Equestrian Life: Clicker Training and Treats for Horses

The best part about living on the farm is that every day is an opportunity for me to play with my horse. It’s so helpful for my writing, and something I didn’t get when I was keeping him a distance away from my apartment. I get to handle Ben every single day, and most days I ride him, too.

Now, Ben is very food-motivated, and I think it’s important to use what works for a horse to train him. But of course, training horses with treats can make them very mouthy and demanding. That’s why some people simply never give their horses treats at all.

I believe treats can be used positively and I make sure Ben gets them regularly. So that I don’t overfeed him or overload him with sugar, I use Buckeye Carrot Crunchers. I was very excited when I found these treats, because I’d been struggling to find treats both small enough to use regularly yet also not full of sweetener — and they’re the perfect size for my needs, but more on that below.

The thing is, the treats part of clicker training was really important. I knew I’d be giving up my most valuable motivator for Ben if I had to stop giving him treats. Food is his language. Some horses will work for pats, but he’s not one of them!

But of course, we had a problem. This horse was mugging me for treats constantly. Not just me–everyone who crossed his path. He was in pockets, tugging on shirts, running his lips along arms–basically a menace.

Then, I went to a clinic by Shawna Karrasch, who came up with clicker training for horses back in the 1990s. I was skeptical of clicker training for the longest time, but I saw her do a demo at Horse World Expo in PA and liked her explanation of how it was derived from training marine mammals. That miraculous connection we see between trainers and animals like dolphins or seals is created with clicker training.

The thing I liked best about clicker training was one of the very first lessons Shawna teaches: the horse should turn his head AWAY from the trainer before getting a treat. What I found out was it was fairly quick and easy to click and give the horse a treat as soon as he made the try to turn his head away, and then, it was just a matter of time before the horse looked away completely in order to say he wanted a treat.

It’s also super cute when they do it.

I found everything I needed to clicker train was inexpensive: a container to hold treats (I use a Herschel hip-bag I found on clearance), a clicker (I grabbed a $7 dollar one from the dog aisle at Tractor Supply) and treats.

Now for treats, I wanted something decently sized because I use them while riding, and I wear gloves. So I need to be able to grasp it from the bag and hand it to Ben while wearing gloves. Forage pellets were a little too small for the job. I tried a couple different kinds of treats, but it was hard to find something the right size that was also low in sugar.

When I discovered these Buckeye Carrot Crunchers treatas, I was excited because they’re perfect: no sugar, small and round (easy to grasp in gloves), and really just made from carrots and wheat. There’s nothing in here to bother your average horse’s metabolism–or make him or her hot with extra sugar! And they’re also really reasonably priced.

I started with groundwork, teaching Ben to turn his head away from me by clicking and offering a treat every time he looked away from me (or the hip-bag with the treats in it). Once he started turning his head away, I did some more basic groundwork — clicking and treating for halting, or lifting his forelegs when I said leg. Super easy things.

What I find is that everything sticks really well, and that includes WHEN treats are on offer. Basically, Ben knows when I’m wearing the hip-bag and that we’re going to work (and he’s gonna get some treats). He knows that he’s not allowed to root in my hip-bag for treats, and if he does stick his nose on it and I push his nose away, he looks away quickly because he has remembered that he’s supposed to turn his head away before I give him a treat.

After I’ve untacked him from a ride and I’m going to give him a shower, the hip-bag comes off and he knows there won’t be any more treats until I’m done with him, which also stops the nosy, invasive behavior. He just stands still for his bath.

It has completely cured his mugging problem. Which is so great, because I love giving this horse treats. And yes, I do give him a cookie now and then without the hip-bag or the clicker, but it’s not enough to make him a mugger again. Since we reinforce with the hip-bag, the Carrot Crunchers, and the clicker 3-5 times per week, he retains the knowledge that he’s probably not getting anything unless all those items are in place.

Definitely give this a try if your horse is a mugger or nippy about treats, because it makes giving your horse treats fun again, and also teaches them boundaries. They like learning, so the whole process is great for them. Even if you don’t use clicker training for anything in the saddle, for groundwork games and teaching them not to mug for treats, it’s unbeatable!

Equestrian Life is part of writing Equestrian Fiction.

