Coming Full Circle

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It’s been just a few days shy of a year since I bought Thomas, and the year has turned out to be nothing like I originally expected.

On Tuesday Thomas went to his new home with a young professional. I’d convinced myself over the summer and early fall that I was going to keep him; he was too nice of a horse, and I knew he had so much potential.

But after riding him for five days once I was physically and mentally able, I decided he’s just not for me. Maybe it’s something I communicated to him, but he was still nervous when I went to get on, despite being fine with my friend and Dusty, so that was it.

In the end, with me riding alone most nights, I just didn’t feel it was the right decision to keep trying. If I had more experience with different kinds of OTTBs and green horses and help every day maybe I’d feel differently.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Bear recently and how easy he was at just 3 years old when I got him off the track. He was just the total opposite of Thomas, who’s sensitive, but then fairly simple on the flat. Maybe something happened in his previous life that contributes to his sensitivity, and combined with my distrust of him, it makes for a bad combination.

I feel a little put off by Thoroughbreds directly off the track now, which sounds silly, but this whole year has made me just a little more aware of my own mortality. I also just don’t have the experience, or the time frankly, with travel and also riding and competing Oh So. One thing that I felt was really missing was being able to spend a lot of time with Thomas. When I first got Oh So and Bear I had them at home, so I learned their ins and out and saw them multiple times a day.

I know most adult amateurs board their horses and face the same challenges, but I think Thomas needed more time than I could give him.

Maybe I’ll save for a couple of years until Oh So is ready to retire and then buy something that’s already been started like he was, but I’m just never going to be able to afford a going horse.

It just feels like this year was a colossal waste of time and money, and that sucks. I haven’t had dozens of horses over my lifetime, so I get pretty invested in the ones I have, and none of them have ever not worked out in this way. It’s a weird and demoralizing feeling, to be honest. There’s a lot of what ifs–what if I hadn’t come off, was this my fault, what’s he like to go cross-country, how would he have handled his first show? I just didn’t get to experience all that fun baby stuff after the work I put in in the beginning.

But I’m happy he’s found a rider who seems to adore him, and I’m excited to watch their progress. He looked really good when I saw him go with Dusty, and I feel like he’s just on the cusp of being ready to compete this spring; I just kind of wish it was me in the saddle.

People have been telling me, you learn something from every horse, and I guess I learned the hard way what the right horse is for me.

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Book Review: New Track, New Life: Understanding And Retraining The Off-Track Thoroughbred

This review originally appeared in the July/August issue of the Chronicle’s Untacked.

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New Track, New Life: Understanding And Retraining The Off-Track Thoroughbred

By Kimberly Godwin Clark

This book came across my desk at exactly the right moment. I’d just picked up my new off-the-track Thoroughbred and was excited to start his retraining. I’ve brought along two other OTTBs in my life—one straight from the track who was quite simple and sweet, and the second who came to me with walk, trot, canter and knowledge of basic jumping, but after reading Kimberly Godwin Clark’s book, I realized there was a lot about the breed that I didn’t know.

Clark has galloped, trained and owned Thoroughbreds for 30 years and has been promoting them for adoption since 2007, both on her own and through her non-profit, Thoroughbred Placement Resources, so she brings a wealth of detailed knowledge.

Before I bought my OTTB, the only time I’d ever been to the track was to watch a race on a summer evening, so Clark’s step-by-step description of how the track works was extremely interesting. She describes the details of everyone’s job at the track, what kind of tack your OTTB wore, and how they were ridden and trained. She then walks the reader through a first trip to the track and what to expect—researching the horse online before you go, etiquette in the barns, evaluating a horse for sale, and how to make an offer.

In the second half of the book, Clark offers advice on everything from how to start a recently retired race horse to what to feed, how to deal with turnout, behavior modifications and when things go wrong.

If you’re new to OTTBs, it’s always a good idea to get help from an experienced person. But before you embark on the journey, New Track, New Life is an educational read to help you have a positive experience with your new partner.

Slow and Steady

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Thomas and Oh So hanging.

I’ve had Thomas for just about three months now, and we’re slowly making progress in his re-training.

He’s proven to be very willing, but also a little weary of new things, so we’ve had to be creative in introducing him to jumping and just going slow. I feel like we should be further along at times, but then I have to remind myself I’ve only had him for three months. We’re still learning to trust each other, but we had a good breakthrough in my lesson last Thursday.

