When It Isn’t Easy: Aubrey & Boomer

“There’re no shortage of new things to learn in the land of ‘not easy.’ Just when you get good at one part – there’s more to discover. It’s not all just hard work, long days, and riding out the bucks. Sometimes, it seems, learning is also produced through the hard decisions we have to make.”

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 continuing to move forward when the going gets tough.

Horses aren’t easy. But then again, I suppose no one ever claimed that they were.

To be fair, I’m certain that the constant challenge is part of the appeal. I mean hell, when I had any corner of the world to choose for my anthropology research, I chose Goma – a Congolese city full of amazing people, but wedged between a lake with literally explosive potential, a smoldering volcano, and well over 60 active rebel groups. Easy has never been part of my chosen vocabulary.

Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo by night. Photo Credit by Aubrey Graham.

With 16-stalls mostly full of young Thoroughbreds, I have gotten good at certain parts of that “not easy”: the long days, the tough rides, and the cha-cha of [two] steps forward then [one] back. And in that rhythm, when it’s impossible to sneak in the proverbial “two steps forward,” I have come to enjoy slowly extending the stride of a single forward footfall until there’s progress – it may be progress only in inches, but hey, that’s forward all the same.

Pre-stone bruise, Boomer had been enjoying getting to hack out and go back to work. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

Boomer (JC Vanderboom Ridge, RRP 2020 hopeful) is a prime case of this rhythmic shuffle. He had left the stall-rest-and-small-turnout doldrums behind and was gaining strides and muscle during his 4x a week rides. Then, a recent stone bruise set us back. While it isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, losing those few weeks of work while his foot healed stalled the excited momentum of entering dressage-land. I scratched his entry to his first show and turned him back out. Forward, then back… wait again… re-engage the hope-laden feeling of stasis.

Boomer seems to understand “stay” and hangs out while I fetch a piece of tack in the barn. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

You’d think by now I’d be good at this.

But there’re no shortage of new things to learn in the land of “not easy.” Just when you get good at one part – there’s more to discover. It’s not all just hard work, long days, and riding out the bucks. Sometimes, it seems, learning is also produced through the hard decisions we have to make.

El Scorcho (owned by Alexa Wegner) has some good moves. These bucks I can do. Photo by Alexa Wegner.

After weeks of not being able to lesson because my main competition horse, Forrest (JC Don’t Noc It; RRP TB Makeover Grad 2018) remained off, I chatted with my coach about my next move. To paraphrase, the conversation went something like this:

“I hate not lessoning, I feel like my learning has come to a halt.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, girl,” he countered, “You’re learning about decisions, and where you want to go. These hard decisions are teaching you to be a better horseman. That is how you get to the upper levels. I know you love him, but he simply doesn’t have that potential.”

I chatted with my vet (who concurred); I sat quietly with myself and a few glasses of whiskey. And then, slowly wrapping my head around the reality, owing to soundness and talent issues, I pulled Forrest from the front burner. As I turned him out, I kissed his forehead and dragged my upper level dreams from his fit shoulders.

Forrest chilling in the field. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

Juice (JC Pulpituity, RRP TB Makeover 2019 Grad), like Forrest, can’t win for losing. With 10-months of stall rest, shock wave, multiple stem-cell treatments, injections, and all the slow, proper rehab, I had high hopes that this loveable ball-cap-stealing redhead could at least do lower level eventing. When I leased him out to one of my students, we knew that he was going to do one of two simple things: either get better or get worse. The first months showed potential… I held my breath.

Out at a cross country clinic, Juice took Erin Oquindo for a serious ride over fences. The last time he had been there, we were schooling prelim under Lucinda Green’s direction. This time, he treated the amoeba fences the same – leaping like a moose over a toothpick. Maybe he still had it in him… in his suspensory. Ride the horse, not the x-ray (er… ultrasound), right?

Juice and Erin take on the Amoeba fences at Ashland Farms during one of my xc clinics. Photo by Katie Stewart.

But he deteriorated. Hocks caved, muscles took strain where ligaments weren’t strong enough for soundness. Walk, just walk. I called off the lease and after a long night spent curled up at his feet in his stall, I messaged his breeder. Juice needs a retirement home where he can wander and grow fat on excellent grass with a herd of other goofy Thoroughbreds. Cathy Gulick Sanders can offer him that, and I’m ever grateful and in her debt for her care and responsibility in this sport.

Still one of my favorite photos of Juice. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

My wild, redheaded goobers (Juice and Forrest) have held so much potential – and I have learned so much from loving them, training them, and letting them heal. Now they are teaching me how to make the right decisions, do well by them, and stop fighting the reality their bodies present. It is “not easy.” It is also, by definition, utterly heartbreaking.

Throwback to that one time in 2019, when I had Juice and Forrest at the same show. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Graham.

While I travel through these days gutted that I cannot magically repair ligaments or improve talent or tighten stifles, I am struck by the fact that I still have hope. I’m not willing to give up on this horse-forward life – far from ready to throw in the towel on this version of “not easy.”

And in that perhaps-almost-rebellious space of not capitulating to the sadness bound to my chestnut geldings, I can’t help but notice the quality of my small bay TB Makeover hopeful who is making strides in all the right ways. Rhodie (JC Western Ridge; RRP TB Makeover 2021 hopeful) is handsome, but he isn’t big or particularly remarkable on the ground. That said, toss some tack on him and ask him to move, and his balanced confidence turns all the right heads.

Rhodie at the Big Cheese Eventing Jumper show this past weekend after a winning round. Photo by Kathy Sweat Schultz.

While not without meltdowns or protests, Rhodie won his first Tadpole 3-phase at Poplar Place and put in stellar rounds at his first 2’6” jumper show. He is brave, learns as fast as I throw things at him (which I try not to do too quickly) and shows clear promise. Maybe, just maybe, he might have potential for an upper level career. Maybe he’s the horse to get me there.

Another good pic of Rhodie at the Big Cheese Eventing Jumper show this past weekend after a winning round. Photo by Kathy Sweat Schultz.

And there’s that “maybe” again. That hope. That risk of heartbreak and the chance for success all embodied in a 1200lb creature. And so, I grab the thread of potential and head-on the “not easy.” I mentally put Rhodie on the front burner and walk back out into the barn and get to work. The usual parts of “not easy” need tending to too – because there are bills to pay, bucks to ride out (and lovely well behaved horses to ride, too) and only so many hours in a day.

As a parting thought, I guess if I expected the full time horse world to be easy, I wouldn’t have named my stable “Kivu” after the Congolese provinces where I learned to embrace the duality of the beauty and the mess – heartbreak and hope. So now to push on, extend that single forward step and hope that overtime, it creeps out beyond the reverses, stalls, and wrong turns, creating a forward, even when frankly, it is just damn hard.

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.