Grazing horses on lead shanks under the rustling, feather-leafed locusts; chatting about horses, history and more horses with a lifelong friend, while keeping an eye on our wards. A halcyon late afternoon in early summer at Saratoga's Oklahoma Track is racing's Brigadoon.
Back in their stalls, the horses know it's feed time. But first, temperatures are taken to make sure all systems are "go". A horse will run a slight temperature before it shows any clinical signs of distress or illness. The temps are normal, and alert horse heads hang over the webbings, eyes watching every move.
The horses are expectant as the feed tubs are set up, grain is added, then vitamins and supplements, and finally the gooey, toothsome mess of flax-seed that's been soaked in hot water. Hands and bare forearms blend the mélange together, like folding egg whites into a chocolate mousse.
By now, the horses are nickering, bobbing their heads up and down, pawing and/or reaching out to anybody that passes. The mannerly older horses step back, politely letting the feed tubs be snapped to eye hooks in their stalls. The younger brasher colt, crowds in, urgent that his nose has to be in the tub, wherever it is. Get back son, there's plenty of time to eat.
Horses vary in their eating habits, just like people. Some stick their heads in the feed tub, bringing them up only when the bottom of the tub is licked clean. Others may take a mouthful, walk over to have a look outside and check out what the stablemates are doing, then go look for another morsel. Once in a while you get a horse that likes to dunk while eating -- he'll take a mouthful of feed, go over to his water bucket, swish his mouth around in it and then slurp down what's in his mouth. Eat, swish, swallow, repeat.
These are racehorses -- athletes in full training that need buckets of clean, cool water a day. After the meal, muzzles plunge into the water, taking in long draughts. Fed and watered, it's time for some alfalfa hay. Not just forage, green leafy alfalfa is a major source of nutrition -- minerals, particularly calcium, and protein. Current equine research is showing that alfalfa also buffers a horse's digestive tract, mitigating upsets and lesions.
Before leaving the horses to be quiet and rest for the evening, water buckets are topped up and manure picked out of the stalls with a pitchfork. A later evening check will further refresh the water and replenish the hay. The shedrow is raked, a herringbone pattern left in the dirt, before we can go.
Just because it's a barn, doesn't mean that appearances aren't important. This time next month when the race meet is on, the now workman-like, neat shedrows will be festooned with hanging baskets, brimming with blossoms matching each trainer's racing colors. Horses and horticulture.
Now it's time to see to our needs. After working outside on a hot sunny day, my respite includes dark and air-conditioned in its description. Movie theaters are great. With the right company, bars are even better. We head to a small establishment down the street from the horsemen's gate over at the race course across Union Avenue.
The margaritas are icy and not too strong. We inhale the chips and salsa while watching racing from Indiana on the big screen TV. Too soon, for me it's time to head home, for my friend it's time for him to go to his home farm a few miles up the road. Before we leave, we make sure that any leftover sticky flax seeds are flicked off our arms and clothes. That done, we are presentable enough to rejoin our civilian brethren.