Doing Your Best, Better: Aubrey & Boomer

“We’re all in this for the journey. And hell, good stories are made more from the rough trails and comedy of the challenges than from the easy wins and smoothly paved roads.”

Following the announcement that the Retired Racehorse Project‘s 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America, will be postponed to 2021, competitors have been working to decide what comes next for them and their mounts. Today, blogger Aubrey Graham talks about why she does the Makeover and how she brings that same mentality to her students. 

There might not be a lot of Boomer… or Rhodie… or Ranger in this post. But stick it out, the RRP comes back in below, I promise.

This is how last night went:

I sank onto a stool at Greg’s counter sometime after nine and swirled the wine in my glass. Neither of us really cared about dinner at this point.

“Did you get your blog done?”


“Do you need to write it now?”

“No. My brain doesn’t work past 5pm”

“Do you need to outline it now?”

“Probably, but no”

“Do you know what you’re going to write?”


Truth is, in the last month, I have managed to hop on Boomer (Makeover 2020, JC Vanderboom Ridge) four more times, and Rhodie (Makeover 2021, JC Western Ridge) twice. Boomer had his teeth done by an awesome dentist (Dr. Diane Febles) and I learned that he needs a thinner bit, but that’s hardly something to write 1000 words on. Ranger (Makeover 2020, JC Cowboy Night) has been recovering from a pretty severe spider bite to his jaw, so for a couple weeks he had taken himself temporarily off my “need to ride” roster. But, with the pressure to start really getting these horses going, I just keep hoping for more hours in a day and a whole lot less rain and mud.

This is my arena with 37-degree rain, but that couldn’t keep Kate and Aubrie, students of RRP Trainer, Jennifer Vickers Kelly, from hauling over to train. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

I’m happy but overwhelmed… and exhausted. Simultaneously, I’m so enormously grateful for my community and for the positive problem of being “busy” – hell, there are so many worse problems out there. I mean, this isn’t 2020 anymore.

Generally, I’m pretty strict about time and priorities: horse care first (feeding, turnout, secondary vet attention, etc.), lessons, rides on training horses, rides on sale horses, rides on my own horses after. As every full-time trainer knows, there is never enough daylight, never enough coffee, money, or wine to make it all work perfectly. There is accounting, planning, scheduling, logistics, marketing, and the ever-pressing small demands of running a business, a farm, and a relationship. Anyone who has seen my sink knows that the house comes in at the very end of this list.

Where I usually want to be – on Boomer – despite my horses frequently landing at the bottom of my list of priorities. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

I often offer morning lessons, and for weeks I found myself asking for five more minutes to finish throwing hay, turn out one more horse, dress one more wound… or nuke my coffee for the 20th time. I felt I had to explain it away, tell my student a compelling reason why I was running a few minutes behind. This last month, I caved – I could no longer come up with compelling reasons. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I need five minutes… I’m doing the best I can.” And that was it. She didn’t mind, and I was able to breathe and heat up my coffee one more time.

So, Boomer is mostly absent in this blog post, but he is handsome, so enjoy this gratuitous photo. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

I’m enormously lucky to have collected a community of amazing clients and students – not just for understanding how I function and for tolerating my happy eventing insanity, but also for being friends – and for pitching in to help. Trainers who began by bringing me horses to ride (ahem, Jenn and Megan) now also show up with their crews to help haul or to help set up electrical fencing. Students and friends fill the barn parking lot in order to paint poles, knock down cobwebs, and fix fences. I might bribe them with pizza and beer, but I’m pretty sure they’d do it anyway. I’m honestly not sure how I got so lucky.

Members of the Kivu crew painted poles during a recent “workday;” that evening Rhodie wasn’t quite so sure what to think of them. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

And now, with the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover trainer acceptances out for 2021, the internet and trainer pages are abuzz with enthusiasm and hustle, requests for advice, and palpable stress, I find commonalities between the prep for the show and my day-to-day. It’s all about doing the best you can, staying in your lane, and forgiving yourself the rest.

