Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: Embracing the Unexpected

Phantom and Magoo enjoying turnout together. (Courtesy of Erin O'Keefe)

If the last six months have taught me anything, it’s to embrace the unexpected, to avoid becoming too attached to plans, and to continually alter my course, finding joy within the chaos. As you are aware, the Thoroughbred Makeover itself is the latest part of our journey to change. In light of COVID-19 concerns, and with a goal to give competitors the experience they hoped for, the decision was made to postpone the 2020 Makeover and run it at the same time as the 2021 Makeover. I know this decision was not easy for the team at the Retired Racehorse Project to make, and was done with the best interest of everyone in mind.

As someone who is not intending to sell either of my horses, and who was “behind” in training, and was looking ahead at an unexpectedly hectic fall, I was honestly a bit relieved at the decision. Could we have been ready in October? Yes. Would my boys have showcased the BEST of the breed to spectators, and truly shown what they were capable of with “10 months” of retraining? No. Would I have slept at all this summer or fall? Unlikely. So, when the decision was announced, there was relief in knowing what the modifications to the competition would be, and relief as I once again pivoted and made a new plan for these boys.

Phantom and owner Daniel Schmidt. (Courtesy of Erin O'Keefe)

With the change to the Makeover, we were given multiple options for how to proceed, based on our horse’s eligibility and our preference. The “Mega Makeover” will run the 2020 and 2021 competitions simultaneously next fall. Though the horses will compete at the same event, they will compete against horses of the same eligibility and training time. Magoo has had a saddle on once since leaving last fall, and I have ridden him two other times bareback, with a handful of in-hand exposures to trail obstacles. Because of his last race date, and less than 15 training sessions, he is still 2021 eligible. So we will be competing in the 2021 division of the Mega Makeover!

This means we will be staying under 15 training sessions, and taking the rest of the summer and fall to grow some hoof, gain some weight, and hopefully learn how to stop having the weirdest injuries/ issues ever. He is currently turned out with Phantom and my other OTTB, comes inside every night to keep our yearling on stall rest company, and seems to be loving life. We still don’t know for sure if he will be sound for riding long term, but he’s been staying sound despite being turned out with his rambunctious (and not always self preserving) brothers in a large field. In the event riding isn’t possible for him, he will be a yearling babysitter, so he’s getting a great test run this month as well. No part of our journey this year has been what I anticipated, but I am still first and foremost thankful that this sweet boy is in my barn, whatever the future holds.

Due to the amount of training Phantom has had, as well as his last (and only) race, he will be competing in the 2020 division of the Makeover. When we last updated, Phantom was enjoying his first turn out. After 30 days of turnout (with his trusty babysitter Oliver), Phantom had his next recheck. And I was asked my favorite question to get during a lameness evaluation, “which leg was the bad one?” – because he was that sound at the jog! We took radiographs to see if there was any arthritis from his injury, and the joint was clean. He was cleared to (slowly and carefully) return to work.

Magoo enjoying this time on the Theraplate. (Courtesy of Erin O'Keefe)

With Phantom cleared to work, and Magoo on the bench, Phantom gets all the training rides, a situation he has strongly mixed feelings about. Phantom retired from racing because “he doesn’t want to be a racehorse and I can’t make him.” As we ride more, it’s pretty easy to see why that conclusion was reached. And at 17.1 hands and 1,350 pounds (yes, we put him on a scale), you can’t really “make” him do anything. To help build muscle, we are going for hacks around the farm, up and down lots of hills. In theory, our official training program involves hill work, exposure to new things, bending and responsiveness work, and working until I say we’re done. In practice, we wander around the field and argue about whether or not we should stop to watch the butterflies (he’s strongly a member of the team “stop and smell the flowers”).

I love Phantom, and have since he was a foal. When he sold as a yearling, I hoped to one day have him back. So I say this with a heart full of love for this giant, sweet, horse: he is not smart. Most Thoroughbreds are smart; Phantom is not one of them. He likes to take his time to process things, he doesn’t like to try new things, and he needs A LOT of reassurance in training. He is a big, goofy horse, who can look breathtakingly majestic one moment, and completely derpy the next. So, a loosely structured training program, where we work on trusting each other and trying new things, is exactly what he needs.

Our new goal for the fall is to be fit and responsive enough to justify a dressage lesson this fall. Phantom is going to take time to learn how to use his whole body properly, and that process is both physical and mental. Our focus is to build on small mental victories each ride, while gaining the necessary fitness to try a little more each week. And small victories are really small. Two weeks ago, it took 15 minutes for us to walk through a gate. This week? He didn’t even pause. And you would have thought he’d just won Rolex for all the praise he got. Maybe next week we’ll try something really crazy like walking over a log, or through a puddle!

Our journey to the Makeover is going to take a little longer than planned, but this competition is just one piece of what I hope is a lifetime of learning and growing with these two horses.

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