Why One Trainer Prefers Thor­ough­breds

A top even­ter ex­plains why she prefers Amer­i­can Thor­ough­breds, most of whom are off the race­track, and how she finds and re­trains them for her sport.

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Holly Payne Car­avella with Nancy Jaf­fer

Even­ter Holly Payne Car­avella ex­plains why she has stuck with Thro­r­ough­breds through­out her rid­ing ca­reer, what she looks for in OTTB prospects and how she re­trains them for the sport of event­ing.

Af­ter I grad­u­ated from the pony ranks, a Thor­ough­bred named The Fed­er­al­ist took me to what was then the North Amer­i­can Young Rider Cham­pi­onships three times, where I medaled ev­ery year. Then my first project horse was a lit­tle chest­nut Thor­ough­bred. We got him from Jazz Napravnik, the sis­ter of cham­pion jockey Rosie Napravnik. Day­break was his show name—we called him Kid. I evented him through Train­ing level but had to sell him be­fore I went to col­lege be­cause that was my par­ents’ deal with my brother,

Holly Payne Car­avella comes from one of the United States’ most fa­mous event­ing fam­i­lies. Her mother, Mar­i­lyn Payne, is a well-known com­peti­tor and a top in­ter­na­tional judge. She was pres­i­dent of the ground jury at the 2016 Rio Olympics, which was the sec­ond time she has of­fi­ci­ated at the Games. Holly and her brother, Doug, grew up rid­ing to­gether at the fam­ily farm in Old­wick, New Jersey, and both com­peted at the four-star Rolex Ken­tucky Three-Day Event last year. Doug has his own sta­ble in North Carolina and is the author of The Rid­ing Horse Re­pair Man­ual.

Holly is based at Shelby and Austin God­frey’s Old Fox Farm in Ch­ester, New Jersey, where 16 out of 20 horses in her barn are Thor­ough­breds. She placed in the top 20 in Great Bri­tain’s 2016 four-star Land Rover Burgh­ley Horse Tri­als with Never Out­foxed Syn­di­cate’s Never Out­foxed and the three-star Blen­heim Palace In­ter­na­tional Horse Tri­als on Rob and Beth Grob­lewski’s Santino in September. Both are Thor­ough­breds. That suc­cess­ful trip was fol­lowed by a sev­enth-place fin­ish in Oc­to­ber’s two-star with an up-and-com­ing Thor­ough­bred, Bruisyard Hall, at the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill In­ter­na­tional.

Doug, (who rode a dif­fer­ent horse) and me. Ever since, I’ve found I pre­fer Thor­ough­breds to warm­bloods for event­ing. I save money, time and travel by buy­ing Amer­i­can horses off the race­track rather than go­ing to Europe.

Why Thor­ough­breds?

Thor­ough­breds aren’t as dom­i­nant in the sport as they were in the days of the classic three-day event for­mat, where the cross-coun­try test fol­lowed the steeple­chase and roads-and-tracks phases. Their nat­u­ral en­durance and stamina made them ide­ally suited to that longer for­mat although the chal­lenges at the three- and four-star level to­day still re­quire that type of en­durance. Even though the speed and en­durance phases have been elim­i­nated in com­pe­ti­tion dur­ing this era, I’ve found that Thor­ough­breds can hold their own with those warm­bloods who be­came pop­u­lar as the dres­sage and show-jump­ing phases gained more im­por­tance and the test on cross-coun­try day was short­ened.

True, you don’t get the same move­ment for dres­sage with typ­i­cal Thor­ough­breds as you get from most warm­bloods. With the abil­ity to be “wow” movers, warm­bloods gen­er­ally don’t have to be as well trained as Thor­ough­breds. Since the warm­bloods can get away with more be­cause of their flashy move­ment, the Thor­ough­breds have to be that much more pre­cise.

But these days, ev­ery­one who’s buy­ing a cross-bred for the top of the sport wants to know the blood­lines, mak­ing sure they in­clude enough Thor­ough­bred.

