Thursday 26 Oct 2017

A Visit To Reiner Country

The Legacy Reining Breeders Sale is a premiere two-day auction of performance-bred horses. It takes place across the street from Tom and Mandy McCutcheon’s ranch, where my reining horses live. This year, I’m selling four horses and buying none. I didn’t even bring my checkbook.

My flight from Laguardia arrives midafternoon. Outside the terminal: warm air, bleached sky, the salt of potato chips still on my tongue. A friend who’s working the sale picks me up in Mandy’s car, a sleek German coupe SUV with a pair of rusty rowel spurs on the passenger-side floor. Owing to unusual circumstances, I haven’t been here all year; there are some horses I’m eager to see.

The roads to Aubrey, TX, are lined with car dealerships, truck stops, chain restaurants, strip malls. North of Denton, the landscape gives way finally to fields and muddy ponds, low trees, the occasional very gradual hill.

The ranch is a complex of enormous, sand-colored buildings, surrounded by pastures where herds of horses graze: yearlings, weanlings, mares with foals; creamy palominos, red sorrels, a few paints, strolling or standing in bunches. A single show horse occupies each of the smaller paddocks near the barn.

There’s a porte-cochère the size of a New York apartment. Heavy doors with wrought iron handles lead to an entry lined with trophy cases. And that smell of horses: sweet, grassy manure, oats and brine. Under towering ceilings, in capacious, deeply bedded stalls, the horses are barely larger than ponies—muscular and shiny under films of shavings dust and scattered hay.

Up front are two three-year olds I bred, that Tom and Mandy now own: Bailey’s Not Painted and Hollywood Starburst, a.k.a. Boris and Winnie (it was the year of the cartoon-character nicknames, with also Natasha, Mickey and Calvin). Mandy’s been winning on these horses; they were co-champions of the recent Tulsa Derby, among other major wins. Boris is a white-blazed sorrel and Winnie a wild-maned dun. Both come to their doors, wanting to hang out and be petted.

Boris as a yearling

Boris and Mandy marking a big score in Vegas this year

Tom and I drive over to the sale grounds and walk through the barns, catalogues in hand, saying hello to people doing same—most everyone wearing boots and spurs, dirty jeans, baseball caps or cowboy hats. The horses’ pedigree cards hang on their doors, showing parents’ and grandparents’ and siblings’ accomplishments (or lack thereof). A couple hundred horses will sell over two days. Mandy basically runs the whole thing, from acceptance of horses (the yearlings have to meet certain standards of bloodline quality) to infrastructure setup / decoration to catering to sale-day troubleshooting, dispute resolution, etc. In other words, she is superhuman.

Because I’m not horse-shopping, I’m mostly right now interested in food. Finally a group of us ends up at a Denton sushi joint. More people show up and we scrape another table over to ours. I’m happy to find vegetables on the menu and even happier at how delicious the Ikura sushi tastes—the waiter’s favorite—salty, buttery salmon roe, jewel-orange, with tender seaweed and rice.

After dinner Mandy and Tom go back yet again to the sale barn, to make sure the McCutcheon yearlings are hayed and watered and have the right blankets on.

From today, things you don’t often see on NYC-area roads:

-Guy on a four-wheeler pulls out of a gas station and crosses a major thoroughfare by doing an extended wheelie / peel out maneuver.

-Around 9:45 p.m., caught in our headlight beams: three people riding horses along the shoulder of same thoroughfare, the nearest horse skittering sideways, high-headed.

Sale Day 1

Good, long sleep, still on NY time. I warm some water on the stove, drink it with lemon juice. Meditation; breakfast (fried egg, greens, avocado). When I step outside for a run, the air is cool, the sun just warming the light through a scrim of clouds. Framed under the Mesquite trees’ arching branches, broodmares graze in a line, beyond the white fence. The grass has the pale golden glow of late fall and prairie scenes. I am phoneless; no photograph. I decide to preserve the scene in memory: Texas morning.

I head off down the long, straight driveway, white-fenced mare pasture on one side, the neighbors’ cows on the other, behind barbed wire and tangled brush. The cows regard me placidly; two calves spook at the noise I make, sneakers on asphalt, and stumble away. (They are more used to cars than joggers.) Two properties down, a pair of big dogs makes a show of barking through their iron-rail fence. It is a quiet country road. Only once I have to move over for a truck that comes barreling along, kicking up dust.

The sale doesn’t start ‘till 1:00. At the ranch, I dig my boots from my tack trunk and take my horse Cruz for a lope. He’s a dark, mahogany-colored dun with big alert eyes and a rocking-horse canter. That’s what I love: that smooth, lilting lope, cruising on air. I practice some spins just for fun, until I get dizzy. Cruz isn’t tuned up to show but he knows the drill: plant his hind feet, step around, head low.

