Road to the Thoroughbred Makeover: Meet Kristal Gessler & Fraternal (‘Romeo’)

For 616 accepted trainers, the journey to the Retired Racehorse Project’s 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America, has begun! The 2020 event will take place at Oct. 7-10 at the Kentucky Horse Park. Between now and then, five eventing trainers will be blogging their journeys, including their triumphs and their heartbreaks, successes and failures, for Eventing Nation readers. Today, we meet trainer Kristal Gessler.

Kristal is from Rexford, NY, and operates her business, Kristal Clear Equestrian, a new sport horse training facility specializing in restarting OTTBs, out of Burnt Hills, NY. This will be her second year competing in the Makeover — last year she finished 6th in eventing with her 4-year-old Prolific. This year she returns with Fraternal (barn name “Romeo”), a Godolphin-bred 2017 17-hand Thoroughbred gelding (Into Mischief  x Sister State, by A.P. Indy). Take it away, Kristal!

Kristal’s 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover hopeful, Fraternal. Photo courtesy of Kristal Gessler.

From a young age I had a big interest in OTTBs, and while I had many different types of horses there was usually always one in barn. Growing up on my family farm horses were not the main focus and were only a hobby for us kids. That hobby quickly turned into a passion that I knew I wanted to turn into a lifetime career. I guess you could consider me one of those, almost now extinct, “barn rats”; even though we kept our horses at home I spent most of my time in the barn caring for and riding/driving as much as possible.

I worked with several local trainers — everything from hunter/jumpers to natural horsemanship, learning and soaking up every bit of information I could possibly find. It wasn’t until later into my adult years that I discovered my true passion for eventing and dressage. After finishing college, doing the whole stay-at-home-mom thing and going through a divorce, I decided I wanted more for myself and my son. I didn’t want to have to give up my stay-at-home-mom status and send my son to daycare so I looked for a job that would allow me to have him with me everyday.

I was then introduced to five-star eventer Marcia Kulak. I spent many years training and working alongside her, and learning everything I possibly could regarding the training and management of high-profile equine athletes. The days were long but an experience unlike any other, the best learning environment and window into the eventing world that I could receive. After many summers working closely with the Kulak team, and winters spent in a few different local barns, I decided it was time to step out of my comfort zone, take the leap and start my own business. I spent my first year traveling locally, coaching, and training young horses and riders of all ages and levels. The goal was to develop my reputation and a solid customer base, which was accomplished, and November of 2018 I was able to rent my first barn and establish a base for my training business.

That first winter was amazing and exhausting all at the same time. As with most new businesses the first year was full of ups and downs and lots of learning experiences. It was during this time that I discovered the Retired Racehorse Project and the Thoroughbred Makeover. As I did my research into the RRP/Thoroughbred Makeover and coaching a client through their first year competing at the Makeover, I decided I wanted to jump in and give it a try. I spent countless hours researching and combing through all of the Thoroughbred aftercare and rehoming programs and decided to contact the Godolpin rehoming program.

After many emails back and forth with the director of the U.S. program based in Kentucky, I was matched up with Prolific, a 4-year-old gelding. He was tall, dark and handsome so I said yes and he was shipped to me in February of 2019. From the moment he stepped off the trailer it was love at first sight; I couldn’t believe this beautiful creature was mine!

Our journey to the 2019 Makeover was not an easy one as he had many health complications to overcome, but with our amazing team, veterinarian, farrier and coaches, we were able to get him on the right track. We spent the spring/summer schooling, schooling, and more schooling. Everything was a training opportunity. We took him along to every competition and exposed him to everything he could possibly see when we arrived in Kentucky.

He had three competitions under his belt before we prepared for his final competition before the Makeover. It was at this final competition at GMHA in Vermont when he finally peaked and all the pieces came together. The cross country course was the biggest most intimidating course he had seen yet and I wasn’t sure how he was going to react to it, but I felt it was going to help to prepare him for what he was going to see and give me the best insight into how he would perform over the fences in Kentucky. From the moment he stepped into the start box he was game on. With only a few looks at the running water crossings, he tackled every question without any hesitation and loved every minute of it! I knew from that moment I had an extremely brave and bold cross country horse.

The next week we were off to Kentucky and extremely excited to compete and be a part of this amazing adventure. The week was filled with every possible experience and emotion, from excitement, to nervousness, to doubt, to pure exhaustion. The competitors and staff were absolutely amazing — never before have I felt such a sense of community, and helpfulness. Yes we are all there competing against each other with one goal in mind, to win the Finale, but everyone was so helpful and positive, and just truly wanted to see you succeed. They set a new standard that I wish more competitions would strive for.

Prolific after cross country. Photo courtesy of Kristal Gessler.

Prolific stepped upped his game at the Makeover performing his best dressage test yet that season, earning him second place after dressage. He put in his best effort in show jumping, which is his toughest phase, producing a beautiful round with one unfortunate rail. When it came time for cross country it was time to go out and have some fun. When it was our time to go we galloped off, taking the first jump quietly, and then he kicked into cross country gear and away we went. He tackled every question with a boldness like never before — I was beyond excited. As we approached the final jump I knew the gallop was next. Never letting him truly go before I wasn’t sure what to expect from him. We landed from the final jump, made the turn and I told him to go, he questioned me for a second then took off like a rocket, shooting up the hill, through the finish flags and earning him the highest score on his card for his gallop.

I came off course on cloud 9 and in tears. Prolific overcame an uphill health battle, he made it, conquered it, and had a blast doing it! We wound up placing 6th overall, making it in the top 10 and into the awards ceremonies. This journey was like none other and I was so proud to be a part of it! Prolific and I are now looking forward to the upcoming show season and continuing to move up the levels in eventing.

After competing for the first time at the Makeover, I am completely hooked. What an amazing experience and way to promote the Thoroughbred breed and there afterracing careers. Being at the Makeover opened myself and my business up to new opportunities and solidified my career goals in retraining OTTBs for there second careers.

After all the competing was over I decided I had to do this journey again. While still at the Makeover, on our down day before the Finale, we were able to tour the Godolphin facilities, where I was able to look at and choose my 2020 Makeover hopeful, Fraternal (“Romeo”). This handsome young gelding shows all the potential of an upper level competitor and I am very excited to bring him along.

Fraternal was able to make the journey home with us after the Makeover where he enjoyed some down time with a few buddies as we awaited the December 1st deadline. After the deadline he began a very light training schedule. I start all of my youngsters on the ground, putting in many hours of learning the fundamentals of ground work or “rope work” as I call it before ever starting them under saddle. Fraternal soaked up everything like a sponge and is proving to be extremely smart, willing and athletic.

He now has a full 30 days under saddle and just recently participated in his first dressage clinic with Jeff Lindburg, where he has shown that he has a ton of potential and a great brain. Our goal for the 2020 Makeover is to compete in eventing, but we will see what he will be best suited for mentally and physically as we get closer.  I am very excited to share our journey to the 2020 RRP Thoroughbred Makeover with everyone and hope you enjoy and follow along with us.