Off-the-track Thoroughbreds have gained notoriety over the years as brave eventers, consistent hunters and speedy jumpers. But rarely does an OTTB make it to the international levels of dressage, especially with a young rider.
But Alexandra Gainer, 20, and Princeton are doing just that and proving that off-the-track Thoroughbreds are just as versatile and talented as their proponents tout them to be. In February and March, they showed at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (Fla.) and earned a 62.06 percent in the FEI Young Rider individual test.
Gainer, of North Canton, Ohio, first rode Princeton in 2009 when she was 16 and he was 9. She had been riding her trusted Quarter Horse in a clinic with Courtney King Dye when Antonella Bath approached her about taking over the ride on the gelding. He had raced 11 times in his younger years, but then was donated to New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program in 2005. Bath found him there and trained him up to training level before offering Gainer the ride.
“I rode him, took him home that weekend, and the rest is history,” Gainer joked.
Over the past five years, Gainer and Princeton, who raced under the name Gone Ballistic (Gone West—Etheldreda, Diesis), have formed a deep partnership and overcome all the usual trials and tribulations of an ex-racehorse and his new rider.
“At shows, I’m not sure if he thinks he’s back at the track sometimes, but he’ll get a little upset,” Gainer said. “I always have to take the first day to get him relaxed in the new atmosphere.”
But at home in North Canton, Ohio, Princeton is a big teddy bear. “He acts like a Quarter Horse at home. He’s really personable and really chill for the most part. He loves his turn-out. He’s a real sweetheart—he’s the type of horse that likes to rest his head on your shoulder.”
When she first took over the ride, Gainer thought Princeton might go up to second level, but with each new level they confirmed, trainers encouraged her to keep trying for the next thing.
When Gainer was a working student for Mica Mabragana two years ago, Lendon Gray met her and gave her some lessons, which later set the stage for Gainer to apply for and be accepted into the Dressage4Kids program, in which she studies under Gray during the winter months in Florida.
“He’s not been an easy horse to train,” said Gray. “From when I saw them two years ago to when I saw her again here, the improvement was dramatic.” Gray credits the pair’s success to Gainer’s determination to work through problem areas and not give up on the partnership. Even throughout one weekend, Gray said she sees how Princeton learns from each ride and experience in the arena to end the competition on a much improved note.
While participating in Dressage4Kids, Gainer has not only improved her riding and Princeton’s abilities, she’s also had the chance to immerse herself in the equestrian community of the Florida winter circuits. Through that experience, she said she’s learned valuable lessons, many of which help her keep things in perspective when it comes to training Princeton.
“If you have a bad day, the next day is probably going to be better. And if you keep trying, you never know what might come of your horse,” she said.
Although Gainer wouldn’t have imagined the possibility five years ago of being competitive at Prix St. Georges, she’s aiming to qualify for the 2014 Adequan FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships.
“The thing with him is he can be up and down at shows, so it’s kind of a long shot. I know he can do it,” she said.
By the end of 2014, she also wants to ride her first Intermediaire I test with Princeton, something she’s never done with any horse.
“You’ve got a young rider that’s training a horse to a level at which she has not ridden, which is not easy, by any means,” Gray said.
Gainer has big goals for her riding, but she also has her feet planted firmly on the ground, especially when it comes to expectations about her partnership with Princeton.
“I needed to train him to where he needed to be because I wanted to go somewhere with my riding. Luckily he can do it,” Gainer explained.
And despite the challenges—the hotness at shows, the slow training process—Gainer said she wouldn’t trade her experience with Princeton for the nicest warmblood in the world. Although as a doe-eyed 16-year-old she didn’t exactly know what she was getting into, she said she feels a tremendous amount of pride in what she’s accomplished with her OTTB.
“It has to be a lot more rewarding than training that warmblood that’s born to be, that’s supposed to be, that dressage horse,” Gainer said. “My horse was meant to be a race horse, and it didn’t work out, but now it’s working out for him in dressage. Now you give him a new job, and he’s good at it.”
And until they can’t go further, Gainer will continue pursuing the next thing and working forward.
“He’s willing to try and try and keep on trying,” Gainer said. “I’m kind of a dreamer, so I think, well, maybe we can make it to Grand Prix. Maybe we won’t be competitive, but at least maybe we can put a test together and break a 60. I’d be absolutely thrilled with that. You never know.”