It’s about that time in the journey when the trials and tribulations of competitors and horses aiming for the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover are really beginning to form interesting stories. Although there are certainly the cases where some trainers are just starting a horse, most of us are past the introduction period and into the thick of introducing second career. For many of us, it’s the point when frustration, disappointment and anxiety are added to the mix as final entries draw closer. Hank has been off to a great start in the way that his strength and education have developed, as well as having two good experiences at schooling shows and now a recognized event. But none of that happened without a few blips.
One of my main goals with Hank was to compete in the 4-year-old Young Event Horse division at the Masterson Equestrian Trust Young Event Horse/New Event Horse Qualifier, held July 8 in Lexington, Kentucky. Not only is the YEH a great way to introduce a horse to eventing, but I have been excited to show him off in good company!
Unfortunately we had the luck many other Makeover trainers can surely relate to: During Hank’s warm-up for his final jump school leading up to the competition, his shoe parted ways with him and took a nice chunk of hoof wall with it. This ultimately resulted in a sore foot too close to the show, so we said goodbye to our entry fee and the chance to compete in the YEH/NEH qualifier. Once my regular farrier was able to glue on a special Versa bar shoe, we then began the race to get sound before another event the following weekend.
We only walked on the first day of riding after getting the shoe back on, as I did not want to risk “stinging” a sensitive foot. We worked on lateral movements and transitions in and out of free walk. The second day we trotted. Hank was sound but I didn’t want to risk doing too much. On the third day we had a regular flat school and I was assured that we were no longer risking soreness in the foot. The day before his first recognized event, we finally jumped. My point here is, don’t give up!
I said the serenity prayer and did what I could to best prepare my horse. We made it to the event, but if that hadn’t been the case it would have been out of my control and we would have done our best and lived to fight another day. Hank warmed up beautifully at the show and we were totally prepared … to perform the wrong dressage test, resulting in 6 error points. He was a bit spicy in show jumping, resulting in a rail down. All was well on the second day as we cantered cross-country with a focus on ridability and I took the opportunity to school the water before approaching the flags, which left us with a few time penalties. Our 16th-place finish doesn’t scream success on paper, but it certainly gets us one step closer to where we’re trying to go.
When situations arise that force me to put a horse “on the shelf,” whether it be a few days to soothe a sore foot or a longer period of time to heal a more significant injury, it truly makes me grateful for my days at the race track. When I was responsible for up to 70 horses at one time while working as my husband’s assistant, when an issue arose with one horse it was easy to address the issue thoroughly while having 69 other horses to divert my attention. And each of those 70 horses offered the opportunity to learn something new. Whether it was about training or soundness or management, every horse had something to offer.
In every frustrating situation I try to steer clear of asking, “Why is this happening to me, to MY horse, to THIS PARTICULAR HORSE?” and instead bring forth the question, “What can I learn from this?”
Even with just one horse, the only option we have when things don’t go as planned is to first do some square breathing and then regroup and figure out what’s the next right thing. It’s tough, but as many of the veteran Makeover trainers have said when it comes to advice, we all must “stay in our lane” and remind ourselves “the Makeover is not the end game.”
It’s an absolute privileged to have a horse like Hank take my attention while Sam was having a few weeks off for a growth spurt and to have Sam to take my attention to while Hank’s foot took some time, as well as several other horses!
Unfortunately my attention has been directed to a mysterious hind end lameness that Sam has developed which so far has stumped my team of vet, chiropractor and ortho-bionomy practitioner. Again, square breathing! After rigorous exploration ruled out the typical hock, stifle or even sacroiliac soreness, as well as hoof and lower-limb soft tissue injuries, we were finally forced to revert to a bone scan of the hind end. The bone scan revealed uptake in the right hip joint. As it goes with so many situations in horses, the hip is still only an educated guess, so we’ll have to wait to see if it’s the actual home run. Sam will have 10-14 days off after his hip has been treated. He will pony along on hacks and enjoy MagnaWave pulsed electromagnetic fields treatments and then we will go from there.
Sam’s issue led me to do some thinking. Sam is a horse that I first had on layup with a hairline fracture in the shin (a common, non-limiting injury in 2-year-old race horses) when he was still a race horse. That’s completely irrelevant now. He was a horse I’d never have even teased myself with the thought of getting my hands on to restart. The type that makes you think, what if we could go to the racetrack and actually have our pick of any horse? Sam returned to the races a winner and then sustained the tendon injury which his owners originally planned to rehab and continue racing before ultimately deciding to retire him.
