Lindsay Gilbert
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Lindsay Gilbert

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Making it to the Makeover: Taking the Scenic Route

Ride number four and first canter! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert. Ride number four and first canter! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

The ground has thawed, and what little snow the crazy Kentucky weather decided to produce is long gone. Green grass is peeking through, ready to make an appearance. We’re just days away from April, marking three months since Java has come off the track. Here we are 90 days in, and yet, we are still less than 10 rides under saddle.

This time last year I hadn’t even met Rebel yet. I was nervous, and I was worried about our six-month timeline and how we would fare against horses with months more time and training under their belt. So, when I picked up Java in early January, I had a plan. Getting my Makeover horse early this year meant so many things. It meant more time, a better bond, a higher level of training, more show miles before making the short trek to the horse park in October. I knew where I wanted to be and I knew exactly how to get there. My plan was foolproof.

But, in true equine fashion, nothing ever happens as expected. So here I am, nearly three months in with only a handful of rides under saddle. Whatever plan I thought I had in place has long since dissolved. But, surprisingly, I’m content.

Much to my surprise, Java’s lack of training up to this point doesn’t bother me. Unlike last year, I’m not uneasy or concerned about this journey, because now I know that’s exactly what this is — a journey.

It’s not about the destination, or the number on the score sheet hanging in the covered arena. It’s about every day from now until then. It’s about each sunrise we watch from her stall window as I groom, each trail ride, meandering aimlessly as we see new things, build muscle and talk about life. It’s about taking Java’s personality into account and listening to the unspoken ways she tells me what she needs and wants during this journey.

Java is a laid back, slow-paced, mellow girl who is happiest taking it easy. Her calm demeanor tells me exactly how she  wants to approach training. And after four years on the track and nearly 50 races, it’s my job to listen and oblige. She deserves the down time. Even though her muscles are no longer sore, she’s happy and sound, she deserves an easy transition with no real destination just yet.

So, we’ll sit back and watch, cheering on our friends and other competitors as they jump bigger fences, bring home the blues at shows and accomplish feat after amazing feat. We’ll be their biggest fans and talk of the day when we’ll go to shows and join in on the fun — when Java tells me she’s ready.

For now, we’ll trail ride and snuggle, lunge and build muscle, enjoying the views as we take the scenic route. We’ll breathe in the fresh air on the winding back roads of our journey, in no rush to get anywhere but exactly where we are.

Lindsay is the owner of Transitions Sport Horses, based in Lexington, Kentucky. She participated in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover on Rebel Annie and is back again in 2017 with Hot Java. Keep up with their journey here on EN and via her blog, Making It to the Thoroughbred Makeover!

Making It to the Makeover: The Battle

Yesterday, I pulled up to the barn and waited for my student like usual. I expected to see her walk in the from the field excited for her first lesson back and ready to jump. Instead, I saw a hanging head, tears in her eyes, her mud-covered horse dragging along at the end of the lead rope and I heard the words that have crossed every rider’s mind a dozen times…

“I’m done. I don’t want to ride. I don’t want a horse anymore.”

My heart sank for her as she fought through tears and tried to explain that horses are a lot of work and it just wasn’t fun anymore. And I knew exactly where she was coming from. How many times have I battled between my passion and the work that has to be put in to pursue that passion?

A lot. The answer is a lot. No one tells you as a little girl how many sleepless nights you’ll have wondering when an abscess will drain, how many tears you’ll cry when your horse doesn’t feel like being caught, and how many times your heart will break when you felt like you gave it your all and it still wasn’t good enough. Or maybe they did tell me, I just wasn’t listening … In any case, it’s scary, it’s hard and it doesn’t get any easier.

Run! She’ll never catch us! Photo by Lindsay Gilbert.

Run! She’ll never catch us! Photo by Lindsay Gilbert.

What are you doing on the ground? Photo by Lindsay Gilbert.

What are you doing on the ground? Photo by Lindsay Gilbert.

I felt that same feeling when I opened my email and saw the subject line that read: Your Thoroughbred Makeover Application Has Been Accepted. I was ecstatic, elated, excited (and I’m sure a bunch of other e-words I can’t think of right now) but at the same time, my heart sank. I knew this journey would not be an easy one. It would mean more late nights, tears and anxiety wondering if my training methods would hold up against the time crunch, wondering if I had chosen the right horse, wondering if I would make a fool out of myself when it came to packing up and heading to the Kentucky Horse Park.

But, just like my student promised to give it her best shot and leave the negative thoughts on the ground, I, too, will do the same. And the feeling she felt after nailing her three-stride line on a horse that had just weeks before left her with stitches in her lip, the same feeling I had when she dismounted, hugged her horse and thanked me for the best lesson, that’s the feeling that keeps us all going, that promises things will get better (but only after they get worse) and that convinces us to pursue a crazy dream that we never know if we can accomplish until we get there.

Lindsay is the owner of Transitions Sport Horses, based in Lexington, Kentucky. She participated in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover on Rebel Annie and is back again in 2017 with Hot Java. Keep up with their journey here on EN and via her blog, Making It to the Thoroughbred Makeover!

Silencing Doubt

Photo courtesy of Natasia Lind. Photo courtesy of Natasia Lind.

