It makes perfect sense to tell the story of an off-the-track Thoroughbred in the midst of the Triple Crown frenzy–with two weeks until the final race. Some of us love racing and some can’t stand to watch, but we all agree on one truth: Thoroughbred horses are beautiful, athletic, and bursting with heart.
Is there a foal born that doesn’t arrive with a human’s dream attached? They’re all legs and big ears, galloping to keep up with Mom’s slow trot, while Fogelberg’s Run for the Roses swells to a crescendo. The foal stops and the camera zooms in close to his big, soft eye. His intelligence is undeniable.
Trigger Warning: Real Life.
On the day that Vinnie was born, someone looked at him with awe. We don’t know who, or where. We can’t trace him that far back–the tattoo inside his lip isn’t readable. But he said goodbye to his family and landed at Thistledown Racino, a Thoroughbred race track and casino in North Randall, Ohio, on the outskirts of Cleveland. Do you know the place? The track has declined in recent years because it doesn’t have slot machines like the neighboring tracks.
When Vinnie was no longer wanted at the track, his owners listed him with CANTER (stands for The Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses) in Ohio. He was not a rescue, but listed for sale. Another horse from the same owner was purchased by a Colorado trainer, with one catch. It was a two-for-one deal; if the trainer wanted the chestnut she liked, then the bay, Vinnie, had to go along in the deal. No charge.
I doubt it was a sad farewell or a warm welcome to Colorado. Clearly Vinnie was no prize. At some point around this time, someone mentioned a diagnosis of Shivers, a degenerative neurological disease with no cure. We don’t know who diagnosed it or much else about him in these early years.
The Colorado trainer soon donated him on to a rather elite private riding program. He’s been there the last eight years–jumping mostly. It’s a challenge working in a program where riders change almost daily. It’s safe to say his riders weren’t necessarily the best but he took care of them for the next few years. We hear all the girls loved him.
But then Vinnie started to unravel. We were told differing stories about this part, too. He just “decided” to not get in the trailer one day. He flipped over in trailers. He needed to be tranquilized for the farrier. He only hated the nail hammering part of farrier work. He had horrible separation anxiety. He didn’t like being tied. The list goes on, but he got booted out of the riding program and spent all winter in pasture with no supplemental feed. Then the order came down; Vinnie was no longer paying his way and he needed to move on. Right away. One more time.
You know the next part: somebody called somebody and word got to a person with a soft spot for off the track Thoroughbreds. She, along with a second kind heart, decided to sponsor Vinnie, with help from Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue, and I agreed he could come to my farm.
I went to see him with one of his sponsors-to-be. We had low expectations, and if he was worse than we expected, we knew we’d want him more. So there wasn’t much doubt. He was alone in an arena with a horse trailer. He was skinny and so filled with anxiety that he seemed distracted and antsy–kind of slow motion frantic. He was moving badly behind, so skinny that his withers had a pointy peak, but his eye was soft. He had some idea he might be applying for a job and first impressions probably mattered but he was a mess with his stomach sucked up and a dusty dullness to his coat.
We walked to the trailer and his hay was inside, just beyond his reach. He paced back and forth–tense with hunger. His backbone was visible and he had a way of tucking his butt under himself to compensate for whatever was hurting him. At the same time, he was very kind, happy to breathe with me, and match my strides walking until he found a stray bit of manure. He stopped to eat it and now that I looked, there wasn’t another visible scrap of manure in the arena. I wondered… but they said he cleaned up his hay three times a day. Maybe Vinnie was lying but I doubt it. Either way, withholding feed is a ridiculous training technique.
He’s a tall lanky gelding, more insecure than shy. He doesn’t ask for much, he’s calm–with a Cary Grant kind of charm. Vinnie kept his head low, level with mine, more accepting than desperate. I let him know he’d be at my barn tomorrow.
The riding program was afraid we’d get hurt hauling him, so they insisted on delivering him. His new friends spent twenty-four hours hoping Vinnie would survive the trip. The next afternoon when the trailer pulled in, I had a spot ready for him with fresh water and too much hay. I watched him–while he watched me–as the trailer pulled around. When the door opened, he paused there like a returning war hero. He slowly stepped off the trailer with dignity and calm. The cowboy who hauled him said he walked right in the trailer, no fuss.
Don’t go all bliss-ninny on me. I know you want to read a happy rescue story here–only half as much as I want to write one. But that isn’t true yet. He’s here for two months for evaluation. This is not his happy ending, just a stopover. But Vinnie thinks today is good. He likes the company and they put the hay crazy-close. You can eat all day long.
Vinnie has an odd stride and some nervous affectations. He’s getting ulcer treatment, but we wondered about the Shivers, along with tucked hip, so his sponsors called in a favor with a vet/chiropractor/acupuncturist. Vinnie had needles in his back in a blink. The good news was that she didn’t diagnose Shivers. On the down side, she thinks he may have sustained a serious SI injury or perhaps a broken pelvis at some time in the past.
When? Did it happen at the track; is that why he was shuffled off for free? Had he been carrying kids over jumps this way? Just then a friend at my barn said Vinnie looked very familiar. She texted me the next day to say he’d been offered to the equine therapy center where she works–three years earlier. She’d turned him down because he was lame and skinny.
We don’t know the end of this story. He has a couple of sponsored months here, so he can be evaluated. He’ll be getting plenty to eat, more vet visits, and some supplements and medications to help his back loosen. I’ll work with him on confidence and trailer loading. We don’t know if he will able to be ridden lightly or not but we want to give him some time with that part of the evaluation. They told us he was 12, but his papers say he’s 14. Vinnie is at midlife.
Ultimately horses, sometimes even rescue horses, get judged by whether or not they can put in more work. They’re valued for what they have to contribute to humans; they have to pay their way.
But the really sad part is that even now Vinnie will try again. No matter how many times he’s been dismissed, no matter how many goodbyes have come before; he will keep his big Thoroughbred heart open to humans. This horse humbles me. He doesn’t have the good sense to quit us and he will try again. Like his brothers at the track, he will try until his heart bursts.
So, if goodbye is not in your vocabulary and if you think his huge heart will fit inside your barn, then kindly consider adopting this good horse from Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue. Because a forever home means more to some of us than others.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.