When Laine Ashker told me last year about her mother’s plan to ride across the United States on two off-track Thoroughbreds, 7-year-old Primitivo and 17-year-old Solar Express, I was equal parts skeptical and nervous, and half hoped it might never happen. Note to self: Never, ever underestimate those Ashker women again!
Since that December day, Valerie and her partner Peter have prepared painstakingly for this enormous undertaking, and as I write this, are inching closer and closer to their final destination, literally days away after some six months on the road, with 3,000 miles under their belts and less than 300 to go.
Their goal is to arrive at Laine Ashker’s barn in Virginia, which has been a more or less straight shot from California along Highway 50, about 3,500 miles in total.
It’s difficult to quantify exactly what is most impressive about the whole venture — Valerie’s stamina and refusal to quit, the sheer enormity of the challenge every day, the scale of the logistics, Valerie’s humility throughout it all, her strength, how amazing these horses look, especially after all the distance and the terrain they’ve travelled, the massive and increasing social media and public interest and awareness for the OTTB — it goes on and on.
Although the physical training and fitness work for both horses and riders was actually relatively minimal to what you might expect — Valerie admits she’s always been in shape and eats well, and Peter the same — the planning and preparation prior to leaving was thorough and intense. I asked Valerie if she’d ever done anything like this before, and she replied, “Not no, but HECK no!”
Obviously there’s nothing you could teach Valerie about horsemanship or training ex-racehorses, but she and Peter enlisted the help of endurance expert Karen Chaton, whose horse Granite Chief is in the AERC Hall of Fame with more than 30,000 miles. Over the course of several hours they picked her brains about what to expect, what to pack and what to do, and have consulted with her many times while on the road and she has become their virtual coach.
Karen advised Valerie that the horses would condition themselves as they went. “You don’t want to put too many miles on those horses’ legs before you even start, adding fuel to any issues that might pop up along the way, so they did about five miles for trail rides three times a week before we left and that was about it, that was how I fitted them,” explained Valerie.
“We started out with 15 mile days, and then we moved it up to 20 and 25, and we actually got a couple of 30-mile days in, so I’m really excited about that. You don’t want to condition too much because you’re using your horse and you’re walking so you’re getting fitter and fitter as you go.”
Valerie found out about Dr. Cook’s Bitless Bridles after browsing in the western world and now she swears by them. “We’ve never had a bit in these horses ever. Karen told us our horses would lose weight and we need to encourage them to eat along the road as much as possible, grazing on the verges, swiping at long grasses, and if they have a conventional bridle on they don’t eat as well. It’s a nuisance; they can’t chew as easily, and the bit gets full of food and needs cleaning constantly.”
Unhappy with the neoprene equipment that a lot of the long distance riders use, she kept searching until she found Dr. Cook’s leather bridles and approached them, and they agreed to sponsor the ride.
“My horses are so well trained now they could do a First Level dressage test and they’d be on the bit and there’s no bit. I could take Tivo Training level and compete him in the bitless bridle. It’s a wonderful tool. I’m going to use it on all my babies from now on, and for people that are a bit handsy so the horses don’t have to suffer from their inadequacies. My horses love them.”
Dr. Cook’s Bitless Bridles are one of many sponsors who jumped on board to be a part of the 2nd Makes From The Starting Gates quest, and to help with products in kind. To mention just a few, Primitivo and Solar have been supported every step of the way by Nutrena, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, Easycare Boots, Toklat, Flair Equine Nasal Strips, Hoof Armor and Bucas Blankets.
As Valerie is keen to stress, she’s lucky to have a team of elite professionals on hand to call upon should she need to, especially Nutrena, who have been customising feed for both horses — no mean feat considering Solar is a 17-year-old ex-racehorse with Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (PSSM).
Solar and Primitivo are really what this ride is all about. Valerie has a fantastic record of picking ex-racehorses from the track and turning them into four-star gold, or finding wonderful second careers for them. Her daughter Laine has ridden three for her at Rolex so far, and so according to Valerie: “If I can help just one kid get an ex-racehorse because the pressure isn’t on for her coach to go to Europe to buy an expensive horse, then mission accomplished!
“Instead just go to your city’s racetrack and extract a horse. It’s already been there and done that and it will metamorphose into something spectacular, just like Laine’s horses, and that’s the whole point. If one horse, just one horse, gets extracted from the track because of this ride, because of the visibility and the knowledge, then mission accomplished.”
This is a sentiment Valerie repeated often during the day I spent with her and Peter; she’s so anxious to convey her love and admiration for the OTTB, and why they stand head and shoulders above any other breed in her opinion. “I think what separates the men from the boys with these OTTBs, Laine and I have had it exemplified in all our horses from Eight St James Place, which — my heart be still with that horse, that’s my number one love of my life horse — and with Frodo, with Al (Anthony Patch).
