In a small barn on a sprawling farm near Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, something is munching on my blond ponytail, which admittedly looks like a tasty morsel of hay. I turn around and push away the head of a young thoroughbred straight off the racetrack. He inches closer and nudges me in the neck. He's strong, but his eyes are kind and playful. I reach out to rub his nose, and he lets his whole head melt into my arms. And at that moment, the story I was planning to write about the horse industry gets personal.
America loves its racehorses. We love them in movies like The Black Stallion, and in books like Seabiscuit. We love to watch them run in races like Saturday's Belmont Stakes; and we especially love wondrous racing moments, like when Secretariat won the last leg of the 1973 Triple Crown by an astonishing 31 lengths. We love their beauty, their strength, their magnificence.
Yet we slaughter them by the thousands — not because they're sick or old, but because they're slightly injured or too slow on the track. We buy them at auction for a couple hundred bucks, cram them onto tractor-trailers, and ship them to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico for profit. More than a billion people worldwide eat horse meat — meat that is sometimes still doped up from the track — and America helps provide it.
It's not a love story. It's a business.
But on this morning, on this farm, it's a love story. In a meadow brimming with Kentucky bluegrass and clover, a dozen thoroughbreds graze contentedly under a threatening sky that has not yet rained. The scene looks like a painting, until Beverly Strauss crashes through the canvas on a noisy golf cart loaded with a bucket of feed and a call to "come and get it!"
An agile golf-cart wrangler, she zigzags through bumpy fields of buttercups, rounding up her rescued ex-racehorses for inspection by adoption seekers. Beverly doggedly haunts livestock auctions in New Holland, Pa., where she snaps up racetrack rejects — which are identifiable by a tattoo inside the upper lip — and brings them back to her leased portion of Woodstock Farm in Chesapeake City, Md. She keeps up to 14 at a time — feeding them, training them and rehabilitating them for adoption.
The horses seem only mildly interested in the bucket of feed, reluctant to leave the lush buffet on the ground. But one by one, they begin to follow, and it's not all easy going. One of the horses is limping. Another is slow from surgery. There are sore bodies, screws in the legs, lack of muscle.
NPR photographer Emily Bogle and I cling tightly to the bars in the back seat of the cart, to avoid the unpleasant scenario of tumbling out into the herd. The horses begin to act like very large puppies. They slobber all over Emily's lens; they trot excitedly alongside the cart, snatching bits of feed; they poke their entire heads curiously into the back bench, squashing Emily farther into her seat. They photo-bomb nearly every picture.
Beverly pens them up and selects a few to lead into the barn. I'd originally planned to write a news feature about racehorse rescue, but at the moment when I am cradling the head of the sweet, dark bay, all I want to do is drop my voice recorder and take him out to the ring.
I've been taking riding lessons, but I'm still green. And I can think of a million places I'd rather be than on top of a spooked racehorse. But I climb on, and we ease into a trot while Beverly observes. We're a good team moving counterclockwise, as if on a track. But clockwise proves more difficult. We haphazardly end up in the middle of the ring, both of us exhausted.
"He trots crooked," I say. Or maybe I do — it's hard to say. He doesn't know how to back up. He won't move sideways, either, or cross one leg over the other. "He is able to do all of those things," Beverly says. "He just hasn't learned yet."
I lead him back to the barn while he continues to munch, follow and nudge me amid a backdrop of equine commotion. Beverly's husband, Tom, is putting new shoes on a 5-year-old horse named Holiday Layup that arrived the night before. The horse neighs in protest, tossing his head and pawing at the ground. Another new arrival, 3-year-old Streaking Sunseeker, is in a stall nearby and would like everyone to know he'd rather be in the bluegrass. He shifts restlessly like a child in timeout, and neighs loudly in response to Holiday Layup.
A high school student is dropping off a box of donated tack, as part of an honor society project. And Kayla Poole, of Rocky Ridge, Md., is here to see a horse named Lou. Her thoroughbred died in January, and she has just now found the heart to look for another. "Rescues are overflowing in the industry now," she tells me.
Beverly has found homes for more than 700 slaughter-bound thoroughbreds through her MidAtlantic Horse Rescue Organization, which is funded entirely through fundraising, donations and adoption fees — money she just rolls back into saving more horses. She barely breaks even, and that's fine with her. "These horses have so much heart," she says. "We bred them for our sport and for our pleasure, and they're just discarded. They have so much to offer, and they just disappear."
With retraining, many ex-racehorses move on to successful second careers including sport riding, jumping and dressage. Some have slight injuries but still excel on the trail. They are the lucky ones. The others end up in the food chain.
I glance up at the meddlesome dark bay, who towers over me expectantly like a big, goofy dog waiting for the ball to be thrown. My rational brain keeps screaming, "Do not adopt this horse!" But two women come into the barn and ask about him. "He's mine," I say, and turn his head away from them.
Against all reason, I adopt the horse. I call my husband, who tries to talk but can't. Then I call my teacher, Will Burke of Front Royal, Va., who has been training horses for more than 20 years. I tell him my sappy story of the horse nudging and laying his head in my arms. But instead of crying, he says, "You can't let a horse invade your space like that. And you have to stop humanizing them. A horse doesn't think like you." And what I interpreted as affection may actually have been intimidation, Will surmises.
"Well, it's too late now," I say indignantly. "He's coming to live at your farm tomorrow." Will says if I must bring him a racehorse, at least make sure it is "the most laid-back, stupid dude you can find." I tell him of course the horse is laid-back and stupid, even though I have no idea if it is. I just want the horse. Then I hang up and fondly relive my sappy story over and over in my head.
The problem with Will is that he's always right about horses. It's annoying that he constantly crushes my dream of an equine soul mate — "They are looking for a leader, not a friend," he says — and he shakes his head when I coo at them and bribe them with peppermints. ("They can connect, but not in the way you're seeking.")
But I can't help myself. I believe they will behave a certain way because they love me — but despite all of my affections, they always end up doing what Will wants, not what I want.
I tell him I've named the horse "Hoke," from the Navajo word meaning "abandoned," but Will doesn't really care. What he cares about is that he's just found out Hoke has never been tied to a wall and is now yanking wildly at the end of the rope like a fiery demon steed. Will looks at me and sighs. "Fix him," I say. I tell him I want to help. Will hears "help."
Moving Hoke to his new home at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains has allowed Beverly to save another thoroughbred. This one is all skin and bones and has a sad, empty expression. But he's sound. Beverly will fatten him up, bring the light back into his eyes and find him an owner, just as she's done for hundreds of other ex-racehorses, one by one; a small fish against a big current. "This is all I think about," she says.
Hoke now decides that he has flat-out had it with running in circles around Will and is rearing and bucking with undaunted enthusiasm. It turns out Hoke is not laid-back at all, but quite spirited. The tumultuous battle of "Man vs. Beast Over Running in Circles" rages on for about 15 minutes, at which point a mutual cease-fire occurs and both man and beast, dripping in sweat from the fray, turn to face me. "He's not stupid," Will says.
"Sorry," I say. But secretly, I'm happy that my horse isn't boring.
And so our journey begins: Hoke acting like a sassy kid who's being forced to behave for the first time, me resigning myself to Will's way of communicating with horses, and Will resigning himself to the fact that I will coo at this clever little high-strung horse forever.
Laurel Dalrymple is a home page editor for NPR.org. You can follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/laurelmdalrymple