Looking for Greenlights: Aubrey & Boomer

“In the full-time trainer headspace of trying to do my best better, it is often everything — all colors of lights — all at once. These past two weeks have felt like one big intersection on the fritz, traffic for miles, some sporty high-speed vehicles trying to sneak through, some getting towed.”

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 red lights, yellow lights, green lights and how they apply to her horses.

Say what you will about Matthew McConaughey’s mid-life memoir, but I like the unapologetically simple concept of “Greenlights.” You hit a red (a no/a full stop) or a yellow (a caution/go slow) and then something gives, a door closes, a window opens, an opportunity presents itself and voila, “Greenlight.” One word. Stupidly easy concept. But it is also hope-affirming — if you are “able to get relative,” if you can keep your eyes up and pay attention.

Boomer heads out to work. Photo by Ashley Clarkin.

Greenlights sound great. You get where you’re going at a consistent pace – sail on through, music on full blast (though don’t worry, unlike with McConaughey, there is no naked bongo playing in my story). Horses move up the levels, RRP candidates make forward progress, field trip Fridays go as planned, and students and clients are happy with lessons, training, and clinics.

A very happy Kivu Sporthorses/APGraham Eventing crew at the Big Cheese Eventing show. Photo by Lois Lassiter.

But it is not always that simple; and rarely is it just one thing – one light – at a time. Rather, in the full-time trainer headspace of trying to do my best better, it is often everything — all colors of lights — all at once. These past two weeks have felt like one big intersection on the fritz, traffic for miles, some sporty high-speed vehicles trying to sneak through, some getting towed. I’m always learning. But depending on which stall door I open, I’m also frustrated, anxious, heartbroken, excited, but always persistently, stubbornly hopeful.

If nothing else, these creatures will teach you to multitask… physically and otherwise.

And then there are the times I open a stall door and get this. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

Red light first

Starting here makes sense… Red lights hold everything else up, dash hopes, and crash the “might just speed on through towards the goal” high. Despite always being a significantly challenging ride over fences, Forrest (JC Don’t Noc It; RRP Makeover 2018) was coming along well – so we hedged a little move up from Novice. After running a few 1.0 meter rounds at a local show, I entered a Training CT buoyed by the hopes of that with him, maybe I can eventually make it back out of the lower levels.

Forrest does a decent job clearing things at home. Photo by Kelly Robison.

Five rails later and knocks on most of those left standing, I patted him for the effort and walked out of the ring, crushed. Red light. I misrode the two-stride, no doubt. But there was little spring, no recovery. Wading through embarrassment at maybe moving up too soon – at questioning whether he and or I are good enough — I knew that I some hard thinking to do.

Forrest looked the part in his stall at Poplar – things just didn’t exactly go as planned. Photo by Aubrey Graham

While Forrest has been a core feature of my plan to return to the upper levels, sometimes it takes shitty, disappointing rides like that to “get relative.” The process of realistically weighing talent and ability versus hope patently just sucks. With Forrest, I don’t know. Was it just a bad ride? Maybe (though there is a trend here). Is it his stifles again? Maybe? Is there talent enough to really get somewhere? Maybe not. Am I trying to fit him into a role that is not appropriate? Possibly. So, I shift the car into park. We’re gonna sit at this light and think for a while.

Yellow Light

In the middle “could go either way” zone, there’s Boomer (JC Vanderboom Ridge; 2020 RRP Makeover). Dr. Carter, my vet, came to re-ultrasound his suspensory Monday AM. Since November, Boomer has been incrementally working his way out of his stall, enjoying his small paddock turnout, and getting to stretch his legs with regular trot sets.

Boomer’s trot sets keep getting better as he develops his topline with long, low work. Photo by Lindsey Keegan.

The good news is that at a broad 17.1h, Boomer is ridiculously handsome and just as fancy; he easily rounds over his back, animates his front end, and flicks his toes. The bad news is that his extended trot is likely to be about as high as his front end is going to get. With the suspensory healed, it is good but not perfect. His best shot at a long career is to limit him to lower-level work. The prescription? Dressage through Prix Saint George – just no jumping. Yellow light.

Good thing Boomer doesn’t lack in the dressage-potential category… just ignore the tongue for now. Photo by Ashley Clarkin.

While none of that was a shock, it still sucks. If I’m keeping perspective – I’m willing to bet that Boomer will be relieved to not have to go back to trying not to yard-sale fences. Meanwhile, there are future greenlights blazing away from the camp of “dressage is good for you.” A friend of mine likens dressage to kale, “excellent for you but, ugh, awful” (credit there to Mary Jo Welsh). The way I look at it… I like kale, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt my 3-phase scores to focus more on the sand dancing portion a bit more, either.

So, with Boomer, hope hangs around — doggedly, stubbornly. Given a few parameters to keep his training and his body from going off the wheels, he should be able to flourish. Time to shine up the dressage tack and think about finding him a full-time dressage home after the Makeover in October.

One more gratuitous Boomer dressage pic, cause he’s pretty. Photo by Ashley Clarkin.

Greenlight… maybe?

If I squint hard enough through the mired traffic and emotional haze from Forrest and Boomer, I can just make out a greenlight on the horizon. Rhodie (Western Ridge, RRP 2021 hopeful) gets credit for the future-forward potential it signals. Since the last blog post, where I tried to figure out how to better prioritize my own rides, this kid has moved to the front burner. I sit on him while I teach lessons (two birds, one stone – why didn’t I think of this earlier!?), give him short 20-min rides in the cracks of my crazy schedule and work on incrementally building up his riding acumen both in relation to his wickedly smart brain and seemingly capable body.

Rhodie hacking around at home. Photo by Ashley Clarkin.

His shaggy Kentucky winter’s coat has shed out and he knows that he is hot shit. This punk literally struts around looking for the mares and intentionally blinding the gelding herd with his sheen. There is a good reason he was gelded young.

Hot shot himself – Western Ridge (aka Rhodie). Photo by Aubrey Graham.

And while under saddle his new favorite game is to try to crush me into the arena fencing or run sideways through jumps when refusing my leg … he’s so balanced, so well put together, that I think, maybe just maybe, there might be a whole bunch of talent hidden in the once-shaggy, pony-faced little Thoroughbred. No one said the good things – the talent or the potential – were supposed to come easy.

Rhodie goes xc schooling at Ashland. Photo by Kelly Robison.

It will be a while before I have a good grasp on whether or not he is a true career greenlight, but I like this horse. He taught himself how to quietly get out of the crossties, follows directions just enough to avoid getting in trouble, loves face rubs, and has the most balanced gaits I have ridden on a recent off the track kid. I just hope that as I move through the traffic snagging my heart and goals at the intersection of Forrest and Boomer, that that light is still burning green by the time Rhodie is ready to get out and compete.

Rhodie’s first “real” arena jump, good kid. Photo by Ashley Clarkin.

. . .

Three horses, three different lights – and that’s only three out of a barn of 16. It sometimes feels like someone hung a disco ball in the fritz-ed intersection just to “keep it interesting.” Right now, I might have more answers, more approximate maps to help me take each horse forward, but I also have more hard questions to square with. I have never liked being bored – guess I found the right profession. All of these lights, slow-downs, ultrasounds, snags, rails, and hope-laden paths might not immediately make me the upper-level rider I aspire to be. But they do make me a better rider overall and ultimately, a better horseman. I’ll take it. Greenlight.

Greenlights (and bays). Photo by Greg Lyon.

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.