Lexington, Ky.—Oct. 4
The second annual Makeover Master Class at the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium challenged three trainers from diverse backgrounds to work with three randomly assigned Thoroughbreds for three hours, showcasing their unique strategies for retraining horses off the track.
Meet The Trainers
• Emily Brollier Curtis is a Grand Prix dressage rider and Thoroughbred Makeover veteran.
• Douglas Nunn became a jockey at age 19 under Hall of Fame trainer MacKenzie “Mack” Miller. He trains horses and is also a board member of New Beginnings Thoroughbreds.
• Elisa Wallace is a five-star eventer and defending Thoroughbred Makeover champion who is also known for her work with mustangs.
Meet The Horses
• Far Right (Notional—Zindi, Vindication) is a 7-year-old gelding provided by Second Stride, Inc. He raced 25 times, including in the 2015 Kentucky Derby, and won $767,623.
• Normandy Crossing (English Channel—Donamour, Langfuhr) is an 8-year-old gelding provided by Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center. He raced 42 times and won $217,949.
• Porta Ponti (Gio Ponti—Sybil’s Way, Will’s Way) is a 4-year-old unraced gelding provided by Florida Thoroughbred Retirement and Adoptive Care.
The Master Class began with a free-jumping session facilitated by Martin Douzant of The Frame Sport Horses in The Plains, Virginia. Douzant explained that he uses free jumping to assess a horse’s movement, temperament and jumping quality without the influence of a rider.
Douzant enlisted Curtis, Nunn and Wallace to release, catch and encourage the horse midway through the chute. He emphasized the important of a safe set-up with high walls, and a full team of handlers to help keep the horse controlled.
First up was Far Right, who has a detached retina in his right eye—possibly from an injury incurred when he was training on the track—and is mostly blind in that eye. Wallace led him through the chute three times over poles at the walk.
“Keep him slow,” Douzant said. “We want him to know he should take his time.”
Once Far Right was comfortable at the walk, Wallace trotted him down the long side out of the chute, walked, and then let him trot through on his own. Nunn waited at the end to catch him, and Curtis stood by the second fence with a longe whip in case Far Right needed extra encouragement.
“He’s happy to jump,” Douzant commented once Far Right had gone through a few times. “He’s very brave; I think he could be a very good candidate for jumping.”
Normandy Crossing went next. He knocked the poles at the walk his first time through but gained confidence quickly at the trot and canter.
“This is just a baby mistake,” Douzant said when Normandy Crossing knocked a rail on the second jump. “This is just a horse who has never jumped before. Overall he was very careful; he has a big step, good balance and a good temperament.”
Porta Ponti went third. He was the most cautious over the poles at the walk and rushed through the low jumps at the canter. Douzant adjusted the exercise by setting the jumps higher than he had for the first two horses and limiting the amount of trotting Porta Ponti did before the chute.
“There are lots of ways to slow them down,” he said. “But for horses like this, I don’t want to put down a lot of placing poles, so we use height to get their attention and encourage them to take a moment to think about the jumps.”
“Forward is what these horses know,” added commentator Laura Hansen. “It’s their comfort zone, it’s just what’s instilled in them. That’s important to remember when you’re retraining them.”
The trainers randomly picked cards for their horse assignments. Nunn selected Far Right, Wallace drew Porta Ponti and Curtis was paired with Normandy Crossing. Each trainer opted to use a round pen for their initial work and began their hour of training.
Perspective From The Track
Nunn began by touching Far Right’s sides, withers and hindquarters with his hands and lead rope to desensitize him.
“As jockeys, we never bend a horse or put our leg on because our stirrups are just too short,” he said. “So a horse right off the track won’t be used to a rider’s leg and won’t understand what that pressure means. I want to make sure he’s used to me touching his sides before I get on.”
Nunn tacked Far Right in an exercise saddle and race bridle with a running martingale, then spent time leaning over his back, swinging in and out of the saddle and dangling off Far Right’s side.
“It’s good to get them used to you being off balance in the tack,” said Hansen. “That way they’re not alarmed if it happens when you’re riding.”
