I had grand visions when I bought The Quantico Kid from his racing connections in October 2021. I was sure that by May 2022, we would enter the Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue’s All Thoroughbred Benefit Show, held annually at Tranquillity Manor Farm, where I board. Instead, both of us had head injuries, and “Kid” needed time to heal from ulcers and a nasty abscess. Still, when I was back in the saddle a few weeks before the show, I planned to enter an in-hand or walk-trot class.
Well, I’m not saying Kid is like Rich Strike skipping the Preakness, but this month it seemed the horse industry got a good reminder that we can’t let human plans get in the way of what’s best for a horse. My trainer, Holly Gilmore, and I decided that it would be best for Kid to go graze at the show and just chill out while experiencing a busy environment.
That turned out to be the right call. He had a few baby freak out moments at the show but took a deep breath and settled down to graze. He made great strides in our riding over the next week and then chilled and grazed again during a two-day paper chase over Memorial Day Weekend. He actually seemed bored the second day while trailers clanked and horses jumped and cantered in every direction.
To his credit, during all this hand-walking, Kid settled even though I was battling against my own fear. Any time I hand-graze a horse, I flash back to my head injury in December. I had just let my senior horse, LJ, put his head down to graze when he spun, took off back to the barn, and kicked me in the head, landing me in the hospital with broken bones in my face.
Despite our small victories, sometimes I get jealous of other Makeover trainers who are already jumping around at shows. Because of my anxiety from my injury, I often wonder whether Kid would make faster progress with a different trainer. The Thoroughbred Makeover looms large in October, and I worry that our slow pace and setbacks mean we won’t be ready for it. I have so many “what if’s” in my mind. What if I had never been kicked? What if Kid hadn’t hurt his head in the field? What if I’d caught Kid’s ulcers earlier? What if he hadn’t developed an abscess? I would love to snap my fingers and get rid of all that pain, but that’s not reality.
In the real world, I am trying to train Kid—and build my confidence back—one day at a time. Each time he spooks in-hand or under saddle and we are both fine, I get a little braver. I am still keeping the Makeover in my mind as a possibility, but I won’t take Kid unless I think we will both handle it well. Of course, horses (and people) can never be completely “ready” for any new experience. Learning is inherently stressful, despite taking baby steps out of any given comfort zone. Shipping 12 hours to Kentucky and experiencing a huge show environment is going to be a big deal for Kid no matter how much I prepare him, but it won’t be fair to take him unless he has calmly tackled local shows. Then there’s the added challenge of my busy schedule as an adult amateur with a kid, a freelance business and longstanding travel plans.
I might be stressing myself out by even thinking about the Makeover instead of just relaxing and taking the time it takes, but it’s helpful to have a goal to work toward. My hope is that by aiming for the Makeover, we’ll be prepared for adventures closer to home even if we’re not ready to go to Kentucky by October. So I’m doing my best to relax at the same time as I slowly push the limits of our comfort zone.
Even though we’re taking baby steps, we have made some huge strides in our training this past month. Boarding at a busy facility like Tranquillity is both wonderful and hard for a green horse. We could experience a new environment every day for months without ever getting in a trailer. We can hack to three jump rings, an indoor, a dressage ring, dozens of cross-country jumps and miles of trails through Gunpowder State Park. Add to that trailers clanking down the driveway, horses schooling cross-country, kids falling off and chasing loose ponies, lawn mowers chopping, weed whackers whirring, donkeys braying, school buses barreling by on the road, trash cans flying off a truck bed—you name it.
Maybe it’s because I’m training a green horse, but I feel like this spring has also been ridiculously cold and windy. I’ve gotten “tornado watch” alerts on my phone at the barn two days this month, even though we rarely get tornadoes in Maryland (knock on wood). Even the older horses I catch ride have been spook machines.
Kid has days when these happenings worry him, and all we manage is walking until he stretches, sighs and stops being silly. He also has days where he barely flicks an ear at the chaos.
As a racehorse, Kid was exposed to a lot of commotion at the track, and he also briefly experienced farm life with his last race trainer/co-owner Suzanne Stettinius. But Suzanne warned me that while he was calm at the farm, the track stressed him out. Sometimes I feel him trembling and wonder if he thinks I’m going to ask him to race. So we spent most of the month focusing on our walk and trot, keeping it easy and calm. (And we did finally canter a little, and he was good.) I’ve also been desensitizing him to tarps, plastic bags, tires and whatever objects I find lying around. He thinks these are fun games and once even trotted after a blowing tarp so he could bite it—now that’s the kind of boldness I want once we start jumping!
Our work has been paying off, and lately, we’re having more calm days than scared ones. Once we can hack all over Tranquillity calmly, I’ll feel much more confident shipping Kid around to new places, but it’s going to take time.
We may not have entered any shows or won any ribbons, but we have done so much good work this month. Here’s a partial list of our “victories”:
• Sanely walking and trotting by himself and with company in various rings
• Stretching down and relaxing at the walk and trot on a long rein
• Starting to work on the canter (so comfy—future equitation horse?)
• Walking and trotting over ground poles
• Hacking back and forth to the ring calmly, alone and in company (setting us up for hacking out in new places)
• Walking and halting while going up and down slippery, muddy hills
• Listening to my hips for downward transitions on a long rein (he is getting very good at this)
• Moving laterally from my leg aids (just a step or two at a time so far)
• Catching a “balk” before it starts with a squeeze and a cluck
• Standing still for me to get on at the mounting block and various other random structures (he is so good at this!)
• Lowering his head and waiting for my help when he steps on his lead rope (a huge improvement from a previous freak-out so bad that my halter cut his face)
• Ground tying while being tacked up (and fly sprayed—he used to hate that)
• Entering the wash stall (he connects it with his injuries being treated—scary)
• Squeezing through the tight space between the vacuum stall and wash stall (good practice for the trailer)
• Leading politely at the walk, staying out of my personal space, and halting when I halt
• Free-longing in the round pen and changing directions at the trot (I haven’t done a lot of this before and can’t get over how cool it is that he will go where I point! It’s magical!)
After these past two months of working hard on ground manners, Kid is becoming downright easy to groom and tack up. The consistency is paying off under saddle, too. Even though I’ve had him since October, this is our first consistent riding streak longer than a week or two (knocking on wood again).
Kid has earned an easier workload through good behavior; instead of working six days a week, he is going four or five days a week, which has allowed me to catch up on my paying work and chores. I even—gasp—have spent whole Saturdays with my family instead of at the barn.
So, overall, while I’m not sure we’ll get to the Makeover by October, I’m thrilled with our progress. I’ll check in next month with an update on our “will-they/won’t-they” journey!
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, in the Retired Racehorse Project’s 2022 Thoroughbred Makeover and is blogging about her progress toward that goal.