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Bainbridge Island: A new home for old champions
Inside the large barn it is shady and cool, the occasional whinny drifts out from the line of stalls along the left side wall.
At the echoing sound of footsteps approaching, there will appear the heads of several curious horses peeking out to investigate the visitor.
Among these friendly and inquisitive horses at Cottingham Farm, located off of Sportsman Club Road, there is a 4-year-old white-and-silver thoroughbred named Sylvia whose coat sparkles in the warm light streaming into her stall — when she hasn’t been leaning on the newly painted brown fence, that is.
Until late last week Sylvia was a professional race horse and, although her friendly and casual demeanor may make it hard to believe, she suffered a traumatic accident last year that effectively ended her career.
Though the physical damage had been minimal, mentally she was just not capable of the focus and drive she had been, making her unfit to race.
Like any great athlete forced mid-career onto another path, the question that came to dominate Sylvia’s life throughout the ensuing months was, “What next?”
The future of former race horses, especially thoroughbreds, is uncertain at best. Many of them are high strung and anxious following a life filled with the rigors of near constant competition. Add to that an injury, and it can be nearly impossible for perhaps lesser skilled or novice handlers to reintegrate such a horse into another activity.
Lucky for her, Bainbridge equestrian Alexandra Jackson and the rest of the volunteers at CANTER Washington had hopes for Sylvia.
CANTER — The Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses — is a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to the retraining and ultimate relocation of former racehorses.
Jackson, who has been riding and caring for horses on and off since she was 9, is the executive director of the group’s relatively newly formed Washington branch, which is headquartered at Cottingham Farm here on Bainbridge.
Sylvia is the group’s first horse.
“CANTER USA was established in the late ’90s and from there they sort of expanded. Affiliates started enrolling and it was all about, ‘How can we partner with more and more tracks across the United States to actually make a difference for the horses?’
“And that’s what we did,” she said.
CANTER Washington works primarily with Emerald Downs, a thoroughbred racetrack in Auburn, which is where Jackson found the group’s first candidate.
“She came from Emerald Downs and last year she flipped at the starting gate,” Jackson said of Sylvia. “Her body wasn’t messed up, but her mind was. They gave her the winter off, she came back and I think she raced just one or two races, and she did fine but you could just tell she wasn’t very comfortable. When they’re not comfortable, when they don’t go in there and lock in, they can’t be competitive against those that already are.”
“I came by and saw her a couple of times [there]. There are over 800 horses at Emerald Downs. I saw her and I could just tell that she was ready for something different and fortunately, the trainers and owners could, too, and that’s really where the blessing is,” Jackson said. “They said before she has an injury, before something happens where she can’t even be adopted out to be a suitable riding horse, let’s give her a head start. So we went and picked her up.”
The ultimate goal for Jackson and the other CANTER volunteers is to retrain Sylvia, and later other horses like her, so that they can be adopted as family-friendly riding horses. Jackson said that for the first few months at least the goal is to get Sylvia comfortable with “just being a horse again,” and away from the high-intensity world of the track.
Jackson said that the support she and the group have received, both at Emerald Downs and on Bainbridge Island, has been better than expected.
“We’re brand-new and we’re making big steps,” she said. “The people at the track love that [being headquartered nearby]. They know that we’re a nice community, we get behind people in the community, we take care of our town [and] our animals. Whenever they find out about that they’re like, ‘Oh, great!’”
The hosting of CANTER Washington is one of several recent ongoing revitalization efforts at Cottingham Farm, including the raising of cows for local beef availability and the growing of vegetables by several community members for sale at the island farmers market.
Jackson said that the location was ideal for the horse program, given the farm’s wide open spaces and trails.
“That’s just a life that most people can’t give to a horse because there’s just not enough space to do it or properties available for it,” she explained.
Jackson said that she is talking with several people about the group’s second horse already, and is reassured of the program’s potential by the obvious progress already made by Sylvia.
Due to a misconception about their attitude and the greater demand they place on the skills of riders and trainers, Jackson explained, thoroughbred horses lost much of their professional appeal in recent years.
“Thoroughbreds used to be the leading sport horses in the United States,” Jackson said. “And then they started to get a little bit of a — I wouldn’t say a bad reputation — but they started to not have the same popularity. It became a much more attractive thing to import a horse, or to go Europe and buy a horse.”
Having fallen out of favor with so many insiders, Jackson explained that many thoroughbreds faced even more uncertain futures at the end of their racing careers.
“When they lost that popularity, we started to see a lot of thoroughbreds come off the track or be bred that really didn’t have anywhere to go. So, having the trainers and the people in place that can take a horse that has only been galloped on a track and retrain them to be a suitable riding horse, that’s the biggest challenge. It takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of attention.”
Partnering with talented volunteers throughout the community, both within the world of horse racing and Bainbridge Island — including trainers and assistants as well as graphic designers and social media specialists — Jackson said that CANTER Washington has been established quickly and professionally in the minds of horse owners and trainers as a possible option when regarding the sometimes very uncertain fates of ex-race horses.
“The reality is in this day and age and in this economy — the riding industry has taken a hit,” she said. “A lot of people can afford the monthly expenses [of owning a horse]; they just can’t go buy a $10,000 or $15,000 horse. So we keep our adoption fees around $1,500. We want to keep our program going, to help fund the next horse, but we also want people to keep their money and go buy new brushes and saddles and make sure they’re completely set up.”
To learn more about CANTER Washington and how to volunteer or make a donation, or to track Sylvia’s progress and see all the latest photos, visit www.canterusa.org, search CANTER Washington on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.