Not Ready? Do It Anyway: Aubrey & Boomer & Rhodie

“Frankly, I’m not sure that I ever feel ready with anything. I just do it anyway. And I have learned to praise the try, correct the dangerous, and laugh through all the other bucks, bobbles, and learning moments.”

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 being ready with a capital R… or not.

The Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover looms — there is only one month left until go time at the Kentucky Horse Park. This has the trainer forums buzzing. On one hand, folks are showcasing their fit horses and successful competition wins. On the other, the posts are humming with news of injuries, scratches and the doubt surrounding the oh-so-common question: “Are we ready?”

In 2018, while I waited at the Makeover show jumping gate on my most-certainly-not-ready four-year-old, Don’t Noc It (“Forrest”), a woman parted ways with her dark horse in particularly spectacular fashion. After catching the dragon and walking him out of the arena, not one, but probably four people gave her high fives and made comments like, “Man, great seat,”  “I wouldn’t have sat half of that,” or “He certainly has scope and potential – keep at it!” (Did I mention that I adore the community and attitude this show fosters?)

Forrest (JC: Don’t Noc It) during his stadium round at the 2018 Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover. Photo by GRC Photography.

Was that horse truly “Ready” – whatever that might mean? I don’t have a clue. But the pair gave it a shot, picked themselves up, dusted off and at very least, drove home with a good story and bit of homework.

Rhodie (JC Western Ridge, RRP TB Makeover Class of 2021) being a surprisingly photogenic head-banging dragon at his first show outing at Chatt Hills back in March of this year. Ready? Nope. But absolutely worth getting him the experience. Photo by Gracie Storm.

Recently, this notion of “ready” achieved a bit more clarity when one of my adult students asked, “How will I know when I am ready to buy a horse?”

Caught a little off guard, I blundered some response full of metaphors about life, dating, and the like. When I stopped talking in circles, I looked at him and said, “Look, I think there are two main ways to think about it: Either A) you accept that you’ll never truly be ready but you can be excited about the process of learning, or you can B) think you’re perfectly prepared and be surprised by all the things you didn’t plan for.” Sure, you need to be realistic, have some form of financial and physical foundation, but the unplanned aspects of the process are part of the ride — hell, sometimes they are the best bits. You just have to dive in and find out.

My logic about being “ready” and buying horses is great until you realize that it also rationalizes acquiring ALL the horses. Meet Mountain Holiday, my new rehab horse. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

As it turns out, my life philosophy, and that idea of “Ready” with a capital R are not always super compatible. I mean, if I waited until I was perfectly prepared to quit academia and set out on my own in the horse training world, I would still be sitting in faculty meetings and grading papers. If I waited for a sign to know I was fully ready to put myself back out there and date, I wouldn’t have spent Sunday night floating in a kayak under the brightest view of the Milky Way I have seen in ages.

It is all the same with horses. If I expected to win at every show by only taking perfectly ready mounts, I would be perpetually disappointed in the try-filled performances of my super green kids. Worse, I might even be too afraid of not being “well-enough-prepared” to even take them off property. My local show rounds sometimes sound like a supportive comedy club from the rail, but these horses get out there and get experience, and with them, so do I.

Getting the greenies out and about before they’re perfectly ready is part of the process. Artus Court (owned by Stacy Tollison) surprised everyone with his ridability at his first outing at a Big Cheese Eventing Jumper Show at Ashland Farms. Photo by Jennifer Vickers Kelly.

Frankly, I’m not sure that I ever feel ready with anything. I just do it anyway. And I have learned to praise the try, correct the dangerous, and laugh through all the other bucks, bobbles, and learning moments.

Crafty spooking at his shadow back in May. Photo by Kelly Robison.

Crafty (Crafty Charger, RRP Grad 2019), makes a great example of not-quite ready, but so much fun. He is by far one of the most challenging rides in my barn. But the steps forward are so worth the work. Last month, I took him to a Big Cheese Jumper show at Ashland Farms and ran him in the Novice classes. He was legged up, but he is still “looky” and challenging.

Were we ready? Kinda. Ready with that capital R? Nope.

