Retired Racehorse Project Showcase: Training Begins, Part II

Catch up with part of our team of Thoroughbred Makeover Retired Racehorse Project competitors, because training has begun in earnest!

Need to catch up on our Retired Racehorse Project Showcase series? Click here to view all of our RRP stories!

The latter half of our Retired Racehorse Project showcase riders are well on their way to progress, but it’s not all fun and games. Retraining former racehorses comes with its own quirks and when you are battling winter weather, a pregnancy, difficult schedules, and much more these trainers often have to rely heavily on their creativity to get the job done! Let’s check in on our final five trainers and see how the month of February has been to them so far…

Nicole Valeri – Barrel Racing, Professional

“The objective is to have a horse that is peaking in performance right around October and the start of the event. It’s a careful balance between physical conditioning and preserving the mindfulness of one.

Despite a hiccup or two along the road, Nicole and Sligo’s Girl are starting off their foundation the way Nicole finds is best for the horse. She doesn’t like to have goals with a deadline, as every horse is an individual and time-sensitive goals can be difficult. Nicole takes the time to listen to what her horse is telling them and take her time with them, almost allowing them to set their own schedule. The plan is take retraining one day at a time and start by mastering ground work and build up from there with the basics under saddle. Eventually, Nicole hopes to haul “Sly” to some local barrel races to help better prepare the mare for the pressure of the Makeover, but she isn’t interested in starting her on the pattern too early.

Unfortunately, Sly is out for a bit due to cutting her leg one day during turnout which resulted in a few staples to better help the wound heal. As many horseman know, leg injuries usually equal stall rest which is exactly what has put a small halt to Nicole and Sly’s training plan. “These setbacks are always a struggle, but I am thank its happening now rather than later,” said Nicole. She isn’t letting stall rest stop her from helping Sly be the best mare she can be, however. She is taking this time to get things right with Sly’s body before training begins, so she is playing around with her diet. She has been supplementing her grain with alfalfa pellets, black oil sunflower seeds, and some aloe vera juice. Nicole is really happy with the progress this new nutrition plan has made for Sly, helping her with some ulcer discomfort and adding in extra calories.

When Sly came off the track, Nicole had her shoes pulled and her farrier will be returning to their farm shortly so she intends on getting his professional opinion on if she needs shoes back on at this point. To help harden her hooves, she has been painting Sly’s feet with iodine each day. Sly seems to be enjoying the daily pampering and has adjusted to this princess lifestyle, but it isn’t all fun and games. She participated in Back on Track therapy several times a week and is scheduled for a massage and some dental work in the near future.

Nicole’s largest concern is keeping Sly sound throughout this process. She knows that even with all of the preventative work in the world, life still happens and lameness issues can just crop up. Downtime for lameness really puts a dent in the training program, so she is just hoping she can keep Sly sound once she recovers from her injury. She is also battling the weather and lack of amenities as she only has access to an outdoor arena with less than ideal footing — making for an interesting combo when it rains. She relies heavily on her off the farm practice running the pattern to help supplement her training.

Despite those concerns, she is really eager to get Sly started on the pattern. It has been a while since she has had a horse running barrels and she misses it a lot. Of course, she isn’t going to push her because of her value of a well broke horse and will only let her have a real job once she has graduated from the basics. Sly is going to have to prove to Nicole that she can handle the new job not only physically, but also mentally. She loves exhibition runs because even though they fluctuate from really good to really falling apart, those experiences help bring the horse and rider together and she can’t wait to mature that bond with Sly. One of her favorite things is looking back on all of the adversity she and her horse have faced along the way and seeing where they are once they reach their destination.

Sligo's Girl, obviously enjoying the little break in her training for some stall rest. Photo by Nicole Valeri

Sligo’s Girl, obviously enjoying the little break in her training for some stall rest. Photo by Nicole Valeri

Nicole has noticed during all of Sly’s pampering sessions that she is quite appreciative of all the love. Some horses have ONE spot that they really enjoy being scratched on, but for Sly that one spot is her entire neck, chest, and shoulder. During a good brushing, she will crane her neck off to the side and her lips will flutter. After a while, she returns the love and “grooms” Nicole back by lipping at Nicole’s shoulder!

