Michelle, assistant trainer at Steuart Pittman’s Dodon Farm Training Center, found her dream horse in an OTTB named Banks. She shares the story of their partnership.
From Michelle via Retired Racehorse Project:
I purchased Banks at the end of 2011 from our (Dodon Farm Training Center‘s) last barn manager, Emily Siegrist. She used to get a thoroughbred off the track to supplement the income she made at Dodon. She would put a few months of training into them, basic flat work and starting them over small fences, and sell them on because she had no real interest in any high level competing herself. She just enjoys the process of selecting and starting a young thoroughbred.
Banks (race name: Not Without Me) mostly raced at Charles Town Races in West Virginia. They were training him for a syndicate who purchased him from a yearling sale for $100,000, which from what I heard is a pretty penny here in Maryland. He was fast but a nervous horse. And when he would get nervous, all his nervous energy went straight into his head, which he would toss around and use as a weapon! He would just bulldoze over people — it would take several people to wrestle him into a bridle before a race and then he would jig all the way to the gate. By the time it opened he would be spent and not be able to close and finish well.
His nervousness carried over into life off the track, but once you were on his back he was all business. I wasn’t too impressed with him at first, and to be honest, neither was Emily. But her first off the track project was also a Not For Love who was a dead ringer for Banks — they looked exactly alike and he was a fantastic jumper, which is why she took a shot with Banks. Neither had great conformation, but they were beautiful and had a keen eye and just looked like athletes.
Banks’ flatwork was never that impressive, but then one day I helped Emily set rails the first time she ever introduced jumping to him. And when I helped her that day my impression of him changed greatly.
He took to jumping as if he had done it all his life. Most of the horses are at least a little skeptical when they are first asked to trot a line of trot poles, but Banks did it with an ease and confidence I have yet to see again. And when I put the first jump up for him it was the same, as if he knew exactly what he was doing: Where to put his feet and how to use his back, and he had the little kick up and tail flick that I love behind.
Right around that time I was mulling over selling my first horse, with whom I had evented through the Preliminary level, but he had gotten hurt and wasn’t coming back with the same courage that he had pre-injury. When I finally decided to sell him, Emily was in the process of making video to put Banks on the market and she had me ride him in the video.
It was one of the first times I had ever ridden him. Up until then, I had mostly just watched her ride. She asked if I would do a few jumps out in our cross country field with him. He had not yet jumped out there, but we figured we would see what he would do so that we could use it in the video.
From the first, he was a superstar. He jumped everything with an ease and confidence that was simply astonishing. After some fly fences, we tried up and down the bank, which he found easy. And since he did everything else so well, we decided to try him over the ditch.
Banks at his very first event with Michelle, just four months after she bought him.A ditch can be intimidating for a lot of horses and riders, but especially so for me because it is the fence that Billy, my previous horse, had the most trouble with. We had gotten eliminated from many an event because of the ditch. I knew I was intimidated by it and I knew it might translate to Banks.
When I trotted Banks up to the ditch, my heart was pounding. I was expecting him to at least look at it and then jump it awkwardly as most first-timers do. Instead he jumped it easily and landed on the other side, almost questioning why I was so nervous. He seemed to say “Hey, it was only a hole in the ground, no problem, just jump over it.” And that was it, I was sold.
I asked Emily to hold off putting him on the market for a bit. My horse at the time had a pre-purchase vetting exam the next week and if he sold, I was planning on getting Banks vetted out. Emily was kind enough to wait for me and everything worked out and I purchased Banks.
Steuart (Pittman) picked on me for a bit, in jest, for buying a horse who wasn’t a great mover just because he jumped the ditch. But my gut told me yes. I am not a brave individual by nature and I don’t mind working hard, so it just seemed right. I knew I’d have a heck of a brave jumper on my hands but would have my work cut out for me in dressage, but that’s the way I prefer it. I need help in the courage department, which he gave me, and he needed help in the dressage department, which I could give him.
