Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

Bonnie Hutton


I once fell off a horse.

It’s true. I attended a summer camp that took trips to local places of interest. One day, we went to some sort of dude ranch. The dude (heh-heh) in charge put all of us on horses, lined us up and told us just to stay in line and enjoy the afternoon. Well, my horse wasn’t enjoying the afternoon. Without warning, he took off—faster and faster and faster. I was scared out of my mind, slowly falling to the animal’s side before, ultimately, landing in a puddle of mud.

That was pretty much it for me and Mr. Ed.

And yet … I love horses. The beauty. The grace. The taste (kidding, kidding). They’re regal animals; ones that have always fascinated me. Hence, today’s Quaz. Good ol’ No. 139.

As you read this, Bonnie Hutton is preparing for the Mongol Derby, a 1,000 kilometer horse race across the wilderness of the Mongolian steppe. To me, this sounds awful. Beyond awful. Yet Bonnie—horse lover, carer of wounded animals, woman of dignity and grace—can’t wait. It’s the event of her life; one she’s born to complete. She actually has a fundraising page, which—if you believe in helping people fulfill their dreams—is a pretty great place. She’s also the director of After The Races (ATR), a nonprofit you founded to rehabilitate and then find homes for unwanted retired racehorses. In other words, she’s fantastic.

Here, Bonnie explains what it feels like to fall off a horse, what it feels like to say farewell to a horse and why horses are the world’s best animals.

Bonnie Hutton, ride the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Bonnie, let me start with a question that’ll make you think, “God, what a dick.” So you’re training for the Mongol Derby—“the longest, toughest horse race in the world.” It’s a 1,000 kilometer race across the wilderness of the Mongolian steppe. And, I would agree, that sounds awful. But isn’t it truly awful for the horse, not the person sitting atop the horse? And—for a woman who clearly loves horses like nobody’s business—wouldn’t you rather just let ol’ Best Attack hang out in the barn, eat hay and have lots of sex? I mean, this sounds like pure torture for the dude.

BONNIE HUTTON: Ha! I would certainly agree it would be torture on the horse if it had to make it the whole way! In the 1,000 kilometers we have to change horses at each of the 25 stations, so each horse only has to carry me 40 kilometers. And as much as I’d love to take “Bestie” over to Mongolia with me, the horses we will be riding will be the semi-wild Mongolian horses. From what I understand they’re provided by many of the local herdsmen for the event. And at each of the stations the horses have to pass veterinary checks before riders are allowed to continue with a new horse, so we try hard to maintain a pace that, while efficient, is not too hard on the animal we’re riding.

These horses normally range free on the steppe and are accustomed to covering many miles a day on their own just to eat and drink as they largely fend for themselves. While the herders obviously have those they ride, I’d suspect many are never ridden or are only pulled out a few times a year at best. Most of the mares (females) are kept for their milk, which they ferment and drink, and drink heavily! However, I’m told the ones we’ll be riding have at least a month of training before we get on them. Which to an American or European rider does not sound like a lot!

I’ve been told to expect some falls and challenging rides at least for the first few days. I’m excited for the chance to expand and prove my riding ability, mostly to myself, and have even recently put out a post on Craigslist entitled: “I want to ride your naughty pony!” in order to get some practice.

J.P.: I’m a dog owner and a dog lover, but I’m also always confused by people who have an extremely, extremely deep bond with an animal. You, clearly, have a deep bond with horses. Horses don’t talk, horses don’t sing love songs, horses never say, “Damn, I’d love to hear some Eminem right now.” So how does one form such a connection with something that doesn’t emote particularly clearly?

B.H.: Horses actually can emote very clearly, you just have to learn to read their signals. They can be happy and content, nervous, scared, annoyed, even angry, and it is usually obvious by the position of their ears and head, their posture, and in visible and palpable tension that can build up in their muscles. I think why it can be difficult for a lot of non-horse people to get is because it is so different than humans, dogs, or cats (do they even emote?), as horses are prey animals, rather than predators. You have to approach it from a new angle. Horses are capable of showing affection, can form strong bonds with their handlers, and Thoroughbreds (the breed I work with) specifically will give their all to their partner.

