A View from the Backstretch (2011)

Curated by Dona Ann McAdams 

Seven years ago on an August afternoon I found myself on the backstretch of the Saratoga racetrack. I’d never been to the track before, let alone to its backstretch, but that day alongside the exercise rider Amy LeBarron and trainer, Glenn DiSanto, I watched a colt they’d been working with for several months. He was a chestnut with magnificent legs and gleaming muscles, a three-year old named Break the Barrier. He ran well that afternoon and ended up third across the finish line. Right after the race, a man with a white beard walked up to him and clipped a number 3 to his halter. I thought it meant he’d come in third, but then Amy put a hand to her mouth and said, “Oh crap;” and Glenn shook his head in disappointment. Something was clearly wrong–but I didn’t know then about claiming races. All I knew was that the colt was being led away and Glenn and Amy were hurrying after him in the dirt. 

The earliest human paintings found in Paleolithic caves contain images of horses. The human longing goes back that far. Before agriculture, before the alphabet: there was the horse, and the desire to hold or capture the horse—as in real life—was expressed in paint. 

The backstretch workers know what these earliest cave painters knew: that horses feed them not only in the physical sense, but also in ways profound and even sacred. They also intuitively know that their attachment to the horse can’t be put into words. Can’t be described in human language, because what happens between them occurs on a much deeper, non-verbal level. Ask anyone on the backstretch why they do what they do, and they won’t be able to tell you. If you have to ask you don’t understand–the bond has to be felt. 

That August afternoon I followed Amy and Glenn as they trailed the colt to a place called the Spit Barn; and there I learned what a claiming race was: that Break the Barrier was now in the hands of someone else, his future uncertain, his life changed forever. And at that moment my own life seemed to change too, for it felt as if a piece of myself was being led away, that a number 3 had been clipped to my camera strap; when I stood there earlier watching the colt, his smell and breath and the power of his running, something unnamable had awakened in me, something that had been sleeping a long time. Just as the first time I got on a horse (at 50 years old) it felt like something old and familiar and necessary. The attraction went beyond language, to something much deeper and visual and emotional. I soon learned that the backstretch was made up of people who understood this secret about humans and horses, that they all spoke the same language, despite class or race. I’d been brought into a galaxy of like-minded people from all walks of life. The only passport necessary was love of horses. 

The following year I starting spending a lot of time in Saratoga. I was completely seized by the desire to be around these horses and the people who worked with them. I wasn’t so much interested in the public face of racing–the crowds and betting and the circus in the front of the track—but rather, to be part of the labor and counterculture that happens behind the scenes on the backstretch. 

One of the few ways we have to express this attraction to the horse is the oldest way: visually, with paint or, in our case, photographs. The most natural thing seemed to bring these two passions together. I’ve often fallen in love with the communities I’ve photographed and then became a part of. But nothing I’d done before prepared me for the attraction to the horse and the horsemen and horsewomen. 

On the backstretch, I spend my time listening and learning, photographing and holding lead shanks. We domesticated the horse, but they continue to hold out the promise of domesticating us through compassion. I Keep wondering: who is leading who–and where?