Selima, America’s First Champion Racehorse

Over the course of the last several months, this blog has taken a turn from the western frontier into equestrian pursuits. Yesterday, I made a serendipitous visit to the Belair Stables, an unassuming building located a stone’s throw from my house, yet deeply connected to one of colonial America’s most intriguing stories.
Godolphin_Arabian
The Godolphin Arabian, sire of Selima, the first champion racehorse of the American colonies.

As a child, I read (and loved) Misty of Chincoteague as well as King of the Wind, both by Marguerite Henry. For those unfamiliar with the plot, King of the Wind tells the improbable yet true story of a horse of unknown pedigree that was brought to Europe from Morocco, where the horse and his faithful attendant experience a series of misfortunes before finally coming into the home and stables of Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin. There, the horse–known as the Godolphin Arabian–became a cherished stud and the sire of outstanding racehorses; his progeny Lath won England’s Newmarket races 9 times. The racing records failed to impress my mind as a 10-year-old, but I was enchanted by Henry’s rags-to-riches story involving a horse.

Only a few weeks ago, I learned that Selima, a filly sired by King of the Wind, came to America around 1750. Selima’s new home was none other than the Belair Stables, a site that I had passed many times, never knowing the connection it bore to a beloved tale from my childhood.

Selima was a champion racehorse herself. In 1752, at the age of 7, she won the most significant race of the colonial era at Gloucester, VA. Astonishingly, she is believed to have walked almost the entire 150 miles from Maryland to Virginia for the race, and then still emerged the champion! The purse was a whopping 2,500 pistoles (a typical race of the era might have a prize of 30 pistoles). Selima eventually retired from racing and had 10 foals, many of whom became champion racehorses themselves.

I visited the Belair Stables and stood near the spot where Selima lived out her days, a place that many racing historians credit as the birthplace of professional horseracing in America. I viewed the stables and racing memorabilia, and thought about this mysterious horse named Selima, and the family who owned her, and how happenstance had suddenly brought me into such close proximity with a fascinating tale.

In digging around for more on Selima, I turned up this interesting article, originally published in Smithsonian. But I am sure there is more to the story, and luckily, I may not have too far to go to find it.  

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A Proper Seat, Part 2

This blog has taken an unexpected turn towards England. I’ll be back to the West soon enough, but in the meantime, here is the conclusion of my riding adventures this past winter.

Lady Mary Crawley of PBS’ Downton Abbey.

Like most things, English-style riding looks easy. In practice, it’s not. I’m not sure if I ever looked graceful and elegant in the saddle, but I sure tried.

As I wrote in my earlier post, it was quite an adjustment moving to English tack, and an English saddle.  I found that I was using my legs in a real way, first to give commands to the horse, and later, to try the gait that had always eluded me, trotting.

For me, being able to trot was at about the same level of probability as finding a unicorn. Walking is easy. Cantering is fun. Trotting made me crazy, and I inevitably ended up bouncing like a sack of potatoes. I could not get my motion aligned with the motion of the horse.

I tried to post, rising and falling in the horse’s rhythm. But something was off, and I ended up just making my legs tired. The instructor yelled something about diagonals. I had no idea what she was talking about.

Finally, I was told to watch the horse’s outside leg, and time my upward motion with that movement. I watched, and I did. It was awkward at first – part of my attention diverted to watching the horse, part of my attention diverted to keeping myself balanced, and part of my attention making sure I was still using the reigns.

There was a moment, though, when thought was suspended, and all the parts snapped into place. It was effortless. I was gliding, moving as easily as a feather in a stream. Gone were the jolts, the bounces, the dissonance that rattled my teeth and left bruises down my thighs. I flew, gently and gracefully.

It wasn’t a perfect lesson, and I am by no means a perfect horsewoman. But now I know what perfect feels like.

What’s next? Jumping, I should think.

