On a recent road trip, husband Bruce and I stopped in Lexington to visit the Kentucky Horse Park, a 1,224-acre working horse farm and educational theme park. International horse competitions are held on the grounds as well as daily equine demonstrations. We were there to see the sculpture of racehorse Man o' War which stands life-like on a pedestal near the gift shop.
You might know Man o' War as a famous thoroughbred, but my gelding here in New Hampshire knows him as “Grandpa.” Well, more like great-great-great-grandpa. Born in 1917, “Big Red” (his nickname), was one of the greatest racehorses of all time. After he won 20 of 21 races in the 1920s, he became a leading sire whose off-spring included Triple Crown winner War Admiral and the much-celebrated Seabiscuit. My 14-year-old gelding, Snap, is a direct descendant of Man o' War, and while he has never raced, he has a lot in common with his ancestor.
Big Red was a talented, but difficult horse. In his youth he would routinely dump exercise riders, once running free for more than 15 minutes after a morning workout. His trainer, Louis Feustel, channeled that energy, molding him into a world-famous champion who attracted more than 1.5 million people over his lifetime. Big Red also developed a close relationship with his groom, Will Harbut, and died a few months after Will in 1947.
Big Red had flawless legs and solid bone traits he passed on to his offspring, including my Snap.
He also passed on other, not-so-desirable traits. Snap is purebred, and just like purebred dogs, he has issues. Racehorses were bred for speed only – not health or geniality. Two of my other horses, Moose and Chester, are “mutts,” cross-bred for durability, not speed. Both are sturdy and never get sick while purebred Snap often requires medical care. Three months ago he contracted an abscess in his hoof. An abscess is painful, but I think Snap played his pain like a skilled actor. He lay on the ground, moaning until farrier Bethany Polston was able to scoop out the infection.
He is prone to colic, too. That's an intestinal blockage that can be fatal to horses, partly because they are unable to vomit like the rest of us. I've raised horses since 1992 but never had a beast like Snap who, one year, suffered colic four times. A few times his colic was so severe that expensive veterinary assistance was required. Today his colic is less frequent, but I still maintain a supply of Banamine, an aspirin-like paste to relieve mild intestinal trouble.
But Snap is much more than a rack of pain. He is an aristocrat. I'm sure he gets his lordly attitude from Big Red. Snap often stands still, gazing off into the distance, a posture described as “the look of eagles." As the dominant equine, Snap keeps my three other horses in line. He once chased Chester, just a pony, through a wire fence, which sliced up Chester's right hind leg. He recovered, but keeps his distance from His Majesty. Bruce calls Snap "difficult,” but he calls me that, too. I just say Snap has “character.”
Despite his aggression to the other horses, Snap is my best-trained steed. He learns new commands quickly and stands stock-still as I hoist my 67-year-old body into the saddle. (I'm not as agile as I used to be.) Except for spooking at the occasional boulder, he is energetic but well-behaved on trail rides. Snap is a fun horse to ride. I'll credit that to Big Red – along with his iffy health.
After Lexington, we headed to Gettysburg. While driving, Bruce and I listened to an audiobook about the Civil War battlefield and were eager to see it. Gettysburg was a killing field for thousands of men and for the dreams of Confederates, but let's not forget the thousands of unfortunate horses caught in the middle of this human conflict.