Last Saturday morning, on an unseasonably warm day in February, I hooked up my trailer and tried not to think about what I was doing. I loaded my 17-hand dragon of a Thoroughbred and hauled 10 minutes down the road to a small dressage show at the Kentucky Horse Park. I hadn’t had the courage to show him in over a year. I was nervous, I was scared of him, and I was fully ready to be publicly embarrassed by what I knew would be a sad attempt at dressage.

But, trying to take my mind off the impending train wreck, I made three goals: one easy, one attainable, and one possibly pushing it.

  • Make it to the show and finish our test.
  • Stay soft, supple and thinking the majority of the time.
  • Potentially score higher than one other competitor.

With my three goals in mind, I saddled up my dragon horse and crossed every bone in my body that we’d make it through in one piece.

Much to my surprise, my dragon turned into a puppy from the moment a stepped into the stirrups. Lou carried me through an extremely hectic warm-up without so much as batting an eye. He tested me as we stepped into the covered arena, questioning whether we really had to go dance in the sandbox and not quite believing me when I told him that the letters were not horse-eating monsters. But, with the help of some wonderful friends offering advice and support, we trotted down centerline and, three minutes later, we halted at X still in one piece.

Staying soft and supple, surprisingly. Photo courtesy of Natasia Lind.

I fought back tears as I thanked the judge and choked back a sob when she told me I had a nice horse on my hands. I knew that, I had always known that, but I never thought it would come to fruition. So, as we headed back to the trailer I couldn’t contain my smile that we had actually accomplished something in our partnership. The color of the ribbon, if I even got one, didn’t even cross my mind, because in my heart I knew that we had just passed a huge milestone and no score, comment, ribbon (or lack thereof) could take that away.

So, later, when I headed back into the show office to collect my test, eager to see what the judge had said and to start working harder on any shortcomings they pointed out, I was in awe to see a blue ribbon clipped to a test with my number on it!

Lou wondering what all the fuss is about. Photo courtesy of Brooke Schafer.

That blue ribbon didn’t mean that I was better than the other riders. It didn’t mean my horse was fancier or that we worked harder. It didn’t tell me that we were superior in any way. No, that $3 blue ribbon quietly told me that there was hope. It humbled me as it whispered “I told you so, if you had just listened before.” It reminded me that for so long doubt and uncertainty had ruled me, letting opportunities pass me by that should have been mine for the taking. If I had just had the courage to try.

A year ago, all of the hope that originally filled me when I brought Lou home was gone. After our move to the bluegrass state, he was unmanageable, he was dangerous. With many tears and sleepless nights I had accepted the fact that what I thought was my upper level prospect was only ever going to be a fancy, prancing pasture ornament. When people would ask me about him, my dejected response was always something along the lines of “He’s broken,” “His brain doesn’t work,” or “Who knows what’s going to happen with him.”

I had tried my best to figure him out and my best didn’t seem to be good enough. The horse that once had a bright future had totally dissolved before my eyes. I was ready to give up when, one fateful day, I spent FOUR LONG HOURS (seriously) trying to catch him. Right then and there, I told myself something needed to change. This was not an abused pony that was fearful of people. He had no excuse and neither did I. He had my number and it was all my fault. But I was not going to let what could possibly be the best horse that I’d ever had get away because I had given up. I don’t wear defeat well, so I made a change.

We moved to a new barn, established a routine and I faced my fears. Day in and day out, I watched my horse change. He came out of his shell, he started meeting me at the fence, he started enjoying my company and really trying under saddle. Days, weeks and months went by and progress came slowly at first, and then all at once.

But there was one thing I still wasn’t facing. My fear of taking him off the property, of doing something with him, of actually showing, still ate away at me. What if he reverted back to his old ways? What if I lost my horse again? What if I wasn’t good enough?

Why I decided to enter him, I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t let myself think about it. Why I actually went through with it, I have no clue. But what I do know is walking away with a happy horse and a successful test is slowly sparking a fire within me. A fire to face my fears, to silence the doubt inside me and to relentlessly chase my dreams.

So, here we go. You have no idea what you’ve started, Lou.

Lindsay is the owner of Transitions Sport Horses, based in Lexington, Kentucky. She participated in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover on Rebel Annie and is back again in 2017 with Hot Java. Keep up with their journey here on EN and via her blog, Making It to the Thoroughbred Makeover!

When Good Sellers Go Bad

Hits a little closer to home when you find yourself in this situation (me, circa 2008). Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert. Hits a little closer to home when you find yourself in this situation (me, circa 2008). Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

We’ve all heard horse sale horror stories. The number of blatant lies being told, the amount of deceit and deception running rampant in the horse industry is appalling. Maybe it happens due to pure neglect, maybe it’s a lack of knowledge or just general apathy. Maybe people get into this profession for all the wrong reasons. We may never know, but the problem lies right before our eyes, and who is responsible for picking up the slack? We all are.

The number of blatant lies being told, the amount of deceit and deception running rampant in the horse industry is appalling. I hear stories about horses that were misrepresented to buyers, people who ended up hurt and horses who stepped onto the wrong trailer because someone decided not to tell the truth. And the fact of the matter is for every lie that’s told, every excuse that’s made, and every attempt to cover up the truth, there’s someone who has to pick up the pieces and clean up the mess. Someone like me.