After initially teaching him to pick up his feet and actually jump (where he was a little oblivious to the whole thing and happy to do it) he’s now realized that it can sometimes be hard and scary, so I’ve been working on keeping him straight to canter and trot poles first, then just trotting to small verticals with a ground pole or cantering tiny cross rails.

I’m still trying to decide whether he’s spooky or just scared of/inexperienced towards random objects like the flower boxes or blocks in the ring, so I try to move stuff around a few times a week. Sometimes even just trotting between two sets of standards that have boxes can cause him to spook or fall in on a circle if he thinks he’s being aimed at something, so before we pointed him at a jump with something under it, Lisa suggested we try lunging him over things.

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Oh So schooling a few weeks ago. 70 degrees in February!

I have plenty of practice with that since I used to jump my minis in hand all the time! We set up a few things, and I led him over them for a couple of days, then she came for a lesson, and when we aimed him at things, he went! We ended up doing a little course of trot jumps with blocks under them, and he was very good.

I’ve never used that type of training technique, but I’m thinking it’s going to be useful when we start to introduce cross-country jumps.

I’m just still learning to trust him and be firm enough with him, but also sympathetic. I’m a little frustrated that I can’t afford as many flat lessons as I want because most of my budget is going towards jumping lessons with him and Oh So as I took towards trying to compete a bit this spring. I haven’t taken him off property yet, which is making it difficult to get a flat lesson.

I had Heidi come out once, but she doesn’t travel much, so I feel a little aimless, and I just don’t want to mess him up or slow our progress. The most important thing she said is that we insist on bend now, so I’ve been working with that, and it almost immediately improved his right lead canter departure. He gets it on the first try almost every time now. But now going left he sometimes gets the wrong lead, which Lisa says is a common thing while training an OTTB.

The left side is obviously the most difficult right now, and he seems to breathe a little heavier or hold his breath going that way, either because it’s hard or because he’s focusing.

I think I’m going to have to start doing some reading to remind myself of the basic training scale and come up with some exercises, but it really helps to have eyes on the ground to give me something to work on and look forward to and to come up with a program. I also hate doing flatwork in my jump saddle, but a dressage saddle is not in the budget right now. I know I need to trust that I can do this, but being the perfectionist that I am, it’s really hard to do that.

On the ground he’s starting to trust me a little more, and now walks up to me most times when I go to get him in the field instead of running away. He’s very food motivated and has expensive taste, so it’s carrots only right now!

We just had a moderate snow storm, so we’ll have to keep waiting to get him off property until I can ride a few days in a row and it’s not crazy windy and cold. Timing is everything!

Oh So has been feeling a little stiff from behind, so I’m going to have him injected next week. My guess would be stifles, but we’ll see. Don’t tell him, but he’s entered at Morven in the novice the first week of April! Unfortunately I decided not to enter Morningside this week for a combined test because I’m not sure when I’ll be able to ride again, but we’re hoping to get to an indoor this weekend if the snow hasn’t melted.

Since my last post I’ve been to Red Hills, which was a lovely warm weekend in Tallahassee, Fla. It’s such a different vibe there because the local community is so involved, so there are  a lot of clueless spectators, but it’s great to give the sport more exposure.

I’m off to one of my favorites next weekend, Carolina International, then The Fork.

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Beauty at Red Hills.

 

Forward Thinking: The First Month

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First ears photo!

It’s been just about a month since I bought Thomas, and while the winter weather hasn’t been cooperating much, we’ve accomplished a lot in the rides we’ve been able to get in.

We started with lunging, and he picked up on that pretty quickly, so maybe he’s been taught that before. He sometimes wants to cut in on the circle a bit, especially to the right, but he’s accepting the side reins and really stretching down steadily once he’s been working about 10 minutes. He doesn’t try to stop and turn in, and he’s responding very well to voice commands.

Lisa and I have worked with him on mounting, and he’s been doing really well. He’s been standing stock still when I get on and walking off quietly. We had a very deep freeze and snow about 10 days ago, and I wasn’t able to ride for a whole week, which was torture! I had Lisa come out and help me on the first day back this week, and we were able to fit in a ride before it got dark. He did very well, and we even cantered over our first pole!

