EN Today: Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge recap

Mary Getsey Bernier gives us the inside scoop on the demonstration, the training techniques of winner Eric Dierks, and what RRTP has in store for the future. 

From Visionaire:

EN would like to thank Mary Getsey Bernier for her report on the Retired Racehorse Training Project Challenge.  Three trainers worked with off-track thoroughbreds for five weeks, displaying their progress at the Pennsylvania Horse Expo where Mary was witness to the event.  This was a wonderful project to showcase the talent and ability of OTTBs.  Thanks for writing, Mary, and thanks for reading!

View all of Mary’s videos here.

“Ambassadors” for the Breed: The Retired Racehorse Trainers Challenge, Off-the-track-Thoroughbreds, and Trainers Challenge winner Eric Dierks

By Mary Getsey Bernier

The post-weekend buzz kicking off the week was off-the-track-Thoroughbreds (OTTBs), and the folks who love them:  specifically, the Retired Racehorse Training Project’s Trainers Challenge; Brazilian Wedding (owned by Pat Dale, Three Plain Bays); and winner of the Trainer Challenge, Eric Dierks (Renovatio Farms, Tryon, NC).

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Trainers Challenge winner, Eric Dierks, riding Brazilian Wedding, owned by Pat Dale. Photo credit:  Mary Getsey Bernier

The Trainers Challenge Demonstration

Nearly 3,000 spectators filled the seats and standing room areas of the Equine Arena, eager to catch the final phase of the Trainers Challenge.

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The crowd watches Tiffany Catledge, riding High Level, owned by Jim Falk. Photo credit:  Mary Getsey Bernier

Trainer Challenge participants Eric Dierks (Brazilian Wedding, owned by Pat Dale), Kerry Blackmer (Four X The Trouble, owned by Robin Coblyn), and, Tiffany Catledge (High Level, owned by Jim Falk, and Solidify, owned by MidAtlantic Horse Rescue) had five weeks to demonstrate the progression of the horses’ training.  The first demonstration kicked off in mid-January, when the trainers first met and rode the horses at the Maryland Horse World Expo.  Over the five-week period, the trainers posted training updates via blogs and videos on the RRTP Trainers Challenge web site, the RRTP YouTube channel, and the RRTP Facebook page.  The RRTP YouTube videos were viewed over 56,000 times in the course of five weeks.  The RRTP Facebook page gained over 2,500 devoted followers, in the same period of time.

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The crowd simply could not get enough.  Here, Four X the Trouble, ridden by Kerry Blackmer, enjoys a pat from a young fan. Photo credit:  Mary Getsey Bernier

Many spectators in the crowd admitted driving several hours, just to catch the final demonstration of their favorite RRTP horse and trainer.  The trainers rode one at a time, using a microphone to explain to the audience his or her training methodology, why they chose the training method they did, and demonstrate the horses on the flat, and over fences.  The final rides showed a notable and impressive amount of progress in the training of each horse, allowing RRTP fans the chance to see their favorite horse and trainer combinations, in person.  (And, in some cases, to enjoy a pat on the nose!)

Tiffany Catledge started the demonstration, riding the first of the two horses she trained, High Level.  Following Tiffany was Kerry Blackmer, riding 4 X the Trouble (also known as “Tempyst”).  Eric Dierks was next, riding Brazilian Wedding.  The demonstration ended with Tiffany riding the second horse she trained, Solidify.  (See several videos of each trainer’s demonstration, here.)

No one envied the judges’ difficult task of choosing a winner, as all three trainers did an excellent job considering the unique and variable training challenges of each horse.  There was no question each horse and trainer made remarkable progress in the five-week training period, but ultimately the judges (Olympian James Wofford, CANTER Mid-Atlantic Founder Allie Conrad, and Alex Brown, author of Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and his Legacy) awarded the winning title to Eric Dierks.  Jimmy Wofford commented on Eric and Brazilian Wedding, saying “I thought that horse was the most typical of what people think of in an off-the-track Thoroughbred. She’s a difficult ride, and Eric has done a very good job of bringing her along.”

