Learning How To See What An OTTB Can Be

Jun 20, 2011 - 6:08 PM

I’ve stared at some unpainted, unfinished pine board trim around the windows in an expanded great room in my tiny, horrendously under-decorated house for over a year. I sit and stare at it, begging it to tell me what it wants to be when it grows up. Does it want to be stained? If so, does it want to be stained a natural color? A darker color? A color to match the floor? A color to match the beautiful barn doors displayed in the window behind it?

Or does it want to be painted? Do I paint it white? Do I paint it a color that goes with the verbena lime green paint I finally settled on for the walls? Or white. White always works. Or, should I stain it? Maybe I should stain it. I can’t stain it once it’s been painted, and I paid for the really nice wood so it would look nice stained. I should stain it. But maybe it would look really nice and Martha-Stewart-ee with paint.

This trim mocks me on a daily basis and has sent me into an anxiety spiral the likes of which I’ve not seen since trying to decide on whether to go strapless or strapped for senior prom.

My little un-painted/stained-trimmed house sits on the road that many people use to get to the Carolina Horse Park, and as such, lots of my friends stop in during their travels there. Veteran event rider Will Faudree happened to swing by my place a few weeks ago, and upon inviting him in and asking him to excuse the mess we were tripping over, we went to sit down in the room housing my own personal Dementor, the unfinished wood trim.

It was not even three seconds later when Will—who designed and decorated his own house beautifully with no doubt the sole purpose of using it to mock people like myself—said “I love that wood trim around the windows!” I told him about my festering anxiety, as I picked at the hives breaking out on my body, and he blurted out: “Well, it should be stained natural and then varnished, and the walls should be painted a much darker color—something like this!” as he pointed out a darker green swath in a nearby magazine.

My anxiety came to a screeching, grinding, palpable halt.

My own personal home-design Patronus had saved me. He was totally, unequivocally right, and I felt the blood return to my head. My brain would live to obsess over another trivial thing in my life, and I could let this year-long pain run free.

Seeing What Could Be

Why am I talking about home design on a horse blog, you ask? Simple. Will was able to walk in, see exactly what would work for the space and verbalize it. He has what I refer to as vision. It is something that I am, quite clearly, lacking in when it comes to home design, but not for racehorses who want a second career.

Vision is something I find myself talking about a lot with people who are looking to purchase off-the-track horses. Vision allows you to take a look at something in its current state and envision what it will be in the future with the proper nutrition, muscling, trimming, mane pulling… or paint. You know, “What you SEE, is not necessarily what you GET.” Get it?

There have been many times when my volunteers and I come across a horse that we are falling over one another to purchase (if we have the room/money!) and cannot understand when others don’t see what we see.

“But he’s SO NICE! He’s going to be a superstar!” we exclaim, pointing to the fuzzy, dull-coated beast eyeing us warily from the end of his shank. There are some people who can see that quality underneath just waiting to come out with a change of life. These people are wholly outnumbered by the eyeballs who see: Fuzzy. Brown. Boring. Bleh.

Turns out telling people “But you need VISION!” does not actually instill in them the proper tools to pick the diamond right out of the rough.

I used to get frustrated by this phenomenon, until I put myself in their shoes—thinking of house design, high-fashion, or (as mentioned in previous blogs) math. Just because I saw the magic standing on four feet in front of us didn’t mean they did. I used to ask, “How do they not see what I’m seeing!?” but now I remind myself that they are probably wondering why I cannot envision what color my wood trim should be.

What I’ve come to understand is that vision is more about a trained eye than just being “good” at something. And I now understand that the only reason I see what I’m seeing is that I’ve seen perhaps thousands of horses, and I retrain and send onto new careers nearly 100 a year. That’s a big pool of horseflesh to hone vision skills on.

From Buying Blind To Eyes Wide Open

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and have decided that really it comes down to one thing—a trained eye. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? I have people ask me all the time “How did you know s/he would turn out this way?” My answer for a long time was, “I have no idea. I just knew.”

I didn’t always know how to pick out potential superstars. I was wooed by shiny coats and nice muscling and chrome, same as the next guy. Damn that sultry chrome! But I started paying attention and making notes and really looking at the horse in front of me—both conformationally and emotionally—and most importantly started listening to that little voice in my head.

There is a book by Malcolm Gladwell called Blink that helped me recognize and honor that little voice in my head, and I credit it with honing my skills in horse-shopping. I’d recommend it whole-heartedly to anybody for an interesting read on your brain and decision-making. It is described as “a book on adaptive unconscious; mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information.”

