TRUE TALE

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.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Chris­tine Davis

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.

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