So…the big day(s)!!!! Upon arrival in the park I was amazed by the volume of ex racehorses that would be taking part in the makeover project. It was on Friday morning when what seemed like 50 percent of the horses came out for exercise. As far as the eye could see there were ex racehorses.
In comparison to the UK, the atmosphere of the show and the trade stands was much bigger than what we experience at our dressage Nationals. On the build up to the Makeover Project I had taken Ryan to the Retraining of Racehorses Championships held at Houghton Hall in Cambridgeshire. He was good, but did struggle with the championship atmosphere. I looked at the championships as a stepping stone toward Kentucky, and boy am I glad that I schooled Ryan around the RoR champs, to allow him to relax, as the surroundings in the park were 10 times what he had experienced a month previous.
We arrived in Kentucky the Saturday before the event and I did deliberate with myself about when to take Ryan to the park. If I took him Wednesday morning, it would mean more time to settle in, but less turnout time, which is something that I feel all my horses should have–especially ones that are 4 years old and have traveled 5,000 miles.
After many discussions with myself and three Starbuck coffees later, I decided that being an ex racer meant he was used to being in the stable and it was more important that he settled and got used to his surroundings. I could always take him for lots of walks and grass. I am very glad I made that decision, as seeing what was going on, he needed as much time to settle as possible.
The covered arena was by far the biggest atmosphere with trade stands surrounding the edges, all above the horses eye line. Ryan, being the absolute superstar that he is, took it all in stride. He did spend a bit of time taking in the trade stands and noises of coat hangers moving on rails, but never once did he say ‘no’ or ‘I can’t deal with this.’ It is a testament to the upbringing that he had at Bryan Smart Racing as his willing character and trusting of people really shone through.
I met some wonderful people over the course of the weekend and got to break in my new Joshua Jones boots by riding a barrel horse named Leather. Leather is owned by Laura Weincek, who is looking to make the change from barrel horse to future dressage horse.
I was part of the symposium aspect of the weekend, on the trainers forum and the British model, presented by the RoR. The trainers forum was a blast and it was great to learn not only from the other trainers on the panel, but also from some of the people in the audience sharing their stories, problems and training techniques. The forums/symposium side of the event was a great educational tool, either for people with ex racehorses or those wanting to purchase ex racers.
The competition side of it, for me, was a bit of a challenge. The material section of the completion we did very well, placing third. The test riding and freestyle section were something that left much to be desired. We had a 13 percent discrepancy between the two judges, which kept our overall score very low. One judge was encouraging the horses to be low in the poll and so far out in the neck you saw little working under or behind the saddle. For me, if you are looking for a potential dressage horse, encouraging them to go on the forehand and not work from behind, lifting and engaging their back, is not the best foundation.
The freestyle section of the competition was what I would call a grey area. It was a part of the competition where you got to show off your horses best abilities at the level of training that he/she was at. Again, for me, I found this part difficult as all horses were maximum nine months out of racing. In theory, the floor plan should be simple and reflect where the horse is in their training, which should be; walk, trot, canter, a little bit of sideways stuff and maybe some forward and back in the pace. What I saw (and was marked the highest by the judges) were flying changes, idea of half passes, simple changes and 10-meter circles in canter. Don’t get me wrong, it is fantastic that the Thoroughbreds brain is intelligent enough to take on these concepts and perform them in that setting. However, this is an animal that probably doesn’t have the muscle structure to be able to perform these movements if you are looking at longevity of the horse and progression through the levels. I was not in envy of the judges as they had to separate 30 horses, and I can see why they marked these movements higher. However, from a trainers point of view, I could not see these horses lasting years in dressage, but more so, it could be encouraging on lookers to perform said movements in a short amount of time. Yes, there needs to be a balance, as you want to show/prove to people that Thoroughbreds can perform these movements or have the potential to do them, I just feel that there maybe needed to be some more clarity in the freestyle, taking into consideration what the horses have been doing over the previous nine months.
The weekend was a fantastic showcase of a life after racing. Yes, all the horses at The Kentucky Horse Park were only nine months from the race yard; however, it highlighted to many, that with the correct training, time, patience and love for their horses, this ‘breed’ could pretty much turn their hoof to anything they tried. There were 10 disciplines; dressage, showjumping, eventing, polo, ranch work, freestyle, field hunter, show hunter, trail riding and barrel racing.
For me, as a rider, it was brilliant to see the racing community behind the project. Organizations such as Darley had placed some of their ex racehorses with riders for the makeover. The riders did such a fantastic job that they have been given more ex racers to produce for next year’s makeover. There were jockeys, trainers, riders from all disciplines coming to the event to see what was going on and what could be possible. A massive well done to Steuart Pitman and his team. They have worked tirelessly to make this project a success and they have truly done that. With so many disciplines and so many questions from competitors and support staff I was surprised to still see smiles on their faces come Sunday afternoon. (Me, I would have been sat in a corner, hugging my knees, slowly rocking back and forth.)
A big and incredible thank you to my sponsor, Amlin, who have made this journey and dream possible. They have supported me through all of this, missing tack and all! (My bridle, bandages, rugs and a few other items are still MIA in the U.S. somewhere.) It is brilliant that a company who has a history in bloodstock, racehorses and jockeys is now making the branch into the world of re training.
The final and most important thank you (aside form the support team here in the U.S. and back home–you all kept me going!) goes to Ryan. This is truly a special horse, who I adore and can’t thank enough for what he has done for me. He has put up with me asking him to travel 5,000 miles and perform and still remain good spirited and happy. There were many tears shed when he found a new home with Susan in Memphis, but it just means I now have to take a few days off work to go on holiday to visit him!