Tom and Clare Mansmann’s first trip to the Retired Racehorse Project’s $100,000 Thoroughbred Makeover in Lexington, Kentucky, in October 2016 could easily have been a complete disaster.
The horse Tom had originally entered needed more rehab time, so they swapped in another off-track Thoroughbred that had just arrived for training in August. They waffled about whether they should go and didn’t make the final decision to attend until the very last minute.
And then they had a succession of flat trailer tires on their way from Middleburg, Virginia, to Lexington and were so late arriving that they completely missed the field hunters division Tom had originally entered.
While changing the last tire, they called Steuart Pittman, founder and board chair of RRP, to ask if there were any scratches and if they could go in a different division later in the day.
“Well, what can your horse do?” Pittman asked.
“Listen, I mean, I’ll do whatever,” Tom recalled saying, chuckling at the memory. “I can borrow a Western saddle; I’ve watched barrel racing on TV before. I’ve only ever played a chukker of polo, but I think this horse would be fine.”
“Tom was perfectly willing to work cattle with the horse,” Clare added. At this point, they figured, beggars couldn’t be choosers.
As it turned out, Pittman put them in the eventing division. The horse, David L (Quiet American—Athena Of Troy, Tejano Run), had never been in a dressage ring, had never jumped a course in an arena and had never had a “real” cross-country school. But the Mansmanns use a lot of dressage training with all of their horses, and fox hunting is like cross-country, right? They thought the horse could manage not to embarrass himself.
“If there’s one thing Tom can do, it’s get a horse around a horse trial,” Clare said.
Not only did he get around, Tom and David L placed 10th in a division of 65, just a few points behind upper-level eventers Elisa Wallace and Cathy Wieschhoff.
But the Mansmanns had no idea. They had assumed the horse didn’t place, so they never even checked the scores and missed the awards ceremony entirely.
Can you picture things playing out this way after traveling eight hours to a CCI or an A-rated horse show?
Not Your Typical Horse Show
The Mansmanns came away from their whirlwind 2016 Makeover weekend unexpectedly invigorated. Despite the multiple last-minute changes of plans, they had had fun. Lots of it.
The two are no strangers to big competitions. Tom was a North American Young Riders Championship CCI** gold medalist, evented through advanced and won the North American Field Hunter Championship. Clare competed through the CCI*** level.
“I showed a lot when I was younger; I did a lot by the time I was 20,” Clare said. “I kind of joke that I’m the worst competitor in the world. I’m not a very competitive person, actually, which is weird for what we do.
“So to go to a show where it’s great who wins—it’s neat, and it’s well deserved, and that’s all fun—but that’s not really what the competition was about. It’s about the horse. So that made it, to me, a lot more fun.”
The decision to enter the Makeover had been something of a re-entry into the business for Clare, who had to step away for several years. Their son James, now 10, was born with serious health issues, and they spent much of his first years of life in and out of hospitals. Clare and Tom had been training horses at Pacific Farms together since 2003, but Tom had to run the business single-handedly for several years after James was born (and, three years later, their daughter Eve).
By December 2015, when trainer applications opened for the 2016 Makeover, James’ health had improved, and Clare was ready to get back into riding. Both the Mansmanns have a long history with Thoroughbreds, on and off the track, so the idea of promoting the horses for second careers appealed to them, and it seemed like a fun endeavor to work on together.
And despite the disastrous trip and last-minute change to a new division, “we had a ball, and we met really nice people,” Clare said.
They were stabled next to Lindsay Gilbert and Brooke Schafer, who immediately took the Mansmanns under their wing and are now considered friends. “They were really helpful because we didn’t know anything [about how the competition worked]; we were so late; we were a little frazzled,” Clare said.
Something else struck Clare as she walked around the competition grounds. “Everybody was having so much fun with their horses,” she said. “When a horse did well, everybody looked and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at your horse! That was so cool!’ That was the biggest impression: people were much less thinking of themselves, and they were celebrating when another competitor did well because that was so impressive.”
