Perspective

I came off the cross country course at fence 7.

My horse felt great in the warm up. My horse felt amazing fence 1-6. Big tables, ascending stairs, a massive brush angled line to a double brush. Tick, tick, tick. He jumped out of stride. He jumped well. I rode with efficiency. I rode well.

Until I didn’t.

A hanging log caught us off guard, and with it, a 20.

I represented and popped over, only to have the bank 3 strides later stump him.

And when I went back for a redo, I heard a jump judge say I was eliminated. She proclaimed I had had 3 stops. I had not, and this was confirmed by my barn owner, but what was the point in the argument? So off I went, heading back to the trailers just shrugging my shoulders.

Immediately my phone beeped. Was I ok? Was I safe? Was I upset?

And strangely, I was.

I have realized in my short 33 years how insignificant these shows truly are. I have realized why I am in this sport. And I have come to terms with taking blame and placing blame.

Moreso, I have come to enjoy this sport for the joy it brings me and not the pain.

I loaded my horse back onto the trailer with a pat and hauled him the short 3 miles home. I swung up on my other beast for a quick flat. And then I texted my friend Leah, asking if she was still on the show grounds.

Because while I was attempting to come back in the world of eventing, my friend Courtney was climbing towards a milestone of her own. A bronze medal in dressage. On a horse she had made herself.

And my weekend had ended in defeat, but my soul was still intact. I knew I had to be there. I knew that my weekend had ended right as hers had begun. And I knew how much this weekend meant to her.

So I picked myself up off the Whoa Is Me floor, cracked open a beer, and meandered to the dark side.

And it was amazing.

I know now that I don’t do these competitions for my own self gluttony. The $3 ribbon might hang proudly in my closet, but it is the memories I make which hold true to my mind. The friends standing at the finish flags. The fiancé holding an iPhone firmly as he videos a dressage test. And the popping of a champagne cork as we toast to a goal obtained and a dream made.

Today, it wasn’t my dream.

Today, it wasn’t my champagne cork.

But today, we toasted as high.

To milestones achieved. To goals obtained. But moreso, to friendships made. To the highs and lows with a good group surrounding you. Those people who can laugh at your mistakes while applauding your triumphs.

That is why we do this. That is the fun in the game. And that is the smile on my face at the end of the day.

Today wasn’t my day. Today was hers. And I’m so ok with that.

Congratulations Courtney, you deserve every minute of it.

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Lasix: Treating the symptom and not the disease.

The Lasix debate has reached its fever pitch, and I have avoided it thus far. Backed off by accusations that I am merely a scientist and not a race trainer, I have remained fairly quiet.

But. I am a horsemen. I am a scientist. And maybe those two things needs combined for an opinion.

An opinion based on fact. Not anecdote. Not legend. And more importantly, not propaganda.

Furosemide (Lasix) is a drug used to prevent or at least minimize outward bleeding of horses in strenuous work. This bleeding is called epistaxis, and mostly occurs when a horse suffers from grade 4 Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH). There are three lower grades (1-3) which can be detected by endoscopy, but are not outwardly noted as a horse who bleeds.

While 55% of thoroughbred racehorses experience that grade 1-3 EIPH, it is known that a mere 4% of actually experience epistaxis or outwardly bleed (Preston et al (2015)).

And yet a staggering 93% of thoroughbred racehorses in North America race on Lasix.

4% bleed. 55% have the disease. 93% are treated.

This doesn’t add up.

Industry would lead us to believe that the banning of Lasix will lead to an outcry from PETA for animal welfare because SO MANY horses will be bleeding in public. And yet science disagrees, showing that very few actually will.

Not to mention, industry has filled our minds with this idea that Lasix saves horses. If we don’t use it, horses lungs will fill with blood and drop dead. They tell us that it is good animal welfare to give the horses these drugs and minimize their pain and suffering. Without the drug, we will be neglecting animals. With the drug, we will be helping them.

And all I can say is… What?

Veterinary medicine is a practice built on diagnosing and treating a disease, not individual symptoms.

And Lasix? Lasix is the treatment of a symptom, not a disease. Lasix masks the symptom of bleeding, but doesn’t treat the disease of EIPH. Not to mention, it doesn’t truly mask the symptom of bleeding all that well, and has been shown to decreases only 1 EIPH grade score in only 68% of horses (Sullivan et al. (2015) / Hinchcliff et al. (2009)).

So it works in 68% of the 55% of horses which suffer from the disease. Ok, then it’s benefiting 37.4% of racehorses.

Then why are 93% getting it?

Maybe more interesting is our other option in minimizing EIPH score.

Nasal strips (Geor et al (2001)/ Kindig et al. (1985)). Pretty damned effective and a whole lot safer.

One is a caustic diuretic and the other a strip applied to the skin to open airways. And yet the one we are grasping onto? The drug.

And what does treat the condition of EIPH? Not Lasix, not Flair strips, not withholding water or even administering vodka.

Rest. Simple rest.

In other countries, this is already implemented. A horse bleeds, and is withheld from training or racing from a range of 30-180 days. Bleeds a second time? Longer. And while these other racing locales implement a treatment for the disease, we continue to treat the symptom.

It should be acknowledged that the administration of Lasix doesn’t come without detriment. As a diuretic, we see horses come out of races dropped in weight and dehydrated. We see 6f sprints devastate condition and leave horses struggling to bounce back.

Horseman would say it’s simply a side effect of this life saving drug. Science would disagree as it has shown that this improvement in performance is due more because of its weight-loss effect as a diuretic than due to its minimizing the effects of that EIPH (Zawadzkas et al (2006).

And what does this do? Minimizes how often these horses can train. The average thoroughbred runs every 30-45 days, and this has been accepted as the time needed for recovery. But is it? If we remove this diuretic from our common arsenal and find our horses coming out of races in better condition, will we then see a horse who can run more often? Say every 3 weeks instead of 5.

This should encourage everyone to pause and think. More starts per year equal more races filled. More purses earned. Happier trainers, happier owners, happier track owners, and even an appeased handicapper.

We argue that horsemen should be making these decisions, because they are the ones truly assessing the horses, but are they making them for the right reasons? Do we want Lasix to treat EIPH, or to act as a diuretic and performance enhancer (Gross et al. (1999)? The horseman argue it’s for that (few and far between) horse that bleeds. The policy makers argue that its to protect PR for that (few and far between) horse that bleeds. And science would argue it’s not even that effective at one (minimizing EIPH), and yet pretty damn great at the other (increasing weight loss).

So if we put the horse first, it shouldn’t be used for either.

A disease which is over exaggerated into its detriment to the horse. A drug which masks a symptom instead of treating a disease. And a weaving and winding propaganda pitch from an industry that refuses to change.

Do I think Lasix caused the breakdowns in California? Heck no. We have shown time and time again that it improves performance, and doesn’t mask pain, and yet has become the topic of argument.

Should we still focus on the real issues leading to breakdowns? Yes. But also, we should utilize this crossroad as an impetus to make real change. Change that can affect and save our industry for the decades and centuries to come.

I am pro-horse. I am also pro-science. And at this point in time, those two things need to be at the head of this conversation. Not handicapping. Not money, greed, or propaganda.

By putting the horse first, we conquer so many battles.

We improve their health and thereby increase their ability to run.

We slash PETA and their argument that we don’t care.

And we have a sport that we can get back behind supporting and scream to the masses of our passion and love of these horses.

But until we ban Lasix, we can do none of the above. A drug that the rest of the world doesn’t need. A drug that we as Americans are clutching to with our fingertips as we dangle from the cliff our sport is falling off of. A drug that isn’t even that great at its sales pitch. And a drug that is harming our horses recovery and health after the races they run.

The conversation into what it does and why is over. The conversation into how to get it out of racing has begun. And the conversation into how this will change breeding, training, and racing needs to begin. Let’s start talking.

1. Preston, S. et al. Descriptive analysis of longitudinal endoscopy for exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage in Thoroughbred racehorses training and racing at the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Equine Vet J. 2015 May;47(3):366-71

2. Sullivan, S. et al. A systematic review and meta-analysis of the efficacy of furosemide for exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage in Thoroughbred and Standardbred racehorses. Equine Vet J. 2015 May;47(3):341-9

3. Hinchcliff, K. et al. Efficacy of furosemide for prevention of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage in Thoroughbred racehorses. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2009 Jul 1;235(1):76-82

4. Geor, R. et al. Effects of an external nasal strip and frusemide on pulmonary haemorrhage in Thoroughbreds following high-intensity exercise. Equine Vet J. 2001 Nov;33(6):577-84.

