They say you have to walk before you can run, and no rider can better attest to that mantra than Whitney Morris. When Morris got her 2017 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover horse off the track, Bad Boy Rocket, she spent six months building the gelding’s confidence at the walk before they were ready to trot and canter.
“He started out at Bob Baffert’s barn, and we found an old Facebook post from when they first tried to run him that was like, ‘He’s so rank, we had to geld him,’ ” Morris, 34, said with a laugh. “I guess from there it just got worse, and by the time I went and got him he had made his way from California to Turfway (Ky.) and he was spinning at the grandstand, dumping jockeys and refusing to run.”
With the number of Thoroughbreds coming off the track and looking for riding homes, one that was rearing and throwing riders wasn’t likely to catch someone’s eye. Morris got a call from a trainer at the track who knew the horse and begged Morris to come take a look at him.
“She’s said that he had a bit of a rough story, and if we don’t find him a home and someone who understands him he’s headed out to Oklahoma at the end of the meet and nothing good will happen,” Morris said. “And I’m a total sucker, so we took the trailer up to get him.”
Morris brought “Rocket” home to her Morris Farm Eventing in Lexington, Ky., at the end of 2016.
“He’s 17 hands and he’s beautiful. We brought him home and he was fit to run, but I got on him the first week and he was so sour that if you asked him to walk he would turn around and bite your foot,” Morris said. “He absolutely did not want to move.”
So every day when Morris would go to teach lessons, she would tack up Rocket and simply sit on the horse in the middle of the ring.
“He would cock a hip and just stand there while I taught. He did not want to move. It was probably a good month before he started wandering around on his own,” Morris said.
Some horses come off the track and take to their new careers like fish to water, but here was Morris spending a month just to get her fish to walk forward!
“I was thinking I was screwed, that I had gotten stuck with a horse that was too big for me and very pretty, but that was it,” Morris said.
Not to be deterred, Morris kept slowly chipping away at Rocket’s bad habits and building up his confidence.
“We tried ponying him but he was too naughty, and it was starting to get warm in the spring when I finally got him to trot behind other horses. He started following trotting,” Morris said. “And I did not canter this horse till the end of June. I think that was the first time I actually asked.”
Eventually Morris felt confident enough in Rocket to take him off property to do a dressage test and a ground pole course. “He did his rear and spin trick at a ground pole,” Morris said. “It was pretty funny because I won a novice three-day with my other horse and then the next week I took Rocket to that and got a refusal at a ground pole. I was like, ‘Oh, horses!’ ”
When he was going forward, Rocket showed some pretty promising gaits for dressage. Morris briefly considered offering him for sale as a dressage prospect but quickly put the kibosh on that plan when she had a friend try and ride him.
“Apparently I’m the only one he trusts because he quickly proceeded to throw his head down and try to bronc her off,” Morris recalled. “He bronced all the way across the ring, the only thing that saved her was the rail. She said, ‘I’m not doing this, you get on.’ I got on and he was perfect.
“So as of now, he is my horse,” Morris continued.
Morris will be competing in the dressage division at the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover on Oct. 5-7.
“As of two weeks ago we only had a left lead, so RRP will be great to see if we can get it under pressure, because I kind of have to counter flex and cowboy it a hair still,” Morris said. “So if you see us crying because he drew a test with that lead you’ll know why.”
Morris has worked with Thoroughbreds her whole life—a Lexington native, her first was a yearling she groomed in the Keeneland sale that her family ended up buying for $1,500 when no one showed interest.
“The Thoroughbreds just have my heart. They’re so willing, and even Rocket with all his issues now, he goes in the ring every day and tries so hard for me to push past everything,” Morris said. “Every one that I’ve had is like that. I just love how much they’ll try and they take care of you. They try to stay under you and do their jobs.”