In 2018, I brought two Thoroughbreds to the Kentucky Horse Park for the first time. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into and the excitement and anxiety collided, leading to days of stress about wait-lists for horse park paddocks, Airbnbs, finances, stall mats, and hauling logistics. More than that, I remember looking at the trainer pages and watching folks jumping their OTTBs around courses at shows, the horses looking fat and far from green. In Feb. 2018, Forrest (JC Don’t Noc It) was just getting over body soreness, just getting started under saddle, and he resembled a llama. I didn’t think he had a chance at RRP anything, but I was damn determined to give him a good shot anyway.

Forrest when he arrived in September 2017, ears coated in pink swat. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

I have to remind myself that despite my late start with my redheaded drama llama, he pulled out a 10th place finish in a huge Show Jumper division, shocking everyone, not least me. Forrest’s Makeover ridiculousness reminds me to do that important thing: “stay in my lane” — ride the horse I have, deal with my challenges and not compare myself to the others or their representations of perfectly poised mounts and successes. The new Makeover trainers will hear this a lot. And a lot will happen between now and October.

No-longer skinny Forrest running his first set of Training level jumper rounds at a Big Cheese Eventing Jumper Show at Ashland Farms this month. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Graham.

This all connects to a similar sentiment to what dad used to espouse when we would hike the Appalachian Trail. Schlepping up and down mountains in New England, I’d always ask, “How much further?” or “Is that the summit?” I’d always get the same answer: “We’ll be there when we get there.” It was about the complete experience, not just the view or checking a summit off of a list. It’s corny to be writing this here, but I think I need the reminder as much as many of the other trainers, new and old. We’re all in this for the journey. And hell, good stories are made more from the rough trails and comedy of the challenges than from the easy wins and smoothly paved roads.

Cinderella (the dog) and me somewhere on the AT circa 1991. Photo by Allen Graham.

I don’t do the Makeover for the shot at money (though winning certainly wouldn’t suck). It’s hard to order all the reasons that I commit to this show annually… But I do this because frankly, it makes me happy. I find joy in it because of the horses, the awesome organization and positive community that this show builds, the fact that going there – getting to compete on an even playing field with some of the nation’s best — and getting to share this with a horse (or three) who is trying their heart out in a second career, makes me proud to be call myself a trainer.

Probably my favorite photo of Juice (Pulpituity) and me at the 2019 RRP Thoroughbred Makeover. Photo Credit by Kassie Colson.

And more than that, this show has set me on a course to my here and now. At the first show of this season, I looked down my roster and grinned: nine horses – each and every one an OTTB. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love training other breeds too, but I have worked hard to bring the RRP Makeover attitude to the farm and to the local shows. I don’t care if my students go fast (I’d actually rather they not), I want them to go in and ride the horse they have that day to the best of both of their abilities. Every round at the Big Cheese Eventing’s February Jumper Show brought laughter and support from the sidelines. Each student rode out of the ring with a grin with what I imagine is both a sense of accomplishment at taking a green horse around a set of fences and not only, not dying, but actually having fun.

A Collage of the OTTBs and their people from this most recent show. Photos by Amanda Tozzi and Jules Freed.

One of my favorite moments of the day came when Maggie Gilbert, who recently began leasing “Chille” (JC Schiller Sound), added four points to her round when she circled before the final line. Chille isn’t an easy ride – he had bounced from the track to eventing, to fox hunting, to who-knows-where and ended up banged up and defeated last summer at a local Georgia auction. Jennifer Vickers Kelly rescued him, rehabbed him and sent him to me for more training. Chille recently earned his own human (Maggie) and he could not be happier. But coming down to that last line in his first show, Chille wasn’t balanced. Rather than go for the clean round, she regrouped and gave him a better ride to the fence. In that one act, she summed up why we do this – for horsemanship, for these horses, and for the pride of not just hauling home with 50c ribbons, but for knowing that you did your best.

Maggie and Chille at the Big Cheese Eventing’s first jumper show of the season. Photo by Jules Freed.

That “best” might not always hold the conventional image of a perfect round, or eight hours of sleep, or a sink free of dirty dishes. And so, as I rush out of the house and away from this computer in order to hop on my training rides for the day, I’m working on a plan to get Boomer, Rhodie, and Ranger on a road to the RRP with renewed priority. In the meantime, I’m so grateful for my fellow trainers, students, clients, horses, and partner who support me, and this crazy life, while I figure out how to make the “best I can” even better.

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.