Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: Laying a Foundation for Saintly Ballad

Saintly Ballad, now called Athena, trains with Maria Elena Moran. (Courtesy Maria Elena Moran)

In my many years of professionally training various horse breeds for multiple disciplines, I have found my greatest tools to be my background in natural horsemanship and my mounted police training to create a partnership built on trust, leadership, and confidence. When working with my own horses or helping other people with their horses, I have seen huge improvements and endless possibilities with the addition of those two training modalities with horses and riders of every discipline and level of experience. 

Personally, when I think about the greatest transformation a horse could make, it would be a rescued horse who has experienced trauma and neglect to metamorphose into a brave, fearless police horse, a beloved community ambassador of what has been thrown away now being of infinite worth. So every rescued horse that enters my hands, I train as if I was preparing my next police mount.

Resting is an important element of recovery. (Courtesy Maria Elena Moran)

This mental dedication to a huge goal is quite an undertaking, a self-imposed responsibility to right all of the wrongs, build trust, create a relaxed animal, find the holes in understanding and fill them in, rehabilitate many injuries and illness, expose to every bit of sight/sound/touch sensory I can think of in all environments, and create a horse rideable by men/women/children of all experience levels, who is gentle and loving to a child yet still fearless in battle. In making this commitment to the horse and myself, I do my absolute best to lay the foundation brick by brick.

You must be thinking, well, certainly many horses not only don’t have the physical or mental ability to handle such a job but they may also not fit the stringent criteria of height, age, sex, and soundness … and you’re right. Generally, a large percentage of police horse candidates will enter a trial period with a mounted unit only to be deemed unsuitable after a few months or weeks on the job. The job not only takes an unflappable, trusting, and forgiving equine partner, but they also must be very sound for the long days on sometimes hard surfaces. 

What could be the downfall to preparing a horse for such a notable career to not make the cut and “just” end up in a loving home set up to be a brave and skilled fox hunter, trail horse, obstacle competitor, dressage horse, etc.? Well, there is no downfall! Setting a horse up for success by shooting for the stars means that they will gain a useful skill set to ensure their safety (from entering the auction or slaughter pipeline again) and promotes the safety of their future passengers.

"Athena" is enthusiastic about overcoming obstacles, literally and figuratively. (Courtesy Maria Elena Moran)

The first thing one can do before training a horse for a BIG job is to lay a sturdy foundation. In laying that foundation, we often notice the “check engine light” is on with a few indicators. To be able to have a relaxed and focused equine student, all of their comfort and safety issues need to be resolved. We cannot learn or be athletic if we don’t feel well and the same goes for our equine friends.

My 2020 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover hopeful Saintly Ballad, or “Athena,” as I fondly call her, had a lot of weight to gain before I could ask her to use any calories in exercise. She had been rescued from a Louisiana pen bound for slaughter and when she arrived at the Gerda’s Equine Rescue quarantine in Vermont, she had an evaluation from a veterinarian to address any pressing issues that would cause her discomfort during her rest period. 

Athena had a high worm count, sharp teeth, and many wounds to doctor up. She was very body sore but after resting for a few months, she improved and was ready to come to me for training. Upon arriving at my farm in New York, I handled her daily and watched how she ate grass in turnout, watched her reaction to grooming various places on her body, and observed her soundness level as she played in the field.

We worked with our Purina nutritional consultant, Christine Siracusa, to create a diet that would help her move up two Henneke body scale numbers gently within the next few months, and we made sure Athena had top-quality hay and alfalfa to consume, as well as some supportive nutritional supplementation.

I had her soundness evaluated by a veterinarian specializing in lameness and he also ran a few tests on organ function and a CBC. It was determined that Athena had a vitamin E and selenium deficiency that would also prevent some weight gain as well as having a serious case of Lyme disease.

"Athena" learns to push a ball. (Courtesy Maria Elena Moran)

Athena was also treated for ulcers along with the antibiotics for Lyme, received multiple joint injections to her hocks and sacroiliac joints to feel comfortable, had several chiropractor appointments, and a physical therapist to work on her physical imbalances, tight inflexible body, and a torn back muscle. We use the BEMER Equine Unit blanket and boots daily to speed up cellular microcirculation and improve recovery. The process to making Athena physically whole is still ongoing and so we gently train while the process goes on and adjust physical treatments as need be.

Athena began her groundwork training in late December, teaching her that every time she is handled, she is not going to a race or be anxious or stressed is a daily task. We began our training by making sure she was very educated in how to move her body in the correct relaxed posture when backing up, turning on the forehand and haunches, going sideways as well as being able to stretch. 

To engage her mind I started teaching her tricks like the Spanish walk, smile, and kiss. We rotate our training environments from indoor arena, outdoor arena, and hilly field where she is now very comfortable lunging at all gaits over obstacles, going through obstacle courses in hand, and has been wearing a saddle as she works. 

The greatest endeavor with a rescued animal is working to undo and repair much of the physical damage and mental baggage that they carry from their past. She was fondly nicknamed Athena as I believe she has the heart of a warrior and will not only overcome her past but have the heart of a champion in the future. Stay tuned for next month’s blog where I will discuss what goes into training a police horse, what these horses must know and be exposed to for their job, and how I am preparing Athena daily in my own training routine.

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