Having been involved in horse racing for 50 years, 48 of them professionally, I naturally have amassed many memories, from the magnificent champions to the spectacular and heart-pounding victories. Witnessing the grace, power, brilliance, and most of all courage of the Thoroughbred is a gift that should be cherished.
But there is one aspect of racing that I hold most dear and that is witnessing the spiritual power of the horse and the amazing healing powers, both physically and mentally, it possesses when it comes to humans.
I have seen many instances of this over the years, but I was inspired to write this column after receiving an email from Valerie Buck of ACTT Naturally, who used to supply horses to Saratoga WarHorse, which uses horses as therapy for cases of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in combat military personnel returning home from war and anyone else exposed to an extreme traumatic event that has altered their life.
Buck, whose organization provides new careers for retired racehorses through interaction with humans, writes:
“Mia suffers from selective mutism. While other girls her age are full of chatter, Mia is silent. Mia cannot lead the life of a normal 8-year-old girl in school, sports, or even with friends and family. She came to ACTT Naturally and spent just a few hours working with the horses and me. She never spoke a word. Non-verbal communication is the connection we share with these horses in our program. Mia was a star! But then, I was amazed to hear her speak about her experience in a video sent to me by her grandmother. When Mia arrived home, she verbally described her experience with the horses. I was so thrilled to hear her voice! This recent experience reaffirmed my belief in this work and showed me how equine assisted healing and learning with Thoroughbreds was a path on which to stay.”
My first exposure to this phenomenon, up close and personal, came in September, 1991, when I traveled up to the Walkill Correctional Facility in New York State to do a feature on the program instituted by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, in which a number of inmates were chosen to work with retired Thoroughbreds at a facility on the grounds of the prison that had been converted from an old dairy farm. They went through a program where they were taught all aspects of caring for horses and how to groom them.
I spent the day with several of the inmates, some of whom had been convicted of crimes ranging from murder and manslaughter to armed robbery and drug possession. After hearing their stories and what social misfits some of them were, unable to function in society, I found it amazing watching them work with the horses. They not only had found something they could love and care for, but seemingly have that love returned. Perhaps most important, they had discovered new skills, while experiencing for the first time the feeling of being needed.
I learned that a person does not have to waste and wither away in prison, but can be put to use in constructive and fulfilling ways. Harmony had replaced hostility in their lives, and as a result, old retired racehorses who gave their all for so many years were now receiving the kind the care they so richly deserved. One would be hard pressed to find more dedicated grooms at any racetrack or breeding farm in the country. Their pay: 95 cents to $1.05 day. But their pride when talking about their horses was more than ample reward for their services. I later learned that several of the inmates after being released did indeed get jobs working with horses.
One inmate in particular showed me just how remarkable the powers of the horse can be. His name was Charley Barone and he had spent 24 of his 45 years in prison, and had been working on the farm for four months.
“I fought to get down here from maximum security to be with the horses because I don’t like people, especially in here,” he said. “I’ve grown up in prison and every foul and rotten thing a human being does is personified in here. I became an animal for a while; I tried to kill people. But I find nothing vicious about the horses. They have none of the negative characteristics you see in a human being.
“I have 17 assaults and two attempted murders inside the facilities; that’s not counting what I’ve done on the outside. This is great therapy for me. I can honestly say I love the horses as much as it’s possible for me to love anything. They’re my tranquilizer. I wasn’t able to raise my own son, being locked up, and this is like being with 5-year-old kids who are like my son. When you’re responsible for something so big, yet so childlike, it calls for something inside you. Time itself and education aren’t going to correct a person; he’s got to start doing it from within. Something has got to reach him. And horses reach.”
It was easy to understand why the inmates referred to the horse farm as Oz. While there may not have been a wizard in this Oz, it was impossible not to leave without a heart.
It is difficult to describe the bond horses and humans have had for centuries. We all grow up with horses in one form of another and they become an indelible part of our childhood, whether it is reading “The Black Stallion,” “Black Beauty,” or “Misty of Chincoteague,” or watching “National Velvet,” “Fury," "My Friend Flicka,” and the countless other movies and TV shows about horses, even “Mr. Ed.” How many children of my generation did not become infatuated with Trigger or Silver or Champion? And then there is the collection of “My Little Pony” toys that became so popular.
