Picture by Claudia Stack
Some people love cars, some people love clothes. And some people will do anything for retired Thoroughbred racehorses. Once, I spent my last dime on a goat that was supposed to be a good companion for my high-strung mare. (For the record, my mare never cared about the goat, so all that happened was that the goat ate my only rosebush.)
I grew up in New York City in the 1970s, the child of a struggling single mom, so owning a horse was certainly never in the realm of possibility back then. However, I walked dogs and cleaned houses for neighbors so that I could earn enough to take the occasional lesson at Claremont Stable on 89th Street. Horses were my fixation and my motivation to move to the country.
Years later, I finally obtained a few acres in North Carolina. A funny thing about the horse world is, Thoroughbreds that sell for tens or even hundreds of thousands before they race are often sold off the track for a few hundred dollars. The real expense comes in maintaining them! Over the past few decades, I have had the privilege of owning several ex-racehorses. When I meet a new horse, especially an older horse, for me it’s like meeting an interesting person. As I figure out how best to work with them and care for them, their personalities come through.
For example, the mare I mentioned above, “Kerry,” had so much heart. She loved to work. Kerry would go through or over anything you pointed her at. Apparently, though, she had been treated a bit roughly at the racetrack. For the first months I had her, I couldn’t touch her ears at all. It was a good indication she had been “ear twitched”-- that’s when someone grabs an ear and twists it hard to try to keep the horse from moving.
As I built trust with her, she gradually allowed me to touch and clean her ears. I bought her when she was 12, and took care of her until she died at age 27. After the first year, she would put her head down and close her eyes while I rubbed her ears. It was hard to recall she was the same horse that used to whip her head away in fear if my hand even got close.
Another great horse that I loved was a Thoroughbred gelding, a beautiful gray horse that came off the track at age 4. By the time I met him, “Cosmo” was 17 and had done a little bit of everything. His first owner after the racetrack had done dressage with him, but then she fell on hard times. She Cosmo to the woman I got him from, who barrel raced him and used him as a lesson horse.
It’s unusual, to say the least, for a 17 hand Thoroughbred to run barrels. Barrels are usually the province of Quarter Horses that excel at the tight turns and bursts of speed. Still, Cosmo did pretty well. What is perhaps even more unusual is that he was still sound at age 17 after his various strenuous careers. It spoke to his good build, but also to how smart he is. He works hard under saddle but otherwise his personality is laid back. He isn’t one who will hurt himself running like crazy in the pasture just because the wind was blowing.
I’m happy to say Cosmo is still going strong at age 20. I had to rehome him last year when I developed a serious health challenge, but I visit him sometimes. He is enjoying a home where all the girls in the barn dote on him, and he is only ridden by one person, the barn owner’s daughter. He seems to like all the activity and attention.
I do still have one horse at home, an ancient Quarter Horse cross mare that is just as sweet as can be. My whole family loves her, but apart from the occasional walk down to the mailbox I don’t ride her. She is more of a pet than anything.
As I recover, I look at the horse ads. My eyes are still drawn to the Thoroughbreds. I tell myself that I am too old for a Thoroughbred now. It may not be wise to get another horse at all, but if I do, I should get a horse that is smaller and less sensitive than the Thoroughbreds I had. Still, old habits of mind die hard. There is a part of me that thinks I am still 25, galloping across an open field on my beloved Kerry.