If anyone ever had doubts that Thoroughbreds can do, quite literally, any job humans can think up for them, Day 1 of the Retired Racehorse Training Project 's Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium cleared that misconception right up.
The Oct. 5-6 event, held at Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore, Md., featured 26 trainers from 15 states showing off what Thoroughbreds can do with just three months of training for their second careers--eventing, hunters, jumpers, and dressage, of course, but also polo, barrel racing, cattle work, and police work. Even die-hard Thoroughbred enthusiasts were likely surprised by the variety of talents on display.
One of the demonstrators was Hillary Simpson on board her off-the-track Thoroughbred Arkansas, who is currently jumping at the grand prix level. Read all about Arkansas .
The "makeover" rides are the centerpiece of the weekend, showing off how far the horses have come in their training with riders ranging from juniors to seasoned pros. The "arena" was Old Hilltop's fabled homestretch, with rides scheduled in blocks of three, with various demos taking place in between. After their rides, each makeover participant had their photo taken in Pimlico's winner's circle.
As you'd expect of young, green horses returning to the scene of their former careers, many of the mounts were a bit "up," and each of the riders had their own methods of getting the horses to settle and listen. Eventer Daniel Clasing, for example, very quickly began incorporating small jumps with his mare Madhubala, to keep her mind occupied and focused on the task at hand, he said.
Hunter rider Billie Rae Croll settled her mount Mandla with some forward trot work, encouraging the gelding to relax, lower his head, and use his back. RRTP president and event emcee Steuart Pittman noted "There are no rules!" and that riders had free rein to do whatever they liked to show off their horses to the best of their ability.
With just three months (and even less in some cases!) of training for something other than running fast and going left, most of the horses were obviously rather green over jumps. There were wiggly approaches, some spooks, and a few green stops.
Event rider Erin Sylvester explained that she was trotting the fences with Rasher, a scopey chestnut gelding, because it made it easier for him to figure out the footwork. She noted that he likes to be very forward, and that the first building block in his retraining process was teaching him to be slow. "Once horses understand that, you're able to put your leg on them to ride them where you want to go," she explained. Rasher drew oohs and aahs for his jump, even taking a cross-country table jump in the middle of the ring from a trot.
See Sylvester and Rasher in action...
Elissa Ogburn, 14, is one of two junior riders in the makeover, and is just moving up from riding a pony. She was a demo rider for Mid Atlantic Horse Rescue at the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo, and so impressed MAHR's Bev Strauss that she offered to find the Crownsville, Md., teen a makeover mount, with Pittman acting as her trainer.
Her original mount was injured just a few weeks into training, but Strauss found Governor Jack, a 2006 dark bay gelding with 29 starts and over $100,000 in winnings, to step in. With only eight weeks of retraining under his belt, but the confidence of a seasoned competitor, he quietly showed off his paces and new jumping skills. In fact, their partnership was progressing so well, Pittman announced that Ogburn's parents had purchased the horse for her as an early Christmas present.
Hunter rider Robin Hannah traveled from St. Catherine's, Ontario, to take part with Zatopek, a 2008 chestnut gelding by Thunder Gulch. Hannah has made retraining Thoroughbreds for second careers a focal point of her business, an endeavor made all the more important by recent racetrack closures in Ontario that have left many Thoroughbred without jobs. Zatopek showed off a hunter's calm way of going and easy jump, a contrast to some of the eventing-oriented horses, who were much more forward.
Hannah also rode Prodigiso, another chestnut gelding who's a celebrity in his own right. He was found as a stray in the Florida Everglades, starving and dehydrated, just a few months after his last start in the track in January 2012. After eight months of rehab with a rescue, Hannah's mother, Marilyn Lee-Hannah, spotted a posting about the horse on Facebook and was touched by his story. They knew he had to be theirs.
Hannah had hoped to make Prodigioso her makeover horse, but the gelding was blinded in one eye during his ordeal, and they decided he needed to take extra time during his training so, as not to be overfaced. But Hannah trained the two horses concurrently—jokingly referring to them as "the prince and the pauper"—and brought Prodigioso along to show off as well. He very capably handled the atmosphere and crowds. Lee-Hannah, who was at the microphone offering commentary on the two horses while Hannah rode, ended the session by emphatically stating "And, ladies and gentlemen, he is NOT for sale."
Not all of the makeover horses are destined for jumping careers. Nuno Santos' mount, Thane, one of the youngest horses in the makeover at just 3 years of age, appears destined for the dressage ring. The striking dark bay gelding showed off transitions and lateral work in a lovely frame. Santos ended his demo by calling a student into the ring and surprising her with the news that her mother had purchased the horse for her, leading to a tearful mother-daughter hug at ringside before the whole family headed to the winner's circle for a photo.
Watch Jessica Bortner-Harris ride Prettyhipphophotty...
Read all about the Day 2 activities at the RRTP Thoroughbred Makeover and Symposium .
Love the OTTBs? Read more about RRTP's 100-Day Challenge midway through earlier this year , and the conclusion of that challenge . Also read about the RRTP Trainer Challenge  last year.