Following the demonstration, the RRTP booth on the trade floor was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, as the crowd followed the trainers, the owners, the Trainers Challenge judges and the RRTP representatives for a press conference.  Eric was awarded the grand prize, donated by internationally-renowned artist and photographer, Leland Neff:  a 30 x 40″ portrait painting of the winning trainer’s favorite horse.  (Trainers and horse owners also received assorted generous gifts from Dover Saddlery, Cosequin, Ultimate Side Reins, Spursuaders, as well as copies of the books, Greatness and Goodness: Barbaro and his Legacy and Raja, Story of a Racehorse.)

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Smiles all around at the post-Trainers Challenge Press Conference.  From left to right:  Tiffany Catledge, Kerry Blackmer, Eric Dierks, Steuart Pittman.  Photo credit:  Mary Getsey Bernier

When asked at the press conference which horse he would select for the personal horse portrait, Eric immediately replied, “Stonehedge Heritage, also known around the barn as ‘Kibbles,’ an OTTB literally straight off a meat truck…”  Eric explained the horse was pulled off the wagon, and turned out to a field, where they watched his extraordinary trot.  He was purchased on the spot for about $800.  Kibbles was the horse that took Eric up through the levels, all the way to Eric’s first CCI**** Rolex competition.  Eric recounted the moment he realized how special Kibbles was, when competing him years ago at Fox Hall CCI *** in GA.  After a stirrup leather broke on-course, Kibbles and Eric managed to complete the remainder of the demanding course with one stirrup, conquering the most anxiety-inducing portion:  a long ascending hill– followed by an equally long descent to a mushroom jump at the base of the hill.

Eric said he knew after that round that this horse would jump for him, “to the ends of the earth, regardless… Such is the heart and athleticism of these horses, these Thoroughbreds…. I am so grateful to everybody who organized this event… Thoroughbred horses made me what I am as a trainer, and being part of an effort to showcase the trainability of these horses is an honor for me.”  Today, Kibbles resides at Eric’s parents’ farm in Kenosha, WI, giving starter lessons to riders.  Eric said he moves well, and everyone who rides him gets to see what is like to get a horse to go on the bit for the first time, and “stretch and dance.”

Training Challenge Winner, Eric Dierks, and his winning training technique

Throughout the Trainers Challenge, some dubbed Eric “the professor,” for his succinct educational training video blogs.  Eric clearly has a passion for teaching, for educating, and a passion for OTTBs.  During an interview following the Trainers Challenge, Eric explained he adjusted his teaching methods to accommodate today’s culture, where people sometimes tend to observe something in a riding training video, take a “snapshot of a moment,” and immediately make a judgment, without the trained eye of understanding what is not obvious to the viewer.  He said he explains what he is doing in the videos with such detail in order to give them the educational slant, so people can follow the process of his riding and training, then learn and apply the techniques.  Everything Eric does while riding is for a specific reason, in relation to how the horse moves, or how Eric wants to influence the horse to move. Eric wants riders to rediscover the fun of training, rather than just riding to show.  He is concerned today’s riding community may become so caught up in showing, and forget about the fun of training, and what the horses give back to us in the training process.

Eric believes his method of consistent, patient, and disciplined training, following the classical training system, is the key to training a horse well.  He also believes it helps the rider reach their goals, but equally, if not more importantly, it will build up the foundation that respects the horse, and conditions and prepares the horse for any discipline. He emphasizes rider education and accountability, insisting that one can not skip the basic foundation of balance and rhythm-the two building blocks of training-whether working with OTTBs, or any other horse.  This type of logical and progressive systematic training, and patience, is crucial to success, even though it requires absolute commitment and discipline, on behalf of the rider.  For the riders who want it badly enough-those who want to ride, and truly “dance” with their horses-the commitment and discipline (which Eric said are not always “bad” things, as some may think) must be part of the training program.

Eric encourages riders to keep their minds open, to educate themselves, either through taking lessons, participating in clinics, riding with a trainer, or sending their horses off for a training period, if they feel someone with more experience may fine-tune in areas where they are less qualified.  He recommends riders read training material, watch videos, spend time observing, listening to other trainers and riders in similar training situations.  Riders should tap into the resources of the OTTB organizations, such as RRTP.  These groups are the ones who want to help new OTTB owners, educate them, and they sincerely want to find the best situation for the OTTBs they re-home.  He encourages riders to not be intimated or afraid to ask for help and advice, as even the best riders and trainers know they don’t know every single thing there is to know about riding and training, and they aren’t afraid to keep learning.