“After that experience, with the generosity of the organization, how well [the competition] was run, the folks that we met—not just the other competitors, but the owners and so forth, people coming from all over the country—we were really, really taken aback by it,” Tom said.
They returned home so inspired they decided they wanted to stay involved and be of service however they could.
“Everybody was so nice to us; we had to come back,” Clare said.
Rejuvenated And Refocused
Since that 2016 Makeover, the Mansmanns have jumped in with both feet. They’ve taught some benefit clinics to raise funds for RRP, have done demonstrations at the Virginia Horse Expo, and have hosted Makeover preview events.
Both Clare and Tom competed in the 2017 Makeover, and Tom taught a fox hunting clinic. This year, Clare is competing two horses; Tom is competing one and coaching a few participants, particularly adult amateurs. Both Mansmanns will also be taking part in a new, post-competition Makeover “master class,” along with three other trainers, that will serve as an introduction to selecting and restarting OTTBs.
What started out as an endeavor to help RRP and further its mission had an unexpected benefit for the Mansmanns—it brought a new clarity and focus to their own retraining program and rekindled their fondness for Thoroughbreds and their desire to see them succeed in new careers.
“[Doing the Makeover] was great for our business, not because we got business out of it—we didn’t, that first year—but because we went ‘Oh my gosh, I remember how much we love doing this. We love working together; we love working with a young horse,’ ” Clare recalled. “We’re very understanding of the track; we’ve both ridden on the track, so we get it. We’re understanding of those horses, and we feel like we can bounce a lot of ideas off each other because of our experiences with them on and off the track.”
The Mansmanns have a team approach to restarting OTTBs that works best with two of them, so it had fallen by the wayside while Clare was otherwise occupied. Before they ever get on to ride, they do tons of rope work on the ground, teaching the horse to move toward and away from them, as well as laterally. They also spend a lot of time ponying newly off-track Thoroughbreds from their more experienced horses, not just in the ring but also on the miles of trails surrounding their 78-acre farm, including crossing streams, going up and down hills, hopping over logs, and opening and closing gates. The overall goal is to help the horse learn the skills it needs for an off-track career and determine what career will best suit it.
Always thirsty for knowledge themselves and interested in educating others, participating in the Makeover gave them a new impetus to hone their program and be able to articulate it.
“We realized we had to go back and say ‘How do we do this? What is a systematic approach?’ ” Clare said.
While every horse is different and proceeds through its retraining at its own pace, the same methods and progression can usually be applied across the board.
“It helped us to fine-tune [our program] and to verbalize it better than we could before, so that if somebody were to come to us and say ‘What do I need to do?’ we can now assess that horse and verbally tell them: ‘Here’s what we see; here’s what we would do,’ ” she continued. “Then we can execute that and actually have a positive result. We’ve been able to test that on a lot of horses now—really, really test what we do on a daily basis on a lot of different horses. Not that it’s the only way to make it work, but we can tell you that this works.”
Barrels And Polo And Ranch Work, Oh My!
The cross-disciplinary aspect of the Makeover, where Thoroughbreds in Western tack are competing right alongside those in dressage saddles, also appealed to the Mansmanns because it was something they already believed in.
“Looking at the competition through all those different perspectives, all those different kind of trainers, and even looking at what is important to all of the different disciplines can help you create a really well-rounded horse,” Clare said. “We borrow from all of it. We have a dummy cow, and we rope. Seeing all of the trail obstacles, we have a bridge [obstacle] now. I never even thought of having a bridge before; it never occurred to me.”
This year, Clare is competing one of her mounts Hill Four Eleven (Tiz Wonderful—Knockout Bertie, Distorted Humor) in the ranch work division. She’s taken ranch lessons and has sought advice from fellow past Makeover participant Marie Littlefield, whose husband Russell Littlefield won the ranch division at the Makeover in 2016 and 2017.
