Posts Tagged ‘horse sports’


Of course the largest font on my author tag cloud in the horse fiction library is Dick Francis, who, as you most likely already know, was a champion steeplechase (or, more properly, National Hunt) jockey before he became an incredibly prolific writer. Having read all of his novels, I thought I had some idea as to what a National Hunt race is like, but it turns out I really didn’t have a clue.

Wiola posted a video of the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup – a race Dick Francis never won but described many times in his novels – and I was totally amazed, watching it, to realize I had never seen a National Hunt race. For some reason, all of the imagery I had absorbed from reading tricked my brain into thinking I had actually watched steeplechasing – but seeing the real thing, it was completely different from what I had imagined.

Given the dramatic action of the race scenes in Dick Francis’ novels, the pace seemed slower and the fences looked lower than I expected. I do realize that if I was riding the course – a completely and unequivocally absurd thought – it would most certainly be the other way around (and since Dick Francis writes in the first person that makes sense), but having adjusted my sense of speed from flat racing to harness racing, I still wasn’t prepared for the initial circuit’s lope towards the fences.

In reality, of course, the fences are at least 4½ ft. high and it’s only the talent of horse and rider that makes them seem smaller, but perhaps because of the camera angle they didn’t seem to loom above the horses as I thought they would. I know it’s an optical illusion, but somehow Grand Prix showjumping has ruined my eye for what constitutes a tall fence.

The course itself seems to go on forever – 3 miles 2½ furlongs – and the fitness and stamina of the horses blew my mind, particularly with Cheltenham’s famed uphill finish. It makes a flat racing course, even the most strenuous, seem like a sprint. Harness racing horses are jogged for miles daily to increase their wind, but the actual races are only a mile (longer in New Zealand and Australia.) I can’t imagine the amount of work that goes into conditioning a ‘chaser.

When the narrator in a Dick Francis novel describes a race, it sounds like the course is full of twists and turns, dark alleys where misbehavior can’t be seen by the stewards and hidden pockets out of sight of the cheering crowd where a bystander could be lurking to string something across the jump to fell horse and rider. It’s a testament to the skill of his writing that the atmosphere of his suspense novels is nothing like the cheerful, endlessly green course of the real race in the clear light of day.

It’s interesting how the mind works. I’ve had memories of things that seemed much larger, or imposing, when I was a child, only to find as an adult that they weren’t intimidating at all. I just never realized that the same dynamic could occur with memories that were, literally, fiction.

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I love TheHorse.com, if only because it gives me such good blogging fodder:

California Adopts Steroid Testing Levels

February 29 2008, Article # 11422

The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) took a major step towards banning supplemental anabolic steroids with the adoption of testing levels for four major substances during its meeting Feb. 28 in Arcadia.

“It’s the first step in regulating anabolic steroids in California horse racing,” said Rick Arthur, DVM, the state’s equine medical director. “This is the most important action the board will take on medications this year.”

Due to their copyright policy, I can’t reprint more than that on this site, but I do feel I can add a few quotes:

Punishment for overages has yet to be finalized. In the meantime, the CHRB intends to send warning letters for any overages.


CHRB chairman Richard Shapiro noted that the timing is right for regulation. “Anybody who reads the news knows this is something obvious,” he said. “We need to move forward. This is something that will help the whole industry very quickly.”

Hmm… really? From working on horses at the track, I can tell you that the ones on steroids – most commonly ‘Equipoise’ (a misnomer if I ever heard one) – are so tense, both muscularly and mentally, that it’s totally unpleasant to be around them. Even the grooms avoid them, and do the minimum to care for these horses. I have seen horses literally grinding their teeth like a methamphetamine addict on a three-day run.

Trainers come up with all kinds of good reasons to give their horses steroids – “She’s too moody to race otherwise”, “He’s not aggressive enough to get out front”, “He’s not fast enough without” etc., etc., but the bottom line is, if you have to drug your horse to win, it’s not the right horse or you are not the right trainer. Performance-enhancing drugs are just that – drugs. Just ask Marion Jones.

And who will be doing research into the long-term effects of use in horses? No one, I presume, since, after all, they’re just horses, who can easily be converted to cash once their winning streak is over. (I’m hoping those who eat chevale aren’t disturbed by the idea of inducing who-knows-what drugs into their system along with a horseburger du jour.)

And those warning letters? Those will really put the fear of God in ’em. Especially since any testosterone level in non-gelded horses will be acceptable. Your man-eating, fire-breathing, totally unmanageable stallion is always like that, right? And gee whiz, he sure races great, especially if you can keep him straight so he doesn’t get distracted by the impulse to beat the crap out of every other horse on the homestretch.

The racing industry is dogged by constantly churning whispers of unfair play on every level. Surely the powers that be can see that the confidence of the gaming public – something that no one can deny has slipped, and slipped badly on every racing day other than the Derby – is imperative to the continued health of the sport. So why the hell is it a “major step” when they announce “testing levels” but don’t actually announce banning the drugs, testing for them, or consequences?

Get with it, guys. If an Olympic medalist can be taken down, what’s the dilemma about a $3000 claimer?

