Have Ambulance. Will Travel. (2024)

On a good race day, Malena Brisbois does not move an inch.

Otherwise, there’s trouble on the track.

She’s the horse ambulance.

You might be able to see Malena out in the center of Great Meadow during Gold Cup in the dip near the pond, standing on top of her rig watching the race through her binoculars.

She has to always know where the horses are if she gets the call.

The call comes from the jump judge: "horse down" and/or "rider down." And if it looks bad, the judge will say, "I need the ambulance."

Malena waits but seconds while the vet decides to give her the "go" signal as if it’s not necessary to call in the ambulance; there are all kinds of reasons for it to stay put, starting with the alarm and distraction it causes.

"Then we all communicate quickly and determine where we're going and if we need to let the race pass us again -- because if it's an accident that happens in the first lap, we have to be conscious of where the horses are because we can't go and get in their way as they're gonna be coming right back," Malena said.

"My job is to be empathetic to the animal," Malena says. "A lot of people don't understand that we are doing work that is most humane to the horse. If euthanizing them on the spot is necessary, then that's the most humane thing to do for them."

There is a pre-race meeting between the race officials and all the equine medical staff. "It's to make sure everybody's on the same page," Malena told me. "Then we split up and everybody goes to their locations, and we communicate throughout the day. We're all on the same radio channel. We're all have each other's cell phone numbers."

The horses, Malena says, "love what they do," and the owners "sign up for these races knowing full well that they might not bring their horse home."

They're born and bred to do it, and often even if they "dump a rider they’ll stay with it and keep running," she points out. "They don’t just stop and start grazing. The horses have a lot of heart, and they want to be out there doing what they’re doing."

"It's my job to make sure that if they're injured, that we get them out of pain as quickly as possible and keep everybody else safe around me," she says. "I'm there for support to keep the screens up and to get the horse off the track as quickly and humanely as possible."

Some seasons "we have perfect success," Malena explained. "Some seasons we have multiple fatalities per race day."

There’s really no way to pinpoint why or predict when the horses have some sort of catastrophic failure, she says. Sometimes it's the conditions, "sometimes they're just young horses that break a leg or have some sort of pulmonary or cardiac event that nobody could have foreseen, because these horses are checked top to bottom."

"Every time there’s a jump, I’m, 'please, please, please!'"

When it rains the track and the grounds become more slippery, which makes Malena worried about the horses and getting stuck on the way to their rescue. "But generally, the horses and the riders ride a little more conservatively," she says.

Malena owns and runs Always There Horse Care, LLC, which in addition to being the primary ambulance for several of the area’s horse races, provides 24-hour equine nursing, rehabilitation services and transportation.

She is 51 and has been doing this for the past 15 years. She started as the backup ambulance at Gold Cup when it introduced pari-mutuel betting, which required two emergency vehicles. It is critical the races run on time, she explained, because it’s being broadcast.

Her ambulance is a converted trailer with a winch, Kimzey Splints to immobilize a horse’s leg, rescue bars that are like sleds for the horses, bandaging supplies and a pressurized 30-gallion water tank to cool down the horses if they get heatstroke.

Sometimes, she explains, the horses are "still a little fluffy" with some of their winter fur remaining and may not "tolerate the strange Virginia weather."

At her farm in Haymarket, Malena also provides post-surgical care, eye care, as well as long-term recovery boarding, mare watch and foaling services.

"I’m sort of cradle to grave," she says. "I love what I do. I love helping the horses even if it's helping them die. It’s a niche that people unfortunately really only need when they're in desperation. But at least I can be there for them and help the horses."

When I asked Malena what she needed the most, she said a second ambulance, so Always There Horse Care can be in two places at once.


Leland Schwartz can be reached atlelandschwartz@gmail.com.

Have Ambulance. Will Travel. (2024)
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