I’ve had a very bumpy road to the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover so far with my 5-year-old off-track-Thoroughbred, The Quantico Kid.
After injuries to both of us delayed progress, I got Kid going again this winter, only for him to bite at his side whenever I rode him at the trot. A gastroscope led to a diagnosis of ulcers, but veterinarian Amy Polkes warned me that the ulcers might not be the cause of the side-biting, and that it could be his back or something else causing the behavior. That in mind, I was anxious to get back on after a week or so of ulcer treatment and see if he still bit at his side. Of course, before I could ride, he came up lame with an abscess. Sigh.
After I thought his abscess had healed, I got on. He planted his feet and refused to walk forward. I was alone and started spiraling about his ulcers and my safety (what if he got mad enough about going forward to rear?) so I got off and worked him from the ground in the round pen to get him moving forward.
The next day he was lame again—his abscess was still bothering him. That nasty abscess drained in not one, not two, but three places. Luckily, a hoof boot stayed on for turnout in a small pasture and he stood quietly in the wash stall with a soaking bag full of Epsom salts. He impressed me whenever he picked up his hoof and the blue bag waved and sloshed, still attached to his leg. No big deal! Good boy, Kid.
After about six weeks off between the ulcers and abscess, Kid was finally ready to work. The windy Monday that he got his shoe back on, he acted totally feral, bolting when a cat ran behind him, rearing when I told him to stop eating grass, careening around the round pen, nipping my arms playfully and barging into my personal space.
Needless to say, I did not ride. I was overwhelmed. I expect that kind of behavior when a horse has been on stall rest, but Kid had been turned out. I kept flashing back to my injury in December, when my senior horse kicked me in the head, breaking bones in my face. It didn’t help that I had spent the weekend traveling to New York City with my 4-year-old human kid, which had been a lot of fun but completely exhausting. I went to the barn for a break from my chair-kicking, hair-pulling child, and got the same kind of energy from a thousand-pound horse.
Was I really up for the task of restarting this particular horse? Any particular horse? I told my friends they could have him for free. I wasn’t joking.
They encouraged me to keep trying, and I did, in baby steps. I watched all of Clinton Anderson’s “Training a Rescue Horse” YouTube videos and incorporated his methods into my work with Kid, with some help from my friend and fellow RRP trainer Christine Cook. I stuck with my pre-abscess plan of doing short groundwork sessions almost every day instead of longer sessions four days a week. After just three days, he was a much saner, calmer horse. Whew.
Still, I was worried about that ride where he wouldn’t move forward. I knew that his painful abscess caused that behavior, but I still didn’t feel equipped to do my first ride back on him alone. I haven’t had a lot of experience with horses who don’t want to move forward. I’ve spent most of my riding career giggling while being run off with. Kid is not a kick ride, but even before our streak of injuries, he would plant his feet and freeze when he was anxious. With both my child and my horse, I try not to start arguments that I can’t win, and that’s just what I had done when Kid wouldn’t walk and I dismounted in the round pen. I didn’t want to do that again. I also was struggling to drive 40 minutes to the barn six days a week, take care of my human child, and do my paying work. Let’s not even talk about the state of my house.
I am independent and determined to a fault. I haven’t paid for a pro ride on a horse ever. I am the one who rides the tough horses. It was a hit to my ego, but I admitted the truth: Being kicked in the head had hurt my confidence, and I needed more help.
I set up a private lesson with my trainer, Holly Gilmore, and lined up a pro friend, Sofia Longenecker, to be the first in the saddle while I helped from the ground if need be. We had a whole team!
I walked Kid the half mile up to the ring on foot, trying to ignore my anxiety about being kicked. We had some drama about a very scary table, which I made worse by trying to longe nearby Clinton-Anderson style. Holly pointed out that I was backing away from Kid when he came into my space, so I’ve been working on stepping into him instead of backing away. It turns out—surprise!—I am not Clinton Anderson. I need to build those skills in a more controlled environment, like the round pen. Instead of trying to longe “in the wild,” I am walking and halting, and pushing Kid away every single time he intrudes into my personal space. Holly banned me from giving him treats or cuddling him, which is hard. I mean, have you SEEN this cutie? Nevertheless, I persist.
After getting past the scary table, we made it into the ring and walked small circles. Kid calmed down quickly. Time for Sofia to ride! As I expected, Kid threw a fit about walking forward, planting his feet and throwing his head. After a few seconds of Sofia using her voice and legs, he walked on and didn’t try to freeze again. They only walked that day and called it a win, so I was still left waiting to see if he would bite at his sides at the trot. I lined up Sofia to ride him once a week to help with my schedule.
I set up another lesson with Holly for a few days later and spent the time in between working on respect on the ground and walking Kid back and forth to the ring. I was thrilled when he behaved on a busy Sunday. Trailers clanked and horses cantered in every direction, and all he did was snort a few times. I also worked on desensitizing him to tarps, plastic bags, fly spray and pool noodles. I learned that while fly spray might be fine in the round pen, once we moved 30 feet away, it was like he had never been sprayed before in his life. We have a new process now: introduce scary things in the round pen where he feels safe, and then do it again outside of the round pen. It’s slow, but it feels right.
Then came the lesson, and the moment I was waiting for: I rode Kid again. We even—gasp—trotted! I got the answer I had been waiting for: He did not bite his sides at the trot like he did before ulcer treatment. Hallelujah! He seems to be feeling better!
He did plant his feet a few times because he didn’t want to leave the gate, but kicks and clucks got him moving. When we trotted, he threw his head and popped into the canter, but nothing dirty. We had a forward movement! Hurray!
I’m afraid to jinx us, but we’re on a good streak, thanks to lots of help from friends, Holly, vets, farriers and barn staff. And boy, his belly is looking round and shiny. Even though Holly poked fun that she was “babysitting” me during our mostly walking lesson, after everything I have been through, I need a little babysitting. Just as it takes a village to raise a human kid, it is taking a village for me to educate my equine Kid. And I have a great one!
Tracy C. Gold is a writer, freelance editor and mom living in Baltimore. She rides her ex-race horse at Tranquillity Manor Farm in Maryland. An alum of U.S. Pony Clubs and the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, she competes in local hunter shows and rides for pleasure now. She is the author of the picture books “Trick or Treat, Bugs to Eat” from Sourcebooks and “Everyone’s Sleepy but the Baby” from Familius. You can learn more about Tracy at tracycgold.com. She hopes to enter her off-the-track Thoroughbred The Quantico Kid, purchased in autumn 2021, toward the Retired Racehorse Project’s 2022 Thoroughbred Makeover and is blogging about her progress toward that goal.