Tuesday, October 24, 2006

when a girl loves horses

it's the melbourne racing season, oh joy. we get to see regular visions of loveliness in their frocks, shoes and fascinating headwear, spewing, and stumbling along the road with goosebumps on their arms from the cool melbourne breeze.

stallions and fillies, aka tools and toolettes.

but for me, the real interest lies in the stories about relationships between man and beast. as a young girl, i owned picture story books about horses, i endlessly drew them, of course i wanted a palomino, but my second choice was a bay, around 14'2 hh. i was thrown at 7 years of age and got 12 stitches in my leg. it was my fault, i'd never ridden, talked the kid out of having to lead me, joined the trail ride unsupervised, and tried to turn my plodder who was homing home, to get him to go back into the wood we'd just passed through, so we could jump over a log. of course he fucking bolted. and of course i fell off. onto a log, with a sticky-out bit of branch. branch meet upper thigh, leg meet branch.

i got back on the horse, of course.

i read jill's pony books, i loved bill in malory towers. i rode whenever i could. my aunt agisted a couple of old nags at her property in woodend. i rode them. i travelled to cairo, i went out one day with my friends and we rode all through the hot day, a day so hot that even though i drank 3 litres of water and wore a hat, i still weed dark orange. i went through three horses that day, each one faster than the last, until finally, i was racing across the sands, galloping as fast as i needed to. i learned to do jumps, i hated children who had jodhpurs and went to pony club. i took carrots to whichever horse i could get to; the paddocks near my grandparents' house in barwon heads, my friend's sister's horse which was on a block in ashwood, where the smorgy's is now.

and when i was a little older, i read all my father's dick francis novels, wonderful books where the protagonist is always connected to horses in some way: jockey, artist of horse portraits, horse vet, trainer.

and i never have really given up my dream of one day having my own horse.

this is why that photograph of tommy woodcock, lying in a stable in 1977 with reckless's large, gentle head on his lap moves me every time i see it.

this same man was phar lap's strapper and by all accounts had a very special and close relationship with the giant champeen -

"He loved him just like a, your pet dog would. You'd go in the yard and he'd just, he'd follow him everywhere without, he didn't have to put a, head collar on him or a lead or anything like that. There was a tremendous rapport between them. Just trust and love. " - Tony McSweeney

trust and love. it's all any of us need.

phar lap died in 1932, hemorrhaging over woodcock, who held his head.

"I don't think that Tommy Woodcock was ever the same after it. He died in his arms. He had his head cradled in his lap. But I think that all Australia wept when Phar Lap died." - Tony McSweeney

a few months ago, my dad told me a fantastic story he'd heard on the radio about an old jockey. this jockey had ridden 39 races in his career, and had 40 falls.

how can that be? you ask.

well, after one fall, they were carrying him off on the stretcher and he fell off that. so they counted it as a fall.

i'm laughing at this right now, remembering my father's laugh as he told me this story, laughing and gulping, he could barely get the words out; my dad's laugh is large and wild and so infectious.

the story runs like an old vaudevillian take-my-wife routine.

there was some fund set up for jockeys and they had to tell him to retire from it cause he'd cleaned the fund out.

more laughter.

he used to ride alot around the country, and some of the nurses in hospitals where he was going to ride, they'd look up the form guide, and if he was racing in their town, they'd make up a bed for him.

i can see the nurses, can't you, standing in their starched white uniforms, having a smoke and reading the form guide.

i found this jockey after much googling. his name is les boots, and there is another story that his wife would pack his pyjamas for him on racing day, so that when he inevitably went to hospital, he'd have them with him.

i love stories like this. don't you?

back to phar lap, you know the story about how his heart was so big and heavy. so much bigger than any other race horse which had been, i guess, autopsied? people would cite the size of the famous horse's heart as an indication of his greatness, as if it were so big it made him some super horse, some freak of nature, and it was because of that heart, its size, its power, that he could not only perform such physical miracles, but he also gained a special personality, a form of anthropomorphism which we saw, again recently, with makybe diva.

let me tell you something about race horses and their bodies. i spoke to a vet who was involved in research at melbourne uni a couple of years ago, and this vet told me that hundreds of horses die, collapse, without warning, on racetracks and in training around this country, every year. that they are pushed and pushed and then their hearts and lungs can just stop, and they die on the tracks. of course, there will be more figures for races [lower] and less or none kept for training [higher?].

this explains, taken from an online animal liberation document

Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Haemorrhage

Between 1% and 2% of horses have blood flowing from the nostrils after a race. The first time this happens they are banned from racing for 3 months, the second time they are banned for life.

