Thoroughbred Logic: Choosing Their Job

“There is logic there… The logic is that a happy horse who is matched with a job that it can successfully do will also keep the humans who pay its bills happy. And with that, the horse will have a better shot of long-term quality care in each of its future homes.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey shares her logic on finding the right job for her resale horses.

One of the most fun things about running a retraining and sales facility is that I get to help these horse start down new career paths. In some ways, that makes me feel a bit like a glorified guidance counselor.

I think in high school (way back when) we were required to chat with the counselors and take some standardized tests that would assess intelligence, critical thinking, proclivities for the sciences, arts or humanities and maybe even social skills. The results of the combination of the filled-in-bubbles then pointed you towards a goal somewhere between trash picker upper and rocket scientist. I am sitting here racking my brain trying to remember if those bubble-in answer tests or awkward conversations ever aimed to also figure out what would make us happy. Maybe… But I don’t think any of them figured I’d be retraining Thoroughbreds.

Laura Newell and I wrangling just a few of the horses that I have had through from Winchester Place Thoroughbreds. Photo by Kelly Robison.

When it comes to the horses that show up here — either fresh off the track or coming in for sale or training — I try to do a better version of the above. I aim to assess them both in terms of their aptitude and their desire — you know, the things that make them happy. Then they get directed out into the world as anything from an upper-level event or jumper prospect to a fox hunt horse to a 4-H mount, family all-arounder, show hunter, lower-level eventer, dressage diva, or lesson horse, etc..

And while I think that the path I point them down (aka advertise them as) is not the only one they could do and do well, I try to get the rocks to roll in a direction that will keep them happy. Because just because they can do something doesn’t mean they want to. There is logic there, not just hippy-dippy “I love these horses” stuff. The logic is that a happy horse who is matched with a job that it can successfully do will also keep the humans who pay its bills happy. And with that, the horse will have a better shot of long-term quality care in each of its future homes.

Lad (Megan’s Lad) owned by Jennifer Vickers Kelly is here figuring out what he wants to do with his life. I’m pretty partial to this guy and excited to see what he can do. Photo by Greta Colley.

The inverse perhaps makes this clearer: If I point a high-power, super-smart but anxious UL type out into the world as an easy-going kid’s horse, here’s what might happen: Maybe a parent purchases the horse, the horse then runs off with the kiddo or picks up bad habits. The horse is then sold to someone else who claims to be able to wrangle horses with “bad habits”. Perhaps pain and fear get introduced to training, the horse becomes worse, and is sold again/given away. And in a relatively short period of time, this horse’s future is cut pretty short.

Curry (Curlin Lane) has been a tricky resale who, while talented, is sensitive and takes a long time to trust. He’ll need a long-term home who is willing to take the time with him, but I’m certain he’ll worth it and I’m happy to be along for the ride. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Looked at this way, resellers are gatekeepers. We certainly cannot control the horse’s future, but an educated assessment of the horse can provide a level of protection on one hand, and point them towards hopeful happiness on the other. And as a quick aside, let me say that I’m thrilled with the group of Thoroughbred re-sellers out there. Not only are they supportive of these horses but also of each other. It’s pretty damn cool.

Here’s a quick rundown of how we assess them here:

Nothing is standardized, but over the first couple weeks that a Thoroughbred (or any horse, for that matter) is here, we pay attention to its personality and how it handles in the barn and in the stall, on the way to turnout and in groups. Are they timid? Kind? Goofy? Nervous? Protective? And then we watch as that changes — do they let down and soften around the edges? Are they clearly smart and still reactive?

Wolf (Louisiana Moon) is smart, super brave, and snappy, but also a complete machine on cross country. If I can hone the dressage and stadium, he’ll be an amazing eventer, but if not, first flight fox hunting might be in his future. Photo by Lauren Kingerly.

Additionally, we mull over what they need to be sound and fat and happy. Four shoes? Ample letdown time? Maintenance? A stall or 24-7 turnout? More feed than I was expecting to buy in a month?

Under saddle, I focus on the quality and soundness of their gaits and the energy they bring to the job. Do they relax quickly or do they take more careful riding to produce a slightly more ridable horse? Are they easy to teach new concepts and willing to try or do they have stronger opinions about how things should happen? Are they fast-footed and prone to anxiety, or will they readily walk quietly on a loose rein?