I got into this profession for the love of a horse. I’m not one looking for a quick profit and it’s not about the money, it’s about the process of taking horses with uncertain futures and giving them the skills necessary to succeed. It’s about the joy that comes with every frustrating, thankless moment of finding them their perfect match or their next step in life. To me, it’s not a game, it’s not about coming out on top, or the pursuit of a dollar.

No. To me, and to every other person out there selling horses, it’s a responsibility.

We are privileged to have these amazing animals come into our lives, to affect us in so many ways. And how do we repay them? It should be with honesty, integrity, and with every effort made to secure them a bright future and a long, happy life. There is no animal in this world that deserves to be misrepresented and no buyer who should be blinded to the truth.

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Misrepresenting horses is annoying at best and downright dangerous at the worst. Just yesterday, I was speaking to someone about a horse I have for sale. One I advertised as green but willing, with a solid foundation who would make a wonderful youth horse in the near future. So when the buyer asked me if the horse had a bucking problem, I was as a little taken aback. When he mentioned he can’t handle a horse who puts his head between his knees and acts like a bronco, I was confused.

Did he not read my ad? Did the words “Youth Horse” mean something different to him?

It hurt me knowing that this buyer had to question my word because it meant that, at some point, someone had lied to him. They had put him on a horse who was not a youth horse and had a dangerous habit. When buyers have to question the validity of my statements because somewhere along the road they were lied to, that’s not OK.

Here’s the thing– I understand the frustration. I know what it’s like to have horses that are hard to sell. In fact, I have two standing in my barn right now. Two horses that may live out their days with me because they’re unsellable. They’re tough, mentally and physically, and it’s my responsibility as their current owner, their trainer, and their person to see they never end up in a bad situation. I owe that to these horses. And so does every single other person with a horse they call their own. If you can’t offer a safe place until the right home comes along, if you can’t afford to wait it out and ensure your horse is placed in the right home, then don’t own a horse.

Because every time you resort to lying to make the sale, every time you cover up the truth or misrepresent your horse, someone is hurt. It might not be you and it might not be the person next to you but somewhere down the line there will be pain.

Perhaps it’s physical pain — broken bones on a person who was uninformed about the nasty flipping habit a horse had. Maybe it’s emotional pain — sleepless nights and tears cried over a horse that will never be what the buyer was promised. Financial pain — the money spent on vet bills for an undisclosed injury, or on professional trainers to fix problems no one told them about.

And if this is you, if you’re in the business of selling horses, you owe it to that animal and to every other horse owner out there- to every buyer, seller, trainer, and rider- to tell the truth, to be honest and let buyers make an informed decision about whether that horse is right for them. Anything less than that, even the smallest white lie or tiny misrepresentation, can have huge consequences.

Lindsay is the owner of Transitions Sport Horses, based in Lexington, Kentucky. She participated in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover on Rebel Annie and is back again in 2017 with Hot Java. Keep up with their journey here on EN and via her blog, Making It to the Thoroughbred Makeover!

Basics of Baby Jumping

Milo figuring it out over a baby jump. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert. Milo figuring it out over a baby jump. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Heels down … up in two point … hands pressed into a crest release, knuckles white around the reins. Eyes up … remember to breath … trot, trot, trot … and pop over the fence.

We all remember the first time we ever jumped. The saintly school horse that made us fall in love with the feeling of flying. The over-before-it-started adrenaline rush of the 6″ cross-rail that made us smile bigger than ever and beg our trainer to let us do it again.

There’s an art-like science to teaching the basics of jumping to a new rider. Building their confidence, keeping them excited for the sport, all while training their body and mind a very specific skill set. It’s no different when starting young horses over fences.

It’s getting to the point in Rebel’s training where it’s time to start popping her over small fences, building the foundation and laying the groundwork for an actual future in eventing. Every trainer hopes that first cross-rail will knock their socks off, leaving their jaw on the ground and increase their horse’s price tag tenfold. We all hope for a careful jumper, with a knack for seeing distances when the rider can’t, who is bold but focused, and when asked to jump replies with “How high!?”

But, every horse slated for a jumping career has to start somewhere. With the first pop over a ground pole, the first steer towards a baby jump, with fingers crossed and a silent wish that the horse underneath you happens to put their feet in the correct place and keep their brain in their head.

In my years of training and the dozens of young horses I’ve held on tight and wished for the best with, I’ve compiled my insights in what I like to call “The Basics of Baby Jumping”:

Figuring it out without worrying about a rider. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Figuring it out without worrying about a rider. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

1. Start at the beginning

Like most things in life, we must start at the beginning. And if that’s not vague enough for you, here’s what I mean: Do not flip to the end of the book, do not pass go, do not collect $200 dollars.

This is the boring stuff, but it must be done. I’m talking ground work, lunging over poles, lunging over cavalettis, making sure the basics are instilled on the flat and under saddle before you ever even mutter the word “jump.” It’s imperative for the sanity of your horse that they can understand, without a rider on their back, that they can make it safely from one side of an obstacle to another without the world ending.

And in laying the foundation for a solid citizen over fences, you must make sure your horse is able to perform basic movements on the flat. A solid walk, trot and canter, an understanding of steering, stopping, half halts and maybe even some bending and correctly using/balancing their body (if you want to get fancy!) need to be deeply ingrained in your horse’s mind. You need to have control over your horse on the flat before you can even begin to ask for it over fences.