Keeping horses, especially keeping them at home with me, is such an important part of my writing. If you’re working to become an established author of equestrian-related fiction, be sure horses are as much a part of your life as they can be. Even if you can’t keep one at home to get hands-on training principles correct in your fiction, you might be able to go to horse shows or volunteer at equestrian events. Stay horsey. It really matters to your work!

Visiting Disney’s Tri-Circle-D Ranch

Everyone knows I’m a fan of Disney horses. I love visiting the horses at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, where they keep the carriage and trolley horses, including the white ponies who pull Cinderella’s glass carriage. Last year, Disney opened a beautiful new barn and visitor’s area, but because of the pandemic, I didn’t get to visit.

Well, I finally got to pay a visit to the Happiest Horses on Earth, and I was not disappointed. The old barn was a rather dark center-aisle that was pretty much like every barn in Central Florida in the 80s and 90s. It looked almost exactly like the hunter barn where I learned to ride, and the boarding stable where I kept my first horse, and a dozen other barns I’ve been to in the Orlando area! The new one is lighter, airier, and has run-outs attached to each stall. It looks better for the horses and for the ranch-hands who take care of them.

And it’s great to visit! They built a special show barn at the front where visitors can see horses and take pictures, watch horses get groomed and bathed, see the pony-sized harness in a glass-fronted carriage room, explore Walt Disney’s love of horses and the equestrian heritage of the Walt Disney Company, and check out the incredible antique steam calliope which used to come out for holiday parades in the parks. (I haven’t seen this calliope in action since 2006, personally.)

Here’s a look at what I saw on my visit:

Ponies getting a bath

The first thing I spotted was an entire hitch – six white ponies – getting bathed for an evening wedding! You can walk right up to this big outdoor washrack and talk to the ranch hands doing the hard work of scrubbing and primping these ponies. They told me it takes two hours to wash and dry the ponies before a wedding. And you know how light-colored horses get dirty IMMEDIATELY, so that means every wedding gets this kind of salon treatment. A LOT of work, especially in the heat.

Tri Circle D Ranch Show Barn - Visitor Area

Visitors are only permitted in the special show barn at the front of the ranch. There are eight stalls, all facing out. We saw four horses inside: three Percherons, and a Clydesdale. Everyone was snoozing or finishing up their lunch hay. The stalls are spacious and very deeply bedded in pine shavings. While we were there, a ranch hand was dusting the railings – now that’s my kind of show barn!

The stalls are roped off to keep kid’s fingers from being eaten – pretty smart. The barrier actually makes them the perfect distance for selfies! This gorgeous gray Percheron is named Grady.

Just a beautiful Percheron taking a nice nap. The stalls are nice and deep, and really airy with all the open bars. Perfect for central Florida, where the prevailing breeze could be from the east, west, north, or south on any given day!

The pony rides at Fort Wilderness have always been really unique because instead of having a little corral to walk around, they have a long “track” type area. This one is new and quite sunny but hopefully the shade trees they’ve planted in the middle will grow up soon.

These ponies are waiting for pony ride custom. Surprise! The one in the center is Lilly, and she’s not taking rides. Just having a bit of grown-up time. Lilly is two years old and was made famous in this adorable photo when she was a wee filly:

Weirdly enough it was kind of easy to recognize her! I guess it’s that pink skin and the shape of her profile.

I am not a fan of pink-skinned horses but there’s no denying the charm of that photo. I just wonder how big poor Cinderella’s bruises were when they finally got the perfect shot. If you kneel in front of a foal you’re GOING to get stomped and pawed. That’s just what they do!

But as one of my readers on Facebook pointed out, a few bruises would be worth it for that photo.

The rest of the barn where the work is done is visible from the show barn, although this view is as close as visitors can get. I love the use of poles and light colored metal, and the translucent panels in the roof. I am guessing this barn was designed by someone back in Disney’s home base in California. I know they use a lot of metal poles in construction there, but I’ve never seen anything like it in Florida.

Tyson, Percheron at Tri-Circle-D Ranch

All in all, I spent a really happy half an hour or so enjoying the horses and chatting with the ranch hands at Tri-Circle D Ranch. They’ve done a stellar job and it’s a real showplace!

