My horse Music

You can teach an old horse some new tricks

Music, left, and her pal Daisy.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Music, left, and her pal Daisy. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

September 25, 2009

by Bethany M. Dunbar

I have a horse named Music.  She is 24 years old and is retired, for the second time.

The first time came after a career in harness racing.  Music is a standardbred — a pacer.  She broke her front leg near the foot.

Her owner at the time, Stanwood “Doc” Churchill is a veterinarian.  He braced her leg up and hoped for the best.  The best is what he got because Music is a special animal.  She is smart, calm, and adaptable and figured out how to get up in a way that didn’t stress her leg too much.  She healed up just fine.

Of course she couldn’t race any more, but later she was bred and had some fast offspring for Doc.  A few years later is where I came in.  I needed a companion for my Morgan, and Doc said, well, why don’t you take Music for the summer.  If you like her, you can buy her (He practically gave her to me as it turned out).

Boy did I like her.  I have become a huge fan of the standardbred breed used for harness racing.

These horses are incredibly athletic, like thoroughbreds (the kind you see in the Kentucky Derby).  Yet they are sensible and calm and far from delicate.  Of course any horse trained for racing has been worked with every day for years.  Shoeing, veterinary work, trailering — all that is no problem for a former standardbred racehorse.

Music is incredible.  Some of us horse people use the term “bomb-proof” for a trail horse that will walk calmly along the side of the road while being passed by loud noisy trucks, dogs, and bicycles.   These angelic horses do not mind cows staring at them, balloons floating in mid-air, mailboxes, small children, or whatever else might be on the road with us.  It’s a rare trail horse that starts right out not minding these distractions, but Music had been to the race track where noise and fuss are the only constant.

The only thing she did not understand about her new owners was why we kept asking her to canter.  A canter is a three-beat gait, and it is more fun to ride than a pace, which sort of tosses the rider from one side to the other.  Harness racing horses are strictly forbidden from cantering and disqualified if they break into a canter.

When we asked Music to canter, she, no doubt, thought we were crazy.  She kept switching her ears back and forth and rolling her eyes as if to say, “I wish you humans would make up your minds!”

But once she got the idea that it was okay to canter, she liked it just fine.

Music had to be retired for a second time due to arthritis, which sometimes makes her stumble.  But she’s living a pretty happy retired life out in the pasture — a constant reminder to me that you can teach an old horse a new trick or two.

Standardbreds are a great breed that is not well known.  I write this to say to anyone who happens to read this — don’t overlook a former standardbred racehorse when you are looking for a horse for competitive sports or simply as a great reliable riding horse for the trails.

Kim Brooks at Roaring Brook Park (the Orleans County fairgrounds in Barton, Vermont) has devoted a lot of time to promoting the sport of harness racing.  She held a hands-on workshop for people who want to learn the sport (posted below).

Melanie and Fran Azur of Newport Center and Pennsylvania own 13 standardbred racehorses.  At this year’s county fair in August, the Azurs brought two of their top racehorses for a demonstration race and two top drivers to race them.  Their horse Noble Falcon broke the record for the state of Vermont that day.  For more about this event, see the Chronicle’s web site, under news, in the sports section.  Also in this section is a story from last year’s fair about harness racing.  The Orleans County Fair was named a Blue Ribbon Fair for its efforts to promote harness racing.

Do you have a horse story for me?  I’d love to hear it, post it here if you are so inclined.  Featured on the Chronicle’s web site this week is a horse story by Paul Lefebvre about using a horse to pull out a moose during moose hunting season.

This week makes four weeks of blogging for me.  So far I’m having a great time with it, and I hope you are too.

Racehorse workshop draws a dozen

Doc Churchill talks about veterinary issues of standardbred racehorses during a workshop.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Doc Churchill talks about veterinary issues of standardbred racehorses during a workshop. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

July 1, 2009 the Chronicle

by Bethany M. Dunbar

BARTON — Rosa Caliente, a four-year-old mare, was getting a lot of attention at the fairgrounds on Friday.

Petting, baths, carrots, praise — the beautiful dapple gray standardbred pacer took it all in stride as her due.  She and her colleagues — harness racing horses whose schedule is normally a bit more intense — were the stars of the show at a four-day harness racing workshop to raise money to restore and renovate the old barns.