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A Proper Seat

Some kids dream about becoming an astronaut or a ballerina when they grow up, or, perhaps President of the United States. My dream was horses.
I loved them. Whenever I got a chance, I rode. Not many in our circle of acquaintances owned horses, so my experiences were limited to the rare treat of an afternoon ride with a friend or family member who actually happened to have a pony or gelding out back. But I persisted, attending a handful of horsemanship camps as a teen and using the next best source of information available to me, World Book Encyclopedia, to brush up my knowledge on various riding styles.
I always rode Western. If I wasn’t exactly a proficient rider, I was nevertheless comfortable enough with the saddle and its trappings to feel confident that I could keep my seat. My Western riding career reached its apex during a cattle drive that put these tenuous skills to the test. My horse and I leaped ditches, ran across meadows, and chased renegade cows back into the herd. I loved it.
But it wasn’t quite enough. I didn’t just want to ride a horse, I wanted to look good doing it. And for that, I needed to learn English riding.
Ah, English riding. What could be more elegant than sitting astride a horse, back perfectly upright, balancing effortless poise and a dash of glamour? There is a reason that dressage and not calf roping is an Olympic sport. Both require exceptional skill and horsemanship, but only dressage is beautiful to look at.
Which is why, on a cold night in November, I hoofed it down to a local riding academy and began my first English riding lessons. The saddle felt tiny, as I knew it would.  On a whim, I’d talked a friend into taking a polo class with me the previous summer, and the English saddles had seemed shockingly inadequate to the task of keeping us on the horse while we galloped up and down the field, trying desperately to connect the mallet to the ball and move it in the right direction. I discovered that playing polo before really knowing how to ride English was akin to tackling calculus before getting a grasp on long division.
The placid old gelding and I circled the arena, never moving faster than a plodding walk. I took advantage of the slow pace to check my posture. Yes, I was sitting nicely.
The old Western habits died hard, however. I tried to turn my horse, Monkey Bread, by neck reining him. The instructor quickly corrected me, and I spent the rest of the lesson trying to habituate myself into using the English style of pulling back on the reign and pressing against the horse with my leg. It wasn’t exactly moving cattle, but it was, I hoped, moving me towards my goal of presenting a tolerable mimicry of Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary.   
I head back in another week for my next lesson. Maybe this time we’ll break out a walk and I can try posting, followed by a nice cup of afternoon tea.
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Dust and Saddle Leather

I returned yesterday from my stint as a modern-day cowpuncher. With 65 other aspirational cowboys, I spent 5 days moving a herd of steers through the High Sierra outside of Reno, NV.

Even with creature comforts like coldwater showers and hot meals, cowboying is tough. And despite the impression that cowboys are individualistic do-it-yourselfers, getting cows from Point A to Point B is a lesson in teamwork. On a cattle drive, each person has an assigned position and in order to keep the herd from devolving into chaos, everyone has to be in the right place at the right time. And since cows and horses tend to move–and cows are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to bolt out of the herd–constant adjustments are necessary. Brad, our trail boss, called this the “dynamic principle.” If there’s a gap in front of you, move up. If there’s a gap behind you, fall back. If the cows are moving too slowly, coordinate with the other riders to get behind them and use a combination of yells and your horse’s momentum to push ’em up. And if a cow gets loose, ride it down, get your horse between it and the open range, and drive it back into the herd.

On this drive, Part 1 of success relied on paying attention and using teamwork. Part 2 came from the horses. A horse can make or break its rider’s efficiency. We used trail horses, not trained cow ponies. And yes, there is a difference.

Trail horses tend to do what they are used to, i.e. walk behind each other as if on a leisurely pleasure ride. Cow ponies, on the other hand, are the offensive tacklers of cattle drives.

They’re fast. They know how to block. They’ll even use their teeth to nip at ornery steers and hustle them along.

I rode three horses over the course of the drive. Chino, whose habit of kicking whatever horse happened to be behind us meant I spent most of my time correcting his behavior, much like the mother of a screaming toddler. There was Gunsmoke, tall and comfortable to ride but so slow that if a cow got past us, it would likely be in the next county before he could be urged into more than a trot. And Cookie. Dark and fast, Cookie was no professional cow pony, but he wasn’t afraid to run and the best moments of the drive occurred while we were moving a breakaway steer back into the herd and then galloping to catch up. He made me look good, and for that I am grateful.

This is the hierarchy of cattle drives. The cows first, your horse second, and yourself last. Horses got water even when we didn’t. And our pace was set not by any schedule of human devising, but by the speed of the slowest-walking cow.

As far as the rest of it–falling asleep in my tent, hearing coyotes howling, waking up before the sun when the moon was bright enough to cast shadows–that was just like the movies. I’m not a cowboy. But I played one, once.

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