“My two horses … could not be more different. Sadie has a distinct go button and is game to try just about anything… Peewee … requires a more forward and direct ride. They are a pretty good representation of the saying ‘you tell a gelding, ask a mare.'”
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 getting two horses prepared for the Makeover.
We are now in the final countdown to the Thoroughbred Makeover. As I write this, I cannot believe that the Makeover is just 37 short days away. Scanning the Makeover Trainer’s Facebook group, I see many agonizing over the question of “are we ready?” I, too, have found myself in this boat, and it is nice to know I’m not alone. Preparing for the Makeover is a tall order, and the timeline is a tight one. I admittedly do not feel as “ready” as I wanted to. However, the supportive community the RRP creates is like no other in the equestrian community and has inspired me to continue thorough this journey.
Balancing the training of two horses preparing for the Makeover has been an enlightening experience. My two horses – class of 2020 hopeful Sadie’s Magic and 2021 hopeful Change of Venue (“Peewee”) — could not be more different. Sadie has a distinct go button and is game to try just about anything. She is on the more sensitive side, and if you merely think “go,” she goes. Peewee, on the other hand, while an eager-to-please type horse, requires a more forward and direct ride. They are a pretty good representation of the saying “you tell a gelding, ask a mare.”
Working with these two very different horses has instilled that there is no “one size fits all approach” when it comes to transitioning horses into their second careers. While this may seem like an obvious statement, living it with two different horses and trying to “plan” for a large event such as the Makeover has caused this simple fact to hit me like a ton of bricks. Sure, I can plan and set out a tentative show schedule (which, in reality, is more of a wish list), but at the end of the day, it’s up to the horses and how they are feeling. We, as trainers, are all on our horse’s timelines.
Since my last update in July, both horses have spent the summer working on fine tuning at home and shipping out locally for lessons. It has been a hot and stormy summer in New Jersey, which has meant riding early in the morning to beat the heat or later in the day. This has taken a hit on both my riding and showing time. Some shows have been cancelled due to storms, and some days have been simply too hot to ride.
While I’d love to say the weather is the only reason we do not have more show miles under our belts, the honest truth for me and Peewee is that we just needed more time. I have had to manage my own expectations and let the horses dictate what we do and when. Whereas Sadie was showing over fences by last June in preparation for the 2020 Makeover, Peewee has shown me that he needs more time.
Peewee is forward thinking and wants so badly to do the right thing. A consequence of his eager-to-please nature is that he does not understand the question being asked and he can sometimes become tense and frustrated. He possesses a tremendous amount of talent and capability and is one of the best horses I’ve ever worked with. The last thing I want to do is rush his training and wind up with gaps that will cause problems down the road. As a reality of our situation, we have had to focus on taking smaller steps to our larger goals.
We have hit pause this summer and stuck with the basics, focusing on taking baby steps. This is not fancy or exciting work, but I have seen such improvement with him, even if it’s just at home. We have spent our time working on transitions, getting stronger and more balanced, working over cavalettis, doing trot and canter sets in the field and whatever he needs on that particular day.
Just when our progress feels stagnant (which, believe me, has been the case most of the time), a light bulb will go off, something will click, and he will progress so much faster than I intended. It really is amazing what Thoroughbreds are capable of and how much they want to please. Back in May, Peewee could not hold the right lead canter, and the act of picking up the right lead would result in some level of theatrics. After ruling out pain and providing chiropractic support, we spent a lot of time focusing on getting stronger to the right.
Interestingly, now his right lead canter is the better lead and he has become much more balanced and consistent with it. He recently has started cantering fences more consistently and more balanced and is proving to be honest and scopey. While he still prefers to land left and we have a long way to go, I am proud of how far he has come in a short period of time. We will finally be heading to horse shows this month in order to get some miles under our belt prior to the Makeover.
As a result of Peewee having fewer miles over fences than I anticipated, I have been forced to pivot and reevaluate my Makeover disciplines. I originally intended on competing Peewee in show hunters and show jumpers, however I believe that at this point in his training, the difficult questions asked on a jumper course would simply be too much for him and he’s just not ready for it. Could he make it over a jumper course? Sure. But at what cost? At the end of the day, it’s just not worth frying his brain. With this, I have decided that he will compete in dressage, and provided that he is ready, show hunters as well.
My decision to compete him in dressage by no means comes from a place of thinking it’s “easier.” Quite the opposite. This will be a difficult task, for me in particular, having grown up primarily as a hunter/jumper rider. However, at this time, Peewee needs more time on his foundational flat work as an investment in his long-term potential and I believe this is what is best for him. After all, dressage literally translates to “training,” which is what we both need. So, we will be giving dressage a try, taking lessons, and getting to as many shows as we can before we (hopefully) make that trot down the center line of the Rolex arena.
The challenges of preparing for the Makeover make it easy to dwell on goals and where you think you should be. In documenting Peewee’s Makeover journey, I spent time looking back on just how far Peewee has come in the past nine months of our training. Looking at old pictures and videos and seeing all of the muscle he has put on, and the balance he has gained under saddle, has shown me that success is not measured in ribbons. One of the best parts of participating in the Makeover is watching these horses transform from racehorse to sport horse. After putting time and energy into his nutrition plan and conditioning, seeing him shiny and happy in the field is rewarding in and of itself.
Whereas Peewee is just finding his groove, Sadie recently celebrated two years since her last race. In that time, she has shown, fox hunted, and trail ridden all over (even the beach). Balancing the training of two horses, a full time career, and my own farm, has led to guilt at times that Sadie’s training has been overshadowed by trying to get Peewee ready for the Makeover and at times… life simply getting in the way. Sadie has been a willing partner even on days when I don’t get to ride her until later in the day after a full day at work and working with Peewee.
I originally had Sadie signed up to compete in show hunters and show jumpers. However, as her training has progressed, I made the decision to change her disciplines, and declared her primary discipline as show jumpers as I see this being an area she will excel in long term. She is gritty and tough and tries her heart out. For her, our biggest challenge has been slowing down her brain. She is so eager to please and wants to go, but this has presented the challenge of getting her to relax.
For as good as Sadie has been, we also have our rough spots. Her training recently took a hit following a week of rain and unbearable heat. Finding the time and weather cooperation to ride two horses was difficult. Fortunately, even her “bad days” are relative, and she works down and by mid-way through our rides, she is a different horse. With any luck, we will continue to build consistency over the next few weeks and get back in the show ring throughout the month of September.
Sadie posing after a bath on a hot day. Photo by Michelle Michael. As we look ahead to the Makeover, I am admittedly not as far along as I thought I would be. The Makeover is an incredible event and is a goal that has motivated my riding this year. With that said, I am guilty of dwelling on this single event and putting pressure on myself to have a “finished product” of a horse(s) by then. In reality, looking at the bigger picture, all of the trainers who have made it this far have accomplished something great by taking on the challenge and helping their horse to find his/her new life after racing. Measuring a singular event by the event itself does not give sufficient credit to all of the hard work that it took to get there. I will continue to prepare my horses and if they’re ready, they will compete. At the end of the day, this is just the start of what I hope will be long competitive careers for both of them. The Makeover is an amazing event and opportunity, but it is just the start for these horses.
Michelle Michael lives in New Jersey with her husband, Andrew, four thoroughbreds, three dogs, and four cats. She is currently 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. Michelle and her husband also own and operate Emerald Pines Farm, where she hopes to one day focus on transitioning off-track Thoroughbreds to their second careers. She chronicles her riding journey on her Instagram page: “three_bay_thoroughbreds.”