But the next day, I had to ride at night under the lights. He’s been fine with it so far, but I think I took for granted that maybe he would be a little spooky after a week not riding at night. I lunged, then went to get on, and he tried to walk off towards the pile of jumps that the mounting block is next to in the middle of the ring. I steered him away from it, but in the process of doing that and trying to stay off his back a little and also not lean forward, I lost my balance and grabbed my neck strap, and I think I touched the reins too. He went backwards, then forwards and somehow I flipped off over his head! I’m not sure exactly how it played out, but I can say the reins were all the way over his head, and I’m sore all over!

I can now say I’ve fallen off at the walk! We both scared ourselves I think, and after I caught him I walked him around a bit and got back on. He was a little freaked out, but we did our usual trot and canter after we calmed down, and he was fine, if a little on edge.

So, lesson learned. Hand walk some more at night before I get on and bring carrots to the mounting block. He definitely wants to please, but he’s still a race horse with some baggage.

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First trail ride!

As far as under saddle work, he’s really understood trot poles quickly. Lisa has set up little courses with sets of raised poles on half circles around the ring, and he’s felt his way through a few times, but overall he’s working hard and understanding that he might need to shorten his step before the first pole and how to bend while also lifting his leg.

We’ve cantered a total of about five times, and he’s already starting to understand the aid to get into canter and is taking fewer steps to get into it. The left lead is solid obviously, and the right lead isn’t too hard to get, but he usually needs a few tries. He’s stayed in a nice, steady pace and hasn’t tried to run off. We’re starting to do large circles, and he’s softening to the bit nicely.

Lisa and I took him for a walk outside the ring before the big freeze and he seemed to enjoy it. We walked through the woods and down the driveway. I wish I had more places to hack, but unfortunately I only have a long gravel driveway and a short trail through the woods.

I’m not sure when we’ll start jumping or trailering out, but I’m happy with the progress we’ve made. I think the next step is two canter poles in a row!

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Working hard!

Oh So has been doing well. I’ve been working on his tough right to left change by trying it out of counter canter. I had a lesson with Heidi two weeks ago and we worked on obedience and balance by asking for the counter lead on a circle. We both found it a little difficult, but when we came out of the corner, asked on the long side, then turned across the center of the ring at B, we got the left change.

I’m going to continue to work on that at home until I can go see her again. We’re having more winter weather this weekend (why does it always have to come when I have a day off?!), but I’m hoping to get him out somewhere to jump tomorrow.

Reflecting on 2016

I can’t believe how fast this year has gone by! I’m ending it in a very different place than I expected to, but a better place for sure! It was a year of travel and new discoveries, but also a little sadness and less competing than I’d hoped.

It was the first full year I’ve been living in Leesburg and the first year of being a boarder. While I do enjoy living on my own, being a boarder is still a difficult adjustment. I miss having having my horses in my backyard and being able to see them multiple times a day. I miss seeing them first thing when I wake up and even the late night checks when it’s freezing outside!

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GRC Photo

I started the year in one barn and moved to another in the summer that I thought would be a good fit. It didn’t end up being what I thought it would be, so I moved Oh So to a field boarding situation in November.

I’ve never done field board in my life, so I was pretty nervous the first month, but he’s taken to it well and enjoys being dirty all the time! The good news is he’s moving around a lot more so his front legs look very good.

I’m slowly learning to let go of some of my more “type A” tendencies when it comes to horse care, and it hasn’t backfired yet, so fingers crossed!

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Bear went to a new home in April.

I always knew Bear would have to be sold so I could replenish my savings account as I adjusted to living on my own, but it didn’t make it any less painful to say goodbye to him in April when I finally sold him.

I thought I would be able to focus my time and money on Oh So this year and at least do some novices, but after we did two events, he had a minor injury, and the vet advised us to take it easy over the summer, so there went my fall plans.

But, I’ve been learning to find silver linings in life, and while it sucked to not be able to compete, I met some great friends over the summer, and it allowed me to ride Harley for a few months. I even got to compete him on my birthday, which gave me such joy to be back out on course again. Working with him gave me more confidence bringing along a baby, and I was able to use what I learned from Bear to get him to his first event. I’m happy I was able to show his owner Meghan what he’s capable of, and now she’s ready to have some fun and come to the dark side!

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Harley on course at Loch Moy. GRC Photo.

