The way horses were meant to be recycled
The trainer won't say she saved the horse. Ask Heather Carlson about Summer Halo, and her conversation swings almost directly toward Exceller Farms and Michelle Oren, the woman who may well have prevented the injured thoroughbred from heading to the slaughterhouse.
And Oren, in turn, won't say it. When she talks about Halo Summer, she speaks quickly of Carlson's patient, magic touch in taking a former racehorse and essentially re-training it to a second existence as an event performer.
Call it a draw, then. But understand two things: First, the horse was saved. And second, it turns out that there may be not one new life, but several new lives for the thoroughbred, beyond the finish line of a stakes race.
Summer Halo was Exceller Farm's first success story, recovering from a leg injury to begin a second career as an eventer.
Halo Summer, a horse out of respected trainer Nick Zito's stable, was never a Triple Crown threat like Charismatic, but the animals share something in common. A condylar fracture in the lower foreleg ended Charismatic's racing career a few steps beyond the wire of the 1999 Belmont Stakes. A similar fracture could have ended Halo Summer's life, as lamed racehorses not deemed worthy of stud sometimes are sold for slaughter, their meat sent overseas for human consumption.
It was her desire to avoid such an end for thoroughbreds that led Oren a few years ago to open Exceller in upstate New York, essentially a second-chance home for horses that may be rehabilitated and find a greater ultimate purpose than the cannery. Oren's farm has sent onetime racehorses on to new lives as pleasure animals, therapeutic riding horses and even into alternate competitive existences in other equine disciplines.
Such was to be the fate of Halo Summer, but not before Oren took in the injured thoroughbred in April of 2000 and slowly nursed it back to health, confining it to six months of stall rest and a slow, steady recuperation.
By the beginning of 2001, the horse was ready to be ridden again, and Oren looked for a trainer to adopt it. She found the right one in Carlson, a Connecticut-based event trainer who made a connection with Halo Summer almost immediately.
"I saw him when he first got there (to Exceller). You could tell he was a pretty opinionated horse," Carlson said with a laugh. "He was fun for me. I don't know if he would be fun for everybody, but he was for me as a professional.
"He's got a lot of personality. He has a lot of spirit. He didn't let the broken leg get him down. Even as he recuperated, you could see his spirit."
As people flock this summer to the movie "Seabiscuit," based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, perhaps the notion of divining personality in a horse seems not as farfetched as it once might have. For those in the horse racing industry, such a notion is a given: Horses have utterly distinct personalities and temperaments, which may lead them in any number of directions over the course of their lives.
Carlson saw enough spirit in Halo Summer to envision a new existence for him in three-day eventing, a competition in which horses perform the dressage, cross-country and show-jumping disciplines. In January of 2001, Halo Summer began its new life on Carlson's farm, and over the next two years he validated the trainer's instinct -- and got himself a new job.
It was slow work, of course; Carlson spent weeks and months re-training a horse bred to race, teaching him the finer points of a one-hand canter, dressage techniques and the like. And Halo Summer proved out by becoming a competent eventing horse, one that showed successfully at the lower levels -- "the highest level I thought he could do comfortably," Carlson said.
It was a second act in Halo Summer's life that now gives way to a third. Once Carlson achieved everything she believed she could with the horse, she and Oren looked for a new home for him. They found one with an owner who will use Halo Summer as a fox-hunter.
Technically, Carlson gave Halo Summer back to Exceller so that he could be formally "adopted" to the new home -- an important link in the chain of events. Part of Oren's idea in opening Exceller was to be able to keep track of every ownership change of the horses that pass through her farm, a kind of ongoing safety net for animals who might once have been fated to an ugly end.
"They'll keep track of him," Carlson said of Exceller's staff. "I think they gave him a new lease on life."
One could say the same about Carlson, but no matter splitting the hair. The horse was saved -- and in the process of being saved, Halo Summer has gone on to a perfectly useful and productive life. They'll never make a movie about it, but it's a success story all the same.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com
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