“The goal of that Tadpole was not to clamber for the blue ribbon, but rather to take a temperature reading on where he was, assign homework and head back to the farm with more information on how to shape my training going forward.”
For 616 accepted trainers, the journey to the Retired Racehorse Project‘s 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America, has begun! Over the next eight months, four of those trainers will blog their journeys, including their triumphs and their heartbreaks, successes and failures, for Horse Nation readers. This week Aubrey Graham discusses how she’s approaching Boomer’s jump training.
“Thank you for cleaning up my yard sale,” I said to multiple volunteers as they scampered into the arena to pick up strewn jump poles. “Yard sale” is a term that I learned all too well while skiing as a kid. After a good tumble, your poles, mittens, goggles, hat (no, we didn’t wear helmets back then) skis and other accoutrement would be laid out all over the face of the mountain as if for sale.
In my equine world, this term has become synonymous with multiple downed rails from the same fence. Boomer (JC: Vanderboom Ridge), as it turns out, is an expert yard-saler. He is also an outstanding and somewhat careful cross-country ride. It took the last month of training both to figure this out and to implement plans to amend the issues.
The first time I aimed Boomer at a cross-rail, he neither blinked nor picked up his feet. Rails flew left and right and he carried on at a trot.
When I pointed him at it again with a bit more leg, I got the same result. So, I set trot, bounce, and one-stride gymnastic poles, small square oxers, and began working on getting him to come through in his half-halts as a means of setting his hind end under him. The exercises had varying levels of success, but when push came to shove, he simply didn’t seem particularly impressed. I added barrels. He jumped those… most of the time. I filled in the oxers with brush boxes and Christmas trees, same effect. Poles alone? Yard sale.
In the past decade and a half, I have trained plenty of horses to jump. Unsurprisingly, they all come with their respective strengths and weaknesses. Keeping with the trend of using my 2018 and 2019 personal RRP Makeover horses as examples, Forrest (JC: Don’t Noc It) would often drop his knees, easily clear the fence, then tear off like a happy freight train on the backside.
Juice (JC: Pulpituity) was quiet to and from the jumps, but would put all his effort into his front end, over-jumping with brilliant knees while only clearing the rails by inches with his hind, often landing all four feet at once.
For both of them, time, gymnastics, and strength-building exercises have helped amend the initial issues and aided an ability to move up the levels and significantly improve their fences form. Am I worried about Boomer’s eventual ability to jump well? Nope. But it does need some guidance and time.
This past month with Boomer has been one of information gathering. After a couple days of attempted stadium work, I stuck him on my trailer and headed to Ashland Farms cross country field. In his first-time off property since leaving Winchester Place’s retirement farm, Boomer was all class. He tied quietly while I tacked him and took to the trails like a champ – over bridges, flowing streams, and tricky woodland footing. On the xc field, I trotted him over logs, only to feel him rock back and pick his feet up. We walked up and down the little bank, worked over the mid-sized ditch and through the water.
To say I was impressed would be an enormous understatement. He gamely, but respectfully took on every obstacle. No stop, no bolt, nothing other than quiet, clean jumps. He was so good that by the end of the session, I popped him through the novice coffin and he bravely did as asked.
The next week, Forrest was slotted to move back up to Novice at a Poplar Place Schooling Show – his first novice since a bout of serious fevers that nearly knocked him flat in the summer of 2019. Like much of the South East, our winter wasn’t just wet – it became a rainy season where I felt like I had missed a ride on the proverbial ark. Trying to stay legged up in the pouring rain, Forrest and I trotted what I thought was the only dry footing on my farm – the gravel road — only to slip anyway and pull a muscle. It was past the point of scratching, but Poplar kindly let me switch my entry. Suddenly, Boomer was to do his first Tadpole three days later. We were woefully unprepared.
The Friday before the Saturday event the rain finally let up, and I tacked Boomer up in my dressage gear for the first time. We ran through Intro C and found that the halt (like the attempt in my front field) was not his favorite thing. Trying hard not to drill him, I worked on quiet, square pauses that moved gently – not explosively – back up into a trot. It wasn’t fully successful. The next morning at 4 am, we loaded up and headed south.
At Poplar, Boomer’s super brain showed through in the dressage warm-up arena. As horses careened around him and riders sometimes lost control, he held it together and seemed almost to have fun.
His Intro C test wasn’t amazing, but you know what was good? His halts. Stadium came next. It was a flowing course of straight and bending lines with verticals and oxers up to 2’3”. Since I was alone, I tossed my phone to a young girl I barely knew who had been hanging out with Walker (my dog). Reviewing the video, you can hear her dad’s commentary go something like, “That looks good. Oh man, pick up your feet, horse. […] That’s not good. Come on dude […] Ok, better. […] Oooof […] wow…” Of the 10 jumps, Boomer completely yard-saled three. His front end came up, but the hind end carried through the fences. Nonetheless, he received a hearty pat for his effort and we headed out for a hopefully less clumsy cross-country run.
Over the solid jumps, Boomer was amazing. He bravely tackled the questions up and down the hills and into shady forest paths, cantered through the bright blue (dyed) water, popped over brush, rolltops, and coops, and only walloped one fence.
As we crossed the finish line, my watch beeped and I knew we were close to optimum time. He was tired and I couldn’t have been prouder for this super-unprepared horse and his outstanding effort. This is exactly why I love working with the green ones. The goal of that Tadpole was not to clamber for the blue ribbon, but rather to take a temperature reading on where he was, assign homework and head back to the farm with more information on how to shape my training going forward.
On the RRP Makeover Trainer’s page, I posted a few pictures from the event with the comment, “#fieldtripfriday Boomer (Vanderboom Ridge) got to try his hand at this whole show pony thing. Did we win? Oh hell no 🙂 But was he awesome and a total pleasure to spend the day with? Yep!” I had waited around at Poplar for results, but my day outpaced that of the show office, and I ended up hauling home assuming we brought up the rear of the division. We had been third after dressage and fifth after stadium (no surprise there). A few days later, curious about any time faults, I checked the results. So… we won. We won? We won! Wait, what? Turns out the cross-country portion challenged the other four, and Boomer incidentally rocketed from last to first with a time that hit optimum on the money. We have a long way to go, but I suppose it is never bad to start out your show pony career with a blue and a lot of productive homework.
So what now? At this point, while the economy practices a square halt, and the rest of the world feels like it is on stall-rest, I’m extremely lucky to be able to continue to work on cleaning up Boomer’s tendency to yard-sale. I live on my farm (literally in the barn) and am able to keep all my personal and client horses in training through the COVID-19 pandemic.
I don’t take this position or ability for granted in the slightest. And in the meantime, the global crisis has given me time not only to think about pick-up-your-feet training, but also about continuing to enjoy the moments in between – the hills, the healthy horses, and this crazy, wonderful life I get to live.
Aubrey Graham is an Anthropologist and eventing/hunter-jumper trainer located just south of Atlanta, in McDonough, Georgia. Based out of a farm built for the 1996 Olympics, she runs APGraham Eventing and Kivu Sporthorses & Training. She parlays her 30+ years of riding experience into training students and working with young, green, and challenging rides, but her passion lies in the retraining of the off track thoroughbred (OTTB). Aubrey has competed through preliminary level eventing and keeps her eyes on the upper levels while enjoying the small successes that come from getting the green horses ready for lower-level competition. In 2018 and 2019 she competed in the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover with both personal and client horses; this year for the 2020 Makeover, she plans to enter two OTTBs.