“If you’re at an impasse, if you’re stuck… there are always other[s]… to talk to… Aim for folks who know and love Thoroughbreds and understand both the track and off track lives.”
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 how she determines a horse’s needs and the direction it can go after its track life.
I have realized more and more over the past few years that I truly do run the “land of misfit toys.” Not only are all of the Thoroughbreds here goofy as the day is long, but they all have their “things.”
Someone asked me the other day if there were any “normal” horses in my barn. I started down one row, and then the next. In the end, my answer was simply, “Nope.” Forrest, he’s a goon but he has his old stifle thing. Rhodie has his right hock and his dragon nature; Wolf is the most lovable alligator around and ran until he was nine, so has the hard-knock body to go with it; Uno cribs and had soft feet (better now!), but is talented and doofy; Crafty has his congenital cataracts and debatable under saddle behavior and so on and so forth for the full 20-plus horses.
My job, somehow, has become to suss out all of these physical and behavioral “things,” make them as manageable as possible and see where each horse can go. To that end, I have come to appreciate the horse that is the question mark, the one whose puzzle hasn’t quite been figured out yet, or the one who just simply needs another chance.
I legitimately love the ability to troubleshoot. In this field (literally and figuratively) it seems that there is no shortage of opportunity to do exactly that. And frankly, to be a bit sappy, I think the reason I love troubleshooting is because it is actually all about potential. Well… that and nerding out. It is about acquiring the necessary data, parsing them, and thereby being able to make the right moves to make the horse as happy as possible and, therefore, unlock said potential.
In short, here’s the process:
- Gather all available data on the horse from former owners and connections; vet reports and anecdotes all the same.
- Gather my own data — ride the horse and watch how they function in the barn and in turnout. Assess if any issues seem to be pain related or are behavior-based. (For others reading this whose horses are not at my barn, this stage would be the “have a qualified trainer who loves Thoroughbreds assess your horse.”)
- Figure out what diagnostics we need or don’t need (radiographs, scopes, lameness exams, neuro-tests, repro-ultrasounds) and bring in the quality experts (a huge shout out to my team of vets, farriers, body workers, nutritionists, and saddle fitter, among others) as necessary.
- Make a plan for going forward, both in training (dealing with behavioral things and general training) and in relation to any veterinary, farrier, nutritional, saddle fit/bit and bridle fit or body-worker plans/treatment)
- Work to figure out what the horse can do, what they like to do (ride out of the ring, try different disciplines and experiences), and what makes them happy (in terms of human connection, barn atmosphere, turnout, in stalls, under saddle, and in terms of jobs).
- Go forth and continue any treatments and training regimens. Enjoy the horse, or find a home where someone will love them for who they are, and will match them on the type of job and care available.
As a training and sales facility, I get a range of horses in from various owners, and I buy my own sales and personal strings from connections up and down the east coast and mid-west. Regardless of where they come from, that troubleshooting process starts with each of them the moment any walk in my barn. I have to ask what we’re working with, what we need to know, and then once we know, what we need to do.
From race farms, I might have a list of known injuries or procedures — chips removed, time off due to soreness or injury. Occasionally they might note behavioral things as well. Sometimes, though, Thoroughbreds may come in with next to no info up front other than their race record and what I can dig up on Equibase. But usually these horses are well connected and folks are happy to share their past — often, to help them get the best chance at a quality future.
For instance, with Neumann (Bubba Bob, my 2024 Retired Racehorse Project Makeover Hopeful for Eventing and Field Hunters), I knew that he had spent his two-to-four-year-old years resting and rehabbing after losing a fight with a pasture fence. Neumann comes from Winchester Place Thoroughbreds, a farm and set of people I trust in Paris, KY. I knew he had left front lower-limb damage, but still had raced successfully. And I was warned that he could be food aggressive and pushy. I still liked him so he got to hop on the trailer and come home last November (we’ll come back to Neumann in a little bit).