My boy Cruz

Then a little scheduling miracle: in the midst of the pre-sale action, the breeding manager, Barb, is here and can drive me around in the gator (a four-seater John Deere off-road machine with cargo bucket) to see my young horses. I’ll need Barb to help me find them; they change so much in a year I might not even recognize them, and I’ve never met the new foals.

We go from yearling colts to babies to weanlings, me jumping out to swing the big metal gates, then through the back barn for the two-year-olds. The weanlings crowd their gate so I have to arm-wave them away and close the gate quick, to stop them escaping. (Barb says, They all think they want to leave but when you try to take them out on purpose, they don’t want to come.) The horses are grubby and sun-bleached, their forelocks flecked with hay. In each pasture, when we stop, they chew the blankets in our cargo bucket and paw at our wheels, shoving each other to get in front.

My yearling colts, at least, I’d have spotted a mile away: a dun and a palomino in a herd of sorrels, both big and strong and well-balanced, out of my favorite mare, Belle, full sister to Mandy’s girl Winnie. (Belle and Winnie are sired by the late, fabulous Hollywood Dun It, all time best producer of broodmares and handsome as can be—long black mane, creamy coat, kind eye.)

Sweetness in the pasture (colt by Gunners Special Nite)

Yearling colt by Gunners Special Nite out of Belle Starr Dun It

Belle herself lounges in a back pasture. When I see her I practically fling myself in her direction: Long-lost friend! Most ravishing creature in all the world! My girl! She’s the first reining horse I bred, the spitting image of her gorgeous daddy, with a touch of her mother’s sensitive nature and pampered manner, plus all that talent… Her mane, which used to hang to her knees, has been cut to prevent the hopeless dreadlocks-tangle induced by pasture life—but Barb says it needs to be cut again, it just grows so fast.

The beautiful Belle Starr Dun It

Our final stop is at the stall of Belle’s two-year-old son, and I am instantly, hopelessly smitten. I last saw him as an adolescent in the field; now he’s a dreamy young stallion—dark, coppery dun, black forelock hanging over his eyes. He puts his head in my arms and leans, not biting, just snuggling. His name is Dun With Guns, nicknamed DeNunzio (it was the Caddyshack year, with Lacey, Spaulding, Danny, Ty). Of course, Tom has told me how good this colt’s looked in training. We sell a lot of our best horses, but not this one, not yet—he gets the NFS label on our list of stock: Not For Sale.

DeNunzio (Dun With Guns, 2-year-old stallion by Gunners Special Nite out of Belle Starr Dun It)

Reluctantly, I head for the auction. It’s held at Cardinal Ranch, in their covered riding arena, which could park a double-decker 747 with room to spare. An array of tables on temporary carpets surrounds the auctioneer and stage, a small enclosure bedded with shavings and encircled with velvet rope. Banners advertizing breeding stallions adorn the fence that separates the audience from backstage. In that lineup is our stallion, Gunners Special Nite, whose offspring have recently reached the million-dollar mark in prize money.

My sale consignments are a white-faced filly, palomino and plain sorrel colts, and a three-year-old mare with a splashy blaze and blue eyes. For various boring reasons (eg., some niggling little things on their x-rays) they’re not the most stellar group I’ve ever brought here. Plus I’ve learned not to cling to the hope of any particular auction outcome, other than that the horses will, at the day’s end, go on to new homes.

Gunners Smoke Show, 3-yr-old mare by Gunner x Darlins Not Painted, consigned at the Legacy Sale

The auctioneer’s prattle is deafening. Yearlings begin to sell, and the prices are low. I set out my snack of baby carrots, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. My best colt comes up early and brings a price so low I couldn’t even have fed him for that amount. But I know Tom was the high bidder, which means either I can keep the colt or Tom will own him, to raise and train. In past years I’d have been agitated with worry over not making good sales. This time, I’d describe the feeling as calm, grim resignation. I’ve become more cynical. Or maybe just more zen; maybe it’s all the meditation paying off.

I open my laptop but the auctioneer is so loud I can’t really even read, let alone write anything. In five minutes my computer is coated in dust.

I decamp to backstage, where Tom and a bunch of other trainers hang out for the sale. Here, Tom can bid more privately, using his secret signal. He wants to buy several yearlings. I pull up a chair—the speakers point the other way so it’s somewhat less ear-splitting back here—and let the afternoon unfold. Off to the side some kids practice rope tricks. The breeze lifts the dusty, sticky arena footing and soon my hair is full of the stuff. (Shoe-wise, you just have to wear boots because sneakers become instantly grime-laden, inside and out.)

