The $100,000 Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover is a competition that has gained international interest. It makes sense that it would – there are so many appealing things about this competition for competitors, trainers, breeders, spectators, vendors, and riders looking to buy a horse.
It’s a brilliant combination of competition, education, inspiration, networking, and shopping all at the heart of horse country at Kentucky Horse Park. If you haven’t been to the Thoroughbred Makeover, definitely add it to your calendar for October.
The competition requires trainers to apply with a horse that has not had more than 15 retraining rides (non racing rides) 11 months before the competition in October annually. That means you need a recently retired racehorse.
I’ve competed for three years, two of which with my junior student Franny Galvin-Hynes. Together we have shown 8 horses across 3 disciplines with the placings of
- four 1sts (Trail in 2015, 2016, 2017, Freestyle 2016),
- three 2nds (Trail 2015, Trail and Freestyle 2017),
- four 3rds (Freestyle 2015, Trail and Field Hunter 2016, Trail 2017),
- one 5th (Trail 2015),
- one 6th (Field Hunter 2017),
- one 10th (Freestyle 2015), and
- one 14th (2017 – Franny’s first time competing in Field Hunter) as well as two Top Junior Awards, and both the Canter and Turning for Home Adoption Awards for Top Horses in 2017.
- One overall title of America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred (2015)
If you do the math, that’s 11 out of 15 placings in the top 3, and 14 out of 15 placings in the top 10.
PS – all of the horses we competed with were purchased sight unseen without any trials, test rides, or handling ourselves. We simply looked for soundness/health and then purchased.
Some of the horses we took on were rejected or unwanted by others. For example ‘You Gotta Be Kidding’ (finished 5th in Trail in 2015 with Franny) was a 3yr old gelding that “kicks and needs a lip chain” that was given to us, Bowdrie (finished 2nd in Trail and Freestyle in 2017) was in an auction where no one else bid on him, and Trivia Time (finished 1st in Freestyle and Trail in 2016 with me) was tried by someone else first and returned back to the training barn.
I share this because I want you to know that Thoroughbreds in general are awesome – you don’t need to find the diamond in the rough – they are all diamonds.
But what does it take to retrain off the track Thoroughbreds with this level of success? What is it like?
Retraining an off the track Thoroughbred for the makeover competition consumes a lot of you – time, money, and ego. I also work as a public health nurse, run our equestrian facility Partridge Horse Hill, and teach Harmony Horsemanship so my schedule is already tight before adding the makeover challenge.
I end up prioritizing my makeover horses over pretty much everything else including my other horses. Usually I have enough time after work to train 3 horses, so that typically ends up being my two makeover horses and one other. As a result, my other horses get a bit neglected for training and play time. With prioritizing my horses, I figure they averaged about 2-3hrs of training per week.
Off the track Thoroughbreds are extreme athletes that have learnt their job very well in most cases. Their body has been conditioned to carry light weight and run fast. It takes time for their body to adjust to different demands and adapt to different conditions. Often their backs and haunches need conditioning exercises to make them strong enough to start training in a new discipline.
Their minds also need time to adjust and learn a completely different style of work. It’s like being a speed skater your whole life and then being expected to be a good figure skater. They are athletic and powerful but aren’t used to using the muscles, thought patterns, or balance required for jumping, navigating obstacles, heading cattle, or the other demands from other disciplines.
For my horses, I start with ‘Calm Connection’ exercises from the Harmony Training Continuum. Once they feel calm in my presence then I start ‘Create a Yes Horse’ exercises from the continuum. This conditions the horses to be confident learners so they can say ‘yes’ to my requests. Once they start saying ‘yes’ and trying new things I can start to figure out what they have a talent for.
It can take months before I have a sense of what a horse will be naturally best suited for – some horses are really awkward at jumping at first, but once they figure out their feet they actually love it and are brave and bold. Others are really imbalanced but after doing the conditioning exercises are beautiful movers. Some are big chickens but after doing the confidence exercises within ‘Create a Yes Horse’ become Trail superstars.
It’s best to be patient and get the horse’s mind and physical health set up for success before making assumptions as to what they will be best suited for, which just takes time.
No big surprise here. There is a great saying about the horse industry that if you want to become a millionaire you need to start as a billionaire. The whole retraining process does cost a lot of money. Purchasing a horse for $1000-2000 is doable, but the upkeep of the horses and all of the experiences they need really adds up.
Even though I have my own farm, when I factor in the cost of hay, grain, supplements, farrier expenses, etc I figure it costs me about $4500/year to keep a horse well. Then there are the extra costs for the experiences – taking the horses to clinics, shows, and schoolings so they can have exposure to new things before getting to the makeover.
When restarting a horse, you are starting back at the beginning. It means the horse needs to build trust in you and learn a new job. When we first start competing, the most important thing for me is that they learn to be relaxed, slow down and think. That way when we get to the makeover I have calm thinking horses, not anxious or hot headed ones.
This means when I am at ‘sacrifice shows’ I will definitely lose a lot. It really means I have to put my ego aside.
For example at Trivia Time’s first extreme cowboy show preparing for the 2016 makeover, we had to walk by some cows on our way to the ring. The cows totally freaked her out and she was so tense and nervous in the show ring.
Even though extreme cowboy is supposed to be a fast obstacle course, and the crowd was expecting great things as they announced “Lindsey Partridge the 2016 Can Am Champion aboard a Thoroughbred, this one is going to be fast folks,” I walked the entire course (maybe a little bit of trot) as I tried to relax my horse and breathe. It definitely makes me feel awkward when the crowd is expecting greatness, and I don’t even close to meet their expectation. It’s important that I remember I am not trying to win the competition, I’m just trying to win my horse’s mind and heart.
I sacrifice those beginning shows and it pays off, by the end of the season I was competing Trivia Time with no bridle in extreme cowboy.
Having sacrifice shows I think is one of the biggest reasons why my horses do so well at the makeover – by the time they get to Kentucky they really know how to slow down, think, and trust. They really aren’t affected by much else around them.
Competing at Kentucky Horse Park
Definitely a dream come true for me – I had visited the park as a young girl and always thought it was such a beautiful place.
I remember riding in the 2015 makeover, just exploring around the grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park. I thought “wow this is an incredible experience, I am so lucky.” I didn’t know how well I had placed and yet I already thought it was the experience of a lifetime. To be among so many talented people and horses, part of an event that is changing the way we think about retired racehorses, and where the junior and amateur rider compete side by side the Olympian, it truly is an honor.
It’s Worth It
There is definitely a lot involved to retraining an off the track Thoroughbred, but the results are definitely worth it. Thoroughbreds really are very smart, hardworking, athletic, and versatile horses. My 2015 champion has gone on to be a jumper champion, a summer camp superstar, and movie star (she is in the movies Autumn Stables and Unbridled as well is the horse in the Grey Cup commercial for the CFL by TSN Sports).
What am I doing for 2018?
One of my horses, Point Load (Wally), is competing with Franny this year along with Franny’s horse, Wasted. I will be going down to support her but I am taking a break from competing this year – I am putting my focus back into Trivia Time and plan to try some brideless jumpers (if I’m allowed) and extreme cowboy with her. You can also look for me judging the Freestyle at the Thoroughbred Expo in Florida between many clinics and other events happening this year.
For more information about the training methods I use, check out HarmonyHorsemanship.ca and you’ll find lots of information, videos, and options.