The Re-Education of Red
By Cindy Hale
They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Fortunately you can teach an ex-race horse a new job, at least in most instances. It’s been my experience that former race horses come home from the track with one of two mindsets. Either they’ve seen it all, from screaming crowds to the clanging of the starting gate, and therefore nothing bothers them at all, or they’re completely brain fried. Because their senses have operated on overload for years, they meltdown when put under any kind of stress. My friend, Jennifer (who happens to also be my horses’ vet), owns an OTTB mare nicknamed Red who falls into the first category. Though Red is a good 16.2-hands tall with a huge stride, she’s very stoic by nature.
Red was a successful race horse until she suffered a fracture of her pastern that required surgery and the implantation of some pins to stabilize the bone. Once sound, she then became a broodmare. But after a difficult foaling, where she ended up with a bad tear that required surgery, it was determined that perhaps Red should try her luck at being a riding horse. The old pastern injury would prevent her from enjoying any sort of career as a sport horse. But there wasn’t any reason she couldn’t be a nice recreational mount.
Jennifer placed Red with a local professional trainer, one of the fellows around town that I refer to as a “good cowboy.” He spent several months getting Red re-acquainted with a saddle and bridle. He worked her first in a round pen, then in an arena, and eventually he ventured out on the trails. Sure enough, Red was quite happy cruising through town. She never spooked at anything. Though she wasn’t what anyone would call a deadhead, she proved herself to be a very sane ex-race horse.
Jennifer had been riding Red for the last few weeks when she asked me to accompany her and Red to the river park near town. Last Saturday I loaded Wally in my trailer and picked up Red and Jennifer. The big mare hopped in and rode quietly with Wally to the park. Then we unloaded and tacked up. I was waiting for Red to decide that perhaps the wide open spaces weren’t her cup of tea, but she barely flicked an ear. Wally, on the other hand, seemed to know he was being relied upon to be Red’s mentor. He arched his neck and waltzed around with a lofty gait that oozed superiority.
The two horses got along famously. Wally was perfectly happy serving as Red’s lead pony as we meandered down narrow trails lined with overgrown wild grapes, cone flowers, cottonwood trees and bamboo. When we reached the river, I paused and looked at Jennifer.
“So. Do you want to see if Red can earn her Water Crossing merit badge today?”
She shrugged. “Sure. I’m here. Why not?”
Wally sauntered up to the river’s edge and waded right in. Since it’s mid-summer, the water was only about ankle deep, however, it was about 20 yards across to the other bank, and the current was obvious. Red took a good look at the rippling surface and decided that she’d prefer to wait for the water taxi. I told Jennifer, “Just loosen her reins and kiss to her until she’s facing the river. Then pat her and let her relax and stand here, and let her see that Wally thinks this is all just no big deal.”
And that’s exactly what happened. After a few moments, when there wasn’t much happening other than the birds chirping and the sound of the river trickling over the sand bar, big ol’ Red stepped alongside Wally. The two horses nuzzled each other. Jennifer loosened her reins and took a supportive hold of her saddle’s horn.
“Okay,” I said quietly. “I’m going to very gently take hold of Red’s rein and pony her into the water.” And then I added, “Hang on.”
Wally calmly plodded into the river and Red hesitated for just a brief moment. Then, not wanting to be left behind, she took one deep breath and pounced into the water. Then we all stood there, the summer sun shining on the water, creating a shower of diamonds on the surface. Red seemed to realize, “Oh. It’s only water.”
And that was the end of her consternation.
Red moseyed across the river right behind Wally. Then we walked up and onto the other bank, rode around that side of the river for a few minutes, and then turned to cross back again. Red didn’t balk one bit. She understood what Jennifer was asking.
When we got back to the horse trailer about thirty minutes later, I told Jennifer, “Well, Red has proven she can be a nice trail horse for you.”
Jennifer smiled and gave her mare a pat.
It’s nice when things turn out well for an ex-race horse. You can, with patience, teach an older horse new tricks.
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