Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: Building Trust Through New Experiences

Dom thoroughbred aftercare Thoroughbred Makeover retired racehorse Hanneman obstacle challenge Minnesota Horse Expo training equine OTTB off-track Thoroughbred
Jessica Hanneman and Dom continue to prepare for the 2023 Thoroughbred Makeover in the fall. (Huppert Photography)

Listening to the needs of our horses is one of the most important things we can do as owners, riders, and trainers. As humans, sometimes we get caught up in our ambitions and goals, but riding is a team sport and the needs of the horse have to be considered above our wants and desires.

Dom has been lucky enough to have been owned and trained by people who realized that racing wasn’t for him. He has several published workouts, but rather than being pushed into a sport he wasn’t meant for, his team decided it would be best if he retired before racing and have a chance at a second career.

Huppert Photography

Just like those in his life before me, listening to Dom and his needs is of the utmost importance to me and was my main focus during his first off-property experience this past month at the Minnesota Horse Expo. In fact, our motto that weekend was “it’s all about Dom,” which meant that Dom’s needs came first. The belief was that if Dom was happy, felt safe, and had all of his needs met, then it was far more likely that he would have a positive experience and keep me safe in return.

My goal taking Dom to the Minnesota Horse Expo was to identify what we need to work on in preparation for the Thoroughbred Makeover competition in October. Living in the Western Wisconsin/Twin Cities area, there are not many local opportunities to ride at large venues comparable to the Kentucky Horse Park. The Minnesota Horse Expo is Minnesota’s largest equine trade show and is held every year at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. It is a huge event for our area, with people coming from around the Midwest to represent various horse breeds, find merchandise, and learn from speakers, trainers, and clinicians.

To make the most of our time at the Expo and to expose him to as much as possible, we signed up to represent the Thoroughbred breed in the Parade of Breeds, the Breed Demo, and the Obstacle Challenge.

Our first event at the Expo was the Obstacle Challenge, which had 10 obstacles and a few minutes to complete the challenge. We were one of the last in the novice group and stood at the entrance ready to go, but just before we went one of the volunteers helped move the flag to make it easier to grab. But as the flag waved, I saw Dom’s ears go forward, his head lift up, and his body freeze. He was nervous and even though we had practiced with flags before, he was convinced that THIS flag might attack him.

Unfortunately, grabbing the flag and carrying it through a pattern was the first obstacle, so we spent the majority of our time working through his fear to help him gain confidence. Finally, I was able to reach the flag and we completed the pattern. Although I had hoped we would get through more obstacles, it was more important for our training to work through his fear, build trust, and overcome it together.

If this had happened at another show, I would have been incredibly embarrassed. I was in a big arena, in front of a crowd of people and was the only person who completed just one obstacle, but the weekend was “all about Dom.” And what Dom needed in that moment was a partner he could trust and someone to show him he had nothing to fear. By the next day, all of our hard work paid off. Not only did we make it through the flag obstacle, but we made it through the “cowboy curtain” as well! We only made it through two of ten obstacles, but as we left the arena, I had the biggest smile on my face because I was so incredibly proud of the progress Dom had made!

Another challenge we faced was entering and exiting the colosseum for the Parade of Breeds and Breed Demo. The colosseum has stadium seating, people coming and going, music playing, and an announcer’s voice echoing all around. With all of the movement and commotion, it was a lot for Dom to take in!

Huppert Photography

We found that having a person or horse accompany him up to the gate helped Dom feel safe when he entered or exited the colosseum. Building confidence and trust between us is something we will continue to work on, but by listening to him and what he needed, we were able to enter without too much fuss and had a safe and successful ride during our exhibitions. Dom was a little anxious as we trotted around, but he gave me his all, tried his best every step of the way, and by our last performance, he was able to walk out of the colosseum without any help!

By the last day, Dom was mentally exhausted. Although my hope was to participate in all of our events that weekend, Dom was telling me he needed a break. So, instead of pushing him past his limits, I listened to him and gave him the day to eat hay, relax, go on few hand-walks, and get all of the love and attention from everyone who passed by his stall (which he LOVED by the way).

To me, Dom and I accomplished all of our goals. We stayed safe, found our limits, identified areas we will improve, and represented the Thoroughbred in a positive light. But most importantly we built trust in one another and grew as a team. We relied on each other to get through the weekend, tackled every new challenge that came our way, and will continue to overcome more obstacles as we have more off-property experiences this summer. It is my belief that developing a partnership, connection, and trust with your horse is fundamental to having a successful long-lasting relationship, and as long as you respect, value, and listen to them, then they will give that back to you in return.

The Jockey Club supports many aftercare initiatives including the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, the only accrediting body in aftercare, and Thoroughbred Incentive Program (T.I.P.), which encourages the retraining of Thoroughbreds into other disciplines upon completion of careers. View all of the initiatives supported by The Jockey Club.

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