Man o’ War’s 100th Birthday – Let’s Celebrate!

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Man o’ War. Foaled March 29, 1917, this large chestnut horse was dubbed the Horse of the Century, that’s the 20th Century, with his incredible 20 wins out of 21 starts. Man o’ War was bred by August Belmont, Jr. and sold at auction as a yearling for $5,000 to Samuel D. Riddle. His name originally was My Man o’ War, named by Belmont’s wife since her husband had gone off to serve in World War I. The auctioneer dropped the “My” and his name became Man o’War.


His two-year-old race year in 1919  started out with 6 consecutive wins. Here’s an example of the grueling pace race horses of the early 20th century faced. He started his career at Belmont Park with wins on June 6th, 9th, then another win on June 21st at Jamaica Racetrack followed by two wins at Aqueduct on June 23rd and July 5th. He had a short break before heading up to the Saratoga Race Course, then the premier racetrack in the nation, for four races on August 2nd, 13th, 20th and 23rd.


Man O’ War’s only defeat  

It was during his Saratoga appearance that he met his only defeat by a horse named “Upset” during the Sanford Memorial on August 13th. In 1919, there were no starting gates. Horses lined up at a wide ribbon, they would turn around once to line up and then the ribbon would rise up. At this race, Man o’ War’s first jockey Johnny Loftus was late in turning the 16.2 hand horse around in time for the start. He was not off to a good start, back by four lengths. It was a short race, just 6 furlongs, and by the time Man o’ War caught up, he managed to pass every horse but one. He came in second only by a neck’s length. Had the race been another furlong, he would have won.

The 1920 race season was the start of his undefeated 3-year-old career. By now carrying 138 pounds, more than any other horse he competed against, and a new jockey Clarence Kummer, his first race was the Preakness Stakes. His owner did not enter him in the Kentucky Derby because he thought a mile and a quarter was too long a race to start off the season.  Back then the term “Triple Crown”  had not been formally coined or commercialized.  Big Red’s next win came at Belmont Park on May 29th in the one mile Withers Stakes. It’s amazing that Riddle entered him in a race between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. But then again the Belmont Stakes was only a mile and 3/8th, not the marathon mile and half of today.

But it didn’t matter, Man o’ War went on to win the Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths. A record not broken for 53 years until Secretariat came along in 1973 with a 31-length victory. Big Red had 11 races in 1920, including big stakes races such as the Travers Stakes and the Jockey Gold Cup. He also broke the record for the longest win in a race of 100 lengths in the Lawrence Realization Stakes at Belmont Park just a week before the Jockey Gold Cup. By the end of the season nobody wanted to race against him, and his record-breaking 28-foot stride, so a match race was set up with the 1919 Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in Canada on Oct. 12th. It wasn’t much of a race as Man o’ War led from the start, won by 17 lengths, and took 6 seconds off the track record. And that’s with iron horseshoes! It was the first time a horse race was filmed in its entirety.

Racing Retirement

As with all great racehorses, Man o’ War went off to stud in Kentucky. But his retirement was different. He had become a national sports hero. All his races were broadcast on the growing medium of radio.  Everyone in America knew about this horse. He was so famous people traveled to see him. He had an African-American groom Will Harbut who cared for the horse and coined the term, “De mostest hoss that ever was.” He sired 64 Stakes winners, including War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown winner. By 1926 he was named the top sire. In 22 seasons at stud he produced 379 live foals. Even American Pharoah has Man o’ War in his pedigree 17 times.


Man o’ War and his longtime groom Will Harbut

When Man o’ War passed away on November 1, 1947 at the age of 30, the country mourned. When he died, Faraway Farm called the Associated Press to announce, “Our big horse just died.” He died of a heart attack, but his longtime groom Harbut had suddenly passed away one month earlier, and many said that Man o’ War died of a broken heart. He was embalmed and lay in state for two days so all his fans could come and visit him one last time as he lay in a custom made coffin lined with black and yellow silk, Riddle’s racing colors. His funeral was broadcast on the radio.

He was laid to rest near a life-size bronze statue of him on Faraway Farm. Over the years, fans flocked to pay their respects. In the 1970’s the grave and statue were moved to the newly opened Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington where fans still come to visit. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the greatest horse ever, the park has restored the bronze statue and planned yearlong events around history’s most famous racehorse.