5. Zawadzkas, X. et al. Is improved high speed performance following frusemide administration due to diuresis-induced weight loss or reduced severity of exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage?Equine Vet J Suppl. 2006 Aug;(36):291-3.

6. Kindig, C. et al. Efficacy of nasal strip and furosemide in mitigating EIPH in Thoroughbred horses. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2001 Sep;91(3):1396-400.

7. Gross, D. et al. Effect of furosemide on performance of Thoroughbreds racing in the United States and Canada.J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1999 Sep 1;215(5):670-5.

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Money, Time, and Life.

For the past three years, I have tried to get down South for some spring training.

Two years ago, I ran out of money.

Last year, I ran out of time.

And this year, life happened.

Each time, I hang my head and resign myself to longer road hacks in the freezing cold while the arena sheens with ice.  Each time, I throw the heavy weight on my mount while shoving hand warmers in my gloves. And each time, I admit that I will not be ready for that first event in April.

And I get so frustrated.

Frustrated at myself, frustrated at life. Frustrated with the consequences of my decisions, and frustrated that I feel alone in this predicament. I watch videos of 18 year olds who are funded by mom and dad galloping in the Ocala sunshine.  I see photos of amateur horses under the tutelage of 5* riders for months on end.  I watch as others progress up the levels while I feel myself remaining stagnant. And I feel jealousy, anger, pain, abandonment.  Alone and like no one else understands. Even though in my head, I know so many are worse off than I and that no ones path is perfect.

And I just don’t know how to change it. Alter that route.  Reroute the outcome.

A couple of months ago, I sat talking to the mother of a friend about life.  It had nothing to do with horses, but simply family, friends, and everything in between. The last few months had been filled with what felt like landmines in life, and I just didn’t understand why these catastrophic things were always within my life.  When would the illnesses end?  When would everyone I loved be healthy?  When would everyone I loved be happy?

I lament about how life was unfair, how it was tougher on some more than others. How I felt at times like the bricks were stacked against me, and that I felt like there was no other option than halting and staring, or pivoting away.

And she told me something that stuck.

I can’t change the cards I have been dealt, but I can change how I play them.

I can’t control my situation in its entirety, but my situation surely isn’t the worst, and I am far from the worst case scenarios.

So I brought this idea into my lesson last week, when my trainer had finally arrived back from sunny Aiken.

She asked if I was entered in Spring Bay, and I said no.  Again, life would get in the way. My best friend was getting married that weekend, and standing beside Amy on the biggest day of her life certainly trumped running around the first event of the year.

Amy

Been standing by this girl since rust breeches were in style…

She asked if I would be able to get to Aiken in April or May and I said that I hoped so, but that I needed to start my research projects before I would know.  The life of a scientist is tricky, and moreso, the life of a researcher who studies equine reproduction is unpredictable.  I wouldn’t know if my mares were foaling until merely hours before they did. But, my impact on the future of equine reproduction was more important than schooling some XC fences.

Biopsy

Equine Reproduction Research

So we talked.  About how little of a spring season I may have, and what this could mean.

More importantly, how this wasn’t the end of the world, and how I could still have a great 2019 without it.

Because during our talk, I realized something.

Every year, I get so frustrated with myself that I try to come out hard in the spring.  I enter all of the shows, and demand that we be ready to “move up” in some way or another. Whether it is finally tackling that elusive preliminary event, or getting to 1.20m in the jumpers.  Whether it shifts to that bronze medal, or even just in doing a hunter show.  It’s always changing, and its never worked.

I burn out by August, and I usually end up with a September and October that amount to nothing.

The months when the weather is the best.  When my horse is his most fit.  When I am my most ready.

img_0148

When we are feeling good.

And more importantly, six months away from now. A time the has time.

I don’t need Ocala or Aiken to get to the fall.  I don’t need an indoor arena to prep for those shows.  I don’t need excessive money to keep kicking along through the summer.

Six months away sounds plausible. Six months of long summer days, intense lessons when I can afford them, and smaller prep shows.

And maybe more importantly, six months of fun.

Fun2

Costume class of a hunter pace?  Sign me up. 

Fun that sounds exciting. Six months of hacks with my girlfriends.  Six months of soul soothing flats sound great.  And six months of exciting XC schools with my best friend Mak sounds even better.

We can’t avoid life.

We can’t demand more time.

And we can’t control the next big expense that pops up.

But we can control our outlook on these things.  We can choose to not be defeated and keep our heads up.  We can reroute the roads that lead to there and redo the plans. We can readjust our expectations and rerun the list to get there.

More importantly, we can decide to keep it fun.

And at the end of the day, isn’t that what got us all to this place?  A love of the creatures that we chose as partners and the time we spend with them.  The thrill of galloping down to a big table. 1, 2, 3 and over. A perfect leg yield. A square halt.  Finally getting that change, and finally keeping that left leg on.

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1, 2, 3 and over.  Photo by JJ Sillman. 

But also, finally squeezing in that hack as the sun sets.  Getting to the barn at dusk when it is quietest and you are all alone.  The only noise being horses happily munching on timothy and happy breaths of cool spring air.

That should be enough. And that doesn’t cost any money, will be there at any time, and is so essential to life.

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The Offensive: A Proposed Change To The Industry I Want To Love

There are countless stories swirling the internet, voicing the hundreds of different opinions on this subject.

We have heard Arthur Hancock ask for his industry to limit race day medication.

We have heard PETA call for an end to all of racing.

And we have heard countless others call for a full assessment of that fickle track.

The 22nd horse broke down yesterday, after one of only a handful of days since training resumed. I read that singular news line and my body just collapsed. The breath escaped from my lungs and my chin sank to my chest.

Because yet again, we are caught doing too little. Yet again, we are caught unprepared. Yet again, we find ourselves on the defensive.

And any good coach will tell you that the best place to be is with the ball in your own court. We don’t have that.

And to the dismay of so many, it appeared that the Stronach Group tried. They sent out a press release, describing what they were implementing (at only two of their own tracks) in an effort to fix this catastrophe of catastrophic injury. And this is what they outlined:

  1. Banning the use of Lasix.
  1. Increasing the ban on legal therapeutic NSAIDS, joint injections, shockwave therapy, and anabolic steroids.
  1. Complete transparency of all veterinary records.
  1. Significantly increasing out-of-competition testing.
  1. Increasing the time required for horses to be on-site prior to a race.
  1. A substantial investment by The Stronach Group in diagnostic equipment to aid in the early detection of pre-existing conditions.
  2. Horses in training are only allowed therapeutic medication with a qualified veterinary diagnosis.

I read this, and initially I rolled my eyes.

But then I thought about it and acknowledged that any reform was a decent move towards at least a side conversation.

Because I truly do think that the change in weather played a role in the make up of that one particular track, and that this still needs fully investigated and appraised. Should horses have been doing timed works without any true change? No. Should the track have been opened so soon? No.

But are some of these good points? Sure. And many I can get behind. Many I agree with and have been hoping to see change nation wide.

What I can’t get behind are changes simply to appease the uneducated, and alterations made without data or science to back them up.

And as I lamented of this to a close industry friend, we began to list the things that could actually benefit both ends. The horses, the horsemen, and the entity that is this industry.

Things that need to be within the thinktank for that elusive governing body that we so desperately need. Bullet points that might change the game for the better. Commitments to not only the betterment of animal welfare, but the game itself. And issues that should not be up for discussion.

The trainers, owners, and racetracks should all WANT these things. And if they don’t, then I question their motive for involvement within this business.

1. Medications:

1a: Lasix

Yes, we need to tighten up on medications. Do I think we can wean our industry off of Lasix? Yes. Should we? Yes. Can it be done over one day? No.

So propose a gradual plan. Beginning January 1st, 2020 no Lasix in grades stakes races. Beginning January 1st, 2021, no Lasix in any races. Allow the trainers to transition true bleeders to aftercare locations, or better yet, rest them and regroup like other racing locales do.

1b. Bute:

Do I think bute is causing breakdowns? No. As a competitive rider, I don’t even utilize phenylbutazone in my wheelhouse for the simple fact that I find it quite ineffective in true pain management, and for that turn to flunixin (Banamine). Will it assist a sore horse into some semblance of pain free movement? Yes.

