Imagine getting on an ex-racehorse for the first time in a small indoor arena—during an ice storm—in front of a large crowd of people. That’s what the trainers for the Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge  were contending with as the competition kicked off at the Maryland Horse Expo in Timonium on Jan. 20-21.
In preparation for the challenge, Steuart Pittman, president of the Retired Racehorse Training Project , first chose three trainers (Kerry Blackmer of Middleburg, Va., Eric Dierks of Tryon, N.C., and Tiffany Catledge of Adamstown, Md.) and three judges (four-star eventer Stephen Bradley, former steeplechase jockey Anne Hambleton and former flat racing jockey Andrea Seefeldt Knight).
Pittman’s next project was choosing four horses —one for each trainer and then one to be used as an alternate. Owners contacted Pittman about using their horses, and he went to visit them at their farms. The four horses chosen to go to the Expo for the Challenge were Brazilian Wedding (Milwaukee Brew—Lady In Tails, Black Tie Affair), High Level (Mutakddim—Maria’s Crown, Marias Mon), Solidify (Alajwad—Kali Dearest, Dearest Doctor) and Four X The Trouble (Domestic Dispute—Rynot, Caveat).
A fifth horse, Lorna Starkey's Bodiddle (Bowman’s Band—Granny Gail, Crafty Friend), showed ankle calcification on his x-rays and wasn’t recommended for use in the challenge. He was taken to Pittman’s Dodon Farm in Davidsonville, Md., for a month of training.
Making A Match
The first step in the Trainer Challenge was matching horses and riders, and the three trainers gathered on Friday to make their choices. However, Pittman made things a little more interesting by asking them some racing trivia to determine choosing order. Eric Dierks won first pick, and he snatched up Brazilian Wedding, a 6-year-old mare owned by Pat Dale.
“All the horses were beautiful,” Dierks said. “But this mare, she could do the hunters, eventing, jumping, dressage; she’s just an all-around good horse. The Four X The Trouble horse was just a little on the small side for me. For me to look good on a horse, I’d rather get something that fits me.”
Tiffany Catledge went next, picking up High Level, the 7-year-old gelding owned by Jim Falk. The next morning High Level came up a little lame with a sole bruise, and Catledge ended up riding the alternate, Solidify, a 6-year-old gelding owned by Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue. Catledge took both horses home with her on Sunday, and she's hoping to bring High Level sound within a few days. If he’s still off, Solidify will be her training project.
“[High Level] struck me as a very athletic horse from the moment he walked into the arena on Friday,” Catledge said. “I loved his expression. I thought he was nicely put together, and he had a fabulous trot. He was a little wild on the video Steuart had, but I liked his enthusiasm. I thought he would be a fun project from the video, and I liked him even more in person.”
Blackmer chose last, picking up Four X The Trouble, but she admitted he was the one she most wanted anyway. The 4-year-old owned by Robin Coblyn was the youngest of the group.
“I like his build,” Blackmer said. “He’s a little smaller than the other two. I personally like a smaller horse because I’m not very tall. He’s a little more compact than the other two, and I find horses like that are easier to put together. I knew he was the youngest and the greenest just from seeing him in the ring on Friday, and I knew he’d be more up than the others.”
After choosing horses, riders were allowed to spend time with the horses on the ground, but they weren’t allowed to sit on them.
“I told them they could sleep in the stalls with the horses if they wanted to, to bond with them, but they couldn’t get on them. Tiffany asked, ‘Can we just get on them once out there just to make sure it’s OK?’ And I said, ‘No, I want this to be as real as possible,’ ” said Pittman.
On Saturday afternoon, the trainers let their charges explore the ring a bit before jumping on them. The three horses quietly looked around at all the people, though a bit of “test applause” didn’t go over well, and Pittman asked the crowd to refrain from clapping for the rest of the demonstration.
While the crowd may have expected some shenanigans once the riders got on their horses, mounting went smoothly for everyone. Catledge spent a few moments lying on the side of the saddle, across Solidify’s back, before moving him to the mounting block and actually swinging up.
