For 673 accepted trainers, the 2019 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover is now in the rearview. In celebration of the Makeover, Oct. 2-5 at the Kentucky Horse Park, four of those trainers have blogged their journeys, including their triumphs and their heartbreaks, successes and failures, for Eventing Nation readers. Read more from EN’s 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover Bloggers: Lindsey Burns, Hillary McMichael, Clare Mansmann, Jennifer Reisenbichler.
Hoo-RAH! Another TB Makeover has come and gone except it’s never really gone because the process never really ends, much as we humans like markers of time. We’re still training the 2019 horses and we may already have 2020 horses, whether they stay for us to ride or they sell to others, it’s an ongoing process much like a series of novels that keeps introducing new characters and so you don’t have to worry about it going away anytime soon (Hi Thoroughbred Series!).
Gosh, we had a great time at the Makeover, as per usual, and I believe that has everything to do with going into it with the right expectations.
We love to showcase our horses and our students. We love for our horses to perform as well as they should to this point of their training. I don’t expect them to never have rails because that is not the focus of our training at this point. I don’t expect them to have auto changes because that is not the focus of our training at this point. I don’t expect them to have perfect form over fences because the fences aren’t big enough at this point #amiright.
I do expect them to trailer well and unload like gentlemen (and women). I do expect them to stand outside the arena patiently. I expect them to lead well. I expect them to tie at the wash rack. I expect them to behave for the braider. I expect them to stand for mounting. I expect their personalities to shine and for them to display their happiness at a good jump. I do expect them to prick their ears for photos and I do expect them to hop over the fences in front of them.
Despite those expectations, if they do or do not meet them, it is up to us. They will or will not depending on how we have taught them, and so if they do or do not, we can learn how to teach them better in the future.
I had a wonderful lesson with John Smart recently and he said something that I will paraphrase badly but remember always:
“The horse does not have to enjoy doing what we ask in order to do it, but if they do enjoy it, then we have explained it correctly.”
I love this. I love when my horse gets appropriately frisky after a big effort. I praise him. I love when their ears and eyes lock on a fence even if we weren’t meaning to jump it. I giggle. I love when a corner or a skinny or a ditch rides no different than a simple table. I love when they continue through a combination in spite of my mistake, because that means I have not made the same mistake over and over, so they still trust me.
I love when students make a mistake and laugh. I love when they make a mistake because they are having fun, and not because of fear. I love when we keep the big picture in mind. I don’t love competing. It’s fine, but I don’t love it. I love horses and I love their people. I love learning. I also love snacks. #justsaying
We are stewards of these horses, their care, their training, their present and their future, and that fact is always on my mind. A huge amount of resources go into getting a horse transitioned off the track and well started into a new career. The Makeover is just a great goal to keep focus in the first year of the re-career process, but the actual process is more like a 36-month one, and I mention that because I like to make statements that are slightly inflammatory and then explain them.
Teaching a racehorse the tools needed to thrive in a new career is like teaching a new language. Sure, Latin languages, so the root is there, but we still have to bridge the gaps. There are tons of nuances that could get overlooked, and you may not know it until later. You may think you know Spanish until you ask for directions and wind up…not where you thought.
In addition to the language, they need to develop entirely new muscles, and no matter what you want, that takes time. I have ridden my whole life, so I don’t often get sore in the saddle, but the first time I did jiu jitsu, and thought I could keep up with the squats, I almost died, friends. Died. Literally. And while I can make those dumb decisions, I don’t want that for our horses, so that’s where our gymnastics come into play (flat and jumping), our hills, our walking, all the slow, but consistent, work. It doesn’t happen in the field and it doesn’t come in a bag.
It’s important to us that this gets talked about and understood. We want prospective owners to understand, juniors to understand, adult amateurs to understand, racehorse owners to understand, and trainers to understand that there is an investment and a bearing of burden far beyond the horse’s racing career that many of us are taking on solely for the love of the horse, and we’d love to see more people from all walks of the OTTB’s life take that on. The Makeover has provided a stage to celebrate this in a way that wasn’t happening before. Most of the competitors are not going there with dollar signs in their vision. Winning the entire thing isn’t going to cover what it cost you to get there. The real payout is in the smiles and celebrations, the pictures, the camaraderie. The success is in the details, and that success is exclusive to each horse and rider’s individual journeys. This competition allows us to watch it unfold and share in joys and the tears, year after year, and not just in the horses. We’ve seen our Makeover friends get engaged and get married, there have been (SO MANY) babies born, we’ve been to 1st through 30th birthday parties, we’ve watched them fight cancer and we’ve watched them whoop it as we pray alongside them, we’ve supported them as they’ve left great careers to start even greater new businesses, we’ve cried when they lost a beloved horse or dog, but also cried when they persevere despite the loss and warmly welcome others. Lives change and we’re all still here and the list goes on.
It’s not about making it to the Makeover, but about making the most of the Makeover, and there’s no greater group of people to do that with.