Cup of Coffee: Lessons

- -

Money By Orleans, hesitated, then lunged, head up, ears back, then slammed my 14-year-old skin-and-bones body into the wall. The three-time stakes winner lived in the narrow stall, next to the firewall, halfway down the shedrow at Delaware Park. After bouncing off the wall and regaining my balance, I snatched on him, “What’s wrong with you?”

My dad snatched on me.

“Look at that screw eye, you see that screw eye. Now look at that cooler. You see that rip in that cooler? You see it? How many times have I told you, walk the horse straight to the back wall, then turn him gently around, then snap the webbing behind you. You snagged the cooler on the screw eye, because you’re in such a damn hurry, turning before you get in the stall. It isn’t his fault.”

Lesson learned.

I walked Line Jumper, who won at Saratoga in 1976, up the long straightaway shedrow at Brandywine Stable. I was 8, maybe 10, walking, not paying attention, thinking about eating lunch at the track kitchen or playing with my Matchbox cars. Line Jumper stepped straight, his big, fox-hunter foot landed square, it should have hit dirt. Instead, it hit my sneaker, the tip of my Ked, like a stake on the corner of a picnic blanket. Unable to move, I stopped. Line Jumper stopped. He looked at me. I looked at him. I screamed, pushed on him like I was trying to push a friend off a diving board, then shanked on him, “What’s wrong with you?”

My dad walked up behind me and took the shank. 

“Sean, Line Jumper walks straight. All horses walk straight. Don’t put your foot where he’s putting his. You need to pay attention. That horse didn’t do anything wrong. Now move him off your foot, you can’t pull your foot out from under his foot, just use the shank, guide him, show him how to step off your foot.”

Lesson learned.

Sechuan Fire turned, walked a couple of steps toward me. Shank in my 20-year-old right hand, I walked toward him. Then he launched into a gallop, passed me like I was a pylon on the shoulder. As I turned, I saw the gate swinging in the breeze. I ran a few steps but it was too late, way too late. Sechuan Fire hit the gap like he was let out on bail, made a left turn, bucked all the way back to the barn.

My dad met me at the barn.

“How many times do I have to tell you? Open the gate, shut the gate, latch the gate. You walk out there like a dope, thinking the horse is going to walk up to you like he’s a dog. You better wake up around these horses.”

Lesson learned.

Dad sent me to the farm, “Get on Gogong, jog him in the woods for 20 minutes.” I swallowed hard, thinking about the big gray, the best horse Dad had in the barn. We made it about five minutes, maybe 10, but definitely not 20. Gogong bucked and I clutched. It was over fast. I hit the ground like a bucket of sand, Gogong stepped all over me and ran home. Dad wasn’t at the barn but I had to come home and tell him.

“Sean, you can ride these horses. You let him intimidate you. Don’t let him win, you’ve got to be confident. Same thing with people, be confident.”

That took a while, but lesson learned.

Red Raven jogged along Bell Road at Augustin Stable’s Oxford farm. Dad jogged next to me on Yahtzee, “When we get to the end of the road here, just turn left and let him go to the top.” It sounded so simple. I was 13, on the fastest race pony who ever lived – a Thoroughbred twin by Gun Shot – I turned and Red cut, like a barrel racer, as fast as he could go, faster than I’d ever been. I hung on, like a pennant. Eyes watering, I gripped the reins like I had fistfuls of dollars, Red ran for the simple freedom of running. At the top, thinking he was going through the post and rail fence at the top of the hill, I turned him left and circled, winding him down with every loop. We must have done 20 circles, like a helicopter running out of gas. Finally, stopped, I looked at Dad, I might have even smiled.

“I just wanted to get the fear of speed out of you.”

Lesson learned.

Tonka walked, like an Appaloosa lead pony should, ambling around the indoor track at Delaware Park. I was 10, maybe 12. Thirty odd years later, I still don’t know what happened or why it happened, we switched from a walk to a run, like a flat-out run, like an Ichabod Crane run through the woods. I screamed, “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaad” with every stride. Nancy Kirk tried to catch me, waving her arms. Around again and again and again. I never stopped screaming, one syllable, one word, “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaad. Finally, Dad caught me.

“Sean, I don’t know why Tonka did that. Horses just do funny things sometimes, but don’t panic when they do.”

Lesson learned.

Now, as I watch horses walk, gallop, get turned out, get loose, buck, do funny things, I wonder…who’s teaching the lessons, who’s learning them?