For the Love of Thoroughbreds: Meet Michelle & Sadie & Peewee

“Looking back over the past 12-14 months, I am so glad I took the leap, pushed myself outside of my comfort zone, and applied [to the Makeover]… [T]he goal of competing in the Makeover has rekindled my love of riding and working with OTTBs.”

For 480 accepted trainers, the journey to the Retired Racehorse Project‘s 2021 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. Today, meet blogger Michelle Michael, who will be competing with both a 2020 and a 2021 horse. 

For the past several years, I have admired the Thoroughbred Makeover from afar. I grew up riding Thoroughbreds, competed on my University’s IHSA team (where many of my favorite horses were Thoroughbreds) and now, in my adult life, I own three Thoroughbreds (there’s a theme here). While participating in the Makeover has long been on my “equestrian bucket list,” doing so seemed like a far-fetched dream. In my early years following the Makeover, I was in law school and then a young professional just starting out, a time in my life when any extensive riding plans were put on hold.

Fast forward several years and I finally started to contemplate applying to participate in the Makeover. However, doubt crept in. After all, I had not shown consistently since my time in IHSA during college and, before that, in my teens. Taking on the prospect of getting a horse off the track, embarking on the training process, while working full time as a busy professional, and showing in a mere 10 months was…intimidating.

Looking back over the past 12-14 months, I am so glad I took the leap, pushed myself outside of my comfort zone, and applied. As a full time professional, my riding time looks a little different sometimes, riding late at night and cramming as much barn time as I can on weekends. However, the goal of competing in the Makeover has rekindled my love of riding and working with OTTBs.

Michelle and “Cams Queen” ( “Patty”), my first OTTB, who inspired my love of the breed, competing in jumpers at East Freehold Park in approximately 2013. Photo by Andrew Michael.

“Thundering Success” (“PJ”) my now 18-year-old Thoroughbred gelding who I still have today, schooling at home Photo by Andrew Michael.

I have two hopefuls training for the 2021 Mega Makeover, who I hope to show in the Show Hunter and Show Jumper divisions. My 2020 hopeful is Sadie’s Magic (Sadie) and my 2021 hopeful is Change of Venue (ironically nicknamed “Peewee,” in light of his 17.2 hand stature). My journey with Sadie began in late November 2019, when I acquired her from her breeder, Erika Neuberg. During our first year together, Sadie has far exceeded my expectations and I never thought we would be where we are today. Sadie is the most game, willing horse I have ever ridden. She has done everything from the beach, to the trails, to lessons, to the show ring, and, most recently, her very first hunt! We still have our “days,” and certainly have a lot to learn still, but we are enjoying the journey.

Sadie schooling over trot poles. Photo by Andrew Michael.

Sadie schooling fences at home in the summer of 2020. Photo by Sarah K. Andrew.

My first year with Sadie has taught me that there is no blueprint for competing in the Makeover (something that I have had to remind myself on several occasions). There have been times throughout our journey when I have doubted whether we will be ready in time. During these times, I have had to remind myself that the actual event is only the tip of the iceberg, and this process is much larger than a single horse show. Rather, it’s about setting these horses up for a lifetime of success in their second careers. That being said, if my horses are ready in time, we will be at the Makeover, and if not, that is okay too, as the journey itself is what matters.

Living in New Jersey, horse shows were shut down last year until approximately June. I remember having a ticking clock in my head thinking, “Oh my gosh, I have only (insert amount of time) to get this horse showing over fences!” I will not lie, panic set in. This is just one of the many times that I had to remind myself to focus on the journey and not the end result.

We tried to make the best of the limited off-property schooling opportunities, and went about one month last spring without riding at all. Once we finally got back into the swing of things, we spent as much time out on the trails as we possibly could in an effort to get out and see new things. We also participated in several “virtual dressage shows,” doing the Intro tests. In June, we made it to our first local show, where we got our feet wet competing in the hopeful hunter division.

I will never forget our first time in a busy hunter schooling ring. Sadie was….excited. However, consistent with her willing nature, she tried so hard, never said “no,” and settled into this new and different environment like an old pro. With each show last spring and summer, we made tiny improvements, and Sadie even earned her first blue ribbon at her last show back in September.

Sadie showing over fences for the first time at Baymar farms. Photo by Andrew Michael.

Sadie with her first blue ribbon at the Horse Park of New Jersey in September 2020. Photo by Andrew Michael.

Looking back, it’s funny to me that I spent so much time in our first year worrying about getting enough mileage in the show ring as some of the most memorable time spent in our first year of training was on the trials, gaining experience trying new things out of the ring.

Sadie on a trail ride in the fall of 2020 in the Assunpink of New Jersey. Photo by Michelle Michael.

My personal favorite adventure so far was our beach ride. In October, a childhood friend and I went trail riding at Island Beach State Park in New Jersey. When I told my husband of this plan, he very reasonably said, “Have you ridden on the beach before?!” To which I replied, “Yes, once, when I was about 10 years old on my 11.2 hand childhood pony, Little Bit. I think (hope) we will be fine!” Sadie blew my expectations out of the water with how she is always willing to try. She handled seeing the ocean, beach umbrellas, wind, and sand for miles, as if she had done it her whole life. She even made some friends on the beach! This is why I love Thoroughbreds.

Sadie at the beach in October 2020. Photo by Andrew Michael.

