For 673 accepted trainers, the 2019 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover is fast approaching! From the beginning of the year until the Makeover, to take place Oct. 2-5 at the Kentucky Horse Park, four of those trainers have been blogging 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.
If you follow my social media you’ll already know that Crash is perfect. In every way. Well, I guess first you have to overlook the disfiguring scars on his hip and front leg. Yeah, that’s right, he’s beat up. Story has it that he crashed through a fence as a baby. He raced six times though and was never put on the vet’s list (any horse that pulls up lame after a race is placed on that list and has to earn the right to race again). I figured he was worth the gamble.
There are a lot of horses that fit that description. Some scar, some lump, some bit of history that makes potential purchasers pass them over. It breaks my heart. I know I know, there is a very large chance that an old bow is not going to hold up to gallop around Kentucky or Fair Hill. I also know that there is a very large chance that most of us riders are also not going to gallop around Kentucky or Fair Hill. I’ve seen a lot of horses with lumps and bumps gallop around Training or even Prelim, or dance their way to USDF bronze medals, or bring home division champion in the hunter ring. Those beat up horses can also rock it on the trail or riding fence lines at a ranch.
I’m not saying skip the pre-purchase; I’m not saying pretend a lame horse is sound. What I am saying is be realistic about your goals for riding and for what you want in an equine partner. Don’t let an ugly but serviceable scar make you pass on an otherwise lovely horse. Don’t let a trainer being honest about an old injury that has healed make you run for the hills. Chat with them about it — chances are if you are up front about what you are needing a horse to do they will also be up front about what they think their horse will be able to do. And listen. Many race trainers are extremely good at spotting lameness and injuries, they know a lot about rehab, and they are well versed in what type of injuries usually stay away and what type keep coming back. If the horse is everything you are looking for, except with the addition of a lump/bump, talk with the trainer and the vet, figure out if that particular injury could be a non issue with your goals.
Sometimes after all that, the decision still needs to be made to pass on the horse, but other times you may have found your dream horse who just has a little extra character. When I decided to work with Crash I knew he had an amazing brain, so I knew if he couldn’t hold up to the rigors of what I wanted to ask of him I would be able to place him in an appropriate home with more low key goals. So far though he has exceeded every one of my expectations. Sometimes he takes a tight step with that hip, but hill work and long and low arena work continue to make those tight steps fade into the past. He is like a sure footed mountain goat on the trails — I call him my man from snowy river horse. I don’t even have to touch the reins going down steep hills, he picks the best path and pace and delivers us safely to the bottom every time.
The most awesome part of that last paragraph is me talking about enjoying trails. I may have started my riding addiction with the sport of endurance, but bravery on the trails has been elusive over the years. I’ve had many fun trail rides, but historically the first twenty minutes are spent wondering if I might have a heart attack. A while back I was trail riding with a friend who was wondering why I kept saying trail rides stressed me out, and in an effort to not freak out the young horse I was on I recounted my history of hitting the open range. The more I chat and distract myself from the frantic beating of my heart, the sooner the enjoyment can start.
After several minutes of stories about frankly dangerous moments on the trails due to years filled with riding lunatic horses, my friend stopped me. She told me I had every right to be stressed about trail rides, that maybe I just hadn’t been on horses that made them enjoyable. It was such a simple statement, but it somehow gave me permission to quit judging myself for not feeling brave out in wide open spaces. I quit trying to ride horses on trails that made for harrowing experiences and instead only took out horses that I believed would be fun. Fast forward a few years, now I’m loving trail rides. Sometimes the stress sneaks up and I chat with my horse or a friend or even myself until the moment passes.
This journey has carried over into cross country as well. I am far braver than I used to be, and I am far pickier about the horses I ride on cross country than I used to be. Learn your strengths and weaknesses and learn how to work with them instead of judging yourself for them.
How does this apply to horses with lumps and bumps? Maybe the best horse to learn how to enjoy cross country on isn’t the majestic fire breathing dragon that passes every extensive vet check and makes you dream of jumping clean at Burghley. Maybe the best horse for right now is the one with kind eyes that is happy with its head being level with its withers that had a chip removed from its knee last year and has come back sound to racing but is too slow to win. Or maybe the horse has an old bow that has healed up nice and hard and handled being back in race training, but the trainer would rather retire before the strains of racing take their toll again, that horse could probably canter around Beginner Novice for years.
Again, I’m not saying buy the most beat-up horse you can find and then come yelling to me when it doesn’t hold up. I’m just saying to be realistic about your riding goals and what you need from a horse. Talk with the vet, talk with the trainer, maybe your unicorn has a big old scar on his hip that matches those on your heart and together you will be unstoppable.