Road to the 2020/2021 Thoroughbred Makeover: Storming

For over 1,000 accepted trainers in this year’s unique blend of 2020 and 2021 competitors, the journey to the Retired Racehorse Project’s 2020/2021 Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America, is underway! The event, which combines entries from 2020 with 2021 due to the cancellation of the Makeover last year, will take place at Oct. 12-17 at the Kentucky Horse Park. Between now and then, several eventing trainers will be blogging their journeys, including their triumphs and their heartbreaks, successes and failures, for Eventing Nation readers. To read other blogs from this year’s Road to the Makeover, click here.

In her next blog, Lindsay Gilbert, a young professional and owner of Transitions Sport Horses based in Georgetown, Ky., talks about the stages of partnership development – and which one she currently finds herself in. Lindsay is an advocate for the OTTB and has been participating in the Thoroughbred Makeover since 2016. She has successfully competed on the hunter/jumper, dressage and eventing circuits and brought along dozens of OTTBs for success in multiple rings. You can read more from Lindsay here.

Last month I wrote about the importance of being patient and having a sense of humor in training. Apparently Bourbon would like me to put my money where my mouth is, as he’s been putting these qualities to the test quite frequently lately. Horses are humbling creatures, that’s for sure.

As I watch others cross first after first from their RRP bucket list – be it their first show, first blue ribbon, first 2’6” course, or a million other milestones – I can’t help but chuckle (partially with dread) as my sweet, innocent little Bourbon has decided that everything is scary and he can’t so much as lunge quietly. Spooking and snorting are now commonplace and any semblance of manners have completely gone out the window. The horse I could once canter around on without touching the reins is nowhere to be found.

Some nice moments…

But as most horse trainers are well aware, the path of a horse’s education is rarely linear. Because for every cheerful milestone post I see on social media, there’s at least two more asking for help, lamenting the struggles, and searching for a knowledgeable ear to bounce ideas off of. So, I know I’m not the only one navigating some bumps in the road.

And what I’ve realized over the years (and the reason I’m not totally freaking out right now) is that this is all part of the process of developing a partnership with your horse.

Some not-so-nice moments.

A year or so ago, I saw a post on social media detailing the different stages equestrians go through when creating a partnership with their horses. It related these stages to the model psychologist Bruce Tuckman created on the development of teams. It was easy to see the similarities between team building and horse training, and helped me to understand that these stages are things we all go through – in our daily lives and with our equine counterparts.

Here’s his model in horse-terms:

Forming: This is the beginning stage of your relationship. The “honeymoon” stage, if you will. That first meeting, the first rides, the butterflies and excitement surround something new and fresh. In this Forming stage, your horse isn’t quite sure what’s expected of them because clear boundaries and ground rules have yet to be established. But because the relationship is still young and immature, everyone is on their best behavior – you as a rider likely have not asked for much and your horse probably has not misunderstood or questioned things quite yet.

Storming: This phase is full of testing boundaries, arguments and misunderstandings as you begin asking your horse for things they may not understand. For horses coming off the track, you can toss physical changes into the equation as well, as your horse may be feeling better (and more full of themselves) or, conversely, a bit body sore as they develop new muscles. This Storming phase is likely the reason a lot of RRP trainers are now posing training questions and asking for help as conflict begins to arise.

Norming: Norming begins as horse and rider start to work together and understand what each other needs. Your horse may now begin to understand to move from inside leg to outside rein, or how to hack out quietly on the buckle. And as a rider, you can likely start to understand what your horse needs from you – how they like to be ridden, what living situation makes them the happiest, or even what bit they prefer. Once you and your horse move past Storming and into Norming, you begin to bond with your horse and feel more comfortable as partners.

Performing: The performing stage is the one we all aspire to get to. You can think of it as being show (or Makeover!) ready. Each partner is confident in themselves and the other, horse and rider can rely on each other and are generally able to perform with little conflict.

A glimpse of life after “Storming”. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

So, sadly, right now it seems Bourbon and I are well into the Storming phase of our relationship. He’s looking and feeling great, I’ve begun asking him for new and more difficult things that he would rather not do (why go around in self carriage when your mom has always held you together before?!).

I’ve taken a step back to address his tack, his bit, his daily routine, and all of the things that could be adversely affecting our partnership. I’ve begun asking him for small things he knows how to do well and slowly building on the easy things until the tough things don’t seem so daunting.

My hope is that by this time next month, we will have moved on to Norming – but only Bourbon and his opinion on my humility will decide that!