After I competed him in November and moved to my new barn, I had planned to stick to my idea of maybe getting a baby in the spring and seeing how Oh So felt to compete, but of course my trainer Lisa had her eye out and found Forward Thinking in December. It was a whirlwind, but now I have a new horse to work with and goals to start thinking about.

I have no idea if Thomas will become my next “horse of a lifetime” like Oh So is, but so far he seems like a willing partner, and I’m excited to start jumping him soon.

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Thomas is enjoying his new life so far!

As for the rest of my life, I’ve become an aunt for the second time this year, but I haven’t been able to meet my new niece yet since my brother and sister in law moved to Ohio. I’ve never been more than a few hours from my brother, so it’s been hard, but probably harder on my parents who are enjoying being grandparents.

I traveled more than ever this year, and to be honest, I felt a little burned out by the end of the year, but more creatively than physically. I love my job, and I’ve been covering mostly eventing over the last few years, but sometimes it gets hard to think of new and different ways to write about the same people that keep winning. I find that the few months I don’t travel from November until January usually help me recover and refresh a bit, so by February, I think I’ll be ready to tackle another year!

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Here’s where I’ve been this year for work:

Global Dressage Festival CDI*****/WEF CSI***** (Fla.)
Red Hills CIC*** (Fla.)
Carolina International CIC*** (N.C.)
The Fork CIC*** (N.C.)
Rolex Kentucky CCI**** (Ky.)
Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.)
Bromont CCI*** (Quebec)
Great Meadow International CICO*** (Va.)
Olympics (Brazil)
Plantation Field CIC*** (Pa.)
Dressage At Devon (Pa.)
Fair Hill International CCI*** (Md.)
Ocala Jockey Club CIC*** (Fla.)
USEA Convention (Fla.)

Most of what I wrote for the web can be seen here. These are only stories with just my byline though. I did a lot of writing with co-workers as well.

Obviously the most amazing trip was to Rio for the Olympics. I never imagined I would cover an Olympic Games, and it’s still sinking in that I was there. I went to the Newseum this week with my dad for the first time in many years, and in one display case they had examples of photographer credentials over the years. They had one from the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and it was cool to think that I have one too now!

It was also refreshing to talk to new and different people, especially since I enjoy covering dressage and show jumping, but don’t get to do it that often.

My travel wasn’t all fun and games though. There was tragedy at Jersey Fresh when a horse and human died on cross-country day. I had never interviewed Philippa Humphreys, but her death still hurt just as much. It was a somber, eerie feel on show jumping day, and it’s something I’ll never forget.

I was excited to go to Rolex and Dressage At Devon for the first time as a member of the media. I’ve been going to both for a long time as a spectator, but to be able to take photos was the best feeling.

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On the job at Rolex! Kasey Mueller/Rare Air Photography

I love exploring other cultures and their history, but I decided with a big trip to Rio this year that I wouldn’t go to Europe. But since I turned 3o in November, I gave myself a gift, and I’ll be going on a 10-day trip in May with stops in London, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and Paris.

Looking ahead to 2017, I’m hoping it will be my year to get back out there and compete regularly and grow more both professionally and personally.

My first trip is to Florida for the Wellington Eventing Showcase and GDF CDI*****, then possibly Pine Top CIC***, and the usual suspects of Red Hills, Carolina International and The Fork. We had a very exciting planning meeting this month with the whole staff, and I think we’re all excited to tackle the next year.

Surprise! I Bought A Horse.

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I wasn’t quite expecting to get another horse so soon, but when my trainer Lisa said she found one for a really cheap price earlier this month, I decided to take a look.

I was hoping to wait until at least the spring, see how Oh So made it through the winter and try to compete a bit next year, but sometimes life throws things your way, and I’m trying to take things in stride.

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Lisa found Forward Thinking via a trainer friend at Charlestown Race Track. Apparently his owner/trainer had been arrested for fraud, so his horses needed to be dispersed.

His last race was on Nov. 3, and he was actually a pretty good race horse. He raced about 30 times and won seven times, taking home over $100,000. This year he was slowing down though and only raced a handful of times, finishing middle of the pack.

My biggest hesitation was that he’s 7, and will be 8 in May. That makes him almost the exact age that Oh So was when I got him, but he was already working under saddle and jumping little things.

I’ve always regretted those “lost years” I could have had with Oh So, but this horse was $700, has great conformation and seems very sweet, so I decided to take a chance on him.