Yes, I know dressage can be boring, but you’ll thank me later.

2. K.I.S.S.

Keep it simple, stupid.

The last thing we want to do is overwhelm and confuse our equine partners as they’re learning a new skill. You may have dreams of galloping down the to the water complex, dropping off the bank and soaring over the skinny brush, but for now let’s stick to single cross-rail fences. No crazy fillers, no weird distractions, just simple, easy, confidence-building fences.

Keep in mind, crossrail fences are the ideal jump for babies as they encourage horses to stay straight and in the center of the fence. Single obstacles are best to start out because the horse only has to focus on one thing at a time. When they’re ready for a line or a course, keep the jumps spread out with a straightforward approach as they have time to focus on their fence, recover and then focus on the their second fence.

3. Stay positive.

Just as all things in life, and especially where horses are involved, things may not go as planned. There will be roadblocks — duck outs, refusals, and weird deer-leap jump attempts. But no matter what your horse throws your way, keep your eyes up, your heels down and your tone positive.

The one thing I can’t stress enough is to keep trying and to keep an encouraging attitude. In order to build a calm and confident jumper, you need to overlook the missteps and the faults. A flat out refusal at a fence may feel frustrating and scary, but by reacting in a negative way, kicking and whipping your mount over the jump, they only learn to be fearful of the fence and not trusting of you as a trainer.

So when mistakes happen and things go awry, adjust, give your horse a pat for the effort and keep trying.

Channeling my inner “listener." Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Channeling my inner “listener.” Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

4. Listen

In learning a new skill, your horse will be looking to you for guidance and support. When they are confused or misunderstand the question, make sure you’re listening to what your horse is actually saying.

A runout doesn’t mean your horse is being “bad,” but rather that they don’t understand and you need more outside leg. A refusal doesn’t mean your horse wants you to jump the fence without them, but that they aren’t deriving confidence from you as their rider and that they aren’t in front of your leg. A rushing horse is probably one that is nervous or scared and just holding their breath and hoping they get to the other side of the fence in one piece.

There are a million ways your horse can tell you what they’re feeling and what they need. Attempts at communication from the flick of an ear to the swish of the tail. When you are able to pick up on these subtle cues and acknowledge them, adjusting your training methods accordingly, your horse will thank you in the form of their best effort.

And at the end of the day, you may not end up with a knock-your-socks-off upper level eventer. But, maybe you will. That first jump, and the dozens after them, will make or break your horse’s confidence, directly affecting their abilities in the future.

So, there you have it. My insights into teaching your green bean how to jump. Oh, an one last thought … keep the wine handy!

Lindsay is the owner of Transitions Sport Horses, based in Lexington, Kentucky. She participated in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover on Rebel Annie and is back again in 2017 with Hot Java. Keep up with their journey here on EN and via her blog, Making It to the Thoroughbred Makeover!

Making It to the Makeover: A Month (of) Down (Time)!

Photo by Lindsay Gilbert.

Photo by Lindsay Gilbert.

A month has come and gone since Java officially started her life as an OTTB. And in true Thoroughbred Makeover form, it has flown by in the blink of an eye. Thirty-something days together and we have logged two rides under saddle. But that’s OK, because even though we have a timeline and a goal we are working towards eight short months from now, I’m in no rush.

When Java’s trainer pulled her out of her stall at Turfway, she was obviously sore, possibly lame, and had a heart of gold. I had no idea if the slight lameness was purely soreness from her race three days earlier or if there was an underlying problem that would affect her in a second career.

But one thing I did know was that she desperately needed down time. Time to unwind from the stresses of running 43 times in three years, time to let her muscles relax, time to let her brain recharge and time to learn what was expected of her in this new role as sport horse to-be.

Following my gut and my vet’s opinions, I took a chance. I skipped the pre-purchase exam, loaded her up and took her home. Maybe I’m a little risk-averse, maybe I’m slightly crazy (that’s another blog). But no, instead I just believe that the track is not the best place to test for soundness. In my opinion all the poking and prodding, flexions and other various tests are better carried out after muscles have had a chance to heal, any drugs have left their system and their body has had a chance to recharge. So instead, I opted for a post-purchase exam.

The first order of business was transitioning her to a life of turnout. The small herd setting would help her with basic ground manners and show her how to start enjoying her new, relaxed lifestyle. The ample grazing opportunities would help her gut health and give her a much needed reset after the high-energy diet and possible drugs she was exposed to at the track. The room to move would help her sore muscles recoup and heal from the hard training day in and day out. So, with these benefits in mind, she went outside to make some friends.

Photo by Lindsay Gilbert.

Photo by Lindsay Gilbert.

And a few weeks later, when I felt like Java was in a better place mentally and physically, I loaded up on muffins and mimosas to calm my nerves and my wonderful vet came to tell me whether Java would ever be an eventer. As luck (and a trained eye) would have it, Java’s x-rays came back clean. Other than some body soreness, Java was perfectly healthy and ready to tackle our new adventure.

So with the all-clear and some muscle relaxants to help her transition easier, Java is officially an eventer-in-training! So far, that training has primarily been ground work as her muscles continue to heal. We are forming a partnership and I’m setting expectations before ever stepping into the stirrups. She’s learning how to use her body differently on the lunge, how to steer and stop while ground driving, and how patience really is a virtue, no matter what her buddies at the track might say.

