Road to the 2020/2021 Thoroughbred Makeover: The Secret Formula

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 first blog, Lindsay Gilbert, a young professional and owner of Transitions Sport Horses based in Georgetown, Ky., outlines the characteristics of a good re-trainer. 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.

Heading into my 4th (er, maybe 5th?) year of participating in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover (things are starting to blur together a bit – thanks 2020), I’ve taken a step back to think about what a journey this has been. From that first year of acceptance, a brand new transplant to Lexington, I stood cleaning a stall at a hunter barn when my I felt my phone buzz with that first “Congratulations! You’ve Been Accepted” email. And now, I own a farm full of boarders, sales horses and training clients. There are more horses to ride than hours in the day and I fully attribute the crazy journey I’ve been on the last 5 years to that first Makeover experience.

Yes, so much has changed but a lot hasn’t. Like the feelings I had reading that first acceptance email and how I still battle those same thoughts every day when I step into the stirrups; be it on a fresh off-track Thoroughbred or a fancy warmblood I could never afford.

Over the years, I’ve also grown. As a rider, as a trainer and as a business-woman. My seat has gotten more independent, my hands steadier, the jumps a bit higher and my eye for a nice horse more refined. As my business grows, there are days I feel I’ve hit my stride in finding those diamond-in-the-rough types, polishing them up and making them into upstanding citizens that make their new riders extremely happy. There are also days I dump a whole wheelbarrow of muck on myself or can’t canter a circle of poles – but more on that later…

But just last week, as I loaded one of my sales horses on a trailer, heading out sight unseen after just a few days on the market, I wondered to myself, as I have so many times before, “Why did no one else take a chance on this horse? How did so many others prior to me let this horse pass by?” Maybe they didn’t see what I did, maybe they know something I don’t, or maybe it was just dumb luck on my part. Whatever the reason, being able to spot a nice horse and take the steps to develop them is what I’ve built my business on – Thank you again, RRP!

And since the first step in everyone’s Makeover journey is choosing the right mount, I’ve decided to share my secrets with you.

Three characteristics of a good re-trainer:

1. A Sense of Humor

Using your imagination and having a sense of humor: priceless! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

This one is pretty self explanatory because, you know, #horses. When I chose this year’s Makeover mount, ItsTheBourbonTalkn, my sense of humor appreciated his name and I will fully admit that I took him home for that reason only. But when I first met the 8-year-old gelding by Tale of the Cat, I had to giggle a bit. The ad I responded to showed a sleek and fit gelding with a nice shoulder, kind eye and just a bit of chrome. Here’s what came home with me:

In this industry there can be so much stress and the pressure of the Makeover’s timeline just exacerbates that. If you can’t laugh at yourself, your horses and the situations you find yourself in, it’ll be a long, hard road. So grab a beer (or a bourbon), laugh off the lost shoes, make friends with your vet so you enjoy the times you see them, and realize that all the ridiculousness now just makes for a good story later. (If you see me at RRP, ask me to tell you about the time I dumped an entire wheelbarrow of muck on myself in front of Robbie Murphy.)

2. A Good Imagination

Luckily for me, I was able to see photos of Bourbon on the track before I brought him home. I could tell what was underneath his winter fluff and had no problem imagining him well-groomed, properly muscled and as the athlete he is. But that’s not always the case. More times than not, it’s up to us as trainers to be able to visualize what could be – a little muscling here, a little fat there, a pulled mane and a healthy sheen to their body. It’s amazing what a little imagination can do.

Take my $300 craigslist pony for example —

These photos were taken roughly two-and-a-half years apart. Looking at her in the first photo, it’s no wonder I was able to buy her for pocket change off a craigslist ad. But when I watched her move (despite the fact that she was running away from me in the field), I knew I had to have her.

3. Patience

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilbert.

Last, but certainly not least, is a healthy does of patience. Yes, it took two-and-a-half years for the horse above to grow, develop and blossom into the stunning mare she is. And it’s not uncommon for the process to take years, especially if you’re on a tight timeline (that’s why we start with a sense of humor).

Almost every horse in my barn needs me to be patient at the beginning of our relationship. When Bourbon arrived, he had come off a year-long layoff, wasn’t used to being brought into the barn and had no idea what I wanted from him. He learned quickly, but that also meant he quickly learned how to get out of the things. Like refusing to be caught or breaking the cross-ties every. single. time I walked out of sight. Nevertheless, I persisted in my patience, and here we are, 5 months later, he’s the biggest puppy dog and my daughter’s favorite horse to ride.

Please excuse the mud and rain rot. Did I mention this is a process? So have some fun, laugh it off, imagine what could be and be prepared to practice your patience. I guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised. See you in October!