But will it mask a fracture to the point that a lame horse will run sound and simply break? No. Should it be given as often as it has been? No. But that isn’t because of catastrophic injury, but moreso gastrointestinal health.

1c. Joint Injections:

Which leads me to the actual problem: joint injections. The headlines point to oral NSAIDs that don’t truly minimize high pain levels, when the injection of steroids into a joint space actually can. We need to set more stringent limits on how close to a breeze or race a joint injection can be given; and moreso, limits on how OFTEN these injections can be administered. I have read the vet records on these horses and at times wonder how their fetlocks haven’t fused.

If a horse is having steroids placed in its joints monthly, it is ill prepared to run safely.

1d. Osphos:

Finally, Osphos. A therapeutic initially meant for horses struggling with navicular syndrome, it is suddenly being used in young horses in training. And as Dr Larry Bramlage stated, evidence in humans suggests that repeat administration of this substance can delay bone healing and remodeling. This, above all and even moreso than Lasix, should be limited in how often and for what for it is given in our performance horses. A drug so much more powerful than an NSAID, user are astonished at how quickly one injection of this substance can turn a lame horse sound–and that is exactly why it scares me.

2. Whip Rules:

Yes, there needs to be rules on how many times a horse can be struck by the whip and what type of whip is allowed. But at the same time, we also need to educate fans on what exactly whips SHOULD be used for, and the minimal damage that they cause for the horse both mentally and physically. When used correctly, whips are just as much a safety measure themselves as they are a negative in publicity measures. They can be utilized to avoid swerves that can cause horses to slam into one another, and because of that, I believe they are essential. So limit the strokes in the homestretch, but do not propose to take away the ability to carry one.

3. Veterinary Care:

The Stronach Group vows to only allow horses to be receiving medication if under veterinary guidance and diagnosis, and I just have to roll my eyes at this. Trainers are not allowed to inject horses, and heavy fines are already given if even an empty syringe is found in a tack room. So while I agree with the point, I also know just how controlled the backside can be on a good track (which Santa Anita is).

But there is such a thing as bad veterinary work. We have seen it time and time again. Veterinarians make money based on services performed and, at times, drugs administered.

So maybe moreso than regulating just medications, we also force veterinarians to regulate themselves. Explain their treatments. Justify their diagnosis. And put their decisions on the line.

Have them write race certifications. Go over the horse before the race and state on paper that this horse is sound and of the ability to perform. And then hold the veterinarians accountable. If too many horses under a single veterinarian or trainer are vanned off, hold them accountable. Horse can’t race without veterinary permission, just like a broodmare can’t sell without a veterinarian deeming her reproductively fit.

If the individual private veterinarians do not feel comfortable doing so, than the track needs to hire competent veterinarians who do this for them. Their sole job should be to go around to the race entries of the day, feel legs, watch jogs, take temps, and assess overall condition. This might take having 4-5 veterinarians on staff, and I am perfectly fine with that.

4. Strengthen Slaughter Policy:

This is a no brainer to me, but I still feel fright when I see my horses run at particular tracks. If a horse is found at a kill pen within 30 days of training, the last listed trainer and owner should be held accountable. If they can prove a contract was signed and ownership was relinquished, than the listed owner who took the horse and initiated the exchange should be banned from the track. No ifs, no ands, no buts.

We have lowered the number of TB’s who end up at slaughter tremendously. But with the current after care system and environment, there is no excuse for even one horse to land in that pen or one more to need bailed. Utilize TAA. CANTER. Local horsemen. New Vocations or ReRun. Or hell, some euthanasia. The slaughter route needs to be abolished, or we will never earn legitimacy from the public.

5. Drug Testing:

Horses need tested randomly in every race, not just winners or 1-2-3. Testing needs to be done by mass spectrometry, and research needs to be done to properly ensure withdrawal times and then this information needs to be given to trainers due to sensitivity for detection. This needs to be done by licensed laboratories that are blinded to samples.

Trainers and owners need handed stiff penalties for positives ONCE these withdrawal times have been established. And veterinary records taken into consideration when penalties are administered. The case of Masochistic frustrated me beyond belief because everyone was trying to do the right thing, and yet served an unbearable price for it.

At the root of the National Governing Body problem is the drug testing. Each state has different thresholds, different platforms to test, and different rules regarding what is legal and what is not. This leads to nothing but confusion, for horsemen and fans alike, and needs ONE set of rules that are based on fact and pharmacokinetics of the drugs. Not hearsay and prayers.

The best defense is a good offense.

An offense that is eloquent and allocated with facts and data. At this moment, we are so busy backpedaling that we are scared of any change for fear it may change the sport we love so much. But if these past few weeks have showed us anything, it is just how much we need to change to survive.

Yes, things need to change. And not just at Santa Anita or Golden Gate. If Stronach truly wanted credibility, he would enact these changes at all of his tracks, something that I believe may come soon.

But moreso, if we as an industry want credibility, we also need to sit down and think.

About what truly matters.

About what is truly hurting.

About what the general public believes.

About what we as horsemen know.

And moreso, about what the horse deserves.

Because at the end of the day; that is what brought us all in. The love of the horse. And the breath being taken out of your body as you watch that Thoroughbred streak across the ground. Seemingly uninhibited by the cumbersome men surrounding him. Unconcerned by the industry collapsing around him.

We need to protect us. But moreso, we also need to protect them. And we can’t do so by running backwards dodging bullets. Instead, let’s regroup, realign, and mount the best offensive plan possible.

We can afford to lose this battle. But we can’t afford to lose the war. And there’s one hell of a fight ahead of us.

Public Relations

I sat reading the comments under Paulick Reports piece and my eyes just grew wider and wider.

It was a story of an anchor on Sport Illustrated questioning why horse racing was still a thing. With how many deaths it causes – both horse and human – why do we have this sport simply for gambling?

The quote left me saddened. But the comments beneath the post left me angry.

Every single person commented was mad at the reporter.

She didn’t know what she was talking about!

We shouldn’t listen to someone who knew nothing about racing!

Look at football! At boxing! At NASCAR!

And with each comment read, my rage gained. Only that anger wasn’t pointed at Sports Illustrated, or ESPN, or the LA Times, or for once, even PETA.

That rage was turned inward. Towards something I loved. Towards something I admired. Towards something far more internal.

My rage was at my own people. My own industry.

Why do we do this every time something negative comes our way? Why do we deflect instead of defend? We have an entity that is so defendable, and yet we never cite the statistics. We never argue with purpose, or transcend the comments with poise.

Instead, we deflect. We point to other negative images and disgusting ideals. We argue that football players are also injured. That boxers are also left with lingering damage. That NASCAR kills.

But no one was reading that article to hear about the NFL. And no one reading the comments under an article on the Paulick Report doesn’t love racing. Their passion for the sport was obvious, but the target of their point was skewed.

Sports like football have also had their own black marks, and yet they have persisted. And you want to know how?

They have a league.

They have a governing body.

They have a public relations team who’s sole job is not only to put out fires, but to also educate the masses.

The NFL is an entity that now aims to the future instead of arguing the past. They showcase the improvements on helmet construction. The improved concussion policies where players must leave the game to be assessed. Their increase in penalties given for helmet to helmet contact.

All rational progress. Change. Sound bites offered when another trauma is seen. Public relations that leave the fans nodding their heads and thinking, “well, at least we’re trying.”

The public relations that is so key. So necessary. And so lacking in the sport that we all love.

I started this blog because of this dilemma. I saw a lack of outsider knowledge on this beautiful industry. And I knew what it was like to be wary of this sport, and have my eyes opened by transparency.

Because of that, I am blessed and cursed by a large following of non-racing horse lovers. Men and women who have alway thought of the breeding, training, and racing of Thoroughbreds as something dirty. Something compromised. Something tarnished.

And yet I receive messages time and time again about how the transparency of this blog has opened their eyes. Simple stories of small acts of kindness. Stories of breeders falling in love. Owners trying their damndest to save. And farms spending every last nickel and dime of income to secure retirement.

So it came as no surprise to me when my inbox flooded with comments and concerns about the current situation at Santa Anita. Could I answer their questions? Could I inform their naive minds? And more importantly, could I calm their fears?

But I didn’t feel comfortable. I am about as far from Santa Anita as you can get in America, and I have no insider insight. But I at least knew small things.

Like the fact that Santa Anita flew Dr. Mick Peterson out. A colleague and friend from the University of Kentucky, he is the director of our Equine Programs, and he is also the leading research on surfaces. Within days of realizing a problem existed, Mick was there. And that made me feel some calm.

