Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: Back in Saddle, and Excited for Future with Odin

Aftercare
Leah Alessandroni, shown with her late 'heart horse' Mystic, is pointing toward the 2022 Thoroughbred Makeover with a new arrival to her barn, Odin. (Courtesy of Leah Alessandroni)

In October of 2021 I lost my heart horse of 20 years. Mystic was in his 30s and had been retired for some time, but our paths first crossed when I was in middle school – and now, in my 30s, I could barely remember a time without him.

About 10 years ago I had bought a second horse, an OTTB war horse with 55 starts and two Breeders' Cup World Championship runs to his name. Romp was hot, as hot as they come, but he was also ultra-talented and I truly enjoyed riding him despite the many challenges. But when a pasture accident forced his early retirement, I was left with two horses who were lifetime keepers and no more funds to support a third. So I settled into life with those two retirees and focused on my career, buying a house, and being an adult.

So when Mystic passed, under the heavy grief there was a small spark of relief, of hope, as if his final parting gift to me was opening another door to another chapter. The opportunity to get back in the saddle began to become a reality. Everyone said it would be just like riding a bike after years away, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I was more than a little skeptical of that sentiment.

Odin’s conformation picture. (Courtesy of Leah Alessandroni)

Riding and training were some of my first real jobs and helped me make ends meet throughout high school and college. Riding OTTBs and my love of the breed is what ultimately led me from south Florida to Lexington, Ky. Riding and training horses in my youth helped set in motion the events that led me to where I am today, with a career that I love in the Thoroughbred breeding and racing industry. In fact, one of my first jobs in Kentucky was interning at the Secretariat Center. However, after many years out of the saddle (with the exception of trail rides when a friend had an extra horse to share), the task of retraining not only myself but a newly retired OTTB seemed daunting and I wasn’t sure if I would truly be up for the task.

I knew with my budget I would be looking for a horse with little to no retraining and that was fine; however, I knew that considering my current state, I would need to find something that was about as amateur friendly as possible, that had a solid brain and… that was about all I knew.

Did I want to go back to my hunter/jumper roots? Did I want to continue the eventing that I’d dabbled in since moving to Kentucky? Did I want to focus solely on dressage and leave the jumping for my younger years? Or did I simply want to trail ride with friends and hack around the farm?

Without having my riding “sea legs” back I had no idea what direction I would want to go in, and I had no idea if my nerve would come back for things like eventing or any jumping. So, when I was horse shopping I often felt like I was wandering around in the dark. Everyone thinks they need the flashy “next big thing” and at first that was my instinct. But it didn’t take long for me to realize how unreasonable and unrealistic that was. I wasn’t buying a horse to retrain quickly and sell; I knew my riding skills were no longer up to speed for that task. I knew that I didn’t need to say no to a horse that checked all the other boxes just because it had a small limitation. I needed a safe bet and a solid citizen; I didn’t need to go out and win championships. I needed to have FUN. 

Leah and Odin. (Courtesy of Leah Alessandroni)

After a few months of searching and a handful of failed attempts to buy others, I stumbled upon a 5-year-old, nearly 16.3-hand chestnut gelding that a friend was selling who happened to live just down the road from me (pretty ironic after the cross-country search I’d previously been on). Having been solidly in the bay camp my entire life, I admit that I initially inquired about him mainly out of desperation and frustration at trying to buy horses in this insane market, but when the seller told me he was by Distorted Humor, who I consider to be one of the classiest Thoroughbred stallions around, I knew I had to at least meet this horse in person.

The seller was pretty brutally honest that she was, due to her very pregnant state, not going to be riding this horse and therefore wouldn’t be able to provide me with much more details about him other than that he appeared, in the short time she’d had him, to have a great brain and had been easy to deal with.

The day I went to see Oak Hill it was pouring rain, naturally, and when he wasn’t fazed by being in the barn alone, or by the many ducks running around, or by the pig sauntering down the barn aisle, or by the plastic bag that the storm blew his direction I had pretty much decided that despite some bigger ankles, this was the animal I needed. A video of him trotting and cantering around the field was enough to convince me of his soundness, and the next day I arrived with a trailer to take him home.

After passing a post-purchase exam (hallelujah!) from my vet, I let myself get attached to this giant chestnut chromey animal who absolutely looks like the redheaded stepchild in the field of bays he lives with but who has so far proven daily to be exactly the right horse that I needed at this time in my life.

That’s not to say that he hasn’t put all my horsemanship skills to the test with his “Red Horse Syndrome” which, as it turns out, is absolutely not a myth as I previously thought. Still, he has not only lifted my spirits back up but also lifted Romp’s, who was really grieving after losing his buddy Mystic.

Applying for the Retired Racehorse Project’s 2022 Thoroughbred Makeover was initially not at all my plan. But when I realized Oak Hill’s (now known around the barn as Odin) last race date of 7/24/21 made him eligible, I debated it daily until the literal last minute and finally thought “what the heck,” decided dressage was all I realistically would be able to take on, and hit submit on my application.

And so here I am, accepted into the 2022 Thoroughbred Makeover. After processing it for a few weeks, I still pretty much feel fear and nauseousness, but also genuine excitement.

This is an event that I truly love and believe in and have volunteered at a few times in the past. It is always so cool to go and spend a week surrounded by new OTTBs and see all the amazing things they and their trainers have accomplished. I'm very excited to finally participate from the position of a trainer and to have a solid goal to work towards over the next eight months. I know it will be a hard process that will take a lot of dedication, but as Glennon Doyle frequently reminds us “we can do hard things!” Hopefully along the way I can help build some bridges between the racing world and the OTTB world and really use this experience to spark personal growth as well as to continue the conversation of aftercare within the Thoroughbred industry.

So that’s it.... we're Makeover bound and I will be reciting this mantra every day until then (and also drinking wine): heels down, eyes up, deep breaths. Let’s do this!

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