“I wasn’t really nervous,” said Catledge. “I was thinking about that afterwards. I was thinking if that was maybe part of why all the horses were so good. We were all so confident about what we were going to do. I was more excited than anything.”
Handlers held all three horses during the mounting process, and everyone moved slowly.
“Part of what you should watch is how these people get on,” said Pittman. “We told them to bring their own tack, their own equipment, whatever they thought was appropriate for getting on a horse you don’t know. Tiffany has a yoke on her horse, which is what they use at the track. It’s like a martingale, but it’s really an 'Oh my God' strap.
“Eric is such a good rider he doesn’t need one,” joked Pittman.
Four X The Trouble, or “Tempest,” was the most visibly nervous of the group.
“What he’s doing is pretty typical,” said Pittman. “It’s that sort of jig, going a little bit sideways. What Kerry seems to be doing is just staying balanced over her feet, light in her seat, ready for anything but not interfering too much. She knows right now if she were to lose her balance a little bit, or squeeze too much, or pull too hard or surprise him in any way, that something bad might happen. She’s settling the horse nicely.”
After trotting around the small ring for a little while—going sideways and peering at the crowd—Tempest started settling down.
Solidify and Brazilian Wedding went to work right away. While Solidify was named the alternate on Friday, he quickly impressed Pittman and the judges with his active trot. His canter was even better, and he was so balanced in the small space that Catledge could even fit in some circles.
“Look how each one of them has this huge grin on their faces the first time they canter their new horses!” Pittman said. “Notice how they all went on their right lead the first time. It’s partly because these riders know what they’re doing and are really well balanced, but you hear all the time how racehorses don’t know how to go on their right leads, and they all just proved that wrong.”
So, What Did You Think?
After dismounting, all three trainers gave their opinions about the first ride to the crowd.
“He likes to keep moving, and we learned that pretty quickly in the stables,” said Blackmer about Four X The Trouble. “He’s pretty fresh off the track, and anyone would have agreed that bringing any 4-year-old in here would be a lot to ask, much less one that’s right off the track. My plan was to come in here and have a relaxed ride and not stress him out. I’m thrilled with how he went. I love his gaits. He had a nice balanced trot and a nice balanced canter.”
Solidify was so quiet during the choosing ceremony on Friday that his handler took his temperature before Saturday’s rides. (He was fine.) Dierks proclaimed him “a sleeper,” saying the horse would surprise everyone once he was under tack, and Solidify did that during his test ride.
“We all agreed he showed great trainability yesterday,” said Catledge. “He learned quickly in here that I just wanted him to go forward and straight around the ring. He was willing to accept my leg without kicking or getting upset. I didn’t see any reason I couldn’t start teaching him to accept the leg and move off of it. I couldn’t believe how good his canter was. His balance was unbelievable, and I think he’ll be a great horse whether I keep him or Steuart does.”
“I usually like to get the horse comfortable in their environment first, and she came out very quiet,” said Dierks about Brazilian Wedding. “I got to teach her a little bit about my leg aids. My legs are way longer than a jockey’s, and that was my first concern with her. I don’t like to dictate where the head goes at first. What she’s going to be learning is how to stretch her back and carry her neck, and I think you’ll see even bigger gaits than she already has.”
The judges weighed in after the riders. No winner was chosen this time, but the trainers received some feedback.
“I think everyone did a fantastic job,” said Bradley. “It’s going to be very interesting because everyone has a different riding style. I could tell that they’re much younger than I am the way they sat down on the horses and just got going right away. I think in five weeks we’ll see horses who can move off the rider’s leg and accept contact.”
Bradley even predicted that within five weeks all riders could be jumping small courses with their mounts.
“All three horses seem to be very, very good in their minds,” he said.
“We wanted to show that horses even right off the track aren’t crazy, and I think we did that today,” added Pittman.
The Trainer Challenge will conclude at the Pennsylvania Horse Expo in Harrisburg on Feb. 25. There, the trainers will be judged on the progress they’ve made with their individual mounts, and a winner will be named. Check the Trainer Challenge website  for blogs and progress reports throughout the next month.