“I’ve not only made some good friends but some very very good professional contacts; people that I would trust if I was having problems with a horse; people that I would trust if I had a horse that I think might suit a client of theirs, just people to share with rather than competing against each other,” Clare said. “It’s an attitude of sharing and setting everybody up for success. Our professional lives should be a community to help each other, and sometimes when you’re only a competitor that seems a little foreign. But when you’re training, we’re not competing against each other; we’re trying to train good horses and that betters the entire industry.
“Before, we were in a little bit of a training slump,” she continued. “The whole community of it gave us such a boost and support to have this whole new set of friends and colleagues to call on for all sorts of things and share ideas and be better trainers.”
The Mansmanns’ enthusiasm for the Makeover has even rubbed off on their students. Ellen Dry, who has trained with the Mansmanns for about three years and leases a Thoroughbred from them, is going to the Makeover to cheer for them this year and also signed up to volunteer.
Dry, also of Middleburg, said it’s helped her own riding to watch the Mansmanns’ retraining program in process. Tom or Clare will often be on one of their OTTBs while teaching lessons or going on hacks with students, so they get a front-row seat to the process.
“I see them being taught to move away from the leg and bend, and extend their gaits and compress their gaits, all the things that they’re teaching me at the same time on the horses that already know how to do it. So it just gets re-emphasized,” Dry said.
Watching the transformation hasn’t changed Dry’s view of Thoroughbreds, though; she was already a fan.
“I rode when I was young, and then I had like a 35-year hiatus,” Dry said. “When I was young and riding, being able to have a Thoroughbred and compete with a Thoroughbred was like the pinnacle of being a rider. That’s what one aspired to as one was learning to trot and learning to canter and going over those first fences, was to be able to be one of those riders who could ride a Thoroughbred.
“I’m just thrilled that more and more people who maybe haven’t been introduced to the joys of riding a Thoroughbred will now be able to work with them,” she said.
Creating Trainers, Not Competitors
The Mansmanns hope their experience with the Makeover isn’t a singular one—that more professionals or aspiring professionals, will get involved and improve their skills.
“A lot of older coaches are lamenting the fact that we turn out competitors and not trainers, so it was nice to see a collection of trainers and certainly some are more competitive than others,” Clare said.
Just over half of the entrants in the 2018 Makeover are professionals (juniors make up 14 percent of the field; 34 percent are adult amateurs), but many pros Clare encounters are a little hesitant.
“Most say ‘Oh, that sounds really neat; I’d like to do that someday!’ But they’re not 100 percent certain how it works, and they’re not sure they have the time for it,” Clare said.
“It is a time commitment, but we really make these horses fit into our regular lives. If we need to go take clients for a hack or teach a lesson, guess who comes along with? If they’re going to a horse show and if we’re not riding, guess who’s on the trailer with them and tied to the side of it?”
Tom echoed Clare’s sentiment, and that one little word popped up again: “fun.”
“For Clare and I, at least, there’s a huge just fun aspect to it,” he said. “In all the years that we competed and prepared horses for the upper levels of three-day eventing, there’s a lot of pressure; and it’s a big goal at the end of the year and so forth. For us, I hesitate to say this, but the Makeover’s almost like a little vacation for us. We’ve interwoven that with our family. We bring our children with us; we rent a camper. We’re at the campground; we have our little grill, and the kids have a great time.”
He also acknowledged that a top professional who’s on the road 48 weeks a year would probably find the idea of vacationing at a horse show insane, but for the Mansmanns, it’s worked. And he’d encourage other professionals to give it a try.
“You know what, you gotta believe me on this—just try it. Just go have fun. It really isn’t about winning or even competing; it’s really just about the big picture in that these horses are incredible,” Tom said. “Maybe you’ve only had the horse for a couple weeks or a couple months. Everybody’s in the same boat you are. The judging is fantastic; they understand that these horses are not finished in any way, shape or form. It’s about the experience.
“If you want to do something that might give you back a little a little shot of joy and pleasure and fun—even if you don’t feel like you’re lacking that—I would say grab a horse, send in your entry and come on to Kentucky.”
The RRP Thoroughbred Makeover runs Oct. 4-7 at the Kentucky Horse Park—check back with the Chronicle for more from the event!