When I was a kid I worked with a horse who was badly abused. In order to do this, my mom and the horse’s owner found a man-of-few-words cowboy down in North Carolina by the name of David Lowrey who had a special way with horses. He used his body language to communicate with them as if he was another horse in the herd, rather than as a predator about to throw a slab of dead cow skin on its back and chase it around. Even though I had already been around horses for several years, at 15, learning from David to work with the horses on this level changed my approach in a way that has always stuck with me. Miner, the horse we worked with together, is still with me at 25 years old. I recently let a friend of mine borrow him to give lessons to children at their farm, but when I come to visit Miner’s head pops up, ears forward, and he’ll even chase his pasture mate away so that he can get to me first. I think, in a way, horses are capable of showing love and appreciation for those who have done right by them.

Additionally, riding and working with horses well is about synergy. Synergy by definition is the interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects. Once communication and trust has been established, the horse brings power and athleticism to the table that humans can only dream of. Over the years I have hit 40 miles per hour on a horse, jumped 4-foot fences, chased down loose cattle, climbed rocky mountains and slid down near vertical slopes … and all without so much as a seatbelt. Being prey animals with a high self preservation instinct, these are not things most horses would ever do on their own. But because I established a level of trust with them as we trained together, they generally gave without reservation. Having a 1,200-pound animal you can trust and work with like that is truly a special thing.

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 12.44.33 AM

J.P.: I know you’re 28, I know you’re from Raleigh, N.C. But … why horses? Like, where did this love come from? How did it grow? And how have you maintained it for so long?

B.H.: Growing up in Raleigh, I was raised with brothers and an entire family of male cousins on both sides, so I had to grow up a little tougher maybe than most girls. I played with G.I. Joes and Ninja Turtles, but even so I always had a love for animals that set me apart. Either because my mother recognized this or because she wanted me to have my own thing, she started taking me to horseback riding lessons when I was about 9-years old. I took to it immediately. I was one of those annoying kids who got on with very little training and could manage the wiliest of lesson ponies and horses. When my trainer would get a new horse, one less well trained, I’d always be assigned to ride it. When another girl’s horse was giving them trouble, our trainer yelled for them to switch with me so that I could get the job done.

I liked working with the young ones and the nervous ones and never seemed happy with the quiet, older, dependable horses that many of the other girls were eager to ride. As the years went on, you could watch the girls I used to ride in lessons with disappear one by one from the barn, particularly as teenagers. For some reason, a lot of people seem to outgrow horses. I didn’t come from a horsey family. I was not raised on a farm, but as a teenager that struggled with depression and social anxiety, horses got me like no one else did. No matter how stressed or upset I was driving to the barn, when I sat on a horse, everything in the world disappeared. It’s not the reason I started with horses, but it’s probably part of the reason I stuck with it.

When I worked with Miner, the abused horse mentioned earlier, I think that experience gave me the drive to not only ride horses but to really work with them. Even though I didn’t vocalize it, I loved that horse and I was very proud of how far I came with him. I would go on to study animal science with an equine focus in college, but never with the intention of becoming a veterinarian or horse breeder. Even though I was good at the medicine and the genetics and management, I wanted to work with training horses, though I didn’t know in what capacityat the time. I still credit a professor at NCSU with pushing me toward race horses. Dr. Paul Siciliano told me about an internship in Lexington where I ultimately ended up getting to work with one of the world’s best farms breaking (training) yearling Thoroughbreds. From there I was hooked. There is nothing in the world like a good race horse. And once you get the bug, they have you for life.

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 9.50.48 AMJ.P.: What is it like, emotionally, to put down a horse? For you and also—if it’s possible to tell—for the horse? Is the animal aware of looming death, do you think?