I won’t lie — when I finally purchased him, I panicked a little. It still took more than one person just to get the bridle on him and he was a total spaz when I took him to work in our open fields. Then, when he got in the trailer and got out at other farms and shows, he was a total orangutan on the ground! It’s funny — all the Not For Loves are great athletes but they can all be a bit quirky and pushy. But our training was going so well at home and he was simply a phenomenon when jumping, so I just kept at it as patiently as possible.
And once Banks figured out he wasn’t ever going back to the track, he just kept getting better and better. He started to love leaving the farm so we could go run and jump. The first spring I had him we did one starter event at Novice (we skipped Beginner Novice because he didn’t need it) and one recognized event at Novice and then we moved him right up to Training level. His stadium was a little rushed because he had a tendency to get running and at that point he wasn’t quite as responsive to my aids. At our first Training level event, he had a stop at a jump right at the base of the water. I wasn’t that upset about it, as at that point he really only had five or six months of retraining and was so great about every other fence on course!
Banks at his very first event with Michelle, just four months after she bought him:
In our next event I let him school the water before asking him to jump in and then in the next two events he jumped in, not fully brave, but his desire to keep the course trumped his uneasiness about the water. I could feel the debate in his mind: He’d see the water and back off a bit, but then it was like he would close his eyes and pick his feet up because he wanted to keep going. That kind of heart and try is one of the things I love about a good thoroughbred. Even if they aren’t sure about something on course, the love of the run and desire to keep on going gets them over it.
Unfortunately we had a little setback that summer. He developed a splint, which normally is a relatively minor injury that only requires a month or two off. His, however, kept growing and growing and he ended up with a year off. It was quite upsetting as he had finally gotten really good about competing and over some of his other quirks: He would let me put the bridle on alone, he was finally putting in quiet dressage tests (not winning ones, but he didn’t look like a horse going to post in the dressage arena any more!) and he’d even stand quietly tied to the trailer with his two front legs in a muck tub of ice water.
It was a trying year, and I would love to say that I knew that everything was going to be fine — that we’d get back going once everything healed and go to the top — but I didn’t. I panicked daily about what I was going to do with this full-of-energy gelding with a gigantic lump on the inside of his leg. We tried a few different strategies to help it but finally Steuart had me move him up to our top field to give him the rest he needed to heal.
Six months later we brought him back down to the main barn and in for training. He had ended up going barefoot while turned out because he couldn’t keep shoes on. So when he came down, he didn’t have much foot and he was sore. We kept him in for a few weeks and put glue-on shoes on him. I gave him a month to let his feet heal up in his glue on shoes and started him back slowly into work last September (2013).
After two months of light flatwork, I started jumping again and it was as if he didn’t miss a beat. He was just as excited and happy about jumping as ever. We spent this winter in the indoor working on his dressage and rideability over fences and came out this spring ready to rock and roll.
Banks schooling cross country after his comeback:
We did one more Training level in March to shake the rust off and then moved up to Preliminary after a year off and just six months of work. At our first event in North Carolina we had to deal with the orangutan bowling us over on the ground again and he was quite the pisser in dressage as well, but as soon as he had his jump tack on he was all business and knew what he was there to do.
And just like our first season of events he’s just gotten better and easier to work. Banks truly enjoys his events. He was still sticky about the water and at our first prelim he had stops there, but with each event he is getting better and more confident with it so I can’t be more pleased. And his dressage is improving with each event as he learns to relax.
This last event (Fair Hill in May 2014) was his best so far. He finished with a 34.1 in dressage, which is a great score for him. He did not have any rails on a stadium course which was causing many horses to have knock downs and had an amazing cross country round in which we schooled the water to assure he’d have a confidence building jump through it, and even with that time being used up, we still had the fastest round of the day!
Banks at Fair Hill:
So we are getting there — we aren’t perfect but we’re trying. My goal is to make every move possible to help him and allow him to make it as far as he’d like to go, which I’m hoping will be Rolex some day. But at this point I’m just taking it one day and one event at a time. I just want him to keep enjoying himself in all three phases, not pushing the dressage so hard he grows to dislike it and simply allowing him to find his stride in his own time.
Many thanks to Michelle and Retired Racehorse Project for sharing!
If you think an off-track Thoroughbred might be right for you, find out more information on what to look for, how to purchase and get re-training tips at retiredracehorseproject.org