by jigging and looking and by not relaxing.  This was the perfect segue into Chris’ on-board lecture of how jockeys work with their mounts.   First, they seek cooperation, and then they seek ways to make their mounts comfortable.  For Chris and Bilan, this involved some give-and-take:  Chris asked “Please walk forward to the crowd” and Bilan replied “I’d feel much better if we trot back to the other end of the arena.”  And so Chris allowed him to take little breaks and move away, all the while stroking and rewarding him, and then bringing him back to the crowd for a little more exposure.

Chris polled the audience at times, seeking answers to questions about what a horse needs and what impacts a successful ride.  He said he wants a confident mount, but that of course requires a confident rider.  Chris said a rider brings three things into the equation that will influence the quality of the ride:  fear, experience level, and rider fitness.  Chris stated matter-of-factly that horses are looking for a leader.  A rider can provide that leadership but only if they are honest about their own abilities in the tack.  And at this point Chris pointed out that Bilan’s behavior was quite normal for some Thoroughbreds and he wisely reminded people to make sure they seriously considered their own ability to handle and accept this type of horse behavior.  As if we couldn’t love him more.

Mounted lecture with Chris McCarron

Mounted lecture with Chris McCarron. Photo: Kirsten Collins

The rider fitness remark surprised me a little, but what McCarron meant was you have to be able to physically handle that give-and-take phase with your Thoroughbred.  He’ll require a soft hand, yes, but still a firm one over the duration of your ride.  He cautioned everyone about getting physically tired, losing their form, and then losing the quality of the ride.  And he’s absolutely right; a horse deserves us to be our best in the tack because it is what we are almost always asking of our mounts.   By this time Chris had his horse moving well around the arena and it took physical restraint not to applaud both Chris McCarron and the lovely Bilan.

At some point I lost count of the New Vocations horses that were presented next, but I think there were between six and eight.  Each one fell under the gaze of Phillip Dutton and his vet (and fellow eventer) Dr. Kevin Keane.  Through their assessment my novice eyes could gain appreciation for traits both physical and mental.  Phillip is a quiet soft-spoken man who seemed indefatigable and able to look at every horse with fresh eyes.  Dr. Keane echoed many of Phillip’s sentiments about each horse.  In one case both of them were quite keen on a filly that I had dismissed the minute she entered the arena:  they both saw potential in the young horse and therefore helped me (and countless others, no doubt) to see this horse for her what her future could be.  It was an important lesson.  Once the riders were mounted and the horses put through their paces, Dr. Keane remarked that he liked to stand close to a horse when it cantered past so that he could gauge their respiratory status.  Again, this was new and valuable information for a novice looking at a Thoroughbred.

Phillip Dutton, Chris McCarron, Steuart Pittman, Dr. Kevin Keane, and  Amy from New Vocations leading Come On Moe.

Phillip Dutton, Chris McCarron, Steuart Pittman, Dr. Kevin Keane, and
Amy from New Vocations leading Come On Moe.
Photo: Kirsten Collins

As with last year, it was mesmerizing to watch experienced riders work with Thoroughbreds in the midst of transitioning to new careers.  That these horses responded well to compassionate experienced rides is an understatement, but also a strong testament to their trusting, willing nature.  Try to imagine taking your first jump by trotting into a sea of faces set upon rows of bleachers; it could be intimidating, to say the least, but each of the three horses (ridden by eventer Tracey Bieneman, Rolex competitor Daniel Clasing, and returning rider/trainer Eric Dierks) jumped small fences of increasing complexity.  It was here that Phillip Dutton also kept making an important point:  those horses that did not immediately show bravery to a fence were not at all dismissed, but rather Phillip appreciated their carefulness.  He knew, as we all soon witnessed, that the horses would gain confidence as their exposure increased.  As I watched this segment I found myself brimming with pride at the progress these horses were making.  They settled in, figured out what was being asked of them, and did their jobs.

Daniel Clasing takes a break from Rolex competition.