Beth Stelzleni – Eventing, Professional

“The joke with Gift is not to point him at ANYTHING you do not want him to jump! I’m happy to say this is a good problem to have!

Timelines are not Beth’s thing when retraining a horse; instead she has goals that follow a progression and the horse will not move forward to the next without completing the former task. Right now a good example of that is that her horse Gift will need to be able to navigate different exercises and patterns of cavalletti at the trot and canter before he steps up to jumping courses. Beth wants Gift to be smart with his feet and develop his own sense of rhythm and strength. With that in mind, she doesn’t intend to introduce serious jumping until she feels as if Gift is fully in the bridle and adjustable at all gaits on the flat. For now she has some tentative show dates they may attend, but it is all up to Gift to tell Beth how quickly the pair can move together.

Currently, Beth and Gift are working on building a trusting relationship and learning to breathe. Gift is what Beth defines as the ultimate people pleaser and while that may sound like the perfect horse to some, it comes with its compromises. He often turns himself inside out when he isn’t quite sure what you are asking of him or if he feels he is not doing what you ask. To help build his confidence, Beth is doing a lot of ground work and slow and simple flatwork to convince Gift that “whoa” is, in fact, an acceptable answer. He is taking everything in stride, however, even on his first cross country schooling! Beth led Gift in hand to let him figure out how to navigate banks, ditches, and water at his own speed (again, reminding him that slow is ok!). For fun, Beth took him to his first horse show which was a success, all things considered. He didn’t place well in dressage due to tension, but he jumped around his baby stadium course like an old pro. Jumping is definitely Gift’s strong suit!

She knows that Gift’s anxieties with dressage will cause a few hiccups along the road. He is completely relaxed while jumping, but tenses up on the flat. Beth hopes that this will settle as he gets stronger and figures out how to correctly use his body. He is a people pleaser to a fault and is almost a little too eager to please. Getting him to relax and wait for an aid instead of anticipating will be his biggest challenge.

One of Beth’s favorite things about eventing is the relationship you build with your horse. She is so excited to build this confident relationship with Gift and to become “his person.” She knows that to be successful on the cross country course, horse and rider really need to trust each other and know one another quite well. She cannot wait to continue on with this training and watch that relationship develop with this special guy.

Beth allows Gift to have a look at the water complex on their first Cross Country outing. Photo credits: Bridget Bott

Beth allows Gift to have a look at the water complex on their first cross country outing. Photo credits: Bridget Bott

Gift has acquired quite the stigma at the barn as the horse who will jump anything… from any gait. Some new jump panels had been built on the farm that were a bit looky, so one day while hacking Gift, Beth decided to let him walk around and take a look at them. They were approaching one gate, on the buckle nice and relaxed so that he could take a sniff and have a look and suddenly Gift walked up to it and popped over it at a walk like it was nothing!

Savannah Ranes – Junior, Dressage

“I am excited to show people how Bentley has recovered from his injury and how it hasn’t limited him in his new career.

Savannah may be a junior, but she sure thinks like a professional! She sets a new goal each week, rather than having a structured timeline, based off of how Bentley progressed the week before. Sometimes, if the week before wasn’t their best, the goal will carry over and they will keep working at their task from the week before. She loves that Bentley is so intelligent — but he can be a bit pushy. Therefore she works hard to keep what he has learned fresh in his mind and not let him get away with bad habits. She tries to have a purpose every time she works with him so that they stay on track and Bentley is engaged. The exciting part is that her program is working and she is already seeing some improvement in Bentley!

This month, Savannah and Bentley have been working on riding with contact and steering. She likes to start off their rides with a loose rein and work her way up to having contact through the ride. An exciting change in their program is that her family just moved Bentley and her other horses to her home so she is near them all the time. That being said, their arena at home doesn’t have a rail up yet so that challenge has forced the pair to work on teaching Bentley how to move away from her leg and balance on his outside rein. She works Bentley three times a week in side reins and she is happy to say that his balance has improved because of it. When Savannah isn’t in the saddle, she is working from the ground up, refreshing his ground manners and teaching him to respect the lunge line. When she first brought Bentley home, he was strong while lunging and was more interested in doing his own thing. Now, however, he can walk, trot, and canter respectfully on the line and listens to her voice cues.