“I watched it at the fair last year,” said Norine Phillips of Glover.  Then she saw an advertisement for the workshop that would give her a chance to try it herself.

“When I saw it, I said, I just have to do that.”

On Friday she was thrilled that she was taking the course.  She said she had experience with horses back when she was a teenager but none since.

Kim Brooks, who organized the event, said it surpassed all of her expectations.  Twelve people took the workshop for $100 apiece, and she said her goals were achieved — they had a great time, learned a lot, got rid of some misconceptions, and caught the spirit of excitement.

“The magic of the horses and the thrill of the sport won them over,” Ms. Brooks said.  She knows because everyone kept showing up a half an hour before the workshop started each morning and staying longer at the end of the day — just to be there.

Other clues were the grins on everyone’s faces and the fact that one of the local stores ran out of carrots as participants kept feeding them to their favorite horses.

The horses at the workshop belonged to Dale Allen of Brushton, New York.  Barb Stephenson is half-owner of two of them.

Workshop participants ranged from almost complete novices to experienced saddle horse owners who always wanted to try this particular horse activity.  There was a father-daughter combination and a mother-daughter pair.  On Friday, people were raving about how much fun it was, and a couple of participants were talking about the possibility of forming a partnership to buy a racehorse.

“The only thing I knew about horses was how to spell it,” said Mike Caruso, who divides him time between Citrus Springs, Florida, and West Glover.

Mr. Caruso took early retirement from IBM in Tampa, Florida, where he worked as a senior project manager in data networks.  In nearby Ocala, horse racing is huge and is only for the wealthy.  The owners and trainers won’t let the general public anywhere near the animals and would never stop to explain how to put on a harness.

Ms. Brooks has been wanting to do this kind of workshop for about ten years and actively planning it for the past three.  Getting insurance coverage turned out to be one of the hardest parts, as many companies won’t insure any activities involving racehorses.

Ironically, one of Ms. Brooks’ missions in life is to dispel myths that racehorses are drug-crazed, out-of-control, dangerous creatures anyone would be wise to avoid, and that they are routinely mistreated in the racing industry.

No doubt racehorses exist that are not treated well, but Ms. Brooks said in harness racing the judges are vigilant about drivers whipping too much, and drug testing makes sure that no one can get away with cheating in that way.

A chestnut mare named Ruby Red Slippers did her best the dispel any myths of crazy behavior on Friday as she stood quietly for two and a half hours on Friday afternoon while she was first used for a demonstration of shoeing and then for a demonstration of veterinary issues.

Participants learned the basics of day-to-day horse care, how to harness the horses, hitch them to the jog cart and drive them, a bit about the business of racing, and some basic information about veterinary care and horseshoeing.

John Simons of Sheffield showed participants what he looks for when shoeing.

“An awful lot of horses don’t have exactly the right conformation.  So it’s my job as horseshoer to line them up as much as possible, without putting undue stress on,” he said.  He measures the angle of the hoof to make sure those match and the length of the toes.  Various styles of shoes will help correct imperfections in the horse’s conformation or feet.

Dr. Stanwood Churchill, a veterinarian, raced standardbreds for many years.

“It’s pretty difficult to buy or find a perfect horse,” he said.  But he said there are some issues that raise red flags right away — a horse that toes in or out quite strongly is likely to interfere with himself — knocking his feet or legs together.

Dr. Churchill drew a diagram of a horse’s knee on a big piece of paper, and Ms. Brooks offered to be the easel and hold the pad, adding, “We will be auctioning this off at lunch.  The autograph will cost extra.”

Karen Rosemark of Sheffield has a saddle horse, and her daughter is in 4-H.  She decided to take the workshop as a way to learn about a form of horsemanship she had not tried.  She has logged with draft horses and owns a riding horse and owned miniatures in the past.  She said she was interested to see how different and streamlined these animals are.  Even pacers are different from trotters, she said.  Both are types of standardbred race horses — with different gaits.

She said she was surprised at how easygoing the workshop was since it was about racing.

“I thought it was going to be a little more edgy,” she said.  She said the race horse owners and trainers are clearly crazy about their animals and take extremely good care of them.