Daniel Clasing takes a break from Rolex competition.
Photo: Kirsten Collins

The eventing world was well-represented at Thoroughbreds For All! as eventers bracketed the evening.  We were first introduced to several competitors whose Rolex mounts were Thoroughbreds and these riders had about 500 keen listeners as they talked about their horses’ strengths and talent (and a few quirks, of course).  To close the evening, local eventers Dorothy Crowell and Cathy Wieschoff returned with their upper level eventers Hennessey and Ready For April.  This was a fitting close to the evening as the two beautifully conditioned horses did a little warm up and then proceeded to jump some impressive fences.  They were such pros, their demeanor so professional and business-like and it was a brilliant way to demonstrate the rewarding path from a racehorse off the track to a well-trained eventer.  Remember how lovely Bilan jigged and danced for Chris McCarron?  I bet even Ready For April did that when he came off the track.  But it was impossible not to think of Bilan as an eventer-in-the-making.  All he needs is a chance to prove himself.

Thoroughbreds For All! is helmed by Steuart Pittman of the Retired Racehorse Training Project and Anna Ford of New Vocations and an army of their volunteers.  Each and every volunteer I spoke with was not only kind and gracious but also absolutely in love with Thoroughbreds.  They are invested in making a future possible for each and every horse lucky enough to walk off the track and into their programs.


Filed under eventing, Sport Horses, Training Theory

EquineLUX Saddle Pads – A Product Review

George Morris said: “Think of riding as a science, but love it as an art.”

If Nacho has taught me anything, it’s that riding her is a long series of experiments. Discovering what she likes is a great achievement and we are able to make huge progress. So, I’m always trying new things with her in order to figure her out. I’ve learned that she likes wide girths and wiggly bits. She hates a flash noseband, loves a figure-eight. It’s one big, long term science experiment.

When it comes to saddle pads, I’ve done a ton of experimenting. Before the EquineLUX saddle pad, I’d had the best luck with a Back on Track pad, even though it was too big for my small horse. I’ve tried half-pads, wither pads, and gel pads, among other things in order to calm my cold-backed horse. No matter how well a saddle fit Nacho, she is cold-backed. That said, I am open to trying something that is better looking than the Back on Track, and still eases the symptoms of cold back syndrome. The EquineLUX pad was successful in many ways, and I thoroughly enjoyed trying it out.

First and foremost, I was totally impressed with the customer service that the CEO, Maxim, provided. He was truly interested in suggesting the right type of saddle pad for my horse. He not only helped me to pick out a pad that might be suitable for my needs, but suggested that the company could custom-make that pad to fit the very forward cut of my jumping saddle! Ultimately, my custom saddle pad was designed like the one on the top of this page – the XTR Shock-Absorbing saddle pad, but mine would have a slightly different shape to accommodate the shape of my saddle. About a week after our conversation, the custom-designed saddle pad arrived.

What I first noticed about the EquineLUX XTR Shock-Absorbing Pad was its quality. It has a no-slip area on the top so it will not move from underneath the saddle. The girth loop is reinforced with leather. The fabric had a nice feel and the whole thing was well put-together. Although the visible parts of the pad are white, the underside is lined with gray fabric. Hey, that hides dirt! One feature that I especially like on the pad that I tried is the velcro pockets with removable shims. That makes the pad 1) easier to wash and 2) easier to fit on many horses with different saddles. The shims are made of shock-absorbing foam, which is especially appealing, considering my horse.

The EquineLUX XTR Shock-Absorbing Saddle Pad

The EquineLUX XTR Shock-Absorbing Saddle Pad

As you can see in the above photo, the cut of this saddle pad fits the flap of my saddle perfectly! I really like the shape of the pad – I have been seeing this cut more often lately and I think it looks classy. In the photo, the no-slip area can be seen under the cantle of my saddle, and below that, the velcro for the shim pockets is visible. The ONLY THING that I would change is that the girth loop does not line up perfectly with my girth. I believe that this is due to two things, neither of which is the fault of the manufacturer (because this is a problem I have had frequently with this horse and this saddle). First of all, my horse has an extremely huge shoulder and very set-back withers. This alters where the girth falls. In order for the girth to be in the correct place, it seems like my saddle ends up half-way up Nacho’s neck! When the saddle itself is sitting in the correct place, the girth is practically around the mare’s belly! For this reason, the girth  rarely lines up with the girth loop, and on most of my saddle pads, I have cut away the girth loop. I should have told Maxim that when I spoke to him, but I didn’t think of it. I’m sure he would have been able to adjust the positioning for me.  So, as you can see in the above photo, only one strap of the girth’s elastic goes through the loop. Since the saddle pad is non-slip, this is not a concern to me. It never moved during testing. I think it is mostly due to a custom pad/unusual saddle shape vs. horse conformation thing. Not a big deal.