And then as we keep developing the horse, we start to examine what is their response if they become confused, nervous or displeased. Do they run through you? Run sideways? Threaten to rear? Suck back behind the leg? Or do they just flick an ear back on you and wait for clearer communication? Similarly, how do they handle small fences, fillers, and hacks up the driveway and out into the field, different riders? Is their brain steady and brave, or are we dealing with a horse who needs a cool, confident rider/handler to provide them that feeling of security?

Amelia (Amelia’s Map) proved to be a goofy young filly who had all the aptitude for eventing and currently is being correctly and successfully produced by a mid-level eventer. Photo by the Kivu Team.

All of these questions contribute to the proverbial bubble-in answers and help me start to assess where a horse can go and where they would be happy. Once as much data as can be collected are amassed, I make edits to what I had hoped the horse would do and point them out to the world in a way that addresses what I think they both can do well AND want to do. Sometimes it is as easy as: “talented, kind, sound, capable, and clearly can do anything,” and sometimes the bubbles all add up to a more complex picture. A few examples:

Louis (Unbridled Bayou) was a lovely 5-year-old who had experience through Novice. He had excellent movement, flashy looks and was as sweet and easy as the day was long. When he’d be out at shows, I’d get comments like, “Don’t sell that one, that’s your next 2* horse.” But I had a feeling that Louis, despite all of his objective qualities, didn’t want the high pressure life of hunting flags and precision in the upper levels. Instead, I pointed him at a mid-level eventing career and I’m thrilled that he ended up with a rider who has similar goals and adores him.

Louis (Unbridled Bayou) being his usual good-boy self during a Thoroughbred Logic Clinic. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

Seeker (Hot to Seek Her) was a big-boned flashy warhorse who was used to winning wire to wire without ever seeing a competitor’s tail. He came here and had a hard time adjusting to life off the track. Pushy on the ground and always attempting to run out from under you under saddle, he clearly knew his former job and knew he was good at it. According to him, this new English riding job was for the birds. While he had oodles of talent, I knew that our program wasn’t making him happy and he needed more let down, more time, and more out-of-arena experiences. I sent him down to my friend Erica Brown who turned him out for a while, then started him back western. A year and a half later, he is now being leased as a lower-level barrel horse and all around western riding machine.

Seeker (Hot To Seek Her) trying out his new-non-racing life. Photo by the Kivu Team.

Seeker, clearly way happier now in a totally different career. Photo courtesy of Erica Brown and Pine View Sporthorses.

Boomer (Vanderboom Ridge) was a tall, capable gentleman who I thought might have the makings of an upper-level event horse. His dressage movement was lovely and he had no problem fielding sizable coops and rolltops out on cross-country. Stadium, however, stressed him — eventually convincing me that this was not his happy place. After one fox hunt here in Georgia it was undeniable that Boomer had happened into his ideal job. Boomer is now one of the huntsman’s horses at Myopia Hunt (well done, Samantha Stevens) and could not enjoy his job more.

Boomer (Vanderboom Ridge) and Huntsman Samantha Stevens with the hounds of Myopia Hunt. Photo courtesy of Samantha Stevens.

And finally, Maddy (Madison Blues) was a former broodmare who had worked as a racehorse, English horse, western horse, and drill team horse before coming to us for sale. She was serviceably sound, kind as the day is long, and rode well no matter who I put on her back. And while folks wanted to take her on as a lower-level eventing project, I figured she would make a better lesson or family horse. She found a fantastic home with a family who wanted an all-arounder for the mom to ride and a horse for the kids to grow up with; I think she’ll be super successful.

I could go on and on about the various walks of life that these equine kids who pass through here end up taking. But I guess at the end of the day, all of the question asking and bubble-filling that we resellers do might mean that horses don’t necessarily sell quickly, but they do usually sell pretty happily. I guess I’ll take it.

Former sale horse, Gumbo (Bayou Prospector) and his owner Nieve Leyne, had a blast at the Retired Racehorse Project’s Makeover this year and just keep making me happier about their partnership. Photo by author.

And for those who have bought horses (from here or anywhere) and continue to develop them, there’s no doubt that you continue to ask your horse the “what do you want to do?” question. I’m ever excited for my friends when they tell me that their eventing horse is loving life more in dressage, or that their hunter would rather run cross-country so now they need to event or fox hunt. The possibilities are endless, and frankly, so long as horse and human are happy, all of these answers are good answers.

Happy holiday horse shopping folks. Enjoy the match-making challenge. Or…  simply go ride and enjoy the collective pursuit of happiness.