By the time we retreat to a downtown restaurant, braving a chaotic parking scene with the entire square blocked off for some kind of outdoor event, we’re all in paradoxically good spirits—clinking glasses in honor of Mandy’s birthday, commiserating about how brutally low the prices were, joking about our various horse-related misfortunes. At least Tom was able to buy some nice prospects. And I keep thinking of DeNunzio back at the barn, and my two big colts in the field.

Sale Day 2

Yoga on the back porch: it is humid and cloudy, the porch boards slightly uneven under my grippy mat. Balmy breeze; canopy of branches overhead; mares grazing just there along the fence. The big porch is strewn with sticks and various Texas bugs. I finish a sun salutation and look up. A flock of birds bursts over the house and crosses the pasture.

At the ranch, I have a treat in store: riding Harry, a.k.a. Smart Little Dunit, our handsome bay stallion that Tom’s been showing in the Derbies. Harry was a diamond in the rough when be bought him. Now, after months of training, he and Tom have had some big finishes. Not every top-caliber reiner is smooth and easy to ride, but Harry—I decide the moment we strike up a lope—is a total dreamboat. That gliding, rhythmic lope; his thick, shiny stallion neck stretched down; ears pricked forward, attentive and calm.

When I get off, he starts nickering. (In case I didn’t already find him adorable enough.) Then he grabs the rein into his mouth, just playing. It’s a habit Tom has indulged because the horse is so damn good, and Tom wants to let him have this little bit of fun. I lead him into the barn, me holding one end of the rein, Harry holding the other. It takes me a while to get his halter on because he grabs first the cheek piece, then the noseband, before I finally get his nose through. And it’s true, he’s so charming you just can’t be annoyed.

Harry, the charmer (Smart Little Dunnit)

Harry is Tom’s first ride most mornings; he gets saddled and tied to the fence outside Tom’s office. When Tom comes out, Harry starts nickering, talking up a storm. A horse that knows the way to a person’s heart. NFS.

I don’t allow myself to put that NFS label on very many of them, but if I can’t do it sometimes, at least temporarily, what’s the point of a horse-crazy girl going into the breeding business at all? Plus, my priorities are shifting: one must carve out certain sacred things to enjoy.

In that spirit, I decide to dawdle at the ranch, rather than rushing to this afternoon’s sale. I wander the show barn, mare barn, back barn—just saying hi to the horses. My first reiner, Dundee, is inside; his pasture-mate, Okie, needed some minor medical care and heaven forbid these two be separated. Okie nearly paws down the partition between them, hollering, when Dundee takes just a couple steps in my direction. I give him a withers-scratch, and he gives me his same old impish look. When I had him back east in a jumper barn, he used to hear my spur-clinking footsteps and start nickering from his stall before he even saw me.

With Dundee ten years ago in Florida

When I get to DeNunzio and Cruz, who are stall-neighbors, I notice DeNunzio’s giant three-compartment feeder on its side in the middle of his stall. It takes two people to heft it back into the corner where it was previously bolted. He’s not that big of a horse; it’s unclear how he moved it. I finish doting on him and start to walk away—and then the question is answered: there he is, proudly standing in the feeder, while Cruz jams his nose through the bars and tries to hassle him about it. DeNunzio turns out to be the perfect name: he is confident, irresistible and smooth, with a naughty streak. (Again, see Caddyshack.)

“Look what I can do!”

Cruz checks out DeNunzio’s stunt

“Hey, dude. Get down.”

The sale on day two is much stronger. More yearlings sell, and some two-year-olds, broodmares, and riding horses, and then it’s epic cleanup time. Mandy and the crew work late into the evening.

The main event, for me, is teaching Tom and Mandy’s daughter, Carlee, and her best friend, Macie, my magic-trick shoe-tying method. Actually, it’s just how I tie my shoes—but it looks like a sleight of hand. Macie brought it up last night at dinner. I’d shown them when they were little, and apparently it made a big impression. Now they’re old enough to learn it. They practice excitedly and then gleefully show their friends and begin time-trial races. Well, at least I’ve given them one more way to get people’s attention.

Next day I’m on a plane heading home, and Mandy and Tom are off to another horse show. I’ll see these guys again at the Futurity in OKC, just after Thanksgiving, where Gunners Special Nite will be honored for his Million-Dollar achievement.

DeNunzio as a yearling

Read about another year’s Legacy Sale here, or check out my inside look at the Reining Futurity.

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