A print of this painting by Robert Amick of Man o’ War hung in my childhood bedroom and fostered my love of Thoroughbred horses

Riding An Old Schoolmaster ~ Being in the Moment

The ancient word Yoga means to yoke or bind, or more literally the union of the body and the mind. Horseback riding is very much like yoga as it involves a union between horse and rider, proper breathing, and a variety of positions that bring physical strength and stamina, not to mention awareness, to our riding. As we ride our goal is to create balance and to be present in the moment with the horse.

In my mind, nothing forces you to be more present in the moment than riding a horse. It is nearly impossible to be thinking about work, shopping or cooking dinner while you are trying to navigate a 1,000-pound animal around a ring, down a steep path or over a three- foot jump.


Mikey & Me at our first horse show in 2011

Riding involves channeling the horse’s energy and using your consciousness to communicate with him. You want the horse to direct his energy into a positive outcome, like flexing and bending or collecting and extending or even jumping! You want the rider to be communicating with the horse. When the flow of energy between horse and rider is at its best, you have balance. When you have a perfect ride, you know it because you know exactly what it is suppose to feel like. We’ve all had them and they all dwell in our subconscious memory.

Schoolmasters to the rescue 

At some point in a rider’s career, they have ridden a well-trained horse. Nothing is more enjoyable than effortless communication with a well-trained horse. Many a show horse, such as a Thoroughbred jumper I used to lease, can no longer handle the demands of  higher jumping divisions and has to take a step down to a lower level of riding. It happens to all horses as they age, they wind down their athletic abilities and with it comes the lower fences and eventually just flat work.

These equine teachers are called “schoolmasters” and they are worth their weight in gold. A pleasure to ride, they teach novice riders what perfect riding feels like for the first time. They give veteran riders a perfect ride, when they have forgotten what it’s like from riding horses of different schooling levels.


Mikey & Me getting ready for a jumping lesson in 2013

As riders our peak ability is determined by the horses we ride. I spent most of the year flat riding a young horse. I hadn’t been on a schoolmaster in about a year. Every rider benefits from taking a step back once and a while. Whether you are training young horses or just pleasure riding, it’s important to get on that schoolmaster that knows everything and can remind you where you need to be. Jumping a schoolmaster can really remind you of where your proper position should be and where it is in reality.

Being Mikey 

For me, that schoolmaster ride came last Sunday, on my former lease horse, a bay Thoroughbred named Mikey. Visiting Fox Hill Farms again and seeing Barb and Jane and all the horses was so much fun. It was pleasant outside, about 45 degrees and no wind, so we opted to have our jumping lesson outside.  At the posting trot I was instantly reminded about his ‘big bouncy trot’ and how I have to post lower to the saddle to keep my position and really use those calf and core muscles I’ve been ignoring lately. During walking breaks, I would ask him to do a laterally movement here, an outside bend there, just to keep him listening and active to my leg.

Mikey reminded me to sit tall with my shoulders back, keeping that straight line from my shoulders through my hip to my ankle. To me working at the walk is like yoga. You are putting yourself into the correct positions and holding them, building physical strength. As I held those correct positions, Mikey the schoolmaster obliged with supple movements and easy transitions.

In riding, just like in yoga, we should practice awareness over action. For example, a horse trots too fast, we post faster to keep up with him — that’s action. An external force upon us that we are reacting to. If we practiced awareness instead, then when a horse trots too fast, we would be aware – internally – that we need to slow the pace, and we would post slower and lower. Our schoolmaster is well-trained and knows this cue and would come back to the pace that is ideal. He has taught us, reminded us, how to have awareness on horseback.


Mikey & Me enjoying the sun in 2015

We can also be caught up in doing rather than being. Jumping horses can be a lot of doing rather than being. Mikey excels at teaching me to be in the moment around the course. He teaches me to breathe, to relax, to clear my mind before we begin. As a schoolmaster he reminds me to set my pace, maintain it and leave it alone. Being not doing. To make proper turns and keep straight lines when jumping, Mikey teaches me to keep the proper position with eyes up, sitting lightly, hands soft and following. Being ready for the next jump, not doing the next jump. Just being Mikey brought me back into awareness, into that perfect position and gave me a much-needed perfect ride. Afterwards I gave this old schoolmaster two big carrots as a thank you!