I’m hoping he’ll be my next Oh So–one I can take through prelim, or at least training. I have lots of goals I want to accomplish, and I’m ready to feel motivated again.

I looked at him at the track on Dec. 1, vetted him on Dec. 3 and he came home on Dec. 12 after my trip to the USEA Convention, so this has all been quite a whirlwind.

I was nervous to turn him out since it’s probably been awhile since he’s had that luxury, but I had no options at my barn other than to put him out with Oh So on the first day. Lisa and I gave them both a little Ace, hand walked them around the field and let them go. Luckily there wasn’t a ton of running and they seemed to bond pretty quickly. Now the challenge will be to make sure they both get used to being separated, especially when one goes away in the trailer, because the barn is situated so they can’t see the other horses on the other side of the property.

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He’s settled in well so far. I feel kind of bad because he probably got the shock of a lifetime being thrown into field board on one of the worst weather weeks we’ll probably have all winter. They weathered an ice storm last night and highs in the 20s earlier this week, but he seems to be taking it in stride and hasn’t lost his (considerable) appetite!

Lisa and I were able to work with him only once this week because of letting him settle in and the weather, so I’m a little anxious to get going, but next week is looking better.

We started by teaching him about lunging. He was a little tentative at first, but once he got the hang of it, Lisa was able to take him over a couple of trot poles. He seems like a willing and fast learner, so I’m hoping with my experience now we can move along a little faster than I did with Oh So and Bear.

I’ve spent the last few days just bonding on the ground and trying to think of a barn name. I still haven’t found one, and it’s a little weird calling him “new horse!”

I’m excited at the prospect of being able to compete next year, so fingers crossed he starts to enjoy his job!

A Lesson In Lots of Leg

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First of all, happy Thanksgiving! While I didn’t actually celebrate it this year with dinner, I’m thankful for my friends, family and my horses, and I’m thankful I haven’t gotten bucked off Oh So yet while walking (hence the photo above!)

We’re up to 10 minutes walking now and so far he’s been okay. I’ve turned him out in a small grass paddock a few times when I’ve gotten home from work and he’s run a bit, but settled down enough to play with the minis over the fence for about an hour and a half.

One lesson I’ve learned this week with Bear has definitely applied to Oh So as he’s gradually heading back into work. LEG ON!

I find myself wanting to take my leg off in fear of Oh So exploding, but what he really needs is for me to wrap my leg around him and keep him going forward.

In my jump lesson on Sunday with Bear, we worked on trotting a cross rail with a ground pole in front. It’s only his second time jumping, and it was 35 degrees, windy and we were

Our herd.
Our herd.

in a spooky Cover All ring, so the fact that he took it all in stride was pretty cool.

Lisa was running late, so I tacked him up and walked around the ring watching the other horse and rider, which was a lesson for Bear in itself. We stood, we walked, we watched and we stood some more and he seemed fine with it. The horse we were watching was actually another OTTB who was about a year ahead of where we are, so it was interesting to watch the lesson.

Lisa set up two poles 12 feet apart for us to canter over. The turn was tight to them across the ring, so we didn’t always stay in canter, but he did a good job meeting the poles at the right spot.

She set up the cross rail to finish with and we worked on keeping him straight to it, cantering away and then coming back to trot. I had to remind myself to keep my leg on and press him off the ground/think of asking him to canter on take-off so he would actually jump. It was pretty black and white. If my leg was on, he jumped. If it was off, he trotted or stumbled over the jump.

It’s definitely a different feel for me coming from a trained horse like Oh So. My lower leg is never as good as I want it with him, but now I have something I can work on perfecting once he’s back to jumping. He doesn’t need me to tell him to jump like Bear does, but pressing him off the ground might help get a better jump.

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Last Saturday, I took Bear on his first trail ride with my mom and Lad, and he was great! He wanted to lead and he even stood when I undid the gate. I’m hoping I can take him out a couple of times this weekend and maybe start working on some hills.

I had the vet out to do his teeth on Wednesday because I noticed one of his baby teeth fell out, and she was able to remove another loose one and a cap on one of his molars.

In my flat lesson today, we put him in a rope for lunging, which helps him come over his back a bit more than side reins. We worked a little on bending and yielding to the bit and he picked up canter very promptly.

I’m hoping I can get some more photos and maybe a video to show everyone what we’re up to!