The challenges of retraining my retired racehorse tested my strength and nearly made me give up, but in the end we both reaped unexpected rewards.
Murphy’s makeover: The challenges of retraining my retired racehorse tested my strength and nearly made me give up, but in the end we both reaped unexpected rewards.
Isat in the arena with tears running down my face, my legs trembling with exhaustion. It was Wednesday. In two days, I was scheduled to compete in the Thoroughbred Makeover, the annual show sponsored by the Retired Racehorse Project (RRP).
The three-day event, which features competition in 10 different disciplines, is open to retired racehorses with 10 months or less of retraining. Hundreds of Thoroughbreds were here, all with trainers anxious to show off the work they’d done to prepare their off-thetrack Thoroughbreds for new careers.
At the moment, I was not one of them. “I can’t do this!” I yelled across the giant covered arena of the Kentucky Horse Park, where my mother, Gerry, sat in the stands. For the past 10 months she had been my assistant trainer, my groom, my psychiatrist, my veterinary technician, my groundwork expert.
“Breathe,” she said. Then, “Get off. You both need a break.”
I dismounted and sighed as Murphy jigged and whinnied for the entire walk back to his stall.
Ten months before, I was sitting outside a coffee shop on a business trip in sunny Los Angeles, scrolling through Facebook when a striking chestnut face with kind eyes and a blaze popped up on my feed. He was listed with a nonprofit organization that works to connect retiring racehorses with potential buyers, and although I see hundreds of posts for Thoroughbreds each week, there was something about him that caught my attention.
Over the past few years, I have retrained and rehomed eight off-the-track Thoroughbreds. And when searching for new prospects, I’ve learned to skim the ads quickly, looking for certain key words. This ad contained the words “smart,” “eventing prospect” and “lots of spirit.” These expressions, I’ve learned, can sometimes translate to, “This horse is a real head case.”
Regardless, I liked that he was a “warhorse”---with no reported injuries or unsoundness after 41 starts. His price was low: $500. He seemed like a good candidate for retraining and rehoming. So I called my mother and told her I needed her to go pick up a racehorse named U Whippersnapper.
“It’s January, Christine, and the track is two hours away.”
I sent her the link to his photo and waited. Then she said, “Tell them I’ll be there tomorrow.”
The journey begins
Although I had worked with many retired racehorses, I had never participated in the Thoroughbred Makeover. Friends and family had encouraged me to enter, but I hadn’t shown seriously in years and was reluctant to dust off my hunt coat. Still, I love the athleticism and work ethic of Thoroughbreds. And I liked the idea of taking part in an event with more than 500 other trainers who have the same passion for the breed.
So began the retraining of U Whippersnapper, now renamed Murphy. Of all the off-the-track Thoroughbreds I’d restarted, Murphy proved the most difficult by far. I’m usually quick to admonish people who say they don’t like “crazy Thoroughbreds,” a stigma that has followed the breed for many years. In my 25 years of riding them, I find most to be sensible and smart. But Murphy was doing everything he could to confirm the bad stereotype.
We worked on ground manners, longeing, balance. Basics. Basics. Excruciatingly slow basics. We would move two steps forward, then 10 back. Under saddle, Murphy had little-tono brakes, and when he would see or hear something that made him uncomfortable he would bolt, rear and buck (sometimes simultaneously). And so we’d go back to groundwork. And trust exercises. And more groundwork.
Meanwhile, I was checking the trainer’s forum on the RRP website. Everyone else seemed to be posting videos of their Thoroughbreds quietly jumping hunter courses, while I was
going to horse shows and just trying to walk around the warm-up arena without killing anyone. While they were posting champion ribbons, I was entering---and losing---walk-trot classes.
Nonetheless, I knew I couldn’t push Murphy any faster than he was ready to go. Finally, as the months ticked by, Murphy began to let me in. He became more comfortable off the farm. He started to jump gymnastic sets without a bridle. I taught him to kick a giant ball, to jump through smoke, to pivot in a Hula-Hoop, to enter and stand inside a small tent. We were still light years away from the quiet packers I was seeing every day in the RRP forum, but I couldn’t have been more excited about his progress. We were ready.
In the same boat
But now, just two days before the competition, I wasn’t sure we were ready at all. Walking back to our stall, deflated and defeated, I tried to understand why Murphy had reverted to his worst behavior. Was it the “racetrack atmosphere” of being surrounded by hundreds of other Thoroughbreds? Was it the hustle and bustle of the competition? I worried that I would enter the ring for our freestyle class only to have to spend five minutes doing relaxation exercises in front of a pitying audience.
But then something magical happened. I began walking around the barns and talking to other trainers. I learned that for every perfect video posted on the RRP website, there were hundreds of blooper reels. We were all in the very same boat.
Over a couple of glasses of wine, I ended up laughing with another girl about her unplanned “airs above the ground.” Everywhere I went I heard stories of thrills, spills, successes and failures. I realized we were all here for the very same reasons: To promote the Thoroughbred. To show their heart. To give these horses a chance, when they otherwise might not have one. We couldn’t lose sight of that.
Friday arrived, and somehow a quiet determination had replaced my nerves. When the time came, I made my way to the arena and watched my family and friends set up the props we had used in practices countless times. Then I heard the first few bars of our soundtrack, and I felt Murphy relax. In that moment I knew he was with me. We were going to do this. The tears came back, but this time they were of joy.
The routine went flawlessly. We started in Western tack as my mother tossed a Hula-Hoop and I caught it, swung it around and pivoted inside it. I stood on Murphy’s rump as we snuck into a tent; he stood perfectly still as I changed tack, remounted and cantered out. Then we came to the finale---two smoke bombs lit around a Liverpool jump. Murphy’s eyes locked in on the pool, the smoke billowing around us, daring him to follow his instinct to go in the opposite direction.
“We got this,” he conveyed in his body language, and together we soared through the smoke. I threw a triumphant fist into the air and saw our score: 80 out of 100. I was overwhelmed with joy and love for this maniacal, brilliant beast. I reveled in our 17th place finish.
With the excitement of the week finally behind us, we began the long journey home. At a rest stop, I checked on Murphy in the trailer, relaxed and happily munching his hay. I thanked him for giving me his all, and in response he snuggled his forehead into my chest while I scratched his chin. I made a promise to him that we would stick together, and in that moment I went online and deleted his sale ad. He had tested every fiber of my strength and pushed me to the edge of giving up, but in the end, somehow, he saved me.
The 2018 Thoroughbred Makeover is scheduled for October 4 to 7 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. For more information visit www.retiredracehorseproject.org.
STEADY ON: For the finale of their round in the freestyle class, Christine Davis and Murphy negotiated a Liverpool jump set between two smoke bombs.