Slow Progress Is Better Than No Progress: Michelle and Peewee

“I have always loved the quote ‘slow progress is better than no progress,’ but I find it applicable now more than ever as it captures my journey with Peewee thus far.”

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, blogger Michelle Michael discusses moving forward and reaching milestone… even if it’s at a slower pace than she thought. 

Since my last update in June, Peewee (JC Change of Venue) and I have continued to chip away at the slow and steady climb of finding our stride and putting the pieces together. Still living by the “stay in your lane” mantra, I am happy to report that these small steps are starting to add up, and we have tackled numerous firsts this month.

Over the past month, both my Makeover hopefuls and I have been settling into new routines. My husband and I are now balancing our own farm and all of the work that comes with it, in addition to full time careers and preparing two horses for the Makeover. As I’m sure others can relate, there are days when after feeding, cleaning stalls and turning everyone out, it’s hard to find the motivation to ride. We have also had an incredibly hot and stormy summer in New Jersey, which means riding early in the morning before work or later in the day after work. The goal of competing in the Makeover, in conjunction with the supportive community around it, has been a great motivator that has kept me going.

This motivation has helped us through these practical realities of daily life and has led us to our month of firsts. I have always loved the quote “slow progress is better than no progress,” but I find it applicable now more than ever as it captures my journey with Peewee thus far. As I touched upon in my last post, I thought we would be further along in our training by now. For a while, I felt like we were caught in a dance of one step forward and two steps back. While some days are certainly better than others, it feels like we are now consistently entering the territory of taking more steps forward than we are back. We have recently tackled our first off property schooling, our first horse show, and our first off property lesson at a facility he had never been to before.

Peewee at his first off-property schooling at Nearaway Farm. Photo by Andrew Michael.

We spent most of June working at home on further developing Peewee’s basics. Unlike my 2020 hopeful, Sadie, who can go weeks without being ridden and come out as the same horse, Peewee thrives on consistency and does best in a 5-6 day per week program. He, like most other greenies, can be tense at times. This of course is by no fault of his own and is a byproduct of how hard he tries to please and learn new things. It’s on me as a rider to figure out how to better set him up for success –something I am working on every day.

In this regard, one of the most game changing additions to our training has been getting out of the ring. Getting him out hacking around the farm and trails on “loose rein” walks has made a huge difference in his overall relaxation. I try to start and finish our rides with a hack around the farm and dedicate one day per week exclusively to riding out of the ring to let him clear his head and do something fun and stimulating. We have since taken to incorporating trot and canter sets around the farm into our routine, and I have seen a huge difference in the simple act of just letting him move forward freely and relaxed outside of the ring.

Peewee doing trot sets outside the ring while schooling at home. Photo by Andrew Michael.

I am pleased to report that he is happy to go out alone or with company, and he has encountered deer (took some getting used to and we have certainly had a few aerial moments), wild turkeys, farm equipment and other horses with confidence. This seemingly small feat has really taught me that not all victories happen in the ring, and I am proud of the versatile horse he is developing into.

“Through the ears” on a loose rein hack around the farm. Photo by Michelle Michael.

As Peewee’s confidence builds, we are starting to experience more “aha” moments. The right lead canter has been our nemesis since we started cantering consistently in March. After medical evaluation to rule out any underlying pain or physiological reason for the issues, it was determined that this was a conditioning and balance issue. We spent a great deal of time this spring working on his trot to the right and building up his strength. Getting the right lead canter at first was a challenge, to say the least.

In the beginning, once we got the lead, we were only able to maintain it for half a circle at most before we would go back to the trot to avoid being strung out. While in reality it was a long and slow build, it felt like one day his canter really started to click and over the past month he has started to become more balanced and consistent in his transitions. If someone told me back in March that his canter would be where it is, I would not have believed them. We have a ton of work ahead of us still, but he there’s nothing more rewarding than when the little steps add up.

Working on Peewee’s right lead canter transitions. Photo by Andrew Michael.