Afterwards, we enjoyed a delicious lunch of fried chicken and fixin’s alongside the beautiful expanse of Bay Lake, just a short walk away. Fort Wilderness also has ferry service to the Magic Kingdom, or you can walk around the campground, which has nature walks, some shopping, canoe rentals, and more. It’s a very peaceful and beautiful place. I really recommend a visit!

If you have a little one who wants a pony ride, even better!

You can read my (totally fictional) account of horses and theme parks in Horses in Wonderland, the second book in my Show Barn Blues series.

Free Courses, Webinars and More for Horse Owners

Hey equestrian family!

It can be really hard to be productive during this current state of affairs. If you can, though, I really encourage you to disconnect from social media and current events for a few hours a day and do something nice for yourself.

Over at Loose Rein Collections, my website for sharing equestrian inspiration, I have started listing all of the free courses, webinars and live-streams I can find for horse owners and riders.

There are many offerings from universities, world-renowned trainers, and respected organizations available free for the taking!

Visit my Loose Rein Collections: Free Online Resources for Equestrians During Lockdown to see the full list, and check in every few days, as I am constantly adding more offerings!

Think positively!

If you can’t ride right now because of stay-at-home orders, this might be the perfect time to take a course on horsekeeping or biosecurity on farms.

If you are wondering how you’re going to shift your business in the post-lockdown economy, there are awesome courses on farm management and homesteading available.

Or maybe you have more time to ride because you’re not teaching or going to work and your horse is at home – now you can learn a lot and put it into practice right away by using free training videos from top trainers.

I’ll see you at Loose Rein Collections!


Ben grazing

Riding Life: Ben and the Tortoise

I haven’t written about my riding in a hot minute, and since that’s where my blogging (and fiction) days began, I thought: today’s ride definitely deserves a blog post. You see, everything looked so promising. Everything started out so well.

And then, Florida happened.


At my old farm out in swamp country, I had an issue with alligators. Well, one alligator. He (gender assumed but not determined for convenience’s sake) was about four and half feet long, enjoyed long swims in the pond at the back of my property, and had reflective eyes which were handy for late-night horse feeding. We just always remembered to swing a flashlight around and check for the gator’s presence before we went into the back pasture to dump grain.

Then the alligator discovered my round pen, which was only about twenty feet from the pond, was the perfect place for midday sunbathing.

Really annoying.

Nowadays I ride at a farm in hilly country. There isn’t a pond, so there isn’t an alligator. But since I ride Ben in a bright, sunny field adjacent to un-mown hay fields and half-wooded cow pastures, I have other animals I have to deal with.

Ben in a big hay field

Looking across the hay fields from the mown area where we ride. There is a lot of animal life out there.

Ben is a very alert pony. He likes to keep his eye on things — there’s very much a protect-the-herd instinct going on in between those pricked ears of his. He watches people walking around the farm while we’re riding, and he has a decent spook when something really surprises him, but he’s not as likely to run away from something as to stop and stare at it, maybe edge closer to it for a better look.

Think of a little kid poking something dead with a stick, then leaping backwards when it moves a little bit, then coming back to poke it again… that’s Ben.

At first we had an issue with grass snakes spooking him, but I kept riding him towards the little buggers and he decided that was fun, so now he just looks at snakes and doesn’t flip out about them. The tortoise problem… well, that’s been harder to solve.

If the best way to desensitize a horse is to ride them right up to whatever is alarming them and let them take a good look, it’s almost impossible to desensitize a horse to a gopher tortoise. These are big dry-land, burrowing tortoises who can move at a decent clip. They have beige-to-brown shells which aren’t shiny, but stand out against green grass. And because they have a sort of shambling, two-beat walk, they move a bit like, well, spiders?

So you have this thing that looks like a rounded rock, moves like a spider, and goes barreling across the field. If you can convince your horse to go take a look at it, the tortoise retreats into his shell. It’s just a rock. The horse forgets about it. You ride away. The rock-spider-demon comes back to life. The horse sees this in his rear-view mirror and freaks the eff out. IT IS MOVING! IT WASN’T MOVING BEFORE!

You ride back, to show the horse the moving rock. Only now it stops moving again. The horse loses interest.

Guys, you can do this ALL DAMN DAY, but the tortoise will always thwart your efforts.