Crafty jumping around a Novice course at the Big Cheese Evening Jumper Show last month. Photo by Alexa Wegner.

He struggle-bussed past the judge’s box and peeked over his neon green shadow roll at a few fences. Hell, I started the second round by rolling my eyes at him and saying, “You’re lucky I like you.” I do, though… a lot. And he went on to jump better than he has with me. The stupid grin on my face throughout the ride made it all clear. I am still over the moon at his level of try and effort. And that counts for a lot more than ready perfection.

It’s almost embarrassing to be this thrilled with a horse while competing. Photo by Alexa Wegner.

When my students tell me that they don’t feel ready for the next height, next show, next outing, I take a hard look at their foundation, and unless the idea seems crazy dangerous or irresponsible, usually, I tell them to do it anyway (and then help them to prepare). I can’t properly put it in words at how proud of them I am when they shock themselves with both the joy of the process, and with what they can do when they thought that they were miles from ready and able.

Amanda Woomer and Ranger (JC: Cowboy Night, RRP TB Makeover class of 2020) knocked it out of the park at my clinic at Ashland Farms this past weekend.

So, along this vein, am I ready for the Makeover? Ha! Absolutely not. But I am one-hundred percent going anyway, and I cannot wait. Oh, and in fact, I now have four, not just three horses to be preparing into the home stretch: Rhodie (Western Ridge, 2021 class, Eventing and Show Jumping), Boomer (Vanderboom Ridge, 2020 class, Dressage), Ranger (Cowboy Night, 2020 Class, Dressage and Eventing), and now Indy (Star Player, 2021 Kivu-Pine View Team horse in Eventing and Show Jumping). AND I get the amazing honor of teaching a Master Class on assessing and starting a fresh-off-track Thoroughbred on that Friday. Folks, the Makeover is going to be busy – ice down those end-of-day drinks!

Indy, (JC Star Player) was stellar for his first BN three-phase at Poplar Place Farm last month. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

Rhodie (JC Western Ridge, RRP 2021 class) has been a rollercoaster ride. Recently, huge training strides forward were met with field injuries which set us back 10 days of training. I’m pretty sure I have my next upper-level horse embodied in this small bay package. As such, I’m not pushing it. The Makeover will certainly not the be capstone of his career, but it will be an excellent test of the horse I have now; it will take the temperature of how he handles travel, new stadium and XC settings, and how well he can keep his cool in the huge atmosphere of the Rolex arena.

Rhodie (Western Ridge) being a beast on XC at Poplar Place Farm last month. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

In all three phases, I expect that Rhodie will have moments of brilliance. I also anticipate that he will showcase his small bay dragon self. Likely, he will exhibit both and I’ll just have to ride the horse I have that day… er… that second. I will be there hoping that the foundation I have built over the past 10 months shows through and provides a platform from which to not only perform, but from which to springboard into a stronger, smarter, better future.

Last month at Poplar, Boomer (JC Vanderboom Ridge) got to play in the big dressage arena for the first time, and despite my concerns about his canter departures, he was awesome. Photo by Amanda Woomer.

Boomer is in the same boat – he is somewhat, kinda, sorta, not really ready. I hauled him out to another show at Poplar Place Farm, and we found our way through our Training Level One and Two tests. He had lovely movements and received super nice comments from the judges. That said, his tongue still wagged, and his hind end was a bit sore. After racing 49 times and retiring as an eight-year-old, some maintenance certainly doesn’t hurt. I gave him a week off and injected his hocks and stifles, hoping to improve both the hind end and through that, his tongue antics. Boomer will go back to work today, and somewhere between now and the Makeover, hopefully, I will better learn my tests and come up with a plan for my freestyle dressage pattern.

The cousins, Rhodie and Boomer at Poplar. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

Overall, I have high hopes for all four of these guys. Are any of them truly “Ready” with that damn capital R? Nope. But am I excited about the process, the insanity of getting them to the Horse Park and of riding through the highs and lows that inevitably will come? Hell yeah.

We might not be Ready, but we’re diving in anyway. So, as one of my favorite millennials would say, “Run it.” We’re coming for you Kentucky!

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.