Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: Moving Out of the Comfort Zone

Mellissa Perrin-Keithly and Shanghaied stepped out of their comfort zone preparing for the Retired Racehorse Project's 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover. (Mellissa Perrin-Keithly)

This year, America’s Best Racing and the Retired Racehorse Project will be sharing diaries from several trainers preparing for the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover competition, scheduled for Oct. 2-5 at the Kentucky Horse Park.

We are approximately 65 days out from the Retired Racehorse Project's 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover. Shanghaied, myself, and my teammate Oliver “Pop Pop” Keithly are in full swing toward our goal of competing in Kentucky. I am working daily with Shanghaied at our farm in Maine, and Pop Pop is continuing his weekly lessons in Pennsylvania. Pop Pop is coming up in August to work with Shanghaied at the farm.

Up until two weeks ago, I was in my comfort zone training Shanghaied in my dressage saddle and bridle. Shanghaied and I participated in two clinics and we were making progress toward relaxation, balance, and rhythm.

Shanghaied (Courtesy of Mellissa Perrin-Keithly)

However, when I was asked about the 2019 makeover, I heard myself stating that we were competing in Competitive Trail and riding western. But the truth is, I had yet to fit Shanghaied to a western saddle or bridle, yet to ride Shanghaied over any obstacles, yet to teach him to back up through a dog leg, go over a jump, around cones, or over a blue tarp — all of which could be included in the 10 obstacles we could be facing in the competition. It was time to move out of our comfort zone!

The good news is last week we purchased a handsome used western saddle that fits Shanghaied. I transitioned his bit and bridle, too. I am not a stranger to riding western; it is how I began riding as a 6-year-old girl competing in western pleasure, trail, and gymkhana classes on my paint horse, Jasper.

Shanghaied is transitioning well into his new gear and style. Our farm looks like a versatility clinic is happening daily with borrowed jumps, blue tarps hanging, kiddie pools, and logs. I am very fortunate to have room to ride at the farm in the fields and up and down the hills. I take him out early in the mornings before it gets hot and work the hills for conditioning. Then, in the afternoon or early evening, we work on the obstacles. We are having so much fun!

Pop Pop is also having fun in Pennsylvania continuing with his riding lessons. He rides weekly this summer at a great barn packed with lessons and kids riding in camps.

After his weekly lesson, we speak on the phone, debrief about what he has learned on his horse, Comanche, and share a few laughs. He is working on the foundation of walk, trot, canter, and transitions. Pop Pop has mastered the back up and moving over the ground poles and they are working on opening up gates, dragging logs, and more!

Last week’s debriefing was a bit different. It began with “I had my first fall.” Of course, my heart sank and I awaited my father-in-law’s story.

Pop Pop riding Comanche. (Courtesy of Mellissa Perrin-Keithly)

He was in the indoor arena warming up Comanche and was riding past the open doorway, like he has done many times before. But on this day there was a wedding-tent company erecting a huge tent outside and it took Comanche by surprise — he spooked, did a rollback, and Pop Pop slid off the back. Comanche just stood there and looked at him. Without injury, Pop Pop did what every “cowboy” would do: he got right back on the horse!

He mentioned to me with pride, “I got on Comanche from the ground.” Let’s keep in mind — Pop Pop is 75 years old and is getting back on his horse from the ground, not the mounting block. He will most likely have to do this during the competition so we are all practicing it and getting limber. Shanghaied is 16.1 hands ... not 15.2 like Comanche.

I am so proud of Pop Pop; he is working so hard. Last week, his lesson was not solo, he was riding in the middle of a camp lesson with five or six kids riding English and trotting all around him. One girl stopped and said, “Is that a western saddle? You must be a real cowboy!”

Of course, when I heard this I had tears of joy. Here he is, a retired motorcycle racer, riding around on a horse name Comanche in western gear, falling off, getting back on from the ground, taking on all obstacles in stride, riding in a camp lesson with a bunch of kids in bright colored helmets and hairbows ... yes, he is a real cowboy!

I say this every month, but I am so grateful for our team, our horse Shanghaied, and this opportunity to live outside our comfort zones!

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