I also knew that the retired track superintendent from yesteryear had come out of retirement just to help. Dennis Moore had spent 30 years working on this specific track, and knew it like the back of his hand. He was there to bring his beloved track back to its former glory, and I was thrilled when that was announced.

And then there was the fact that Santa Anita had closed. Something I had never seen happen in my relatively short tenure within this world without infectious disease. Something that so many considered a move too late – but hindsight is 20/20. To occur before a massive weekend of racing-both for older horses as well as those on the Derby trail. A decision that would lose them more money than I could hope to make in a lifetime. But a decision they committed to, and I applaud them.

But then even moreso, I was privy to the research that is being conducted to both study these breakdowns, as well as predict them. A study by Dr. Laura Kennedy from the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostic Lab who researches the “one bad step” hypothesis. A study by Dr. David Horohov and Dr. Allen Page from the University of Kentucky Gluck Equine Research Center who are attempting to find biomarkers in blood that can predict breakdown. Studies for progress. Studies for improvement. And maybe more importantly, studies that can benefit all breeds of horses, but funded by the thoroughbred industry itself.

And as I wrote these things to the people questioning it, I realized that these are points that the average American wouldn’t have access to. All they are seeing are the 60 second blurbs on NBC. The sound bites on Sports Illustrated. The vitriol of PETA.

Things as simple as a bullet list of what we are doing now. What we have done in the last 10 years. And what we are preparing to do in the future. Change. Progress.

Is it perfect? No. Losing 21 horses in 60 days is devastating – I think we can all agree with that. No one, and I repeat, no one, is taking this lightly. Everyone within this industry is sad. We are scared. We are wary.

But moreso, we should be mad.

We should be mad at ourselves. For letting this bad publicity go unchecked. For reading stories on The BloodHorse and Thoroughbred Daily News and assuming that the average person reads the same. For assuming that this insider knowledge of the situation is broad, and not acknowledging that it is not.

We are not the NFL. We do not have a National governing body, and we desperately need one. I have written of this time and time again, and it is never well received. I am told that a governing body will bring too much regulation. That it will change the sport as we know it. And that those changes will never be for the good.

But if we do not change, we will die.

We can’t keep surviving like this. We can never grow if we do not change. And one of the first things that we need to change is our image. Our ability to handle situations like this current one.

That is going to take a governing body. And maybe more importantly, one hell of a public relations team within it.

Without those things, our sport will disintegrate. With it, we have a hope.

I want to feel hope. I think you all do too.

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Training for Life

I was speaking to my friend Brooke the other day when the conversation quickly turned to one of our most frequent laments….selling horses.

The process of retraining thoroughbreds is quite near and dear to both of our hearts, and we quickly became friends through our journeys at the Retired Racehorse Projects Thoroughbred Makeover, a process that I have blogged often about.

And we admit that retraining these magnificent creatures has given us purpose, has strengthened our riding, and has opened doors to us that we never knew possible.

But as is life, if we are to continue to pay it forward to numerous other horses with our retraining, we are forced to sell or rehome the majority of those that we lay hands on, which allows us to open a stall and a place for the next steed to benefit from the process.

It is simple math – one in, and one out.  But it also is what leads us into our least favorite aspect of the process: The Horse Sale.

And as we lament about the long messages answered, the tire kickers and the overzealous parents, the trials cancelled, and the ridiculous price negotiations, one other part of the process came up which annoyed us both.

The question that was asked time and time again. Over and over.

What exactly are you training him for?

Now Brooke and I both come from diverse worlds – she having grown up in the breed world riding in varying forms of tack, while I ran up the ranks of western disciplines, and added some rodeo, before we both became eventers.

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So while we appear as though to be simply eventers now, we are always perturbed and confused by the question. And maybe we are different.  Maybe we are unique.  Because we are not limited by the discipline in which we actively compete in, and therefore neither are our horses. So we both agreed…

We are not training for a DISCIPLINE.

We are training the horse for LIFE.

I may be considered simply an eventer, but I can guarantee that my exposure of that sales horse to a coop on the cross country course will benefit it in the hunters.  I may be schooling dressage today, but I can guarantee you that those haunches in that I just taught this horse will help him in reining.  And I may have just gone for a walk hack to check out the sights and scenes while cooling out, but you’ll thank me later if you ever want to do endurance.

And more importantly, I do not take on these horses thinking that they will all fit into my wheelhouse, and that was no more true than when I attempted to make Nixon an eventer that entire first year that he just wanted to dance in the sandbox.

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Nixon just wanted to dance. Photo by Melissa Bauer-Herzog

But if you are truly good at this retraining business, and truly in it for the betterment of the horse, than you will quickly realize that the end goal isn’t that the horse fits your hopes and dream, but rather that your lifetime of education around these horses will allow that horse to have hopes and dreams of his own.

And I think of this each time that I get a horse, and begin this process over and over again.

What are the fundamentals?  What can I teach this horse that is important?

And not important for eventing, or dressage, or hunters, or even western pleasure.

What are the fundamentals of simply riding?

It isn’t a piaffe or a puissance that will guarantee these horses a safer future.  It isn’t a 10 on an extended trot, or a 1D barrel run. It isn’t rearing on command or laying down to be mounted.

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Training a horse to simply be a good horse.  Photo by Taylor Pence

It is simply usability.  Rideability. Trainability. Good manners and easiness to be around.

I don’t get on these horses and put them into a frame just because they look prettier in the sales pictures.  I do it because it is teaching them to move off of my leg and accept contact on their mouth.

I don’t only road hack to take pictures of manicured stone walls with perky ears in between, I do it because it exposes them to being off property, seeing scary objects, and responding with the appropriate attitude.

I don’t work with the horses daily just to keep them tired, I do so because on a daily basis there is something else that they can be exposed to – whether it is at a walk or a gallop.

And I don’t ask them to learn anything that I wouldn’t expect from every horse. And this can be as simple as loading onto a trailer, or as complex as an in and out.

We as trainers or horsemen box these horses too quickly and too easily.  And I admit that I have caught myself doing the same thing.  I have gotten on that horse for their first ride and been sure that they will end up a hunter simply because of how they move, only to realize two months later just how far from the truth that can be as they see their first XC fence.  I have watched horses move in the field and assumed they will be superb in dressage, only to realize after popping over a crossrail just how much they love jumping.  And I have free jumped horses who have unlimited scope, only to watch them revolt once fillers are added and a human swings on.

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Everyone thinks Mak should be a hunter…

And that is why my strategy for this crazy game of retraining these thoroughbreds is more simple. Less quarantined.  More open.

Remove my expectations from the equation.

Remove my bias from the equation.

And train usable skills.

Skills as simple as calmly assessing new situations. Being ridden alone or in a group. And even ground manners.

And skills that may seem advanced or of a single discipline, but are truly applicable across the board.  Moving off of the riders leg.  Accepting contact. Being exposed to foreign places and foreign concepts. Adjustability.

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Road hacking my eventers to increase bravery.

I am not training the horse to utilize those skills simply to be an eventer, they are just the things that I have found lead to success in eventing.  But in exchange, none of these skills will take away from the training for future success in any other arena, and they all can enhance that process.

You can lengthen the stride across the diagonal in a dressage test at the preliminary level of eventing, but you also lengthen the stride of the canter as you see your distance in the hunters.  You ask your horse to do shoulder-in at second level of dressage, but you also need that shoulder-in as you round the barrel of your pattern. And you ask for adjustability in the canter to put a 5 in a 6 stride line in the jumper ring, but you also constrict and contract that stride as you charge the ball in polo.

And you need a distance, a tempo, bravery, and a lead change whether you are doing hunters, jumpers, eventing, foxhunting, or anything else requiring a fence.

So no, we do not need to specify that we are training that horse to be a hunter.  And in contrast, we do not need to specify that we are training them to event.

Especially not during those pivotal first few months.

Instead, we need to focus on training them for life.

Those life skills that are needed for all disciplines, and all horses. Skills that are translatable and useful.

By getting out of our own heads, out of our own worlds, and out of our own comfort zones, we can then truly put the horse first.  And by putting the horse first, we open a whole new world of opportunities.  These opportunities might make us feel as though we are teaching our horses more.  Broadening their education and therefore both their ability in addition to their price.  But at the end of the day, maybe these opportunities are truly their to train us. To open our eyes and allow us to fully understand what equestrianism is.  What horsemanship is.

