Magnifico's Return To Paradise
Magnifico's story is as interesting as any. A complex Arabian who ran for his life at the track and won, he had lost his way with humans. What had taken place will never be known or admitted. I ache for what he must have endured, because when he came to me in the late winter of '96, he had no use for me or anyone for that matter.
After winning several flat track races the summer of '95, he was purchased and sent to Turf Paradise in Arizona for the winter racing. He broke the track record in his first race by a serious margin and decidedly won the next race as well. But that was the end of it. In the third and forth races, by the time he'd entered the gate he'd already run his race, he was completely drenched in sweat and stressed out. He had nothing left. In the racing world it's called 'washing out.'
This was a horse that fit his name perfectly. I've not laid eyes on a better-proportioned animal in my life. He was a dark bay of 15-1 with strong bone and the muscle to cover it. His thick jet-black mane and tail glistened against his muscle structure that was on a par with a well-toned stallion. Magnifico was a no nonsense horse; all business when working, yet something of a character when not. He had a busy mind that needed to be constantly challenged with a high degree of creatively. His gaits were to be envied. His speed, awesome. But none of that mattered when he arrived via transport late one warm spring afternoon.
I happened to be returning from a hike off the mountain adjacent to where I was living when I was informed that "the man" had arrived. I'd been expecting him. His owner, Emmett Ross and I had discussed his situation at length. I couldn't wait to get my hands on him. Something inside me needed to help him. I eased into his run dressed in shorts and hiking boots as the sun was setting. He took one look at me and turned his rear in a sign of disgust for humanity. I agitated my hand and then tapped my leg louder and louder until he turned to face me, then backed off, allowing him to digest my deliberate intrusion. He looked at me with obvious contempt saying, "just feed me and leave me alone. I don't want to have anything to do with you." But I persisted by moving toward him. His ears shot back and he charged me. I held my ground, yelled at him, and raised my arms while making a threatening ugly guttural sound. "Heeeeeeeeeeeee" I growled deeply. He stopped head high, ears pricked forward, clearly surprised. This intimidation skit had proved successful for him in the past; with this tactic he hit the brick wall this time. As his expression softened into curiosity and defeat, I backed off. His head lowered and he licked his lips. I circled to his left slowly, maintaining my distance. He watched with a suspecting attitude, then took a step in my direction into the circle. Then another. I stopped and allowed him to sniff me. I slowly reached back and made contact, scratching his chest lightly. He took at step closer as my hand continued working on him. My hands drifted up to his head all the while continuing my attentions with the sincere desire to make an incredible first impression. My fingers found his mouth and tongue, then inside his nose, then his eyes. He leaned into my palm as I rubbed one eye then the other. With one hand on his nose-handle my other found his flanks which I stroked gently. When he was ready I stroked his rump above his dock then briefly stroked the underside of his tail which he lifted with pleasure. With a big sigh, all at once he let down and melted into an intimacy he'd probably never known. With his head in one hand and his tail in the other he delighted in this oneness as he found his way back to being okay with the human. Almost like back to the womb, it is a place I call intimacy.
Over the next few months I brought Magnifico back to his full potential. We started slow, knowing he'd need time to trust again and want to work with the human, not against. I wanted him to enjoy our time together and did an extra special job on this horse that I came to understand, admire, and love.
Discovering Magnifico's Phobias & Confidence Building
Magnifico had plenty of phobias that had never been addressed. Simple things like walking over a concrete pad or into the wash-rack really bothered him. Ear handling and clippers were a very big challenge. He even flinched when being saddled. It all added up to yet another racehorse with no foundation. Everyday we would have a serious bonding session first. He started to expect it and look forward to it and meet me eagerly at the gate. I'd aggressively massage his face and twist his ears as he leaned into me with delight. Rubbing his eyes would almost drop him to his knees. Typical of many Arabs, he'd just melt under the affection. Then we would go looking for the very things that he did not like and begin the process of confidence building. Before long he was just walking proudly in, over, around, and through everything on the ranch. He hated being left alone, away from the action. It didn't matter whether it was human or horse, he wanted to be part of it. He would get extremely anxious when tied out away from the action, and would paw and dig and whinny obnoxiously. So that is just what he got to do a little longer everyday until it was just part of life. And he got to lay down a lot and in an interesting variety of locations and situations.
