The New York Times published yesterday the second in its series on equine deaths in horse racing. If you have the stomach to read it click here. The first article focused primarily on statistics. Yesterday's piece looked at causes.
I am a professional horse trainer, but the closest I get to racing is starting horses before they race and training them for careers after they race. My time on the backstretch is spent looking at horses who are retiring and in need of new jobs.
I approached both of the New York Times pieces defensively. Horse people are like religious zealots. We all worship horses and thereby are bound together as a community. When outsiders criticize us we react in defense. For me, a person who devotes his or her life to the care of these glorious creatures is a brother or a sister whether they groom at the track, own a farm, ride in horse shows, or train. I hesitate to criticize my peers.
Yesterday's article, however, disarmed me.
Horses are injured and die on farms every day even when cared for meticulously. Anyone who has been around a breeding farm knows this well, and the causes are as diverse as nature itself. When horses are injured in the work that we ask them to do it breaks our hearts even more. We blame ourselves or whoever was responsible.
I try to keep in mind, however, that in most cases our horses love their work. This is particularly true of a Thoroughbred that is lucky enough to be a racehorse. Racehorses are pampered more than any other equines, and the "work" that they do is being allowed to gallop in an open space on ground that is designed for their physical comfort in the company of other horses. They love it.
The New York Times article was not about the devotion of humans to their racehorses and the glorious life that they lead. It was an effort to shock its readers and get a reaction. It described the use of anti-inflamatories as having feed "laced" with painkillers.
When I was done reading and let myself reflect, I found myself hoping that the powers that be in racing (to the extent that there are any) were listening, and that change would come.
You bet that track owners should stop looking the other way when horses being barely held together with legal or illegal therapies are used to fill races. Track owners like Penn National Gaming, Inc.complain about the cost of accreditation through the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's (NTRA) Safety and Integrity Alliance. Shame on them. Shame especially on the ones who only own a track because it's a way to get a profitable casino. Maybe we in the horse industry should organize boycotts of their casinos until they get their NTRA accreditation.
You bet that the claiming game is racing's most insidious force working against horse welfare. Owning a horse is a responsibility. Claiming one because you think it has a few good races left in it and then masking its injuries to get someone else to claim it when you think it won't win anymore is a disgusting form of horse ownership. When somebody buys a horse they are taking responsibility for that horse's future. The quick and easy transfers of ownership through the claiming process turns these horses into a disposable commodity.
I am a Marylander and have one more year in my service as president of the Maryland Horse Council. I have a naive dream that our Maryland Jockey Club adopts the slogan "Maryland Racing: Where Horses Come First!" Wouldn't it be exciting to test some horse welfare and safety standards that go beyond what any track in America has tried, and then to market racing as a place for horse lovers to gather. Come to the track to learn about Thoroughbred horses. We will show you how they are cared for, how they are trained, what they can do in careers after racing, and what makes them earth's most powerful and graceful domesticated creatures. Bet on a horse and be part of the action.
I also have a dream that the work of the Retired Racehorse Training Project (RRTP) and its friends in the sport horse and racing worlds make owning an ex-racehorse so fashionable and honorable that prices for the sound horses retiring from racing rise to at least the bottom claiming price. When demand for ex-racehorses grows, the incentive to squeeze the last races out of unsuccessful horse is reduced.
Two time World Champion Bruce Davidson proclaimed at an RRTP event in Kentucky last week that "The Thoroughbred horse has the best temperament of any breed." Let us spread that message throughout the horse world and be there to receive these great animals when they retire from a well managed racing life that provides them with a solid foundation for a second career.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
This is an article that I submitted to Dressage Today magazine. As we await word on whether it will be published I thought I would share this draft for comment from readers of this blog.
It has been a while since Hilda Gurney dominated US dressage on her Thoroughbred ex-racehorse Keen and placed 4th in the 1976 Olympics. It may no longer be possible to rank near the top of world standings on a horse not bred for the sport, but we can still move up the levels on a Thoroughbred ex-racehorse, win some nice ribbons, and have a blast doing it.
