In Praise of Horses

Denis Gullickson

denis gullickson | talking titletown | may 2019

A 10-year-old Rachel crouched in the stall with her father as the mare delivered her foal nearly into their arms. 'What should we name him, Dad?' Rachel asked. 'I don't know, Honey,' I said. 'Names usually just kind of show up.' With that, two cats went at it in the hay mow directly above us. 'Well,' I said. 'There you go. “Cat Fight“Not too bad," I thought as I headed out the door that early January morning. “Could be a helluva lot colder."

I was going out to the barn a bit early – I usually did chores about six a.m. this time of year – but our nice Appaloosa mare, “Jasmine," (Star Daddy Jasmine on her registration papers) was about to deliver her foal.

The audio baby monitor Kathy and I kept in our room told us that Jasmine had been up and down in her stall, rustling that deep bed of straw and grunting and groaning enough to say it was time. (In later years, we'd have a remote camera and we could just watch and listen from our bedroom TV.)

We'd delivered horses in all kinds of weather. When we were younger, and it was warmer, we'd even snuggle in a sleeping bag atop the big grain bin and listen for those telltale signs.

We'd had babies born outside early by surprise and we'd had mares foal in the coldest of weather – space heaters carefully secured to help heat the stall.

But this baby was special. Jasmine was the best mare we'd ever bred to our great stallion, Thunder, aka Thunder Britches A.

I flipped on the barn lights, knowing that Jasmine was far enough into the foaling process that the lights wouldn't disturb her. I walked down the aisle and opened the stall door. Sure enough, two long, speckled front legs and a gorgeous head were just eking out. Now, it was a matter of expelling the baby's shoulders and Jasmine was home free – while our work was just beginning.

Jasmine looked up and I clucked, “Good. Good. Good. Good." Every horse on our farm knew that was my way of reassuring them that all was well. “Good. Good. Good. Good," I repeated the mantra several times as I crouched over Jasmine's rear end, making sure that all was, indeed, “Good. Good. Good. Good."

Within an hour, the newborn filly, “Jazzy," was standing on legs that reached halfway to Kentucky, nursing like a champ. She was built like a halter winner and as spotted as an Appaloosa could get. Success!

Why?

Born with plastic spoons in our mouths, Kathy and I had learned to climb the horse-raising ladder the hard way: Buy as good a stallion as you could afford, breed to the best mares you could afford, show and sell the babies, buy a better mare and keep the process going. Mucking stalls and baling hay were the fuel that kept the whole thing going. So were chores in the dark and cold of a winter morning.

Showing in halter regularly – “campaigning" a horse – was the other end of the equation. Before the crack of dawn every Saturday morning, it was load up Thunder and one of the mares and head off in some dark direction. This weekend, an open show in Sturgeon Bay. The following weekend, off to a registered Paint, Appaloosa and Quarter Horse show in Fort Atkinson. A week later, another open show in Wausau.

Showing in halter classes was something of a compromise. Like most folks who compete at something regularly, the grind could be a bit boring and the “hurry up and wait" could often be exacerbating. A horse had gotten away from its handler and the whole shebang came to a stop as a dozen or so guys tried to corral it. The ring steward had forgotten the paperwork at home and was “on her way."

The great thing about showing in halter, though, was that halter classes were over by noon – making way for riding classes in the afternoon. By then, we were on the road with the rest of the day left for sailing on the bay or doing something else to enjoy the Wisconsin summer. For a two-day show that wasn't too far away, it was off early the next morning as well. Otherwise, it was overnight accommodations for the horses and the people.

Along the way, lifelong friendships were forged and competition was identified and understood. When we couldn't figure out how one competitor's weanlings were always so much bigger and better-developed than ours, an insider let us know that his horses were often foaled in the fall of the year and kept on the “DL" until after January 1– every horse's birthday for race and show purposes.

Would we decide to take up that particular trick in order to be competitive? Nah. That didn't seem right, especially since it also meant falsifying a horse and horse registry's records.

We did alright, though; learning as we went and getting better the art and science of breeding and showing horses. In 1980, Thunder won high-point Aged Stallion at an Appaloosa show in Oshkosh.

What made it all worthwhile, though? Well, there it was standing on legs growing sturdier by the minute, now assertively jamming its young muzzle into its dam's teats. It as an Appaloosa foal named Jazzy or Xena or Lightning or Marina or BJ.

It's Horse Season

Fall would roll around and the horse-show treadmill from early May to mid-September would slow to halt. It was time to load up the horses and enjoy fall trail rides with a few friends – laughs, libations and the love of life permeating a joyous weekend. Packers games would blare from a radio strung to someone's saddlebag.

But spring was – and is – horse season.

After yet another winter of throwing hay to anxious horses and staving off the approaching spring work, there is nothing better than watchfully opening a spring pasture to a group of mares that think you have forgotten that they roam freely and graze openly in nature; their cautious rush into that field a sign that another Wisconsin summer is nigh.

And so, comes the Kentucky Derby. And – as spring ticks along – the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Sometime during early 2016, every horse that runs in a Triple Crown race was a “Jazzy" wobbling on newfound legs for a fresh meal of warm milk loaded with colostrum.

For horse lovers, the Derby isn't so much an athletic contest or a betting opportunity as it is a celebration of an animal they love. Every equine on display in the Post Parade – number 1 through 20 – is a “Jazzy" foaled in a singular stall on some chilly morning.

It's a milestone reached after another winter of frigid mornings.

The idea that one of those horses – “dropped" (a term for foaling or birthing a baby horse) into a stall by a good thoroughbred mare might race into immortality isn't usually a thought when a “baby" first gets up on its legs.

First, it's make sure that baby is growing stronger by the minute … that you've doused its naval in iodine … that its nursing (a comical sight to behold as a baby sucks on the stall wall, anywhere on its dam but the sweet spot – eventually hitting pay dirt) … that it poops … that it is slowly becoming aware of the world around it indicated by bright eyes and perky ears.

A stethoscope lets an experienced horseperson know that breathing is normal and a tiny heart is doing its job. Sounds inside the foal's gut will confirm that this baby is on its way to a healthy, productive life.

A few days later, it's time to turn that baby out and watch it tear ass around a safe paddock – “feeling its oats," if you will. That's when speculation begins. Long legs stretch wildly and this tiny horse bounds about like a school kid on the first day of summer vacation.

“Wanna Bet?"

Three years later, most thoroughbred babies have grown into running machines. Those once spindly legs have become churning pistons easily pounding the earth at 35 miles per hour – sometimes, reaching 55 mph. Those “pistons" are driven by a heart ranging from 8 to 16 pounds.

On the first Saturday each May, twenty of those thoroughbreds squeeze into a row of tiny “chutes" – just a bit wider and longer than their bodies – knowing all hell is about to break loose as the front gate of those chutes burst open with the sound of a bell.

A shout of “And … they're off" rings out and those 1,200-pound horses – guided by skilled jockeys weighing about 115 pounds – put those hearts to work running a mile and a quarter. Less than two minutes later, those hearts are thundering as the horses cross the finish line.

It's the “most exciting two minutes in sports" preceded by three years of toil and attention to detail.

Who will win the “Run for the Roses" this year? This writer always likes the winner of the Florida Derby and, this year, that's the undefeated Maximum Security. Tune in yourself and see how things turn out.

-- Banner image of horses by Jezet licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Spring 2019 finds author, farmer, educator and horseman Denis Gullickson continuing to lead the Green Bay Theatre Company as it advances the opening of a working arts and performance facility in downtown Green Bay. Meanwhile, space is available at 520 N Broadway.

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