Sunday, June 16, 2013


Heroes...Of the Equine Variety

From my columns for the
The Washington Thoroughbred--
[Note: From about 1984 to 1989, I was a regular columnist for The Washington Thoroughbred in Seattle.  Many of these columns were the core content in my semi-autobiographical, somewhat delusional book, "Mares, Foals & Ferraris."  Working with horses; perhaps the case with all animals, is that sometimes what we ask them to do, what they choose to do -- fate itself -- incurs losses.  Life itself on some days is not an adventure for the timid.  So, I choose to celebrate the life, the passion...a relationship that is judged by many -- truly experienced by the few.  They say that in racing, "nobody wears short pants."  It is a statement on the heart, for if you let the animal in, you must one day bear witness to their departure.]    

I have never truly understood the equine mind.  Less powerful than the heart, more frail than the limbs, it never really demands the recognition that great feats and great moments should endear.  Instead, it derives its passion from the moment, its necessities from a millennia of calculated reactions, and its ultimate judgement by the flickering conscience of man; a specie late to the game, who quite often, chooses to wield recklessly his vast arsenal of intelligence over an animal who lives by a more primal instinct.  And yet, this animal still decides to serve us so very well.

I have always kept my heroes -- those horses great and small whose lives were spent in our loftier pursuits:  for gold, for glory, or for some spot on that pedestal of life; that lesser men or lesser times may truly never share.  And in their brief lives, they leave us awed and inspired, frustrated and saddened.  But they never really leaves us.  For they are our heroes.

Ruffian was my first.  Big, raucous and rough, she gave me my first glimpse at the tragedy and triumph of Thoroughbred racing.  An equal to the boys, she had beaten every filly in the country and seemed a sure bet to prove her dominance in a match race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.  I remember watching the race in my mother's living room.  She was quietly knitting a future Christmas sweater that nobody would wear anyway -- while I was perched on the edge of my chair.  The two broke from the gate and pounded head and head down the backside, the filly barely a nose in front.  I remember the bad step, the faltering stride, the jockey rising in the irons, desperately trying to pull her to a stop.  I remember seeing her standing on the backstretch, her leg shattered.  But I also remember her eyes.  Fixed on her rival, following his trail all the way to the wire -- a half-mile -- suddenly, an eternity away.  I never saw her again.

Char D'Assaut was another such hero...perhaps the kind we all have in our life.  Purchased in Kentucky as a broodmare, she taught me a lot about the power and responsibility of motherhood.  Severely hurt having her third foal for us, she endured the pain, our constant and futile efforts to save her life, and the demands of her newly born foal.  And for eight days and eight nights, she never allowed her own misery to win.  She was a mother to the very end of life itself.  Her halter and a lock of her mane hangs on a small apple tree on the old farm -- where time and the ever-growing bark has made the horse and tree into one.

From the poem, "Dark Ivy."
A. Allan Juell, 1987.
Many others passed my way in the ensuing years.  Honest horses, game horses...horses that educate humans of all ages in the matters of humility and trust.  I recall the pony hunter Calypso, owned by the Parkside Stables of Dr. and Mrs. Joe Bergevin.  Of poor health, but gallant heart, she carried three different daughters to numerous championships in the childrens' and pony divisions at horseshows throughout the Northwest.  The pony taught them how to win, but more importantly, she taught them how to lose.  And for every ribbon won and every ribbon lost, she gave them the enduring integrity to truly understand the difference.

In 1987 the horse world lost the grand steeplechaser, Dark Ivy.  A magnificent grey, he entered Aintree's Grand National as one of the favorites.  Crossed by another horse at Beecher's Brook, he never felt the ground again. 

I also choose to remember the less than famous.  Those horses that quietly fill the voids of human frailty with their uncompromising presence and their innate ability to calm the harried soul or reassure the fragile heart.  Nut was that kind of horse.  No bigger than a dog, Nut spent most of her life walking a slow circle at the Woodland Park Zoo.  Bringing joy and a certain measure of anxiety, she introduced thousands of children to the thrill of a first ride.  But time seems to change all things and when the pony rides were finally shut down, Nut was sent to auction with the rest of the equipment.  At 22 years, her prospects seemed dim.  But one of those children remembered.  Redmond, Washington farm manager, Martha Wickstrom took one of those early rides on Nut and when she heard about the auction, she returned a two-decade old favor.  Nut was retired to Martha's farm where she lived to the ripe old age of 38.

Finally, I want to remember Benoit.  A grand prix jumper, this bay Thoroughbred was owned by nationally known trainer and rider, Robert Ridland of Indianapolis, Indiana.  A winner of over $78,000 in the show ring, Benoit lost his life in a fall at the 1989 Seattle Grand Prix.  Tragically, both horse and rider had come out of retirement to once again compete as a team.  They were the best of friends.

I remember standing in the show ring, holding a cooler as a shield -- part of a solemn circle around Benoit; other trainers, show officials, grooms -- shielding the scene from the crowd.  Like pall-bearers, we attempted to add some dignity and compassion to his death; to somehow cheat the cynics of their moment.  But most of all I remember the eyes.  Tough men, professional men -- they too caught in the horrible vacuum of sudden reality.  And their respect for Benoit was etched deeply across these many faces.
Robert Ridland and friend;

I helped carry Benoit off the field.  I heard the announcer call the next horse.  I once again heard the applause echo the effort of a clean round.  I watched as somehow life went on.  For in this world, it must go on.

No, heroes never really die.  For somewhere in the green fields of human memory they all compete again...and we will cheer! 

No comments:

Post a Comment