Americans love Thoroughbreds. They carried our soldiers, they delivered our mail, and their intense desire to win races inspires us every spring as we yearn for a Triple Crown winner. In my thoroughly biased opinion as founder and president of the Retired Racehorse Training Project, I am convinced that their suitability for dressage is underappreciated in today’s marketplace. Ex-racehorses still win the dressage phase at every level of eventing, and if more went to top dressage trainers we might see more at the FEI levels of dressage. I find that horses off the track find comfort and peace in dressage training, and that many are very forgiving of their rider’s mistakes.
If you happen to be one of the twenty thousand people to visit the Retired Racehorse Training Project website during our recent Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge, then you saw on video the process from day one to week five of four recently retired racehorses with three very competent professional trainers. Many were surprised by how quickly these horses learned to shift their balance from that of a leaning racehorse to something closer to a training level dressage horse. Or maybe you were lucky enough to be one of the three thousand to squeeze into the Trainer Challenge finale at the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo on February 25 and saw how the success of all four horses moved judge James Wofford to threaten to pull a trailer up to the arena door and take all four horses home.
The Trainer Challenge was a thrill for thousands, but for the average professional three day event trainer, it was nothing new. We know how easy it is to introduce an ex-racehorse to a career that includes basic dressage training. We also know that the process is a little different from what we do with a green-broke youngster of any breed who never ran. Those of us who put ourselves through the United States Eventing Association’s Instructor Certification Program were asked to become fluent in the terminology of the German National Equestrian Federation’s training scale or pyramid. Rhythm, looseness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection are the words we use in English. Let’s see if this terminology helps to describe our work with ex-racehorses..
Applying the Training Scale to the Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorse
I may be stoned at X for blasphemy, but open your mind and pretend for a moment that a happily galloping Thoroughbred and exercise rider demonstrate in some way the first five elements of the training scale. They maintain a lovely rhythm, their looseness is demonstrated by the full range of stride, the rider maintains a consistent contact in the bridle, the impulsion is felt in every stride, if not contained in the manner of a sport horse, and while some manage to run crooked, the faster they go the more straightness they show. There are moments of great harmony between horse and rider in the mornings at the track. The riders that encourage rhythm, looseness, contact, impulsion, and straightness in their horses are in great demand by good trainers. Their horses stay happier and sounder, and are therefore able to win more races.
No, no, you say. That isn’t dressage at all. I am completely twisting the meaning of those sacred training scale words! Of course I am, but I am doing it to make a point. All the masters stress that the early stages of training are about going forward, forward, forward. They might not have to say it so many times if they were working with ex-racehorses. The willingness to go forward, I believe, is the primary reason why horses off the track take so readily to the beginning stages of correct dressage training.
The feel of a three or four year old horse who raced recently is very different from that of a horse of the same age that is green-broke outside of racing. The sport horse is usually more reluctant to march forward into the bridle, but finds rhythm and looseness in its body more easily as long as no fear is present. The ex-racehorse tends to be eager to go forward at all three gaits, but has difficulty with rhythm and looseness. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides.
It is the relationship between rhythm and looseness and contact that we must resolve early with a horse off the track, and they way we do it makes all of the difference.
Balance, Balance, Balance
For the observer from the ground the progression up the training scale toward the ultimate goal of collection appears to be all about shifting the horse’s balance from its forehand to its hindquarters. When starting with a horse off the track, we have no choice but to address this balance from day one.
Racehorses lean into the bit and not only push from behind at speed but also pull at the ground from the front. We are told by the experts that a galloping horse carries 60% of its weight on its front legs, but that a balanced cantering sport horse carries 60% behind.
We feel this leaning on the forehand with most ex-racehorses as soon as we pick up the reins and ask for a trot. With some horses it becomes even heavier at the canter.
