Betty McCue has a very busy day between caring for kids and animals.
She starts at 5 a.m., and an hour later she’s feeding and pasturing her 14 Thoroughbreds at a barn in White Hall, MD. Two hours and 18 miles later, she’s dressed, showered, and saying the morning Pledge of Allegiance with 24 second graders at Timonium Elementary School, where she is a teacher.
At the end of the school day, she does the long drive back up to White Hall to care for her horses until evening.
The good part about this evening shift is McCue is rarely alone—students from Timonium Elementary and Ridgely Middle often head up to the barn with her, to get some time with the horses that they too have come to love. McCue teaches the students all the ins and outs of caring for horses, and takes them riding with her. She has a riding ring with jumps for students who compete at horse shows, and she leads other students around the county trails for a more relaxing outing.
McCue, who’s been an elementary school teacher for 32 years, loves sharing her own passion for horses with the students.
“My real love is the kids coming out and learning to ride, and taking care of the horses and falling in love,” McCue said. “I see a lot of myself in the kids that come out with me, especially the little girls. And the parents really like it because they’re away from the mall, they’re away from TV. They all have a horse to brush, and they all have one to tack up, and they learn to do all that.”
McCue also loves the horses themselves. She has, in fact, saved them. When a Thoroughbred racehorse is retired, its future can be grim—and short.
“When they’re done racing,” said McCue, “a lot of the owners, they’re done. They don’t want them.”
According to a 2010 Washington Post article, most Thoroughbreds that are done racing are euthanized, abandoned or slaughtered. Approximately 3,000 Thoroughbreds are retired each year. Happily, Maryland’s Pimlico and Laurel Park are among the growing numbers of racetracks that have no-slaughter policies. But there are still hundreds of Thoroughbreds to save.
McCue can’t save hundreds of horses, but so far, she’s saved 25. She keeps them, trains them, and lets them enjoy their retirement until she can place them in a permanent home.
“I’ve always just loved the Thoroughbred horses and Maryland is such a wonderful state for Thoroughbreds," McCue said. "They’re the Preakness horses. I really saw that there was a need for people that would take them when they’re done racing, and give them a new career—give them a life after that.”
McCue grew up on a horse farm in Virginia, and has been riding horses since she could walk, and probably even before. Her husband’s job brought her to Maryland—he’s a photographer at the Maryland racetracks.
Because of this connection, McCue’s soft spot for retired Thoroughbreds has caught a lot of attention. “I know lots of trainers and owners,” said McCue, “and they know that I have this love for Thoroughbreds, that I take them and train them to go on and hopefully be a show horse, or a trail horse, or a dressage horse, or some other life after the racetrack.”
McCue has found homes for 11 Thoroughbreds over the years. Of her 14 Thoroughbreds now, most are available to be placed in the right home.
She now has a trail of eager young followers, helping her out and learning all the while. McCue never intended to have any overlaps between her teaching career and her horse “hobby,” as she calls it. But two years ago, Sydney Parker, then a Timonium student, wanted to learn more about horses, and her mother thought McCue seemed like a natural person to ask.
“Come on up!” said McCue, and Sydney, now a seventh grader at Ridgely Middle, is a fixture at the barn. So is her classmate Missy Macechko. And so are about 12 other youngsters—depending on the weather.
“I’m a fair-weather rider, believe me,” chuckled McCue, and so are some of her younger students, who skip the wintertime visits. But summertime is thriving. McCue said that many of her students pack a lunch and spend all day at the barn.
McCue and her sister, Evelyn Martin, who relocated from Richmond, VA when she became enamored with McCue’s rescue, do plenty of work to rehabilitate a jumpy, nervous racehorse to a gentle, social animal that will tote a child on its back.
“It’s a whole different thing from the racetrack,” said McCue, “because at the racetrack they just know ‘Go! Go as fast as you can!’ And we have to say, ‘You’re not going. You don’t have to do that anymore.’”
McCue continued, “Once you win their trust, once they hear you, they see you, they relax. Every day we go in and see them, and they learn to trust you and know you.”
One of McCue’s Thoroughbreds is Out Cashem, who still holds the track record from 2006, at West Virginia’s Charles Town Racetrack. “And he is like a big old teddy bear now,” said McCue, who is delighted when her horses let their guards down and allow themselves to relax.
“I have huge Thoroughbreds that will tote a tiny kid around,” she added. “I think they feel the love. I know that sounds so corny. But they feel the love.”
Just not right away.
McCue is careful to keep her newly acquired retirees separated from the rest of the herd, until they have acclimated to being loose. At the racetracks, a Thoroughbred is either kept in its stall, or it's out racing. Often a high-strung horse doesn’t know what to do with itself when it’s simply allowed to wander socially around its paddock.
“They are social animals,” said McCue. “They are herd animals, so they like to be with other ones. But there are some that don’t get along. And I do separate the boys and the girls. I have several paddocks so I can separate them.”
Some of McCue’s success stories come from situation where she feels like just the right person got just the right horse from her. Once, a teenage girl from Connecticut called her, having just lost one of her parents, and her horse, in the past year.
“She was going through a very hard time,” remembered McCue. The family was looking for a horse to help fill the huge void in the girl’s heart, but they didn’t have a lot of money. They heard about McCue, who invited them down to the barn to let them choose among a few horses she felt would be a good fit.
“So they came down, and fell in love, and took one back!” said McCue “They kept sending me pictures of how well he was doing, and I felt good that he had a home, with a teenaged girl that was going to love him forever, and that’s what I’m happy with.”
Not all of McCue’s Thoroughbreds are necessarily available, however. McCue and Martin both have laid claim to several horses that will be with them for life.
“Out Cashem is going to stay with us forever,” said McCue. “Because he did his time! We felt like he ran so hard and won so much, that the little that he does with us is all he needs to do.”
Martin’s favorite is Johnnie Reb. She spotted him several years ago, when he was just a foal, at a farm where her brother is a manager. She fell immediately in love with him, but he was destined for the racetrack.
“But he fractured his leg,” said McCue, “so he was in the stall for like a year, not being out, for it to mend. And then they decided they weren’t going to race him. Down the road, my brother calls and says, ‘I have this horse—are you interested?’ So we went up there and my sister went, ‘Ohhh I can’t believe that’s him, that’s the baby that I loved! It’s the same horse!’”
McCue’s philosophy when placing her Thoroughbreds is “if there’s a right place and person.” In this case, the right place and person was her own sister.
Saving Thoroughbreds is an all-encompassing lifestyle. McCue said that caring for the horses takes the place, financially, of shopping, or joining a pool, or going on vacation. Or playing golf, or driving a nice car, or seeing a therapist. “You get the picture,” said McCue.
But McCue wouldn’t trade her lifestyle, and she likes being the one to do all the work, along with her sister and the students. “I know what goes in, and I know what comes out,” said McCue, referring to the horses’ feedings and daily stall mucking. “I know if they’re feeling bad, or if they’re not up to par. And I feel so good about that, because I really do get to know them like children.”
And McCue knows plenty about children, in addition to her elementary school classroom. She has two grown children of her own. And she even sees a parallel between her work with horses and her work in the classroom.
“Time and patience!” she laughed. “I think I’ve learned a lot from the horses that I can use with the kids, and the other way around. Patience! Time and patience!”