“I hope everybody supports the fairgrounds because boy, this should stay here,” she said.

“Any horse person in Orleans County really needs to check this out,” she said.  She’s hoping that there could be a workshop specifically geared to 4-H clubs for children to learn more.

Ms. Brooks said harness racing has been at the fairgrounds for 143 years and she sees these workshops as a way to keep the interest alive.  She hopes to put on workshops on a regular basis, hopefully more often than annually.

“I want to expand the program in any way that people want to participate,” she said.  “I want to promote the sport.”

It’s an American tradition, Ms. Brooks said, and she hopes to keep it alive.


4 responses to “My horse Music

  1. I agree that Standardbreds are pretty much bomb-proof, and I know Music and some of Doc Churchill’s other horses, so I can vouch for their calm nature and unruffled-ness. But then there is the story of Demon Chan…

    Demon came from the same racing farm as Music, Frosty Acres Farm. He had worked hard that year – 1981 – racing during the fair circuit at Orleans, Caledonia, Tunbridge, the State Fair in Rutland, and the Champlain Valley Exposition. He was due for a rest, but alas, there was no pasture at Frosty Acres, so it was decided that he would come stay with us for a bit.

    At the time, I was a dairy farm wife living in Brownington, Vermont. Demon was trailered over, got out, and was placed in the pasture where he took one look at the ground level buffet and started munching away, yum. Everything was glorious and life was good until the cows came out of the barn and got a little excited about the grazing competition. Demon had communed with and raced other horses, but these lumbering creatures, what the heck were they? Where were their sulkies? The boss cow didn’t wait for Demon to formulate an answer. She headed straight for him and drove him through the electric fence, taking out 2 days worth of fence work in the process. Google-eyed and wary of large mooing creatures, Demon found his own reflection in the window of the nearby farmhouse, and stayed there until his owner came got him. I would imagine he was relieved to see his own kind, even if it was only a trick of physics.

    Demon lived to race until his retirement at 14.

  2. Awesome blog as usual! I miss riding Music… I remember the first time that I got her to canter– chasing after Daisy, of course, and urging her to get back into the racing spirit… Good times… Well, we’ll just have to get another companion for the two of them that is ride-able.

    The article is also interesting: I remember reading this when it came out, but it’s cool getting a refresher about it. I had forgotten about the Fair being awarded for keeping Harness racing alive.

    Thanks for posting!

  3. Hey there–
    Nice work! I am forwarding to my sisters!

  4. Bethany … wonderful story about your horse. It is Music to my ears when I read about a horse who has been given new life after his/her racing days are over. Here’s a poem I wrote a while back:

    Old Friend

    Old horse, old friend,
    your mane of flaxen hair still shines
    when the early morning sun
    hits it right.

    Stay yet another day
    for me to do my chores.
    Let me get you a bale of fresh hay
    and fill your bucket with clear water
    one more time.
    Let me stroke your aging body
    with my wrinkled hand.

    Grand times were ours in days gone by.
    Together we rode,
    my saddle draped
    behind your sturdy shoulders —
    you held me safe and high.
    My every thought was known by you
    as your fluid movement matched the grace
    of a Baryshnikov.

    You pulled the sleigh along forest paths
    and high-stepped through white meadows
    as bells rang out our presence.
    In summer,
    with your body in harness to a buggy,
    we ventured down country lanes.
    The humming of the wooden wheels
    and the rhythmic beat of your four hooves,
    clip clop, clippity clop on the gravel road,
    still reverberate in my mind.

    Stay yet another day
    and let me give you grain,
    for time is near when you will pass
    and time for me to shed a tear.
    We are as one, the two of us,
    so let me brush your coat
    and clean your stall
    and lay down fresh wood shavings.

    Stay yet another day,
    perhaps we’ll saddle up
    and take just one more ride
    across the muted meadow.
    Perchance I’ll get your harness
    and hitch you to the sleigh —
    we’ll traverse along a gentle lane
    with bells pealing once more
    and dream of times
    when we were one and young.

    Your mane of flaxen hair still shines
    when the early morning sun
    hits it right —
    So stay, yet one more day,
    old horse, old friend.

    Jerry Johnson

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