If we refuse to support the horse in the bridle with the reins, we feel the horse rushing forward in a tempo so quick that we are forced to break the rhythm with inconsistent pulling on the reins, which punishes the horse for going forward. Rhythm and looseness are difficult to achieve on a fit horse who has worked daily at the race track with ten or more pounds of weight in the bridle.
If we are at all sympathetic, we understand that our ex-racehorse is pulling not because it wants to run fast, but simply because it has not yet found the balance that is required to do basic work in a riding arena. We want to correct the balance problem and find the rhythm and looseness, but we sometimes fail to offer the quality of contact that these horses expect, thinking that it is premature. Here is where we can learn from our brothers and sisters at the racetracks.
I will never forget the first session of our 2009 Retired Racehorse Training Symposium. Retired jockey JK Adams rode Monster Chaser fresh from the track in an exercise saddle and racing silks. All 350 jaws in the arena dropped as he walked, trotted, and cantered in balance and rhythm around the indoor arena with the horse in a frame that looked quite appropriate for a competitive training level dressage test. His secret was his balance, his shock absorbers, and his hands.
Exercise riders balance over their feet and allow their ankles, knees, and hips to absorb the movement of the horse while their upper bodies stay still. They lock their joints to slow down and let them move to go forward. They never raise their hands. They place them down on the horse’s neck just in front of the withers and leave them there. That is exactly how Mr. Adams gave us all a riding lesson at our symposium.
Ex-racehorses will find the balance that we seek if we find perfect balance ourselves and allow them to redefine their relationship to the bit without flailing about with our hands. We seek rhythm and looseness, but we must meet the horse on its own terms to get there. An ex-racehorse needs the bit as it discovers the new balance. We must allow him to use it and not confuse him by moving it. That is why putting the hands down firmly on the neck is so effective. The horse might pull quite hard against the bit for brief moments as it seeks balance, but if the pulling is against its own neck then the rider’s balance never shifts and the solution is much easier for the horse to discover.
But contact, you say, is not only in the bridle. What about the seat and legs? Well yes, even ex-racehorses need some leg, sometimes quite sharply. The leg aids are more difficult to apply tactfully when riding in a half seat, or two point, and impossible to apply in racing stirrups. But we as riders must learn to use our legs independently even when our weight is balanced over our stirrups in a forward seat saddle. Event riders learn this skill to keep our horses balanced and flowing around the modern, very technical cross country courses. We brag about our ability to do “dressage in two point.” Try riding a good working trot correctly on a well-schooled dressage horse without ever letting your bottom touch the saddle. Then throw in some transitions and lateral work. That will test your skills!
Dressage saddles put us in a wonderful position to drape our legs around the horse’s barrel and plug our seat into the horse’s back. From there we can snuggle up and dance with our horses. We can play that game with our ex-racehorses, but only when they allow it. If that position causes a loss of rhythm and looseness, then it is too soon…or we need to learn to sit better!
Dressage saddles tend not to work well with a horse fresh off the track. Jack up the stirrups and free up those tight racehorse back muscles. Sit when you can, but understand that it might not be right away.
Beyond Rhythm, Looseness, and Contact
Once a Thoroughbred ex-racehorse is accepting the bit, the leg, and the seat in fundamental ways, and moves in all three gaits with a consistent rhythm and some degree of looseness and swing through its body, we start asking for more. Nothing is different in what we strive for than with any other breed of horse, but the obstacles to success have a common theme. These horses have a flight instinct that works for you and against you every step of the way.
When we ask for more impulsion, we might get an overreaction, leading to a loss of balance and then tension. When we make corrections to achieve straightness, the aids that we use on one side of the horse’s body might easily be interpreted as a threat to escape from. When we ask for collection, the flight instinct might again set off alarms that create a response unlike the one we seek.
I like to think of the tension in a Thoroughbred’s body as it seeks to learn the meaning of our aids as an intense desire to please us. A sensitive Thoroughbred will usually settle and return to the rhythm and looseness that we need as our foundation when it understands our exercise. Thoroughbreds tend to thrive on physical movement, and they are, like all horses, hypnotized by their own rhythms. Repetition of success creates a sense of peace. Little time is spent inspiring the Thoroughbred horse to give more effort. They were bred to try hard.
