Originally published in March, 2011 at Retired Racehorse Today.
Hunters. Smooth, quiet rounds in over fences classes. Mannerly, even gaits amongst a herd of other horses in under saddle classes. Long days under saddle, lounging near the in-gate, during weeks and weeks of showing.
It doesn’t sound like something that your average “hot” Thoroughbred would excel at. But they’re out there.
FairPlay, a handsome bay Thoroughbred, has just started competing in the A rated Children’s Hunters in Ocala this winter. On the site of a former racehorse training center, he puts in the smooth, quiet rounds and mannerly, even gaits for his owner, Kathryn Miller, and their trainer, Chris Hickey. Everyone from Jill Peters, who first spotted the “diamond in the rough,” to Kathryn’s mother, Anne Metz, were eager to tell me all about this remarkable horse.
Nearly three years ago, FairPlay was still a rescue case. Trainer Jill Peters found him in a herd of horses who needed help. “He was on a TB farm with 6 or 7 other TB’s,” Jill says. “They [the owners] were good people but had come upon hard times. They were doing the right thing by trying to sell the horses, but they were all very very thin.
“FairPlay was among them; he was the right age, height, shape, color and gender, so I asked to see him. The husband got on him for me; he only walked and trotted, but I saw immediately what a beautiful mover he was and what a wonderful attitude he had. I knew he was a diamond in the rough; I knew I could save him, so I bought him on the spot.” Jill even put in a call to Scott Hoffstetter, an established hunter/jumper trainer, who came out to see the prospect and “loved him.”
“When we met Jill and FairPlay, Jill had put about 6 months of groceries, and training into him,” Anne says. “My daughter tried him that day and knew it was a match. I knew very little, but our then-trainer thought it might be a good match as well. All I knew was he was affordable, seemed civil, and possibly talented enough.” They’d been on the hunt for a new show horse, something that could take 14 year old Kathryn off her pony and into the horse classes. FairPlay would arrive a few months after the test ride, an unexpected Christmas present.
He let them know right away that Thoroughbreds are not ponies. (Not all of them, anyway!) Nerves and subtle issues like inconsistent temperament would plague the new duo. “It hasn’t been an easy road,” Anne admits, “And sometimes we have questioned our decision, but the commitment never waivered. To Kathryn’s credit she has maintained her love and commitment to him, and has been very patient and determined to take him as far as she can.”
They’d eventually leave their long-time stable in search of a location with more turn-out and quieter atmosphere, which suited FairPlay admirably. And they went to work with Scott Hoffstetter, already a fan of the horse, and who would give Kathryn the tools to turn her green Thoroughbred into a show horse. “Scott is very fond of Thoroughbreds,” Anne remembers, “and helped Kathryn and FairPlay grow together.”
For the past six months, Kathryn and FairPlay have teamed up with trainer Chris Hickey, and in this time they’ve progressed to showing in the tough Children’s Hunter division. “Chris has really been the catalyst that has helped us put it all together,” Anne says. “He told us from day one that he didn’t know what we had, but he was willing to take on the assignment. We have never looked back. As time went by Chris began to see more and more qualities that he really liked.”
“Like most TBs, he bores easily,” Chris says of FairPlay. “It is essential to vary his work. Of course with a child rider, the rider often needs repetitive practice, so it’s a balancing act. It helps that both horse and rider are smart and enjoying the process. He is a kind horse and plenty generous, and is starting to understand he has some talent. It’s fun for me to watch his confience grow.”
Chris also saw that some of FairPlay’s little tricks, like hollowing out over fences or his uncertain temper, might be related to ulcers. Anne wasn’t having it. “I took this challenge personally. I guess I honestly have a fair amount of ego vested in the care we give our animals. We try our hardest, and now faced with the possibility that he might have an ulcer, well I became like a dog with a bone.” She called out holistic veterinarian Himani Das, who confirmed their suspicions and put FairPlay on a special diet.
Fixing FairPlay’s tummy issues really set the team on the right course and when HITS Ocala rolled around, they were ready to take on the challenges at Post Time Farm. “As his skill set expands, so does the skills of his young rider,” Chris says. “His natural inclination is to use his scope and jump higher over the jumps and not be too tidy with his legs, but through the use of gymnastic combinations we have got it where we want it most of the time.”
In fact, it’s hard to tell from the photos that this Thoroughbred is anything but the most workmanlike of show hunters, with those even knees and that kind, interested expression on his face! Anne attributes his rapid turn-around from green, difficult horse to steady show partner to their teamwork with good trainers. “It has been exciting to see the transformation and so rewarding. Chris has provided the depth of knowledge and experience, the steady guiding hand, always imparting good horsemanship. Kathryn is a better rider for it and FairPlay is a happier horse. We are having fun… at last!”
Kathryn also believes Chris Hickey has had a huge impact on their team. “Our relationship in the past six months has gotten so much better than it was, and I think it is because of my trainer Chris. He has an incredible sense of what’s right to work on without driving the horse crazy.”
Kathryn’s relationship with FairPlay has really blossomed. She knows all of his little quirks and preferences. “He’s kind of a dork,” she admits, “but really sensitive. He loves to be curried with a green curry comb, but every other curry he hates. He only indulges in Mrs. Pasture’s Cookies, and after he consumes these he has to lick some part of me with exposed skin – he licked the same spot for forty-five minutes once.”
And Jill, who started this whole story, couldn’t be happier. “FairPlay got a wonderful home and owners who would give the time, money and effort required to develop a young TB (no small feat), Anne and Kathryn got a lovely horse to work with, and I was thrilled to have been able to equip him with skills he needed to begin a good future. Oh, and a fourth win, a big one – Anne and Kathryn and I became friends! It’s a great story; a real rags-to-riches story, from starving to winning at HITS!”