Other than the occasional Facebook update, I have not shared much about my journey with Wall Street Bull, or "Bull" as he is called at the barn. I guess this is due in part, to the fact that progress, when viewed on a daily basis, does not really look like anything. It takes being able to step back to really see the progress being made by daily work. Also, part of making progress involves dealing with setbacks, and the journey with Bull has been no exception. In fact, if you had asked me in August if I was ready for the competition, I probably would have cried. I did not think I was going to even make it to the makeover, much less have any hope of actually doing well. However, tonight I hopped on my 3 year old OTTB after he had 2 days off, without lunging, and had one of the most fantastic rides I have ever had on a young horse, and I just felt inspired to share my journey with him.
I applied for the makeover on a whim this past January, and there were several weeks before I found out if I got in or not. Trainers from previous years were pretty sure they were going to be chosen, so they got their horses early, which I perceived as a step ahead. I, on the other hand, had just left an assistant trainer's position and was starting out on my own for the first time in many years of moving around the country riding under different trainers. I had no idea if I was going to be able to make it as a trainer myself or not, and did not want to risk buying another horse if I did not make it in to the program, especially since it had been many years since I had worked with thoroughbreds, and I never transitioned one off the track. However, I did start looking at horses right away and found a few I really liked. I am very lucky to have some good friends, and one in particular knew a lot about TB bloodlines, and which ones made good sport horses. I found Bull on Facebook nearly right away - I loved his size, conformation, and movement. My friend confirmed that he had the right breeding. But I had to wait a few more weeks before finding out if I made it into the competition or not. There seemed to be a lot of interest in him, so that made me nervous.
A few weeks went by and I found out I was accepted!! The problem was that I had not heard anything about Bull, and I assumed he was sold. When I reached out to Darcy of Center Stage Farm, she told me that he was nearly purchased by the Canadian Eventing Team, but that he just became available again. I drove to see him in Ocala the next day! Darcy said he had a good temperament, but I did not expect to be able to ride him, since he had just raced a few weeks prior. (He raced 4 times and was too slow) I said "What is his temperament like?" and she said "Let me show you, give me a leg up." She pulled him out of his field and hopped on him bareback in a halter and rode him to the wash rack. I pretty much knew at that time, he was my horse, and I did get to ride him for the first time that day. His temperament alone sets him apart from any other horse I have worked with - he is so secure and confident in himself. He is also very mature for a 3 year old. Visitors to the barn for the first time cannot believe he is just 3 because he is so well behaved. We often liken his attitude to a surfer dude, because he is so chill with a laid back sense of humor. He regularly cracks us up!
Bull had barely turned 3 when I got him, and he will still be 3 for the makeover. Even though his counterparts may be running in the Kentucky Derby, I feel that 3 is way too young to start putting training pressure on a horse. They should just be accepting a saddle and rider, learning walk trot canter, steering, and maybe go on some trail rides. They should do lots of stretching over their back. They should learn a work routine, and that work is fun. Care should be taken to maintain the horse's longevity and not over work the horse or make him sour. I kind of regretted my decision to buy a horse so young for the makeover, but then again the whole point in the makeover is to help them transition to new careers after racing, and having a solid foundation in dressage at a young age will help him excel at any disipline. I felt like I was giving him the best chance possible at a new career by treating him as though he were "my" horse; even though I always intended to sell him after the competition. So I did some basic ground work, to explain to him that he wasn't a race horse anymore, and then I gave him some time off to just be a horse and gain some weight.