But all this slow and steady work of seemingly not doing much at all has paid off already. Our first real ride together was cool, calm and collected! Java offered me a nice walk and trot, was steering like a pro and tried her best to offer me brakes when I asked for them.

So, with eight months to go, two rides down, and a happy healthy horse on my hands, we are heading in the right direction!

Lindsay is the owner of Transitions Sport Horses, based in Lexington, Kentucky. She participated in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover on Rebel Annie and is back again in 2017 with Hot Java. Keep up with their journey here on EN and via her blog, Making It to the Thoroughbred Makeover!

Here’s to the Haters

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Hey you, yes you … random stranger that is just a little bit too nosy. And you, close friend who rolls your eyes at my dreams that are maybe slightly too big for your imagination. And you, family member who snarkily suggests I actually use my degree. All of you wonderful, well-meaning individuals who really don’t get it. Today, I salute you.

Here’s to those who don’t understand. To those who ask questions like “why are you wasting your time and money, it’s just a horse” or those who share my passion but not my crazy obsession with taking on difficult horses.

You fuel my fire, you are the reason I do what I do. To you, it’s just a horse. To you, it’s a waste of time. To you, my talents are better utilized elsewhere. But I will prove you wrong.

I may not have the fanciest barn or five-figure warmbloods. The nickers coming from my stalls may not be from graded stakes winners or grand prix jumpers, but they are horses bound for greatness nonetheless. You may not see it, but I do.

You may not be able to see past the outer layer, the hard candy coating, to the soft center inside. You may not want to spend the time and energy figuring out the puzzle, putting it together piece by piece until everything fits seamlessly. Instead of broken pieces scattered on the ground, I can see the end result, the beautiful masterpiece that could be if someone cared enough to try. I revel in the little moments, the daily victories that my horses and I share. I know they are destined for greatness in their own way and it’s my job to get them there.

You see a frightened pony that doesn’t trust anyone’s motives. I see a horse that will one day be a little girl’s best friend. You see a gangly Thoroughbred that doesn’t know where to put his feet. I see an upper-level eventer in the making, destined for eating up a cross-country course like it’s second nature. You see a horse that’s hard to understand, one that no one has bothered to figure out just yet. I see my calling.

We may just be walking our lives away, spending our days hacking and trying to stay calm. We may be working through trust issues instead of working on getting that six stride line just right. But, all these days spent doing what you think is nothing will lead up to something great.

And the tears I shed over the difficult horse, the one who rears instead of walks, who can’t seem to relax, who doesn’t quite get it — those tears will be the same ones I cry when we actually finish a cross country course, and the same happy tears that well in my eyes when those difficult horses go on to make someone else the happiest they’ve ever been. That’s what I do, that’s what I live for.

So, thank you, naysayers. Thank you, disbelievers. Thank you for everyone who questioned me or my horses. This ride’s for you. I appreciate your unwillingness to see what I can do and what my horses can be. Because of you, I tack up every day with a fire in my belly and a determination in my soul. My bank account might be empty, I may not be using my fancy degree, and the fences I jump might be comical in size — but my heart is full. And one day, when we make it, I’ll toast every single person who didn’t believe we could.

Lindsay is the owner of Transitions Sport Horses, based in Lexington, Kentucky. She participated in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover on Rebel Annie and is back again in 2017 with Hot Java. Keep up with their journey here on EN and via her blog, Making It to the Thoroughbred Makeover!

Making It to the Makeover: What I Look for in a Prospect

Ripley (Now Bella), a warmblood X TB mare I raised and sold as an eventer. Currently going Training Level. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert. Ripley (Now Bella), a warmblood X TB mare I raised and sold as an eventer. Currently going Training Level. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

So, you’ve decided to embark upon the process of finding a mount, a competitor, an athlete, a partner.

This part is hard for me. I am the type of person to never turn away a horse. Bad conformation, vices, untouched for years, it didn’t matter. I could see the potential in anything, I could find a career or a future for whatever came my way.

But this time, it’s different. I have to search for a mount with eventing potential and one that I can uncover that potential in a matter of months. So what in the world am I going to look for? Do I want a war horse who has proven themselves on the track time and time again, or do I want a youngster with very few starts who is a clean slate? It’s time for me to sit down and decide what I need and what I want in an RRP prospect.

First, I need to think about the job that I’m asking my new partner to do. My sport of choice this year is eventing, a combination of dressage, stadium jumping and cross country. I need a horse with nice, relaxed gaits for dressage, a careful ability over fences who will leave rails up in stadium and the heart to gallop over any obstacle a cross country course designer will throw our way.

Patriot, a Saddlebred gelding given to me sight unseen, found his calling in dressage! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Patriot, a Saddlebred gelding given to me sight unseen, found his calling in dressage! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

So many Thoroughbreds have excelled in eventing because of their heart and ability to gallop. But there are a few things I look for when selecting a horse for the sport of eventing.