I began by laying him down in a very safe place and as gently as possible. As horses go, he was about in the middle in his acceptance of this process. But after the first time, he seemed to begin actually liking it. It was full-blown spring and the grasses were exploding into the warm Colorado sunshine. He'd drop to his knees, take a few bites of grass, and then go all the way down and really start enjoying himself. He would clean up all the grass within easy reach, then begin extending his neck and working the perimeter. Then he would roll over or scoot on his knees a few yards and start again. One time I took him to a remote plateau in the foothills at the base of the Rockies covered with rich grasses and flowers. Down he went and off I went. I hid about a hundred yards away and watched as the munched away, then moved a little and started over. He had actually passed a very difficult hurdle in my mind. Here was a horse virtually in the wild unable to get up and escape a predator and he was totally relaxed about it. I left him to his grazing for a half-hour as I dozed in the warm sun, then returned and laid on my stomach on top of him. I talked soothingly and massaged his neck and face, gums and nostrils. Then totally relaxed I rode him bareback back down the mountain and fed him a hearty meal.
Our Ride of a Lifetime
The day finally came when it was time to pass him onto the next trainer who would work on the conditioning. We had one last ride and he sensed it. The day was fresh and cool. We had our usual warm-up first on the ground, then in the saddle. We were both feeling good and the ballet in the saddle was performed like two seasoned ballroom dancers. His turns on the haunches were powerful and precise and supercharged with life and happiness. We rode out into the enchanting red rock formations that inspired our riding. It eased him up to a trot as we worked up a long uphill grade. His eagerness pulled him forward with glee and the trot extended into a smooth gliding gait that left ground behind at a rate in which most horses would need to canter. At the top we settled to a walk and wound through a series of fascinating red-rock formations. The one I called ' Sphinx' was the head of a pharaoh. The monolith faced the rockies to the west and glowed a deep red in the setting sun. Just around the corner was a little valley littered with age-worn red rocks, scrub oak, and luscious grass. I dismounted and untied my lead/reins from under his chin. He eagerly devoured the grasses for a few minutes, then turned to me as if to say "Come on. Let's have some fun." I remounted and continued at a trot up the narrow trail to the top where it intersected the dirt road that wound around back to the entrance to the ranch. I asked for the canter and he broke into the very slow lope as we worked up and around to the west past the massive fir trees and bright lime-green scrub oak of springtime. We came down to the walk and worked our way back to the entrance to the drive that opened onto the very first grade of the Rocky Mountains.
Magnifico knew this routine very well. He'd done this many times in the past, but usually had his riders as terrified as he was. That was not the case today. Each party exuded confidence and unbridled exuberance at the daunting mountain that loomed in our path. As we turned into the drive, I encouraged a trot. He eagerly complied and within several hundred yards we were into a ground-eating extended trot, then up to a light gliding easy canter as we neared the mountain. I gave him his head and a little encouragement, 'carte blanche' and he knew it. He very deliberately picked up speed until we were just flying up between the fenced paddocks. The other horses looked up and started running with us on each side. But Magnifico was determined and totally focused as he carried me on our last ride at the ranch. He stayed on task completely immersed in his mission to give me one of the most memorable rides of my life. My eyes were watering as we screamed toward the steep mountain in a gallop that was as smooth as glass. As the turn up the mountain neared, we eased back down to his slow canter. His powerful haunches drove us up the grade to the plateau he'd lain on only weeks before. Feeling no bottom in this horse today, we continued up the mountain first conquering the steep narrow segment, then the trail flattened out for a quarter mile before steepening again. He paced himself perfectly, backing off on the easier grades and just attacking the steep. I stayed well forward listening and feeling his desires. Up and up we went at a very deliberate pace. The ground flew by as this creature ran like the wind. Finally we had conquered the first face, a mountain trail we called Turners. Magnifico backed off to a walk as we wove through the fragrant Douglas fir and brilliant Aspen trees as he cooled down. Patches of snow hidden in the shade bordered our progress through the crisp dry air of springtime. Within several minutes his breathing was normal.