However, the situation is actually much more serious than people have realised. Researchers at the University of Melbourne have shown, through the use of an endoscope inserted into the horse's throat, that 50% of horses have blood in the windpipe, and 90% have blood deeper in the lungs. In post-mortems of racehorses, one fifth have bruising at the back of the lungs, with the bruise more prominent the more recently the horse has raced. Racing regularly causes blood vessels around the lung to rupture.

The speed at which horses run makes a difference. When horses were tested within 2 hours of racing, 75% had blood in the upper respiratory tract, and 9% had blood at the nostrils. However, when horses were examined after only cantering, 38% had blood in the respiratory tract and 2% had blood at the nostrils. Those that bled at the nostrils did not always have the most severe internal bleeding.

In another study, 44% of horses had blood in the windpipe within 2 hours of racing, but only 0.8% showed blood at the nostrils. Horses over 5 years old were more likely to have haemorrhaging, possibly because the lungs could not repair damage during continued training and so, over the years, the problem became chronic.

One theory is that it is the force transmitted through the legs which damages the blood vessels in the lungs. In humans, lung trauma is common after an impact to the front of the chest, as in a car accident. Such an impact can lead to pulmonary oedema and localised haemorrhaging. In horses, a very large impact force is transmitted through the front legs to the shoulder blades and chest wall, and then to the lungs. The faster the horse is running, the greater this impact force, the more damage is done to the small blood vessels, and the greater the bleeding into the lungs and airway.

so basically, horses are bleeding internally more than people (trainers, owners, riders, all those people with a vested interest) will admit.

so, if you're the type to get dressed up and go get pissed and trip around in your frippery, please think of the horses. who are trying their hardest to win races, noble beasts that they are, for people who want to make money and have a day at the races.


Alabama said...

As a sexy broadcaster from RRR said yesterday: "It's a nightclub with horses"

MelbourneGirl said...

that sexy broadcaster is spot on with that comment.

and "it's a nightclub without loud music" too, maybe.

and lights.

but everything else is the same.

Pomgirl said...

Riding a horse is on my list of "Things I Really Want To Do That Might Not Be Too Scary". Do you know where in Melbourne I would be able to go for horse-riding lessons?

When I was a kid it was only the posh kids who went horse-riding, and as I was born with a chip on my shoulder I always dismissed the idea of doing it, but it is something I would like to do. Like you, MG, I read every pony book I could find, and think they are such beautiful animals. I've never been able to reconcile loving them with enjoying a flutter on the big horse races, and after reading this post, I can't justify it at all.

meva said...

I saw a documentary a few years ago that exposed that the feeding regime for most race horses causes them to have stomach ulcers. They are only fed once a day so that they remain lean, but horses have a gut that needs to have food passing it through it constantly. (Kind of like mine, I guess.) Anyhoo, one of the only trainers that took this into account was Gay Waterhouse, who made sure that her horses had feed throughout the day. Her horses don't have ulcers.

My cousin is an equine vet. He lives interstate but was down for the autumn carnival (I didn't know we had one) and we'd arranged to go out for dinner. We picked him up, but we had to stop at Flemington racecourse on the way to the restaurant so that he could give one of the horses an endoscopy. A great aperitif.

I won't be going to the races.

I'm not Craig said...

This post has so much beautiful writing in it. I needed to read something like this tonight.

Thank you.

Enny said...

Hey wow.

I had NO idea about any that.

Thanks for making me think again!

MelbourneGirl said...

thanks everyone, especially your kind words inc. glad you enjoyed.

pomgirl, you won't find anywhere in melbourne, save the ponies down at catani gardens in st kilda. not quite your vision, i don't think.

only place i really know of is koombala park in ocean grove. you could do a day trip. it's where me and my siblings learned as children, and it's still there. with the same bowlegged owner. he's crusty but an excellent horseman.

Magical_M said...

Bill. Malory Towers.

You and I were so separated at birth.

Are you sure we're not related??