It was only a photograph, but I loved what I saw: A well built dark bay gelding, 16.2, no markings. Definitely a handsome hunk. But the difference between aesthetic appreciation and emotional connection is always in the eyes. And Formaggio’s were big, brown, and kind.
“I’ll take him!” I said without hesitation.
Formaggio arrived at the MMSC a few days later.
“Look at those huge eyes!” the interns exclaimed.
“All Italians have magnificent eyes,” I responded.
“Of course. His name means ‘cheese’ in Italian." The girls smirked.
“Ok. I’m teasing, but he does have the biggest eyes, doesn’t he? Very expressive, very dark, very ‘Latino.’ And he’s beautifully bred too, by Dynaformer out of a Danzig mare. There's Roberto in his family, Northern Dancer, Mr. Prospector, Ribot, Herbager.
Oh the lovely Herbager!!!”
|Herbager, my childhood gold standard|
(I had met that stallion at Claiborne in 1973 when I was a child visiting my grandparents. My older brother took a photograph of him for me which I kept pinned to my bedroom wall for many years thereafter. Talk about a handsome hunk with beautiful eyes! Herbager was my gold standard.)
It was the first of April. Formaggio’s last race was just two months before, an $18,000 claimer on the dirt at the Fair Grounds in Louisiana. It was a lucky day for Formaggio. He won the race and was claimed back by his old owners. After 30 starts, finishing 50% of the time in the money, and garnering a career total of $179,197, Formaggio had earned his retirement, they thought.
I heard about him when the owners’ bloodstock agent showed me that picture. Formaggio had had two months out to pasture, just being a horse. I was told he was sound and was asked if I thought he could have a new job.
“How old is he?”
“Any old injuries?”
“He stepped in a hole in a graded stakes race at Kentucky Downs in September of 2011 and tore a part of his foot off. He had a lot of bumps and bruises and we gave him almost a year off for the foot to heal up and grow out before returning him to the track in August 2012. He got claimed about nine months ago and was doing alright, but when he started dropping down in class, his owners wanted him back. They thought he had worked hard enough.”
I knew that Formaggio most likely would be stiff and have a race track brain. I also knew after I had had time to evaluate him that if I told his owners he needed to be permanently retired, they would do so, placing him for life on a lovely farm in Kentucky or Virginia. All TB owners should be like that!
I studied Formaggio’s face in the photograph. His eyes said it all: Kind, personable, attentive. Maybe he would thrive in a second career which did not involve leaping tall buildings in a single bound? Perhaps with older, timid rider or as the first horse for a child?
The day Formaggio arrived, we put him in the hitchcock free-jumping pen to see how he moved at liberty and how he would handle the “questions” of ground poles. Just as I suspected: Very matter of factly, crooked, stiff and jammed in his shoulders and back. I could deal with that.
The next day we took him in the arena and led him towards all of our bomb proofing contraptions: the high and low bridges, the water fall, the teeter totter, the liverpool. I had never seen a horse act the first time out as he did. Thoughtfully he examined each object, analyzed it for safety, tested it with a foot or his nose and once assessed, dutifully marched forward. “Tack him up!” I said.
Carolyn our head rider hopped up on him and walked, trotted, and cantered him without incident.“See if you can ride him over the bridges,” I instructed.
Formaggio not only went over the bridges, he went over and through everything! Again, stopping momentarily, assessing, then proceeding as instructed.
“Lord have mercy! This horse is a US Marine!,” I exclaimed. “Unbelievable! What a work ethic! What a commitment to safety! What a seasoned brain and a willing attitude!”
Yes, he had all that, but he also had an accumulation of battle wearied joints and muscles. We found a cut on the bulb of his right foot that had not healed properly and was plagued with proud flesh that needed to be exorcised. Dr. True dealt with that. He also flexed and x-rayed him for a baseline assessment. Formaggio’s joints didn’t look too bad, but he was stiff and sore on them. We decided to help him transition to a new career by injecting both hocks and the left front ankle to give him immediate relief.
We also put him on joint surfactants and had him regularly adjusted by the chiropractor. He got acupuncture and Chinese herbs to help alleviate stiffness. We alternated far-infrared and magnetic blanket treatments. We devised a training program to help loosen up and develop new muscles: stretches, circles, bending, alternating with gentle hill work and trail rides. He had good days and bad days, but overall the trajectory was positive. No matter how he felt, however his attitude was always the same: dutiful and studious. It was clear he wanted to serve. He appreciated the attention and was very, very sweet. I decided we would stay the course, despite the accruing expenses. I have made a commitment to being Horse-Centered in all that we do. There was nothing really wrong with Formaggio that Mother Nature and Father Time couldn’t heal. So be it; let go and let God. Formaggio’s person will come.