I'd ridden hundreds of fit horses up this mountain, but never had a ride like that day. It had been a special ride for both of us; one never to be forgotten.
Magnifico's conditioning continued as James Olson patiently worked with him day after day, until ready for his final test before returning to the track. Knowing full well that the starting gate could still be a stumbling block, I made arrangements to 'borrow' the use of an old rickety starting gate.
Magnifico's Final Test
Jim and I arrived
mid-morning at Soaring Eagle Ranch with Magnifico in tow. The ranch had
a full-sized workout track with this ancient two stall portable starting
gate down at the south end. It was an ideal set-up for the objective of
totally preparing Magnifico for his return to the track. I saddled him
with my English saddle, as always did a little groundwork, and rode him
over to the old contraption. I rode around the outside, then with the
gates wide open, rode inside, stopped for a moment, then rode back out,
stroking and supporting him the whole way. But he was clearly bothered
and even with repeated trips in and out of the starting gate, he still
seemed nervous. I'd brought along my gear for laying him down and decided
to do so right next to the gate-monster that had become his nemesis.
I saddled him up again and climbed right on. We immediately went back to work first on the outside of the gate, then the inside. His whole demeanor had changed as if to say, "Hey Pal, if I can take it on the ground, this is a snap." From inside I shook the sides as hard as I could and he didn't flinch. In and out. Slow, fast. Forward, backward. I tried every combination to make him flinch, even got on and off from inside, but found nothing that remotely bothered him. The final trip through the gate found us headed right onto the track and I just couldn't resist. Perfect footing, beautiful day, and a horse that needed a just reward and to unwind a bit. It all added up to a memorable trip around the track. We started slow and gradually built into a ¾ gallop by the far end. Once around the curve I encouraged a bit more speed and he immediately burst into a full gallop with unbridled glee. The power of this horse under me was uncharted territory. I'd never flown like this. My eyes watered from the speed along with the deep satisfaction of our incredible journey. At that moment we tacitly conspired to return to the track as the New Magnifico.
Return To The Racetrack
Several months later trainer Olson had Magnifico ready for the track. The timing seemed perfect as the season had just started at Arapahoe Downs. In a field of nine horses Magnifico placed a respectable fourth in his first race. He entered the gate confidently and ran a strong race against very tough competition. Most importantly he was Mr. Cool about the previous challenges. As I heard it, he hardly took notice of the starting gate. Two weeks later he ran again. This time I was present. I wouldn't have missed it for anything and drove through the night to be in his court. I had about two minutes with him in the saddling paddock before the race. We walked off to the side and I kneeled down as hundreds watched. His head dropped next to mine. "Why don't you show what you've got," I asked him? He lifted his head and looked around at the other hyper horses prancing their energy away. Then he lowered his head again and nuzzled his wet nose against the security of my head and neck and held it there for a long moment. We both reveled in our togetherness. "Do your very best. That's all I want. Do it for you," I whispered into his ear with a strong pull of his head into me. We raised up together and I handed the lead to his handler. With moist eyes I confidently headed toward the viewing area. I placed my bet, noting his odds at 9-1, then watched him enter the gate for his second out as Magnifico the Confident. In a seven-furlong competition in a field of eight horses he held his own throughout the race keeping a close eye on the lead horse. At the final bend he was running third. Jim Olson and I were jumping up and down like kids as the horses broke onto the straightaway. Coming to the finish with two seasoned horses in front of him he came from behind and moved to the outside. With what appeared to be so little encouragement, he turned on the afterburners and burst into the lead to win the race by a half-length. But it wasn't over for Magnifico. While the other horses backed off, spent, Magnifico delighted in his win and carried his jockey well into the bend before easing off. Magnifico was back!
As I rushed from the
stands into the winner's circle, I flashed back on that spring afternoon
months before when we had rekindled his belief and trust in the human.
We had worked together for months dealing with his issues. I'd taught
him to lay down in the most stressful of situations including next to
that old rickety starting gate. We had developed a bond and level of trust
few horses or humans reach in a lifetime.