It’s a problem.

So today I take Ben out to ride and I see that there is a tortoise in the very middle of the field. I sigh. I cannot chase the tortoise out of the field, for reasons previously mentioned. So I take Ben over to a hill and we do a little hill-work while I wait for the tortoise to get through the field.

This takes ages because the tortoise is not in a hurry, but finally he’s at the end of the field near his burrow and I say, fine, Ben, let’s go do some work.

Now, a lot of the work I do with Ben is concentrated on getting him to be cool and focused, because I want children to be happy to ride him (he is a large pony, after all). So we do a lot of walking work – about fifteen minutes most days – before we even begin trotwork.

Today the BLOODY TORTOISE is hovering near his burrow, which is under a bush at the end of the field, and doesn’t want to go in. And just as I want to start trotting, Ben sees the tortoise.

He does a little half-rear before I catch him, then I push him forward towards the tortoise while he watches, snorting. I let him come to a halt so he can have a good look.

The tortoise gazes at us. He is literally right outside his burrow. Two steps, and he could be underground and out of our hair. But no, he wants to stare us down.

“GET BACK IN YOUR HOLE YOU STUPID TORTOISE!” I command, with some expletives for extra emphasis, but the tortoise is unimpressed.

Ben has his head up and his ears pricked but he’s not freaking out, so I send him forward. Let’s chase the tortoise into the hole! He can’t possibly resist going into his burrow if we’re bearing down on him like a one-horse cavalry charge, right?

Right.. eventually, but that tortoise makes us get really close before he scurries underground. Ben is huffing. I am annoyed. It’s going to take me another five or ten minutes to bring him back down to earth and get a relaxed walk again. I turn Ben away and we do a circuit of the field.

As we turn at the top of the field, I realize the tortoise HAS COME BACK OUT OF THE BURROW.

“Oh, no, you don’t! Let’s get him, Ben!” I send Ben forward and we chase the tortoise back underground. Ben finds all of this tortoise-chasing exhilarating and is now looking for other scary things to chase. Maybe there is something scary in the woods! LET’S STARE AT THE WOODS! Maybe there is something scary at the house! OH GOD A PERSON HAS COME OUT OF THE HOUSE! SHIT, WHAT DO WE DO?

“Jesus Christ, Ben,” I say, again along with some other expletives for extra emphasis.

It keeps happening. Apparently the tortoise was only making a quick house-call, not retreating to safety, and now I cannot keep the stupid animal out of my field. I just want twenty minutes to do some trotting and get Ben to relax into the bridle, but the tortoise comes out and cuts across the bottom half of the field, then proceeds to start grazing. I cannot chase him now; he’s too far from the burrow and he’ll just go into his shell if we get near him. Ben is mostly unbothered; he doesn’t see him, but I’ve lost half my riding space.

Another ten minutes goes by before the tortoise has ambled with its awful spider shamble into the high grass of the hay field and I finally have my riding area back.

But Ben doesn’t know the tortoise has gone off on a nature walk. He keeps looking at the burrow at the edge of the field. IF IT COMES BACK OUT, I, BEN, WILL BE READY!

“It’s not coming back.”


He never really got over his desire to trample the tortoise. We did some nice trotting, some lateral work and some canter circles, and even jumped a few cross-rails, but he was always keeping an eye on that burrow. There was nothing fearful about his attitude. He just didn’t want to miss his chance. He had a taste of tortoise-chasing and by god, he wanted more.

Ben grazing

“If that tortoise comes out, I will find him and I will stomp him.”

Even after I turned him out, an hour later, he was on high alert, looking all around the pasture as if tortoises were hiding in the tree branches, waiting for him to drop his guard.

I love Ben’s hilarious macho man antics, his bantam rooster approach to life. He’s fun to ride and work with for exactly that reason. There’s so much of Ben. He’s the embodiment of that old classified ad verbiage, “personality plus.”

I’m just really, really glad this farm doesn’t have a pond. because I don’t need him to start thinking he can chase away gators.


Ride with Equestrian Writers at Horse Crossings

Consider this your invitation. If you love equestrian writing and want to know more about the writers behind the books, Horse Crossings is a new blog just for you!