Frequent circling back in our training to rhythm and looseness is more essential with the Thoroughbred than with most warmbloods. A good trainer on a Thoroughbred will spend lots of time reassuring the horse that all is well. Some will use voice, some will relax the legs, and almost all will soften a rein to invite the horse to stretch its topline as a reminder that we seek looseness in everything we do.
Thoroughbreds seem to want to do things well, and respond to balance and tact. They are bred to be brave, to thrive on their work, and to move away from pressure. Add this to the fact that they are earth’s most graceful domesticated creature, and it is no wonder that so many of us call ourselves Thoroughbred lovers.
Sunday, February 5, 2012
I have neglected this blog, but I have a good excuse. The Retired Racehorse Training Project (RRTP) is my good excuse. It is a very, very good excuse.
RRTP finally launched its web site in December. Within a week of the launch we announced the first Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge at the Maryland and Pennsylvania Horse World Expos. Then we launched our RRTP Facebook Page, announced the three trainers for the Challenge, and then the horses for the Challenge with their super-popular videos. At the same time we were churning out press releases, promoting the Bloodline Brag, desperately seeking to line up sponsors, ordering logo wear to sell, figuring out how to do credit card sales, and keeping up with all the databases in the web site: the Trainer Directory, the Sources for Horses, the Free Classifieds, and the Bloodline Brag.
Had my wife Erin not quit her job teaching Equine Studies courses at the University of Maryland none of this would have been possible. She has been the computer jockey extraordinaire. Had I not had the best assistant trainer in Michelle Warro, the best barn manager in Emily Siegrist, and the most helpful students and friends in the world, I could not have kept our business at Dodon Farm running while spending more than half of my time on RRTP work. Has it been worth the effort?
Consider these numbers. As of today, February 5, not even halfway through the five week Trainer Challenge, we already have had 23,695 views on our You Tube channel, have had 16,388 visits to our web site from 9,533 people who spent an average of 4 minutes 33seconds there for a total of 67,462 page views. Our Facebook Page has 1,857 followers. Most Facebook pages have a Total Weekly Reach that is close to or less than their number of followers. Our Total Weekly Reach, however, is thirteen times greater than our number of followers at an astounding 24,302. Our followers are forwarding the material on to their networks constantly. All of the great online and print press coverage has helped as well.
A month from now we will look back at these numbers and laugh. We have yet to open the online voting for your favorite trainer. We have not yet traveled to each of our trainers' farms to interview them about their training techniques, watch them on their Trainer Challenge horses, and watch them on their own experienced horses. That will all be available to watch online for free. And then the live stream of the Trainer Challenge at the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo on February 25 will attract thousands more viewers who will be invited to vote for the winner.
Kerry Blackmer, Tiffany Catledge, and Eric Dierks. These trainers have a huge responsibility to make the case that is the mission of the RRTP. They are doing a great service.
Maryland Horse Breeders Association's ex-presidents invited me to present our work to their foundation board and immediately awarded us a $5,000 grant. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association's (NTRA) Aftercare Committee has decided to focus on increasing demand for ex-racehorses in 2012 and will work to strengthen partnerships between racing and sport horse interests. I was honored to accept an invitation to serve on that committee. I grew up idolizing folks in Thoroughbred racing. To me they are still the ultimate horsemen who all of us can learn from.
|Apprentice Trainer, Laury Parramore, with Bodiddle, who|
didn't quite make it into the Trainer Challenge, but
who still gets a month of professional training at Dodon.
Like most new charitable organizations we are nowhere near meeting the budget that will allow us to move forward with our plans. Everything helps. If you've not yet donated, please click here and do so. If you know of a company that recognizes the huge marketing potential that association with our work can offer, please give me some names and numbers. We'll talk to anybody who shares our vision and supports our mission. We only have one chance to get this stuff right. Our horses deserve to have their story told.