I started working him lightly after a few months. I started riding him in the round pen, as I do all my youngsters, teaching him transitions, teaching him to stretch, etc. Getting him to relax in his back enough to stretch down was a bit tricky, but he eventually got it. When he gets nervous it's still the first thing he loses, its sometimes the only way I know he is nervous as he internalizes everything. The hardest thing at the beginning was getting the left lead canter. Even on the lunge line, or in the long lines in the round pen he would pick up the right lead. Having problems with leads is common in Off Track Thoroughbreds. I tried to teach it to him under saddle, and he just go so frustrated. When he did get it, it did not feel as though it was comfortable for him. It was so frustrating for him that I was starting to worry that I was going to ruin his right lead canter by telling him "no" so many times when he picked it up by mistake. Fortunately for me, I introduced my working student to the Masterson Method of equine body work (I had been dabbling in it for years) and she decided to get certified! Bull definitely benefited from her practice, and after one session in particular he never had problems picking up the left lead canter again! She is now my business partner and runs her own equine bodywork business, Bodywork by Sadie.
Sadie and I moved to Milton in July. With moving, painting, fencing, the heat, etc it was very hard to get on a horse, but Bull was a priority by then so he was in full work. However, by the time August came around it was too blazing hot to do anything, regardless of how early I started. We never had a break from the heat, it was especially grueling this year. Not to mention, we had a bad bought with fungus this year. We treated it daily, but it was ahead of us, and both of my own horses lost their hair to it and were not even comfortable wearing a saddle pad.
So Bull had most of August off. By this time, my competitors were sharing on Facebook daily their accomplishments with their horses. One woman was eventing her horse bridleless. There goes the Ambassador award!
I guess I was starting to feel the pressure from the competition, and I felt like I was way behind. I did not have the opportunity to take him anywhere to school him, and when I did he was very nervous to the point that I could not even get on him. I again had to put my ego aside and remind myself that regardless of what happens at the competition, I was in this for the best interest of the horse. In the long term, this is just the start of his new career, and I wanted to do a good job for his next owner. One piece that was really stressing me out was the freestyle that I signed up to do. I started looking at the freestyle as a fun way to show off my horse, and not an event I wanted to try and win, and that relieved some stress. I focused on the dressage, which was within our grasp. My coach and mentor, Iris Eppinger, came to help me for a weekend, and was very helpful, but also very impressed with him, and that made me feel like we were on track after all.
She made the comment that he could do FEI, which was what I was feeling as well - he OFFERS medium trot and collected canter - so I started to think that if he didn't sell after the makeover, maybe that wasn't so bad either. I have never really had a young horse of my own to bring along, and I never would have considered a TB, but I was having a lot of fun with him by this point. All the basics were pretty solid and he understood stretching into contact, half halts from the seat, and went forward from the leg without tension. Lateral work will be no problem and he has started leg yields and baby shoulder-in. Everything is "baby" with him, meaning that I play around and ask when he feels like he is ready, but I don't put any pressure on him. We have even had some walk to canter transitions - which results in a beautiful collected canter - pirouettes are just under the surface. I want to start flying changes with him, but not before the makeover.
A couple weeks ago he went to his first schooling show. He was so calm when he got there. I let him relax in a stall for a bit and then did a light ride. He was great!! The next day he went on to win his class, I couldn't have been happier!! Since then I have taken him off property to school, and he was relaxed and happy to work, so I am pretty confident that is how he will be in Kentucky. We are also putting together a cute routine for the freestyle which will showcase his temperament and his best attributes, and I think it will be a crowd pleaser.
When I have a ride on him like I had yesterday, I can't believe how far he has come! And I can't believe he has learned everything that he has without any pressure. However, he is still allowed his "baby" days, and sometimes we just work on basics with no playing around. I try to stay in tune with where he is mentally, and give him breaks to do different things. Like today we just did stretching in the field and popped over a small jump a few times. It's good for them to have something else to think about. I also have to keep my ego in check and not push him too much just to make me look good at the competition. It's fun to do well, but it really all is for the best interest of the horse. No matter what he does when we get there I will be happy - he is only 3 after all!! And I will also be happy if he sells or not, which is a unique place to be for a trainer. There are always horses that you want to sell, horses you wish you could keep, horses you have to sell, and horses you wish you could sell - this is the first time that I can be totally not tied to the outcome. I know I did the best job I could with this wonderful horse, and that he is going to go on to an awesome career, whether it is with me or not! He's Incredi-Bull!