For 673 accepted trainers, the journey to the Retired Racehorse Project‘s 2019 RPP Thoroughbred Makeover has begun! Over the next eight months, 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 Burns, Hillary McMichael, Clare Mansmann, Jennifer Reisenbichler.
A client and fellow Thoroughbred Makeover contestant recently mentioned how much she enjoyed seeing veteran Makeover trainers’ “Year Two” posts, and that while she was enjoying the early process with Hank (OK I just outed her), she was really looking forward to Year Two. And boy do I understand. Year Two is super fun. All the little things that seem so difficult now, like turning, seem to disappear and suddenly you’re not having to think as hard about canter leads and circles. It’s fun, but to get to Year Two, you have to get through (duh duh duuuuuh!) Ride One.
First rides off the track are really fun for weirdos like us. Much of the time, we don’t know a tremendous amount about the horses that come to us. This is not because they come from unknown sources, but because outside the basic questions of soundness and the absence or evidence of testicles (as well as the correct number — don’t ask), we like to go in without too many preconceived notions.
I want to know what the horse tells me, more than the human. I can’t tell you how many horses come in for training with excellent results, only to have the owner later clue us in to the bucking, wheeling, biting, XYZ poor behavior, and, safety concerns aside, it is always good to go in with an open mind because most horses have fewer issues than we do.
We have had the pleasure of working with over half a dozen Thoroughbred Makeover eligible horses in just the past couple of months. Some, if not sold prior, will be taken to the Makeover by us, some are actively for sale and just happen to be eligible, and several are horses that we have been transitioning for their owners. They, perhaps with a higher intelligence than our own, would prefer assistance in this endeavor, and maybe a crash test dummy. And yes, my parents are proud.
But Ride One is full of discovery and romance and that’s kind of my shtick, and so we have spent not a small amount of time developing and re-developing our methods for this early stage of re-careering. Sometimes horses come straight from their last race, and those are often easier, but sometimes you have a 3- or 4-year-old who’s been off for a year and I don’t care how great their early training was, you still have a 3- or 4-year-old who’s been off for a year.
The preparation for the First Ride is very important to us, and while different horses move at different paces through these stages, we are certain to move through our process with any horse that crosses our threshold. The preparation is where we learn the most about how the horse reacts to different pressures (physical and mental), and so we know quite a bit about what will happen when we swing a leg over. This preparation gives us (and the horse) the confidence to put a loop in the reins, canter around, and pop a jump on Ride One. We can take the saddle off on Ride Two, and lead a trail ride on Ride Three. Ride Six can be at a show or an expo, and Ride Ten could be teaching a lesson.
And so we work on the ground and we work with the pony horse and by the time we actually sit on the horse, it has already done everything we plan to ask under saddle, without a saddle (or at least a rider). Things you will see in our Ride Ones are: plenty of forward, plenty of sitting, plenty of standing around, plenty of circles, plenty of poles, plenty of Tookie, and PLENTY of loops in the reins.
In no way will you see us worrying one lick about where the horse’s head is for quite some time, because we hold true to our classical dressage backgrounds, that the horse moves from behind, that we never want the horse’s head set in a frame, and that connection comes from the butt, not the bit. As our horses are learning a new way of balancing, we take great caution to give their front ends room and allow them carry themselves and hold the pace we ask for. They need to learn to walk, trot, canter, and jump a small course on a loopy rein so they learn to take care of themselves, and not rely on the fallible human. They need to go forward with freedom to make mistakes, in order to learn the parameters.
And this is why first rides are so full of stumbles and hiccups, giggles and “good boys” (girls too), wrong leads and steering mishaps, pulled shoes and slipped reins. Because bumpy roads lead to smoother paths, and those smoother paths take you right into Year Two.