conversations, peppermints, and why I get up early on Saturdays

Yesterday morning, as with many of my Saturday mornings nowadays, I went out to walk the Hawthorne backstretch with CANTER Illinois.  Of course, as you’d expect given CANTER’s purpose, we spent some of our time there taking listings — getting pictures, videos, and information about horses who are retiring.

We took Stockholder's listing yesterday. He's mostly steel grey, but parts of him put the roan in grey or roan.
We took Stockholder’s listing yesterday. He’s mostly steel grey, but parts of him put the roan in grey or roan.

However, we spend even more time during our mornings walking around, visiting barns, and talking to people.  After all, no one is going to think of retiring their horse via a listing in CANTER if they haven’t heard of us.  But, it’s more than that.  Just having heard of the organisation is a start, but it also depends on rapport.

Before someone will let us take a listing for one of their horses, they have to trust us.  They have to trust that we will do what we say we are going to do, with respect to creating horse listings.  They also have to trust that we are there when they need us — that we are not trying to get horses off the track, but rather there to help them when they determine it’s time for a horse to transition to their next life.

One of the people we met yesterday asked us why we do it.  I was a bit taken aback by being asked my motives so directly, but it got me thinking.

There is an altruistic component to why I do it, and that is the easy one to describe.  People bred thoroughbreds to race.  The horses work hard on the track for our enjoyment.  Horses can live so much longer than their racing careers, though.  As someone who loves to follow, write about, and bet on horse racing, I feel a responsibility to help make sure horses are cared for after their racing days.  Though I am not in a position to take in my own horse, I do have time and money to help strengthen the thoroughbred retirement infrastructure.

In my short time with CANTER Illinois, I have already seen our work do something very tangible.  We took a listing for Summer in Montana a few weeks ago.  He was beautiful, sound…just not all that competitive on the racetrack.  He is now retired, and off to his new home out in the suburbs.  It was a perfect example of how we can be helpful to both horses and trainers.

However, part of why I decided to volunteer for CANTER was more individual.  Raising money, donating money, sharing information about aftercare programs and about horses who are up for adoption…those all help, and I plan to continue along those lines as well.  But, none of those things involve getting up close to horses, and up close to horse racing, in the same way that being on the backstretch does.

One of the reasons I started going to the racetrack regularly is because it was one of the few ways a city dweller like me could be around horses on a regular basis.  I never had much exposure to horses growing up, and only went on one or two horse rides.  I didn’t grow up around horse racing or horse people, but learned over the last few years that horses make me a special kind of happy.  As much fun as race day on the frontside is, I love being on the backside even more.  I will never tire of being right up close to horses…close enough to pet them, feed them a peppermint or two, and see their personalities.

After the rounds with CANTER, I said hi to Puntsville after Friday's big win. She made faces at me.
After finishing the morning’s CANTER work, I went to say hi to Puntsville after Friday’s big win.  She made faces at me.  I gave her mints.

In addition to getting up close to the horses, I love meeting people in racing.  I’m still new to the sport, relatively speaking.  So many people have been around racing their entire lives, or close to it.  Though I started following the sport peripherally when I was much younger, it has only been since late summer 2013 that I have spent a lot of time around the racetrack.

Through that time, I have been lucky.  I have learned a lot talking to people in many facets of racing, people who know the sport and its culture far better than I do.  Sometimes, it comes from work I do for my writing, from interviews or research.  Far more often, it does not.  The common link is only that I try to spend as much time around the racetrack as I can…always willing to learn, and always listening.

Something that happened right there, when he asked our group what our motivations were for volunteering for CANTER, encapsulated why I love it so much.

That question arose as part of a longer conversation about our organisation, about our backgrounds with horses, about the sometimes harsh realities of being in racing.  Most of the conversation happened right by the stall of a beautiful two-year-old filly, soft and friendly and curious.  He loved her, and he was proud of her.  That was clear in the way he talked about her.  She had not raced yet, but he thought she was going to be a real runner.  Unfortunately, she had been hurt in training, and would be heading back to the farm in a couple of days to recuperate.

Still, the filly was looked not only comfortable in her stall, but happy.  Playful.  She kept nuzzling at one of the volunteers’s hair, as if trying to style it with her nose.  She soaked up the attention, and kept trying to lure us back if anyone stepped away and stopped petting her.  Usually, at least one of us came right back to give her pets.

I asked if I could feed her a mint.  He said I could try, but that she wouldn’t eat it.  I figured I would try.  I had taught a couple of two-year-olds how to eat mints before, after all.  At first, she sniffed at it and left it alone.  We all kept chatting, but I held on to the mint.

A few minutes later, I held the mint up to her again.  She sniffed at it again, but opened her mouth this time.  I helped her get it in there, and she munched away.  I unwrapped another one, and she ate it right up.  We stayed there, right by her stall, and chatted…about horses, racing, the perception of racing, and the lovable filly who could not get enough pets.  She couldn’t get enough mints, either; by the time we left the barn, she had eaten four of my peppermints.

These few minutes in the barn were full of the more personal reasons why I am glad I volunteer for CANTER.  I love talking to people about horse racing, and learning about their experiences and stories.  I love seeing for myself, up close, how much that people in racing care about their horses.

Also?  Petting racehorses is fantastic, and there is nothing cuter than convincing a horse of the wonders of peppermints.

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