One of Nacho’s signature moves is to immediately leap forward a few strides when I first get on, especially when I haven’t ridden for a week or so. On the day that I tried the EquineLUX pad for the first time, I hadn’t ridden in a few days due to an exam. I totally expected her to scoot forward and act like a cold-backed fool. She didn’t. Over the next 35 minutes or so, we proceeded to have an excellent ride. She was hot, yes, but that’s just her general nature. She was, however, much more willing than usual to use her back and push from behind. That’s Nacho’s way of saying that she’s satisfied with something that I’ve changed. And you know, every time I’ve used the XTR Shock-Absorbing Pad since that first day, Nacho has resisted her urge to scoot away from the mounting block. The saddle pad has never slipped, and I’ve now used it 10 or 12 times. It looks classy and it’s easy to wash. It breathes and the design also allows a release of heat, which keeps the horse more comfortable.

This is truly an excellent product. Not only is it made of quality materials, but it functions exceptionally well while looking stylish and modern. And behind all that, the products are backed up with unparalleled customer service. Maxim noticed the girth loop issue on his own from a photo and asked me about it, then offered to make me another pad that corrects this problem with my personal saddle and horse! How awesome is that? I’d recommend the EquineLUX Saddle Pads without hesitation. You won’t be disappointed.

Happy Mare and her new EquineLUX XTR Saddle Pad

Happy Mare and her new EquineLUX XTR Saddle Pad


Come visit me, Bonnie, and Nacho at Backyard Sporthorse!

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Filed under Buying Horse Things, eventing, Sport Horses

Difficult Decisions

There is nothing that I want to do in this world other than work with sporthorses. Eventers, dressage horses, jumpers. That’s where my passion lies. I’m in school to be a biology teacher. To be honest, I have no desire to do that. It’s just a piece of paper that could potentially get me a job. A job that’s indoors, in a classroom. Without horses. I can search my soul all day and all night and find NOTHING that will make me happy outside of working with horses. Except maybe being an astronaut, but the odds of that are slim to none (and there are no horses in space).

But herein lies the problem: in order to stop getting dead-end horse jobs in which I am subjected to poor management and not enough money to feed myself, I have to make some big changes in my own life. I have to “start over.” I have to improve my riding, and eventually hope to work my way up to becoming an assistant trainer. I have to stop marketing myself as a groom. I can be a manager — I’ve been a manager for a Pan AM alternate and that’s kind of a big deal. I’m already great at that stuff, and from there I can potentially move up to more of a riding position, or, at least get good training from a professional and advance my riding skills.

The only way to accomplish this is to take a job away from here. I have to leave central Florida. Maybe there’s something in Ocala, but most likely, I’d have to leave the state to find that job. And then we come to the real reason for this post. I have the resume. I can run a barn. I have too many horses. Barn managers and working students often get a free stall as a “perk” with employment…but never two stalls.

I cannot get rid of Nacho. She would not do well with anyone else, and I believe that she would get passed around and her brain would be completely fried. I can’t do that to her. Plus, her history and mine have been intertwined for 14 years. She’s more than just a rescue horse.

Bonnie, my sweet red beautiful love is the one that I’m going to have to part with. I don’t know how to do that. I’m so desperately in love with both of my mares and it breaks my heart to think about it. My brain just keeps going over all of the awful things that happen to thoroughbreds that are placed and lost…so I know I have to find her the right home. How do I even do that? How can anyone possibly love her as much as I do?

It’s hard to breathe while I’m thinking about this, but I have to ask: can you help me find the right home for Bonnie? One where she’ll be happy and someone will love her as much as I do? She is 13 years old and has some decent dressage training, though she needs a tune-up because she hasn’t been worked consistently. She is solid at first level and can do most of second level though not prettily all the time. She can also do flying changes when asked properly and her canter is SO rhythmic and fun. She’s an enjoyable horse to ride and easy to keep round with a light, soft, sensitive mouth. She is never mean or mareish, but she is a mild cribber and can get ulcers when very stressed, but she has been easy to manage. Her feet are not great; she needs a skilled farrier. She is just tenderfooted, not crippled. Her personality is absolutely delightful. She makes me laugh every day. She’s personable, happy, and likes cookies. She’ll do anything for cookies. She likes her butt scratched. She bows. She loves Nacho. She loves me.

The Red Mare.

The Red Mare.