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In Service to the Horse: Chronicles of a Labor of Love

by Susan Nusser

Little, Brown and Company, 2004

karen_oconnor.jpgNusser is an excellent writer, with a great eye for details and the ability to create suspense out of an eventing season. The secondary stories of the showjumping and breeding grooms, while interesting, never take off, and it’s the groom of the O’Connor Event Team that creates the center and meat of the book. The book seems less about the lives and livelihood of grooms and more about the O’Conners – celebrities in the elite world of Three Day Eventing – and one wonders why the author didn’t admit her fascination and simply write a book about them, since they provide plenty of interest. The premise of the book doesn’t live up to the jacket copy, but in its stead, the glimpse into the lives of two of the equestrian world’s biggest names make it well worth reading, at least for the equine enthusiast.

*Review originally written on Google Book Search

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The barn where I stable my horse is that rarity, a place where riders of different ages and disciplines exist in harmony. While there are only two Western saddles in the tack room (mine being one of them), there are numerous Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, an aged pony, and even a mustang, and no one is anything but kind in their comments and treatment of other people’s horses. There is no snootiness, and no drama. I am very lucky in this regard, and I know it.

One of my fellow boarders, a kind and conscientious college student, is a dressage rider who shows above third level – an assumption on my part based on her use of a double-bridle when she rides. She has a fabulous warmblood and one day while she was grooming him, I asked her about her experience and his. She talked for a bit about her good fortune in being able to own a horse trained to his level, and how good he was in all ways. Then she turned to me and asked, “And what do you do?”

I was momentarily baffled. After all, she had seen my saddles in the tack room, so it wasn’t as if she was asking if I rode, or even what style, since I have both English and Western saddles. The assumption behind her question presented a real conundrum. How to answer such a simple question when the premise wasn’t one I embraced?

“I ride, and we play,” I replied after a moment’s thought. Then it was her turn to look baffled. In the spirit of the goodwill that pervades our barn, she recovered herself, smiled and nodded, and our conversation moved on.

It’s been my experience that people who show and compete have a hard time envisioning any other reason to own a horse, much less what you might actually spend your time doing if not in training. In the comments of a post bashing on Natural Horsemanship on a blog I read daily (and with which I normally agree), I recently read someone’s response to this video: “Why, why, why? What is the point of this? What function does it serve?”

It’s a revealing question, one that suggests that ‘function’ is the preeminent and logical reason to own a horse. However, a pleasure horse – one not owned with the specific intent of generating or contributing to an income – is a luxury item, regardless of the owner’s income level, social standing, or the appraised value of the horse. Luxury items, which by their very definition are owned for the enjoyment and status of the owner, are not possessed for their functional value, so why is it that we continue to think of horses in such a manner?

Obviously, in many circles, the amount of ribbons your horse is awarded is in direct proportion to the amount of status conferred on you, so there’s some logic to the thought that a horse’s ‘function’ is to compete or show (and win) but in reality, if that’s the case, then your horse’s true ‘function’ is to confer status upon you. The competing and showing is a secondary function, a symptom or result of the first.

On the other hand, if you willingly admit that the horse’s primary purpose is for your enjoyment, the video of the man dancing with his horse suddenly makes sense. What is the point of it? What function does it serve? Well… it’s fun, among other things. It’s enjoyable to both parties (or at least it appears so.) Does there need to be another reason?

On the far, far other end of the spectrum from those who see showing as an end unto itself is the philosophy of Nevzorov, the Russian classical dressage trainer who believes all horse sports are cruel and coercive, and thus unethical. I couldn’t agree less. I am in no way opposed to sport with horses (although I might be opposed to certain training methodologies of these sports) and, in fact, hope to show and compete myself one day. (Actually, I hope to compete Mojo, but you know what I mean.) My only question is why we all continue to act like those sports are the ‘point’ of horse ownership.

I have heard more than one rider say that she feels almost embarrassed to admit that she “only” trail rides. Besides the obvious argument that trail riding anything other than a totally experienced “dead broke” horse is a challenging hobby requiring its own set of riding skills, experience, and courage, why should any horse owner feel the need to justify themselves if they can’t whip out an answer like “We jump 3’6,” or “We compete at training level,” or some such thing?

Furthermore, what if the owner were to reply, “We don’t do anything. I just like looking at him in my backyard.” Anyone who doubts the condescension of riders towards non-riders need only read the comments I mentioned above. The irony of these comments is that this particular blog is geared toward the rescue of horses – and it’s often the owners who don’t ride who willingly provide an important segment of the homes available to rescue horses too lame to compete or show. Likewise, the much-maligned middle-aged woman new to owning and riding and faithfully following the NH ‘gurus’ is, by and large, far more concerned with the care and well-being of her horse than many life-long owners who take their own knowledge for granted, and certainly just as likely to provide a good home. Ultimately, isn’t that the most important thing, especially given the staggering number of unwanted horses being sent to slaughter?

There’s nothing wrong with pursuing a goal, and nothing wrong with competing. But to make that the only “real” reason to own a horse deprives us all of the freedom to explore the mystery and attraction that drew us to horses before we could ride, or drive, or even tack up a horse. And, the beauty of it is, to do that, you don’t have to do anything – except enjoy the company of the horses you keep.

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