Why Everyone Should Compete at the Thoroughbred Makeover At Least Once

With the deadline for trainer applications drawing near, Haylie Kerstetter takes the time to remind us that everyone should compete at the Thoroughbred Makeover at least once.

Warlander and Haylie at their Training Level Test 2 at the Thoroughbred Makeover. Photo by Bethany P Photography.

By Haylie Kerstetter

The Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, Presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America, affectionately known as the Makeover, is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. Run by the Retired Racehorse Project (RRP) and held at the world-class facility of the Kentucky Horse Park, it is the largest Thoroughbred retraining competition in the world and boasts over $100,000 in prize money. But for the thousands of trainers who have applied and competed every year since its start in 2013, it is far more than a one-week-long competition. It is months of time and effort which are put into the horses with an incredible amount of heart.

The Makeover technically is a competition, but it can be better described as a community. According to its website, the RRP “exists to facilitate placement of Thoroughbred ex-racehorses in second careers by increasing demand for them in equestrian sports and serving the farms, trainers, and organizations that transition them.” Between this charitable mission and welcoming and supportive trainers and officials, the RRP goes beyond the realm of holding a typical competition to provide networking and education opportunities, along with the country’s leading shopping opportunity for Thoroughbred sport horse prospects with the horse’s wellbeing and proper retraining at the forefront.

Warlander and Haylie at their Training Test 2 at the Thoroughbred Makeover. Photo by Bethany P Photography.

In 2019 I was lucky enough to take a horse and compete myself. As a college student at Centenary University already juggling school work, being captain of Centenary’s Hunter/Jumper team, having a social life (what is that?) and somehow paying for it all, the decision to train for and compete at the Makeover was made much to my parent’s dismay.

Warlander in Haylie in their show jumping round at the Thoroughbred Makeover. Photo by Bethany P Photography.

After months of careful calculations and searching for the right horse, the perfect one essentially fell into my lap. He was living at a barn I worked for and his owner had planned to take him, but didn’t think he was the right horse for her, so he was offered to me. Although I was unsure of him at first, he turned out to be exactly what I needed. He showed up to work everyday, took everything I threw at him in stride and was the perfect companion for the months that he was with me. He completely defied the hot headed, unmanageable stereotype that typically surrounds Thoroughbreds (which I absolutely do not believe). He hacked out anywhere I wanted to, put on his dancing shoes for dressage, showed his true power in the jumpers and took to bridleless riding like a champ.

Warlander and Haylie after their final show jumping round at the Makeover. Photo by Canter Clix.

This horse had already convinced me time and time again of just how special he was, but in case I didn’t already get it, he made sure I knew at the Makeover. Each time we stepped into the ring he gave it his all, taking on the biggest show of his life with ease, and placing 13th in show jumpers and 15th in dressage with over 100 horses in each. To say I was proud of him would be an understatement.

The experience of showing was truly spectacular and I am so grateful that I was able to experience it, but I love the Makeover for everything else that it does. From the educational seminars at the Makeover itself to giving a horse a solid foundation in its second career, the Makeover is one of a kind.

But the best part of being a trainer is the Facebook group. The Retired Racehorse Project has a private Facebook group specifically for Makeover trainers. Here, we get to follow each others’ journeys through their ups and downs, ask for advice and get a good laugh from GIF wars when we need it most. We get to see the good, the bad and the ugly — and know that we’re not alone when we just didn’t get it right with our horse that day. Many horses even have their own pages so we can post updates on their progress and document field trips.

Warlander and Haylie schooling over fences at The Ridge at Riverview in New Jersey. Photo by Tanner Pfeffer.

Competing at the Makeover was one of the best experiences I’ve had when it comes to horses, and I’m so grateful for everyone in my life that helped to make it possible for me. These horses have so much heart and make the best partners. Even if you think you’re not a Thoroughbred person, I challenge you to give the Makeover a try. Be patient and trust the process because, in the end, the show itself is only a stepping stone for these horses on the way to their second careers. Trainer applications are open through January 15, 2021, so at least go check it out, because everyone needs to compete at the Thoroughbred Makeover at least once (but be careful because that might not be enough).

Warlander and Haylie in the final halt of their dressage test at the Thoroughbred Makeover. Photo by Bethany P Photography.