And when that happens, we all benefit. Us, and the horses that brought us here.

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Photo by JJ Sillman.

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Controlling the Future

“But, this is the last one,”  I reasoned with both my fiancé but mostly with myself. “Kennedy is tucked safely in the barn, Sail Maker is over at Lee’s, and the rest are accounted for.  This would be the last one.”

My fiancé Luke stares at me and rolls his eyes, fully knowing that I am moreso rationalizing what I am about to do than asking for permission from him.  He of all people knows that once I set my mind to something, there is no stopping me, including his opinion.

I am staring at my cell phone, watching the short 11 second video that the owner has sent over and over.  I hit pause and zoomed in on each leg, looking for blemishes.  I wind the video forward and backward, noticing every time any of his legs bobbles or mis-steps.

I took a deep breath in, looked up at my fiancé, shrug, and smile nervously.  He shakes his head at me but doesn’t try to stop me.  “You’re a sucker, you know.”

“Yes.  But this is the last one,” I mumble as I hit send on Facebook messenger, offering the hard earned money I had saved to secure him back.

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Five years ago, I would have never been able to do this.  Five years ago, I went to the Subway near my school and watched my credit card get declined for my $6 turkey sub.  Five years ago, my mother listened as I told her that I simply couldn’t afford my horse and was to put him up for sale.  And five years ago, she offered to cover my board for six months while I got myself back on my feet.

But five years ago, I made the mistake of doing it again.  Five years ago, broke and in graduate school, I let myself  fall.  Because five years ago, for the millionth time in my life, I fell in love with a bay thoroughbred. He came in with a tumble, but he came in strong.  And just like that, I lost my heart to Bode.

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People have asked me what it was about this one that made him different.  What made him special?  Unique from the other 500 that either I or my fiancé has brought into this world. And I have to pause before answering.

Was he the most well put together? No.

Was he the biggest mover?  Probably not.

Was he the most well bred? Definitely not.

But what he lacked in pedigree and paper, he made up for with personality.  He made up for with spunk.  He was just, quite simply, different.

He was born on a cold February night, and stuck in his mothers birth canal for over 2 hours.  I was the first to see his nose, clinging to the aluminum walls of trailer that I rode with his mother, attempting to hold her 1400lbs up with my measly 140.  I watched as they pulled him out of her and carried him away at the clinic, sure he was dead after being oxygen deprived for so long.  I stared with a slack jaw as the technician came back into the room to say that he was too wild to place a catheter in. And I giggled as I watched him stand within 15 minutes of being born.

I knew at that moment that I could let out the breath that I had been holding, and replaced it with the love of a foal that became known as Bode.

Bode was a monster of a foal, and with his immense size of frame came an immense personality.  He was born at 165lbs, and towered over the rest of the herd.

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And like many clinic babies, his first friends were humans, and his love of a scratch on his back or a rub on his star quickly became known.

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But as he grew for the next few months, the excitement of his arrival quieted and things on the farm returned to the status quo.  I was working on my doctorate in equine reproduction while my significant other managed the farm that bred Bode.  It was a small operation, and because of this, I got to be actively involved in the daily routine whenever I had a spare moment.

And Bode thrived in the extra attention, quickly becoming a ham. It was to be known that he was the prince.  The one that made the grooms and interns roll their eyes, while Luke chuckled at his antics.

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Photo by Susan Black

And I would go to Bode’s stall and give him just a little bit of extra love; some extra attention.  A good curry or a good snuggle.  In July, I even offered to clip off his baby fuzz, but with the manfriend busy mowing and his groom mucking stalls, it was just me, Bode, the clippers, and a lead rope.  And the massive foal stood there ground tied, unsedated, as I ran the ridiculously loud clippers over his body.  Luke was befuddled.  Mario was amused.

And it was done.  I was hooked.

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But as is life, things changed.

Luke accepted a job on a larger farm as their broodmare manager, and we moved across town. I no longer had unlimited access to this now short yearling that I had become too attached to.  Occasionally we would drive back to that cozy little farm and swing by to say hello to the staff, and on those days, I would swing an arm around Bode and nuzzle my face into his neck.

But I knew that the time was coming for when I would lose even that limited access to this lovable colt, and that it was coming quickly. Bode was entered in the Keeneland September sale, and secured a good spot in book 2.  And I drove out there the day he shipped in to put an eye on what had become of this affectionate foal, and was pleasantly surprised.  He was a stunning colt – still big, and now quite strong. His legs were clean and straight, his topline glistening in the sun.  I knew he would sell well, and sell well he did, coming out of the ring for $150,000.

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Bode at the Keeneland September sale.

But then I lost my control. I lost my input.  I lost my horse.

I knew that with the fall of the gavel, it was like rolling the dice as to where he would go. Who had bought him, and how open they would be with me staying in contact with the foal that I had fallen too hard for.  I knew that with him selling for six figures that he was likely to go to a good home, and also that they would most likely give him a solid go in training.

For years, I waited in the wings.  I contacted first his original buyer, and then the trainer. I mentioned my affiliation with the foal every time I bumped into the bloodstock agent who had bought him at the sales.

And I told each – if and when he is ready for retirement, I will take him, no questions asked.

Because he sold again, and again.  Once through auction, and once privately. I reached out to each and offered my same sound bite of a comment, and yet my messages fell on deaf ears. I never heard back from what I had perceived as the last owner, and just hung my head, believing there was nothing else I could do.

And then he stopped racing.

And then he stopped working.

And then I lost him.

I have written numerous times about how hard it is to track horses that you don’t own.  To the outside, this industry looks like a million people who don’t care.  And yet to the  inside, we all know not only how much we do care, but also how hard that love of the horse can be on an empathetic soul.

There are no GPS trackers on the horses that we love.  There is no online search tool to let you know if they are well.  And sometimes, even if you find the horse, there is nothing you can do to force anyone to do as you believe is best for it.

So a few months ago, during a conversation lamenting all of this to a friend, she asked about Bode.  My inner circle knew how much he meant to me, and that he was the last on the list to be found.  I try not to get too attached to too many, but when one gets into my heart, I will go to the ends of the earth to secure him a peaceful landing.

And I told her that I knew nothing.  He hadn’t raced in almost a year, and there were no current works.  His last listed owner had never responded to my message, and although the trainer had added me on Facebook, my message to him had also gone unread.

He was gone.  There were no other options.

But Meghan didn’t take my defeat quietly.  A true professional at internet digging, when I admitted failure, she took the torch from me and began her own investigation.  An hour later, she told me she had found another connection.  Minutes later, she had found his owner on Facebook.  And with that one tiny thread of information, I felt the slightest reawakening of hope.  But knowing how few responses I had received, I tried not to get excited.

So I sent the same cliche message, and I waited.

I watched the picture pop up that showed it had been read, and I sat on my hands.

And then I saw the bubble appear saying that a response was coming, and I grabbed Luke’s arm.

And then it happened.  He not only responded, but he said that he thought that the horse was ready to retire.  And more importantly, he was going to put him up for sale.

Which led me to this place.

Could I justify not only buying a horse, but also spending the thousands of dollars to ship him across the country?  Could I justify spending money on a horse that I wasn’t putting my own two eyes on, and not even knowing any level of soundness or health?  Could I justify dropping almost all of my savings account on a horse that I was buying with my heart instead of my brain?

This past year I sold four beautiful thoroughbreds, and quite luckily, I sold them easily.  I hadn’t spent much of the money that I had profited, and was sitting on my first savings account in many years, if not for the first time in my life.  These thoroughbreds had been exceptional in all ways.  True athletes, sound in mind and body, and easy to be around.  And with that, they had gone to amazing homes for good prices.

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Reagan.  Photo by JJ Sillman

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Meatball.  Photo by Taylor Pence

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Sig. Photo by JJ Sillman

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Theory. Photo by JJ Sillman

So here I was.  Sitting on a nest egg.  Something I could have invested into my stocks, or set up into a true savings.  I could have utilized it for a more extravagant wedding, or even to benefit the three horses I already owned.

But then what was the point of it all?

These thoroughbreds had saved my life in more ways then one.  They had picked me up in the severe depression after losing my father.  They had gotten me through the loss of my uncle.  They had held me up as I lost relationships, and they had caught my tears countless times as pain dissipated from my body.

And they asked for so little in return.

To be fed.  To have hands ran down their legs and hooves picked.  A break in the wind on the blistery days, and a break in the sun on the hot.

And also, simply to be loved.

It was time to pay it forward.