  1. Soundness: The very first thing the horse must be is sound. I cannot, in good conscience, ask a horse to gallop and jump that is not comfortable doing so. So I will look for a horse who jogs freely, that tracks up nicely (meaning the hind feet fall in the hoof print of the front foot) and who has a nice, swinging gait. I will look for a horse with no heat or swelling in the legs or feet and who has few, if any blemishes or “track jewelry” which could inhibit their longevity in a sport that tests a horse to the fullest.
  2. Conformation:
    • I like a horse with good overall proportion meaning the horse is made up of 1/3 shoulder, 1/3 barrel, 1/3 hindquarters.
    • I look for a powerful hind end, and a long, upright shoulder that is tied in above the chest. My ideal horse will have a deep chest that will allow them to gallop for long periods of time and breathe freely as they’re doing so.
    • Lastly, my partner should have straight legs that are well set, meaning the front legs show a straight line from the shoulder, through the knee and ending right at the heel of the hoof, with a nicely angled pastern that is identical to the slope of the hoof, if possible. The front legs carry the majority of the horse’s weight, so they are of utmost importance, but hind legs are also key because they are what propels the horse forward, and for jumping, upward. The hind legs, from behind, should be straight from the buttocks to the hoof, with the hocks and rear hooves equal distance apart. From the side, there should be a straight line from under the buttocks, down the back of the cannon bone to the ground, a few inches behind the heel.
  3. Personality: Most horses can overcome flaws in conformation by sheer heart alone. The horse has to love it’s job and want to work. But I, for one, rarely ride the OTTBs I see before I purchase them. So, it’s hard to determine heart before you get the horse home and start introducing them to their new life. Yet, I do look for a few key things.
  • Kind Eye. In a situation with time constraints, like the RRP, it is imperative that the mount you choose be trainable. I always look for a horse with a kind eye, who shows a sense of understanding and a level of relaxed thinking. These horses are better able to take things in stride without becoming overwhelmed and uneasy.
  • Forward Thinking. For eventing, the horse must possess a sense of forwardness. The last thing I want when galloping cross country is to be exerting all my energy just trying to get the horse to GO! Additionally, a more forward-thinking horse is more likely to take me to the fence and help me out of a bad situation rather than refusing a fence because the bravery and forward momentum was lacking.
  • Relaxed. Having touched on relaxed thinking when talking about a kind eye, there is also the element of a relaxed body. I like a horse who does not generally carry tension in its muscles. Muscle tension can be a sign of anxiety or nervousness which can then manifest itself in “explosive behavior” such as rearing, bucking, taking off and other scary tactics.

There are several other factors to consider when purchasing a prospect, but I won’t bore you with every single detail. As I comb through the hundreds, if not thousands, of OTTB sale ads I come across on a daily basis, these general principles will guide my way and, hopefully, land me an eventing machine!

Lindsay is the owner of Transitions Sport Horses, based in Lexington, Kentucky. She participated in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover on Rebel Annie and is back again in 2017 with Hot Java. Keep up with their journey here on EN and via her blog, Making It to the Thoroughbred Makeover!

Following the Money

Danger starting to understand self-carriage. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert. Danger starting to understand self-carriage. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

As a small-scale eventing trainer, it’s easy to get caught up in the pursuit of a dollar. There’s good money in finding a diamond in the rough, polishing that horse until it shines and then finding the horse a spectacular person who will enjoy the fruits of your labor. But it seems this idea has attracted many riders looking to make a quick buck.

The issue is this: Those trainers are less focused on correctly polishing their diamond, or truly training their project horse, and more focused on a quick flip and a fast profit. The result is underdeveloped, overfaced horses without a correct foundation of training.

Maybe it’s a lack of knowledge on the part of trainers. Maybe it’s today’s society, with everyone expecting instant gratification. Maybe it’s buyers’ unrealistic expectations. It seems everyone wants a younger horse, jumping higher fences, with a lengthier show record … all on a smaller budget. But these things take time. And, in the horse world, as in every other industry, time is money.

Whatever it is, it’s causing a problem. And that problem is moral hazard. (Bear with me as I indulge my inner business student.)

Moral hazard occurs when one person takes risks because another person is going to incur the costs associated with those risks. This is happening in masses in the horse industry. Trainers take on a young prospect with the intention of selling it. Knowing the extra profit they can enjoy if the horse is going at higher levels, the trainer pushes their project too fast too soon. They skip important, but maybe somewhat boring, steps in training and jump right into the fun stuff. They jump higher fences, force “head carriage” and ask more technical questions of horses that just aren’t ready.

Milo figuring it out over a baby jump. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Milo figuring it out over a baby jump. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

And why? Because once the horse is sold, it’s the buyer who has to deal with all the shortcomings in training. The buyer will pay for a broken down horse because it wasn’t correctly developed both physically and mentally.  These trainers are taking unnecessary risks with their horses because they won’t have to pay the price later on down the road.

It’s really tough to sit by and watch it happen. I cringe when I see trainers making decisions knowing their motive lies somewhere other than the horse itself. But for every trainer taking shortcuts and ignoring the best interest of the horse, I know there are several trainers taking their time, listening when the horse says they’re ready for the next step and actually developing quality horses without overfacing them.

I hope that I am one of those trainers. I may be the turtle in this race, dragging along at a pace others find comical, while the hare zooms by trying to get to the finish line. Little does the hare know, there is no finish line and no one’s keeping score. I won’t judge my training by the number in my bank account, but rather by the health and happiness of my horses. And although it may be hard to make a living with these moral shenanigans, I know that following the money very rarely pays off for the horses in the end.