A recent switch to home schooling has freed up a lot of time for Savannah to spend with her horses, but with a herd of five it can be hard to find a balance. At just 15, Savannah is having to perfect her time management skills to allow her to put the proper time into Bentley, continue riding her other dressage horse, and work the other three horses her family owns. Thankfully, she and her mother trust Bentley to be safe while she is working with him and she is appreciative of having a horse she feels she can trust.

Along with Bentley, Savannah owns a Dressage schoolmaster who has schooled PSG and I1. After riding him, she can feel what she needs to steer Bentley towards. She is really excited to have the opportunity to have a horse who knows his job that she can ride beforehand to inspire her on what to work on with Bentley. She can’t wait to bring him up the levels and watch his transformation. Sharing his story about his past injury is very important to her as she wants others to know that horses can have successful careers once they have properly recovered from an injury on the track.

Savannah and Bentley's first time working off of the lunge line. Photo credit: Christina Ranes

Savannah and Bentley’s first time working off of the lunge line. Photo credit: Christina Ranes

There has been quite a bit of rain in Southern California, so as you can imagine it is also pretty muddy. On the first sunny day, Savannah decided to give Bentley a bath! As she walked him out to gate to get to the wash rack, they encountered the ever-terrifying four inch deep mud puddle. Bentley wanted nothing to do with that puddle, but there was no way around it really. Finally, it dawned on him that he could maybe be a jumper for a second and he leapt over the puddle. In her hurry to get out of his way, Savannah slipped and landed in the mud. Now instead of a nice tan pair of breeches, she can sport a dark brown pair.

Lindsy Behrend – Hunter, Professional

“I have worked with lots of young horses before and Fergie is by far the most fun to teach!

It is an exciting new adventure for Lindsy Behrend and her kill pen save Fergie and Lindsy describes each day as a blessing! “I honestly shouldn’t be able to continue our training at eight months pregnant, but we are just enjoying everything!” She knows that both she and Fergie will most likely get a little bit of a break here shortly, so for now she is spending the rest of the month strengthening their flat work, focusing on head sets (both for hunter and dressage as that will be Fergie’s second discipline at the RRP), and continuing to educate Fergie on the proper balance at each gait. With the baby on the way and Fergie still recovering from her once-starved state, Lindsy intends on giving them both the month of March off as she is a firm believe that every horse needs a little bit of a vacation now and then. The plan is to get back to work in late March and start their show career in early April. For now, she plans on focusing their show path on the local hunter/jumper circuit and then move on to rated level 1 dressage shows.

Fergie has been game for whatever Lindsy has thrown at her so far and the team even participated in their first dressage lesson a few weeks back. Their main goal this month is flat work as a good foundation is the only way to be successful in any discipline at any level. In January the pair worked on leg yielding, counter cantering, side passing, turns on the haunches, shoulders in/out, and hips in/out. Now the goal is to put all of those leg cues to work at the trot and canter. Lindsy knows that working on the proper foundation on the flat is the hardest and most time consuming portion of any training regime, but she values its importance. Of course, Lindsy knows that one of their biggest challenges will be her pregnancy and while the little break in March will be good for Fergie, it is also a small setback in this short time span for retraining. She is hoping that she will be back in the saddle in late March and can attend some dressage shows in April!

The more Lindsy gets to know this mare, the more excited she grows about their future together! Every day is a new and fun adventure. Once they master one step, Fergie is always ready to move on to the next. For kicks, Lindsy has played around with a few fences and some small gymnastics just to see how Fergie would take it and she was phenomenal. Fergie is Lindsy’s first pure OTTB that she has ever worked with. She has had the opportunity to train many Appendix Horses (QH/TB Crosses) but never a track bred one. She has had so much success with Fergie that Lindsy finds herself rethinking what breed she may want to show in the future!