“She’ll get it with Comet (Calling All Comets). She’ll get it with Paddy (Call Me Paddy). It’s the heart. Not only are they incredible athletes, and great heads, great minds but they give you more than any other breed. When you need it, when Laine puts her leg on they’ll say ‘I’m tired but I’ve got a little bit more left in that engine and I’m going to give it to you,’ and my heart goes out for that. So if I can bring awareness to these horses and their second careers, then this is why these 3,333 some miles will count.”
And credit where credit’s due — Valerie’s horses look fabulous, and without boasting, she’d agree. “It’s been gruelling, it’s hard, it’s day in day out, that’s why I’m totally taken aback by how good my horses look for this kind of toll of what they’ve endured and what they’ve gone through. It amazes me.”
It’s true. They boast sleek shiny coats, wonderful condition, bright eyes and pricked ears. Not only do they look fabulous, but they are incredibly well-behaved. I meet them in downtown Cincinnati, and they were barely phased by walking through a major city — railroads above and beside them, overhead highways, giant stadiums, pedestrian crossings, car parks. They handled it all with remarkable aplomb.
Passers-by stopped to ask questions, and this is where Valerie is in her element,and where it’s obvious how her following on social media caught fire. She’s a natural with everyone we met. Children, the elderly, policemen, car salesmen, the odd homeless person — she’s engaging, enthusiastic, animated — of course you want to hear more.
Did a single one of you watch just one of her live videos on Facebook and not tune in again? Absolutely not! It’s become part of a daily routine for hundreds of her followers who check in regularly to watch, comment and have become a part of the journey. Some have volunteered along the way, offering to help drive, bring food or suggest places to stay, and this has been the best thing about the whole ride for Valerie.
“I think what it comes down to for me, first and foremost, even more than the scenery, has been the people we’ve met, the camaraderie, of getting these horses through to the other side. What is my passion has now become a lot of other people’s also.
“They’ve embraced it, so now when we call out for help such as a driver for a couple of days, they do it for me but they really are here because of our commonality for these horses, these OTTBs. That has been a real eye-opener and it’s picked up the further east we go, probably because of the more populated areas. It’s really growing and it blows me away. It’s been the ride of a lifetime.”
Unbelievably Peter had barely ridden before he met Valerie, but now he handles Solar with an accustomed ease that comes with 3,000 miles in the saddle. He’d never done anything like this before, but for him this journey has always been something of a dream, only one that he never imagined might become a reality, and he insists it’s everything he’d hoped and more,
“It is as romantic as it might seem but it’s a lot of work,” Peter says. “Nothing’s really good without a lot of hard work and this has been the most gruelling, hardest thing we’ve ever done, but on the opposite end of it it’s also been the most rewarding. You can’t get the good without putting in the work.”
“My favourite part, besides meeting such nice people, is a new appreciation of this country’s scenery and just the wildlife and the openness out west. I liked Nevada. Nevada keeps coming back into my head because it’s the most desolate, unpopulated area but it was so full of life and peaceful, and we could talk and it was enjoyable.
“I have a new appreciation for each state really; instead of driving by at 70 miles per hour and not noticing anything you see everything down to the tiny anthills and the lizards and the little flowers, so many flowers in Nevada that you don’t even see when you’re going at 60 miles per hour. It’s been a real eye-opener just to make me appreciate the country a little better.”
Peter alternates riding Solar with driving the trailer, and worrying about Valerie. During the trip Valerie has had a fall and broken her clavicle and a few ribs, has had a cancer scare, has been kicked by her horse and also had to deal with road rage in Indiana. Living in close quarters in the trailer, spending every moment together, sharing this trip and pretty much everything besides, there must have been times when he wanted her to stop?
“After her fall I told her I didn’t want her to ride unless she could get back on the horse by herself but that didn’t last too long, about 10 days, and then she was bored and she was bossing me around. I was afraid for her getting hurt again but I knew she wasn’t going to quit, and that’s what I love about her,” Peter says.
“This is the hardest thing we’ve ever done and to plan on something like this you may as well just plan on you getting hurt twice and the horse getting hurt twice because we are a month behind now due to incidences we couldn’t have accounted for.”
As for Valerie, it never occurred to her not to finish. “The collarbone thing really did hurt. The ribs? They hurt, but you keep riding. I mean, heck, my daughter trains with Buck and Bruce Davidson, and they would both ride with their heads hanging off, and you get around people that are that stoic about that sort of thing, and they’re that determined, and their eye is on the prize, and you engulf yourself in that state of mind and that’s what I did.
