Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: Bring on the Backup Plans

Horses will teach you many things … but these past two months, the learning has been this: you’ll always need a backup plan (or like 47 of them).

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 the importance of backup plans.

Horses will teach you many things. Of course, their lessons are life-affirming and humbling in so many incalculable ways and I could go on and on about things like kindness and responsibility and the like. But these past two months, the learning has been this: you’ll always need a backup plan (or like 47 of them). Put another way: If you want to hang onto your goal, you had better be flexible and have a LOT of different ways to get there.

I’m writing this from an office that I’m using as a temporary apartment in Trumansburg, New York. My horses — currently all 11 in my care — are an hour down the road in Bath. The arrangement might be a bit distanced (AKA I no longer live one wall away from the first stall), but the reality is huge: we made it from Georgia to New York. Two cats (who yowled the whole way), two dogs, 11 horses, me, the “house” and the barn and the business. Yes, folks move all the time and it does not have to be Herculean. But, barn moves are tough, and doing so on a trainer budget is exponentially tougher.

Crashing in the box stall of the trailer after unloading the horses at 3AM in Virginia was also a backup plan. I would have actually gotten a couple hours of sleep if the damn cats would have piped down (they look annoyingly innocent here). Photo by author.

The number of backup plans that have had to go into effect in the past two months is at this point comical. As my friend and fellow Thoroughbred trainer Ilse Simmons put it, “Whoever is writing the script for your life has jokes.” She’s not wrong. I won’t bore you with all of them (and don’t worry, I’ll link this back to horses and training below), but some of the highlights are worth it.

I thought I had it all sorted — the date for the move was set. I had a trailer set up for 10 horses (yes, I added an 11th last minute) and was steadily working to the drive-away date of the 28th of June. I had a schedule that was organized with what had to happen pretty much every day from June 1 forward. A month and a half before the drive away date, my landlords changed the manure policy (it had been pushed into a pile and leveled for the last four years and 11 months). Now it needed to be hauled off. Cue my network and finding great dumpster folks and more cash I wasn’t expecting to spend. Fine.

Pig also had to be transported — a feat that took three people, two cattle panels, two baby gates, and a bunch of peppermints to accomplish. Pig now resides permanently with the Dover family and I could not be happier.

When I flew up to the Finger Lakes area in late May, I had four barns to look at for my horses/business that were close to the one I will be training out of. While all lovely or full of potential in their own ways, none were appropriate for my horses. Some were set up for retired horses, others had no fencing, others had no fields, others well… were simply a no. Shit.

Thanks to my amazing friends and connections up here, we hustled down the backup plan highway expanding the milage between barns. Eventually the Bath barn with 14 stalls at my disposal and full care (WHATTTTT???) sifted to the top of the pile and we were able to make it work. As the deadline approached, I ran my jumps, barn supplies, and apartment up the week before my horses. On some hill or another outside Dundee, NY (largely in the middle of nowhere between the barn and the apartment), my power breaks and steering went out in a bang and cloud of steam. Apparently the passenger side engine mount failed, tipped the engine and put the fan through its protective shroud, propelling shroud shrapnel through my radiator, serpentine belt and a number of other bits and bobs necessary for function. I mean, if something is going to fail in my life, it is going to do so in a spectacular fashion.

Here she is… Photo by author.

That was late on Wednesday. I had to be back in Georgia to teach a cross-country clinic on Sunday and to get everything done to leave the following Friday with all the horses. The NY tow truck hauled to the guy’s shop, parts were acquired, and in some level of miracle, the truck engine was reassembled and running by Friday afternoon. I had been ready to fly down, rent a car, teach the clinic, fly back and then drive down to haul back with the horses. But thankfully that level-400 backup plan wasn’t quite necessary.

I drove through the night, made it safely back to McDonough, only to have a horse colic two hours after arrival and need an emergency vet (he’s okay now, thankfully). The following Monday check-in with my original shipper to find out that the weld on the rig that was being fixed and “shouldn’t be a problem” was indeed a huge problem and now I needed to find a new hauler on my cut-rate frequent flyer budget for Friday.


With that news, I started laughing and walked back out in the barn and Greta, my working student who was busy wiping down tack, just looked at me like, “What now?” More backup plans of course. At this point it was just getting ridiculous.

Meg Hems’ rig with the boys aboard while she fixed a blowout somewhere in Virginia. Photo by Meg Hems.

By the next morning I was able to find an amazing hauler who could work on my tight schedule and budget. The only catch was that her trip would leave a day early — all that last minute packing — yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. So my barn help/working students Greta, Alanah, and Jules came to the rescue — they packed, lifted, stripped stalls, cleaned, and finalized the barn while my dad unscrewed tables from their legs and wiped down the bathrooms and I loaded the trailer with all of the last minute boxes of house and barn necessities. To say I could not have succeeded at leaving without them is an absurd understatement. Soaked in sweat and covered in that barn’s particular form of caking dust, we made it — right down to the damn wire.

The Kivu Dream Team right here. Jules Burer, Alanah Giltmier, and Greta Colley busted their backs to get me out of town and it literally would have been impossible without them. Photo by author.

Meg Hems showed up to haul at 3PM, and my trailer and horses were ready to go. The apartment was bare and the barn was tidy. Nine horses stepped into their respective rigs with confidence and with that, Meg drove out towards Lexington to get one more horse and my dad and I headed through Virginia to meet her the next day in Bath, New York. (If you did the math, that only amounts to 10 horses total, Ramen (Plamen) shipped with a different rig earlier in the morning and also met us in NY right on schedule the following day).

The quietest this place had been in five years. Photo by author.

There was a still heaviness in that heat as I pulled out past from the empty barn and past the arena void of jumps, the fields vacant for the first time in five years. I have spent a lot of my life moving and leaving and arriving again, and I have a lot of sentiments about the place that shaped my business and the stalls and fields that became the framework of my horses’ lives for the last half decade. Those will come later. But for now, I’m just grateful to have had the network, the friends, and the sheer ridiculous luck that the backup plans I was/we were able to concoct were enough to move a life-business-farm a thousand miles north. Now to catch my breath.

All settled in the stalls at the Wilkin’s Farm in Bath, NY. Photo by author.

OK, so you got here and are like, how does this have anything to do with Thoroughbreds? Well… moving or not, backup plans are critical. And the ability to assess the situation and think on your feet, rely on your friends and network, and re-route your short term goals to make it to the longer term ones is a skill set that is essential to surviving a life with horses. There’s that great horse meme that says something like, “Only one of you gets to panic at once and it is never your turn.” Yep. Could not be more accurate whether you are riding, planning, ground working or moving.

And I’m so grateful they all seem just as happy here as at what-was home just south of Atlanta. Photo by author.

So go set the horse goals folks, just be ready to take all forms of roads to get there.

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