Often when a horse man utters the word “thoroughbred,” there is a wistful reverence in their tone. Oh sure, horses are great, they come in all colors and shapes and sizes, but an American Thoroughbred..
See? It hangs on the tongue. The ultimate athlete, essentially engineered. All American thoroughbreds actually trace their roots back to Europe, when three Arabian studs made their way to various nobles and bred with the local population. The offspring of these mongrel mutts, as first discarded and considered puny, were found to possess an unusual amount of “heart” and loved their work, in particular, finding speed. Matchem, (1748) for instance, son of the imported Godolphin Arabian, was a mere 14.3 hands, barely hitting the mark of the acceptable height of a horse over a pony. Matchem surprised his supporters by winning 11 out of 12 starts in his career, becoming an invaluable stud for the thoroughbred breed. His famous offspring are essentially innumerous, and his blood lines can still be traced today. In lieu of Matchem’s success, his sire, the discarded Godolphin Arabian, was plucked from a life pulling carts in the gutters of London to live the life of luxury, forever known in the pages of history as the horse who started the american thoroughbred.
Sadly, I’m reluctant to call thoroughbred racing the sport of kings as it was once was. The USDA reports 70% of the annual thoroughbred crop is sent to slaughter for ‘processing.’ If they don’t ‘run’, the race industry considers them essentially disposable. Avid enthusiasts, I guess I can count myself as one too, patrol auction houses and the meat trucks holding horses, bartering and striking deals to save the thoroughbreds. Thoroughbreds are easily identifiable to the horsemen, not only for their sleek aerodynamic bodies, but every thoroughbred posses a tattoo on the inside of their lip with an identification number. For the rescuer, looking up the horses’ ID number on the numerous pedigree websites is similar to opening a treasure chest. What champions sired this horse? How many hundreds of thousands of dollars did they win before they came here? Do they have offspring of their own?
Sterling was one such horse from a similar situation. Slow, lazy, with a sense of zen like buddhist wisdom, Sterling prefers to take life slow and smell the petunias. Even though his breeder invested heavily in his racing training, Sterling had other plans. On his maiden race, he never made it past the gate. Yup.
Discarded as untrainable, he was shuffled around from shed to shed in his early years. Eventually he was ‘found,’ but not in the way that was desired. The SPCA conducted a seizure at Hidden Meadows equine rescue, were it was discovered that 53 horses were being kept on a small property with no access to food, most pastures with no access to water. A few horses had already passed, and six more were euthanized on site, considered too ill to travel or be saved. Sterling almost joined their ranks. Here he is in the news for the first time, standing to the left. You don’t need to know horses to understand the expression on his face.
Sterling did not have the strength to stand for the duration of his trailer ride from West Virginia to Georgia. The most emaciated of our rescues, he was ranked as a 1.5-2 on the body scale of 10 by veterinarians. His starvation was very critical, and many horses simply do not recover from nutritional deficiencies such as his. A myriad of other health problems is attached with starvation, including stomach ulcers that make it hard to eat, and infections in the weakened hoof that make it almost impossible to walk. His first weeks were touch and go, with many cold nights at the barn and endless prayers.
If not for our networks and wonderful donations, Sterling would be here today. I came to work at our farm a few weeks after his arrival, and we bonded nearly instantly. As a hand it’s professional for me to keep an emotional distance from horses, I’m the feed and water lady. Not an owner. But when I did my obligatory ground work with him, I would procure that well known ‘lump in the throat’ and hold back my misty eyes. This sad sack of bones moved and carried himself like a prince, his hooves hovering in the air and flicking his hocks with the grace of a well traveled show horse. Horses ‘move’ or they ‘strut.’ It was undeniable, watching him, that Sterling believed he was going somewhere.
He came to our farm in September, and by late December he was healthy enough to be introduced to a saddle. I’ll never forget the first time I sat on the little three year old colt’s back. Nervously climbing aboard, as thoroughbreds are known for their hot tempers and quick bolting, I remember daintily placing my derierrie onto this possibly wild traumatized animal.
The world went silent. It was like coming home after traveling for a long time. I was overwhelmed with this wave of calm, and as a patient recovering from PTSD, that was a feeling I did not feel often. We stood there, the two of us, soaking up this moment, gazing at the winter landscape around us and construction next door. I patted his neck and shoulders and talking in a quiet voice, he listened one ear cocked back to what must have been some boring ramble. Our moment was interrupted when the bulldozer next door ripped an ancient oak tree from the ground and it came crashing down only a few hundred feet away. I braced and hunkered down, ready for the young horse to bolt in alarm, for fear of his life.
But Sterling shuddered, rocking his weight back to spin and run, but stood his ground. Without me even asking to. I dare say I felt,… protected. Who was this young horse?!
I became a woman obsessed. How do you make a horse so young that despite it all, is so calm. Our property manager showed me his Jockey Club registration, and reading his pedigree was like reading a lost treasure map.
Sterling is the descendent of a long line of greatness. His handsome looks and bright bay color, the color of a sunset, were derived from his grandsire, Dixieland Band, a prolific race horse with 24 starts and 8 wins. He was sired in turn by Northern Dancer, one of the most successful breeding stallions of our generation, who also started 18 races and won 14 of them. His great great dam sire, Halo, was one of my personal favorite race horses. To Halo, the word “quit” was not in vocabulary, and raced an unheard of 31 times, winning ten times and placing 8 times. Infamous for his vicious temperament and often turned out to pasture with a muzzle like on a fighting pitbull, Halo simply enjoyed his job and never wanted to stop running. His progeny if often considered to have a screw loose, but they’ve been consistently my favorite young thoroughbreds to work with.
Eight generations back, I found him. Man O’War. The almost mystical Michael Jordan of race horses. The horse that claimed athlete of the century. Man O War was born amist World War I, and named so by August Belmont’s wife while her husband was at war overseas. Later sold for the pittance of $5,000 to Samuel Riddle, Man O War went on to hold an unprecedented record only to be beaten this year, coming in first for 20 out of 21 races. Many of his records still stand today, nearly 100 years later. Though never raced in the Kentucky derby (Riddle felt it was too far of a race for a horse so young) he proceeded to obliterate the first triple crown winner in history, Sir Barton, reaching past him by an astonishing nine strides. Just so you know, there’s 12 feet in a gallop stride. Imagine.
So that brings me here today. While Sterling doesn’t have the desire to outpace the fastest horses in the world (and really, not the legs for it either) I look at him as somewhat of a relic. Because of his time honored ancestors I feel as though he should be dignified with respect for his acquired grace and sense of purpose. He is the result of a great history, and I’m sure he has aspirations for greatness as well.