Lindsay is the owner of Transitions Sport Horses, based in Lexington, Kentucky. She participated in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover on Rebel Annie and is back again in 2017 with Hot Java. Keep up with their journey here on EN and via her blog, Making It to the Thoroughbred Makeover!

Making It to the Makeover: What’s in an OTTB’s Name?

Sudden Danger proving she’d rather lope around a hunter ring than gallop over a cross country course. (She’s a great sport, though!) Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert. Sudden Danger proving she’d rather lope around a hunter ring than gallop over a cross country course. (She’s a great sport, though!) Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

What’s in a name? No, I’m not here to quote Shakespeare, but rather to ponder the equally age-old question of equine pedigrees and if they really matter.

For years, I went on my merry way, paying no attention to the lineage of the horses I was riding. Someone offered me a ride, I graciously agreed and focused on the horse I was given, not the ghosts of horses past that all came together at a certain time and place in order to make the perfect beast.

But as I grow older (and hopefully, wiser), my goal is to bring up the best equine athletes that I can. It used to be that the horses I adopted, bought or were given told me exactly what they wanted to do in life. I felt my job was to uncover, layer by layer, where their true talent and potential lay and then steer them in that direction, eventually finding them a home that would allow them to succeed in their chosen sport.

That was fun while it lasted, but now it’s clear that, while it’s made me a better and more well-rounded rider, it has done nothing to further my competitive career. There’s an eventer inside me just dying to be let out to gallop on a cross country course, but unless I start choosing horses that show talent in eventing it’s just not going to happen.

So, in order to buckle down and get serious about the sport that I’ve chosen, I think it’s time to take a closer look at pedigrees. In Thoroughbred racing, there is a lot of importance placed on the horse’s lineage, and horses are bred with an expectation of success based on their ancestors’ past performances.

Sometimes this pans out and sometimes it doesn’t; but it makes a lot of sense to me why they would care so much about names on a piece of paper. Why would you breed two horses that never won a race in their lives, never showed much talent for galloping, and would rather sunbathe in their pasture than break from the starting gate, with an expectation what their offspring would be the best racehorse you’ve ever seen? Most sane people probably wouldn’t make that assumption. And in an industry based on beating the odds, there needs to be something to back up your crazy assumption.

When taking a horse off the track in order to retrain it for a specific discipline, such as what is asked of trainers in the Thoroughbred Makeover, it’s also a game making educated guesses in an attempt to beat the odds. (This isn’t to say that quality training isn’t important because, after all, that’s what we are all here to do. This is solely speaking to the assumptions made when choosing a horse.)

Yes, it’s important to examine the horse’s conformation, to watch the way the horse moves and to try to understand its personality, but in order to give yourself and your horse the best odds of being competitive in a specific sport, why not go further and try to understand the horse’s lineage while you’re at it?

The pedigree of my current OTTB eventer, Search The Lou. Screenshot via Equiline.com.

The pedigree of my current OTTB eventer, Search The Lou. Screenshot via Equiline.com.

For example, since my goal is to compete in the eventing portion of the Makeover, I want to find a horse whose pedigree is riddled with successful distance horses. I’m looking for a horse that will be eager to gallop miles around a cross country course instead of sprinting 5 1/2 furlongs and calling it quits.

I’ll also be looking for horses known to produce athletic offspring that hold up and don’t break down very easily, as eventing is physically and mentally demanding sport. And, just for fun, I’ll be doing my research on what the siblings of whatever horse I choose are doing, if they’re successful racehorses, if they’re living out their days broken down in a field, or if maybe, just maybe, they have shown an aptitude for eventing.

But for now, I’ll research my little heart out and hope that my educated guesses pan out.

Lindsay is the owner of Transitions Sport Horses, based in Lexington, Kentucky. She participated in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover on Rebel Annie and is back again in 2017 with Hot Java. Keep up with their journey here on EN and via her blog, Making It to the Thoroughbred Makeover!

The Struggle Between Comfort and Growth

A tired baby pony and a happy Lindsay. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert. A tired baby pony and a happy Lindsay. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

My heart pounded as I looked at the entry form I had just submitted. My voice caught in my throat as I wondered aloud about the decision I had just made. There’s no way this could go well. Could I scratch right now?

You may be wondering what big show I was attending, what huge move-up I was making. I’ll let you in on a little secret … the answer is none. My slight panic attack, my stress and nerves were all centered around a Starter Level combined test.

That’s right, Intro Test C and a 2′ jump course. Let the ridicule commence. But here’s a confession for you — it’s been a long time since I’ve shown at all, let alone above crossrails. And I was terrified. Ten years ago I thought nothing of cantering down to a 3’6″ combination, and I laughed it off when my trainer kept inching the last fence up until it reached 4′. I was a different rider then — dare I say a normal rider? But she is no longer.

You see, soon after that it became apparent that I had a knack for starting young horses, for schooling greenies, for working with the worst of the worst. Some combination of patience, stubbornness and just plain insanity. Whatever concoction was necessary to get on anything and everything, I had it. I guess I still do.

Ripley (now Bella) being backed for the first time! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Ripley (now Bella) being backed for the first time! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

So, my focus had shifted. The big airy oxer I was comfortable tackling slowly morphed into backing a 3 year old for the first time. I no longer focused on nailing the extended trot in a First Level test or galloping an intimidating cross country course. Instead, I focused on instilling the basics, teaching babies how to steer, how to stop, how to function with an extra 100 lbs on their back. Getting from one side of a ground pole to their other, sailing over a tiny crossrail — that was cause for celebration. And when they got to that point, when my projects were comfortable and had good, foundational training, they moved on. Other people showed them, other people enjoyed them, but never me.