“The clavicle really did hurt, I have to say, and the cancer scare — that was a bummer. It happens so often to people you know, to people close to you, and then when you think YOU have it, it puts a whole new light on life. For a couple of months I had to live with the fact that they were a little bit concerned about it because it was not going away. This whole ride is dedicated to OTTBs, but as much as it will hopefully benefit them it’s truly benefited us. You really become a little bit of a different person, and your priorities and your perspectives on life really do alter on a ride like this.”
Peter himself pulled his groin muscle about a week ago: “It’s not easy, it’s not just a joyride, it’s a long way to go without something bad happening. I take my hat off to those old guys back in the old days because it’s a rough journey going across this country, its a long way and it’s pretty gruelling.”
Valerie agrees, and adds that they’re both beginning to suffer from fatigue: “About three weeks ago I don’t think I’ve ever been in better shape. Now I think I’ve peaked and it’s working against me a little bit, now I’m getting worn out, mentally and physically. My joints feel it a little bit more, Peter and I get in each other’s way more, it’s just gruelling day in and day out. I think a ride like this, we have to be aware that these issues that we’re dealing with are normal.”
Peter and Valerie generally walk alongside Tivo and Solar for several miles a day for a variety of reasons. “Oh my God, my bum!” exclaimed Valerie, “I need to get off, you know, it’s 2,500 miles, my bum will never be the same! Mostly I like to give the horses a rest, and I can check them over — just as you’ve been listening to their footfalls, that’s how I can tell if they are having any issues at all, down to the point where you can hear it and you can almost tell which foot it is, or which hoof is not quite as heavy on the cement.
“It also gives you time to get your knees stretched out, I’m 60 so there’s arthritis to consider, it’s just nice for me. We ideally walk about four or five miles in the morning and end up walking about four miles into camp, so we’ve actually walked about a sixth of this whole ride and I think it’s been good, I’m in great shape.”
Surprisingly though, Valerie isn’t longing for it to be over, and talking about the finish is the only time she gets quiet and her voice cracks a tiny bit, and I detect the slightest doubt and uncertainty from her. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m going to do to not go to my live video. I mean there are points in my ride that I was so down and out and there were so many people that really wanted me to do well and I don’t know what I’m going to to do, it’s going to be tough.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it’s been such a mission, and so many people behind it. For it to end is like being dropped out of the sky into nowhere-land. To have so much support has been incredible, and we’ve all been through so much together, and we’re here and we’re healthy and we’re ready to go on to the next 300 or so miles of the trip but then what? It will be tough saying goodbye to this. I might keep the Facebook page and use it as my general OTTB reporting page so people can still enjoy this, but in a slightly different magnitude and we can still correspond with the people who’ve embraced this.”
Following that, it’s all change as Valerie will drive back to California to pack up her house, which is under contract, and she’s re-locating to Virginia to be based there with her daughter, although she’ll still be making frequent trips back west to visit her parents, who have joined her on the trip for the last leg.
“I’m hoping that I can find a career, something to help with the OTTBs, maybe I can help people retrain them, I don’t know but I don’t want to just drop off the face off the earth after this ride, and then 10 years later look at the logo and have nothing to do with it. I want to have something to do with it for the rest of my life, whether it’s helping Laine, finding horses for her, or helping young kids get started with their new OTTB, or programs I feel that would work, if that would be my contribution I would love it.
“Until I die if someone wants me to pick a horse for them I will continually go to the track. I will go to the track and I will pick one, and there’s not a track that I can’t go to that I know I’ll find not just one, but probably three or four great prospects that in my opinion could be world class prospects, and I’ll take them back and put the necessary rest time and training on them and put them in a new direction, and I’m so confident of that, I’m my last breath confident that they’re out there, people just don’t give it merit.”
Solar has been with Valerie since coming 4 years old and owes her nothing, she says. He will be her responsibility until he takes his last breath on this earth; she is full of admiration and love for his strength and courage, still in front, still looking for the next mountain despite his age and some arthritic issues and PSSM.
As for Tivo: “I think Tivo would like to do long distance rides, I think that’s up his alley, this is great for him. I don’t think he wants to be an event horse and I still haven’t hung my eventing spurs, I’d like to do it for another year or two and then call it a day. So maybe I could lease him to someone who wanted to do this because he’s brilliant, I mean the live videos are testament to how awesome he is.”
The live videos are also of course testament to how awesome Valerie is too, and how amazing this journey is, and all that she has achieved thus far since setting off on May 9. She and Peter have been joined by her parents, George and Lillian ,who will accompany them all the way now through to the finish line in Virginia. They hope to reach Laine there by Nov. 9, and after that, as far as a Plan B goes, Valerie shrugs her shoulders: “If all else fails, hell, I might get on Tivo and ride him all the way back!”