I will lose my job in May, so I have until then to find a home for her. If I can’t find a home for her, I’ll have to put these plans aside indefinitely and take a job at a restaurant or something. The time is right, and I’m going to have to, for once, take control of my own life rather than just ride the waves hoping to make enough money to by hay at the end of the week. I will miss my sweet red mare so much, and my heart is broken, but this is the only way I can progress.

Thanks to Natalie for kindly understanding my predicament and offering suggestions. This is a challenging time for me.

I am now officially looking for a job and sending out my resume. Suggestions are welcome.


Filed under Bon Appeal, horsepeople, Selling Horses, Sport Horses

The Snowman Documentary

Quick, say it with me, who is our favorite non-retired racehorse rags-to-riches champion feel-good real-life horse?


Snowman, the 80 dollar champion

Just another international show jumping champion/children’s pet found on a meat truck.

Of course it’s Snowman, what other choice could we have? The big grey plow horse who went from the New Holland kill-buyer, literally bought right off the van to slaughter, who went on to become an international show jumping champion/family pet, has to be one of the greatest horse stories of all time. He’s amazing because he’s true.

Snowman’s biography, The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation, has been a best-seller since its release in 2011 (and the Retired Racehorse review remains one of the top posts on this site). Now the next best thing to a book, a documentary, is being made about Snowman, and you can help.

HARRY AND SNOWMAN is being produced by Docutainment Films, who have made two documentaries before, both about beauty pageants. Wait! Not just beauty pageants. The first one, PAGEANT, is actually about contestants in the 34th annual Miss Gay America Pageant, so that’s pretty cool.

Featuring stunning musical numbers, this movie dives into the heart and soul of this make-believe world: the men behind the make up.

I like it.

The second one, MISS YOU CAN DO IT, is about the first woman with disabilities to participate in the Miss USA Pageant, and the pageant she would create, Miss You Can Do It, specifically for girls with disabilities.

Abbey founded the Miss You Can Do It Pageant in 2004 and girls and their families travel from around the country to participate in this event where their inner beauty and abilities reign.

I LIKE it!

In other words, the people at Docutainment seem pretty interested in finding the heart-and-soul stories of underdogs with big dreams and seemingly impossible hopes. I think that anyone of us who has ever taken a look at a rag-tag bucket-of-bones horse and seen a show horse, let alone a champion, can appreciate that. 

The website for HARRY & SNOWMAN is requesting historical archives relating to the horse and rider team, specifically film, photos, and articles of:

  • Harry deLeyer
  • Snowman
  • 1950s jumper champions: Andante, Sonora, McLain Street, Australis and Windsor Castle
  • National Horse Shows between 1955—1965
  • The deLeyer Family
  • Dutch Crown
  • Horse Shows between 1955—1965
  • Jumper classes between 1955—1965
  • Writings and photos of Marie LaFrenz
  • New Holland PA horse auction

This is a wonderful excuse to climb into the attic and pull down all those boxes of horse memorabilia that the people around you said was a waste of time and space to keep, open them up in the living room, and scatter old newspapers about horse shows all over your house. Especially as the weather is supposed to be bad. Just make some coffee and have a good time with it. And if you don’t find anything that’s been requested for the Snowman project, you’ll still have a good time looking at old horse stuff. That’s never a waste of time.

And head over to the HARRY & SNOWMAN website to watch a great little video preview, featuring photos and film footage of Harry looking frankly very dangerous as he jumps Snowman over huge obstacles with neither a hard hat nor what I would call a steady lower-leg position, and then letting that adorable horse carry his adorable children around on swimming excursions. It’s going to be an amazing, wonderful film about an amazing, wonderful partnership!


Filed under Jumpers, Media Coverage, slaughter, Sport Horses, Success Stories

A Fine Romance — Nancy Shulins

Guest Post by Nancy Shulins*

My horse has taken up with a chicken. And I am not okay with that.

It’s not just the inane jokes from boarders at the barn where I keep Eli, my OTTB. “Hey, who’s the hot chick?” “Don’t look now, but your horse is getting henpecked!”

I laughed too, at first. But my outlook turned fowl one morning a few weeks ago, when I opened the door to Eli’s stall to deliver his breakfast and out came the poultry.

She was all legs and breast. And she’d obviously spent the night.

Eli hung his head and looked at me sheepishly from the far corner of his stall, clearly exhausted after a long night of … what, exactly? I had no idea.

