Road to the Thoroughbred Makeover: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

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’re checking in with trainer Kristal Gessler. You can read her first RRP blog here.

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). Here is Kristal with her latest update:

Our daily groundwork sessions. Photo courtesy of Kristal Gessler.

In a world that has been completely turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, I am one of many equestrian businesses that is now operating on a skeleton crew. As we are doing our very best to continue operations and training schedules as normal as possible, trying to cram everything into one day has proven to be exhausting and we are seriously missing our barn family/clients. But that’s enough of the doom and gloom we have all been bombarded with over the last few weeks. We are all in the same boat and just need to buckle down and get through this so we can get back to our normal lives/routines and competitions.

I introduced Fraternal (“Romeo”), my 2020 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover hopeful, to you in my last post. Fraternal enjoyed 60 days of turnout with a few buddies to let down and grow up a bit. During those 60 days, Fraternal enjoyed his weekly PEMF therapy sessions, chiropractic, and of course a new pedicure for his new career.

Fraternal quickly became the barn favorite because of his charming demeanor and never-ending antics. If there is anything even remotely edible and left within reach you can guarantee it will be in his stall/paddock. If you walk by his stall without acknowledging him you can be sure that a tantrum will incur until he receives the attention that he believes he is entitled to. Don’t even try to eat something in front of him as he believes whatever you are eating he must have (just like a toddler) and will consume whatever it is you have.

Fraternal is a barn favorite. Photo by Kristal Gessler.

I can’t even count the the times I’ve walked out to his paddock to find all the PVC drainage poles completely rearranged like a game of pick-up sticks, or better yet see him running around with them in his mouth like he is playing fetch. He is absolutely a giant toddler on four legs, but he keeps us all laughing and smiling every day.

After 60 days of leisure, the December 1 deadline approached and we were ready to start a workout regimen. Fraternal and I spent a lot of time on the ground establishing a connection and boundaries. Fraternal is everything a 3 year old should be: goofy, exuberant, opinionated, curious, talented, and just plain full of life.

Fraternal took to his new career like a fish to water. He soaked up everything like a sponge, working over cavaletti, through water, over small logs, ponying along with the more seasoned horses, assisting in lessons, and soon mastered the ground work like a seasoned pro.

We then moved on to working under saddle. As with most young OTTBs, during his first few rides he was a bit tense and unsure of what was going to be asked of him. As the days went on and he grew accustomed to his routine and what was expected, he slowly began to settle in and relax.

Body conditioning: top photo March 2020, bottom photo October 2019.

As with all of my young horses, desensitizing plays a huge role in my training. I want to set them up for success in any situation that may arise, so to prepare them for this I do my best to create situations and stimuli they may come upon at any of our competitions. Being an eventer and aiming to compete in eventing at the Makeover, there is a lot that Fraternal needs to become accustomed to seeing.

Fraternal has shown us that he is more of the sensitive type, as he is reactive to all noises and goings on around him. This means I am going to have to be even more diligent about desensitizing him to everything possible. Many of our training sessions have included me riding him while someone is walking/running around with an umbrella, flag, tarp, etc., encouraging him to ignore what is going on and try to only focus on me and what I’m asking.

As most of you know, asking this of a young horse can be extremely challenging. “Slow and steady” was our motto and after a few sessions I had his complete attention even when there was complete chaos going on around us.

We then introduced working with another horse in the ring. This has proven to be our biggest obstacle to overcome yet. As every time the other horse passes us or comes up behind us he decides it is playtime and tries to engage the other horse in a game of tag, catch me if you can or watch what I can do. Let’s just say it was a very interesting first few session with lots of laughs involved. As the days passed he became more comfortable with other horses working around him but would still throw out and antic or two just to see if I was paying attention.

Golf cart desensitizing. With our assistant Juliet trailing behind. Photo by Kristal Gessler.

Many of our days are spent just sitting on him teaching lessons so that he learns to be patient and can watch the more experienced horses jump around, hear them knock rails, listen to them galloping around, with absolutely no pressure or expectations for him. At most of our competitions there are many golf carts or mini bikes, bicycles, tractors, etc. going around the show grounds.

To help prepare him for this, we do weekly golf cart walks where he walks beside the moving golf cart, getting accustomed to all the noises that it might create. Walking alongside quietly while hearing all the noise on the road, Fraternal is quickly excitable but with a soft reminder is brought back to the correct working mindset and we can continue on.

As we work, one day at a time, we will hopefully continue to progress and begin our competition season once this virus has finally ended. For now it’s continuing on with our daily training schedule and doing the best we can in these uncertain times. Stay tuned for our monthly updates and training progress.