Thursday, Jul. 11, 2024

Road To The Makeover: Going All The Places

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Off-track Thoroughbreds come to us with experience and exposure to big environments that few purpose-bred sport horses have ever imagined by age 4 or 5. But that doesn’t mean they’ve had exposure to the things their new life in sport will bring, so that is a big focus of mine with these young horses: getting them on the trailer to new places, new experiences, shows and lessons, and helping them build confidence and learn through repetition that it’s nothing to worry about.

Going All The Places

I haul the babies anywhere I can, to give them short and easy experiences long before there’s ever the expectation of performing at a show. Because the best way to really get them to show a judge their best is to get them so comfortable with traveling—the hauling, the change of scenery—so that going to new places becomes no big deal. 

If I am going to an outside barn to teach, I’ll throw babies into the trailer to ride along, sometimes only sitting on them while I teach that lesson. 

My 2024 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover candidate Capture The Magic goes every time any horse travels, and he gets ridden at our destination. Initially, this was the absolute hardest for him. Because he would get overstimulated when we trailered off the farm from our winter base in Aiken, South Carolina, I would have to mount him somewhat on the move. Once I was on and could put him to work in the new place, “Houdini” would settle and, by the end, he was always super chill and quiet. The more we hauled, the more comfortable he got, and he just got better and better. 

The Mill Creek Pony Club Horse Trials, held June 8-9 in Kansas City, Mo., was a highlight of the month and “Houdini’s” first show with blogger Brit Vegas since returning to their home base in Nebraska. JJ Sillman Photo

He’s now at the point he just views travel as part of life and is the same horse in any environment. I am extremely proud of him for that, because he has always been the most willing horse on the planet but not always the most innately brave horse. He will always try, but he is not ambitiously aggressive towards things that worry him like a lot of very forward-thinking Thoroughbreds are.

My spring plans for him involved adding a bit more to those trips off the farm and taking him to lessons, clinics and shows. But, as always, life gets in the way. 

My life can be chaotic between picking up new OTTBs from across the country and trying to campaign my personal horses. I had a planned trip to Opelousas, Louisiana, to pick up a handful of new prospects that was delayed due to my wolfhound puppy’s stroke, and I really knew I needed to get down there. Managing his hemiplegic 130-pound body with my 120-pound body complicated the trip, but we did it thanks to a lot of understanding people (and the staff at the Evangeline Downs Hotel who let me use a luggage cart as a wheelchair to get him outside to the grass). 

It has been as much of an emotional journey with my puppy as it has a physical one, and this was our first big hurdle that we were able to overcome. He traveled with me like he had before. It sure didn’t look the same, but we got it done. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear or two. 

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Seuss in his makeshift wheelchair at the Evangeline Downs Hotel (La.) during a trip south to pick up horses. Photo Courtesy Of Brit Vegas

In true Brit fashion, I basically overbooked myself trying to get everything done I needed to. I left Opelousas at 5 a.m. on a Saturday with a rehab case for myself and a mare for a friend that I needed to deliver to Missouri on the way back home. I was determined to get home to Nebraska by Saturday evening because a local jumper barn was doing a schooling show I determined to attend Sunday with Houdini.

I felt like he had missed most of April and May training with all the chaos, between foaling out mares, the puppy’s stroke and Mother Nature not cooperating. I drove for 18 hours that Saturday, arriving home at 11 p.m. I was exhausted and once again asking myself, “Why do I constantly do this?!” Luckily, we did not have to arrive to the show until 11 a.m. the next morning, so it gave me plenty of time to get the morning farm chores done and make it to the show.

Doing All The Things

That jumper show, at Phoenix Equestrian Center in Bellevue, Nebraska, was the first we’ve done since arriving home from South Carolina. It is one of our closest options, being about 1 hour and 15 minutes away. It had stormed very hard the night before, so I worried it would be cancelled, but owner Janine Weatherby just moved the jumpers into her indoor. That meant Houdini would get a whole different experience than I had planned, because he has not been in more than one other indoor arena. 

To my delight, he handled it extremely well, including lots of flags hanging and lightly blowing in the breeze. He finished that day winning two of his jumper rounds, one at 0.65 meters and one at 0.75 meters. He was quiet and well behaved in what was our first true show atmosphere since we returned from Aiken. I was so proud of him.

I also try my best to get to Cummings, Iowa, every Tuesday afternoon for lessons with Meaghan Burdick at Marinovich Eventing on my two personal horses, Houdini and my upper-level horse, another Thoroughbred (of course!) named Slew The Zodiac. I do afternoon lessons, stay the night and then do another pair of lessons first thing in the morning Wednesday. It gives me two lessons on each horse, and I am gone from home only about 24 hours. When you run a large farm pretty much alone, you just can’t be gone for as long as you really need to be. (I am very lucky to have a freshman in college that helps. She has been a game changer in my ability to continue staying dedicated to improving myself.) 

Riding alone can be tough on your equitation. You start to pick up little habits you don’t even realize, especially when you are primarily riding baby horses. Meaghan has been a key in helping me bring “Zodi” along to the intermediate level, and making me a much better rider. She has also become a close friend over the years, and I spent my entire spring in Aiken with her. I am very excited to have her behind the scenes helping me develop Houdini. 

The best advice I can give to someone is to make sure you always have a trainer that you can look up to in their riding and coaching abilities, as well as just being generally a good human. You end up spending so much time with them, so choose someone who also enriches your life outside just the horse.

Having It Fall Into Place

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After getting the jumper show under our belt and plenty of lessons, Houdini and I were off to our first recognized horse trial since Aiken this spring, the Mill Creek Pony Club Horse Trials in Kansas City, Missouri. I was a little anxious about it since I was only able to squeeze in one cross-country school prior. I entered him in starter, even though he has already completed a few beginner novice events in Aiken, because I wanted to make it feel very achievable for him. I wanted him to not stress at a single jump and to not have to face down any larger banks or ditches, which he gives a lot of respect to at this point in his training. 

He was a fantastic boy, scoring a 32 in dressage with a tougher judge. He went out on cross-country and just had such a good time, never once thinking twice on his approach to an obstacle. He was calm, quiet and polite all of Saturday for both phases, and I was just so proud of him. I realized he was sitting in fourth place and was winning the Thoroughbred Incentive Program spot for the starter divisions. I wish I hadn’t checked the scores, because I honestly do not care about placements for baby horses, but gosh how fun it would be for him to be the champion Thoroughbred there! 

Show jumping came on Sunday afternoon. I knew if he jumped a clear round he could hold his place. I was laughing to myself before I entered the ring because I had the little butterflies to go in for just a starter round. 

We entered, heard the buzzer, and off we went. He made every distance and jumped around like a star, ending with a double-clear round. He finished on his dressage score, walking away with a fourth-placed finish in the division and earning champion Thoroughbred. I cried.

Houdini and his proud rider after winning fourth place in the starter division and champion Thoroughbred at Mill Creek. Photo Courtesy Of Brit Vegas

Training is never linear. It often does not go as we plan. Every once in a while though, it seems like the stars align, and everything falls into place. That is what happened for Houdini and I at Mill Creek. Everything we worked on showed: He jumped around so brave and willing; all the poles stayed up.  It was that little “win” I didn’t know how much I needed. 

As I drove home, I reflected on the past few months of my life, and I was proud. It has been so hard, but we made it there, and we gave it our best. There is no other breed I’d rather be sitting on when I second-guess myself and whether we are ready. Their big heart always carries us through.


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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