Nunn was the first trainer to leave the round pen. He walked Far Right around the arena, which is surrounded by banners and stands full of spectators. He continued to work on establishing a bend, turning Far Right in circles and serpentines, but was careful not to overwhelm him.
“One advantage I have is the exercise saddle,” Nunn said. “Because it’s thin, it allows me to move my body and my legs any way I need to. If a horse starts acting up I can get myself into any position I need to stay on.”
Far Right eventually settled enough to take a treat from an audience member, and Nunn returned to the round pen when he felt Far Right getting “fried” from the stimulation of the full arena, the sound system, the other horses and the wind blowing in from the entrances.
“He was chewing the bit, he was bending; today was all about control and relaxation,” Nunn said. “He definitely has a lot of potential and could go in any direction. If he was in my barn I would do more ground work with him, but today I really wanted to test his reactions to everything and he did great, he did nothing wrong.”
Slow And Steady
Curtis tacked Normandy Crossing in a dressage saddle and did her initial ground work on a longe line.
“I’m also putting pressure on the area where my leg will hang,” she said, “and I’m asking him to step under with his inside hind because I think control comes from the inside hind.”
Curtis practiced bending and asking Normandy Crossing to soften in the bridle before taking him out of the round pen.
“I’m teaching him what the hand means,” she said as she walked Normandy Crossing around the full arena and added in gradual serpentines every few strides. “These horses are trained, but its like they speak a different language. Right now I’m mostly trying to get him to lower his head and relax.”
Normandy Crossing was the only competitor to attempt a canter in the full ring.
“He’s got a super brain,” Curtis said. “He’s really willing, he’s got a compact build and a natural frame. He actually goes into a bit of a false contact, so the trick is to get him looser in his back and establish more of a rubber band feeling contact. Overall he’s really cool, he learned really fast.”
A Different Approach
Wallace and Porta Ponti spent their hour much differently than their fellow competitors. Wallace began by turning Porta Ponti loose in the round pen and working with him at liberty. She initially assessed his willingness to go out on the rail and then come back to her.
“He’s a little unsure and a little frustrated,” Wallace said. “I’m just sending him away to the right and the left but he’s kind of like a teenager, he’s getting a little defensive about being told what to do so I’m going to work on building his trust. I want him to drop his head and start taking some deep breaths.”
Wallace continued working with Porta Ponti, and when he remained defensive she added in positive reinforcement with treats.
“This is good to show you what I do when I’m having problems,” Wallace said jokingly. “He seems to be a little claustrophobic; he never raced, so maybe he had trouble with the starting gate or something. I want to show him that things can be positive. I’m establishing respect by rewarding him when he’s quiet but he’s not crowding my space. I want him to start reacting to pressure more positively.”
Wallace saddled Porta Ponti and sent him back around the pen, where he crow hopped and tossed his head. She took the saddle off and made a game out of vaulting onto him bareback, then hopping off.
“He’s defensive about his body,” she explained. “I put the saddle on and he showed me that he was uncomfortable so I took it off. Who cares? He’s not going to Land Rover Kentucky tomorrow. When I’m bareback I can feel his muscles and feel where he’s tight. He wants to be soft, he’s just got some stiffness working against him.”
Wallace concluded the session by bringing Porta Ponti out of the round pen and continuing to mount and dismount.
“He’s talented, I think he’ll go far,” she said. “He’s just going to need some time. The key is to not make training a fight; don’t make it hard. This atmosphere is a lot, so I just wanted to make a high-pressure situation less stressful. I wanted to establish boundaries but also show him that I’ll be fair. I think the most important thing you can teach them is to be relaxed and supple, and that humans are partners.”
All three horses are adoptable and eligible for the 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover.
The top five competitors in very discipline will compete on Saturday, Oct. 5, and one will be crowned the Thoroughbred Makeover Champion. The finale will be livestreamed here.
Catch up on what you missed with The Chronicle’s coverage, and stay tuned for results and stories from the finale!