We can do more than Listen To The Horse. We can pass the message to the rest of the human race. We need to hear it.
Sunday, October 30, 2011
The easiest way to read this blog entry is to click on the link to a pdf of the document.
I did not write this for the blog. I wrote it for a seminar at Keeneland hosted by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. I am posting it here because it presents what I think is a compelling case for expanded work in an area that is close to my heart.
Thoroughbred racehorses are the planet's most powerful and elegant domesticated creatures. They made me the person I am today, for better or worse, and they continue to inspire me with their generosity and grace.
I am thrilled to report that the Retired Racehorse Training Project is now a 501(c)3 charitable organization and will have a fantastic new interactive web site up within a week or two. We will be at the Virginia Equine Extravaganza doing clinics November 4, 5, and 6. Please stop by our booth and ride the equiciser!
Monday, September 5, 2011
|Somebody must be herding them...for the camera|
Sorry about the title. Sounds like another natural horsemanship scam has been born, but if you just read on I'll promise that I will NOT copyright the phrase and I will NOT try to sell you a DVD about it. I will, however, suggest that you subscribe to this blog and that you "like" the Dodon Farm Facebook Page, where we post lots of farm news.
When I was a kid we always had five or six family horses in a big pasture. My Dad was a lawyer in D.C. and we went to school in town, so our time on the farm with the horses was precious. Dad loved to see the horses run. " Let's chase the horses," he would say.What a thrill for me. I could waive my arms, run a few steps, and be rewarded with ten or twenty seconds of thundering hooves, bucks and squeals. We were herding, and it really was fun.
Fast forward to the age of sophisticated horsemanship. I will describe three recent situations in which herding of a more refined nature has helped in three stages of training. .
First let me upgrade the concept of herding to what I like to call establishing boundaries. For me all of what we do on a horse's back can be understood as creating boundaries and moving them closer in or further away. Horses instinctively understand our aids when they are consistent and firm because they are herd animals.
|True Class as a foal|
I taught her to long line, and that helped. It got her used to reins rubbing her sides and to me behind her. It also got her somewhat accepting the bit for turns and halts. The bucking problem, however, was still there. There are lots of ways to attach a longe line, and one that I don't usually like is to run it through the inside bit ring, over the poll, and snap it on the outside bit ring. Michelle did just that to Kate after a bucking fit when I wasn't there to supervise. Damn, I thought. That's brilliant. And it worked. Now we longe her that way before riding, and when she dares to drop her head to buck I can pull on the line hard. That pulls the bit directly upward and brings her head back up. It creates the boundary that says you are not allowed to drop your head. It's simple, but why had I never thought of using the longe line this way on the many youngsters who buck while longeing under saddle? Michelle hasn't had the opportunity to ride her buck lately, but we suspect she will at some point. The hope is that Kate will remember when Michelle pulls the reins upward that we've established a boundary. Head between the knees is not a comfy place to be. It's not about punishing her for bucking, which I find does not work. In fact, I don't think punishing horses works at all, because it's not in the moment. This was about creating a consistent boundary with an artificial aid. That does work.
Amy Parsons trailered in from Warrenton for four lessons over two days on her retired steeplechase horse with whom she has done some low level eventing. I'd never met them, but I wish they lived closer because horse and rider were a delight to work with. Their problem on the flat was common. A good rider, a talented and cooperative horse, and an inconsistent connection in the bridle. The solution was straightforward. Stabilize the hands.
When I got on, the horse went well. When Amy got on and I made her grab her stirrup leather with her left hand where it was crossed over the pommel (grabbing anything can work), the horse went well. Once the connection was established she was able to remove the hand from it's prop and maintain the feel. It's so simple. Amy had been told, as we all have, that the horse should be soft on the inside rein. Rather than letting the horse accept the rein and soften to it, she softened the rein herself, over and over again. There was no boundary established for the horse, just a lot of movement from the rider's hand that sent no clear message.