You can go all the way back to Alexander the Great’s magnificent steed Bucephalus, who became one of the most famous real-life horses in history. And more recently we have learned about the great Korean War hero Sergeant Reckless, a mare who held that official rank in the United States military.
These childhood memories and stories of famous horses never die, they just become dormant as we grow up and follow other endeavors in life. But you never know when those feelings are going to awaken.
When the beloved Smarty Jones was retired to Three Chimneys Farm, he greeted hundreds of visitors each week. Perhaps his most special guest was 9-year-old Patrick Monroe from Long Island who was suffering from water on the brain. When he was 4, the tube he needed to move the water from his brain to his abdomen malfunctioned on Christmas Eve night and he awoke Christmas morning to the realization he was blind. Then, in late 2003, his father, a Long Island firefighter, passed away. Months later, Patrick discovered horses and began taking riding lessons at Pal-O-Mine Equestrian for kids with disabilities.
Patrick had found euphoria on the back of a horse and eventually would win numerous ribbons for riding. His only wish was to meet his favorite athlete, Smarty Jones. All he wanted to do was touch him. Through the Make-a-Wish Foundation and ESPN’s My Wish Series, Patrick was brought to Three Chimneys Farm to meet his hero. Wearing his Smarty Jones hat, he was taken to the horse by farm owner Robert Clay, and with a perpetual smile on his face proceeded to stroke Smarty along his withers, on his neck, and on the side of his head. He then was brought outside as Smarty was being turned out, so he could hear him galloping at full speed across his paddock. From the look on his face, he clearly could see the horse in his mind’s eye. Before leaving, Patrick was given a braided lock of Smarty’s mane, as well as other gifts. That lock of mane would be proudly displayed alongside his ribbons, a reminder of one of the most memorable days of his life.
Sometimes, horses affect us in ways we can’t imagine. Earlier, I mentioned Saratoga WarHorse, founded by Bob Nevins, a former medevac helicopter pilot with the 101st Airborne who was wounded in Vietnam. He was well aware how the horrors of war can damage a young person by wiping out all the beauty and innocence of youth and creating a vacuous view of life that is remedied only through escape. That escape often manifests itself in depression and even a suicide attempt.
After retiring as an airline captain, Nevins began Saratoga WarHorse, where skilled horsemen and horsewomen, like those at Walkill, teach these troubled people how to interact with horses in a round pen, where it is just the two of them. The results have been staggering.
“You can wave the flag and send a kid to war with a nice clean uniform, and when he comes home he’s gone from high school basketball star to killing some 15-year-old kid accidentally in Afghanistan or doing something that is totally against what he’s been raised to do and believe,” Nevins said.
“I’m not trying to be all things to all veterans. I’m taking that percentage of kids who are on track to kill themselves and I have to reach out to them as a veteran and gently coax them to take a chance on coming here. I don’t use words like therapy and all the buzz words the military wants you to use, like building resiliency. A guy sitting in the dark with a gun in his mouth doesn’t want to hear your happy chat. I just want to do what I do quietly, because it’s so powerful and really helps the veterans. I’m talking about kids who are suicidal. The turnaround has been so dramatic, but I have to protect them at the same time. You don’t want to be talking about someone who’s going through the darkest period of their life. So we try to keep it on a personal one on one level.
Nevins showed that all the medication and all the therapy cannot compare to a simple look into the eyes of a horse and to have the horse listen to your command. For centuries, as long as man has bonded with the horse, those eyes have served as a mirror to the soul.
“When you make this connection with the veterans, they are so emotionally shut down they can’t feel anything,” Nevins said. “But when the connection with the horses takes place it’s like a rush of oxytocin (the hormone that is released when we express our love for someone) that floods their brain, and that is the trigger that shatters the walls that they’ve been hiding behind. So there is actually a medical and scientific reason why this works.
“So many people want to project love onto the horses, which is fine, but horses are really animals of instinct. So we’re engaging them and working with them where they’re most comfortable, while teaching the veterans the horses’ language. As a result, the horse bonds with them and they feel as if the horse understands them. That’s what the veteran needs. It’s internal, because they finally feel accepted.”
Saratoga WarHorse is not only about veterans. It is about anyone dealing with an emotional, life-altering trauma who needs to regain their focus in life. That is where retired jockey Ramon Dominguez entered the picture.
