A Decade of Dawning

By Richard Zwirn

I had to chuckle. Here I was, leading two headstrong, unruly yearling colts from a field in a driving rainstorm and managing just fine. Ten years earlier, an 11-year-old broodmare was delivered to our farm and I was “shaking in my boots” with fear. The closest I had ever come to a horse prior to this was in Central Park, when I jogged past those mammoth beasts pulling tourists in carriages.

You see, my wife and I “escaped” the rat race downstate for open space, clean air, and healthy living by purchasing a 200-year-old farmhouse and some land in upstate New York. With my passion for Thoroughbred racing and her desire to “keep things country,” we converted acres of scrub-brush and an ancient two-potty outhouse into fields and a barn to raise future racehorses.

As you can imagine, the learning curve for this “city boy” has been rather steep. Life on the farm over the last decade has provided an opportunity to look back and remark on all things—from piddling to profound—which have been learned. A mere sampling follows:

• Fix the fence today
• You can wrestle with a horse…but can’t win
• Never trust a dog to watch your food
• Wishes made while blowing out birthday candles can include winning tomorrow’s second race at Aqueduct
• How perfect a splendid sunrise can make your day
• Whistling and singing can make chores pass more quickly
• What a poor whistler I am…and a god-awful singer
• Learn from your mistakes (there have been many)
• Wear comfortable shoes
• Don’t ever wear white pants
• Be tough-minded, but tenderhearted
• Always listen to weather reports…but put the hay in the barn just in case
• How a night sky can look like the ones at the planetarium
• Not to take good health for granted
• How painful frozen fingers and toes can be
• The penny-wise/pound-foolish theory of buying hay
• Manure happens
• It’s OK to grieve for a friend…even when it’s a horse
• The time it takes to fill a “winner’s circle” photo album
• Keep a notepad by the bed
• Take time to smell the roses…even if it’s not the first Saturday in May
• If only horses were as athletic and acrobatic as some of the critters in our barn
• The weight of “topped off” water buckets
• The weight of a horse on your foot
• How on a dark night, what might appear to be a piece of trash to be picked up can really be a skunk…and the many uses for tomato juice
• How good it feels to return to the farm after being away—the sights, sounds, and smells
• How little I actually learned in high school biology about the reproductive system
• We all belong to something that is larger than any one of us, and to never be too busy, tired, or cold to appreciate it
• Keep overhead low, expectations high
• Buy good, sturdy water hoses
• Buy good, sturdy broodmares
• Marry a good, sturdy woman (or man)
• Leave everything better than you found it
• There is something to that horse whisperer stuff
• A mare and newborn foal in the pasture can bring traffic to a standstill
• Farm chores can help make children more responsible than, say, playing computer games or watching TV

The agrarian lifestyle hasn’t been easy. Heck, it hasn’t even always been fun. But learning is positive growth…and will allow for greater opportunities for success in this exciting, competitive field. A good deal of this education was not only taught to us by kind and generous vets, blacksmiths, fellow breeders, trainers, and farmers, but also by that one-time 11-year-old horse and her progeny. We have come to understand, time and again, that when a horse provides a learning opportunity, pay attention.

I hope we, too, can pass on some valuable lessons, as they can be treasures that follow their owner forever.

Richard Zwirn is a small-scale breeder in New York, learning patience while still awaiting his first homebred stakes winner.