As a seller, soft tissue injuries can be like the plague. Buyers tend not to even entertain them regardless of all other factors. Injuries like Sam’s often come with the misconception that the horse is automatically useless, and although there is certainly the possibility that the upper levels may be ruled out in their best interest, limited does not mean useless. After seeing one video of Sam back in the baby stages of February, my mentor and coach, Dorothy Crowell offered me free coaching for life if I’d kindly just pass Sam over to her as a personal horse, knowing all of the details of his tendon injury. “Once you’ve brought a horse back from two bowed tendons to continue running at the old classic four-star level, a tendon doesn’t scare me,” she laughed. Her response didn’t surprise me at all. Thinking back on my early days of galloping steeplechase horses, if you asked a steeplechase trainer which of their Grade 1 hurdle horses or Maryland Hunt Cup runners have recovered from a tendon injury, their answer could be, “most of them.” I seriously considered giving Sam to Dorothy, knowing the frustrating struggle it could be to sell him for what he’s worth, and also knowing that he’d have the best possible home for life. I didn’t because I had already invested a lot of time in him and I selfishly wanted the opportunity to work with such a nice horse.
After having significant time off for the tendon and then coming back into work sound, with a slow and cautious rehab related to that injury, we now have a much less common possibility for unsoundness. So we have a horse with “the plague” who now has a mysterious lameness to go with it. These are two factors that obviously make a horse quite unsalable in the near future.
The reason that I decided to aim Sam toward the Makeover was to avoid trying to sell the plague upfront, while taking the time to showcase how a soft tissue injury can be successfully rehabbed, what a horse with such an injury is capable of and the value of a horse with what the horse selling market calls “limitations.” What I dislike about the reference to limitations is that a limitation only applies to a certain buyer and yet it seems to give all buyers the deceptive notion that the horse has been hexed.
I have a vision for each horse that enters my program. I seek out horses that I can envision running around five-star events one day, but I obtain many horses that are much less sought after. No matter who they are or what baggage they bring to the table, I consider my purpose to figure out what’s best for them in their future. My vision for Sam has always been for a junior or an adult amateur, who has no intent to ride at the highest level of the sport, to compete him in a discipline of their choice while simply enjoying a safe and uncomplicated puppy dog to love and spoil. Sam’s previous tendon injury certainly does not limit him on such a quest.
There’s also no reason to get upset about what he’s going through now. Horses are known to play rough and athletes are known to utilize therapeutic medications and physical therapy. Whatever this is steaming from, at this point we have plenty of options.
I hope treating the hip joint makes the difference for Sam and we can keep calm and train on, pain free, thinking and training with a conscious consideration for the information we have obtained. We will have confirmation of that about three weeks before final entries close for the Makeover. It’s still not time to panic. (It’s actually never time to panic.) If clinical results reveal that we need to continue our exploration, that’s what we’ll do. Sam has done himself every favor in the realm of rehab and training to this point. He’s a model patient. He has the demeanor that is sought after for just about any rider on the planet, pro, ammy or junior.
Let’s say, theoretically, I felt the need to keep Sam as a serviceably sound but unsalable horse. I’d be privileged to have him in my life for a long time, but I’d probably be forced to sell another horse, called Bruce. Bruce was my prospective winner of the Makeover’s field hunter division in 2022 but he missed the competition while he was on stall rest with a hoof abscess the size of my fist. In an effort to keep Bruce as a low-level horse that I could put anybody on for probably any purpose and also enjoy foxhunting myself, he is currently leased by an adult amateur and just gave his current pilot her first win at a recognized event!
I love Bruce with every ounce of my being, but so would anybody else, and I’m blessed with lots of horses to love. Sam would replace Bruce, and Bruce would go to only the best of homes because I just can’t keep them all. The end game is lifelong success for each horse. So maybe Sam wins the Makeover and is sold to a realistic and sensible person in spite of the plague and possibly some required maintenance … or maybe I spend more time figuring out what to do for him next and we miss the big day completely. Either way it is worth the patience at every bump in the road to set Sam up for success—not at the Makeover, but in life.
Rosie Napravnik is a former jockey who holds multiple riding titles throughout the country, is a two-time winner of the Kentucky Oaks, the only female jockey to win multiple Breeder’s Cup races and the only female to ride in all three Triple Crown races. Retired from racing since 2014, Rosie lives in Simpsonville, Kentucky, with her husband, Joe Sharp, and their three children. Rosie runs a private Thoroughbred rehab and retraining operation, Off-Track Sporthorses, from the family’s Four Ponds Farm. Rosie has also created a boutique lesson program for kids, advocating for kids learning more than what an arena has to offer.