Day in and day out, month after month, year after year, as I watched my babies grow and develop, little did I know that I was changing too. I always felt like I was still the rider I used to be — I was still brave, I was still bold. I could still put the fences up and make things happen if I wanted to. But there I was, shaking in my tall boots just at the thought of showing anything above crossrails. Who the hell was this girl? Didn’t she know who I used to be, what I used to do?!

That’s the thing about getting comfortable. You don’t realize it’s happening until you’re given an other option, until you’re faced with growth. And growth is an intimidating monster. It keeps you up at night and makes you question everything. It sits on one shoulder, urging you to take the risk to step outside your comfort zone. Meanwhile, comfort sits on the other shoulder, reminding you how nice that zone is — it’s warm, it’s easy, it has cookies!

NOT a crossrail! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

NOT a crossrail! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

It’s a constant struggle between comfort and growth. One that never ends because the second you choose growth, comfort creeps in to take over again. And there you stay, blissfully clueless until you find yourself ready to throw up over the smallest step in a different direction.

But growth will always be the right answer — take it from me. Rebel and I went to that show, we cantered in our dressage test, we jumped verticals and oxers, we didn’t die. I might have cried walking out of the arena, but those happy tears came with conquering something I hadn’t done in over 10 years. They came with the conscious decision to try something new, to grow as a rider. So, I may have walked away with a ribbon that wasn’t blue, but in my mind, we won.

Lindsay is the owner of Transitions Sport Horses, based in Lexington, Kentucky. She participated in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover on Rebel Annie and is back again in 2017 with Hot Java. Keep up with their journey here on EN and via her blog, Making It to the Thoroughbred Makeover!

Making It to the Thoroughbred Makeover: Meet Hot Java

About this time last year, I was standing in a stall, pitchfork in hand, pulling my gloves off my frozen hand to check my phone that was buzzing in my pocket. Ignoring the bitter cold, I opened my email and scrolled through the unread messages and there it was — my acceptance email from the Retired Racehorse Project! I had entered on a whim, hoping to be able to participate but not actually knowing if it was in the cards for me.

The next 10 months were a whirlwind.From purchasing Rebel Annie sight unseen in April, to spending six months getting to know each other, learning and growing together. And finally, actually making it to the Makeover!

Throughout the process, Rebel earned a permanent place in my heart. Not only did she take me through the Field Hunter division at the makeover, a discipline I knew nothing about and had no experience in, but she also changed my life in a million other ways (cue the eye-rolling from my husband!) She taught me how to have fun, how to let my guard down, how to really love my job again. Rebel reminded me why I fell in love with horses in the first place.

Rebel at the track. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Rebel at the track. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Applying for the 2017 Makeover meant a million things. It meant the opportunity to learn and grow as a trainer and rider, to make dozens of new friends and to be changed by yet another amazing OTTB. But, it also meant saying goodbye to Rebel. It meant sleepless nights and lots of tears wondering whether I was making the right decision and hoping for the perfect person to come along who would let my little red-headed mare work her magic on them the way she worked her magic on me.

Racehorse turned field hunter! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Racehorse turned field hunter! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

And just as I was questioning letting Rebel go, trying to convince myself that four horses could be a possibility or, just maybe, that the Makeover didn’t need to happen this year, that perfect person I had been wishing would come along strolled right into our lives. She fell in love with Rebel’s laid back personality, her never-ending pony kisses and constant searching your pockets for treats. So, off she went to her forever home, leaving me a bumbling mess in Kentucky.

But thank goodness for good friends who support your unhealthy horse habit, because just days earlier I was encouraged to take a chance on a lovely mare and brought her home from Turfway Park as my 2017 makeover hopeful.

Hot Java is a 2011 16.2 hand mare by Heatseeker and out of an AP Indy granddaughter. She was nearing war-horse standards with 43 starts under her belt when her trainer decided it was time for her to move on from racing.

With only two wins to her name, both at route distances, and pretty incredible conformation, we decided she might like a career in eventing. I decided to overlook some minor ankle rounding and slight soreness at the trot as she just raced days earlier and some wear and tear can be expected with such a high number of starts.

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

For now, Java is learning to love her new life as a sport-horse-to-be! She is getting some much deserved downtime after four long years on the track. Java is learning how to be a horse, which means figuring out what turnout is, eating a totally different diet, and learning that ground manners and personal space are real things!

I like to use my OTTBs down time to work on our relationship and start some really important foundational training that is easy to overlook. So far, Java has totally impressed me with her willing attitude and generally laid back personality! From lunging to ground driving, learning the word “whoa” to leading with just a rope around her neck, Java gives it her all!

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

The next few weeks will consist of more down time, ground work, light riding and a post-purchase exam from the vet before we jump into under saddle training. Stay tuned as we work towards the 2017 Makeover!

Lindsay is the owner of Transitions Sport Horses, based in Lexington, Kentucky. She participated in the 2016 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover on Rebel Annie and is back again in 2017 with Hot Java. Keep up with their journey here on EN and via her blog, Making It to the Thoroughbred Makeover!