Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Pinball Whizzer

I have mentioned in a previous post that I am not much of a speed freak. I prefer a leisurely hunter pace, or the controlled energy of dressage. However, I have been an exercise rider not once, but twice in my lifetime. Perhaps I thought I could just push through the trepidation and I would get used to the fear. I gave it my best shot. No dice.

OK, I'm not that much of a wussy!
My first stint was shortly after moving to the farm, probably around the spring of 1997. My roommate was an exercise rider, and convinced me to give it a shot. I had a full-time office job, but we decided I could ride in the mornings before work, then go in to the office (thankfully, one of the only places I have worked that had showers in the restrooms!). Thus, I got up before the sun (also something I hate) and drove to a small barn with a training track. There, I gritted my teeth and rode a variety of Thoroughbreds with varying levels of control and steering. The head trainer started me off riding inside the barn, then we progressed to a small, covered track before moving to the big, open track.

I will never forget the first time I had a real gallop on the main track. I was riding a 2 year old, very sweet, pretty easy to get along with in general, a handsome bay. I rode out onto the track alone. The trainer instructed me to just warm up by trotting about half the track, then ease him into a canter. Well, we accomplished the trot warmup without any problem. The canter, however, was not to be. My boy started off in a brisk canter, then decided he needed to stretch his legs and pull my arms out of their sockets. He took off, pounding the dirt, clearly enjoying the rush.

I had never galloped so fast, and was torn between terror and exhilaration. Tears started streaming down my face. I was having a little trouble seeing, and felt completely out of control. I tried pulling back on the reins, pull and release, pull as hard as I can, nothing. We rounded the turn, and I could see the trainer standing trackside, watching. There were trees in the center of the track, so his view of our warmup and takeoff had been obscured.

"How are you doing?" he asked as we streaked by, me desperately trying to appear nonchalant, smiling and trying not to pull back too obviously.

"Fine!" I lied.

We rounded the next turn and disappeared once again from the trainer's sight. I resumed my frantic attempts to slow down and gain control. By the time we made it back around, I was feeling a little more like the driver and I was able to pull up next to the trainer.

"Wow, how fast were we going? I don't think I've ever gone that fast!" I gushed.

"You weren't really going that fast - maybe a two-minute mile pace."

That seemed mighty fast to me. I slid off the horse and my legs almost collapsed. Adrenaline shakes, I suppose. A little too scary for my taste. I began dreading my morning rides. Soon afterward, I realized I just wasn't cut out for that line of work and resigned.

Fast-forward a few years. I guess my short-term memory wasn't so sharp. In early 2000, I was self-employed with my own lawn care and landscaping business. I supplemented my income by exercising foxhunters (that can be harrowing itself, but that's another story!). Then, one day, I saw a sign at the local feed store, seeking help in starting two young Thoroughbreds. I called the number and was soon hired for the job. It turned out that my new boss was a racehorse trainer, and she had two prospects that needed to be started under saddle. I thought that would be fun.

Sure enough, the initial training went well and was fun. We got the two youngsters going very well at home, listening to the aids, stopping, steering... very much under control, I thought. I took them trail riding, then progressed to a little galloping in neighboring fields. Finally, the babies were deemed fit to move to the training track. I was asked to continue riding them there. I thought it was going to be different. After all, I had helped train these two from the start. I knew they had manners and that they understood what I wanted from them. What did I know.

So, let me set the scene for one of the most harrowing rides of my life. We have a lovely, busy training track, full of activity, other horses and their riders. Then we have two horses, a gelding and a filly, that have never seen such a track. Add a rookie rider who also has never seen such a track (the previous track from Lapse of Reason #1 was a private, quiet track). We gave the horses a few days to get used to their surroundings, then the day came to get busy with training.


It was a beautiful, warm morning in early summer. We tacked up the gelding, Chambord,  and I was boosted up into the saddle. My trainer accompanied us up to the main track.

"Now we just want to get him quietly around today, just let him get used to the track," she instructed.

"Ok," I replied. I started to walk off. A set of two horses came around the turn behind us and galloped past.

"Why don't you just let him follow those two horses?" suggested my trainer. Sounded like a plan to me. I pointed my horse in their direction and nudged him onward. There was really no need. Chambord had seen them go by and was excited to join them. He broke into a hesitant canter and aimed at their tails.

In retrospect, it would have been a good idea to pony the two horses around the track and let them get used to the sights while under the influence of a calm companion. We did not do that. Perhaps my trainer had overestimated my abilities. Maybe she was secretly videotaping the occasion and has since cashed in big (I haven't seen her in a looooong time... hmmmmm...)

The ride that followed was like sitting on a ricocheting pinball. Chambord would shoot forward, toward the frontrunning horses, then catch sight of one of the furlong poles and violently shy away. No sooner did he alter course, than he would notice a pole on the other side of the track and spook back in the other direction. I was struggling to stay aboard, clenching my teeth and my abs and steeling myself for a dive into the dirt. I thought about bailing out, but I didn't. I'm not sure how I managed to stay on, careening all the way around that track at varying levels of high speed. That was the longest half-mile of my life. I managed to pull up alongside my trainer and slide to the ground, legs shaking so badly I could hardly walk. Good times.

You may be surprised to hear that this was not my last ride. I stuck it out a little longer, and gained some confidence, though I apparently quickly developed a reputation for being the slowest one on the track at any given time. I enjoyed tooling around at a brisk canter. Ok, so I was obviously not cut out for this line of work. The trainer and I agreed that it would be better to get someone with more experience on their backs.

Nowadays, the only racehorses I ride have been retired from the track. I spend my time retraining them, teaching them to slow down and smell the roses. Yes, we have our exciting moments, but none to match the time I rode the equine pinball.

More my speed!


  1. And you tried to get me to buy this horse! Shame on you Cleo...for shame! LOL

  2. LOL he was a lovely horse! Nobody's perfect...

  3. I always thought racehorses seemed fun! We gotta get back in the saddle, Lady!! :D