Many thanks to Kirsten Collins for this great report from Thoroughbreds for All. Kirsten shares her life with three OTTBs at her own Harmony Farm.
First, a confession: I bought my ticket for Thoroughbreds For All! before I bought my Rolex tickets. I offer this as testament as to how great this event was last year. The event is built around show-casing Thoroughbreds transitioning from the track into new careers. Here, the horses are the stars of the show and I couldn’t wait to experience it again.
I was not disappointed. The event drew an even larger crowd this year, around 500 people, but West Wind Farm was easily able to handle it. I can’t imagine a better venue than West Wind’s covered arena with its views of the lush spring Kentucky landscape as well as the ability to accommodate dozens of tables, caterers, a cash bar, and best of all, an enormous barn aisle that facilitated a close look at a nice crop of New Vocations Thoroughbreds.
The program followed last year’s winning formula with minor changes. Everyone enjoyed Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron getting legged up immediately on a very pretty Bilan. Chris asked Bilan to stay close to the spectators (we had been reminded at the start to hold our applause so as not to startle the horses) and Bilan acquiesced in a very Thoroughbred way by jigging and looking and by not relaxing. This was the perfect segue into Chris’ on-board lecture of how jockeys work with their mounts. First, they seek cooperation, and then they seek ways to make their mounts comfortable. For Chris and Bilan, this involved some give-and-take: Chris asked “Please walk forward to the crowd” and Bilan replied “I’d feel much better if we trot back to the other end of the arena.” And so Chris allowed him to take little breaks and move away, all the while stroking and rewarding him, and then bringing him back to the crowd for a little more exposure.
Chris polled the audience at times, seeking answers to questions about what a horse needs and what impacts a successful ride. He said he wants a confident mount, but that of course requires a confident rider. Chris said a rider brings three things into the equation that will influence the quality of the ride: fear, experience level, and rider fitness. Chris stated matter-of-factly that horses are looking for a leader. A rider can provide that leadership but only if they are honest about their own abilities in the tack. And at this point Chris pointed out that Bilan’s behavior was quite normal for some Thoroughbreds and he wisely reminded people to make sure they seriously considered their own ability to handle and accept this type of horse behavior. As if we couldn’t love him more.
The rider fitness remark surprised me a little, but what McCarron meant was you have to be able to physically handle that give-and-take phase with your Thoroughbred. He’ll require a soft hand, yes, but still a firm one over the duration of your ride. He cautioned everyone about getting physically tired, losing their form, and then losing the quality of the ride. And he’s absolutely right; a horse deserves us to be our best in the tack because it is what we are almost always asking of our mounts. By this time Chris had his horse moving well around the arena and it took physical restraint not to applaud both Chris McCarron and the lovely Bilan.
At some point I lost count of the New Vocations horses that were presented next, but I think there were between six and eight. Each one fell under the gaze of Phillip Dutton and his vet (and fellow eventer) Dr. Kevin Keane. Through their assessment my novice eyes could gain appreciation for traits both physical and mental. Phillip is a quiet soft-spoken man who seemed indefatigable and able to look at every horse with fresh eyes. Dr. Keane echoed many of Phillip’s sentiments about each horse. In one case both of them were quite keen on a filly that I had dismissed the minute she entered the arena: they both saw potential in the young horse and therefore helped me (and countless others, no doubt) to see this horse for her what her future could be. It was an important lesson. Once the riders were mounted and the horses put through their paces, Dr. Keane remarked that he liked to stand close to a horse when it cantered past so that he could gauge their respiratory status. Again, this was new and valuable information for a novice looking at a Thoroughbred.
As with last year, it was mesmerizing to watch experienced riders work with Thoroughbreds in the midst of transitioning to new careers. That these horses responded well to compassionate experienced rides is an understatement, but also a strong testament to their trusting, willing nature. Try to imagine taking your first jump by trotting into a sea of faces set upon rows of bleachers; it could be intimidating, to say the least, but each of the three horses (ridden by eventer Tracey Bieneman, Rolex competitor Daniel Clasing, and returning rider/trainer Eric Dierks) jumped small fences of increasing complexity. It was here that Phillip Dutton also kept making an important point: those horses that did not immediately show bravery to a fence were not at all dismissed, but rather Phillip appreciated their carefulness. He knew, as we all soon witnessed, that the horses would gain confidence as their exposure increased. As I watched this segment I found myself brimming with pride at the progress these horses were making. They settled in, figured out what was being asked of them, and did their jobs.
The eventing world was well-represented at Thoroughbreds For All! as eventers bracketed the evening. We were first introduced to several competitors whose Rolex mounts were Thoroughbreds and these riders had about 500 keen listeners as they talked about their horses’ strengths and talent (and a few quirks, of course). To close the evening, local eventers Dorothy Crowell and Cathy Wieschoff returned with their upper level eventers Hennessey and Ready For April. This was a fitting close to the evening as the two beautifully conditioned horses did a little warm up and then proceeded to jump some impressive fences. They were such pros, their demeanor so professional and business-like and it was a brilliant way to demonstrate the rewarding path from a racehorse off the track to a well-trained eventer. Remember how lovely Bilan jigged and danced for Chris McCarron? I bet even Ready For April did that when he came off the track. But it was impossible not to think of Bilan as an eventer-in-the-making. All he needs is a chance to prove himself.
Thoroughbreds For All! is helmed by Steuart Pittman of the Retired Racehorse Training Project and Anna Ford of New Vocations and an army of their volunteers. Each and every volunteer I spoke with was not only kind and gracious but also absolutely in love with Thoroughbreds. They are invested in making a future possible for each and every horse lucky enough to walk off the track and into their programs.