Rarely has one creature labored for another as a horse for a human. From the Crusades to World War I, battles were fought and won on the backs of horses. Frontiers were explored, homes built and communities created from the labor of horses at the will, and for the benefit, of humans. So, too, does the modern day harness racing standardbred labor for their humans. In the heat of summer, through freezing rain, around and around they go. They do our bidding.
Today is the start of an occasional series of snapshots from the lives of the horses who have performed exceptional service to their humans. They are our War Horses.
Freehold, NJ --- Westwood Vixen has made good use of her 30 years here on earth. While no precise measure of human age equivalency applies, the daughter of Braidwood-Western Vixen, who will have her actual 30th birthday on Feb. 22, is effectively well in to her 90s and perhaps 100. She was bred by Arthur Rowney in Ottawa, Ill., and raced by his son and daughter-in-law, James and Joan, who have owned and cared for her throughout her life.
Race she did, 237 times over eight years, from the time she was a 2-year-old in 1984 through age 9 in 1991. Competing primarily in the Chicago area, the brown mare averaged almost 30 starts and $36,000 each year with very little in the way of maintenance, says Joan Rowney.
"You had to wrap her legs at night, but basically she was a tough horse that took care of herself," she said.
The Rowneys now live in Marseilles, Ill., on a farm that Vixen and another horse, Lincoln's Treat, helped build.
"We bought this place when she was racing," Rowney said. "My husband told her, ‘You helped us buy this place and this is where you'll stay.'"
Westwood Vixen has had seven foals for the Rowneys, but they currently own only the one daughter, Nightwatch Vixen 3,1:52.3 ($37,007), who lives with her mom and has had three foals of her own, including a current 2-year-old in training for the Rowneys, Lizzabelle.
"They live out here on our farm," Rowney said. "She's with her daughter right now. They share a ‘condo' as we call it, like a little shed, they each have their own side and they can go back and forth."
The 30-year-old grand dame's teeth are in good shape and "she gets grain morning and night and hay of course, during the winter," Rowney said.
"In the summer I've been giving her hay, too, because she's moving so slow and she can't seem to get enough food. Last year she was losing weight so we have to try to keep the weight on her.
"She was a very big horse at one time; to us she looks smaller but maybe not. She's really sweet; it's kind of funny, I walked out to take a picture and she comes right up to me. When we have to move them from one pasture to another we don't even have to hook her up to anything because she'll just follow her daughter to the next place.
"She was quite the character when she was young, when we'd take her to the breeding farm she has a tendency to herd everybody -- she was in control. Now she's a little mellowed out. She's also a very good mother and very attentive to her grandchildren when her daughter had foals, she was basically supervising them. Sometimes, we'd put her with the babies when we were weaning them away from their moms.
"Her idea of a good time is her grain," laughed Rowney. "She eats the regular sweet feed we give our race horses. She was never one for apples or anything -- she'd just look at them. She's out most of the time except in the summer if it's really, really hot we bring her in. Or if it's really, really cold we bring her in. She's not happy inside for long and she's fuzzy enough to keep herself warm."
Rowney says that while Westwood Vixen's health is good and her days easy, she dreads the day when that might not be so, a day that could come very soon for a 30-year-old horse.
"That's our problem, we hold on to them, they are almost family," Rowney said. "I told her don't expect me to put you down, you're on your own there."
Editor's Note: Do you know of a notable horse now in their sunset years? We'd like to hear about horses at least 20 years old who either made 200 or more career starts or earned $500,000 or more in purses. Tell Ellen Harvey about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Ellen Harvey, Harness Racing Communications