Horses are the ultimate connectors. That's a common turn of phrase and far from an epiphany, but that doesn't make it any less true. Every once in a while it's nice to be reminded of it.
This past week I made the trek to South Dakota once again to catch up with dear friends and fellow Thoroughbred owners, advocates and enthusiasts Dale Simanton and Dorothy Snowden of Gate to Great Geldings, a business aimed at retraining ex-racehorses simply by using them to make a living off of the land. On their 450-acre Horse Creek Ranch (named after the stream – Horse Creek – that runs through it), horses help them with everything from gathering, sorting and roping cattle to going out through the pastures to check on stock or adjust their irrigation systems in their hay fields. It may be hard for some to imagine how those experiences can prepare horses for life beyond the track, but what they do (and how they do it) gives retired racehorses a new lease on life, instilling in them an entirely new resume of skills that makes them just about the perfect prospect for any discipline.
I first met Dale and Dorothy in Baltimore, Md., on the finish line of Pimlico racetrack at the second-ever Thoroughbred Makeover. They had hauled a trailer full of off-track Thoroughbreds across the country for the event. Some of the horses participated in a team cattle-sorting exhibition. Another, a horse named Rikim who was retired after 75 starts and 12 wins, was ridden by Dale in the competition's ranch horse division.
By the end of the weekend, I'd watched all of their recently retired racers not only come back to a racing environment and handle everything in stride after the better part of a week's worth of travel, but also perform as well as any cow-bred ranch horse would be expected to under their non-ranch-y racing celebrity riders in the celebrity demo. I was even invited to hop aboard Rikim myself with nothing more than a halter and lead rope and found him to be as steadfast, yet responsive as you'd ever hope a horse to be on his best day. It goes without saying that I saw the “something special” that the Gate to Great team possessed.
Now, being good with horses doesn't mean you're a good person. Someone can be the best trainer in the world, yet a deplorable excuse for a human being (Pro tip: aim to NOT fit into this category). In Dale and Dorothy, however, I found two of the most authentic, kind-hearted and good-mntured people I've ever met. While our backgrounds with horses and in life could not have been more different, it was our shared love for Thoroughbreds that provided the foundation for a friendship I knew would endure, both in miles and in time.
Dale and Dorothy come to or through Lexington, Ky. (where I hang my hat), once or twice a year, either hauling their recently sold horses to their new homes or picking up a recently retired off-track prospect or two. Every once in a while I make the trip out west to see them in Newell, S.D., as I did this past week with a few traveling companions in tow, spending several days gaining an appreciation for not only what they can do with a horse, but what Thoroughbreds can do with a little time, training and some wide open spaces.
We landed around 10:30 a.m. and after about an hour's drive from the airport to their farm, we were aboard a quartet of retired racers and heading out through hundreds of acres of wide-open fields to gather cattle for their vaccinations, castrations and any other work that was needed. I was aboard Quaint, Dale's 2016 Thoroughbred Makeover mount who has turned into quite the cow horse, even garnering Internet fame for his bridle-less (and even rider-less) cattle work. Dale was on Sallal. (The gelding he calls “King” was born in Great Britain and has traveled the world as a racehorse, yet works cattle like he was bred to do it.) The others were on LorddemmiIt (a beautiful chestnut with mileage both on the range and in the show ring and who seems to thrive on wanting to be push-button) and Thumbs Up (a Distorted Humor gelding out of an A.P. Indy mare who seems to have taken to ranch life like a duck to water). It took about two hours to gather the cattle and escort them home, and all the while each of the horses just went along at an easy walk with their reins looped and swinging, aside from the occasional request from a rider to pick up the pace and bring a contrarian back to the herd.
Dale has a steer named Little Joe, who is sweet, gentle and perfect for introducing Thoroughbreds to cattle work. Once back at their farm, we each tried our hand at throwing a rope onto his neck off of our horses, where my suspicions were confirmed – there will not be any belt buckles won at ropings in my future. There was one occasion where my lasso grazed his ear and landed on his back. He stopped as if to signal that it was close enough to count, but his loss of momentum made it fall to the ground. I have a certain set of skills … and roping sure isn't one of them.
The following morning Dale told us about a place near the North Dakota border he'd heard about that was supposedly beautiful country to ride through. “Want to explore and see if we can find it?” he asked.
Who would say no to that?