Natalie Reinert with Player

Player, a buddy of mine at Hidden Acres Rescue for Thoroughbreds in Port St. John, FL

I’m so happy to have joined the inaugural team at Horse Crossings, along with founder Linda Benson (author of the beautiful novel The Girl Who Remembered Horses), Young Adult authors Alison Hart and L.R. Trovillion, writers Jane Badger and Milt Toby, and novelists Meghan Namaste and Toni Leland. All of write about horses. All of us are connected with horses in our daily lives. We want to share our process, our adventures, and our stories as horsemen and writers with you, our readers and fellow horsemen.

It’s really good timing for me, since I just moved back to Florida with my family, and am enjoying some much-needed horse time by volunteering at Hidden Acres Rescue for Thoroughbred (HART) in the town where I first started riding my own retired racehorse out across the Florida wilderness, Port St. John. It’s an interesting mixture of nostalgia and ambition that’s motivating my writing these days, as I drive to my childhood neighborhood to do barn chores and work with off-track Thoroughbreds, then head back home to my desk and my work.

Since I haven’t really been able to spend any time with horses since I left the mounted patrol unit of the New York City Dept. of Parks and Recreation in 2013, the simple act of mucking a stall has been a real pleasure! Grooming a horse and taking him out to the round pen for a little work-out — bliss. I’m excited to write about the horses I meet and work with at HART, and I’m going to do a lot of that at Horse Crossings, as I explore how horses inspire my writing.

In this week’s first post at Horse Crossings, I wrote about my upcoming novel Turning For Homeand the decision to step back from the racetrack and talk instead about retiring racehorses. There are still racetrack moments in this latest installment of the Alex and Alexander series, but there are many more farm, round pen, and even dressage ring moments. As a horsewoman, Alex is doing what we all must do — travel full-circle to be her very best, and do the best for her horses.

Jane Badger of Jane Badger Books writes about getting her start in writing about horse literature. She’s the queen of pony books, and her posts will make you want to take  up a new hobby, collecting these vintage British horse stories! So read with caution!

Lisa Trovillion, author of False Gods, talks about answering that impossible question, “What’s your book about?” It’s something that makes all of us authors stumble, until all of a sudden we’re working our way through a twenty-minute dissertation on our heroine’s deepest darkest fears. None of us are particularly gifted at elevator speeches.

The Girl Who Remembered Horses - Linda BensonAnd Linda Benson started off our week with a look at the inspiration behind The Girl Who Remembered Horses, which was recently re-released with a gorgeous new cover.

So come and join us at Horse Crossings! Visit the blog and be sure to subscribe to keep up with all of us.

And if you’ve been waiting for the new Alex and Alexander horse-racing novel, you’re in luck — Turning For Home is almost here!


The Horses of Walt Disney World

Ponies at Tri-Circle-D Ranch

Ponies at Tri-Circle-D Ranch

Anyone who knows me even slightly knows that Disney and horses are pretty much equal in my affections. And so when I had a few days at Walt Disney World without any plans to visit the theme parks, naturally I went straight to where the Disney horses live: Tri-Circle-D Ranch.

Anyone in the Orlando area can swing by and meet Disney’s famous horses, from the little Welsh ponies that pull Cinderella’s coach, to the massive Percherons and Clydesdales who pull carriages and trolleys at the parks and resorts. They live at Disney’s Ft. Wilderness Resort & Campground, in a guest area called The Settlement.

Just getting to the Settlement is fun — I walked on a nature trail from Disney’s Wilderness Lodge (another hotel) but you can also take a ferry boat from the Magic Kingdom’s main entrance. There’s an internal bus system from a central parking lot if you really just want to drive, but where’s the fun in that?

Once you’re there — Disney horses galore! I wrote about it over at ThatDisFamily.com, where I blog about Disney and family life. Take a look, and make sure you head over to Ft. Wilderness for some horse time on your next visit to Central Florida.


Sojourn in Saratoga

Cory and Natalie Reinert at Saratoga

Racetrack types.

It’s hard to believe that Labor Day has come and gone, September is here, and school is about to start for Calvin. (For one thing, it’s 90 degrees outside.) But the locusts are singing in the linden trees and another Saratoga season is in the books, so this is it, folks. This is fall.

