by Natalie Keller Reinert
As a writer, I think I've made it pretty clear: I follow that old saying write what you know with great faith! I try to portray every place I write about as realistically as possible; I think about training techniques, tack, and even which side of the stall the hay-net is hung from while I'm typing away.
Every now and then I use a term someone doesn't like (famously, the reader who took me to task for the common racetrack usage of the word ankle instead of fetlock, claiming that I clearly didn't know a thing about horses if I thought they had ankles) and more than once I've used language some people don't like - but I can't help it if racetrackers swear! And let's face it, the backside isn't the only equestrian spot with some salty language!
But I stand behind everything I write, because I've lived it. And as I'm working on new projects, specifically Turning for Home, the third Alex & Alexander racetrack novel, and Ambition, a novel about an event rider, I'm always sifting through my memories from more than twenty years of a horse-crazy life, looking for some mad thing I've done or seen or heard. Sometimes I even go through old entries from Retired Racehorse, looking for reminders of my exercise rider days or training my last OTTB, Final Call.
Today I found a favorite: The Break From the Gate. It would eventually, trimmed and prettied up, become a piece in Practical Horseman, but this original blog post was written just a few hours after my first time in a starting gate.
So I thought I'd share it here, as teaching a horse starting gate manners is the number one item on my writer's brain this morning.
The Break From the Gate - Retired Racehorse
I have to confess, a month ago, going into the starting gate was the farthest thing from my mind.
One of those things best left to professionals. You know, the
hardened types with the gnarled fingers from clutching reins four hours a
day, seven days a week, for untold decades. I was having a nice time
and all, and surprising myself every day, but… a starting gate?
Have you seen those things?
I’ve been in them before, actually, but just to walk babies through.
With the doors open front and back. And I didn’t like it then. I’m
claustrophobic, horses are claustrophobic – it’s just a bad combination,
Somewhere in the past month, though, I developed a very strong desire
to get into one of those terrible metal contraptions with a young,
hot-tempered racehorse, and wait for the door to open so that we could
I’ve gotten crazy. That’s the only explanation.
had the same anticipation to take a horse to the gate that I imagine a
child has who is standing on line for their first roller coaster. It
looks awful, it looks like a terrible decision, but I just had to do it.
All the cool kids go to the starting gate, right?
So this morning I took out a horse for a jog around the track and,
when we came back to the chute, turned down the chute instead of heading
back to the barn. She immediately knew what was up. Most horses were
walking decorously around behind the gate, just as they would before a
race. My horse? Oh no. Sideways. She’s – um – excitable. It would annoy
me more than it does if she wasn’t so thrillingly competitive. She isn’t
meaning to misbehave – she just has so much heart that she truly can’t
contain herself. There’s a lot to be said for that, and it has to
overcome a multitude of sins. Even the jigging frantic misbehavior she
was throwing at me.
There’s a whole crowd of trainers and miscellaneous observers by the
rail of the chute, and I hated being on display like this, mainly
because I had no idea what to expect. All I could do was follow the
example of the other riders. And wish I wasn’t on the only
horse that was behaving like a complete fool. Finally, someone called
that we were next. I rode up to the gate with serious misgivings, just
like that kid must feel when he finally gets to the head of the line,
and sees the attendant ready to drop the safety bar over his head.
“You want to lift up your feet up really high, to avoid the padding,”
the crewman told me, taking the horse’s bridle. He knew I’d never been
there before – either someone had told him, or he just knew he’d never
seen me before. I experimented with lifting my stirrups near the
withers, as I saw jockeys do every afternoon at the races. Only – it’s
really high. Try it sometime. You have to lift your heels all the way to
the withers. While being led into a metal box. On a racehorse. There’s
letting someone lead your horse, and then there’s ceding all control and
all possibility of handling a situation yourself.
That’s going into a
Thus terrified, we got into the gate, and the doors were closed
behind me. My horse stood still, ears pricked. She wasn’t terribly
experienced at the gate, but she’d been in it before. And, presumably,
she’d seen other horses do it. And I assumed she’d follow the lead of
the horse next to her – that is, if he had any idea what to do.
The crewman stood in front of the door – another one had clambered up
next to me, and was holding the bridle. “Okay,” he said. “Whatever she
does, just go with it, okay?”
“Okay,” I breathed.
He opened the gate.
There was no bell, no bursting open with a cessation of magnetic
charge. It was just some guys opening a gate. But it’s like magic to a
horse, when you open the gate. They leave – they don’t always leave
straight off the mark, galloping like hell, sometimes they leave and
turn right, sometimes they leave and stop dead – but generally, they
The filly jumped out. I lurched up onto her neck, gave her rein, and
she jumped again. Somewhere to my left I saw the neighboring horse come
out easily and then take off. I asked the filly to give chase. I shook
the reins at her. I should have used my stick to straighten her out, but
I was flustered. She went on jumping, hopping, but we were galloping,
finally, going forward, and as she went plunging down the track, I
“Go with it, go with it, go with it!” I sang out, letting her leap as she pleased. “Go catch him!”
I’ve always been a noisy rider, I confess, a person who was dumped
not once but twice in a row by a green pony because every time I got him
to canter, I let out a triumphant whoop that sent him into a bucking
fest. There’s something about the glee of a horse in their foolishness,
when they’re clearly having fun, when they’re obviously living with me
on their back as they would in an endless field, as if I’ve been invited
into their own private world of sun and grass and limitless strength
and four fleet legs to devour the distance with. It is the feeling that
others describe as wings, as the sensation of flight. Of leaving the
human experience for something altogether more earthy and exciting.
And we were suddenly eating up the ground, flying across the clay and
sand, and the distance between us and the front-running horse melted
away, until we had caught up, and sailed on by, whirling into the turn,
all hot hot heat and rushing heart.
The starting gate seems to somehow compound the horse’s notorious
need for freedom. That thirty seconds of claustrophobia creates an
explosion of emotion and power that can’t be replicated.
Do give it a try.