Taking the information in front of me and writing down what I thought about a particular animal, a particular build, a particular conformation fault, a particular bloodline and how a particular horse made me feel the minute I set eyes upon it, then squirreling that information away and following the horse’s progress was very interesting. I was slowly able to figure out who the good movers were going to be, who the good jumpers were going to be, and who the good brains were going to be. I spent a LOT of time at upper level events watching the jogs and making note of shoulder angles, hips, backs, pasterns, feet, heads, eyes. I spoke with everybody I could about the ridability of their horses, their quirks, their soundness and how they held up to the upper-level event life.

After a few years of doing this, patterns started emerging, and I started being able to look at a horse and analyze it within seconds—knowing what it would be in the future (barring unsoundness)—the same as Will had known what my trim should look like the minute he walked into my unfinished room.

Will and I were able to discuss the issue of vision when I recently visited his farm to see his own CANTER project horse in her progress.

Backtracking a bit—last fall, Will mentioned he was looking for a project or two to play with and didn’t really care what they were as far as size or gender; he just wanted something that he could eventually resell to the amateur market, and another who would be pretty athletic and have potential for the upper levels. I told him about two horses we had that I’d seen only briefly that I felt would fit his requirements. “Send them over!” he said, without seeing so much as a picture.

Well, there are not many people I can send—sight unseen—horses who are sun-bleached, muscle-less and not only unimpressive-looking, but downright fugly, with the directive of “you have to trust me.” Bless Will and his people for not outright laughing when I unloaded the two horses at his farm, which housed one stunning animal after another. I couldn’t help but sing “Two of these things are not like the others… Two of these things do not belong…” as I walked them back and forth for the crew to see.

The “dark bay” (as I kept referring to him) was much more mature-looking, albeit the color of pasta at the time, thanks to the hot September sun. He was quiet and observant as he looked around his new digs, and immediately went to grazing when turned out.

The filly? Well, the filly was one you just had to put in the back 40 for a little while. She was so downhill that I’m certain there were travel agents selling lift tickets for folks to snowboard down the halfpipe that was her hind end and wither. She was not exactly all that impressive-looking.

“She’ll be a fabulous mover, and you have to believe me—I think she’ll jump beautifully, and the gelding is going to be an amateur machine!” I said.

I’d never sat on the filly, and Mr. Rigatoni had been hacked out on a trail just once, but somehow I knew, or rather my gut knew, that they would be lovely horses with some time and effort. They’d be exactly what Will had ordered.

I saw a few things about each horse that I really liked, and I’ll focus on the filly since she was so drastically different looking once she grew and was in full work.

When I first set eyes on her, she looked very downhill to me. Her hocks were set well above her knee, and her stifle much higher than her elbow. This in and of itself is generally a turnoff when horse shopping, but I knew that at a very immature 3 years old, she would even out a bit. I hoped that her immature look meant she had a lot of growing to do. We didn’t have a measurement when she arrived, but I guessed her height at 15.3 in front and 16 hands behind. Even with the assumption that she would even out, if I was given just a picture of this mare I wouldn’t have chosen her for a sport horse career, and I’m guessing not many others would have as well.

In the pasture she wasn’t a mover that made you say “WOW!” at first, but she was very slinky in her movement, and her walk covered a lot of ground. She really piqued my interest though when I saw her trotting up a hill (running away from me as I tried to catch her for the dentist!). Unencumbered by her temporary downhill build, I was able to see the fluidity and power she was going to have. Nice! Well, eventually nice.

Her neck was weedy, but it was set on in a decent way, and I liked the way her poll tied her head to her neck.  All she really needed was time and someone with Vision.

Thankfully, Will believed me and really brought out the best in each horse with a slow, consistent, confidence-building program. Nat Varcoe-Cocks, a fellow Chronicle blogger (go check it out!) did all of the riding, with Will providing the guidance for their individual programs. The dark bay has gone onto his new home as an amateur event horse, and the filly has proven that a little vision and a lot of trust can pay off in big ways.

The best advice I can give to people shopping for OTTBs is to look at a LOT of them and start developing your vision for superstars.

Allie Conrad is executive director of CANTER Mid Atlantic, which provides retiring Thoroughbred racehorses with opportunities for new careers. Allie founded the organization in 1999 at Charles Town Racetrack (W.V.) after purchasing her beloved Thoroughbred Phinny, who had more than 60 starts at Charles Town, at the infamous New Holland Auction in Pennsylvania. A resident of Southern Pines, N.C., Allie also works full time as a project manager for a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. You can learn more about CANTER Mid Atlantic on their website, www.canterusa.org/midatlantic.


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