Sometimes it's the unlikeliest horses that make the biggest impressions. That was the case for a big, bay mare known most of her life simply as “Diana” and the person whom she inspired: well-known off-track Thoroughbred advocate, Susan Salk.
Today, Susan is best known to many equine advocates for her blog, Off-Track Thoroughbred, which chronicles the lives of countless off-trackers and the people who love them.
“My goal in starting Off Track Thoroughbreds was to promote the breed and the people who work with Thoroughbreds,” explained Susan. “I've met mothers who've put their children on OTTBs because they believe so strongly in giving these regal animals a second chance. When I interview some of these people who've made it a mission to help an ex-racehorse, I swear I hum the song “Working Class Heroes” by John Lennon. That's what they are to me.”
Susan grew up riding, but like many, she got out of the sport and on with her life. It was while working as an editor in the marketing department at Northeastern University that she got back into horseback riding, thanks to some special encouragement.
“The decision to start riding lessons again as a ‘re-rider' was my husband's idea,” said Susan. “I started with a pony first, and a couple years into my lessons, I was put on Diana. I'd ridden a half-Arabian and a very grumpy Morgan, and the difference riding Diana was night and day.”
The bond between Susan and Diana grew over time. As soon as Diana would hear Susan's voice in the barn, she'd nicker a hello to encourage Susan to come down to her stall.
“God forbid I stop and talk with someone else,” said Susan. “She'd nicker insistently, like a demanding child, until I paid attention.”
As Susan got back into riding more and more, she started becoming aware of the issue of horse slaughter and of the plight of the unwanted horse – specifically, ex-racehorses in such a situation.
“I clicked on a link one day and forced myself to sit through an interminable video of a horse being put down in a slaughterhouse,” said Susan.
As her day-to-day life went on, Susan couldn't get the image of what she'd witnessed online out of her mind's eye. It was a combination of that, her bond with Diana, and a poignant conversation with her father before he died that became the catalyst for her blog.
“Chatting about Diana and my riding lessons, I told him how I hoped to own a horse someday,” explained Susan. “I remember how he laughed and said, ‘better let that one go. Not everyone can have a horse.'”
It was some time after her father's passing, when she was taking a continuing education communications course at Emerson College, that Susan had a dream that brought everything together.
“All I can remember in the dream is that we were talking at the kitchen table and he said, ‘I think I thought of an idea to bring you closer to horses,'” recalled Susan. “I can't remember the rest but shortly thereafter, my Emerson College teacher, Trent Bagley, started to insist I start a blog, as he thought my writing was decent enough, and he enjoyed my all-horse, all-the-time material in class.”
Susan began writing and researching, and the more she wrote, the deeper her interest went in the vein of retired racehorses.
“When I started (the blog), few people seemed to understand what I was trying to do,” said Susan. “This is corny, but no matter what the OTTB has wound up being – a lawn ornament, pleasure horse, or full-on competitive athlete – every time, I've found owners who are all heart. They love their horses like they're one of the family and feel honored to share their lives with a descendent of racing nobility.”
Today, Off-Track Thoroughbreds is read worldwide and receives an average of 25,000-30,000 page views per month. Susan has authored no less than 350 stories on her blog, about famous nationally-recognized athletes and pasture ponies alike.
“When I think about the race-trained mare who started me down this blogging path, I feel a debt of gratitude to her owner, Margo Kusulas, who took her in the first place,” said Susan. “She was a wise old mare who'd seen it all but never grew sour. By the time I started riding her, she was in her late teens. Her dancing days were long gone, but she was still light on her feet and tried like crazy for me. The pride I felt that I could actually stay seated over our little two-foot-nine courses gave me such a boost of happiness.”
Name: Revenging Donny (a.k.a. “Diana”)
Dam: Revenging Colleen
Sale History: none
Race Record: none
Race Earnings: $0
If you have or know of a retired Thoroughbred with an interesting story to tell, we'd love to hear about it! Just email Jen Roytz ([email protected]) with the horse's Jockey Club name, background story, and a few photos.
Jen Roytz is the marketing and communications director at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Kentucky. She also handles the farm's Thoroughbred aftercare efforts. She currently owns two retired Thoroughbreds: Point of Impact (by Point Given; a.k.a. Boomer), who retired from racing in late 2011 and is just starting back under saddle to find his forte as a riding horse, and Shotgun Shine (by Tale of the Cat, a.k.a. Gage), who is in training as a hunter/jumper. Contact Jen on Facebook and Twitter.
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