Amy's problem with her horse over fences was that he's sticky. He sometimes stops, but more often sucks back to the point that he's almost jumping from a standstill. The stickiness would also show up on the flat. He didn't really move forward from the rider's leg when asked. We call it a failure to stay "in front of the leg."
The solution there was also simple, if thought of in terms of boundaries. He must sense that there is something behind him that is quick to respond when he sucks back. Kicking with dull boots repeatedly can be a little like pulling the rein and letting go. The horse will learn to hold his breath and brace his body for the kick, rather than to relax his back and swing forward in long strides. We added spurs to make the leg pressure more acute, and therefore more likely to be felt with less movement by the rider, and we added a crop so that a signal could be delivered from behind that is quick, clear, and very natural to send the horse forward. It was then Amy's job to establish in her mind a minimum pace for jumping, and a commitment to act consistently when her horse backed off from that pace. Simple, obvious, and straightforward. The key is that it is a boundary that the rider is capable of establishing and that the horse is capable of working within. Our steeplechase retiree is certainly capable of jumping at more than 300 meters per minute. I hope to see Amy again soon and find that she has mastered what we practiced and has a new set of issues to confront, or more likely the same issues, but at a new level.
|Michelle and Billy during brief experiment in double bridle|
Michelle dreams of making Billy a better mover and competitive in the dressage. Michelle is very ambitious, and has the talent and drive to make her dreams come true. Off and on over the last couple of years I have asked Michelle to use less leg on Billy, especially in his trot work. She tries so hard to create suspension. Billy does need leg to keep him from dropping his back and becoming disengaged behind, but leg for that is a boundary. He is not allowed to collapse and become flat in his topline. Tickling him in the belly with the spur is usually enough to remind him. Thumping calves in the rhythm of his trot, however, is more like noise.
Lately I have come to the conclusion that Billy really can become competitive in the dressage. Don't get me wrong. He usually scores under 35, but we need him to be under 30. The answer, I believe, is simply making him straighter. Billy wiggles. Parts of his body are way too loose, and keeping his shoulders lined up with his poll and his tail, whether on a straight line or on the arc of a circle, is no easy task. If you do take away the lateral wiggle, his withers start to lift and he starts to feel like he's really doing dressage. He's not lazy. He likes to work. He just hasn't learned to dance.
I won't try to explain here how all the parts of the rider's body must respond to each lateral drift in each gait. There are books about that, but you won't get it until you've practiced for a few thousand hours. Fortunately, Michelle gets it and is pushing herself to a level of accuracy in her dressage riding that establishes closer boundaries in a way that Billy is starting to accept. Hips and shoulders are over the center of the horse, legs and hands perfectly placed in any given moment, and no acceptance of crookedness in horse or rider. They scored 32.2 for fourth place this weekend at Seneca, and have six weeks to prepare for the first FEI competition of their career at the Kentucky Horse Park. The boundaries will have moved closer by then, Billy's front end will magically lift, and the judges will smile.
It's always dangerous to adhere too closely to any framework of thinking. It would be easy to forget that establishing boundaries is an art, that boundaries can create resistance, that we must listen to the boundaries that the horse puts in our way, and that we don't always know which boundaries will create the movement that we seek. On the other hand, if we remember that we are simply herding our horses through physical boundaries we take responsibility for what they do in every moment. That should be enough to occupy our minds completely while we ride. If all of us could do that our horses would reward us.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Being president of the Maryland Horse Council has allowed me to listen to horse people outside of my own riding discipline. It has also allowed me to think big thoughts and do big things.
I became active with the horse council in 2005 when people were mobilizing in support of a state horse park 20 minutes from our farm. We lost that battle when the wrong guy was elected county executive, but it turned out that there were other issues and a lot of opportunities. I couldn't stay away.
Saving farms from unreasonable zoning and permitting requirements, saving horse racing from greedy track owners, pulling together horse professionals to support each other in business, drawing attention to the crisis of unwanted horses in a bad economy, funding our state's Horse Industry Board so that it can promote what we all do, convincing state legislators to classify what we do on horse farms as agriculture... The list is long and worthy.
