Clare’s Road to the Thoroughbred Makeover: The Many Routes to Kentucky

For 673 accepted trainers, the journey to the Retired Racehorse Project‘s 2019 RPP Thoroughbred Makeover has begun! Between now and the Makeover, to take place Oct. 2-5 at the Kentucky Horse Park, four of those trainers will blog 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 BurnsHillary McMichaelClare MansmannJennifer Reisenbichler.

As the 2019 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event has come to a close, many of us are exhausted, as we clearly rode around the course with every single competitor. I would go so far as to say that we are even more taxed than the actual riders. I mean, at the end of the day, we’re the ones who rode that course many more times. We even fell off and then rode around it again, thirty-whatever times. Emotions are high, people!!

Hot on that event’s heels was the Kentucky Derby. Horse enthusiasts and laypeople alike are picked their favorites, a winner was crowned, and Makeover competitors are anxiously waiting to pounce on the opportunity to take home a new hopeful, because clearly, we’re all getting a Derby horse (well, Rosie Napravnik anyway, but she’ll probably let us pet it).

Close on the heels of these iconic events is the Thoroughbred Makeover.


Anyway, pretty close. While our horses may not have run for the roses, and they may be a little way out from navigating the Head of the Lake, we are hard at work preparing for our trips to the Kentucky Horse Park.

I plead the fifth on this one, except to say that we eventers will do anything for a water school. Photo by Sara Myers at the 2018 Thoroughbred Makeover.

From our home base in Middleburg, Virginia, there are really two ways to get to Kentucky. One is taking I-64. It’s pretty straightforward, easy roads, relatively smooth sailing, barring a flat tire or three.

Thanks for the pic, Amanda Cousins, and the rest of the RRP trainer group who all have a similar one!

The other takes you through the mountainous roads of Wild and Wonderful West Virginia. In a car, it’s sketchy. With a horse trailer, it is white-knuckled, gripping the steering wheel, jaw-clenching, eye-straining hours of up and down, twisting and turning, sheer drop-offs, and sometimes random patches of dense, treacherous fog. And, of course, it is stunningly beautiful. That’s our God. He’s got a great sense of humor.

So how does one get from the Kentucky Derby to Land Rover Kentucky, or like, at least somewhere in between?

Mmhmm. Blasted dandelions.

Well, you gotta pick a few dandelions, that’s for starters. Sometimes you blow and all the seeds fly and all your wishes come true. And sometimes it takes a few twists and puffs. Sometimes you need to pick a new weed, er, flower. The good news is that apparently there are dandelions all over the darned Horse Park, and I’ve actually seen them in Virginia as well, I’m not sure about your state.

Recently I spent a few (ha) hours at the Loudoun Hunt Pony Club Horse Trials at Morven Park, alternating between schooling a 2019 Makeover hopeful, competing a 2018 grad, and watching the Kentucky live stream. I should probably mention that my husband and I cared for our two children, walked courses, braided multiple horses (OK, that was me), taught lessons, pulsed horses, doctored horses, cheered each other, took videos, provided snacks (not for ourselves, obviously), and finished our days late, falling asleep on the couch. Horse showing when we were single was vastly easier, but way less fun. Our kids are the best cheering section ever.

We don’t compete a tremendous amount anymore, but when we do, it is specifically for the training of the horse. We do not train to compete. We compete in order to further the training of the horses entrusted to us, and to prepare them for their owners, or future owners. Even the Makeover is not any kind of resulting culmination of the training of our horses, but a fantastic spring board to their future careers.

This is contrary to some thinking. I know that competitions are expensive, especially recognized ones. While a lot of homework can be done at the unrecognized levels, at some point, the vibe and atmosphere of recognized shows needs to be experienced. You want to go and be successful, but not necessarily mean competitive, YET. Now, if any horse is going to come out as a seasoned pro at their first show, it will probably be an OTTB, but that’s not always the case. However, we can teach them how to compete, largely by, well, not competing.

Alarming was entered in the Beginner Novice division of Loudoun. He’s been training beautifully, but we had a plan going in that if the cross country seemed like it would back him off, he would simply do a combined test. If he needed a to circle or trot mid-course, that was fine. If he needed to hang out on a rope for the day, perfectly OK. Earlier in the week, he pulled a shoe galavanting in the field and his foot was a little ouchie.

This horse is like a freshman on the varsity basketball team who has trouble making class on time but he charms all the teachers and always scores the winning shot.

Each day, he got progressively better, but we’d lost some rather valuable training time and certainly didn’t want to compete him if he wasn’t 100%. That said, we knew we weren’t going to get our entry fee back, so instead of scratching, we just decided to go, maybe do a dressage test, hang out, and “pretend” we were competing.

He got a bath, stayed in a stall overnight, got braided, rubbed his braids, got his braids fixed, got his feet polished, loaded in the trailer early … all things that he really didn’t need to do to go and pretend to horse show, but all things that will prove valuable as he progresses.

Why you rub my braids, punk??

He hacked over to the warm up (which is super scary, btw), ate a little grass, and warmed up through his excitement beautifully. He went into the dressage arena and llama-llama-ed himself through the test, not really understanding why we weren’t hanging out with the other horses, but still performing each movement shockingly accurately, all things considered. It should be mentioned that the wind was blowing approximately six million miles per hour. That’s just a guestimate. It could have been more.

I hold to the fact that the wind actually blew his haunches over in the halt. Look at poor A! Photo by Tom Mansmann.

After the halt and salute, and great big pat, he went and ate more grass (we like to eat our feelings), and then stood tied like a perfect gentleman at the trailer while the other horses competed. His friends came and went (though he had his constant friend, alfalfa), he drank water, and watched about 12 soccer games (complete with fog horns).

Were we competitive? Um, no, not at all. But was it a waste of time, money, or rubbed mane? The mane is questionable but really, Alarming’s mane is untamable anyway, so I’m not worried. The experience was invaluable to him, it was positive, it was focused on the long-term. It was a decided success on his road to becoming what we believe to be a truly wonderful and talented partner for someone, as long as you get him out of bed in time.

Remember Zach from Saved by the Bell?

The routes to Kentucky will be full of highs and lows, injuries or illnesses, dandelions or roses. We can’t control all of that, but we can control our expectations, our enjoyment, and our joy in the process. And at the very least, plan to take I-64.