By mid-June, after spending the spring and first part of summer schooling at home, the thoughts of “we only have 3.5 months until the Makeover!” kept entering my mind. At times I felt (as I’m sure others have, too) as though we are not far enough or will not be where we need to be in time. That’s when I’m reminded to take a step back and remember that this is fun, we are all doing this for the love of Thoroughbreds, and you can only go as fast as your horse’s timeline will allow.

With that, we made our first off property schooling adventure a very low key trip to a friend’s farm. This outing was more or less just a “let’s see how he will be” venture, with the exclusive goal of simply getting him somewhere.  He turned out to be a rock star and came off the trailer unfazed by anything, schooled in an indoor arena, outdoor grass arena and even went on a short trail ride. We were fortunate to be accompanied on the trails by my friend Sarah and her seasoned OTTB, Wizard, who was a great babysitter for Peewee. It was a great confidence building first outing for both of us.

Peewee at his first off-property field trip. Photo by Andrew Michael.

While we have taken things slow, Peewee is starting to find his stride and confidence over fences. Over the past few months, we have gone from exclusively schooling over tiny cross rails and ground poles to tackling tiny gymnastics and fences with various fillers. At 17.2 hands, he sometimes feels a bit like riding a daddy long legs and started off a bit wonky as he figured things out.  However, he has proven himself to be quite brave, has surprised me with his scope and is slowly figuring out what to do with those long legs of his.

Peewee schooling over a gymnastic at home. Photo by Andrew Michael.

Peewee showing off his scope in his first vertical fence. Photo by Andrew Michael.

With that momentum, we entered our first horse show at the end of June. Once again, the goal for this show was to go in with zero expectations. We went to a local schooling show and entered the Thoroughbred Cross-Rail Hunter division. As I had really no idea what to expect, we got to the show very early. He was a little “up” upon unloading with all the horse trailers and new sights, so we took our time, walked around and found a quiet ring to hand walk and longe. To my pleasant surprise, he was pretty unfazed by it all.

After settling in, he headed into the schooling ring and handled the experience of having numerous rings going off around him with more ease than I expected. He popped over everything I pointed him at, with different fillers that he had never seen before. He was a little nervous at first but kept his attention on me when I asked him to leg yield and keep his feet moving. This tiny victory of him applying the tools we had worked on at home all winter and spring in a new environment was so rewarding.  In yet another “off track Thoroughbreds really are the best” moment, Peewee could not have cared less about a firetruck watering the ring. It really is the little victories that count when training a young horse.

He took this same game attitude into his classes. In his two cross-rail over fences classes, he was a bit nervous and tense. As the in-gate closed behind him for his first over fences class, he did a little shuffle (you know, for added flair), but settled right in and did everything asked of him as best he could. He was equally even-keeled in the under saddle class, and even picked up his right lead canter. Again – one of those things that I would say “yea right,” if you told me this would happen three months ago. He won the blue (admittedly with only two horses in the class, but keeping his brain together and getting that lead was better than any ribbon he could have won). For his very first horse show, he could not have been any better and I am so proud of him.

Peewee in an under saddle class at his first horse show at Delaware Valley Horseman’s Association. Photo by Andrew Michael.

Peewee with his very first blue ribbon. Photo by Andrew Michael.

In yet another first, Peewee also handled his recent field trip to lesson at a local show barn with confidence. He once again surpassed my expectations and was very level-headed about another new experience. I was given my homework and we are working on further improving his basics. 

Peewee at an off property filed trip for a lesson at Golden Gait Farm. Photo by Andrew Michael.

I cannot believe it is July already and this year has flown by. I catch myself having tiny moments of panic, but also excitement, as I realize just how close the Makeover is, and have to rein myself back in. However, at the end of the day, Peewee is a forever horse and I know that the Makeover is just the start for him. This experience has reignited my passion for working with young horses, and the supportive community around the Retired Racehorse Project really makes this such a fun experience. Moving forward, our goal for the rest of the summer is to continue to have more confidence building outings, and to get to more horse shows in August and September with both Peewee and my 2020 hopeful, Sadie. I look forward to continuing to share their journeys!

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.