When horses come in for training due to an existing issue, I usually have a little bit more information — which, honestly, can sometimes be harder to parse. I’ll often know what the owner or vet has identified or struggled to identify as the issue, what diagnostics have been done and what the outcomes have or have not been. So in addition to any vet reports (x-rays, ultrasounds, gastroscopes) and associated treatments, I’ll receive different configurations of the following anecdotal information: The horse bucks, is stall aggressive, is pushy on the ground, is possessive of food, kicks out, won’t go forward, bolts after fences, rears, is generally difficult, won’t take left/right lead, won’t gain weight, is too much horse, or simply, the horse is not what the owners thought they were getting.*
*Caveat: Some horses do come in just for standard training as lovely horses and those are always very welcome, but they’re not as relevant for a trouble-shooting article.
Regardless of origin and amount of existing data, in each case the assessment and troubleshooting begins upon arrival. There are of course lots of ways to do this, but I tend to follow the order of the list above (with plenty of flexibility for obvious exceptions):
Generally, with an existing physical question mark, especially when the horse might be a sales prospect and I’ll need to share this data with potential buyers, I need to get both in person information and professional diagnostics on the issue. So, with Neumann and his lower pastern/foot weirdness after being hung in the fence many years ago, I had my vet out the first week he was home to grab radiographs.
In that first week, I also watched him in his stall (not food aggressive here thankfully) and hopped on to see what he could do. I am a very big believer in ride the horse not the x-rays. That one might bear repeating: Ride the horse, not the x-ray. But also, always get the data you can. If nothing else, Neumann’s pastern rads will serve as a marker in time for his old injury, and should anything come up in the future, I can re-radiograph and compare the two sets in order to create a form of longitudinal data (yep, I’m a huge nerd).
In the meantime though, I’ll keep training him on up unless he tells me that he has limits or needs a job filled with lighter work. Turns out that despite Neumann’s gnarly scars and limb deformation, the osteoclasts are out of the way of the joint space/synovial structures, and this horse is kind as the day is long and an absolute natural out on the hunt field.
From a training side, horses like Prada (On The Move) make great examples. She came in with a reputation list as long as my arm. But her owner was absolutely lovely and was able to provide descriptions of the behavior and the type of tack she had been ridden in, and the farrier efforts that had been made to help her feel her best.
While eventually we did get farrier rads to make sure that we needed all the pads and fanciness she had on her feet (turns out she did need those), and I upended her tack set — stripping her down to just a simple well-fitted saddle (County Xcelerator with Tapestry Equine Comfort girth) and a Miklem bridle with a light weight bit (Herm Springer Duo). I rode lightly to suss her out, tried different tack combos (she likes the medium-narrow saddle, not the narrow one, thank you very damn much) and quickly was able to progress her along and up the levels of eventing and get her to an awesome new home with amazingly none of the shenanigans that had been described.
CJ’s Empire was a more medical troubleshoot — she came in from an excellent trainer who just didn’t feel comfortable pushing her. A couple of pretty dicey rides in and I found myself asking if we could call a vet out. A quick Reproductive System Ultrasound showed a cyst/tumor (it looked like a tumor but responded like a cyst to meds) on her left ovary. The treatment worked and with a little time and training, that mare rode significantly more comfortably. I no longer had to manage the type of ride I call a “survival only ride” when I swung a leg over. (Despite her riding improvement, CJ won the lottery and now has the job as a very fancy broodmare — which suits her beautifully).
Can we fix them all? No. Unfortunately, and often heartbreakingly, some of these guys are too far gone medically or behaviorally to make right as riding horses. And in which case, when still able to be pasture sound, I’m always grateful to the people who can offer them responsible low-level or non-riding homes and to the race farms (like Winchester Place Thoroughbreds) who have retirement options available for their horses who need it.
But in the in-between space — between success in a discipline and pasture-retirement or humane euthanasia — there is always room to troubleshoot. Hell, some of us crazies actually find that part fun.
But a final word of advice: If you’re at an impasse, if you’re stuck, if your troubleshooting has hit dead-end after dead-end, there are always other vets to talk to, other trainers to consult, and other farriers, saddle fitters and experts to bring on board. Aim for folks who know and love Thoroughbreds and understand both the track and off track lives. Then, hopefully in some combination of a team, you will be able to parse through the data and get your horse feeling and going as well as they can.
Go enjoy the process, folks. Pat your pony whether they are perfect critters, or — like mine — lovable but definitely citizens of the land of misfit toys.
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