B.H.: Unfortunately, over the course of my career running ATR, a retired racehorse rehabilitation and rehoming facility, this is something I’ve had to face fairly often. We see a lot of horses who retire with what we call “career-ending injuries.” While most of the time these horses can be rehabilitated and be able to go on to live happy, fulfilling lives … some things just can’t be fixed. It’s part of my job to work with our veterinarian to make those hard calls. When we make the decision to put a horse down, it’s because the horse is facing a life of discomfort or pain or disuse. Not being rideable is about as much of a death sentence for a horse in this economy as a broken leg was 50 years ago.

The decision is usually a clear one. Once made, I will calmly call the veterinary office to set up the appointment, call the livestock removal company to pick up the horse afterward, and then usually spend at least a couple minutes afterward taking deep breaths as I am hit with grief and sadness. Not because I regret the decision, but because whether the horse has been with me a week or a year, you get to know its individual personality and it’s hard to think of that individual being snuffed out of existence because it was the product of poor genetics, or because it was run one (or 10) too many times. Making the calls mark the most emotional time for me, but after I’ve regrouped, I can go on with my daily routine until the time comes.

The day of, I brush the horse, and tell it things that are between him and me. Sometimes I’ll get hit with a wave of sadness, but I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing it away. I brush its tail and cut off a piece which will get braided and labeled and added to a jar I keep by my desk as a memory of those lost. I usually prefer to be alone when the vet comes, and try to schedule it at a time when there are no volunteers or staff that have to watch. I always hold the horse myself when the injection is administered. I feel it’s my responsibility to see it through, and want the horse to have a friend with it when the time comes. Perhaps part of me feels like Eddard Stark when he says the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. While it weighs on my heart, I know it’s the right call, and the day that it becomes easy is the day I know I need to stop doing what I’m doing.

I don’t know what the horses think about the experience. I try to remain a pillar of calm so they don’t absorb any anxiety, and the vet is very professional as well. The horse is usually brought outside where they can enjoy some grass up until the last moment, so I do not think they’re at all afraid or worried. At worst, maybe a little confused. Race horses are used to getting stuck with needles, so the act does not phase them. They’re simply with you one minute, being a horse, and then … gone. Quick, painless, and no suffering. I think it’s best that way.

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 12.45.21 AMJ.P.: What are the physical rigors for you in training to ride a horse for a long distance? What are the muscles you need to focus upon? And how do you, specifically, train?

B.H.: Despite being a avid rider for years, going for long distance is a newer endeavor for me (jumped in feet first with this one!). I’ve noticed on my training rides that the first thing I feel is a loosening of my ankles and tightness in my knees. My ankles which are normally anchored in a heels-down position from years of training, start lifting, forcing me to actually think about keeping my feet in my stirrups! My endurance riding mentor Amy tells me the more miles I put in, the stronger the tendons and ligaments that control my ankles will become. I’d never thought I’d need to work on my ankles! My knees so far have felt tight, but not sore, thankfully. Having had horse-related knee injuries this was my biggest concern, but so far has proven to not be a problem.

After my first 22-mile ride (approximately one leg of the 25 that will make up the Mongol Derby ride), my inner thigh and calf muscles were very sore (though my seat was fine!). Despite riding several hours a day, nothing compares to real distance work and the constant change in terrain. It’s a lot of concussion on your joints and a real workout for your full body. I was told my back and abs would hurt afterward. Thankfully, these have done OK, but my legs definitely have a way to go.

I’ve made it a goal to go for two 10-12 mile rides a week initially, with at least one 20-plus mile ride a month. I am also training for a 25-mile race in the early spring of 2014. My hope is to be able to borrow horses and ride in 50 and 100 mile races throughout the spring and summer leading up to the Derby. In addition I’m adding running (on foot) to my routine, to build up cardio. I’ve been told if you’re thrown off in the middle of the Derby, it’s common for your horse to take off and leave you in the middle of nowhere, alone. I heard of one British guy chasing his horse down on foot for 10 kilometers and want to be prepared to do the same!

