Tracy Brennan has a simple philosophy when it comes to her off-the-track Thoroughbred, Beau. “If something new comes up, we give it a try,” she said.
To date, Brennan and Beau have tried everything from team penning to foxhunting to historical demonstrations, all in a side-saddle. While Brennan jokes that Beau is a “jack of all trades, master of none,” the pair proved their skill in their first foray into dressage last year and earned a special honor in the process.
Brennan and Beau received the 2012 East Coast Regional Dressage Association’s Hell’s Angel Thoroughbred Rescue award, sponsored by Lisa Rasmuson. The award, named in honor of Rasmuson’s now 20-year-old Thoroughbred, was created as a way to honor off-the-track Thoroughbreds in dressage. “I created and initiated this award and sponsored it for 10 years because I felt the OTTB was so stigmatized and misunderstood, not only in our dressage community, but sadly, in all equestrian endeavors,” said Rasmuson. “The OTTBs deserve our respect and understanding, not only for their abilities both on and off the track, but also in the breeding shed where they contribute so much to the intelligence and the athleticism so often seen in the warmblood.”
Brennan is also a big fan of the OTTB. She rode Thoroughbreds as a junior and worked at a breeding farm before taking a 20-year break from showing. “I really just fell in love with their heart. They’re a horse that just has the heart and the energy to please. They’re very intelligent, and I’m just amazed that they’re so misunderstood for a breed that has been around for centuries,” she said.
Ten years ago, Brennan was without a horse after she retired her hunt horse. “I had zero intention of getting another one, and as with most of what happens in the horse world, Beau fell into my lap needing a change of scenery,” she said. “I honestly thought he would be a horse that would stick around for the winter, and I would help find him a new home in the spring. He’s just the epitome of the typical Thoroughbred. It works out fine, because he’s willing to walk down 6th Avenue in New York City with bagpipe bands in front of him and behind him, he’s willing to go back to the racetrack, we do historical demonstrations, he works with kids. It’s the tree stumps and the squirrels he had to be taught about.”
Beau, or Runnin’ Robbo, as he was known on the track, had been rehabbed after bowing a tendon during his last race. Around the same time Brennan bought the gelding, she decided to pick up side-saddle riding and now rides exclusively aside to help with knee and back pain. “As a kid, I remember sitting on the edge of what was then the Wanamaker Oval [at the Devon Horse Show grounds] and watching the ladies’ side-saddle division, [hoping] to ride like that one day,” she remembered.
Beau took to the side-saddle easily. “As with most horses, they take about a minute or two to feel something different, then move along. It’s very important that the side-saddle fits the horse. Back then, side-saddles were made to fit a specific woman and a specific horse. We work with master saddlers to make sure the saddles fit properly. My hands are a bit lower, but my goal is to keep a straight line from my elbow to the bit and to keep my hips square across him,” she said. “It looks elegant and it looks so difficult, but once you get yourself up there, it’s really not.”
Throughout her years with Beau, Brennan, 39, has tried multiple disciplines. She particularly enjoys foxhunting near her home in Neptune, N.J., and looks forward to side-saddle days with the Spring Valley Hounds and at hunter paces throughout the area.
She’s also taken Beau to schools, fairs and historical demonstrations throughout New Jersey to educate people about side-saddle riding and retraining Thoroughbreds for second careers. “I still have many other things on my bucket list. I want to learn to joust. Two years ago I learned how to work cattle and do team penning, which is a feat in itself on a 17-hand Thoroughbred in a side-saddle. We were horrible at it, but we had fun. That’s really where I am. I want to enjoy it and help other people learn,” she said.
Drinking The Kool-Aid
Last fall while Beau, now 17, was being leased out, his rider asked if she could take him to a dressage show. Brennan had no experience with dressage but agreed to come along. While watching local trainer Vicki Rickabaugh, of Blue Spruce Farm, warm up an adult amateur student, Brennan was inspired. “I kind of drank the Kool-Aid and decided [to give it a try],” she said. “It was a warm and welcoming atmosphere. It was something that I could sink my teeth into. There was a technical aspect to it, and I really felt like I was working toward a goal.”
While Rickabaugh had never trained a side-saddle rider, she was up for it when Brennan asked to take some lessons. “She’ll still correct me when I’m not sitting square, if my weight is not balanced. It just so happens that I use a whip to replace my right leg. I’m still using my seat and weight, and I’m not sitting sideways at all,” said Brennan.
After reaching her goal of riding a dressage test for a demonstration for ReRun Horse Rescue, Brennan decided to try showing again. “We had our days of complete panic. It took a while to teach Beau and me that that little white fence isn’t just a fun cavaletti. It was baby steps,” she said.
The pair competed in five shows at Intro level with scores averaging 70 percent, which gave them the win in the senior walk/trot division for ECRDA’s year-end awards and the Hell’s Angel award.
When Brennan isn’t riding, she’s busy with her growing business, Tracy Michele Designs. After being laid off from her job as a regional sales manager in the field of architectural lighting three years ago, Brennan decided to merge her passion for horses with her talent for sewing.
Recognizing a demand for custom items, Brennan began making saddle pads, stall drapes, quarter sheets and clothing. “As horse people, we’re always looking for something that works and something that is personalized,” she said. “They’re products that I wish I always had. Now I have a chance to invent some and customize others.”
Since becoming involved in dressage, Brennan was inspired to create custom stock ties and grooming skirts, which are some of her most popular items. She also creates custom side-saddle habits and special items that aren’t commercially available to side-saddle riders. “It’s a pleasure to combine my love of sewing and design, as well as the equestrian side of it,” she said.
While her business has been taking up more of her riding time lately, Brennan hopes to continue pursuing dressage with Beau and whatever else may come their way.
“I am so pleased and so honored. I’m so thrilled with Lisa for offering this award. I am so proud of him. Here’s this dorky horse that no one thought would amount to anything who won barely $7,000 on the track but had the personality and the good connections that everybody loved. He can prove himself in so many ways, and he amazes me daily. Everything I’ve asked of him, he’ll take a good look at it, think it through, and say, ‘Alright, let’s give this a try.’ He’ll walk over a cliff if I asked him. He’s just a testament to how adaptable the Thoroughbreds are,” she said.