Lady and The Track | November 13, 2019

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A Girl and “Her” Horse

A Girl and “Her” Horse: When horse racing people talk about how a horse and its most constant human companion have a bond, they’re typically referring to the apparent trust the animal has for the groom. Less discussed is how the groom feels about the horse, an attachment that simply grows more intense by the day. I never would have guessed that I would experience such a bond after only handling a horse for a few months.

A Girl and Her Horse

I never would have guessed that I would experience such a bond after only handling a horse for a few months.
Photo: Jess Smith

My first day at my new job on the farm was stressful, to say the least. I’m not one to be easily rattled by unfamiliar work and experiences, but something about finally doing what I’ve only dreamed of being able to do for so many years put me on edge. Hired as a groom for yearling fillies, I knew the gist of what sort of work would be expected from me. However, I was not as well-prepared for the brattiness of some of the young horses. After all, I had only ever dealt with my own horses, a Tennessee walking horse and a quarter horse who were both so well-behaved that I don’t believe I ever even had to raise my voice at them.

The first morning’s work done – work that included handling colts for the first time in my life, perhaps the aspect of farm work that kept me on my toes the most during those first few weeks – I was “assigned” a quartet of fillies, each called by their dam’s name, I would be responsible for grooming until they went to Keeneland’s behemoth September yearling sale. The Chic Dancer filly, lovingly donned “Grandma” due to a patch of scattered white on her face, I already knew to be easily managed, and Frio Town would be similarly manageable for a beginner like myself. Shytoe Lafeet was more of mystery to me, although the ounce of positive experience I’d already had with her boded well. The Golden Borders filly, my fourth and final charge, worried me the most. I knew that she wasn’t born and raised on the farm and likely didn’t have the manners that the people there instill in the young horses. Instead, she had come in with a group of several other yearlings labeled as “loco” by my new coworkers.

Grooming Golden Borders for the first time that day wasn’t a train wreck of bad behavior like I expected, but it certainly wasn’t pleasant. Shuffling this way and that, the undeniably beautiful, flashy chestnut filly simply wouldn’t stand still, often completely leaning against one side of the wall in her attempts to get as far away from me and my box of grooming tools as possible. An involuntary bout of clucking while simultaneously pulling her off the wall and setting her back up inevitably ensued each time she did that to correct her of this annoying habit, at which point she would typically just turn her head, ears pricked and curious, as far around as she could to get a good luck at me before she’d get right back to incessantly moving. “Be glad you’re pretty because people certainly aren’t going to buy you for your attitude,” I regularly found myself grousing to the bronze filly.

A Girl and Her Horse

The tipping point was likely when I went by her stall and immediately turned back around to look inside to see her sprawled out in the shavings in the corner, comfortably and adorably napping. Photo: Jess Smith

For a few days after that first go of grooming that golden filly with the three long socks, I’d check the whiteboard with the lists of which horse belongs to each groom just in case I had misread “Golden Borders” as “Golden Damsel,” another filly who looked to have better manners while grooming. Alas, each time I realized I was stuck with Golden Borders!

As the weeks wore on, however, I found myself starting to like this filly and her personality. The tipping point was likely when I went by her stall and immediately turned back around to look inside to see her sprawled out in the shavings in the corner, comfortably and adorably napping. I started to dote on her with extra pats when I’d walk by her stall and see her standing there expectantly, and I’d even coined an efficient nickname for her formed by some of the leading letters of her dam’s name: Gobo. She seemed to appreciate the attention, or at least to tolerate it nicely, and her bad habits while I groomed her slowly dissipated. After a month or so of doing our back-off-the-wall dance, Gobo had learned that solely the sound of my clucking meant for her to stand in the middle of the stall in perfect grooming position, a developed habit that has left me spoiled since.

My time to groom Gobo in the afternoons became the best part of each day at work. Frank Sinatra typically booming from my phone, I’d pick up my grooming box, head over to her stall, take a moment to cuddle her gorgeous blazed face, and begin the grooming process. I can’t help but feel as if she enjoyed our time together as well at that point.