(And I’ll brook no arguments about fall beginning on September 22nd or whatever. September 1st is the beginning of meteorological fall, and I’m all about meteorology.)

We caught a train to Saratoga Springs for a few days before the season ended, thank goodness. Add in our Del Mar trip back in July and we are feeling pretty accomplished about hitting the Del Mar/Saratoga exacta. Two of the most beautiful racecourses in America, and yet nearly opposite in setting and composition — it made for a wonderful contrast.

Saratoga Starting Gate

A view from the backside. Saratoga.

I have a few blog posts about Saratoga floating around in the Internets, so I won’t write another here. You can visit Equestrian Ink: Writers of Equestrian Fiction for “Images from Saratoga,” a photo post with some of my favorite scenes from around Saratoga, both at the races and in town. And over at my Disney/travel/family blog, That Dis Family, I’ve written a short primer to visiting Saratoga, whether you’re horsey or not.

Saratoga is where Cory and I sat down and brainstormed the story that would become Other People’s Horses. As a muse for an equestrian writer, you don’t get many places as perfect as Saratoga. We even talked to Talk of the Track about writing, equestrian fiction, and retired racehorses, and you can watch the video at my Facebook page. I myself haven’t watched it, but I do recall that I did not cry or run away, so I guess for my on-camera debut I’m doing pretty well.

Did we come up with any new stories during this year’s sojourn in Saratoga? A few new ideas — the daily inspiration that comes from sitting at a picnic table along the backstretch, from playing with a pony, from listening to the thrum of hoofbeats on a racetrack. It was really two days after our return, watching the Travers Stakes and talking to a few people on Twitter about the tremendous finish, when I realized that I had a wonderful new story idea.

We’ll have to wait and see.

Visit: “Images from Saratoga” at Equestrian Ink

Visit: “Outside Disney: The Real Saratoga Springs, NY” at That Dis Family

Belmont Stakes Shenanigans

As long as we have lived in NYC, we’ve made it a point to go the Belmont Stakes. Who wouldn’t? I mean — it’s the freaking Belmont Stakes, one of the great horse races of the world, and it’s just a short train ride away. Sounds so perfect, doesn’t it?

Eh. Here’s the thing.

I'm guessing this sign predates several Triple Crown wins.

I’m guessing this sign predates several Triple Crown wins.

When California Chrome won the Preakness Stakes rather handily, it started sounding a lot less perfect, and a lot more crowded. The ominous predictions of 105-125,000 people descending upon Belmont Park, many of them by the same train we’d be taking, was being retweeted with gleeful abandon by racing fans who were excited to see a racecourse being used for anything besides pigeon nesting grounds. But I was already missing the tumbleweeds that typically blow through the cavernous grandstand of Belmont Park, and we were still weeks away from the big race.

 Now, Belmont Park was built for crowds. And once upon a time, I hear, people used to go there for other reasons than the Belmont Stakes. But crowds just aren’t my thing.

If I have to wait a long time for something (whether it’s a restroom or a drink or a food truck or anything free at all) I probably won’t have anything to do with it. It’s a prejudice I developed as a Cast Member at Walt Disney World, where I became pretty accustomed to only visiting the parks on the least-crowded days and shunned any ride with a wait time over 20 minutes because I knew I could drop by next Tuesday or whenever and just ride it then.

It’s gotten to the point that if there was a truck parked outside offering free puppies, but the line was an hour long, I’d just go buy a puppy somewhere without the wait. (Unless it was free beagle puppies. Then I would go buy one and stand in line for a free one and then I’d have two beagle puppies and I’d be the happiest girl in the world.)

But although not puppies, it was the freaking Belmont Stakes, as stated before. And although the Triple Crown bid made it a less desirable event, in my mind anyway, that also made it completely impossible to skip. What if that pretty chestnut won the Triple Crown and we were sitting in our living room in Brooklyn? How lame would that be? The lamest, that’s how lame. The absolute lamest.

Cal at Belmont

A proper horse-player’s hat in a sea of straw.