(Note:  The RRTP web site announced tentative plans to post the complete Livestream video of the Trainers Challenge from Pennsylvania.  For additional information about the other trainers in the Trainers Challenge, and to learn more about their specific training techniques, please see the comprehensive summary recapped by the folks at Chronicle of the Horse, here.)

What does the future hold for RRTP, now that the Trainers Challenge has ended?

All four horses have returned to their owners, or OTTB organizations, and will be offered for sale. Steuart Pittman confirmed RRTP is working on plans for an event held during the week of Rolex Kentucky CCI****, in April 2012.  He also hopes there may be another Trainers Challenge, as well as a program with an extended training period, open to both amateurs and professionals.  All involved in this project agree, there is a wealth of endless opportunities for the OTTB horses.

The Trainers Challenge may have ended, but not the activity with RRTP.  Pittman encourages the public to follow RRTP, to make the most of the online resources.  One of these tools is the OTTB Bloodline Brag:  an online database to track the use of Thoroughbreds in sport, and to track how performance characteristics can relate back to pedigree.  (Such as, which stallions make great sires of dressage horses? Eventers? Jumpers?)  RRTP hopes the database will become a useful vehicle for people doing pedigree research on OTTBs prior to buying them.

Erin Pittman, RRTP Board Member, shared a touching anecdote about the OTTB Bloodline Brag.  She recounted an OTTB owner who recently entered information about their OTTB to the Bloodline Brag database, proudly posting the horse’s bloodline, a brief summary of the horse and rider’s recent accomplishments, and a comment on happy the owner was with their OTTB.  A racetrack person browsing the database saw the listing, recognized the horse from its racetrack days, and relayed how happy they were to learn of the OTTBs “new life.”  This coincidental connection would be no surprise to Trainers Challenge Judge Alex Brown, who commented the racehorse community has been following the RRTP Trainer Challenge with interest.  Jim Falk, thoroughbred breeder and owner of High Level, ridden and trained by Tiffany Catledge in the Trainers Challenge, commented that the RRTP was an excellent resource, to educate and encourage the public about post-career options for OTTBs.  Mr. Falk was impressed to learn of the large amount of community interest in the project, and was encouraged to learn the riding community had sincere interest in finding OTTBs for competition in other disciplines, such as Eventing, Show Jumping, or Hunters.

“The Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge has already accomplished what we hoped for,” said Pittman. “All three of these trainers set a very high bar for the rest of us to aspire to in our work with horses off the track.  They shared their methods and proved their skills. The horses themselves, however, were the stars of the show. They proved beyond any doubt that Thoroughbreds are well prepared for second careers when they come off the track, and that there are no limits to what they can do and learn. All four horses were relaxed in the arena… each horse showed the balance, suppleness and rhythm that we strive for with riding horses, but do not normally expect from a horse that raced recently. It was an extraordinary demonstration.”

Brazilian Wedding owner, Pat Dale concluded on the success of the program, saying with enthusiasm:  “Many have kicked around the idea for such a program in the past.  Steuart and Erin [Pittman] made it happen.  RRTP understood the Trainers Challenge would be the ideal opportunity to make the horses the “ambassadors” for the Thoroughbred breed and off-the-track-Thoroughbreds.  The program showcases what you can do with these horses in the sport.  While not every horse is going to be suitable for every job, you have the resources like RRTP, or other organizations like MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, CANTER, and even my farm, Three Plain Bays, to guide first-time OTTB owners in making the most appropriate match in the best interest of both horse and rider.  We also provide the educational resources; we want the best for these horses.  It is as if those of us who have been working for years with OTTBs have always known what these incredible OTTBs have to offer riders and trainers in all disciplines, at all levels.  We can help riders find good, sound, athletic and affordable horses, help these horses find a second career.  The training resources and support resources are out there, these horses are affordable, they have great potential, and with the success of this five-week Trainers Challenge program, as well as the extraordinary response and support from the public, now we finally feel as if rest of the community is catching on.  They finally get it!”

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