Let Down and New Friends
The racetrack is an unnatural place for a horse. For starters it lives in what amounts to solitary confinement--a 12x12 stall most of the day. This is a challenge for a herd animal that is nomadic by nature and more social than a coterie of girls at a slumber party. Not only that, at the tender ages of 2, 3, or 4 years of age, a colt or filly will burst with the excess energy and bravado of puberty. A diet high in calories and protein, along with who knows what cocktails, legitimate or not, and one has concocted a perfect recipe for boredom, neurosis, or, ideally, a cut-throat competitive spirit.
The lifestyle serves its purposes--all athletes sacrifice much to be at the top of their games--and race horses are no exception, and what a thrill when they do rise to their raising, live up to or beyond their pedigrees, their training, and discover within themselves a love of running and an extraordinary will to win!
But like athletes or veterans of any kind when their combative days are done, racehorses need time to get over the physical pains and mental challenges they have experienced. They need a “let down” period to learn how to be, once again, just horses. To interact and frolic with their own kind. To find their places in the herd hierarchy (what most lay people call the “pecking order.”) To laze, graze and meander at will.
That is why I am so grateful to the generous souls in the Bluegrass who welcome MMSC candidates for let down on their farms. These people open their fields to my horses. They lend their expertise. They give of their time, their labour, their feed and hay. I pay nothing. They do it because they love the sport of racing and the Thoroughbred. They know how much these horses give and they want to give back.
That’s why Ben Berger, manager of his parents’190 acre Woodstock Farm on the Old Frankfort Pike, does it. A graduate of Amherst College in Massachusetts, he could have been anything. He took a stab at banking and legal work in Manhattan after college, but he says he is not a “coat and tie guy,” and looking at his blocky frame one would say not--a linebacker, maybe? (“Yes, I played football in high school and college,” he admits.) Or a farm manager. You need heft for that--enduring long days tending to horses, late nights waiting for mares to foal. Crises arise--weather flukes, labor headaches, managerial snafus, equipment failures, money shortages.
Despite all of these challenges, Ben has agreed to foster until mid February two horses I have selected for the spring MMSC class. Although I had talked to him on the phone and visited his farm, I had not yet met him in person. I have come today to check on two geldings, Reggie and Chris, which I have not seen since before Christmas, to thank Ben in person for taking care of them, and to make a new friend.
He is in the aisle of the broodmare barn with the vet, who is checking mares for pregnancies. Ben is taking notes--left handed -- on an electronic pad. Despite the raw wind, his bald head is bare, his stubble flecked cheeks are rosy. He reminds me of the big pink granite boulders that rebuff the sea from the forested shore line of Deer Isle, Maine where my mother lives. I love those boulders. I find myself liking Ben.
“I am in the horse industry,” Ben tells me when I ask him why he wanted to help the MMSC. “These horses do so much for us and I figure I should do what I can for them. If I hear of a horse that has been on this farm, or was a client’s or is a horse I have known, and it needs help or a home, I want to be there for it if I can. I’ll find it a home--but it has to be a good one. I don’t want to give a horse away to just anybody and find that it has ended up in a situation of neglect or abuse. I do not want to see any horse suffer. I know this is not a popular opinion, but if I cannot find a good home for a horse, and I have done all I can do, I would prefer to humanely euthanize it than it ever running the risk of its falling into bad hands.”
When finished with the vet, Ben leads me over to another barn to take a look at Reggie and Chris. They look fatter, woolier, and a whole lot muddier than when they were at the track. They also are much more relaxed and friendlier too.
Bobby, the farmhand who has been feeding them daily asks me if the horses had been turned out together for a long time before they came to Woodstock.
“No, they were at the track.” I say. “Why?”
“Because they act like best friends. They are real attached. They even like to eat out of the same feed tub.”
New friends! I smile. Reggie and Chris are well on their way to learning how to become horses again. Thank you, Bobby. Thank you, Ben. Thank Woodstock Farm for this fabulous “let down.”