Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A horse to love

River City Storm in a storm of his own

Best Husband in the World came into the kitchen, stamping his feet against the late February chill. He'd been down at the barn, repairing a fence our little buckskin, River, decided it would be fun to mow over in the middle of the night..

"Stormy isn't eating," he said. "He wasn't eating much last night either."

Immediately, I was out the door. At the age of 15, Stormy, the newest addition to our Standardbred menagerie (see Stormy's story here), is also the oldest. He is, as well, the easiest keeper of all the horses. So if he's off his feed, I know it's worth investigating.
I conducted an extremely in-depth assessment. It lasted... about two and a half minutes. "He's bored," I told Best Husband.

Two weeks ago, we were at 70% of our average rainfall. All the "experts" made gloomy predictions of drought. But for the last two weeks, it's rained almost non-stop. In fact (as evidenced by the above photo), we even had snow at 1100 feet (see our "snow story" here)!

Today, the ground is now so saturated, Sacramento--and most other Northern California towns--are worried about flooding. Here at the ranch, our pastures are thick with mud on the hillsides, and there is standing water on the flats.

Which means we have the equine equivalent of a geometry theorem.

It has been raining cats and dogs: therefore, Stormy has to stay indoors: therefore, Stormy is bored.
When I first came down to the barn, Stormy's head was out the window. He regarded me with head high, ears pricked, his eyes intent. He looked like a man waiting at the airport gate for the love of his life to deplane.

Stormy in a "non-bored" state on the trail before the rains began

The beauteous Cordealia (aka "The Dilla"), ini the next stall, was also looking at me. Sideways. If Stormy looked like a lovestruck youth, Cordealia looked like she was about to face a police interrogation. She was only paying attention in order to figure out her escape route.

If you could have inserted a wiretap into the heads of these two horses, my guess is each would yield up something completely opposite of the other.

Our Standardbred mare, Cordealia...beautiful, arrogant...gotta love her!

The Dilla: "What? Are you looking at me? You lookin' at me? I may be looking at you. But it's only to see what you're up to. Because I know you're up to something. Yeah, I see you looking at me and, since it's not dinner time yet, that can only mean one thing-- annoyance. I'm not looking at you because I'm glad to see you. Don't get any crazy ideas about that. Unless...hey, did you bring me some carrots? Yes? Cool. Thanks. Got anymore? No? Dude, I'm outta here."

Stormy (aka Mr. Sweetie Pie): "Oh, good, here you come. I'm soooo happy to see you. I've been waiting for you. Haven't you seen me staring up at the house for hours now? I want you to come over here. Hurry. Don't go see anyone else. Just come see me. And don't forget the carrots. Oh, never mind, I don't need the carrots. I just want you, you, you! First, I want you to pet me and tell me I'm wonderful. Because...I am, you know. Then I want you to let me out. I'll follow you anywhere, I swear I will. I can help you with chores, too. I'll pull the hammer out of your back pocket. And when I'm done helping, why don't you put me in the round pen and give me some of those weird exercises to do? It's true, I've been a champion harness racer my whole life, so this round pen stuff is all new to me. But hey, old dogs--uh, er, horses-- learn new tricks all the time. I'm living proof. Come on, let's go play. I love you!"
And so that's what we did. When Stormy finally went back to his stall, he was relaxed and happy. As I secured the stall door, he turned to me, heaving one of those wondrous, heavy horse sighs that signals contentment.

I, too, felt a tranquil breath leave me.

"Right back at you, kid" I told him. "Right back at you."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Author Charles Leerhsen brings harness racing history to life in "Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch"

Ever since I first devoured Black Beauty, I've been a sucker for a good horse story. One of my perennial favorites is a book called The Secret Life of Cowboys, the lyrical, haunting (and true) account of Tom Groneberg's struggle to live the cowboy life in modern day Montana. One Good Horse, the follow-up from this frequent contributor to Cowboys & Indians Magazine, is also prominent on my bookshelf.

I'm proud to introduce to you my newest library addition, Charles Leehrsen's Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America.

If you are a die-hard harness racing fan, you no doubt know at least a little about Dan Patch. But if you are new to Standardbreds, it's unlikely you have even an inkling of what your grandparents and great-grandparents knew--that the most beloved figure in turn-of-the-century America was a horse. Born so crippled he was nearly put down, Dan Patch grew up to be fast...and famous.
By today's standards, Dan Patch's million dollars worth of endorrsement deals were not all that impressive. But when you consider that baseball's greatest hero at the time, Ty Cobb, was making $12,000, you understand a bit more about Dan Patch's superstar status.

Writing for USA Today in June, journalist Deirdre Donahue said:

At the starting gate of summer book sales, Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America by Charles Leerhsen is positioned nicely on the inside rail.

It's a terrific look at a legendary if now forgotten equine superstar named Dan Patch. Leerhsen does for early 20th-century American harness racing what Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit did for Depression-era Thoroughbred racing.

By all accounts, Dan Patch adored the roar of the crowd. At the dawn of the 20th century, Patch reigned as the Secretariat of harness racing at a time when it was more popular than Thoroughbred racing.

Dan Patch and owner M.W. Savage in their hey-day (Photo courtesy of Dan Patch Historical Society)

Born in Indiana in 1896, Dan Patch was a small-town Hoosier made good. Intended for recreational riding, the stallion showed such speed that at age 4 he began racing. During his racing years from 1900 through 1909, he was front-page newspaper copy.

At the height of his fame, he earned for his owner more than $1 million a year. His image appeared on everything from tonics to sleds to washing machines.

Crowds of 100,000 turned out for a glimpse of the stallion who possessed an unusually gentle temperament yet radiated charisma. Dwight Eisenhower lined up with his parents at the 1904 Kansas State Fair to see him, and Harry Truman recalled that as a boy he had written a fan letter.

Leerhsen, an editor at Sports Illustrated who has worked at Us Weekly and People, has a snappy pop style that will help readers grasp the difference between Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds, trotters and pacers. (To see the original article, click here.)

Nearly a century has passed since Dan Patch died in 1916. But under Leehrsen's skilled hand, he lives again in this exceedingly worthwhile book.

Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch is available in hardcover, paperback, and downloadable eBook form. To learn more, you can logon to the publisher's site at Simon & Schuster, or at

To learn more about Dan Patch online, visit the Dan Patch Historical Society at