I already loved Bode.  That in itself was true.  And I was finally, at the age of 32, in a position where I could provide for the rest.

So I messaged the owner back, offered him the money I could afford, and signed on the dotted line.  I purchased a horse I hadn’t laid eyes on in four years, and made the decision with my heart instead of my head.

This morning Bode stepped off the trailer, back into the state in which he first drew breath. He looked up at the same two faces that were the first he ever saw.  And as if no time had passed, he gently butted my hand, looking for a treat or two.

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I do not know what will lie in store for this colt who stole my heart. If he is sound, then I hope to do what I do best – to retrain him into a second career and then find him a forever home that will love him just as much as I do.  If he is pasture sound, then we will find him a herd of his own babies to watch over and supervise.  And if there ever comes a time when he is neither, than the decision will be made by me, and that is all that I can ever ask for.

But as of now, he is with me and Luke.  He is back in the safety of our arms, our eyes, and our care.  For four years now we have been forced into the shadows and been merely bystanders.  We watched from afar, through television sets, databases, and cell phones, knowing our opinion mattered the least.

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And today that changes.  Today he is ours and we are his.  We can’t control the past, but we can control the future.  And that is all that truly matters.

 

 

 

 

2018: The Year of Confusion

A few weeks ago, I broke down in front of my PhD advisor. I felt lost. Trapped. Confused and unsure of where to go.

And we spoke for hours. About what had brought me to this place, and which direction to take towards the future. Mats had moved past the place of boss and had become something of a father figure to me. At times employer, at times a kick in the ass, but also now friend.

And he ended the conversation not by demanding I do a specific something, or by asking me where I saw myself in the future. He didn’t ask me what title or what career I wanted. Instead, he simply asked me what my goal was.

It wasn’t whether or not I wanted to teach. He didn’t demand I stay in research, or that I should strive for the highest tier journal to publish. He just wanted to know what I wanted. Not on paper, not in salary, but in life.

And I told him that I didn’t get this doctorate to earn millions. I didn’t need to publish in Science or Nature. And I didn’t need to be sitting in an endowed chair in 20 years.

I just wanted now what I wanted six years ago when I started school. Ten years ago when I moved to Lexington, Ky. Thirty years ago when I swung on my first pony.

I wanted to have a positive impact on horses.

And as the year of 2018 ends and 2019 begins, I’ve begun to think about this more and more. 2018 was a year of ups and downs. I have not felt more lost since my last vet school application was rejected. I have not felt more confused since I graduated college.

For 6 years now, I have had an end goal. And alongside that end goal, I had personal goals.

I wanted to earn those letters behind my name. I wanted to publish my findings. I wanted to prove to the world that you didn’t need DVM behind your name to help the industry in its entirety.

I also wanted to ride. I wanted to retrain horses that had finished their first career for their next. I wanted to move up the levels and tackle the goals I hadn’t checked off in my teenage years.

I never knew I wanted to write. But once this blog took off, it travelled along an uncontrollable path that even I couldn’t guide. It has allowed me to speak on panels, attend conferences as a journalist, get published in magazines I had read since childhood, and brought me into the barns, homes, and cars with all of you.

But in between all of these things is a proud, sensitive, educated, and confused woman. I got those letters. I moved up that level. I wrote those articles.

But I don’t know where to bring those things together. What is my identity? Where are those silver linings? Who am I? All 2018 has shown me is that I do not know.

Am I an equestrian? A scientist? A blogger? A writer? A reseller? An activist?

I have applied for jobs that utilize my degree only to find out they will eliminate my time in the saddle and my ability to speak my mind. I have found so much joy and pride in my posts that utilize my knowledge of science only to be told by academics to quiet my voice. And at the end of the day, I have thought long and hard about burning my degree and going into horse sales full time. Because if ignorance is bliss, than a doctorate is hell on the mind.

I was trail riding with some of my girlfriends the other day when this topic was brought up. How do you summarize a year? A life?

In ribbons? Publications? Monumental life moments?

Because to the outside world, it would look like I had it all this year. If you polled anyone who follows me, they would smile and say that I got engaged. Sold a bunch of really nice horses. Jumped big fences on Mak. Finally evented Nixon. Got to travel to 4 different countries on 3 continents, all to speak of equine science.

But the outside world doesn’t see the lows. We speak or write of our triumphs without explaining the set backs. The falls. The refusals. The reprimands. And the feeling of failure. Over, and over, and over. My social media doesn’t see the meltdowns at the trailer after another bad trip on XC. My blog doesn’t get to witness my vent sessions to my PhD advisor. And no one sees the long talks in the car with Luke.

I don’t know what the answer is. I know that many near and dear to me have had their own trials and tribulations in 2018, and I just hope that they all know that they are not alone. Loved ones were lost, relationships ended, diagnosis given, and goals set back.

It was a year of hardship. A year of confusion.

There were highs. I can still taste the fish and chips on Raglan Beach in New Zealand. My fiancé’s eyes when he saw the Pacific Ocean off of those cliffs. And knowing that my adventure into science and academia got us to that moment. I’m so lucky to have experienced moments like this.

But there were lows. Lows that nearly kicked my ankles out from under me, and yet still I kicked on. Did that next trot set. Galloped that next table. Wrote that discussion and faced those naysayers.

My 2018 can only be described as confused. It was one of ups and downs. Mountains and plateaus. But at the end of the day, I made it. You made it. We all got through it.

So as this year ends and the next begins, I don’t feel able to set any big resolutions. I learned from 2018 that what I can write on paper and you all can visualize alongside me aren’t what makes me happy.

I don’t want a big salary, or a blue ribbon. I don’t want a huge wedding, or the launch of a business.

I just want to do what I set out to do all those years ago. What I told Mats I wanted to do.

I want to have an impact on the industry that I love. Whether that is by teaching students how to induce ovulation, finding biomarkers for ascending placentitis, selling a 4yo off the track Thoroughbred to a 4* rider, or blogging of my stories in the breeding industry, I am not sure.

I hope it is all of the above, and I hope it brings me happiness. I hope your 2019 is full of happiness too.

The Makeover: Is The Risk Worth The Reward?

I was recently asked by a friend if the Thoroughbred Makeover was worth it.

Was it worth the cost?

The time?

The exhaustion, the nerves, the pressure?

And I told her that if her goal was to have this single horse show be a goal to finish the year on, rather than the end all-be all of her horses life, then yes. If you thought of it as one more mile on the long and at times arduous roads that you will take with that single horse, then yes.

If you were doing it with dollar signs and stories of grandeur in your eyes, then no.

This was a month ago. Before the current raise of entry fees and the rule book for 2019 was published. And I still stand by this comment, and hope you all will heed my argument.

When I entered Called to Serve in 2015, the TB Makeover was in its infancy. It was the beginning of its journey at the Kentucky Horse Park; and as a local eventer, I expected the show to cost a comparable amount to any other show that I have participated in there. It is roughly $300 to enter a recognized event or dressage show, and was nearly $450 to do a single division at a USHJA A show. When you get an insiders view of the Kentucky Horse Park and just how much it costs to rent one facility or arena, nonetheless twelve, you begin to realize just how hard the organizers have it, and how much the fees are out of their hands.

But the entry was the least of my worries. How it fit with my business model was the greatest worry I had.

My usually business model consists of this:

1. Find the horse.

2. Get the horse exposed to as many things as possible.

3. Sell horse before horse kills himself.

And for me, this means setting a goal of selling between 30-120 days of training, obviously praying for the lower end of that range.

So for me, it wasn’t the $200 to enter that scared me, it was the $350/month board, $150/month farrier, $5,000/running through the fence vet bill, and $7500/colic surgery that did.

My risk was about to increase much more by adjusting that 30 days to 10 months, and I wondered if the reward would justify it.

And I realized that it depends on what you set the reward at.

Is the reward in selling that horse? Then no, a financial advisor would tell you that owning a horse for one year and selling it after an unrecognized show is not a good financial decision.

Is the reward winning the entire competition and walking away with $15,000? Well, 500 entered and only 1 did that, so again, I would forewarn that the odds are stacked against you. I even won my division, and would heed the warning that most horses just KNOW when you are “rich” and immediately slip and fall in the mud. If you’re particularly lucky, they do so the day before a PPE.

But if the reward is different, if the reward is less quantitative, then yes. You should enter.

If the reward is developing friendships that last a lifetime, go for it.

If the reward is getting to compete at the storied Kentucky Horse Park where the greats have launched over 4* fences, get in there.