Several potential adopters tried him as the weeks passed: First a young woman who had had a reconstructed ankle that she needed to protect after a terrible car wreck. She was seeking a Steady Eddy. Her vet turned Formaggio down because of the proud flesh on the heel. Next came a middle aged lady looking for a reliable trail horse. She felt he was too stiff to be able to enjoy long rides on him. A little girl tried him but couldn’t get the right lead on him, so again, he was passed over. Then came another beginner rider, this time a grown man who rode Formaggio both in the ring and on a trail ride.
“I am so sorry” the man acknowledged afterwards, “Formaggio is a wonderful, kind, gentle horse, but I am just not in love.”
“No worries.” I said. “Love is crucial. That’s why you have to come ride my horses here at the MMSC. I want you to be head over heels in love. My horses deserve that. Be patient. When the time is right, you’ll find the right horse for you.”
Two sisters came with their mother from Georgia. The older girl, a lean, leggy 17 year old, was in the market for another OTTB to bring along in eventing as they one she was currently competing was accruing some age. The younger one, 9, a fairly new rider, didn’t have a horse yet but her parents were thinking of getting her one.
“Not a Thoroughbred, though,” her mother told me right off the bat. “They can be high strung and crazy.”
“Yes, they can,” I acknowledged, “but so would you be if you were put in a high stress, unnatural environment as a teenager. Think: Iraq, Afghanistan and all those young troops… Thoroughbreds need some detox time, acclimation to a new world and job. Then they need to be carefully selected for attitude. If you pay attention to all those things, there is no reason why some Thoroughbreds can’t be excellent mounts for the right child in the right circumstances. I have one here now that might be perfect for your daughter.”
Little Anna starting popping up and down like an enthusiastic Golden Retriever puppy.
Her mother looked at me skeptically.
“I am not kidding. This horse is a Marine. Thoughtful, duty oriented, sweet. He would do his utmost to keep your daughter safe.”
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Please Mom, can I try him?,” said the bouncing Anna.
Her mother agreed to fill out an application for both girls and to bring them back to ride. Her older daughter would try several horses, and she would let her younger daughter sit on Formaggio.
They returned that afternoon. The older girl tried a few horses but none were quite right. Anna rode Formaggio. She bounced around on him at the trot, and he just tried to move underneath her to keep her on board. She then tried to get him to canter by posting faster and faster and he did as instructed: trotting faster and faster, his ears moving back and forth like radars searching for messages.
“Sit down!” We hollered to her from outside the arena, and as soon as she did, Formaggio picked up the canter.
When Anna dismounted, I showed her how horses greet one another, by blowing in each other’s nostrils. We ran the stirrups up and I asked her to let go of the reins and walk away. Formaggio followed her. When she stopped he halted and nuzzled her.
Anna was smitten.
But of course, it was a family decision. All the information in our “baby books,” the records we assemble for each horse detailing what we know and all that we have done during the horse’s stay at the MMSC, had to be reviewed. Their trainer needed to be consulted. A vet check if so desired had to be scheduled. I told them to take the time they needed to decide. People had looked at him before and turned him down. I knew that with continued faith and hope, at some point, someone would fall in love with Formaggio.
The next day I got a call from the mother.
“Well?” I asked. “Have you made a decision?”
“Oh goodness,” the mother said. “Yesterday Anna walked with a friend up to the MMSC after hours. They found Formaggio in a field and called to him and the other horse. Formaggio came right over to Anna and put his head over the fence. She said she blew in his nose like you showed her and told him she loved him. She said he blew back and told her he told her he loved her too! Then she asked him if he wanted to go home with her and he shook his head vigorously up and down three times. Yes! Yes! Yes! 'Mom,’ she told me ‘he wants to go home with me. He says he loves me. And God says so too.’”
I laughed. “Oooo, that’s tough competition! You against Anna, Formaggio and God!”
“Yeh, I know. But I am still am worried about the stiffness that I read about in his baby book. Is he ever going to work out of that?”
“I don’t blame you for worrying, and I don’t know. All I can say is that he is steadily improving and I'd recommend continuing the kinds of things we are doing: supplements, stretches, gentle steady work, chiropractic and see how far that takes him. What I know for sure is that Formaggio is kind, thoughtful, and will do his utmost to keep your daughter safe. There are no perfect horses, especially for bargain prices. You and your family will have to think about all that I have told you, decide what you can live with and what you can’t live with out, and then let me know.”
I had to wait another two days before I got the news.
“We want him! Anna is in love.”
I smiled. Have faith in the original owners that they would do right by Formaggio no matter how his story unfolded here at the MMSC. Hope that the amazing team of staff, interns, volunteers, doctors, therapists, as well as my Horse Centered Reschooling Program could make enough of a difference for Formaggio so that he could find a new home. Wait for love.
And there it was: Anna loved Formaggio,and Formaggio loved Anna. And, as we know, of the three-Faith, Hope, and Love-love is the greatest of all.