It would have been a great story about rising above adversity if The Quantico Kid and I made it to the Thoroughbred Makeover in Kentucky in October. But I’m calling it now: We aren’t going. We won’t be ready.
It would be easy to say our Makeover story was about hitting one road bump after another before finally giving up, but that’s not the way I am looking at it. (Well, not on my good days.) Instead, this is a story about making the right choice for the long-term future of the horse. Those of you who have been following this blog probably won’t be surprised by this decision; a girl and her horse can only take so many mishaps and still stick to the original plan. Between Kid’s various injuries in the pasture, ulcers and abscesses, and my serious injury from being kicked by my senior horse, we haven’t had a lot of consistency in our training. Then, COVID-19 hit me hard. I’m still dealing with fatigue and coughing months later.
I wasn’t up to riding before I left for the beach in July. My trainer Holly Gilmore and I made a hard decision. Kid had been doing so well in our lessons together that we didn’t want to confuse and stress him by having multiple people with different styles riding him at such a crucial point in his training. While I was gone, we would just give him time off.
That was when I knew we wouldn’t be going to the Makeover. If Kid were an exceptionally quiet horse who wasn’t fazed by much, then maybe we could have made it despite all of our setbacks. But he’s not that quiet. He’s a normal baby Thoroughbred who needs time and experience to grow up and calm down.
It’s scary to admit that. Every horse on social media seems to be the perfect angel, trotting on the buckle for the first post-track ride, jumping around a show the next week, eating air and pooping ice cream. Well, Kid is definitely a perfect angel some days—but he can also be a perfect devil. (And his poop stinks.)
Some of my friends have cautioned me that if I ever need to sell Kid, I might wish I’d been less forthcoming on this blog and social media. They may be right, but I also know my honesty can help people in similar situations. I’ve joked with a friend who also has a fresh OTTB that some days we are completely in love with our new horses. Other days, we wonder what the heck we were thinking when we acquired our fire-breathing dragons. It helps me to know I’m not alone, and I hope I’m helping others by admitting to struggles publicly.
There is so much financial pressure in the horse world. I see so many ads for horses claiming “no buck, no rear, no bolt.” Really? Are these people advertising bicycles? I’ve seen even the calmest babysitter types bolt when a deer appears at the wrong moment.
People are scared to be realistic and talk about challenges because of money. They’re afraid they’ll be stuck with a horse or take a huge loss if they have to sell. The vast majority of riders I know, both amateur and professional, are taking financial risks to participate in this sport. If I were actively trying to resell Kid to put food on my table, my approach to this blog—and our entire training journey—would have to be different. As it is, I have had enough “I’m obsessed with this horse” rides to make me hope I never have to sell him.
And now, the pressure of the Makeover is off. While I’m sad about that, I’m also relieved. I’ve had a few more times where I’ve needed to make smaller decisions regarding Kid, and I’ve been glad not to have Makeover pressure influencing me to make the wrong call.
One hard call came on a “perfect devil” trail ride. I thought we’d be fine to go out the day after a heavy rain, because we’d had a “perfect angel” trail ride with the same equine buddy just a few days before.
Well, we were not fine. On a muddy hill between a fence line and the woods, Kid decided to leap instead of walk. As soon as I got him to take a few calm steps, I decided to hop off and walk him back to the barn. “Riding through it” wasn’t worth one or both of us getting hurt. Part of me still worries that getting off means “failing” or “letting him win” in some way, but as soon as I was off his back, his anxiety level came down and he stopped leaping. He hasn’t had a lot of practice balancing on tough footing or hills, and I think he was happy to only worry about his own weight.
My next hard call came before a dressage lesson. I was excited to show off Kid to dressage trainer Donna Toole, but I arrived at the barn and found Kid’s right hind pastern scraped and slightly swollen—his first pasture injury since he moved to a smaller field back in the spring.
Come on, Kid! I already decided we aren’t going to Kentucky—you don’t have to injure yourself to convince me!
I jogged Kid in the round pen. At first I thought he was sound, and we could still do the lesson. Then I thought I saw a few bad steps. He was energetic and seemed anxious—it had stormed the night before, and I could only imagine his pasture hijinks. Was I making things up to get out of riding in 90-degree heat on what might be a “perfect devil” day? I thought maybe I should just tack him up and try. I felt bad that Donna would have an unused hour between lessons if I cancelled. I was torn, so I talked it through with a friend who convinced me I should just let Kid rest.
Well, I wasn’t making things up. Kid was off for about a week. And because I skipped tacking up that day, I had the time to watch and learn from the lesson before us while Kid cleared the weeds from around the dressage arena. (Lame horses: the world’s most expensive weed-whackers.)
Both of these decisions were microcosms of our Makeover call: Do you push yourself or your horse, even if you don’t feel right about it in your gut? Sometimes you do need to push. Growing involves taking baby steps out of your comfort zone. Since I was kicked by my senior horse, LJ, my “gut feelings” are more likely to come from fear than they did before. I’ve been leaning on Holly, my vets and farriers, and my friends to help guide me while I get recentered.
I feel such a huge responsibility when I make decisions for my horses, and I’m so grateful I have people to help me make the right call.
While making decisions for the beginning of Kid’s sport horse career, I have also been making calls about the end of LJ’s. He retired from riding in December due to arthritis, and he continued to decline quickly. This summer, I had to make the hardest call a horse owner can make. Inside that huge decision lived many small ones: which month? Which day? Where on the farm? Do I hold him, or ask someone else? What do I treat him for in the meantime? Does each little mishap mean the end? For months, I discussed these decisions with Holly, my vet, and my barn friends.
When LJ had a few very bad, hot days this summer, I made the big call, and all of those little ones. We said goodbye to him Aug. 11. It was devastating. Part of me wished he had taken the decision out of my hands and passed peacefully in his sleep, but I have seen enough horses age to know that was unlikely. It was hard. But I owed LJ a good, painless end, and he got one.
The responsibility of making these calls is a weight and an honor. These beautiful, magical animals rely on us.
Holly, knowing that I worry I will make the wrong calls with Kid, reminds me that no one makes the right call all the time. Every horse is different and needs different decisions, and sometimes we only learn that through trial and error. Horses are forgiving—if we give them time.
And that’s what I’m giving myself with this Makeover call: time. Once we get some consistency, we’ll set our sights on some other big goal. We have made progress, even though our training has been so inconsistent. He’s better about whoa-ing from the hips than many experienced horses and he is learning to steer from my leg aids. We’ve had a few rides start with leaping and snorting and end relaxed and on the buckle. He is learning to focus and relax no matter what is happening around him. He is so comfortable to ride, he nickers when he sees me, and his grey dapples are just stunning. Yep, I’m obsessed.
I’m sad I won’t get to show off those shiny dapples at the Makeover, but I am certain staying home is the right call. I’ll be back to report on the progress we have made by October, even though we won’t be heading to Kentucky. Thanks for following along so far!
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 hoped to enter her off-the-track Thoroughbred The Quantico Kid, purchased in autumn 2021, in the Retired Racehorse Project’s 2022 Thoroughbred Makeover and has been blogging about her progress toward that goal.