Then it dawned on me she had been stalking him, hoping to catch him on the rebound from his passionate if doomed love affair with the new chestnut mare in the adjacent paddock.

The mare had been young and attractive, an off-the-track Thoroughbred like him. Eli had fallen head over hooves for her instantly, whinnying shrilly and deafeningly whenever she was out of his sight.

Chicken and horse

flickr: arnoooo

In the sixteen years that I’ve owned him, I’d seen this sort of thing before, at other barns with other horses. But Eli’s previous loves had been ancient blind ponies and fat, elderly mares, with the occasional gelding thrown in. This was different. For once, he had chosen an appropriate mate. I was kvelling.

The chestnut mare was sleek and pretty, and best of all, she’d returned his affection in kind, making it doubly painful – to say nothing of loud – when her owner abruptly decided to take her mare home to her own backyard barn.

I braced myself for the worst – a hunger strike and major depression weren’t unprecedented – but Eli accepted his soul mate’s departure with infinitely more grace than I. For the first time, I understood why my women friends went into mourning when their sons broke up with potential daughters-in-law whom they, too, had come to adore.

Exit the beautiful Thoroughbred.

Enter the drab little chicken.

The mare hadn’t been gone a week when I first heard her successor’s bizarre vocalizations as I groomed Eli in the aisle between stalls. A cross between a moan and a groan, it sounded weirdly sexual, enough so that I put down my curry comb and went searching for the source. I found her right around the corner, scratching for bugs in a pile of spilled hay.

She was a dull, rusty brown, not much to look at as chickens go. The last survivor of the barn owner’s original clutch of egg-layers, she was the only one that hadn’t fallen prey to the coyotes that had turned the coop into their own fast-food joint.

As days passed, I began to see this feathered jezebel in the barn more and more, scratching and pecking at the bedding in stalls whose occupants were out in their paddocks. At some point, she lost interest in the empty stalls and started cooling her scaly heels in Eli’s.

Unprepared though I was for their cohabitation, in retrospect I should have seen it coming. There were signs, little warnings I chose to ignore, like the day I confronted the surreal sight of my 1,254-pound horse watching over a freshly laid egg.

To be fair, mine is hardly the first Thoroughbred to fraternize outside his species. Racehorses began “friending” other animals centuries ago, long before Facebook turned the noun into a gerund.

It turns out pets are good for horses, which are, after all, inherently social beings meant to live together in herds. Like people, they do better when they have companionship. Racehorses in particular benefit from sharing their quarters, since the bulk of their time is spent idly confined to their stalls.

The solitary nature of their lives has given rise to a host of problems ranging from stomach ulcers to bad habits, also known as “stable vices.” Most are repetitive movements, corruptions of normal equine behaviors that have been rendered impossible by life in a stall. For a horse that’s fed highly concentrated grain twice a day, pacing, weaving and wood-chewing help eat up the hours they were meant to spend free-ranging for food.

Pairing racehorses with stall mates – goats, pigs, cats, ponies, and roosters – is a longstanding practice among trainers, since contented horses are less apt to pace at night and more likely to lie down and rest, making them better bets come post time.

At twenty-two, my horse’s racing days are far behind him. But the need for companionship is one he’ll never outgrow. And good friends are hard to find regardless of species. Who am I to say how his ought to look?

So, for however long this lasts, I’m committed to walking on eggshells.

A bird in the hand, after all.

*Nancy Shulins is the author of Falling For Eli: How I Lost Heart, Then Gained Hope Through the Love of a Singular Horse (Da Capo Press)


Filed under Herd Life, horsepeople, racetrack life, Sport Horses, writing

That One Horse: Nancy Shulins’ “Falling for Eli”

I used to dream of being the star of a reality show called FLIP THAT HORSE. No, it wasn’t going to be about my many mis-adventures with horses that neither cross-tied nor tied to trailers; after one or two viewings, the finales of each episode would become rather anti-climactic, with viewers shrieking “Don’t tie him to the trailer!” or “Don’t leave him in the washrack for three minutes while you go find a sweat scraper!” until they all gave up in disgust and turned the channel back to another rerun of The Big Bang Theory. 

No, FLIP THAT HORSE was going to be the adventures of ME, Natalie Keller Reinert, retired racehorse retrainer, as I scooped up OTTBs left and right, here from a training center, there from a kill-pen, here from a stock-yard, there from a backyard, and turned them into amateur-owner eventers, 4-H hunters, dressage/trail/pony party pets, all the things that the average off-track Thoroughbred excels in: the very basics of being a Nice Horse.

