Race Horse to Ranch Horse: Talking the Makeover With RRP Ambassador Kyle Rothfus

It’s no secret that the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover has already had a big impact on the OTTB world. Kristen Kovatch catches up with RRP Ambassador Kyle Rothfus to talk about the bigger picture — and where she and Jobber Bill fit in.

Wide open spaces on our last sunny, warm day of 2017. My first few rides with Jobber have been focused on basic aids, practiced all over the farm. More training updates in the next installment! Photo by Kristen Kovatch.

Participation in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover has always been a secondary goal for me in my latest project: taking an off-track Thoroughbred and training him up to be a reined cowhorse and working horse for our family cattle operation. We tend to hold on to horses for life here, I’m not in the business of training and selling, and acquiring a horse simply for one single contest didn’t strike me as a very sustainable idea.

But there’s a certain mystique about the Makeover that’s hard to pin down: I’ve been told by so many individuals that it’s a singularly unique experience, not so much a competition as a gathering, a networking opportunity and a celebration of the Thoroughbred and all of his gifts and abilities. The more I heard about it, watched highlights from last year, heard snippets from our spotlight riders and dreamed of what it would be like to step back into my favorite discipline (reined cowhorse) with an unusual breed (reined cowhorse has always been the dominion of the Quarter horse) on the national scene, the more the idea grew in my head.

For every equestrian quick to tell me about the benefits and opportunities of the Makeover, however, there was another ready to remind me that “the Makeover is just a stepping stone in a horse’s longer career. Don’t put too much emphasis on the Makeover.”

The concept of the time-limited training contest in the horse world has always inspired lively debate: from the age-limited futurities to the various iterations of the equine makeover contest — mustang, Thoroughbred, rescue horse or otherwise — some horsemen argue that putting a time limit or deadline on training is not always in the best interests of the horse. I’d argue that a true horseman knows if his or her horse is not ready for such a deadline, though I know sometimes in the pursuit of prizes, earnings, fame or glory we as equestrians often fail to protect those best interests. All we can do is strive to do best by our horses in our decision-making, which is my ultimate overarching goal as I navigate my path to the Thoroughbred Makeover.

As incredible as the Makeover sounds and as much as I do look forward to hopefully getting the chance to compete, our goal in promoting the off-track Thoroughbred should be finding the place where we can do the most good. In my Makeover decision-making process, I boiled the issue down to a single question: is it better for the Thoroughbred to showcase him in a unique discipline within the breed, or showcase him as a unique breed in the reined cowhorse world?

To help me answer this question, I spoke with Kyle Rothfus, 2017 Thoroughbred Makeover Ambassador. Kyle maintains his Facebook page OTTB Training, where he is unabashedly honest about the good, bad and ugly days with OTTBs, horsekeeping and retraining — a refreshing point of view in a social media world where we tend to present carefully crafted glimpses of our world.

Photo courtesy of Kyle Rothfus

Kyle feels it’s important that the Thoroughbred Makeover Ambassador not simply hold the title, but actively work to represent the off-track Thoroughbred the rest of the year as well and work in the equestrian community to promote the horse. He’s made it a cornerstone of his mission for the following year to find more ways to bring western riders to the OTTB — or vice-versa.

“My goal is to get more Thoroughbreds into some of the not-traditional-for-a-Thoroughbred disciplines — the western, the cow horse, the competitive trail,” Kyle detailed to me. “I need to get more horses to come to a discipline at the Thoroughbred Makeover, and get them into the local level shows at the same time.”

The Makeover certainly has amassed a huge following and an enormous body of interested participants. It’s a fascinating phenomenon that has transformed the conversation about off-track Thoroughbreds: horses are now marketed including their “RRP eligibility” (if their time on the track would make them eligible for the current Makeover season) and plenty of new trainers are eager to try their hand for the first time (like, you know, me).

At the same time, it’s important to remember the bigger picture. “People tend to call the Makeover ‘the RRP,'” Kyle noted. “The Retired Racehorse Project is much bigger than the Thoroughbred Makeover. It’s really about retraining the horse and matching them with a career. You have to make sure you’re doing this for the right reason — if you’re in it for the prize money or the notoriety, those aren’t the right reasons.”

The bigger picture is to walk the walk — not just talk the talk. “It’s important to know the breed before you jump in. If I take my horse to a show and she’s not prepared, and she’s bucking and rearing in the warm-up, there’s another reason for people to say ‘oh, well, look at those Thoroughbreds, they’re hot and flighty.’ Especially as Ambassador, I need to take my horses to shows and be performing well.”

My primary goal for Jobber remains creating a willing, hardworking partner for both recreation and working on the ranch — which he’s already proving his ability to do even in the worst weather! Photo by Kristen Kovatch.

For Kyle, the Makeover is indeed a stepping stone. “The Makeover shows me the holes in my training. A few years ago, my horse couldn’t hardly set foot in the indoor there at the Horse Park. It taught me a lot about what I need to work on at home.” Now, Kyle and his mare are preparing to perform liberty demonstrations and take on some competitive trail, to continue the mission of the Retired Racehorse Project in a second career.

We talked about why the working ranch had been dropped from the Makeover: it was a lightly-attended discipline and it was more expensive to furnish the cattle than the discipline brought in through trainer applications. Cattle are admittedly harder to come by for training a horse, and the theory was that the very nature of the discipline was limiting participation — hence the decision to replace working ranch with ranch riding and ranch trail. This was pretty crushing to me, as it was the opportunity to showcase a Thoroughbred in a discipline in which very few compete that drew me to the Makeover in the first place.

Fortunately, there’s no rule against bringing your own cow to the Freestyle division — so that’s where I’ll be headed if the stars align between now and October, carving out my own working ranch performance with a rented cow. Simultaneously, I’ll be finding places to learn and compete over the summer within the state level of reined cow horse.

“So can you do both?” Kyle posited, referring to my original question. “Can you represent both breed and discipline? I believe you can.”

And that’s the walk I’ll be trying to walk — in addition to talking the talk.

Keep up with Kristen and Jobber’s cowhorse adventures by clicking the “Jobber Bill” tag at the top of the page!

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