Usually we work on issues that cut across disciplines. Supporting racing has been an exception. We have fought alongside the backstretch workers, trainers, and breeders because horses bred for racing comprise more than a third of the state's horse population, and an even higher percentage of the equine-related economic activity and farmland. Those of us who love Thoroughbreds and idolize the crusty old guys who train them to race just can't stand to see out-of-state track owners making decisions that threaten the whole industry, so we fight back.
An interesting thing happened when we created our Maryland Horse Council Committee to Support Racing. The group of about forty that began having meetings was an equal mix of folks who make their living in racing, both on the thoroughbred and standardbred sides, and people like me who are from other sectors of the horse world. The racing people were at least as interested in doing things to promote the non-racing industry as we were about supporting racing. The committee evolved into what is now the Horse Industry Marketing Advisory Committee.
Discussions about bringing people to the tracks kept coming back to The Horse, and what an incredible attraction it is. Why doesn't the Maryland Jockey Club focus more of its marketing on the animals that do the running? The American Horse Council did a survey a few years back suggesting that a majority of Americans want to be involved with horses. That's a lot of people.
Well, duh. Horses are the most powerful and beautiful domesticated beasts on earth. They represent power, grace, spirit, self-discipline, and just about every other cool attribute we want to label them with. They are what we want to be. Even guys like to be called studs.
Every once in a while Hollywood turns to the human fascination with horses to make money. Interest in racing peaks only when the media becomes focussed on a star like Secretariat or Zenyatta. People don't go to see the jockeys or to make money at the betting window. They go to be close to the horses and the lifestyle that horses represent.
Why is it so hard for investors to see this? Why isn't there a network of equestrian theme parks like Disney World, with horses as the attractions rather than a frickin mouse? Is it that horse people are just bad business people?
I want to sit down some day with some really smart business folks who create entertainment destinations, and create a place where the public can come to experience the mystique of the horse in a big way. Wouldn't it be great if someone bought the Maryland Jockey Club and wanted to make the race tracks into something like that? A theater with nothing but horse movies. An arena for shows and demonstrations. A barn for nothing but tours and education. Riding simulation machines and games. Entertainment every weekend with stuff for the whole family.
I'm not giving up. In fact, I'm not the only person who thinks this way. I've recently gotten to know a guy named Ross Peddicord. He used to be a trainer at the track, then was the Baltimore Sun's award winning racing reporter, and most recently was publisher of Maryland Life magazine. Just this year he became the director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board. Ross's new job is to figure out ways to promote the state's horse industry. Ross has been co-hosting our marketing meetings recently, and Ross is a genius. He also knows and loves everybody and he believes that the marketing and entertainment potential of the horse has never been fully realized...anywhere.
Ross thinks that a horse park can be much more than just a place for competitions. He talks about things on the scale of Disneyland. He sees the horse park as a place for the public and tourists to start, and from there spread out across the state to our major competitions, our farms, our lesson barns, our racetracks, and our trail networks. That's a vision that even I, the master of dreamers, hadn't conceived.
Who knows if Ross's vision of a horse park plus, or my vision of racetracks as equestrian entertainment destinations will come to pass. I do know, however, that we are on to some ideas that inspire people, just like the original horse park plan inspired me, and that if enough of us support each other and keep the fire in our bellies, we will eventually emerge with something way better than what we have now.
Horses are great role models for humans, and most of us horse folk believe that the world would be a better place if more people were brought up knowing horses.
So let's get to work promoting The Horse. It's not just about helping an industry. It's about improving our world.
When I told my 92 year old dad that I had titled this blog "Listen to the Horse," he smiled knowingly and said, "That can mean a lot of things."
"Yep," I said. "Remember when I interviewed you on camera and asked if you had any advice to your grandchildren as they sought to understand the big questions that can never be understood?"
"What did I say?"
"You said, 'When you are looking for answers, listen to nature.' That's part of what I mean by Listen to the Horse."
"That's what I meant too," he said. And we both smiled.