My own private Barbaro (National Post February 07, 2007)
Since the moment at the Preakness Stakes in 2006 when Barbaro shattered a leg in three places, the entire racing world, and horse fanciers in general, followed with fierce suspense the dramatic story of Barbaro's surgery, the brief period of hope following it, then the complications, the struggle for containment of infection and suffering, the gradual acknowledgement of medicine's impotence in resolving the animal's mounting tribulations and finally, on Jan. 29, the euthanization of a champion.
Personally, I wouldn't have allowed any horse of mine to suffer that much for so long. Still, it was clear that his owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, were motivated to keep him alive by love. A horse with that kind of extraordinary heart for his job arouses awe in all of us. It's tough to let them go.
Of course, a big heart alone doesn't make a horse a champion. Whether on a race track or a show jumping course, there are three components to horse greatness: athleticism, heart and honesty. (Honesty sounds like an anthropomorphism, but it isn't. An honest horse won't --can't --deceive you. If he thinks he can't make a jump, you'll feel him sucking back five strides out. A dishonest horse will barrel right up to the jump and stop dead, or duck away. You can be forgiven for falling off a dishonest horse. If you fall off an honest horse, it's your own fault.)
Athleticism, heart, honesty. You often get two out of three in a horse. To own a horse with all three is a rare privilege. Barbaro was such a horse. I once owned one as well.
His name was Hamish. His specialty was Three-Day Eventing, a rarefied equestrian event rooted in cavalry traditions, which comprises dressage, cross country and show-jumping events.
Fortunately for me, when it came time to put him down -- he was 24 and at pasture in a small private barn not far from my home in Montreal -- the onset of trouble was swift, the prognosis was unambiguous and the decision guilt-free. He'd had an adventurous and successful career doing what he loved (well, he loved the cross country and stadium jumping, he hated the dressage), a comfortable retirement and an easy death.
Hamish looked a bit like Barbaro . He too was a bay with a white star. But he was half warm blood -- a Trakhener-Thoroughbred cross -- and that gave his face the slight dishiness and bulgy eyes of his Arab ancestors. He was as hot to run and as sensitive as a thoroughbred, but had the denser bone, greater power and appetite for work of the warmblood.
For racing, you want a pure thoroughbred. But for any other form of horse sport, I don't think there is a more beguiling combination of aptitude and per sonal i ty traits than a Trakhener cross.
Normally, a horse of Hamish's huge athletic ability and "go" would have been out ofmy wallet's range, but he had a defect -- a swayback -- that dampened the interest of other buyers and made him affordable. Because of the sway, when he jumped a fence, he "dwelled" in the air. But he seemed to know and compensated: He jumped so much higher than he needed to, it didn't matter. People laughed when they saw him naked -- OK, he looked pregnant -- but they stopped and whistled respectfully when they saw him jump.
Hamish was his barn name. The name on his show passport was Panjandrum. We got him when he was seven. My daughter was already a tactful rider, but she'd learned on lesser horses. Hamish's explosive passion and enormous scope on the cross-country course took her breath away at first, but it wasn't long before they'd formed a trusting partnership. Six years later, they were confident veterans on the Advanced circuit, and her bedroom walls were covered in ribbons.
I'm not the sentimental type with animals. Horses can be used for fun and recreation, but that wasn't enough for me. I wanted my horses to compete and win, and more than that, to exhibit joy in the striving, for that is the owner's great thrill, and it is in the gift only of great horses to offer. With my other horses, I saw partial returns. But honest, athletic, big-hearted Hamish: Like Barbaro, he earned his keep and then some.
© National Post 2007