Dominguez was at the peak of his career as one of leading jockeys in America when he was involved in a spill at Aqueduct, in which he suffered a traumatic brain injury that forced him to retire. To suddenly give up the only thing he knew how to do and what he loved the most left a deep emotional scar that was difficult to deal with.
Dominguez’ wife Sharon urged him to try Saratoga WarHorse, and he agreed and was extended an invitation to go through the program. The first day he was smiling and feeling better, and he talked about his feelings a great deal at the de-briefing session. The next morning on the way to the train station Dominguez told Nervins he could not believe what had happened to him. Working with the horses in that manner as part of the program had changed his life dramatically.
“I’ve been around horses all my life,” he said. “I know horses. But I’ve never had the kind of experience as when that horse turned around and looked me in the eye and followed me.”
This was not the exhilaration of a head-and-head stretch duel or leading a horse into the winner’s circle. This was an awakening that was more about the horse itself than a victory on the racetrack.
“I knew it would be different than riding horses, but I don’t think anything can prepare you for the bonding and the connection with the horse that you experience,” Dominguez said. “I can say the same thing for the veterans that were there. Horses are wonderful animals that I absolutely love and to get to interact with them on a different level was very special -- from being in the round pen with them to having them follow you around. It gave you a sense of accomplishment to be able to connect with the horses and have them listen to you and respond to you, and basically follow you around like a dog. It was a beautiful thing to experience.”
In 2016, Dominguez was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame and this year earned a coveted place on the Saratoga Walk of Fame.
Valerie Buck eventually severed her connection with Saratoga WarHorse and went her separate way with ACTT Naturally, which continues to provide new careers for retired horses using the gentle techniques of natural horsemanship. The non-profit organization is dedicated to rehabilitating retired Thoroughbreds and putting them up for adoption, whether for riding, therapy, or simple companionship. Through their programs, ACTT Naturally “engages the horse human bond, facilitating mutual growth and positive transformation.”
It has been demonstrated how many different ways horses affect people’s lives. Perhaps no horse has affected more lives than the great mare Zenyatta.
Her trainer, John Shirreffs said during her racing days, “There are ladies who come to the barn and they’re literally shaking. They’re sweating and crying. One lady, who is a school teacher from Santa Barbara, said the first time she came to see Zenyatta she was in a wheel chair; she couldn’t walk. She said Zenyatta inspired her to push herself and try to walk. Before we left for Kentucky, she visited the barn and she was carrying three cameras and was walking.”
Stephanie Lambert had one wish in life: “I just want to see Zenyatta once before I die. She has been such an inspiration to me for two years and got me through some really rough times. My dad passed away; my husband had three strokes; three of my dogs died; I had to put my mom, who has third-stage Alzheimers, in a nursing home; and we went bankrupt due to my husband's inability to work. I would come home after working 14 hours and sit at my computer and watch the videos John Sherriffs posted of Zenyatta and it would make me smile, and it gave me strength. Sometimes God puts something in your way to give you courage and this is what Zenyatta did for me. She is an amazing example of what grace and courage are. God smiled one day and created Zenyatta.”
Kari Bussell from Tennessee was trying to find out who it was that was grazing Zenyatta the day after the 2010 Breeders' Cup. There was something she wanted to tell him. “He made sure I got to feel Zenyatta's right ear graze my fingertip through the fence, and I want to tell him what that meant to me and thank him,” she said. "It was very emotional for me and was the highlight of my life. I am terminally ill and my dying wish was to touch her once. I know in my heart she is the reason I am still alive and have thus far defied the odds and what the doctors told me. She inspired me never to give up. I have refused to go anywhere until her story was finished.”
These are just some examples of how horses can affect our lives. There is an abundance of stories such as those of Mia, Charley Barone, Ramon Dominguez, Patrick Monroe, Stephanie Lambert, Kari Russell, and all those whose lives were “saved” in one way or another by horses, whether through Saratoga WarHorse, ACTT Naturally, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation or in some other manner, including one on one encounters.
Perhaps Velvet Brown said it best in National Velvet:
“I think all the time about horses. All day and every night. I should like to have so many horses that I could walk down between the (stalls) and ride what I choose. Every day I pray to God to give me horses…wonderful horses.”