If the reward is taking a thoroughbred off of the track who was famed for his terrible demeanor and dangerous reputation, and showing off his balance, beauty, and brilliance as a sport horse, then you’ve found your reason.

Do I think that the Thoroughbred Makeover can get better? Heck ya, and I’ve been the first to tell their followers, their board, and even their president. Do I think they should have warned interested competitors that fees would increase and not demand this increase immediately following the holidays? You bet ya, and I have already spoken my piece. There was room for growth in 2015 when I did it, but the margin for that growth has decreased as the years continued on.

I love some of the rule changes. Optimum times in the jumpers, emphasis on jumping in eventing; and a longer duration of showing to give horses breaks.

I also love that the organization is willing to listen. Do they demand us to believe they are perfect? No. They are the first to ask for input and opinion, and answer almost all requests.

But do I still think that the reward can be worth the risk? It’s 100% up to you as an individual.

Some people might feel that the reward is so great that they can, and will, continue to enter year in and year out. Others, like me, will do it once and end up with a horse that is a lifer. And some others may simply watch from the wings and learn from each individuals endeavor.

And if the risk is too great, that is fine. You can still take on that Thoroughbred. Set that end of the year goal as another show or simply a trail ride. Be the best ambassador that you can be for this amazing breed. No organization, entity, or person can, or should, stop you.

Mak (not my RRP TB) at the TIP championships.

To most, my takeaway from my personal Makeover experience would simply look like a huge check and a big blue ribbon. But what they don’t realize is that I’ve already spent the money on adult equine-related things, a goat ate the ribbon, and all I was left with was the experience.

I made amazing friends. I experienced a dressage test that still brings tears to my eyes. And I developed a horse that was given to me to show just how much these horses can change.

So, if those rewards are the ones you are seeking–do it. Get that entry in. Because, trust me, $300 is worth every penny of that reward.

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Getting your groove back

About a year ago, I rode in a clinic with my young, and very difficult, horse Nixon.

Immediately before the clinic, my friend Brooke reached out to me and asked how I was doing with Nixon.  Was I making any progress?  Any training advice?  Any bit changes?  Exercised, or even gimmicks?

Because she had taken on a quirky thoroughbred herself, and was about at her wits end with him.  We commiserated on those tough horses, and lamented on how they mentally did us in on a daily basis.

And then we both tacked up and headed off to that clinic.

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Nixon.  Photo by JJ Sillman

True to form, neither Kulik nor Nixon behaved.  Both were hot.  Both were strong.  Both were freakishly talented, and both big fancy movers.  But when they decided that they were done, they were done. And both Brooke and I were exhausted. Ready to throw in the towel.  Ready to admit defeat before either of us got hurt, or worse.

And after the clinic, we both hit a wall.  Kulik strained a tendon, and Nixon tore some more brain cells, but Brooke and I stayed in contact.

I watched as she leaned on her other horse for comfort in the dressage arena, as I found my own confidence return with my steadier horse Mak.  And occasionally, we would message each other to ask if it was even worth it to bring our other horses back.  She lamented on the fact that she was, quite simply, scared.  She only felt comfortable in that dressage arena on that safer horse.  But what would she do with Kulik if she never threw a leg over him again? How do you sell that hot of a horse? How do you give away a horse that you fear can hurt someone?

And yet, after months of rehabbing his injury, the springtime found Kulik sound, and in need of a job. But after all of those months only weakening her confidence in him, Brooke wasn’t sure she was the one up for the task.

But, being a true equestrian and horsewoman, she knew she couldn’t just throw away a horse she had committed to.  So she reached out to a friend for help.

Insert, Tay.

For most of the summer, we got to watch as Tay brought Kulik’s body back.  But with each ride, it was evident that she was also rehabbing his brain.  At first it was just some small cavelettis, focusing on adjustability. But then the jumps grew bigger, and it became evident that both body and brain were being healed.

Raised in the equitation and jumper world, Tay truly vibed with this more sensitive ride, and was able to ride without an ounce of doubt or anxiety – which was exactly what Kulik needed in this transition. And with each ride with Tay in the tack, it became evident that he was coming back. That he could come back.  That he would come back.

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Tay and Kulik.  New Vocations Charity Horse Show. Winslow Photography.

And yet, as happens so often, social media blew up.  As we see too often, people felt the need to offer an opinion or give unsolicited advice. Friends began asking Brooke why she wasn’t riding.  Why wasn’t she the one on in the videos?  The one jumping the big oxers or the bending lines?  Why was she scared when he looked like such a simple ride for Tay?  Why wasn’t she showing him?  Why wasn’t she braver? Better? More involved?

And I would wonder…why do they care?

Because each time, Brooke would then reach out to me, and in frustration and sadness, she would ask how I handled these suggestions.  How did I explain to people that my horse was too hard for me?  That I was in over my head?  That I was just, quite simply, scared.

Because I of all people knew what it was like to have my confidence be shot, and the vicious cycle that it ensues when you are riding backwards on an already mentally damaged horse.

A mentally imbalanced horse with a mentally damaged rider never ends in success, and Brooke knew this without me ever having to say a word.

She knew that one part of the equation needed to be remedied for any hope of success.  She knew what the outside didn’t have the tact to realize: that by removing herself from the equation, she could rehabilitate that one half, thanks in huge part to a rider whose frame of mind and bravery were fully intact.  And on the other side, she could still build her skill set on her other horse, all while playing owner with Kulik – something she quickly realized she quite enjoyed.

It wasn’t admitting defeat, or giving in to fear.  It wasn’t tossing in the towel or listing the horse for sale in frustration.  Brooke chose the hard road, removed her ego from the equation, and reached out for help – something so few equestrians readily do.

And as the months went on, we got to watch their relationship grow inward from opposing ends.  Brooke found her confidence renewed in herself while riding other horses, while Kulik became a more confident horse under the tutelage of Tay.

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Gaining confidence on other horses.

We knew it was working when summer began to turn to fall, and I began to get different messages from Brooke.

They were no longer lamenting or full of strife, but instead inquiring into what I thought about her entering a little jumper show, or maybe a combined test.  Would this particular mini trial be appropriate?  And how did I think that recognized event would be designed? Would the jumps be maxed?

I slowly watched the spark come back into my friends eye, where once there was simply fear.  I watched as this fear of eventing turn back towards excitement.  And I watched as she found happiness in her horse again. I watched as she finally swung up onto the saddle and listened to Tay’s advice on the ride she needed to give.  I watched as the reins were handed over, and Brooke took back the ride that had been so carefully repaired.

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Kulik and Brooke

This past weekend, she entered in the culmination of our eventing season in Lexington, KY; Hagyard Midsouth and Team Challenge at the Kentucky Horse Park.

The courses are maxed.  The park exists in a frenzy. And to top it off, the weather is always brisk.

And yet with each phase, we all watched as Brooke got her groove back.

A steady dressage. A flowing stadium.  And finally, after a full of year of trials and tribulations, a double clean cross country.  Where once fear and anxiety existed, there was a cool confidence in both of them.  Where my inbox would have been filled with a meltdown, the messages were replaced with photos and videos and exited updates. But maybe more important was that instead of being obsessed with the scores on Eventing Nation or the ribbons adorning the stalls, I found my friend focused on her reinvigorated spirit.

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Brooke getting her groove back.  Photo by Tay Wienold.

A horse so many thought was done.  A rider who was ready to call it quits.  A friend who could become trainer and help repair the two entities.

And, at the end of the day, a renewed love of the sport.

I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for this duo, but am also wanting to just take a moment and exist happily within the current moment.  Forget the plans for winter trips to Aiken, or move ups to Novice.  Ignore the idea of AECs or clinics with Olympians.

Let us all relish in this one day.

One where we got to watch a horse woman do whats right by her horse, regardless of the outside perceptions.  A horse who was able to be reversed dangerous hothead to capable partner. The ability to remove ego, ignore keyboard warriors, and reach for outside assistance.  Because at the end of the day, all of those things were needed to repair this relationship, and with that repair, Brooke and Kulik have their groove back, and now the future looks oh so bright.

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Brooke and Tay at Team Challenge

 

 

Luck

Last night, I was invited to speak to a group of young women from the equine programs of Lake Erie College, which is an institution that is near and dear to my heart.

Having existed just a stones throw from my hometown of Meadville, PA, we horse showed there often. Many of my friends attended, and many memories were made there.

