Somehow, in the blink of an eye nine months have passed. When I think back on our first rides this winter over snow-covered muddy ground, it feels both like yesterday and like a faraway memory all at the same time. When I sat down to write this last pre-Makeover blog I had plans to detail our last two shows and map out our final 30 days of preparation but instead, I found myself truly overcome with emotion as I think back on what this journey has been like and the big takeaways that I have learned. So I hope you will indulge me a bit for this month’s blog.
The process of retraining a Thoroughbred racehorse for another discipline and life after racing is, quite frankly, not for the faint of heart. Training any horse, in general, is not for the faint of heart but to take a supreme athlete who has been told its whole life that it has one job, and change its mind and body into something that can do an entirely different job in a year (or in many cases, less) for something like the Thoroughbred Makeover is just downright hard. Regardless of the sport, horses never fail to humble us.
Much of my life I have spent riding and training OTTBs – it’s actually how I truly fell in love with the sport of horse racing. To say that exposure to these horses living their life after the track is directly responsible for my career in the Thoroughbred industry today would not be an exaggeration. All throughout my life I have sought out and ridden these amazing horses. I am plugged into the aftercare community more than the average industry member, and feel that I have a pretty good handle on the process of transitioning and retraining our equine athletes from track to show ring and beyond. So, when I say that the process of transitioning Odin (Oak Hill) from racehorse to dressage horse was 10 times harder than I thought it would be, I am not saying it lightly.
The process hasn’t been hard and eye-opening because Odin has been a particularly hard case – quite the opposite. I could not have asked for a kinder, more forgiving, more honest, more level-headed horse to go on this journey with. He has totally won my heart and filled a void, at least partially, that I wasn’t sure would ever be filled again after losing my old man last year. But the process, in general, is hard, much harder than I believe that many in the Thoroughbred industry understand it to be.
I’ve been open about the physical struggles that we’ve had to overcome with Odin this year, and quite frankly without the top-notch combo of vet, chiropractor, and farrier that we have behind us, I’m certain that we would not be making it to the Makeover at all. The Makeover isn’t for every horse and certainly had I been aiming for it from Day 1, I might not have picked Odin. It’s been a time-consuming and financially taxing endeavor to get this horse to this point. The other day when he did a beautiful 15-meter circle with proper bend I nearly burst into tears. Nine months ago it would have been impossible for him to do it so comfortably, or at all.
Every horse comes off the track with different needs and the job that so many retrainers and aftercare facilities are doing to identify and address those needs is still an underappreciated service to this industry. That might be jarring to hear for some, but in my experience throughout my career – and especially this year – the vast majority of the Thoroughbred community, even the ones donating yearly to aftercare, still do not truly understand what goes into transitioning these animals after the track.
This isn’t really meant to be a criticism on the industry, though I do believe much work is still to be done on the aftercare front, but more a love letter to all the men and women across the country who ensure that our equine athletes are well educated and best placed into the discipline and level that they are most likely to be happy at. These people, who I have gotten to know even better this year, truly love the Thoroughbred. To hear them talk about the horses – their work ethic, their athleticism, their heart – just solidifies my belief in this breed and in many ways, the sport of horse racing.
Earlier this year I posed a question to my fellow Makeover Trainers, “What is the one thing you wish the Thoroughbred industry knew about the process of retraining OTTBs for a second career?”
Quite frankly, I could write an entire blog series on the responses which were vast in number and thoughtful, covering many different topics. Without question though, the one overarching theme was this – soundness on the track does not necessarily equal soundness in another career. Those retraining for aftercare want racing owners and trainers to take more ownership and responsibility of their horses, particularly the injured ones, and to be better educated about what challenges the retrainers are facing. I’m here, as a member of the Thoroughbred industry, to tell you that they’re absolutely right.
Aftercare has come a long way in the past 20 years but we still have a very long way to go. Organizations like Retired Racehorse Project are giving the industry more opportunities than ever before to show off their horses after their racing days are over. I believe that there are exciting times ahead for aftercare and more members of the Thoroughbred industry are seeking ways to be better stewards of their retired horses. I hope that more and more members of our industry get involved in the Thoroughbred Makeover, either as trainers or remaining in as owners or both. And certainly, I hope that everyone involved in this business who is in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 12-15 stops by the Kentucky Horse Park and sees firsthand the wonderful showcase of Thoroughbreds that will be on display. Maybe you will find yourself, as I have been this year, truly inspired and motivated to continue pushing the aftercare conversation further.
To my fellow trainers – we made it! I hope you all take a moment to enjoy the accomplishment of making it this far; I know it wasn’t easy. I can’t wait to meet everyone and their OTTBs in person next month and to continue celebrating this breed that we all love.