To demonstrate the versatility and value of the second- or third-career Thoroughbred, Valerie Ashker is about to embark on a coast-to-coast ride aboard her OTTB. We caught up with Valerie just days before she saddles up!
Valerie Ashker, by all accounts, has had a pretty busy couple of weeks. As if supporting your daughter Laine Ashker as she rocked another Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event (on her OTTB Anthony Patch) didn’t make for enough to worry about, Valerie then hurried home to California to start packing again — this time, for a six-month ride from coast to coast to champion the off-the-track Thoroughbred, kicking off on Monday.
The OTTB may be experiencing a renaissance in the United States, as more and more equestrians realize the breed’s potential to excel in second or third careers in almost any discipline. But the fact remains that many Thoroughbreds, once their track career has come to an end, aren’t lucky enough to find that second calling.
While hundreds of animals do find safe, loving homes after their racing days are over, many more Thoroughbreds are channeled into the slaughter pipeline. Valerie Ashker hopes to show people on her ride across the country that these are valuable, versatile horses that can excel in any setting.
Championing the OTTB
Valerie Ashker was born and raised in California, and “always into horses. I didn’t get my first horse until I was 18 — I had to work two jobs to get him.” That first horse was a $500 Appaloosa, but throughout her horse life she migrated naturally to the off-track Thoroughbred.
“I think the name ‘Ashker’ has become synonymous with the off-track Thoroughbred,” she said. Valerie and Laine have been named Ambassadors for the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance for their good work not only in talking the talk, but walking the walk in training and competing OTTBs.
Valerie’s had OTTBs from tracks all over the country. She’s particularly fond of the Comet Shine/Fappiano family: “they’re a little more hot, bighearted … a little fiery.”
“I’m personally against going to Europe and buying some hugely-priced horse to bring home when you can go to any city track and find something just as talented,” Valerie states. “No matter what discipline you’re riding — eventing is just one example — the sport should be as affordable as possible. And the Thoroughbred is perfect for that.”
“The biggest thing,” Valerie cautions, “is that you need a trainer experienced in working with OTTBs to help unlock that potential. But there’s no reason not to try.”
Riding coast to coast
There’s not much more dramatic of a way to demonstrate the abilities of the Thoroughbred than to ride one all the way across the country for a few thousand miles. We asked Valerie a simple question: why?
“Growing up, we moved a lot — every time we were driving down a highway, I would look at the scenery going by and imagine riding a horse along that route, wherever we were: jumping ditches, leaping over fences. As I grew older and spoke with more people, I realized this is a common fantasy — lots of people imagine doing the same thing. It’s a very American idea.
“The Thoroughbred is a strong, kind, willing and extremely versatile breed. I got the window of opportunity in my life to do this, to do something for the horses who given me so much.
“It’s going to be an unbelievable ride in every aspect. We’ll be following Highway 50 all the way across. What better way to represent America’s horse than to ride an American old road?”
The logistics of the trip
As you might imagine, organizing and planning for a ride of this magnitude has been no easy feat. Valerie will be riding with her partner Peter Friedman and the pair will be supported by William Gass with a truck and trailer.
“We’re not going unsupported,” Valerie adds. “Willie will have on hand at all times up to 150 gallons of fresh water. Especially in the west, we’ll be traveling through desert and rough country and we’ll need the support.” Valerie will be riding her seven-year-old OTTB, Primitivo: “he’s a little guy, only 15.1 and a half.” Peter is riding Valerie’s retired OTTB event horse Solar Express, a sturdy seventeen-year-old.
The route they’ll be following along Highway 50 includes old historic Pony Express trails. While most of this route is off the beaten path of major interstates, there will be some locations that the party bypasses where Highway 50 runs through cities or meets other obstacles where horses cannot travel — such as many bridges. Valerie plans to end the ride in northern Virginia, with Middlebrook as one possible endpoint.
This party of two is by no means a closed group: Valerie invites anyone and everyone on any breed of horse to join them along the trail. The more riders, the more attention the group will attract — putting more focus on the off-track Thoroughbred and the contributions it’s waiting to make to the horse world.
The ride kicks off with a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony on Monday, May 9th.
How you can help
Valerie and her team will be reporting at least once daily on their progress, sharing news, photos and reflections on her website and on social media. You can follow along by “liking” the project, 2nd Makes Thru Starting Gates, on Facebook; you can also follow along via the Crow’s Ear Farm website and blog.
Valerie is accepting donations to help fund the trip via GoFundMe, and notes that any leftover funds after paying for the trip’s expenses will be donated to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.
And, of course, any reader is invited to join the ride for any distance or length of time! Valerie invites any interested party to contact her through her website, the project’s Facebook page, or by calling her up directly at 530-333-7009.
“If just one more horse finds a new career because people are following this project, then this entire trip will be worthwhile.”
We at Horse Nation wish the best of luck to Valerie and Peter as they ride to raise OTTB awareness. We’ll continue to follow the ride and will post updates!
Go OTTBS, and go riding!