As her date to ship out to the September sale approached, I almost began to panic. I had gotten so used to having her there and enjoying my time with her that the idea of her being gone for good was terrifyingly uncomfortable. Marian and Molly, the interns who I had gotten to be close friends with at that point, often listened to me wail and certainly tired of hearing me express my displeasure at the idea of her leaving. “Guys, only a few days left with Gobo,” was one of my most typical grievances that could be heard throughout the back barn on a daily basis.

A Girl and Her Horse

Every spare moment between feeding, cleaning stalls, and refreshing hay and water I spent in her stall, hugging her face and mumbling sweet words and farewells to the filly I felt and claimed as my own after a mere handful of months. Photo: Jess Smith

Gobo’s day dawned, and by that point I had come to terms with her leaving. I was ready, albeit with tears already beginning to form when we gave her a pre-sale bath that morning. Every spare moment between feeding, cleaning stalls, and refreshing hay and water I spent in her stall, hugging her face and mumbling sweet words and farewells to the filly I felt and claimed as my own after a mere handful of months. When the final touch-ups were applied, she was deemed perfectly groomed and ready to load onto the trailer.

Someone else clipped the lead on her and led her out of her stall with me pathetically trailing behind. I wasn’t crying – I wouldn’t. I knew that this was just the beginning for her, and it was the excitement of seeing her moving on to another stage in her life that kept me above tears.

However, Gobo didn’t seem quite as excited to begin a new adventure outside of her comfortable life at the barn. She put a front hoof on the ramp of the trailer but quickly put herself in reverse. A team of five or six was eventually called in to help get her on the trailer, but she was simply not having it. Desperation reaching a maximum, my golden girl went sideways while backing up in an attempt to escape the trailer, and as she stumbled off the side of the trailer, she sliced the inside of her hind leg. Red quickly consumed the spotless white of her leg. The cut was examined by all and was determined to be by no means life-threatening or a wound that would ruin her chances at athleticism, but it was ugly nonetheless. The decision was made to scratch her from the September sale.

I was strangely crushed. As they bandaged her up and prepared to send her to the veterinarian to have the wound stitched up, I could only think about how I’d have to mentally prepare myself again for her departure later on. Conversely, Gobo was calm, cool, and collected while they cleaned her up, as if she had planned all this. Jokes abounded that this silly filly intentionally made a mess of herself to stay behind with me.

The methods changed for loading her up on the trailer to go to the vet, and she seemed much more amenable to the idea of leaving this time around. The truck and trailer drove off, and I was left to silently celebrate having a few more weeks with Gobo.

Gobo returned to the back barn the next day. “Your filly’s coming back,” one of my bosses said as I internally jumped for joy. It was decided that she would go to Fasig-Tipton’s October sale, providing me with almost a full blissful month with her.

A Girl and Her Horse

Constantly shifting attitude and teeth-grinding aside, Gobo was still my darling. I groomed her daily with the same ardor as before, and she typically still seemed to enjoy it. She was still a sweet filly, tenderly grabbing my shirt and pulling me to her when I’d try to leave her stall. Photo: Jess Smith

It’s safe to say I cherished that time. Gobo, on the other hand, actually became rather hard to love and certainly tested me. Stall-bound for almost three weeks straight, her attitude was often unpredictable. She started grinding her teeth, an abhorrent sound that no doubt stemmed from her unattainable desire to go out into her paddock. It was hard to feel too bad for her; after all, that doofus had gotten herself into this mess.

Constantly shifting attitude and teeth-grinding aside, Gobo was still my darling. I groomed her daily with the same ardor as before, and she typically still seemed to enjoy it. She was still a sweet filly, tenderly grabbing my shirt and pulling me to her when I’d try to leave her stall.

When it was finally time to remove her staples, Gobo motionlessly endured the long process, drooling from the tranquilizing drugs they had given her. I held her heavy head in my arms as the vet retrieved each of the staples, and as she finished, she let us know that she could be stall-walked for a few days and should then be ready to turn out. A few days later, Gobo was joyously kicking her heels to the sky and racing along the fence line out in her paddock.

Inevitably, her shipment date for the October sale arrived. After removing her precious pink blanket, dousing her with another bath, and grooming to make her spotless, she was again ready to be loaded onto the trailer. This time around, I knew it wouldn’t be my last true interaction with her; I would be going to work the sale while she was there. To everyone’s surprise, Gobo hopped into the trailer like it was her destiny, leaving a group of folks ready to fight to load her stunned.

