The 100-Day Trainer Challenge for OTTBs

Chesna Klimek sent in this article about the 100-Day Trainer Challenge for OTTBs in Washington State. Modeled after the Retired Racehorse Training Project, this event’s purpose is also to showcase the abilities that these amazing horses have. The culminating event for the 100-Day Trainer Challenge is being held today, and Chesna wanted to share the story with all of Eventing Nation. Thank you to Chesna for sending in this great article! Do you have a great story to share with us? Email it to [email protected]

From Chesna: 

We all know the elated feeling we get cheering for a group of Thoroughbred racehorses rounding the backstretch turn, dirt flying from under their outstretched hooves at full gallop. But today, October 5, the cheers will be for Thoroughbreds off the track. 

This past summer I was selected to participate in the Prodigious Fund’s 100-Day Trainer Challenge for OTTBs, supported by Emerald Downs racetrack in Auburn, WA. Inspired by the Retired Racehorse Training Project Thoroughbred Makeover, five trainers in the Pacific Northwest were selected to choose an ex-racehorse from 11 candidates. We were then given 100 days to train our horses for a second career, as well as find them new owners. Today, we will gather at Donida Farms in Auburn, WA to showcase what our horses have accomplished and to support the Prodigious Fund’s inaugural Thoroughbred (and half-Thoroughbred!) only horse show. 

Sophia McKee, marketing director at Emerald Downs explains, “Our goal for the 100-Day Challenge is to showcase the athleticism and intelligence of the Thoroughbred. Ultimately, we want to find quality homes for the five horses in the 100-Day Challenge, but in chronicling the trainers and horses’ journey in social media, we also mold the public’s perception of what a Thoroughbred can achieve.” 

Over 25 trainers applied to participate in this one-of-a-kind new program, and of the five finalists selected, three are USEA Area VII eventers. Whether this happened because OTTBs are appreciated for their eventing potential—Sophia explains, “We find that a racehorse’s natural attributes translate exceptionally well to eventing”—or maybe because event trainers are a special kind of cool, either way it’s a wonderful cause for the sport of 3DE to support.

Devin Robel and Rainer.

Devin Robel of Blue Rider Farm in Eugene, OR has been training and competing OTTB’s for over ten years in the sport of eventing. “I felt this program was the perfect fit for me. I love working with young and green horses, and find the early stages of learning super rewarding. Every day they show progress. A good trainer can teach them so much in 100 days.” Devin chose the beautiful grey gelding Summer Snow, aka “Rainier.” At age nine, he boasts the most impressive racing record of the selected horses, having raced 44 times as recently as just months before the start of the Challenge. Devin has brought along Rainier’s natural abilities and highlighted his trainable personality, as well as his aptitude for eventing. Check out this horse killing it through a jump grid only a few months into his retraining: 

In her favorite post from her training with Rainier, Devin reveals some the intricacies of the training process; “I often talk about what a willing and easy horse Rainier is to train, but the training is a give and take, and requires a good deal of reflection on the right way to bring THIS particular horse forward at each training session.” These types of insights were offered by all the trainers during this process in the form of blogs, videos, and social media posts.

Meika Decher and Ellie

Meika Decher, an Advanced level eventer, of Polestar Farm in Lake Stevens, WA also loves working with young horses, and Thoroughbreds in particular. She credits Steuart Pittman’s work with RRTP in Maryland as her inspiration for signing up for this westcoast-based OTTB Challenge. 

Like me, Meika chose a horse who had had some time out to pasture after the end of their race career. The Last Say, aka “Ellie,” impressed Meika so much with her “look of eagles” and athletic ability that the mare will continue on under Meika in her eventing program. Ellie’s breeder/owner and track veterinarian, Jenyka Bergsma, is going in to part-ownership with Meika to see the mare’s eventing career unfold. 

Meika has been a dedicated video-blogger during the Challenge, marking the progress with her horse through narrated video sessions. “It’s been a lot of work, but well worth it… I hope to continue to show more videos (but not weekly!) as Ellie makes her USEA debut next spring.”
We all looked forward to Meika’s weekly videos, which were educational and revealing. Followers of the Challenge commented enthusiastically that it was like getting a free lesson every week! Meika’s favorite video was from week #2 of the Challenge, in which you can see a marked difference in Ellie’s way of going during a single session:

Rounding out the trio of eventers, I edged my way into the Challenge as first alternate after Amy Brandt of Second Chance Ranch was unable to participate. Though the Prodigious Fund selected me to represent dressage, the OTTB I chose, a 7-year-old Kentucky bred gelding, Solar, demonstrated fantastic form over fences once he found his confidence and coordination through groundwork and trail riding. I opted to provide him with a well-rounded education, focusing on the relationship-building aspect that is all-important in horse training and setting him up for future successes under an amateur rider who can appreciate his easy-going, willing disposition and athletic talents. In my favorite post, I wrote about the process of improving Solar and I’s communication. 

Chesna and Solar

Throughout this process Solar has reminded me why I chose a Thoroughbred as my first “real” horse after ponies, and why ex-racehorses deserve a chance to shine in equestrian sport. He has worked with me diligently to develop fitness after time off from racing and to learn a higher level of balance and skills than were ever asked of him before. You can see a video montage of some of the activities we did together over the past 97 days: 

One of the best parts about this program is how it highlights the versatility of OTTBs and the diversity of training methods that can produce a successful equine partner.

Mark Bolender and Dakota

Mark Bolender is nationally known as one of the leading trainers in Extreme Trail and Mountain Trail competitions. A former engineer, he designed an elaborate trail course at Bolender Horse Park in Silver Creek, WA. There horses and riders learn to navigate natural obstacles such as water crossings, step-ups, logs, and a wide assortment of wooden bridges, including a suspension bridge. Some of the obstacles would be hard to master on foot, let alone atop a horse! 

Mark selected 3-year-old filly Dakota Demon to be his partner during the 100-Day Trainer Challenge. Last raced in only June, she has demonstrated a willing and curious personality as she skillfully crosses narrow platforms, bridges, or banks and masters the basics of Western riding under Mark’s experienced leadership. Can’t wait to see what they showcase tomorrow during their three-and-a-half-minute freestyle performance! Orient yourself to Mark’s methods and highlights from his time with Dakota in his recent interview:

Finally, Ruel Johnson and Tara Devlin of Blue Heron Farm, located in Poulsbo, WA have showcased ex-racehorses’ natural abilities in the hunter/jumper arena. Ruel selected a lovely chestnut four-year-old filly, Underfunded Fun, aka “Sweetpea.” This graceful mare has shown her talent over fences, including performances in lower level hunter classes in the show ring.

Underfunded Fun

See recent video of Sweetpea’s winning personality as she’s piloted by a young, intermediate student as well as highlights from her 100-days At Blue Heron Farm:

Today, I encourage eventing fans everywhere to show their OTTB pride. Support programs like the 100-Day Trainer Challenge or RRTP Makeover. Give your time or money to Thoroughbred charities. Talk to someone about the success of ex-racehorses. Or simply give your favorite OTTB a hug.



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