Summer Friends

I had a privileged but isolated childhood.  I used to drive every weekend possible to get away from home and visit my father on his horse ranch in the Bradbury hills near Santa Anita.  I loved horses fiercely and longed to have my own horse to love.  I took equitation and dressage, as well as jumping classes, but had to be content with the rental horses. In fact, I spent most of my spare time at the public stables, walking the horses, brushing them, and being a general nuisance.  It was the best part of my life.  Still scan-87there was the niggling little bothers that crept up – like the fact that my two cousins both owned horses which were privately stabled across the street from the public stables. The final injustice from my youthful perspective was when my little sister, who rarely went down to the barn, was given two Shetland Ponies, and later a Palomino. My little sister was cute as a button, I will agree; but I was the only one in the family that was truly horse crazy. My father and I had a very distant relationship; he had married the widow of his horse trainer, who had died suddenly of a heart attack. My new stepmother came complete with three kids, all very sweet, who won my father’s focus. It wasn’t fun to be the throw-away kid from the first marriage, the one reduced to the status of visitor. Since my father owned a stable of thoroughbreds, though, it seemed reasonable to hope I might get some attention from my him in that area, but it never seemed to happen.

The Summer of Hope

One summer, my father’s hired hand took me to see a wonderful show horse that was for sale, and I thought my turn had finally come.  He took me to inspect the horse and let me ride him – a beautiful animal with top-notch bloodlines.  I was thrilled beyond all imagination.  But when we went home, things quickly fell apart. Someone called my father, or so he said, and told him that the horse was too much for me and they were pulling him out of the sale. I was crushed.  I was struggling with the difficulty of a relationship with the father I adored; I was the awkward middle child.  My older sister spent several years living with my father in the household before my parents divorced and they were close; and my little sister seemed to trigger his guilt, as she was born during their second doomed-to-fail attempt at marriage so she got most of the gift-giving.  I had no special position.To make matters worse, I looked the most like my father, and I secretly believe I triggered some horrible self-loathing that he had. That summer of being 15 I prayed: just let me have one good summer with my father, just this one, just this one.  But it was not to be.

paddocks-300x274Later, my father had one of his race horses recuperating in one of the paddocks. This horse had an injured tendon and was most likely going to be retired. I spent every day walking alongside him in the paddock, talking to him, until he began to run up to the fence when he saw me coming.  His name was Lucky Cover and he was a beautiful, sleek, black animal, proud yet friendly. He was my sole companion that difficult, dreadful summer of my adolescent longing.  My father finally told me he was going to give me Lucky because he was not of much use for racing any longer. I was elated and hopeful, but not so secure that I could fully exhale.  I was old enough to know how these things usually turn out, but the flame of hope was still flickering. And I waited and longed for the day we could ride together and get out of the confines of the paddocks.

Summers and Winters

Of course, I did have to go back to my unhappy childhood home and readjust to the travails of my everyday life.  But when a weekend would come, I would be traveling whenever possible to the ranch.  I couldn’t wait to get down to the paddocks and see my pal Lucky, but one day, jockey-230x300to my dismay, he was gone.  In his stead was a beautiful baby steer with the most soulful eyes I had ever seen, gazing at me with intensity and fear from the center of the paddock, where he usually stayed. I gave him my usual patient presence, but he was always very skittish and never approached the fence. I felt so badly for him – so little, so alone. I knew just how he felt.

I asked my father what had happened to Lucky, who was supposed to be my horse.  Oh, he said, I sent him to Mexico to try to get a few more races out of him before we retire him.  I was very upset, because I knew this was not a safe practice for Lucky as he was still recuperating from an injury that I was told rendered him unfit for racing.  Before much time had elapsed, I heard that he had to be destroyed after a further injury following a race at Calexico.  It seemed so disrespectful to send him down there, to die all alone, that beautiful and proud animal, my friend. I was devastated and ran back to the bathroom and locked the door. My father was never much for emotion, so I had to let mine out privately.  I was filled with grief.  My father seemed to think it was quite quizzical that I would be upset – he didn’t suffer, he told me.  But I did: I thought we were both invisible to my father, Lucky and I, phantoms that floated through his life and disappeared in the mist.

Baby, Too

barn-300x217The little baby steer was my only companion over the next several visits. I fell in love with his beautiful muzzle and his sweet face, but he never really seemed to trust me, never allowed me to get near.  I soon learned why he might have been so fearful, for his was to be a short and vicious life; the approach of a human must have signified absolute terror for him.  One day my father told me not to go down to the barn. He was very stern so I obeyed him.  Later I learned they had slit the throat of the baby and hung him up to bleed out.  I was sick.

Lucky and the baby both had short, lonely lives because they were treated like commodities, like thingsrather than beings. The beautiful and privileged setting of thoroughbred horse racing affords a privileged life for some, but hides a nightmare of suffering for many of the animals. I survived my childhood and felt the confusion of my early, erratic life into my adulthood. Experiencing the life of thoroughbreds and horse people by summer, being a kid with a single mom during the winters, gave me a breadth of experience that helped me when I later became a psychotherapist; I learned a lot from my childhood. In later years, my father and I have become acquainted and forged a positive relationship. And animals have helped me get through some of the tough times in my life; I have come to know them, to see how they have individual personalities, to recognize their feelings, their ability to dream and their wish to avoid pain and suffering.  I was only beginning to see how cruel the racing industry could be. But I can tell what I now know, I can try to make the world a little less brutal. I can respect their lives enough to give them this space on the white paper of my life.

Please consider the animals and please go vegan!