Sadie at the beach in October 2020. Photo by Andrew Michael.

Sadie at the beach in October 2020. Photo by Andrew Michael.

While we were stuck indoors most of the winter, we were fortunate to sneak in a few rides outside of the ring before New Jersey became a frozen tundra for the entire month of February. We are even more fortunate to have an amazing barn friend, Sarah Andrew, who has captured our journey this far.

Sadie in the snow in December 2020. Photo by Sarah K. Andrew.

This winter, we put a lot of time into Sadie’s flat work basics, and are starting to see results. A year ago, cantering her felt like driving a school bus. She was very heavy on her forehand and it was difficult, in particular, in smaller indoor areas. After lots of lessons, transitions, and trot poles, she is really starting to use herself, and her canter has seen an extreme transformation. 

Sadie’s canter in December 2019 versus December 2020. Photo courtesy of Michelle Michael.

Sadie has also really started to fill out and develop more muscle, and seeing the transformation these horses go through is one of my favorite parts of this process. Most recently, Sadie even went on her first hunt. She, yet again, impressed me with her willing demeanor and temperament. Moving forward, we are looking forward to continuing to explore this new sport together, as part of our quest to get out of the ring and try new things. I am also looking forward to getting Sadie back into the show ring this spring and summer.

Competing with two horses was hardly my intention when I embarked on this bucket list venture. Following the postponement of the 2020 Makeover, I knew that I would continue on the journey with Sadie, but I did not anticipate adding another horse to my roster. That was until Jeanne Vuyosevich, a trainer from Monmouth Park, was retiring a tall, dark gelding named, Change of Venue (Peewee). This brought my OTTB journey full circle in this moment as I had acquired my 18-year-old OTTB, PJ, from Jeanne, some 13 years prior. Jeanne saw something special in Peewee. She had a strong hunch that he would be a great hunter/jumper, and did everything she could to help him find his next gig following his racing career. I was fortunate enough to go watch his last race on October 21, 2020 at Monmouth Park, and was smitten. He came home with me on Halloween.

Michelle and Jeanne Vuyosevich, Peewee’s racing trainer and owner, on the day I picked him up. Photo byAndrew Michael.

I have had so much fun working with Peewee so far. He is a big, goofy, people oriented horse, with the friendliest disposition. A fun fact about Peewee is that he LOVES bananas! Peewee has spent this winter unwinding, eating lots of bananas, and being pampered. During this time, we embraced taking it slow and have spent our time doing lots of ground work, light flat rides under saddle, grooming, and “carrot stretches,” while Peewee adjusts to his new life.

Peewee showing off his personality (and searching for bananas). Photo by Michelle Michael.

We used our time this winter to ensure that Peewee was relaxed and feeling his best. He has had visits from his vets, chiropractor, and dentist, to make sure that he is all set to commence his training. This horse lives a better life than I do!

Me and Peewee, March 2021 Photo by Andrew Michael.

I will never forget the first time I sat on Peewee. At over 17 hands, I felt like I was on stilts. While early in our training together, he, too, has impressed me with his willingness to learn, and I absolutely love his goofy, outgoing personality. We have incorporated tarps, exercise balls, flags, pool noodles, and streamers into our ground work routine (if we don’t make it as a hunter/jumper, perhaps you will find us in competitive trail!). During our early rides this winter, we have focused on walk/trot work, working on getting balanced and relax, and have incorporated ground poles as well.

We have of course worked through little “quirks” as Peewee transitions from his old career to his new one. During our first ride with another horse in the indoor ring this winter, he decided to show off his “War Dance” (he is, after all, related to Seattle Slew). As such, we spent as much time as we could this winter riding with other horses, passing, being passed, etc. All of these little steps this winter are starting to add up, and he has been steadily improving each ride.

Peewee doing his groundwork. Photo courtesy of Michelle Michael.

Peewee doing his groundwork. Photo courtesy of Michelle Michael.

As the ground outside has thawed, we have taken our training outdoors, which Peewee seems to much prefer (cannot blame him there). This month has been one of many firsts for Peewee. We have started cantering more, continued with ground poles (he’s starting to figure out what to do with his feet!), and just recently tackled his very first cross rail! He also went on his first trail ride around the property at home. He could not have been better behaved, and was very brave when a turkey ran out of the woods! Moving forward, we will soon be going on our first “field trip” off the property and hope to head to horse shows this spring and summer.

Peewee learning where to place his feet over poles. Photo courtesy of Michelle Michael.

I am excited to continue on the Makeover training journey with my two Makeover hopefuls. This process has been so much more than I ever expected. Training two horses with completely different temperaments has brought a new level of complexity to my Makeover journey, and has helped me to become a better rider. I have been fortunate to have the support of trainers, friends, and family, and I look forward to continuing on this journey and sharing it with all of you.

Michelle Michael lives in New Jersey with her husband, Andrew, four horses, three dogs, and four cats. She is an amateur equestrian who has been riding since the age of two. Michelle became hooked on off-the-track thoroughbreds when she acquired her first ottb, Cams Queen, at thirteen years old. She now balances her full time career as an attorney, with training her two ottbs, Sadie and Peewee to compete in the 2021 Retired Racehorse Project Mega Makeover this October. She chronicles her riding journey on her Instagram page: “three_bay_thoroughbreds”.

Sadie schooling over fences in the summer of 2020. Photo by Sarah K. Andrew.