J.P.: You’re the director of After The Races (ATR), a nonprofit you founded to rehabilitate and then find homes for unwanted retired racehorses. Considering that the words, “Daddy! I want a pony for Christmas!” have been uttered, oh, 654,321 times in the past five years, why is it so hard to find homes for retired racehorses? And what are the complications involved?

B.H.: There are actually a large number of people out there who are looking to adopt race horses (and the number is growing). The hard part is getting the horse from the track to that person as most people are not equipped to take in a horse directly from the race track. A horse coming off the trailer on Day 1 is a different animal after spending a month in our care here at ATR. Their lives basically get turned upside down (for the better) and we have to help them transition. They are in their stalls nearly 23 hours a day, for example, at the track, fed high calorie diets, and maintained at a very high level of fitness. They also often come with injuries or ulcers or soreness and these have to be diagnosed properly in order to ensure they have the best chance at a long career after racing.

On the other hand, though, there remains a stigma against thoroughbreds in some circles akin to that against pitbulls. Many people stereotype them as flighty or even stupid animals which could not be farther from the truth. Thoroughbreds are highly intelligent, highly trainable animals. I think where a lot of people get into trouble is that a Thoroughbred will learn a bad habit as quickly as good. They will also learn very quickly what you will and will not let them get away with. They are incredible athletes with incredible stamina and most race horses come from environments where they have been exposed to so much that they are not as spooky as farm raised horses. They also come in so many shapes and sizes. Our retired race horses have gone on to play polo, to compete in hunters and jumpers, to event, to help as therapy horses, to be wonderful family hoses, to barrel race, to trail ride, and even to be a police horse. They can really do it all, and one of our biggest challenges is getting more people to realize how versatile they are.

As far as complications, there is a lot of uneasiness regarding taking horses off the track, not knowing their history of injury or how to rehabilitate them. One of the things we do here at ATR is tackle that ourselves so that adopters don’t have to. We are full disclosure and will provide adopters with every bit of information and history we have on a horse so that they can make the best, most informed decision when it comes to taking home a race horse of their own. On the same token, this can in and of itself be a complication as many people hear that a horse had a fracture, and ignore the statement that the horse has since made a full recovery.

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 12.44.51 AMJ.P.: I live close to Yonkers Raceway. From this viewpoint, horse racing (not your genre; I mean at the track) strikes me as a pretty evil endeavor with shady characters and little regard for the animals. How off or on am I on this?

B.H.: First of all, Yonkers Raceway is a track where I believe only Standardbred horses run (the ones that pull their jockey around behind them). I have not worked in the Standardbred industry and cannot speak to the nature of those involved. A question I get a lot is similar though—whether or not I actually like horse racing. It is something I struggle with because when I started out, I started at the top, riding and working with horses literally owned by a Saudi prince with all the money in the world. The horses I was working with were treated wonderfully, had large numbers of people around them that adored them and truly cared for their well being more than whether or not they could get one more dollar out of them racing. Their horses also had a high chance of going back to the farm as breeding stock, whereas many of the ones entering ATR’s program did not, and may have had to work a little harder or longer before retiring.

While I know there are those out there who give the industry the bad name, I think that’s true with any industry. The unfortunate part is that when you have those that only care about the bottom line in an animal related industry, it’s animals that will suffer. But I would never make a blanket statement against those who work at the track either way. There are those that love the horses and treat them very well, there are those who care very deeply but are also very desperate to pay the bills, and there are a few who are only in it for the money (which is a joke in and of itself). The good news is that there are efforts being made to improve the industry, from local levels on up to the Jockey Club (the Thoroughbred registry), and I remain hopeful we will see some real changes over the next ten years.

Nearly all of our horses come to us from Parx Racing, a track near Philadelphia. The vast majority of these come to me in good weight, well groomed, and from trainers and connections that cared for them enough to want to see them retire into good hands. Many have continued to follow their former horses while they’re in our program and even after they’ve been adopted. Of course, there are always outliers, but at ATR, we’ll take them all.

J.P.: You’re using to raise money for your trip. I hate, hate, hate, hate asking for money, and always have, because it makes me feel very vulnerable and somewhat awkward. How has the process been for you?

