Keep Waving

A sweet-natured gelding once taught me that the impact of kind words and a gentle touch can last a lifetime.

In 1965, I swept aside my own horse career—as a stunt rider and horse trainer in Hollywood movies—and married a jockey. My new husband had just been contracted to ride for an 18-horse stable at Arlington Park racetrack in Chicago, and so we aimed our new green Buick eastward for the coming race meet.

Shortly after we arrived, we were invited to a press event. By then, therapy swimming pools for horses were the norm at racetracks back in California, but the first was about to open in Chicago. This was such a novelty that reporters and photographers from the Chicago Tribune and other papers were there to cover it. A leading trainer from California had been selected to bring a horse to be used to demonstrate the new pool. The barn’s gentlest racehorse was selected to take the first swim, accompanied by an exercise boy who was a very good swimmer. When the big moment came, a groom led the horse forward. But when they reached the water’s edge, the horse balked—he would not go forward into the pool!

After many awkward moments, the horse’s trainer grabbed the shank from the groom. He put the shank chain in the horse’s mouth and began to fight with the frightened gelding. The man jerked so hard that the Thoroughbred reared and fell over backward: Blood ran from his mouth profusely as he scraped his head back and forth in the dirt trying to get up.

I cringed as I watched. Men of the Mad Men generation were pretty sure that if they could not do something, it could not be done! And a woman certainly didn’t interrupt a man of any status. I reset my tortoiseshell glasses and brushed imaginary dirt from my new dress and penny loafers while I stood in the hot sun and watched in misery until the trainer ran out of ideas. Eventually, he was so red-faced from anger and exertion that I feared he would have a heart attack. In time he plopped down on a nearby rock wall swearing freely through the ragged gasps of his breath.

Then and only then could I step forward. “Would you like me to put the horse in the pool for you?” I asked quietly. Completely at a loss and so humiliated he couldn’t speak, he just nodded. “OK,” I said. “Give me a rope and 20 minutes.”

Their curiosity piqued, the press contingent agreed to wait for me. First I removed the stable halter and let the blood-stained shank drop to the ground lest the horse associate them with his recent fear. Then I fashioned a makeshift halter and lead from the rope and led him over a little hill out of sight. In my wake I heard a few snide remarks about women babying horses. I ignored them and proceeded to become a friend to a lovely Thoroughbred who really did need one at that time. I talked to him softly while I cleaned the blood from his mouth and dirt from his pretty white face with a bit of material from my dress. Within 15 minutes I had taught him to come to me and put his head on my shoulder when I clucked. He learned quickly, even eagerly, because he finally understood what he was being asked to do. I rewarded him intensely with my hands and voice before I led him back.

The murmuring crowd fell silent as we returned and walked straight to the pool. Without pausing, we walked one step at a time down the ramp into the water—the beautiful horse laid his head on my shoulder in answer to my clucking and followed me without hesitation.

Seemingly in slow motion the ramp collapsed into the deeper water, as it was designed to do. I heard a few gasps: A few eyes fell on my expensive dress as it swirled about me in the water. At the end of the ramp the water reached swimming depth, and I handed the shank to the exercise boy who was already in the pool. With a big swooosh both he and the horse were soon swimming around the perimeter of the large round pool.

As he came back around, I thought I saw the horse eyeing the ramp as I made my way back up. To divert him away from the exit, I waved my arms and told the trainer to wave his. Pretty soon, we were all waving every time the swimmers came around, and the cameras flashed.

“By the way, what’s his name?” I asked the trainer, pitching my voice to be heard over the applause.

“Keep Waving!” he replied.

“I am,” I protested, “but what’s his name?”

Keep Waving was the horse’s name! The story and the pictures earned a spread in the Chicago Tribune, and for the rest of the Arlington meet that year, Keep Waving was the horse of choice to demonstrate the new swimming pool.

A few years later, my husband was riding in Canada, and we were having dinner with his agent, a former trainer. We were swapping stories about horses we had known when the agent commented about a very sweet horse he had once met who, he remarked, “did the darnedest thing. Every time I cleaned out his stall, I would cluck to ask him to move over. Instead, he would come to me and put his head on my shoulder.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I asked, “Was his name Keep Waving?” It was.

These memories make me cry. I had no idea that those few moments I spent with Keep Waving made an impression on him that lasted the rest of his life. But, I have always thought that what occurred between us those many years ago best exemplifies my own attitude about my personal world of horses. Sometimes, as with Keep Waving, I was honored to be a horse’s healer and guide. Sometimes, a horse was both healer and guide for me.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #450, March 2015. 




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