The story of my horsemanship journey has looked a lot like this: a horse enters my life typically for an intended purpose such as to train for a specific competitive discipline, and as I truly listen to them and commit myself to solving their unique challenges, they take me down a very different and unexpected path. Just because the horse is “doing” the job doesn’t mean that it is the right one for them to stay sound and happy for their career. I like to think of the “round peg, square hole” analogy for this explanation. Through this process, I have learned several new disciplines all for the love and dedication to that individual horse. This lifetime of learning to be flexible, adaptive, and a problem solver has prepared me for the emotional roller coaster of training rescued horses as progress never usually goes in a straight line.
My two retired racehorses have been the perfect example of this yin and yang balance in my journey and I celebrate both very different experiences. Before I update you on the unique journey that I am on with JC: Saintly Ballad (“Athena”), I will tell you about my Standardbred “Gunner,” who showed me that my big dreams of transforming a slaughter-bound racehorse to proud police horse was not only achievable, but should be replicated for the benefit of all.
In December 2016, I saw a photo online of a horse who was at an auction house in New Jersey. He was a part of a group of horses sold for their meat price which were available to “bail out” prior to shipping. In the photo was a handsome Standardbred pacer gelding named “Gun-It,” and I saw something special in his eyes. I just knew we were supposed to be together; I felt that strongly in my heart. There were a few Standardbreds in the same pen facing the same unfortunate plight; however, “horse rescue hero” Michelle Crawford was working tirelessly with the Standardbred Retirement Foundation to see that all of them were bailed and found new homes.
I made it known that I wanted to rescue Gun-It but I was told that he was already spoken for by someone else. I was relieved he had been rescued but I cried anyway. I tried to convince myself it must not be “meant to be” after all, even though I felt just the opposite. Well on Jan. 6, 2017, I received a phone call asking if I was still interested in Gun-It as there had been a clerical error and he was still available. Previous to the N.J. auction, Gun-It had been sold at a Pennsylvania Mule and Draft auction where he had been consigned by the Amish after working for eight years pulling a buggy for them. Before that, he had a long race career, racing 105 times. I didn't know anything about his current health or if he was even sound, but I was willing to accept the risk and decided that he would be fully retired at a retirement farm if that's in fact what he needed.
On Jan. 8, he stepped off the trailer at Iron Horse Sanctuary for his quarantine. I spent every day with “Gunner” and we bonded as I showed him that life was different now and he would be treated kindly with love – and through this time, he transformed into a love bug. After a few months, he stopped flinching when I went to pet him, and the light in his eyes and coat sparkled. I wanted him to “just be a horse” and heal for a few months after his rescue. My regular police horse was having soundness issues and so Gunner started preparations to fill in as the understudy. He had never been ridden before; however, he was a quick study and went to mounted police school with only six rides under his belt. He passed the challenging few weeks at REMOUNT school and went right to work as a police horse thereafter.
Gunner has been pampered and loved, and he has in turn rewarded me with his big heart. In his time as a police horse, he made friends everywhere he went, attended numerous events, was hugged by children, rode alongside roller coasters and Ferris wheels, stood beneath helicopters in flight, and had babies kiss his nose. He gave educational demonstrations at several agricultural fairs, met the Governor, carried the American flag, played soccer with children, attended an event at the Goshen Historic Track, attended funerals and performed the riderless horse tribute with pride, and also marched in parades.
So many children and adults were able to hear his story and learn about the transformation of rescue, learning to trust, and how rough beginnings can turn into beautiful endings. He represented the Standardbred breed with all of the qualities we love about the breed including: strength, gentleness, intelligence, grace, and bravery. His remarkable life story was recently turned into a book by Standardbred enthusiast and well known author Victoria Maria Howard, titled “GUNNER, The Enchanting Story of a Racehorse” and is a family friendly read available for purchase through Author House, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble where a portion of the proceeds goes to rescue efforts.
Gunner was a big dream turned reality, and in doing so, I gained knowledge and experience in the process so that I could hopefully transform many more race horses into their second career as police horses in the future. Retired racing Standardbreds are utilized by many police agencies in mounted patrol work which proves to be an excellent second career for them. The Standardbred Retirement Foundation has been very successful at placing horses with several agencies including the NYPD, Newark PD, Rockland County Sheriffs Department, amongst others, and in serving the community, the horses represent the breed well.
Enter stage left, Athena. So here I am, holding the leadrope of another racehorse, but this time it is a young Thoroughbred mare rescued from a kill pen in Louisiana. Empowered by my success with Gunner, I shouted my aspirations from the mountaintops and then got to work. I’ve always considered myself to be a natural horseman, taking the kinder gentler road of training, providing a solid groundwork foundation, quite adept at building trust, skilled at listening to the horse, all the while enlisting the best veterinarians to help rehabilitate…. but this horse has presented me with some very unique challenges that have elevated my horsemanship to another level. This type of horse is a gift of a different sort, the kind that makes you metamorphose as a horseman because what you do know just isn’t enough and you are too stubborn and dedicated to the journey to throw in the towel. If you are that type of horseman: hang in there, you will be rewarded.
Unless you are a mental health counselor or have a Ph.D. in psychology, you probably don’t spend your days studying the neurobiology of trauma, the Poly-Vagal theory, the sympathetic vs. the parasympathetic nervous system, attachment and detachment theories, building relationships based on connectedness vs. control, and how to create new neuropathways by engaging the neocortex. Well, I have jumped in head-first, and what I can say as I drink from this “fire hose” of information is that aligning modern developments in the science and treatment of those who have experienced trauma can be successfully applied to also benefit horses. In next month’s blog for America’s Best Racing, I will break down the science and theories behind the application of my new tools to help traumatized horses find peace. I would not have learned this valuable information had I not dug deeper for Athena.
“I took you by the lead to show you how to be, but alas, it was you that showed me.” I wrote that poem to embody the gift of knowledge the horses bring to us at the right time in our horsemanship journey. I am not sure where my journey with Athena will take us in the end, however, the gift has truly been in the journey so far.