Horses Have Birthdays Too!

Last week we learned husbands have birthdays and hounds have human age equivalents. But what about horses? Unlike purebred dogs, most horses don’t come with registration papers with their birthday proudly displayed, so it’s a guessing game. Even Thoroughbreds registered with The Jockey Club lose their actual birthdays to the convenient New Year’s Day in order to have a consistent racing year.

Before you can calculate a horse’s human age equivalents, you have to determine the horse’s age in actual years. For centuries horse traders have peered into the equine mouth to look for clues. Horses, like dogs and humans, have two sets of teeth, their baby or ‘milk teeth’ and their permanent teeth. Most horses have all their permanent teeth by age 5 and are considered to have a ‘full mouth.’

It’s easy to look at a very young horse’s mouth and see which milk teeth have appeared or been replaced by permanent teeth in determining his age. Once a horse is considered ‘aged’ (9-years-old and beyond) there are other more subtle signs to look for. Unlike dogs and humans, horse’s permanent teeth continue to grow throughout their life. This phenomena ensure a lifetime of grass grazing and grain grinding. As they age, horse teeth also change shape and develop markings.

As a Thoroughbred registered with The Jockey Club, Mikey's birthday is always January 1st.

As a Thoroughbred registered with The Jockey Club, Mikey’s birthday is always January 1st.

Cups, Stars, Grooves, and Hooks

Cups: The shape of the tooth changes from rectangular to triangular as the horse ages. When you open the mouth of a young horse and view the bottom front teeth (center and corner incisors) on the grinding surface from above, you will see dark rectangular centers called ‘cups.’ These cups are visible on all incisors by age 5, but slowly disappear from the teeth progressively. They fade first on the bottom from the center teeth out to the corners and then on the top from the center out to the corners, so by age 11 all the cups should be gone.

Stars: As the cups begin to disappear, a ‘dental star’ appears on the grinding surface towards the front of the tooth. This yellow-colored spot starts out rectangular and becomes rounded with age and will eventually replace the cup on each incisor. The stars begin to show up around age 8 on the center teeth and appear on the corners by age 11.

Galvayne’s Groove: This dark-colored groove is located on the incisors at the upper corner of the mouth, just before the canine teeth. This groove won’t appear until the horse is around 10 years old. It appears first at the top of the tooth and works it way down the front of the tooth. It reaches the middle of the tooth by age 15. Then it continues down to the bottom of the tooth by age 20. Then it reverses itself and starts to disappear from the top of the tooth, so by age 25 it’s only visible on the lower portion of the tooth. By age 30 it should have disappeared from the tooth.

Hooks: Another clue to determining age can be looking for hooks on the top corner incisors. Uneven wear on the upper and lower corner incisors can cause a hook to form at the back and bottom on the top corner incisor. The first hook appears at age 7 and disappears at age 9. Then it re-appears at age 11 and remains until the mid-teens.

Another indicator of age can be seen by viewing the horse’s mouth in profile.  Lifting the lip take a look at his bite from the side, the older the horse, the longer and more angled forward his permanent teeth will be. For you trivia buffs out there, the term “long in the tooth” comes from the horse world and refers to this observation. This term also gave birth to a piece of sound advice: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!”

Horse Age in Human Years 

Is there an equivalent human age for horses? It appears about a decade ago, as part of a marketing campaign from Pfizer Animal Health (now Zoetis) to promote their Strongid daily wormer, they released The Age Relationship Chart which calculates a horse’s age in human years.  A rough estimate said that horses are basically 6.5 years old when they are born (because when they are born they can stand and run) and will age that fast (in human years) until they reach four. After that they settle into a 2.5 human years for every actual horse year for the rest of his life.

According to the 2003 press release from Equine Resources International, LLC, “Horses go through the same life cycles as do humans. They have distinct childhood, adolescence, puberty, maturity and geriatric phases of their lives,” said Dan Kramer, Pfizer’s equine market manager. “This chart will give horse owners added insight into their horse’s life stages and greater understanding of the issues at each stage. For example, a 22-year old horse would equate to a human of age 65.5. A horse that is 36 years old would be celebrating its 100th birthday if it was a person.”