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A Second Career for Racehorses

Early in the last century the Milwaukee and Northern Pacific railroads transported settlers intent on farming to various stops in southwestern North Dakota. It wasn’t long before many of those hopeful homesteaders discovered they’d been duped, that the Little Missouri breaks were nearly worthless for producing anything but heartaches and couldn’t provide a living for their families. Many of them left.  Many of the resilient descendents of those who stayed are there yet today. Dr. Dick Bowman is one of them.

The badlands near Bowman, N.D., are anything but fertile ground but have served Bowman nonetheless the many years he has kept a working cattle ranch on 4,000 acres of that unyielding soil. It has served the horse community, too, the last decade, ever since Bowman, who specializes in equine dentistry, began hauling home truckloads of infirm or retired thoroughbreds in need of rest, rehabilitation, dental work or, in some cases, surgery once the racing season at Canterbury Park ended.

Land that couldn’t produce a stalk of corn or shaft of wheat has given new life to hundreds of horses. The Bowman spread was unofficially dubbed the Second Chance Ranch although he suspects the name is already taken, maybe even copyrighted. The horses themselves, more than 40 arrivals from Shakopee at the close of the 2011 meet, aren’t concerned with such particulars and have gone about the business of adjusting to life after racing. Many of them are rehabilitated and then placed with people anxiously awaiting a new mount for the dressage ring or for hunting and jumping, maybe even polo. Some, especially those with incurable lameness or other maladies, will be retired permanently to pasture. Nearly 50 rescued from Shakopee the last two summers are still at Bowman’s ranch.

The details are fuzzy now about how it started. “I never did it with the idea that it was going to turn into something big,” Bowman said. “Somebody had a lame horse, a nice horse, and I didn’t want to see it destroyed so I brought it home with me.” Word spread and each year Bowman had a few more horses that accompanied him home. “One trainer wanted to retire two horses a couple of years ago so he brought them up from Florida specifically to get them into this program,” Bowman added. “That speaks well for the owner and the trainer and it’s happened more than once. I’ve had horses come from Oklahoma and Kansas, too.”

Although he’s done nothing to publicize the program, Bowman has had inquiries from Florida to California about the rescue operation. He has nearly used up his supply of friends willing to take one of his animals after it has healed and adjusted to “civilian” life. There isn’t a big market in North Dakota as it is for thoroughbreds, who make good hunters and jumpers or dressage horses once their racing careers have ended but can’t match a quarter horse for herding cattle. Many of those retired racehorses begin their second careers with English saddles on their backs, a rare sight indeed in southwestern North Dakota.

“The biggest issue is finding a place for these horses once they’re done racing,” Bowman added. Just recently, he returned eight horses to waiting families in the Twin Cities. It is 600 miles from Canterbury Park to the “Second Chance Ranch.” Shipping costs have risen sharply with climbing fuel prices; the diesel fuel alone was $6,000 for the 40-some horses that left Canterbury for the Bowman ranch last autumn. Somehow, Bowman and others involved in the project get the job done.

As Dr. Lynn Hovda, the state veterinarian at Canterbury put it, “it really takes a village back here (the Canterbury stable area) to make this program work.” Horsemen have pitched in. So have backside veterinarians. Canterbury Park president Randy Sampson has written checks to to help finance the program. Hovda says that it started “almost a dozen years” ago. “Dr. Bowman and I were sitting in the office on the backside when we discovered that some horses needed a place. I had a few empty pasture slots at my place. He said he had pasture at his.

“We have about five to seven vets who are licensed here and three on the backside on a daily basis,” Hovda added. Kim and Kevin Voller and Dr. Tracey Turner of Anoka Equine, Dave Sorum and his wife Alicia, Stephen Day, Sandy Larson. If we ask any of them to help out,  they’re willing.” Scott Rhone frequently volunteers his services as a farrier. The Vollers and other vets on the backside often provide surgery for injured animals.

“We have horses with bowed tendons or suspensory problems,” Hovda added. “A lot of people back here help out. My own farrier, Ron Gustafon, has pulled shoes for us at no charge.  Diane Logue has helped procure feed for us at a good discount. Art and Gretchen Eaton (longtime Minnesota breeders and thoroughbred owners) have taken horses to their farm. The HBPA has helped out. Dr. Christy Klatt does all of the paperwork. My husband, Bob, has built box stalls for us. Bless his soul, he has been very good about picking up horses on short notice, too.”

When the horses arrive in South Dakota each one has its teeth checked, and bowed tendons, injured suspensories and broken bones are tended to by Bowman and volunteers from the University of Minnesota veterinary program. There is another rescue operation at work on Canterbury’s backside as well. The Minnesota Retired Racehorse Project and Dr. Jennifer Selvig have helped place horses with new owners the last four years.

That organization is undergoing some changes this year but is willing to help place horses in new homes nonetheless. “We try to connect people and horses,” Dr. Selvig said. “We help people advertise their horses and sell or place them.”  Selvig began grooming and ponying horses at Canterbury in 2003 and has been a licensed veteriarian at the track since 2007.

Hovda says none of it would work without the volunteers that offer help summer after summer. Still, she credits the “heavy lifting” to Bowman. “He does the brunt of it,” she said,”taking 40 to 50 horses a year.”

The unanswered question, of course – one that Bowman has been asked before – concerns the city of Bowman. Was it named after his grandfather, John Bowman, who homesteaded the area in 1908 but left during the depression? Was it named after his father, Leonard, who returned in 1945 and bought the land that today is home to cattle and retired racehorses from Minnesota?

Neither, according to Dr. Bowman. It was conincidence.

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.