We grabbed four horses out of the field, loaded them up in the trailer and an hour and a half later we were riding near the Slim Buttes through some of the most pristine and ruggedly beautiful land I have ever seen. This day I was aboard Pendulum, a beautiful and leggy dark bay who, after 85 races, had a trot to die for. Another one from our group was offered the opportunity to ride Painted Forest, a gelding who, after working on the ranch with Dale, partnered with Dorothy in the show ring to win numerous awards and accolades in both English and Western tack, including the Thoroughbred Incentive Program's year-end honors in Western Dressage.
“This is probably his ninth or 10th ride since he retired,” said Dale. “Those first two rides were doozies, but he just picks up right where he left off and gets better every time. Isn't he a cool horse?”
Cool is an understatement. He is a freaking rock star of a horse. While his natural walk is probably faster than a normal working trot thanks to the amount of ground he covers with every stride, he's an incredibly comfortable ride and easily rates to the pace of the group. For several hours we explored the foothills and wide-open spaces surrounding the Slim Buttes, which sits on the North and South Dakota border. There wasn't a trail in sight, so we simply wandered up and down steep hills, through riverbeds and fields and navigated some of the roughest terrain I'd ever attempted on horseback, and all four horses never batted an eye.
The following day we loaded the horses up yet again, this time making the 40 or so minute drive to Fort Meade, near the once-bustling goldmining town of Deadwood. We unloaded, hopped on and off we went through the foothills surrounding the town. On this day we followed trails, with switchbacks taking us up into the foothills that overlooked the city, then would wander off into a meadow or through the forest, “teaching the horses to want to explore,” as Dale put it. Every 10 or 15 minutes or so we'd stop to tell stories and jokes or simply take in the view and while all of our horses had spent their fair bit of time in the hustle-bustle of the racetrack environment, they seemed to not just appreciate, but relish the change of pace. I think these horses think they have truly found heaven.
“What's your secret to taking any horse – war horses, problem horses, you name it – and making them into a rock-steady mount in just a few rides?” I asked Dale as we stood on a hill overlooking a grassy meadow, me with my feet kicked out of the stirrups and hands resting on my horse's rump as the reins lay slack on his neck.
“You've got to take them out, far from the farm and their friends and anything familiar and just get them lost. It gets them out of their own head,” he said, explaining that one of the first rides he often puts on a new horse is done solo, loading them up in the trailer and taking them out onto the raw land, riding for miles at a loopy reined walk, just exploring.
While most of the horses in the Gate to Great program are ridden Western and predominantly used for ranch work while with Dale and Dorothy, a large number of them go on to be purchased for field hunting, eventing or other English-based disciplines and their new owners credit their time on the ranch for making them so adaptable and versatile elsewhere.
All of the horses we rode this week at Gate to Great are for sale. If you'd like to learn more about any of them, go to http://www.gatetogreat.com/.
Name: Sallal (a.k.a. “King”)
Born:February 4, 2012
Sire:Exceed and Excel (AUS)
Dam:Wise Melody (GB), by Zamindar
Sale History: Sold at Tattersalls December Foals Sale as a weanling for $184,973 (converted); sold at Tattersalls October Yearling Sale for $540,859 (converted)
Race Earnings: $84,757
Name: Lorddemmi (a.k.a. “Demmi”)
Born:January 22, 2010
Dam:Consequently, by Bianconi
Sale History: Sold at Iowa Breeders and Owners Association Mixed Sale as a yearling for $2,300
Race Earnings: $16,920
Born:April 8, 2012
Dam:Spread, by Coronado's Quest
Sale History: Sold at Keeneland September as a yearling for $7,000
Race Earnings: $7,000
Name: Pendulum (a.k.a. “Swinger”)
Born:March 3, 2007
Dam:St. Lucinda, by St. Jovite
Sale History: Sold at Keeneland September as a yearling for $275,000
Race Earnings: $248,498
Name: Painted Forest (a.k.a. “Gump”)
Born:April 27, 2005
Dam:Take Me Home, by Housebuster
Sale History: Sold at Keeneland September as a yearling for $155,000; RNAed at Fasig-Tipton February as a 2-year-old for $145,000
Race Earnings: $55,668
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky and was recently named the Executive Director of the Retired Racehorse Project. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She is the go-to food source for one dog, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected]or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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