For a few glorious months I exercised horses at the racetrack.
It was a perk to dating a young man whose uncle kept a string of racers.
Picture it: Cool early morning of a summer day. The sky is lightening to a cloudless blue overhead while the horizon glows a clear apricot.
The smell of fresh hay and grain and horses and manure as men and women begin hauling feed and cleaning stalls. Grunted early morning greetings as humans pass.
The metallic ring of tack as saddles and bridles are inspected and fitted.
The snort of a horse. Stamp of hoof.
The track, groomed and dampened by a couple of passes of the rakes and water truck, gives off its own distinctive smells of wet earth and sawdust.
The morning of a perfect race day.
There is a whole production before, during and after the actual running of a horse race. A coordinated and extensive ballet of people and horses, all moving in and amongst each other. Grooming. Inspecting. Saddling. Wrapping. And each with the same goal.
The finish line . . .
It was my duty as second horse-exerciser to also do that most mundane of jobs, the grooming.
And I loved it.
To run the brushes over the sleek coats. To pause and bury one’s face in the neck of one’s horse and just . . . breathe.
Paradise for the horse-lover.
Which I was.
I remember the first horse I readied for a race.
A three-year-old clear bay filly whose complex, hyphenated name escapes me, but who I called, ‘Lemon-Go-Lightly’ after a popular hair-lightener of the day.
Well, it made sense at the time . . .
She was slated for the two o’clock race and I had half an hour to get her ready for it.
I spent most of that time brushing.
I told her how beautiful she was. And how fast she would run. And how she’d leave all of the other old nags in her dust. I whispered into her ears and wrapped my arms around her neck and whispered into that as well.
Over and over, I told her how amazing she was and that she’d be running the best race of her life in just a few minutes.
Then I handed her over to the tack team with the words, “Today, she’s going to win!” They stared at me, then proceeded to saddle and wrap and lead my pretty baby out to her rider.
I started grooming another horse, but listened to the familiar sounds of a race being run.
I really wasn’t surprised when she came back - a winner by more than three lengths.
I knew she could do it.
After all, we had discussed it.
What I didn’t expect was her owner following her to the barn.
He stared at me for a moment. Then, “How did you know she was going to win?”
It was my turn to stare.
He went on. “This was her fourth race and she’s never placed above ‘show’. How did you know?”
I should mention here that race people are, quite often, a little superstitious . . .
I blinked. “We discussed it,” I said finally.
“Yeah. While I was grooming her. I told her that she was the world’s fastest runner and that she was my pretty girl and that she was going to win.”
He frowned thoughtfully. Then turned and left.
I shrugged and went on with my tasks.
But later, I noticed that all of his groomers were talking to their horses. Whispering inanities into their ears. Praising them.
Labelling them winners.
Labelling them winners.
P.S. I hear it works on people, too.