This time, I watched the trailer drive away with her aboard, never to return to the back barn again. My heart was simultaneously heavy and full of happiness. I simply had to wait a day or two before I’d see her again.

That first morning that I arrived to work the sale, I immediately saw Gobo in her stall. Of course, I took a moment to say my good mornings to that undeniable face before I ran along to help with morning chores for the sales barn.

A Girl and Her Horse

That first morning that I arrived to work the sale, I immediately saw Gobo in her stall. Of course, I took a moment to say my good mornings to that undeniable face before I ran along to help with morning chores for the sales barn. Photo: Jess Smith

When prospective buyers began to arrive, I staked my claim to showing my dear Hip 310. Anytime they called out her number for a show, I’d hook Gobo up and proudly step out of the barn, ready to show her to whoever was wise enough to decide they wanted to lay eyes on her. When the sun would hit her in the eyes, she would express her discomfort by demonstrating a show horse rear, taking a few trotting steps with handler in-tow, or simply standing still, refusing to move until she could seemingly adjust to being in the bright sun. All these antics I took in stride because she was my horse.

For two days I hovered around Gobo’s stall in anticipation of showing her. My more unfamiliar coworkers on the sales crew quickly became aware of my attachment to the flashy golden filly, and they kindly supported my desire to be by her side for each show. If I wasn’t particularly close to her stall when a show was called for, I would hear other salespeople calling me to take “my” filly out, giving me the chance to spend as much time with her as I could.

On my last day working the sale, the day Gobo would enter the sales ring and find her new owners, I was directed to leave at lunch. I was expecting to be there the whole day. I was supposed to have one full day left with Gobo. It was being cut short because help was needed back at the farm. On the verge of panicking, my dear pal Molly reminded me that I needed to take a picture with Gobo, effectively pulling me back to stable sanity and to a mindset in which I was prepared to say my farewells.

We made our way over to her stall as we were on our way out to our cars. Happily munching on hay and no doubt unaware of my turmoil in leaving her, Gobo remained in the corner of the stall. When I unlocked the gate and stepped inside, that lovely, inquisitive face turned around to look at me as it had done innumerable times before. She made her way through the straw and over to me as Molly got her phone ready to take the picture. Still chewing on her hay as she moved towards me, she stopped immediately and perked her ears forward when I put my hands on her soft nose and prepared for the picture. I smiled so hard as she perfectly posed for the picture that I now hold most dear.

A Girl and Her Horse

Still chewing on her hay as she moved towards me, she stopped immediately and perked her ears forward when I put my hands on her soft nose and prepared for the picture. I smiled so hard as she perfectly posed for the picture that I now hold most dear. Photo: Jess Smith

I never let tears fall as I drove away from Fasig-Tipton and took the winding Kentucky roads back to the farm. Instead, I resolved to contact whoever purchased her as soon as possible. Later that evening when I watched her go through the ring and bring $135,000, I immediately tracked down the bloodstock agent who purchased her, and he kindly put me in touch with her wonderful new owners. They have been gracious enough to keep me quite updated on their already obviously beloved purchase, even assuring me that Gobo will remain her family name regardless of whatever name they officially decide upon for her.

Imagine my surprise when, upon learning that Gobo’s current whereabouts are along my way home from work, I was actually able to catch a glimpse of her out in a front field of her new farm as I was driving by and eagerly searching the landscape. Each day since I’ve been able to pick her out among the small herd of horses out with her. The resulting smile when I finally see her remains on my face for hours afterwards, and each drive home after work is perhaps the most satisfying time of every day. Soon, I hope to go out to that farm to visit with her. Before I can truly wrap my mind around it, she’ll be hitting the track, no doubt prepared for a successful career that I will faithfully, unwaveringly follow.

Sometimes I think about how ridiculous it is that I still miss Gobo so much, a silly, pathetic longing that should be eclipsed by the fact that this is only the exciting beginning for her. My brain recognizes that, but my heart refuses to fully accept it in favor of hanging on to what was rather than what will be. She’ll always be my horse , but I can’t wait to share her with the world.

Related Links:
A Day In The Life Of A Thoroughbred Groom

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