B.H.: I grew up in a household that never talked about money. Starting up a non-profit has been very hard on me because it’s my job to ask for money (for ATR), and it’s something I struggle with on a daily basis. At ATR we put so much time and energy and money into getting these horses the the veterinary care, dental work, feed, hoof care, etc that they need, that it may often look like we’re doing pretty well for ourselves, but the truth is that we’re almost always in desperate need of donations to keep the doors open. The hard part is figuring out how to ask for it without just turning people off. So often our pleas for donations seem to fall on deaf ears, or perhaps only on the ears of those who, like most of us, don’t feel they have enough to make a difference. It can be disheartening for someone who already struggles discussing finances.

For myself, starting to raise money for the trip has been a tremendously humbling experience. I think partly because of my work with the non profit, I’m a bit more open to crowdsourcing, but it’s still at least a little embarrassing. I mean, if I had money to pay a $12,000 entry fee or for the $2,500 plane tickets myself, I’d never ask! And by asking, it’s pointing my general lack of funds out to everyone. However, when I learned we could ride for charity and that past Derbyists have been very successful in raising money, the race took on a whole new level of importance to me. This is a chance for ATR to raise some serious dough hopefully, through pledge drives and sponsors, but it can’t happen if I don’t make it to Mongolia.

I honestly started it more as a way to keep track of progress in my search for big sponsors (outdoors or sports companies, local businesses that want a unique way to promote their name), but have been very surprised and humbled by how many friends and family have come together to contribute. Once I was chosen to ride, my husband and I made the first payment which ensured my spot in the Derby. Since then I have been able to make the second installment largely through the help of friends, family, and my first sponsor Turning for Home, and I am incredibly grateful.

If it all helps ATR get more attention and some funds to help keep it going, it’ll be worth the act of effectively throwing myself at the mercy of those around me and on the internet!

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 9.50.35 AMJ.P.: My wife is a social worker. She’s v-e-r-y concerned about malnutrition in inner-city schools. I agree with her—but I ultimately think that climate change destroying the earth seems to be a much bigger and more pressing problem. Your cause of choice is horses. With starvation and climate change and ethnic cleansing and Wall Street corruption and all the millions of problems facing the world, would someone be wrong to say, “Meh, they’re just horses? We have bigger fish to fry …”

B.H.: The needs of humanity will always come before the needs of horses if you try to stack them against each other. But I don’t think that diminishes what we’re trying to accomplish here. People will always follow and support the causes that are nearest to their heart, and I also think that people like to see their money making a difference. I know our organization can tell you definitively that $30 just paid for a horse’s vaccinations, that $70 you just donated paid for shoes for one horse, or $763 paid for one ton of grain (which it takes two to feed our guys for a month). $200 and you just paid for an ultrasound for a horse with a badly damaged tendon, or that if you donate $10,000 you will help keep us open and helping nearly 20 retired race horses for another month.

I personally don’t have the skills to be able to contribute to solving world hunger or climate change, but I am really good at helping horses recover from injuries and transition to new lives beyond the race track, so that is what I choose to do. Thankfully, ATR has managed to attract many wonderful people who like what we do and volunteer, donate, or advocate where they can, and over 130 horses have found homes through After the Races in the past three years. Going back to your first question, if they could talk, I think they’d tell you it was worth it.

J.P.: What’s it feel like to fall—like, really, really fall—off a speeding horse? What’s your most memorable experience doing so?

B.H.: It’s a little like being one of those car crash dummies in the slow-motion safety test videos you see on TV … but without the air bag. Or like being thrown over a castle wall in one of those catapults in the movies, but without the convenient haystack on the other side. Hitting the ground can feel like hitting a brick wall, or being run over by a truck, and it almost always feels as if it’s happening in slow motion. But barring serious injury, as the old adage says, we must always get back on.

