The RRP MegaMakeover and All the Overwhelming Gratitude

“I was (and remain) so overwhelmed with gratitude and love for those creatures, both two and four legged, that I could burst.”

On Thursday night at the Retired Racehorse Project’s MegaMakeover, Rhodie (JC Western Ridge) grazed quietly, Amanda had Ranger (JC Cowboy Night) in hand, Chad handled Boomer (JC Vanderboom Ridge) and Alexa wandered with Indy (JC Star Player). The light was stunning. The horses were happy and after three days of non-stop high-speed competition, surprisingly, so were the people. I was (and remain) so overwhelmed with gratitude and love for those creatures, both two and four legged, that I could burst.

Enjoying a beautiful evening with the on-site team (not featured: Erica Brown) at the Retired Racehorse Project’s MegaMakeover at the Kentucky Horse Park. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

It feels strange to close what has become a chapter not only of these horses’ training, but also of my life. I started blogging about the Makeover in early 2020. At that point, my training business was still just starting to come into its own. Covid-19 didn’t help get it going, neither did the multiple suspensory injuries, nor did a relationship that upended trust, balance and sanity. Throughout, the Makeover provided a constant goal – a glimmering reminder of why I do what I do. Some days, the idea of getting to the Kentucky Horse Park and laying down respectable rounds sat just over the next small hill… other days, it lay beyond mountains.

Amanda, Chad and Erica tidy Ranger up before he heads into the Rolex Arena. Photo by Alexa Gruen Wegner.

In the last 12 months, I have listened to a lot of Ira Wolf, ridden innumerable horses and, through it all, became ever-more relentlessly myself (for better or worse depending on who you ask…). I have equally become more firmly committed to training Thoroughbreds for second careers and turning this barn into the land of (very happy) misfit toys. In attempting to create friendly, goofy, talented horses, I have incidentally set a platform for folks to self-selectingly stick around — and those who have are freakin’ awesome.

Rhodie, Mountain and the Hippo (yes, we make strange horses here):

Sure, they show together, ride together, and spend time over drinks at the barn in the evening. But this team also goes well above and beyond. They clogged up the Makeover Master Class live feed with comically positive feedback to my training and busted their asses grooming for me at the RRP.

At home, they self-organized to pitch in for my birthday, signed a creepy-as-hell card, and not only held the barn together while I traveled for the last week, but also surprised me by deep cleaning the feed room, scraping the dirt aisle, de-cobwebbing, and completing all numbers of small improvements. I don’t have pictures, let alone before and afters, but suffice to say, it is impressive.

Indy and his pit crew at the RRP’s MegaMakeover. Photo by Alexa Gruen Wegner.

I rolled through my gates on Sunday evening, tired, wrecked from my allergies, and generally just done, only to find my barn a million-times nicer than I had left it. Add to that that my broken-down Subaru was running, and I had dinner, flowers, and wine waiting. Somewhere in all the sprinting and all the “trying to figure it out,” I guess I have been doing at least a few thing right. The last two weeks of realizing this has been — to say the least — overwhelming.

The horses continued this trend at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Boomer, Rhodie, and Ranger pose on their last morning at the Kentucky Horse Park. Photo by Alexa Gruen Wegner.

On Friday of last week, it was starting to rain, but I walked the boys out to go graze for a bit anyway. Walker trotted along to my left and the three Thoroughbreds walked quietly on loose lead ropes. The 20-something at the end of barn 18 stopped cleaning her tack to squint at us. I wasn’t sure what she was going to comment, but “Damn, that’s impressive,” was a welcomed surprise.

None of them needed a chain. None of them needed to be the only horse I handled. None of them jerked on the line. And that was because at home, none of them do those things either. These boys impressed the hell out of me, as they took the huge KYHP environment just like they take nearly every normal day.

Boomer warms up for his Rolex dressage debut at the Kentucky Horse Park. Photo by Alexa Gruen Wegner.

