Friday, May. 24, 2024

One Trainer’s Reject Can Become Another’s Treasure

Taking Thoroughbreds who’ve reached the end of the line in their career on the track and giving them a new profession has been especially advantageous for event rider-trainer Becky Douglas, of Mendota Heights, Minn., and hunter/jumper trainer Alex Jayne of Elgin, Ill.

“For a lot of average race horses, their career is over [at the age of] 5,” Douglas said. “But they can still find a new usefulness and contribute to equine society. To find a new job for them to do for another 15 years is very rewarding.”

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Taking Thoroughbreds who’ve reached the end of the line in their career on the track and giving them a new profession has been especially advantageous for event rider-trainer Becky Douglas, of Mendota Heights, Minn., and hunter/jumper trainer Alex Jayne of Elgin, Ill.

“For a lot of average race horses, their career is over [at the age of] 5,” Douglas said. “But they can still find a new usefulness and contribute to equine society. To find a new job for them to do for another 15 years is very rewarding.”

But it’s hard to tell who has benefited more—Douglas or her charges. She’s converted several ex-race horses into advanced-level event horses, including Highland Hogan, the traveling reserve horse for the 2000 Olympics, Van Gogh, who finished eighth at the 1999 Radnor Hunt CCI** (Pa.), and Rainman. Courageous Comet, who Douglas rode to eighth place at the 2003 Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.), earned more than $70,000 on the track in 37 starts.

Highland Hogan’s owner, Faye Woolf, fell in love with a less-than-stellar runner at the training track. He never actually made it to a race. “She liked his soft brown eyes, which he still has,” said Douglas. “He was very naughty at the training track. He didn’t reach his full focus until I gave him a job that was hard enough.”

Jayne, who divides his time between Illinois and Wellington, Fla., also found his all-time favorite horse, and one of his best show hunters, just a few months after the horse’s racing career ended. He spotted In Sync, who was third in the 2003 U.S. Equestrian Federation large junior hunter, 16-17, division rankings, while judging in St. Louis, Mo. He immediately bought the horse, who was just four months off the track. After a bone chip was removed from his knee, In Sync went on to earn accolades in the hunter ring, including tricolors at Devon (Pa.) and the fall indoor shows.

In fact, the track offers him most of his prospects.

“I still prefer a Thoroughbred, and the track is one of the only places you can truly get a Thoroughbred,” he said. “They’re more athletic, and if you get a good one, it’ll be the best you ever had.” While he’s bought yearlings at Thorough-bred sales, Jayne prefers the ones from the track, since they’re going under saddle and are ready to go to work.

“In two weeks, you know if you have an average horse or a star, if he will be a hunter or jumper,” said Jayne.

“You don’t have to wait three years [as with a yearling].”

While most of his prospects are 3 or 4, Jayne doesn’t discriminate by age. One of his best horses, Sun Up, came off the track at 8 years and went on to compete at grand prix. “He had a little puffy ankles, but he looked like an athlete, and he took to jumping like no other,” said Jayne. “He stayed very sound and had a long career.”

He looks first for soundness and size when shopping at the track. “If they come out of that environment relatively sound, we’ll only make them better,” he said.

Four straight legs, clean ankles and no huge splints to press on the suspensory ligament mean a lot to Jayne, as does a well-placed head and neck. He also studies how they use their hind end when they jog, how the hock bends, how much overstep they have, and whether they have good balance.

“Naturally, it’s always nicer to buy a pretty one, but I wouldn’t overlook one who is ugly or plain if he’s an athlete,” said Jayne. Yet Jayne warned that it’s generally “buyer beware” at the track.

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“Most are not running anymore because they’re not athletic or not sound,” he said. “I consider myself a good enough horseman to know if I can fix [an unsoundness]. If I like the horse enough, I will take the chance and probably not spend much money [on the purchase]. I’ll give [the horse] a shot and see what he wants to become.”

Taking A Closer Look

Douglas agreed that even just watching a horse walk around the paddock, or gallop, could tell you a lot about his potential.

“How they carry themselves, the length of their stride, their overstep at the walk, and you want a good angle in the shoulder and hip,” she said. “The balance they gallop in—whether they reach with their hind legs—tends to tell you whether they’ll have good balance coming up to a jump.”

Usually a buyer only gets to see the horse walk and trot down the shedrow, but sometimes Douglas has convinced the trainer to put the horse in a round pen with some straw bales to jump.

“You can see their natural ability, if they swap leads or have the footwork you want,” she said.