Showing at LEC as a child

So when I was asked to share my broad experiences about the equine industry, I willingly accepted the offer.

We started with an overview of my CV. I explained my background and my education, and I expounded on my entry into the land of thoroughbreds. I impressed upon them to gain as much experience doing as diverse of things as possible, because every experience would have an impact on their lives.

I told them to take that marketing class, and make sure to pay attention in their business lectures. To be cognizant of what they post on social media, and to realize that at all moments, someone is watching them. I explained to them that they did not just represent themselves, but their advisor and their entire college.

And at the end of the talk, I was surrounded. By twenty 18 year olds who could care less about that marketing and communications minor, or that class on public speaking.

What did they care about?

Selling horses.

They were all dumbfounded that I was successfully able to retrain and sell a number of off track thoroughbreds, and wanted to know what my recipe was for success.

What everyone assumes is success. And luck.

And I laughed at them, shrugged my shoulders, and said I was lucky.

I was lucky to have found myself unemployed in 2008 after graduating from college with a 3.4 in biology. I was lucky that this pushed me to desperation and eventually a job mucking stalls on a thoroughbred breeding farm. A job mucking stalls that eventually turned into a management position. And a position that allowed me to meet so many influential people in this industry who recognized me as a good hand and now offer me their retired stock.

Evaluating young stock

I am lucky that in that position managing farms, I was forced to access conformation. I was forced to learn pedigrees. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by phenomenal eyes on biomechanics of horses, and blessed to have them teach me about which flaws they could live with, and which would lead to soundness issues. I was thrown into the sales where I was asked to appraise those flaws and assess movement, which a ton more money on the line.

Watching horses move

I am lucky that I nearly failed organic chemistry, and that my advisor and father recommended that I up my GPA by taking classes in the arts. Creative writing, public speaking, and communications. Classes that I took to fluff up those grades, but that I now use daily as I write my ads for these horses, understanding just how to present something. Which photos to use and what draws an eye in. How to write a catchy ad and communicate to buyers.

Learning to be brave

I am lucky that my childhood horse decided that he didn’t want to be an event horse. And that in desperation and frustration I moved to Wyoming to take a break. I am lucky that during that break, I learned how to let a horse be a horse and how to force a rider to not impede this process. I was lucky enough to learn bravery outside of the confines of an arena and on the backs of 200 horses of mixed breeds, level of training, and bravery.

Using that bravery

I am lucky that I didn’t get into veterinary school and eventually went back to get my doctorate. I am lucky that that career as a scientist opened up my schedule, while still paying me enough to gamble on these horses. I am lucky in that I have a career to pay the bills and I don’t have to be at constant risk of one of these horses running through a fence and bankrupting me.

And finally, I’m lucky to be lucky. Because I have been within the four walls of this industry long enough to know how much luck plays a role. And I also have personally witnessed when luck runs out. I still own a horse 3 years later who was supposed to bring me $30,000. A horse who has his shoes pulled and who’s only job is to babysit the new projects. A horse who checked every box and ticked every requirement. And yet who’s brain never held up and whose body never vetted.

I know what it’s like to find the most special horse and have them run through a fence. Or to find the diamond in the rough only to have them get into a trailering accident. I’ve witnessed horses hit a fence and never be the same, and I’ve watched horses lose their confidence over something as simple as a bad step.

But you can increase your luck to risk ratio by investing the time, patience, education, and ability into the next project. By working a season for a farm, and learning about conformation assessment. By taking that marketing class and educating yourself on advertisement. By investing in those riding lessons, and learning from the best on how to be your most confident self. By getting out of the arena and finding comfort in various experiences. And by meeting those connections on the racetrack, offering a firm handshake, and then holding yourself to your word.

All of these things seem so opposite to one another and yet I find them to be so crucial to my success. It isn’t simply finding the nice horses. It isn’t simple training the nice horses. It isn’t simply marketing the nice horses. And it isn’t simply luck.

The unicorn glitter. Photo by Taylor Pence

It is all of those things rolled into one with some unicorn glitter thrown into the mix.

And at the end of the day, does any of it truly matter? Because beyond luck, and jealousy, and education, and failure, is the most important thing. And that is providing these horses with a second chance. Because while my resume may have depth and breadth, it is the horses resume that is developed underneath me which sets them up for future success, future fun, and future safety.

And that is exactly what the end game is for me. And why I’ll keep doing it as long as I stay lucky.

A Decade Ago

A decade ago, my mother sat us down and said she had signed a DNI.

A decade ago, I rushed to the hospital to ask my dad if it was true only to find him semi unconscious and untouched by my presence.

A decade ago, I paced the halls of an oncology ward, listen to “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” by Gary Allen at 2 o’clock in the morning.

A decade ago, I watched as so many friends, family, and loved ones came to say good bye to the greatest man they’ve ever known.

A decade ago, I also said good bye to this legend.

A decade later, I can’t believe it’s been a decade.

There is something so jarring about memories that are permanently engraved in your brain. Like an etch-a-sketch that can’t be shaken away, no amount of sunsets, alcoholic beverages, or therapy can remove that 24 hours from my mind.

I was twenty two and I thought I knew everything. I had just graduated from college. I was moving to Lexington, Kentucky to pursue my dreams. I was moving in with my first boyfriend. I was an adult. I had fully grown.

Only I hadn’t.

Because like all dark days, there is a pre- and a post. They are jarring. They are scarring. And they will forever change you.

The minute I walked out of that hospital, I was a different person than the girl who had walked in.

I was less reactive. I had already seen the worst, so what else was there to see?

I was more protective. I understood what a loss that you could never regain meant. This wasn’t a break up or a move across state lines. I would never see him again. Indefinitely.

I was sedate. I know this sounds strange, but it felt as though quick sand had risen up to my chest. I can remember calmly driving the hour and a half home. I can remember stoically shopping for the dress I would wear to the funeral. I can remember calmly facing my first love at the calling hours and telling him that this wasn’t the place to speak. And I can remember calmly walking to that pew and giving my first eulogy.

I know what my high school friends were wearing. I can remember the grimace on my grandmothers face. I can taste the Twizzler that my brother handed me before the service and the Miller Lite my sister handed me after.

But maybe that’s what brings light to the dark days, and why those memories are so thoroughly etched into my brain; forever nonerasable.

Because the first few dark days were truly dark. The first few September 5th’s were so bleak. But then like cracks in the shield, lightness slowly seeped in.

I stopped thinking of everything as B.D. and A.D.

Before Dad and After Dad.

I stopped envisioning the disease and started remembering the man.

And I stopped allowing myself to be labelled as damaged goods. I wasn’t just the girl who lost her father. I was the farm manager. The equestrian. The scientist. The girlfriend. The fiancé. The friend.

And with those realizations, I started to see the glimmer of hope.

In 10 years, so much as changed. My siblings have both married amazing people and I am engaged to a third – none of which my dad had the privilege to meet, but both of which his best friends thoroughly interrogated.

All three of us have finished our graduate degrees. My sister as an orthopedic surgeon, my brother as an attorney, and me with a doctorate. He didn’t get to go to a single graduation, but my mother and aunt cheered loudly enough for him.

Because B.D. was such an amazing time, it set the bar high for A.D. But we retaliated. We took those cards and played the best hand we possibly could.

But it’s been a decade. Ten years. 3,650 days. 5,256,000 minutes.

I can remember his face but I can’t remember his voice.

I can envision his words of criticism and confidence, but I don’t remember his phone number.

And yet without thinking, I still try to hit send on my contact list, a decade later.

I have now spent almost half of my life without my father in comparison to what i got. I have conquered so many goals, and yet lost so many battles. I have paved paths and wandered aimlessly. I have hit the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows.

With him, we had one hell of a family. A decade later, without him, we still do.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that a decade later, I still love him. There is no past tense to that declaration. But a decade later, I am so much stronger. So much better. So much braver. And none of that would be true if a decade ago I hadn’t faced the worst 24 hours of my life.

So on this dark day, that is what I think of. How bad it was. How hard it was. How breathtaking it was. How excruciating it was.

And yet, how much it changed me. How much it molded me. How much it strengthened me. And how much it defined the next ten years.

Twenty two years of preparation with him, and ten years of a gauntlet after. Sink or swim, they say. Do or die.

Well, we did, Dad. We treaded water for a while, but then we swam. It only took a decade. But we’re here. Head above the surf.

And that’s surely something to be proud of. To be amazed by. And for that, we thank you.

I love you Dad. 10 to 2.