So we put on our Goorhin Bros hats and we went. First: crowded trains are crowded. There aren’t many other ways to describe them. And, according to one Long Island Rail Road employee, the rails are so decrepit on the Belmont tracks that the trains are only allowed to go five miles per hour. And the air conditioning stops working. So it takes a very, very long time and it is also crowded and it is also hot and that’s just never what you want in your public transportation in June. The nose rebels. Luckily, a regular rider told us about his pal that uses the Queens Village stop and walks over. That came in handy later when we decided to get the heck out of Dodge.

And we did get the heck out, thankfully before the mayhem that was the trains being shut down (although the railroad has not publicly admitted they shut the trains down). Here’s the thing: A lot of college students went to Belmont Park for the very first time on Saturday. They dressed up in weird approximations of what they thought was racetrack attire (I don’t know what impression college students are trying to make when they wear Nautica shorts and blue blazers but it isn’t a good look, especially when they are downing a six-pack of cheap beer they just realized they won’t be able to smuggle in). They stood in hour-long lines for $10 Coors Light and they shouted and they laughed and they cursed and they sat in the stairwells and created traffic jams and they smoked. An astonishing amount of smoke.

And I guess they had a good time, and maybe they think that’s what a trip to the races is like. And maybe they’ll come back next year for the Belmont, and do it all again.

But it’s definitely not like my typical day at the races. Because, well, they were there. Yelling and being drunk and blocking stairs and wearing those ridiculous faux-horseplayer outfits. (Pro-tip: At least go to a vintage store if you’re going to dress up. Don’t go to Macy’s.)

If there was a happy medium between a regular racetrack day and Belmont day, somewhere between 10,000 people and 100,000 people, somewhere between ghost town and seething masses of humanity, where you could enjoy the presence of other humans having a good time and still actually see the horses, I’d take that.

Sweet Whiskey before her sweet exacta in the Acorn (she lost to Sweet Reason in the photo)

Sweet Whiskey before her sweet exacta in the Acorn (she lost to Sweet Reason in the photo)

But what it really comes down to with racing: I have to see horses, and there were so many humans (and so much smoke) in my way, that in the paddock the view was dicey and on the apron, all I could see were the tips of their ears as they galloped towards the wire. After catching a decent glimpse of the field for the Acorn Stakes, I missed the race. And I never saw Princess of Sylmar at all, and she was on my wish-list, right alongside Palace Malice (yup, missed out on him too).

So it wasn’t very horse-centric. And then there were the Breathe Right girls.

Let’s talk about Breathe Right for a moment. They were handing out free nasal strips all over the place, because California Chrome wears a Flair strip, yadda yadda yadda. Clever product placement, and funny — until a Breathe Right rep shoved a packet of strips down my shirt when I wouldn’t take them from her. Literally, right down my shirt. It bordered on assault. It was weird. It did not make me want to rush out and purchase Breathe Right strips to attach to my nose.

A Thoroughbred Incentive Program ribbon with the TAA logo in the rosette, hanging at the TAA booth.

A Thoroughbred Incentive Program ribbon with the TAA logo in the rosette, hanging at the TAA booth.

I did enjoy seeing the booth from the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. Their booth was sponsored by the Daily Racing Form, which means every donation they received went straight into the charity. Serious props to the Form for this move. It’s exciting to see national racing publications picking up on the responsible retirement movement, especially one as die-hard horse-player as the Form.

I snagged an OTTB rubber bracelet, but for $10, I could have joined the giggling line of ladies and gents all ages who were posing in front a green screen. They’d walk away with photos of themselves galloping California Chrome past the wire. It was great to see so many people taking an interest in retired racehorses! Hopefully the TAA folks will be able to set up at more tracks this summer and keep educating the public (and reminding the powers-that-be) about how important comprehensive Thoroughbred retirement programs are.

Giddy-up, Cali Chrome!

Giddy-up, Cali Chrome!

The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance booth also made me happy because on a day when the horses were completely out of reach, I was able to stop and talk with people who were there for the horses. Not a lot of folks at the Belmont Stakes were there for the horses. They were there because Time Out New York suggested it would be a hip and fun vintage-type thing to do.

But for those of us who show because we love the horses more than reason itself, the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance symbolizes the very best thing about modern racing: the movement towards care and compassion, towards responsibility in retirement. And on a day of excess like Belmont day, it was a refreshing breath of clean air in a smoky room.

