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October 7, 2013

Vaulting, Bridleless And Hounds—The Thoroughbred Did It All

The Goshen Hounds put on a fantastic display with Thoroughbreds and hounds on the track at Pimlico. Photo by Katy Carter

On Day 2 of the Retired Racehorse Training Project's Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, held Oct. 6 at Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore, Md., you could almost forgive spectators for being a little ho-hum about seeing yet another attractive, talented, and workmanlike green Thoroughbred, going about his or her job with poise on the track's homestretch.

Sure, there were a couple of bucks, a couple of horses briefly standing halfway up on their hind legs to remind everyone that they are racehorses on a racetrack, after all—and ones with only ones months training in their new jobs to boot.

Fortunately, riders and organizers both had some surprises in store, for those who might have had their fill of handsome horses trotting, cantering, and jumping around, looking handsome.

Sunday's program followed the same template as Saturday's, with makeover trainers showing their horses off in blocks of three, and demos scheduled in between makeover rides. The demos included "Kids and Their Ex-Racehorses," featuring Pony Clubbers who showed that Thoroughbreds can, indeed, be great mounts for kids, as well as segments devoted to the sports of dressage, eventing, and show hunters.

But the demo that brought nearly the entire crowd to its feet and gathered at the rail was the one on foxhunting, featuring the staff of Goshen Hounds (all mounted on Thorougbreds), who came flying around the turn to the homestretch accompanied by the sound of huntsman Robert Taylor's hunting horn and their pack of hounds in full cry.

About two-thirds of foxhunters choose Thoroughbreds as their mounts, the announcer explained, especially in areas of the country where a good galloper is more important. The proliferation of coyotes in hunt country favors a Thoroughbred mount as well, since they tend to run direct, fast lines, rather than the more twisty tracks taken by wily foxes. Thoroughbreds are also usually more self-sufficient, capable of taking care of themselves while their riders focus on the fox, the hounds, and so on. Some ex-racers do have a hard time learning to gallop quietly in a crowd, however.

Many of the makeover rides featured surprises and unexpected moments as well. Event rider Lara Knight's mount Rob's Rock was a bit "up" and excited, so she took the opportunity to demonstrate some of the natural horsemanship work she does in-hand with young horses. "They only know one way forward, and that's 'fast,' " she explained. Doing work in-hand early on helps establish a good working relationship in a framework where the horse is easier to handle, and those skills can later be translated to under-saddle work. Knight demonstrated how she teaches a horse to yield his shoulder first, something that can be difficult for ex-racers, and to move away from pressure. "Then when I get on his back and use my leg, he knows what that means," she said.

After remounting and showing how the work had helped the gelding settle and focus, Knight swapped her saddle for a vaulting pad and surcingle. Yes, vaulting. On a 5-year-old Thoroughbred. For only the eighth time. On a racetrack, in front of a crowd. And she pulled it off without a hiccup.

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Eventer Cathy Wieschhoff, who lunged Rob's Rock for Knight during the vaulting, also demonstrated how she uses natural horsemanship techniques with her young horses. She did some in-hand work with her mount, Armelda, a 3-year-old bay filly, including guiding her over some jumps from the ground. The natural horsemanship teaches young horses that the human is their leader, Wieschhoff said. She then mounted back up and put the filly through her paces on the flat and over a few small jumps, on a loose rein. Because Armelda is so young, Wieschhoff explained that she wasn't looking for any kind of a frame, but simply wanted Armelda to be relaxed. When her body is stronger and Wieschhoff asks for more of a frame, the filly will be ready mentally, she explained.

Rebecca Bowman, an eventer, former jockey, and veteran of the Extreme Mustang Makeover, showed off some special skills with her mount Dinaka, who she found on Craigslist. After showing the gelding with regular tack, she removed the bridle and showed him with a neck rope, ending her segment by having Dinaka lie down on command in the middle of the track.

The final two makeover rides demonstrated more traditional skills, but ones not necessarily associated often with Thoroughbreds. Nikki Egyed traveled to Pimlico all the way from Paso Robles, Calif., with Symphonic Cat, a 4-year-old bay gelding. Like all of the makeover participants, Egyed is a fan of Thoroughbreds, but perhaps surprisingly to some, for Western sports like pole bending and cattle sorting. Since her mount is just 4, she worked through poles mostly at the walk, concentrating on keeping the horse relaxed and focused.

The day's final rider was Suzanne Wepplo from Minneapolis, Minn., who specializes in training off-track Thoroughbreds for dressage. Her mount, Bold Vindication, a 2006 dark bay gelding, had the most extensive racing career of all the makeover mounts--62 starts with three wins and earnings of more than $125,000. He last set foot on a racetrack just 3 1/2 months prior, so racing memories were fresh in his mind as he worked on Pimlico’s homestretch. Wepplo explained that getting the horse into a steady rhythm and tempo relaxed him, and worked him quietly at the trot and canter.

The horse naturally liked to carry himself in a frame, so that part was not difficult for him, Wepplo said. But he is only just becoming strong enough to allow her to sit the trot and canter. She noted that for the first six weeks of his training, she rode in a half-seat to stay up off his back, and allow his new musculature to develop.

Wepplo also explained that she was riding in a jumping saddle, both to give her more security and to put her in a slightly less-deep seat, but would switch to a dressage saddle once the horses training had progressed farther.

See eventer Allie Knowles jumping Lord Darby...

Read all about Day 1’s activities at the RRTP Thoroughbred Makeover and Symposium.

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