By Anne Zaharias
It was with a bit of apprehension that I decided to participate in the 2018 Retired Racehorse Project (RRP) Makeover. It was uncharted territory for me, and I wasn’t really sure what I was signing up for. My friend Heidi Maloy, who is an American Vaulting Association (AVA) Bronze and Silver medalist, had been encouraging me in earnest, for nearly a year, to get involved and possibly partner in a project horse to campaign for the Makeover. She finally succeeded and my only stipulation was that I got to pick the horse. As a trainer, my main focus is dressage, so it was only natural that we would be pointing towards that discipline and would also utilize Heidi’s experience as a vaulter to develop a freestyle routine.
Now came the difficult task of finding the right horse. I have, on several occasions, worked with off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs), though this would be my first that I would work with that was fresh from the track. Priority number one was to find a horse with three rhythmically clean gaits. The trot is typically the easiest gait to improve with training, and Thoroughbreds tend to have a good ground covering canter, so I wanted to pay particular attention to the walk, that it had no lateral tendency and had good undulation through the spine. The time frame we had to develop the horse would be roughly ten months, so I also wanted to find a prospect with a calmer temperament that wouldn’t have extraordinary tension issues to overcome. I am a firm believer in the “it takes as long as it takes” methodology, so it was important to me not to feel in a rush, and a hotter tempered horse might need longer than the time allotted to comfortably be ready by October. My Facebook acquaintance at the time that I’m now proud to call my friend, Ashley Godwin Mariachi, had a quiet, curious, and handsome bay gelding , “Wild Lil’ Kitten” aka “Kitty” (Kittens Joy x Missy Wildcat) that met the eligibility requirements. I liked the rhythm and ease of his gaits, and he seemed quietly confident in his own skin. The only concern I had was his age. He was coming four in 2018, but chronologically not four until the end of May. I was unsure how much we could expect from him mentally and physically at that age, but decided to give it a go. When he stepped off of the trailer, he just looked around as if to say, “I guess I live here now, it’s all good with me.” I was impressed immediately with his character. He was kind to everyone, every day he was happy to see you and wanted to please. He always carried around a “life is great” attitude that really struck a chord with me.
Kitty when Anne first got him in 2017 vs him in October of 2018
We spent the first few months learning basic yielding to pressure exercises, in hand and under saddle. I wanted to be sure we had a good handle on the four corners of his body and also give him experience to anything and everything we could think of: traffic, dirt bikes, tarps, etc. He was so inquisitive with it all and really enjoyed exploring new things. Throughout the training process, we worked on developing our way through the training scales. It was paramount, in his case, to improve on lateral and longitudinal suppleness in order to unlock his body and teach him to be adjustable. He was a little bit like riding a surfboard at first, but he was a very quick study. Once he understood a concept, he held onto it really well. Some horses take quite a bit of repetition to firm up an idea, to the point where you can call upon it any time. Kitty was exceptional in his trainability and I’m very pleased with his progress. It is one of the most rewarding things, as a trainer, to be able to compare what came to you versus what leaves you several months later. I love to see them gain confidence and watch their physical development improve.
Although the prospect of doing a freestyle sort of terrified me, I was (in the end) so appreciative of the challenge and perspective it offered. I am such a dressage geek, and can get so focused on the specifics we work on in the arena, so it was a great lesson to see how diversifying the routine was mentally and physically welcoming to him. Especially at his age, I wanted to be sure he kept his cheery disposition and remained interested in his work. It is something I now keep more in the front of my mind, in respect to the other horses I have in training. Our freestyle included vaulting singles at the canter, and up to three at the walk, then long lining over a variety of obstacles. He amazed me with his cool acceptance of everything we threw at him. The Makeover was fast approaching, so we decided to start testing things out by heading to some schooling shows and a few USDF-recognized competitions. Kitty managed to score from 66-70% at Training Level. It was important for us to get an idea how he would handle the pressure of a show environment, as well as get some feedback from the judges before we headed to Lexington.
The week prior to the Makeover, we learned that the dressage field was in excess of 150 horses, so we had our work cut out for us. Competition would consist of USEF Training Level Test 2, followed by a four minute demonstration ride, with content and choreography of our choosing, in the Rolex Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park. He scored a 76% in his dressage test and nailed his demo ride. After two full days of dressage rides, we learned we were sitting in first place! We were so excited, he really handled the venue well and made a great impression. The top five horses competed in the finale, consisting of a four minute freestyle routine to music. Unfortunately, the addition of a crowd caused a little more tension in Kitty than I had anticipated, and the level of relaxation was not where it could have been, but he still gave a great effort. We ended up second overall, and I couldn’t be more pleased with him. It’s so rewarding, knowing that we were able to give him the tools to be successful in a post-track career. Our freestyle experienced quite a bit of bad luck. The night before competition, as we were practicing the vaulting routine, one of the girls lost her balance and Heidi tried to stabilize her, but we heard a loud “pop”, and it turns out, she had broken her forearm. She was able to splint it and we made some last minute modifications in the routine to work around it. Then, during competition, as we were long lining, our right long line had partially broken off of the bridle. I didn’t realize it until time was up, but it certainly explained why I suddenly had such a hard time navigating to most of the obstacles. We were extremely disappointed as we really thought he would shine in that discipline. We put in so much time and effort preparing a great routine and we would have been ecstatic had we been able to show him to his capability.
I was extremely impressed with the ability and quality of training represented at this year’s Makeover. It was really enjoyable to meet fellow trainers, and feel that the main focus was not on winning so much as it was to support each other and show what our horses can do. It was a nice sense of comradery, as we all came together to utilize our abilities to promote these charismatic horses. As a trainer, I know how difficult it can be to find a prospect capable of meeting requirements to be competitive in your given sport. OTTBs are a viable resource for people looking for a sport horse prospect. They are excellent athletes and quite versatile. Horses can often times be purchased for under five thousand dollars. While additional training is an added expense for sure, it can be dispersed over time, which can make it a much more comfortable option for riders on a budget. It is important, as it would be with any purchase, to be sure you look for a temperament that fits you as a rider, characteristics that compliment your discipline, and invest in quality training to develop a foundation. As you look for future prospects, I encourage you to keep OTTBs on your radar.
The only downside to this journey, for me, is parting ways. I wish my wallet was as big as my heart in this case, but it’s just not possible to keep them all. Though, I would be fibbing if I didn’t say I would love to keep Kitty on and see what we could accomplish next. He has been an absolute joy to work with and I am so happy to be part of the RRP Makeover family. I hope I have the opportunity to participate again, and encourage anyone interested to get involved with the RRP. There are some great horses out there just waiting to be discovered!