Saturday, December 13, 2008


In which a devotee of thoroughbreds learns from a Standardbred that, just as there really are good men in the world, there are also fantastic horses.

All my life, I’ve been in love with thoroughbreds. Just as with the tall, dark, and handsome men I used to be attracted to, I craved thoroughbreds as if they were a drug. I lusted for their beautiful heads. I coveted their athleticisms. I obsessed about their dauntless hearts. To me, they were “It.” With a capital “I.”

And as with the tall, dark, and handsome men I was attracted to—oh, let’s face it, I was addicted—most of the thoroughbreds I rode were just…well…a tad untrustworthy. A bit full of themselves. A bit…crazy.

Before any of you get all up on your high thoroughbred horses, I’ll be the first to tell you that there were major exceptions. I think of Majestic Pauper, descended from the great Majestic Prince, who went from race horse to winning A-circuit hunter without a single hiccup (well…except for that first year of blasting around the ring as if stung by a wasp every time the announcer said “canter.”).

Or Tindle, the refined bay with a heart as big as his jump, who carried me through the Olympic screening trials after I’d completely lost my focus on the cross country course.

Consider the gallant Paragon, who came to me as a 16-year-old. He restore my confidence after my 4-year-old thoroughbred bucked hard, causing my retina to tear. And consider that Paragon, now known as Max, is the best riding companion ever to 14-year-old Olivia.

Let me not forget tiny Charmer, whose name spoke of her patience with young riders—and belied her complete intolerance for many of her equine stable mates.

When I finally ditched tall, dark, and handsome men for the less tall, very handsome, blond, blue-eyed, and white-hatted Best Husband in the World, I felt a bit like I’d emerged, wide-eyed and a bit fuzzy, from a very long dream.

“You mean there are really men out there like you?” I asked, amazed. “Men who are respectful, kind, loyal, funny, gorgeous…and you like horses?”

And he just tipped his white hat, twinkled those baby blues at me, and said, “Yes, ma’am. Here, wanna share my bedroll?”

It was pretty much the same story when I met Cordealia, the rosy bay with the star who was, last year, my first face-to-face with a Standardbred.

I had never owned anything other than thoroughbreds since the age of 10. But with my years advancing and my vision severely declining, one buck too many made it clear that it was time to shelve my big competition plans for Pilot, the aforementioned 4-year-old with a rather annoying penchant for tossing me skyward.

Tall at 16.2 hands, dark with entrancing, steel grey dapples, and arguably one of the handsomest horses I’d ever seen, I fought against facing the facts; but like that tall, dark, and handsome man who had neglected to mention he was married until well after I’d handed him my heart on an entrĂ©e plate and my soul for dessert, Pilot did not have my back.

Just after I sold Pilot to a serious competition stable, I spoke on the phone to Stephen Chambers. Stephen has a small harness racing operation out of Cal Expo, and he is big on the Standardbred.

He said, “I have this mare and she’s really something special.”

Now that I’ve had this horse for a year, I realize that what Stephen was actually saying was, “I have this horse and she really thinks she’s special.” But I digress.

With 9 wins and a threatening tendon issue, Cordealia’s pacing career was over. “I just want to see her in a good riding home,” explained Stephen, “rather than have her go to the Amish, where she’ll spend the rest of her life working very hard.”

I didn’t know anything about Standardbreds. But the price was right, so The Best Husband in the World and I went to check her out.

The first thing that struck me was how quiet the track was. If I’m honest, back stage at a thoroughbred track can be unsettling; there always seems to be a lot of yelling, a frantic pace, noisy, high-headed horses yelling for stable pals. By contrast, Cal Expo was practically meditative. And the mare, beautiful Cordealia with her feminen head and round, intelligent eyes, was so calm, I actually wondered if she were drugged.

Stephen laughed when I hinted at my concern. “Standardbreds,” he said, as if that explained everything.

When Cordealia backed her hind end against the rail of the small turnout, I thought she was going to kick us.

As I backed away, Stephen just laughed again. “She wants you to scratch her rear end. It’s her thing.”

We took her home. That afternoon, she had a saddle on her back and The Best Husband in the World climbed on. Cordealia splayed her long legs a bit, but then found herself again and moved easily forward. A week later, I rode her out on her first trail ride. Accustomed to the usual thoroughbred antics, I sat ready for anything. Well, anything, but the complete calm with which Cordealia greeted every new thing, from bridges to rushing dogs to the sparkling waters of Northern California’s American River.

It was unequivocally the best ride of my life. From that moment on, I was a changed woman. A convert. A devotee. I wanted to put a bumper sticker on my Durango that read, “I heart Standardbreds.”

Just as my years with The Best Husband in the World have affirmed that good men do, in fact, exist, I recently got another opportunity to affirm that my adoration for Standardbreds is well placed.

It came in the form of “Key to the Highway,” AKA Kiwi. Five years old, this dark bay with a soupcon of a star had reached the end of his harness racing career. But like Stephen Chambers, breeder/owner Greg Watson wanted something more for this sturdy little gelding than what is offered up on an Amish farm. So Kiwi came to us.

His first day, Best Husband in the World put one of those giant Western saddles on him and mounted up. Kiwi acted like he’d had people climbing up on him all his life. Best Husband in the World made sure Kiwi had a “whoa” in him, then asked for “go,” and put Kiwi through the Best Husband in the World Accelerated Training Program. They wandered all over our property, through gates, over obstacles, through the forest of oak trees.

“Well, he’s a prince,” declared Best Husband in the World. “Let’s toss him to the wolves.”

I wondered if Best Husband had lost the marbles under that white hat, but he said, “I’m going to go cut down that tree limb that’s hanging in the round pen. Hand me the limb trimmers.”

Kiwi was more than a prince; he was amazing. There’s Best Husband in the World standing in the stirrups under our big oak tree, snapping at the offending limbs with the jaws of a giant limb trimmer. When the limb broke, cascaded gently down upon horse and rider, Kiwi didn’t move a hair. Well, unless you consider him twisting his head around to get a mouthful of leaves.

This morning, his fourth day under saddle, I took him down our little country lane to the 1800-acre open space down the hill. Kiwi saw turkey vultures feasting on a road kill buffet. He saw overturned trees. Snorting at a neighbor’s mailbox, I urged him forward for a closer look; he sniffed it, and then pulled it open. I swear, if there’d been any letters in there, he would have put them between his teeth and handed them back to me.

In short, I felt like Kiwi had my back. There is no way I would ever trust myself to a thoroughbred the way I handed myself over to this green gelding.

So it’s final. I’m way past smitten. I’m head-over-heels. Give me a Standardbred. Just as with those devilish tall, dark, and handsome men who first tested my heart, I will always harbor great fondness those tall, dark, and handsome thoroughbreds who first carried me. Like my former paramours, I will nostalgically recall how their elegant lines made my breath grow short, my heart thrum within my breastbone.

Then I’ll look at the blond, blue-eyed, less tall, white-hatted Best Husband in the World as he leans on the fence and scratches Kiwi and Cordealia behind the ears. And I’ll think, “But how much more wonderful the ride!”