In fact, in the Rolex arena – a first for grandstands, for the electric atmosphere, for the ramp down — they all respectively laid down the best tests of their lives. Ranger sat in the top ten with a 71.9 for the first two days of dressage competition, finishing just outside the ribbons in 12th. Boomer pulled a 67.76 and kept his long legs under him the entire time, and Rhodie completed the dressage phase of his Eventing effort with a 30.7.

Ranger trots down the center line in the Rolex Arena. Photo by Alexa Gruen Wegner.

Were there bobbles? Sure. Do we all have directions to push forward for growth? Absolutely. But am I thrilled with how they handled themselves and performed? 100%.

Ranger tackles all of XC like he had been doing it all year… hint… he hadn’t. Photo by Alexa Gruen Wegner.

Hell, Ranger came up with a giant corneal ulcer three weeks before the Makeover and we nearly scratched. He missed all recent BN cross country schooling opportunities and had not been inside a dressage ring in, oh… I don’t know… a year? And yet that goofy white-faced bay came out bold and took all the jumps like he had been doing this every week. Bank, ditch, water, brush, open gallop? No problem.

Indy blasts out of the water and heads bravely to the brush. Photo by Chad Adams.

I had the pleasure of running that cross-country course three times this past week. And I’m going to sound like a broken record, but damn, that was fun. Indy (JC Star Player shown as a team with the stellar, Erica Brown) has really come into his own recently and absolutely rocked the course. His “show gallop” had two more gears and we were already cruising. The former-Olympian judge’s comments exclaimed, “I’ll take him!” Dorothy Crowell, we might just have to duke it out – that is one cool horse. And with Erica’s dressage effort and my rides in Stadium and XC, Indy pulled out the Top Team Score of the 2021 Eventing horses.

Erica Brown and I pose with Indy (JC Star Player) and his 2021 Top Team Eventing Horse ribbon. Photo by Alexa Gruen Wegner.

Rhodie put his best effort out there, but some tightness in his hind end pulled the bascule out of his jump. Despite a modified (read: flat) form over fences, he bravely faced stadium and cross country without missing a beat. A rail in stadium kept us out of the ribbons, but his quiet focus made me one hell of a proud trainer. This pocket dragon has such a bright future, I cannot wait to give him a little down time and then see where we can go. There are certainly goals that include *s in his future.

Rhodie opens up for the “show gallop” portion of the xc course. Photo by Canter Clix.

At this point, I need to pause to throw an enormous “congratulations” to all competitors, especially the finalists (what amazing rides!) and an insurmountably big “THANK YOU” to all the RRP show organizers, stewards, judges, volunteers, and helpers that made this last week’s competition possible. You guys rock.

And then there was one of my other favorite parts of the Makeover for which I am enormously grateful, where race connections get to come and visit with their horses. Boomer’s former race trainer Bryan Brunell had found these blogs a while back and traveled from the mid-west to watch dressage for the first time. Laura Newell, one of my beloved connections with Winchester Place Thoroughbreds, brought her family to visit and spectate too. I can only hope that they were as pleased with the overwhelming class that their former race-horses exhibited as I was.

Boomer snuggles with his former race connections, Laura Newell and her son Aiden. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

To bring it all full circle, on Sunday morning, after the last of my crew had hit the road, I loaded the two Winchester horses and drove them to their former race farm. There, I added one more “Ridge” horse to the collection. Arctic Ridge, a pint-sized 15.2h 3-year old half-brother to the 17.1h Vanderboon Ridge, hopped into the trailer box. In so doing, began his life of learning how to be an event horse. He might be little, but as with everything and everyone recently, I’m already impressed. Here’s hoping he rocks around the 2022 Makeover.

Arctic Ridge (forelock full of cockle burrs and all) begins his journey into the world of eventing. Photo by Aubrey Graham.

So now, as I settle back into the busy swing of things at home, I get to look around at the horses, the team, and the business that have grown in the past two plus years and appreciate not only how far we have come, but also how exciting the road ahead remains. So kick on, folks, the future is ridiculously bright.

Rhodie and Indy hack into the sunrise at the Kentucky Horse Park. I have a feeling these two talented goobers will be back here in no time… Photo by Aubrey Graham