Horses connect deeply if you allow them

NANCY VON SHORT: IRC ALTERNATE WEDNESDAYS

Last week, while I slowly cooked in forty-degree heat during my trip to Serre Chevalier in the French Alps, the greatest racehorse in the world (Dave) left our yard and headed off to his new home. 

Headline Pic: THE BEAUTIFUL NIGHTMARE: Dave has left us for a new home.

It was bittersweet news. On one hand, the boss had finally found a home for our most tricky thoroughbred and he now has the opportunity for an exciting new life. On the other hand, I’m losing my best mate. A horse who I spent countless hours with, in stoney silence, during one of the toughest years of my life. Dave and I had a connection. I needed him and he was there. Every day. Greeting me with the purest heart and the kindest eye. Without judgement or need. 

I always had hoped Dave would end up as my horse, much to my partner’s absolute dismay. Dave is cold-backed and retired from racing with tendon issues. The only race I ever saw Dave in, he appeared on my TV screen like a glorious buckaroo heading down to the start. Head between his legs bucking merrily away, with his jockey atop probably questioning what he’d done in his life to deserve this ride. 

To be fair, if he hadn’t spent the lead up to the race doing handstands, I think he could have placed in it. He jumped ok and looked in good form. Until he got knackered a few from home and eventually pulled up. When we got him home, it was clear his tendons weren’t keen on racing. So he was retired. 

It’s funny watching the life of a racehorse at a yard like this. While all around the media highlight horror stories about how thoroughbreds are treated when they can no longer race, I’m witnessing something quite amazing which I don’t believe is exclusive just to the boss here and his small National hunt yard. 

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This year alone I’ve seen a fair few horses stop racing for one reason or another including: 

Cuillin, a very marish dark bay. She’d enjoyed racing, had some potential and then literally woke up one day and decided she didn’t want to be a racehorse anymore. Which, I’m told, is something mares can do. 

Ellofagetaway, or Splodge to us, on account of his face markings. A lovely boy broken in by my partner. Splodge just wasn’t into racing at all. So he retired early enough to give him a chance of a new career. 

Dave. A beautiful nightmare. Difficult to ride, adorable to love, complex to rehome. 

NOT EVERYTHING YOU HEAR IS TRUE: Most yards take horse care seriously.

On this yard, rehoming of racehorses is taken very seriously. It’s a huge responsibility which is considered at the very start of a horse’s career. The horses that are broken in here, are broken in with patience and at their pace. I love watching the process. At this point the intention is to make racehorses (ideally good ones!) but this isn’t done at the expense of a good life beyond racing. They need to have all the foundations of a good horse too. One that can become an eventer, a hunter or a happy hacker should their career in racing not pan out. 

The boss is mindful of horses and their individual needs here, it’s one of the main perks of a small yard. 

When the decision came to retire Cuillin, the boss started to retrain her and eventually took her to a XC course. She was patiently ridden through water jumps and over box jumps and banks. She loved it, and so did the boss judging by the extra swagger he had when he got back to the yard. 

Ellofagetaway was withdrawn from racing because he just didn’t enjoy it. But, he had the most beautiful movement in trot and canter. Like Donkey from Shrek, Splodge would proudly announce ‘I am TROTTING’ with a happy grin. I honestly think he’d been watching Velegro videos on YouTube in his stable. 

Dave. Moved out of his box and was given free roam of the paddocks to get fat and keep some of the other horses company. 

One thing there never is on this yard is a rush to rehome. There is a culture here that trickles through all the staff. The horse comes first. During the whole process. From breaking, to racing to retirement and rehoming. It’s done in their best interest, not the boss’s best. 

Sure, having four horses on the yard that aren’t earning their keep gets expensive. Especially when owners’ training fees are dropped immediately upon retirement. From this point they are guests of the yard until the boss feels he’s found the right match. 

For Ellofagetaway it was pretty simple. A friend of mine looking for a future star to grow with her at Hartpury. So sure this was the right home, the boss agreed to hold him for an extra month so she could focus on finishing her end of year exams. When she came to collect him it was like a blur of pink smeared across the yard. From head collar to rug to travel boots. Splodge was off to the home of his life. And the subsequent videos of his first day on the new yard, first turnout and first ride, have made everyone on the yard happy. We’re actually all off to see his first event later this year. 

Cuillin took a little more work. She needed someone who understood mares as she was particularly ‘marish’ and could be quite territorial in her stable. One minute you’d think she wanted to rip your head off, the next she would be snuggled up to one of the team here getting her ears stroked. The boss spent a long time working with her to make sure her potential could be seen by any new owner. After a couple of months he found someone perfect. Who could see through the teeth and flat back ears straight into her soft heart. And off she went. 

Dave was really tricky. His legs wouldn’t hold up to eventing. He could team chase a bit, hunt a little and be a happy hacker. However, being cold backed meant he needed someone patient who would either ride daily or, accept that the first 15 minutes of their ride could be quite exhilarating. To be honest, we thought he may just retire and be a companion horse. He was very happy chomping away babysitting the youngsters here. 

Dave retired over 10 months ago. That’s how long he stayed at the yard, costing the boss instead of earning him money. He had a two week stay at the local yard with a member of staff (and their alpacas) to help keep a box until she found another horse. Then he was back. Filling my life with absolute joy, while slowly draining the bosses profit margins. 

I worked on a master plan to make Dave my pet racehorse. Coming up with all kinds of brilliant new jobs he could do. Therapy horse, backpack horse for hiking and when Ridley Scott was here filming his next blockbuster, I thought Dave might make a great riderless stunt horse. Then, two weeks ago while I was enjoying my breakfast, the news was broken to me that they had found a great owner for Dave who wasn’t fazed by his trickiness and could offer him a really lovely home and future not too far up the road in Gloucestershire. 

I was gutted and happy in equal measure. (That’s a lie. I’m devastated) 

After 10 months, Dave headed off to his new home last week. And immediately the boss sent me videos of him looking insanely happy with his new friends. Then another the next day, when he was ridden again. 

This much care is put into all the horses here. From the top rated national hunt horses, to the grouchy, difficult to love, and the ones who just don’t want to be racehorses at all. 

Today, another horse is off. Kali is heading up to the Wirrall. Birthplace of Daniel Craig and baking sensation Paul Hollywood. I don’t suppose Kali will care about that too much though.

One of the team fell in love with the yard yob, Gino. When he retired she asked if she could have him. He is now living the life of Riley down in the village and his yobbish behaviour has melted into goofy cuteness. 

I can’t speak for every yard. But in my experience, life after racing is taken very seriously for the horses here. The boss stays in touch with everyone that becomes the custodian of one of his horses. It’s actually quite beautiful to watch. 

Guess it’s time for me to pick a new favourite. –IRC.

Connect with Nancy on Twitter @NotNowNancy.

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