I am entered in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover. And with this entry, I get to be in a Facebook group for the trainers. While entries were accepted only a few weeks ago, many trainers are already lamenting on their failures, their setbacks, and their soundness issues. And yet for every post about a failure, another trainer is posting a photo of their horse at its first horse show, or jumping its first XC fence.
And there begins the comments, or posts, about rushing horses, pushing them too hard, or overfacing them. It is a constant battle in our little equestrian community. Do we push horses too hard? Or do we not push them hard enough? Are you overfacing your horse? Or dawdling away with your time? While not the perfect scenario, there are now numerous competitions based on a time frame for the training scale. The RRP TB Makeover is just one.
And while all of these people are already panicking about their horses progress, I am sitting in Kentucky without a horse.
And yet I am not worried about this major flaw in my plan for the 2016 RRP TB Makeover. I am not new to this retraining, and I am not worried because I know how different each horse comes to the training table. I know that some might be ready to be showcased in the makeover after only a few weeks, while others may not be ready after years. I have retrained enough ex-racehorses to acknowledge this. And yet I will approach my horse shopping in the same manner that I always do. I will make sure that they are sound, of a certain frame and build and age, and pray to the Horse God’s that they have a good brain.
I am in the same spot that I was last year. With my one in/one out horse sales policy, I can never take on numerous mounts. Exactly a year ago, on March 14th, 2015, I had just sold my previous retraining project. I was in the exact same spot – while many trainers were already panicked about their progress, I didn’t even have a horse in my barn. But just like this year, I wasn’t concerned, acknowledging that the RRP TB Makeover is just another day in the year. Another day to showcase the ability and beauty of the thoroughbred. Something that I was already doing long before RRP, and something that I will continue to do long after.
And as I began surfing through photos of Mason, my previous sale horse, I began to realize just how well he and my current sales horse Called to Serve, or Nixon oppose each other. And just how much they describe my rule of thumb to let the horse dictate the ride. Not a friends Facebook page, not a fellow trainers show record. The horse.
I got Cold as Stone, or Mason (Dehere – A Song in A Minor ’10), at the end of August, 2014. He had been let down from the track and turned out for almost a year. He was sound and sturdy, with good feet, and a great brain.
Mason turned out to be quirky but honest. He was talented and true, but tended to overreact to many obstacles in his path. But he LOVED to jump. And because of this, and his extreme soundness, we let him jump. It kept his brain happy, it kept our rides happy, and in exchange, he was able to be introduced into the world of competition rather quickly. Within a month of retraining, he was at his first hunter pace, and within two months, he ran his first unrecognized Beginner Novice HT, where he finished on his dressage score of 34.
Mason dictated his speed in training, and we listened. He was naturally elegant in the dressage, brave and careful in the jumping, and took to eventing rather quickly.
But more importantly, he was let down, sound, and sane. I wasn’t fighting a tendon issue, or dealing with a horse crashing off of a high sugar diet while I was trying to teach him how to leg yield at the walk. He came to me ready for a new job, and took to this new job like a fish out of water. He is still bravely moving forward in his training with his new trainer, and this makes me so happy.
Flash forward two months later, and Called to Serve, or Nixon, was introduced to my life.
Nixon was last raced at the end of March 2015, and was let down for only two months. Like Mason, he also retired sound, but had had a much more lengthy and legitimate race career. Where Mason had only raced 9 times, Nixon had raced 24. Where Mason had stayed in the states of Ohio and Kentucky, Nixon had travelled the world. And where Mason had barely hit the board in Maiden Claimers, Nixon was a G1 placed, G3 winner of almost $500,000. Nixon did not like letdown. Nixon craved a job, and he was given to me at the end of May, 2015.
But unlike Mason, Nixon did not take to eventing like a fish out of water. I began my training in an almost identical fashion. Lots of hacking, lots of “little” obstacles, and lots of field trips. But where Mason took to jumping as if he had been doing it his entire life, Nixon took to it as a steeplechaser. The faster the better, and if that meant rails needed to be broken and his mom needed to pee her pants, well, so be it.
Because of this, instead of pushing forward, I pulled back. Although my heart and soul knew that he would eventually be a fantastic event horse, my brain told me that he wasn’t ready for it just yet. This was because of a combination of reasons – his brain, his speed, his heart. His athleticism was unregulated, having been allowed to get away with many bad habits at the track. And I don’t say this lightly, nor do I project this onto other racehorses. Mason had come to me with cadenced gaits and a students brain. But Nixon had come to me with a reputation. There are stories on ESPN and the Daily Racing Form telling of him taking off with world class jockeys. There are stories of him racing without his tongue tie or noseband simply because he said “no”. And these behaviors translated into our rides. He was boss, I was a minion.
So we regrouped. We went back to the sandbox, and began to work on things as simple as half halts. I wanted to be able to compress his gaits and obtain his attention. I wanted the rides to be a conversation, not a Donald Trump Political Rally.
And because of this, because of our “failures,” his dressage prowess became unheard of, and we all know where this landed us – straight into the winner’s circle of the 2015 RRP TB Makeover in the Dressage Discipline.
So this is where his training ended, right? With the RRP TB Makeover? No, of course not.
Because I knew all along that Nixon’s and my journey wasn’t completed by a single horse show. I also recognized that although he succeeded in dressage, I still believed he was meant for eventing. So after The Makeover, after we had built up his foundation on the flat, we went back to the drawing board in jumping.
Nixon began making great strides in his jumping last fall, and this has carried over drastically through the winter and into this spring. He is now careful and scopey, brave but willing. And instead of dictating the ride, he asks me for help, which I willingly offer. Our rides are a democracy, not a dictatorship. And this makes me so happy.
If you had asked me last summer how my training with him was going, I would have sighed and spoken of the failures and how we were moving backwards instead of forwards, so similar to how these Facebook posts read. I would have lamented on his difficulties, instead of acknowledging his abilities. He was already brave. He was already a beautiful mover. He was already sound.
All that I had to do was maintain those traits while building up his knowledge. While adding to his skill set. While entertaining his brain and introducing new concepts.
It might have taken longer than it did with Mason. It might have taken almost a year to get him to an event instead of a month. But does it matter? No. And why, you might ask? Because I know that both of them eventually reached the same place. They are both competent, skilled, beautiful horses. There are no holes in their training, there are no major flaws in their soundness. They both got to that place via different routes, but both routes brought them there.
That is what it means to be a good trainer. A good trainer doesn’t put a horse in a box. A good trainer doesn’t just succeed with a single type of horse. A good trainer finds the horses strengths and utilizes them to rebuild their weaknesses. They take their time. But time is relevant. Time can mean one minute, or one life.
Let the horse be the clock. Let the horse turn the hands. It might feel like you are moving in slow motion, but the dials will still turn. And while it feels like you are moving backwards, you are not. Because lets be honest, we really can only move in one direction: forward. So keep going. One foot in front of the other. Some of us might be walking, some of us might be running, and some of us might be like Nixon – galloping straight through life. But we’ll all get to the finish line, I can promise you of this.