Fergie and Lindsy aren't letting a few upcoming scheduling conflicts hold back their training- take a look at Fergie sailing over a jump! Photo Credit: Lindsy Behrend

Fergie and Lindsy aren’t letting a few upcoming scheduling conflicts hold back their training- take a look at Fergie sailing over a jump! Photo Credit: Lindsy Behrend

Nothing quite compares to the work ethic that Fergie has had with her since stepping off that trailer on day 1. She has only been under saddle for retraining since Christmas Day and shes just now turning 4, but nothing seems to phase her. Even though Lindsy is a professional, she believes you never stop learning so she too has a few trainers she sources from and she cannot wait for all of them to meet Fergie.

Oliver Keithly – Polo, Amateur

“With his pedigree and his race history on turf I can’t wait to get him out in the field and let him loose. He will probably scare the $#!+ out of me!

When it comes to setting a plan, Oliver is letting the horse tell him what to do next. “I don’t so much set a timeline as I do something and see how the horse reacts.” He has a master plan in his head and knows what the next step is if his mount Fitzy has a positive reaction to something he tasks him with, but he doesn’t necessarily have deadlines. Oliver is a firm believer that timelines lead to pressure and pressure messes with the horses head. Knowing that having a deadline often leads to disappointment, he is going to let Fitzy “take the reins on this one,” and just take working with the handsome redheaded gelding as it comes.

Thanks to a whopping 3.5 feet of snow and the lack of indoor at Oliver’s farm, he and Fitzy are working on one of the most important things they will work on together — a bond. He is doing lots of one on one work in the stall with Fitzy, showing him lots of love and helping to nurture a trusting relationship between the two of them. Fitzy was a little “trackish” so to speak, as many OTTBs are when just coming off the track, but thanks to a lot of patience and working at a steady pace he is coming around.

In preparation for a future with a mallet swinging wildly at either side, Oliver has Fitzy stabled in a standard 10′ x 12′ stall with a mallet hanging from the rafters smack dab in the center at about ribcage height. This is so that while Fitzy is eating and maneuvering around, the mallet can lightly tap him and rub on him so that he will be more adjusted to having it around when the under saddle work begins. Polo can get a bit hectic and so every level of desensitization helps!

Fitzy getting used to the mallet in his stall. Photo Credits: Mellissa Keithly

Fitzy getting used to the mallet in his stall. Photo Credits: Mellissa Keithly

Oliver is hoping to get him to an indoor arena nearby soon, but anticipates a few issues once they arrive. Several other OTTBs he has worked with in the past have developed some indoor arena anxiety from giant patches of ice or snow melting off of the roof and crashing down outside. The one-time commotion can become quite worrisome for a horse if they have one bad experience. He knows that riding in the indoor will have to be something Fitzy adjusts too as they also fear heavy rainfall in the spring which leaves them with two options: no riding or riding in the indoor.

Knowing that Fitzy raced on turf rather than track, Oliver is eager to see what he has on the field. He is even afraid that the horse might be so good that it might scare him. He is excited about having a horse that can push his riding to the next level. Oliver has a sweet spots for horses who have raced on turf — he finds that they can adapt to polo a little better and seem to have stronger hind ends that can push them forward in a racing situation. He loves the power, speed, and grace that these turf horses seem to display and can’t wait to see Fitzy show off.

Oliver and Fitzy bonding, despite less than desirable weather! Photo Credit: Mellissa Keithly

Oliver and Fitzy bonding, despite less than desirable weather! Photo Credit: Mellissa Keithly

Speaking of showing off, while Fitzy may not have all the parts necessary to make little Fitzys (if you catch my drift) he still has a way of driving all the ladies crazy. Oliver has been working on mixing Fitzy with some other horses while turned out and he seems to put all the mares in heat. One particular mare, a lovely gray Thoroughbred, had such a hankering for Fitzy that she busted her paddock fence down and was running up and down the road. Turns out Fitzy is quite the ladies man!


While it may not always be glitz and glamour, there is definitely a reward that comes with retraining OTTBs. Our lineup of showcased trainers seem to be enjoying quality time with their competition mounts and setting up a positive foundation for this fast paced retraining process. Follow along on their journey each month here at Horse Nation! Countdown to the RRP: eight months!

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