Douglas likes to see something of a topline and weight, even when the horses are still at the track. “If they have some topline, they find the flatwork easier, and their backs get less sore,” she said.

Every trainer seems to have bloodlines they prefer. “There’s Bold Ruler on both sides of Highland Hogan, and that’s a body type and mentality I really enjoy riding, and I’ve seen similar traits in clients’ horses with Bold Ruler,” she said.

Jayne likes Damascus lines for their jumping ability and Zen horses. “But I’ve bred several horses to be great and gotten donkeys,” he said. “A good pedigree may get me there quicker [to see the horse], but it
wouldn’t sway me one way or the other when I see the horse.”

As much as anything else, Douglas notes the horse’s attitude. “They don’t get much turn-out at the track, so if they’re very friendly and still seek out the attention of people [in that environment], you can be pretty assured those qualities will come forward [when you take them home],” she said.

If a horse retires from the track sound, Douglas expects he’ll be likely to stand up to any further work. “I like them to have raced when they are 3, not 2, but if they [pass a vet exam] within a few weeks off the track, you get a good idea of how they will hold up to your work,” she said.

Even a horse with an old injury wouldn’t necessarily dissuade Douglas. “It depends on the extent of the injury, but even a horse with an old bow that has healed has a niche somewhere in the sport horse world, at the lower levels or the hunters. It just depends what level you want to take them to,” she said.

She is, however, wary of stress fractures. “But some just need time off,” she said. In his younger days, when he evented, Jayne bought a horse off the track with an old bow, something he doesn’t consider a hindrance. “He was one of my best event horses until he was 18, and the bow never bothered him,” said Jayne. “There’s not much that would turn me off if I really liked a horse.”

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Back At The Farm

If he buys a horse that’s been kept on steroids, Jayne will turn him out for 30 to 60 days. But otherwise, if he seems quiet, Jayne will put him to work.

He immediately pulls the horse’s shoes or has him re-shod, and gives him a five-day Panacur de-worming treatment. He then tries to improve the horse’s body condition with a 12 percent protein feed, combined with oil or high-fat feed.

Douglas likes to give almost all of her horses off the track some down time before starting their training. She ponies the new horses off her older, more experienced ones, takes them on slow hacks in company, and does hill and road work.

“I want them to change gears, give them a chance to settle, and build up their toplines and stifles to hold up to the work that’s ahead,” she said.

Her main objective at this point is to change their muscle tissue from that appropriate for speed work to slow, more consistent muscle fiber—and to teach them to use their bodies differently.

“I do a lot of hacking, exposing them to water and just getting them out,” she said. “I spend a lot of time with them, just hanging out at shows by the P.A. system without competing, so they know they won’t always be racing. They think they know what’s going on when they hear the P.A. system, and you have to break that cycle.”
She doesn’t worry if they appear hot or nervous at first. “All that can be overcome with a lot of patience and mileage and going about things one step at a time,” she said.

While the horses are “de-stressing,” Douglas works on weight building with lots of small meals throughout the day and good quality hay. “The nervous types are always more difficult to put weight on, but the slower horses tend to be fat even in race training, and they’re the ones we like,” she said. “Once they get a solid daily routine, they tend to settle.”

She adjusts their shoeing, gradually giving them more heel support. But she doesn’t like to let a lot of time go by before someone is on their back, teaching them to stand for mounting from the ground (rather than a leg-up), and getting used to the riders’ legs and more weight.

“They’re like preschoolers at a country fair; they get over-stimulated very easily,” said Douglas.
For 4-year-olds, Douglas might start free-jumping and doing cavaletti work, along
with walking hills. “I want to strengthen their back and get them to focus,” she said. Once they’re solid at the canter, she’ll start jumping.

These patient and deliberate lessons, combined with the advantages of a youth spent working on the track, can carry over to other disciplines. “It’s nice to have a horse that’s been around the block, out in the world,” said Douglas. “They move along more quickly; they’re good triers and tough individuals.”

Jayne agreed. “They’re not pampered so much at the track; more gets thrown at them at a young age. They have a different view of the world than a warm-blood who has lived in a field until he was 4.”

And the rewards aren’t always in the form of Olympic selections or national hunter championships— it’s also about seeing their confidence grow and earning their trust and dedication.

“Even if they’d been less than average on the track, they can turn into a superstar [in another field] and be treated like one,” said Douglas. “I haven’t seen a breed who will try harder.”

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