So, the 2014 Belmont Stakes. We went. We sighed. We went home. But I noticed quite a few banners for the July 5th race card, which includes several nice-looking stakes races. Will I be schlepping back out on the Long Island Rail Road? It’s possible. After all, I doubt I’ll be one in a hundred thousand next time. And that sounds pretty nice.

Inspiration: Bridleless Riding Video

Watching bridleless riding is always breathtaking to me. The sight of a horse who is working so diligently in tandem with his rider; a horse who is not being manipulated in any way, shape, or form through pain, leverage, or threat (imagined or real) never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

What can I say, horses make me cry.

I stumbled upon this video of David and Karen O’Connor riding bridleless, apparently at a Pat Parelli clinic some years ago, and was instantly moved. And not just because I have a thing for smooth jazz.

(But I totally do!)

I have my own opinions of clinicians who patent gadgetry to sell to the masses, but there is no denying the horsemanship of the O’Connors.

As I wrap a few final edits on my eventing novel, Ambition, I’ll be thinking about the beauty and partnership I see between the O’Connors and their horses.



Ask Questions

keep-calm-and-ask-questions-5Recently, tragedy struck twice at an event. Two horses died at The Fork, an upper-level event in South Carolina. Conair following an accident on the cross-country course; Powderhound following his show-jumping round.

Immediately after each horses’ death was announced, social media (generally Facebook, although I’m sure Twitter got involved) was abuzz. Mass messages of sympathy were intermingled with questions about how these deaths could have happened. And admittedly, neither was straightforward: Conair reportedly got up and galloped around after his fall; he collapsed and died after a preliminary vet exam. Powderhound collapsed and died after his show-jumping round, narrowly avoiding injuring his rider.

It looked weird. It looked scary. And people had questions.



An urge to twitch back the blinds and make sure their own horses were safe.

As things will do, of course, sympathy and fear divided into factions. Familiar ones, in Eventing: the Long Format vs the Short Format.

Simply put, Short Format Eventing is the current version of the Three Day Event, which does away with the massive endurance requirement once required. It places a greater emphasis on dressage and a more technical cross-country course.

Long Format proponents don’t need much to start talking about Long Format, anyway, so it was only to be expected that this would renew the debate. Questions like: Are the horses still fit enough to compete at high speeds? Are the courses asking the horses questions with solid fences that should only be asked with movable jump poles?

Short Format replies tended to be more succinct: now is not the time to bring this up.

I understand that the Eventing community is close-knit, and that when one horse dies, many horsemen grieve. That’s the way it should be. That’s how communities work.

But here’s what I want to say: it’s okay to ask questions, and it’s going to be done in public, on social media, because that is where people ask questions these days. There isn’t going to be an official period of discreet social media silence. And there shouldn’t be, because in this short-term-memory society, if an incident isn’t discussed within a fairly immediate time period, it won’t be discussed at all. It will be buried by the next story, for better or for worse.

It’s not okay to lay blame, or make assertions without proof, or tout oneself as an expert when one is not, or lay claim to a death as a symbolic martyr of a cause.

But it is okay to ask questions.

Questions, well-worded ones anyway, can lead to conversation amongst people who care about the problem. Conversation amongst people who care about the problem can lead to the answers… sometimes, the answers to questions far removed from the original one.

We should always be asking questions, and exploring the issues that concern us, or hell, scare us. A horse drops dead under a rider — that’s scary. Could it happen to you? Could it happen to me? We need to talk about this. Let’s discuss conditioning techniques. Discuss feeding practices. Share ideas. Share best practices. This, a time of worry and crisis and personal doubt, is when we are most likely to come together and share, instead of hiding away our fears (from shame) and our secrets (with jealousy).

Here’s how I see it: analyzing our own practices is good.

Coming together and sharing ideas is good.

Sometimes it takes a tragic event to start conversations about our own lives.

This argument has absolutely zero to do with making assumptions about the deaths of Conair and Powderhound. It has nothing to do with changing Short Format to Long Format. It’s not a statement about whether the comments section of an article announcing a tragedy is the right place to question the cause. It’s simply about the power crisis holds, that it can inspire us to examine our own practices and to talk more frankly with one another about our thoughts and fears.

And to not be afraid to ask questions.