Falling for Eli cover image, Thoroughbred horse

Falling for Eli, by Nancy Shulins. Best cover of the year award goes to...

I can’t help it; I love a new horse, a fresh start, quirks to explore and head-carriages to sort out. Why do you carry your hind end like that? Is something going on in that right knee? No? Then please stop pointing your toe! Let’s work on that bucking at every lead change, shall we? Hurry up, move along, my fingers are twitching to get back on Craigslist and find my next diamond in the rough!

I’m a natural-born horse flipper. (And that probably won’t Google well.)

That’s earned me some derision amongst friends and acquaintances. Why can’t I settle down with one horse? How can I stand to let them go? Don’t I get attached? 

Of course I get attached. But let’s be honest: we don’t get a lifetime, one-in-a-million, soul-mate story with every single horse that walks in the farm gate. That’s why they’re one-in-a-million. And sometimes you come across him, and you stay together for years, and more often you don’t. And you keep looking for years, and years, hoping to find that One horse again.

I’ve had one of those soul-mate stories, and a couple false starts, a couple might-have-beens, and quite a few really nice horses who just weren’t the One. My first horse was lovely, but he wasn’t the One. I stumbled through a few perfectly-nice-just-for-someone-else horses before I met the One. I suspect this experience had already planted an idea of the fleeting nature of owning horses before I met him, and it stayed with me.

He was my horse. He was My Horse. I knew all his quirks, and he knew all of mine. He did ridiculous things like cut off his eyelid, and I held up his sagging head while the vet stitched it back on. He was My Horse. It didn’t matter if he was accident-prone, or foot-sore, or too long in the back, or had a really awful habit of spooking hard at strange horses when we were out on trail rides. He was My Horse, with all of his limitations and strange reactions and inexplicable melt-downs, and there wasn’t enough money in the world for me to sell him on.

Falling for Eli is a story of the One, of author Nancy Shulins‘ My Horse. It is a love story. It is a memoir. It is a tribute, to one accident-prone Thoroughbred, with terrible luck and a hell of a spook, for whom there isn’t enough money in the world to sell him on.

Nancy Shulins is a re-rider who gave up horses in her teens. At the urging of her husband, in the midst of a deep depression, she shows up at an acquaintance’s boarding stable midway through a demanding career as a writer with the Associated Press,  and immediately wonders how she ever could have left the magic city at all:

Like Dorothy in reverse, I step out of the Technicolor sunshine and into the dim, russet barn.

For the moment it takes my eyes to adjust, I inhale the heady aroma of horses, manure, wood shavings, and hay, with top notes of worn saddle leather, and realize how much I have missed it.

And so it begins. For the horse-obsessed, the magic never loses its potency, whether we are five or forty-five or, I assume, one hundred and five. And when you meet your soul-mate horse without any stumbling through a paddock-full of bad matches and perfectly-nice-for-someone-else horses, perhaps the magic is that much stronger.

Shulins was looking for magic, although she might not have recognized that at first. Feeling lost, a childless woman on a stroller-and-playset-littered street in suburban Connecticut, the Land of Babies, she lavished attention on her nieces and nephews. And then they moved across the country.

And it became harder to ignore that something was missing from her life.

Horses fill holes in lives.

No, horses are not children. Most people will point out the most obvious difference: you get to leave the horse at the barn every night. But you also get to lie awake worrying about your horse, all alone at the barn. Will he be warm enough? Did I put enough rugs on him? What if something happens in the night? Something… anything! And maybe the barn manager’s alarm won’t go off! And they won’t get breakfast on time! And he’ll colic! And no one will know!

Anyone who has ever felt a flutter of panic as they drive up their barn driveway, just hoping, just praying that everything will be just fine with their horse, knows what I am talking about. It’s not so different from parenthood. It’s almost more frightening. You can’t bring them into the house and keep an eye on them; you pay others to watch them, or you leave them home alone. And when they’re as accident-prone as Eli…


This is no spoiler, but the God’s honest truth: Eli racks up the vet bills. To the point, in fact, where I was sorely tempted to flip to the back of the book to make sure there’s a happy ending.

There is.

Read Falling for Eli. Hug your horse. Feel lucky. Whether he is the One or not, there’s something there, something magical.


Filed under Book Reviews, Sport Horses, Success Stories