Monday, Jun. 3, 2024

Road To The Makeover: Detours Are Part Of The Process

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Welcome back to Capture The Magic’s journey to the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover. I was so hopeful this update was going to include how we have successfully made it back to competition ring since arriving home to Nebraska from our winter training base in Aiken, South Carolina. Unfortunately, life has jumped right in and added a few curve balls making it a bit tricker for “Houdini” and I to leave the farm. It’s a strong reminder of how much more dedication it takes to bring a young horse along eventing in the Midwest than when you are in an area surrounded by options to school.

Many of you read about how Houdini is Royal Fox Stable’s newest stallion. Well, with standing a stallion also comes broodmares and babies. May is the toughest month in my industry here as that is when our mares are due. Add that to the weather being extremely fickle this time of year, it sure makes it tough to leave home. My first mare had her foal on May 10, which was her exact 340-day mark. The filly was enormous at 155 pounds and born a bit windswept, meaning her hind legs both “drifted” off to one direction due to how she was crunched up in the womb. The super part of this is that it corrects itself quite easily; the stinky part is that the foal has to stay on stall rest for a week or two in most cases.  

Unfortunately, that meant canceling our first event of the season at Otter Creek Spring Horse Trials, May 17-19 in Wisconsin. This venue and all the people that run it are my absolute favorite. Their event always has immaculate footing, wonderful courses, friendly faces and beautiful jumps. Luckily, they run a summer and a fall horse trials, too, so we will get the opportunity to get back.

After returning to their home base in Nebraska from their winter headquarters in Aiken, S.C., where they competed at Stable View (pictured), 4-year-old “Houdini” did not see a cross-country fence for almost a month. Sparky Photography Photo

Although missing Otter Creek was super disappointing, I am grateful to have a healthy and strong foal, so a little extra stall time is no biggie in the long run.  

You know when sometimes things just happen for a reason? When you feel down because you missed out on something, but in the long run had you been gone, things would have been worse? That is exactly what I experienced on May 14. I normally would have left for Otter Creek after morning chores that day, but instead I was home getting random tasks finished. 

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My husband, who is an equine veterinarian, called me frantic that evening because something was wrong with our 7.5-month-old Irish Wolfhound, Seuss. I rushed home from the barn to find him lying in our backyard, unable to move his right front and hind legs. We did digital x-rays right out there before moving him to make sure he hadn’t somehow suffered a freak break in his back. After radiographs were clear, my husband made the call to our nearest hospital with MRI, Kansas State University, knowing something was very wrong. 

We rushed him there, arriving at 2 a.m. After all exams they were nearly certain he has suffered a fibrocartilaginous embolism, which is a spinal stroke in his neck region. An MRI the next day confirmed that diagnosis. Our poor pup will have to use a wheelchair for an extended period while he undergoes extensive physical therapy to help regain the use of his legs. They are very optimistic that with several months of dedicated care, Seuss will regain almost full function. It sure does change how our life looks for the time being, though.

Blogger Brit Vegas’ Irish Wolfhound Seuss suffered a frightening fibrocartilaginous embolism, which will require him to use a wheelchair for the near future, but he is expected to recover most of the function in his back legs with time and physical therapy. Photo Courtesy Of Brit Vegas

As disappointing as it was to miss Otter Creek, had Seuss and I been there when this happened, I wouldn’t have had my husband’s expertise, immediate access to his radiograph equipment, or Kansas State nearby. I was glad, in retrospect, to be home then.

Knowing that I still needed to get Houdini out and practice some cross-county, I noticed there was a schooling available May 19 at Longview Horse Park, in Kansas City, Missouri. This ended up being very helpful because our next scheduled show will be at this venue, but unfortunately, it’s four hours away from our barn. On the bright side, I could still make the trip down and back in just one day. I was scheduled to pick up our puppy from the hospital the following Monday, which gave me enough time to sneak away and get some work done, so off we went!

It had now been nearly a month since this 4-year-old stallion had seen any cross-county. I always try to go in with few expectations so that the plan can easily change in the moment. A lot of the time people put too much pressure on themselves and their horses to accomplish X, Y and Z during a lesson, and they almost set themselves up to fail. Houdini has successfully run a few horse trials at the beginner novice level already, but I chose to show him all the jumps at Longview just like I would if it was his first or second school. With special regard to water, ditches and banks, I have a big appreciation on the level of trust it takes them to do these. I was so proud of my buddy because he went right out there and schooled as if he had just gotten home from Aiken. It was a bit of relief for me as well, learning that he retains what he’s been taught pretty well despite the time between practicing it.  

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In his cross-country school at Longview Horse Park (Mo.), Houdini demonstrated that he had retained what he learned over the winter about ditches, banks and water despite going almost a month without seeing any of those questions. Photo Courtesy Of Brit Vega

With the elements of water, banks and ditches, I always walk inexperienced horses up to, in or over first with a lot of positive encouragement. Once they navigate the question confidently at a walk, I move to trot. The horses only canter once they are super confident at the trot.

Houdini really loves the water but isn’t as solid with ditches and banks, so we just trot those. If he chooses to take a canter stride just before take off on either, I’ll stay out of his way and praise him for his initiative. Straightness is key to gaining confidence, not speed. On the back side of all these elements, I allow his forward energy. I find picking up the bit too soon after jumping a new obstacle they aren’t super confident about will actually confuse them, but allowing the energy to flow forward helps them understand the choice they made was the right one. 

Schooling outings are a little different for Houdini compared to other recently retired OTTBs because he IS a stallion. He is in the prime of breeding season and being collected. This is the first year he’s been ridden through these hormonal events, and I wasn’t sure how he would respond on our field trip.  

To my delight again, he was super quiet while he was tacked and tied. He did not yell for other horses on course, and he never lost focus in what we were doing. I also was coaching one of my students, Mercy, so he had to stand around quite a bit as well.  All in all, he gets a gold star, because he wouldn’t have been wrong if any of the jumps bothered him, or if he was confused about where his focus should be. He earns more and more respect from me the more he learns. I am always just so proud of him.

Houdini schooling at Longview Horse Park (Mo.) with blogger Brit Vegas.

So, in conclusion, I would have loved to share with you all how we went to our first show since being home and had a super experience. But as everyone knows, in this industry, life gets in the way and makes it really hard sometimes. I think we sometimes need to give ourselves the same amount of grace that we give our horses and lower the expectations we put on ourselves. I realized at the end of the day that can also translate to our riding: The horses are so sensitive, they might not understand why we are upset or what we are going through, but they sure to do feel the emotions through your seat and legs. Allowing ourselves to say, “Hey, it’s OK, we’ll get it next time; this isn’t a failure,” might make a heck of a difference to that horse whose job is to respond to the slightest cues in your legs.  We are all just human after all!


Brit Vegas is a professional trainer who specializes in restarting Thoroughbreds for equestrian sports, such as eventing, show jumping, fox hunting and other English disciplines. She owns and operates Royal Fox Stables in southeast Nebraska with a winter base in Aiken, South Carolina. In addition to campaigning her own horses through the intermediate level of eventing, Vegas also retrains and sells between 50 and 70 Thoroughbreds per year and has competed in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover each year since 2015, with multiple top-five finishes in eventing, show jumping and field hunters. In addition, she manages a sport horse veterinary practice for her husband, Dr. Adam Gengenbach. 

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