To date, all of my worst falls have been at slow speeds (broken bones and concussions for me seem to happen when horses have fallen out from under me at the trot or canter – a truly frightening experience). Generally, once galloping at speed, I’m good! However, I used to ride a Thoroughbred called Tracy who, while generally not a good race horse, was a good exercise buddy for the bigger, faster race horses that I worked with. Because he was slower and fatter, Tracy tended to take the lead pony position. Despite having a bit of a reputation as a chicken with four legs, Tracy would lead the bigger horses up to their gallops, only to be passed about halfway along the course once the horses got up some speed. You couldn’t let Tracy’s looks and attitude toward galloping fool you though. Tracy could move in pretty much any direction but forward faster than any horse I’ve probably ever ridden. People who fell off Tracy reported being on him one moment and on the ground the next, with little recollection of what happened in between.

Thankfully, I only ever came off Tracy once, but it was on one of these workouts with a horse named Pierrot. Tracy did his duty, getting the two of them to the base of a long grass gallop which went up a bit of a hill, and led til about the midway point, when Pierrot took over. About the time I set Tracy’s cruise control, I suddenly found myself flying face first into the grass. Instinctively tucking, I managed a fairly neat roll and when I came to a stop many yards later, I saw Tracy galloping down the hill in the exact opposite direction. It did not look like he’d missed a beat. The last thing I can remember before being launched into space was Pierrot flicking his tail in Tracy’s face, which was enough to shatter whatever confidence Tracy had mustered up for the day.

Of course, I got up and caught the darn horse, got back on, and we finished our ride. All in a day’s work!

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 9.49.04 AMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH BONNIE HUTTON:

• Five greatest horse-related movies of your lifetime: Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, National Velvet, The Black Stallion, Seabiscuit, Secretariat.

• Who was responsible for JFK’s death?: Someone with military training I’d guess. Whether it was Oswald or someone else is above my pay grade.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Seattle Slew,, Snickers, Joel & Ethan Coen, Giorgio Armani, Katie Couric, C.J. Wilson, blue T-shirts, Tommy Hearns, karaoke Tuesdays, Mystery Science Theater: I’m going to admit to both having to look a couple of these up (not naming which!), and really liking Snickers. So I’ll go: Seattle Slew, Coen brothers, Mystery Science Theater, Snickers, Katie Couric, C.J. Wilson,, Tommy Hearns, karaoke Tuesdays, blue t-shirts, Giorgio Armani.

• Would you rather permanently have horse shoes attached the the soles of your feet, or get a tattoo across your forehead that reads, ZIGGY MARLEY IS MY DADDY?: I’m going to go with horse shoes on this one. As long as there’s some borium on there.

• One question you would ask Carson Palmer were he here right now?: Do you like horses?

• Six words you would use to describe the scent of a horse: Warm, earthy, rich, sweat, love, happiness.

• You’re on a date. The other person is perfect (kind, caring, loving, great family, charitable), but suffers from a severe horse allergy. Is there still a shot of success?: I want to say yes, but it’d probably require too much effort.

• Best joke you know?: It’s partly in Spanish, but has always been a favorite …

A well-dressed man walks into a store and asks the clerk, “Tiene calcetines?” The clerk apologizes as he doesn’t speak Spanish and offers to show the man to the men’s section where he points out some nice suits, hoping it helps. The man shakes his head and says, “No quiero trajes. Necesito calcetines.”

Flustered, the clerk apologizes again and leads him to another section, and then another, until the customer pointed down at his feet and said, “Solo necesito calcetines. Entiendes?” Thinking he finally understood, the clerk gets excited and rushes him over to show him the shoes only for the customer to again shake his head.

As they walk the customer sees a sock display and grabs a pair, and exclaimed to the clerk, “Eso si que es!”

The clerk, annoyed, says, “Well if you could spell it, why didn’t you just say so?”

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No. Thankfully despite some turbulence, my flights thus far have always been uneventful!

• You walk into a 7-Eleven. You can pick out seven items. What would they be?: Mountain Dew, a hot dog, Orbit brand gum (peppermint!), Swedish fish, a Black Mamba energy drink if I can find it (why can’t I find these anymore?), some Fritos, and batteries (never know when you’ll need them!).