Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Diamond Girl

Diamond Girl                                                                                                                                        

Originally published in Horse Directory magazine
July 2012

 By Tom Gumbrecht                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Lola in her racing days. Apparently, she liked to play in the mud!
A week or two ago I heard the Seals & Crofts 70’s song, “Diamond Girl”. Like much of the music from my youth, I loved the song and it made me happy to hear it again.  Not because it reminded me of some 70’s high school sweetheart; no, this song evoked warm thoughts of my own “Diamond Girl”, my Off-Track Thoroughbred mare, Lola, who raced under the name, “One Precious Gem”.

Acquired from the New Holland auction, Lola had (unknown to me at the time) been raced actively at several Pennsylvania tracks until two weeks previous to our eyes meeting at the racks of the auction house.  As I laid the cash down at the auction office, I held high hopes for our future partnership. The elation lasted about 36 hours, when the medication wore off and my future champion couldn’t walk.

Veterinary reports confirmed the unfortunate truth: Lola had sustained soft tissue damage. I was later to find, after uncovering her identity and researching her history, that the injury occurred in her last race, and although her career appeared to be promising prior to her injury, she ended up what is sometimes a way station on the last road for racehorses that can no longer race.  But then fate put Lola and I at the same auction on the same day. 

At home, post-diagnosis, in the privacy of her stall, tears flowed hard into her mane. I can’t do it! And I can’t (won’t) bring her back. Denial was a prelude to remorse, which gave life to anger, where I lingered for a short while until I realized that Lola wasn’t going anywhere, and that there was a reason why the paths of our lives had intersected. Under doctor’s orders, we got to work.

The first year of her life with me was spent mostly in her stall and in the stable yard, being cold-hosed, hand walked, and wrapped twice a day. Lola’s frequent and furious welcoming knickers, her cooperative nature and her grateful eyes made me look forward to our time at the barn. The prospect of her rehabilitation which had once seemed like a huge mountain in the windshield eventually appeared in the rear-view mirror.  As the mountain got smaller and smaller in the mirror while coasting down the other side, it felt satisfying and encouraging…. until the next mountain appeared on the horizon through the windshield. Could we climb another?  We could and did.  Eventually the terrain flattened out and we were ready to begin training.

I was already working with a trainer with my other horse, and through our good fortune, that same trainer possessed the knowledge and patience needed to retrain a racehorse, and the willingness to, rather than do it all herself, train me to train the horse.  Lola, while a good student, demanded that her concerns be respected.  Sometimes, mistaking her willingness for fearlessness, I would not.  She would have me pay for those transgressions in the form of remedial training.  We continued to figure each other out over the ensuing months, which fell together and formed two years.

A time came where I began to yearn once again for the rewards of setting and achieving goals that, for me, can only be met by showing.  Our preparations led us to the Horse Trials at Good Shepherd Farm on Long Island, NY, on a late spring morning. Our goals were simple: To bring Lola to the show grounds, let her acclimate to the unfamiliar surroundings and activity level, and if she was up to it mentally, ride a single dressage test.

The mare uncharacteristically revealed her racing heritage as soon as she got off the trailer, with more nervous energy than I had ever seen in her.  The closest I have witnessed lately was the energy level and body language of the recent Belmont Stakes entrants being led from paddock to starting gate.  At once it occurred to me that the last time she was in the presence of so much horse activity, she was probably on the way to the starting gate herself.  She was recalling her job... which was to go fast!

I tacked up and mounted.  At this moment I have no fear of riding Lola, and it isn’t because I am particularly brave. It’s because today, at this moment.. I understand. I understand and I trust.  This horse has learned to trust me implicitly.  Today I can reciprocate.  My early concerns were all about me: What if “I” don’t do well?  What will “I” look like if this horse tears up the arena? What if “I” don’t look like I can control my horse? Silly, self-centered fears that I needed to be rid of.

Schooling in the field before our test, a beautiful thing happened. That song came into my head again:

“Diamond Girl
You sure do shine..
Glad I found you..
Glad you’re mine…”

My tenseness began to melt, and so too, hers.
This day was about her, not me.

“How can I
Shine without you..
When it’s about you
That I am…”

All of my concerns and trepidations fell away as I realized, I love this horse. I’ve loved other horses before, but not like this one. In the practice field, I sang the verses to her.  If anyone heard, they might have thought it strange. Or if they saw me choke up at the line,

“I could never find
Another one like you..
…Diamond Girl, now that I found you
Well it’s around you
That I am..”

A glance at my watch revealed our time approaching. I took a breath and headed for the arena and staged ourselves in position to wait and be called.  And she stood. Quietly.  Remarkably so, and she waited.  She dropped her head, and waited. And when called, gave a performance that while far from the perfection demanded of those dedicated to the discipline, was complete, under control, and made more than a few people proud.

It was just one little class in one little show.  For the occasion, Lola sported a new leather show halter. She had been wearing the same old halter that I bought at the auction house back then, another small detail. But symbolically, in my mind, Lola made the transition today from project to performer. That looms huge.  Of course she will always be a work in progress, as will I. Acknowledging that, a sign in the barn aisle outside Lola’s stall declares , “Progress, Not Perfection”.  I hope we never finish our journey… because it’s a beautiful thing to just be on it with my Diamond Girl.

 < The author and Lola at her first horse show.
     Good Shepherd Farm, Training Level     
       Dressage Test 06/12.
          More photos.. V V  


    The author and Lola ("One Precious Gem") await the judge's bell....  >>                                                                        

<The author's wife, Mary, holds Lola after
 her successful first horse show performance...

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