When I went to Burgh­ley and Blen­heim in September, I was so happy to be on Thor­ough­breds. Both events were run in pour­ing rain on cross-coun­try day. At Burgh­ley, where I rode Never Out­foxed, con­di­tions got much worse as the af­ter­noon went on dur­ing what many call the world’s most dif­fi­cult four-star.

With the un­du­lat­ing ground, Burgh­ley is hard enough in good weather. I was sec­ond to last to go, watch­ing as the ground de­te­ri­o­rated and it took so much out of the horses. Phillip Dut­ton had rid­den be­fore I did and he told me that part­way through the course, “They’re go­ing to be re­ally tired. You’re re­ally go­ing to have to help them. By the time you get to the Leaf Pit at the end, they’re go­ing to back off and you re­ally have to get af­ter them.”

I didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence any of that. Foxy was su­per con­fi­dent. He stayed strong and mo­ti­vated the whole time and still had run left when I reached the fin­ish line. I was even strug­gling to pull him up. Had I not been on a Thor­ough­bred, I don’t think

I would have got­ten around.

At Blen­heim, I went dur­ing the mid­dle of the day, but the rain had made the course more dif­fi­cult. Santino was up to the chal­lenge while I saw other horses get­ting discouraged. It was very rare to make the time or get close to it. It def­i­nitely was an ad­van­tage to be sit­ting on a Thor­ough­bred, and I was thrilled to fin­ish 13th.

Luck­ily, the Thor­ough­breds I have picked and rid­den can stand up to warm­bloods move­ment-wise. But they were com­pet­i­tive in the dres­sage phase be­cause they also had the right brain—that is, they were agree­able and train­able. This is crit­i­cal be­cause of the breed’s abil­ity to run and jump all day long, which is not nec­es­sar­ily what you want in the dres­sage. When you’re try­ing to pro­duce a re­laxed, ac­cu­rate test, you need to be able to con­tain the Thor­ough­bred’s end­less en­ergy.

Thor­ough­breds also tend not to be as care­ful in the show-jump­ing phase as warm­bloods. Those horses are gen­er­ally bred for dres­sage and show jump­ing, while Thor­ough­breds are bred for gal­lop­ing, speed and en­durance. This can mean that Thor­ough­breds jump a bit more flat and quick, which may make them a lit­tle less care­ful.

When it comes to cross coun­try, though, I’d rather be on a Thor­ough­bred be­cause they have the heart and will to go for­ever. With warm­bloods, I feel as if when your to­ken runs out, they’re out. Even if a Thor­ough­bred is tired, he will rally and keep go­ing for you. I want to be on some­thing that’s still tak­ing me to the jumps at the end of cross coun­try.

An­other plus for Thor­ough­breds is that they re­quire less con­di­tion­ing. They stay nat­u­rally fit. You have to be much more dili­gent about con­di­tion­ing warm­bloods. So many times be­fore a big com­pe­ti­tion, some­thing hap­pens and you miss gal­lops. You can get away with that if nec­es­sary with a Thor­ough­bred be­cause you have more flex­i­bil­ity fit­ness- wise than you do with a warm­blood.

Thor­ough­breds tend to be a lit­tle bit sen­si­tive, but once you have a re­la­tion­ship with one, it works to your ad­van­tage. I find them eas­ier to train than some young warm­bloods. I’ll have a 3- or 4-year-old Thor­ough­bred trained in no time. Warm­bloods don’t have the same cat­like re­flexes and body aware­ness; they take a long time to de­velop in­stinc­tive re­ac­tions. Their bod­ies re­quire more time to ma­ture and their brains work a bit slower. I find they can check out on you a lit­tle bit more when you’re try­ing to train them—and take off buck­ing, rear­ing or leap­ing.

Most Thor­ough­breds, even if they get fright­ened, tend to stay with you men­tally. They have a lit­tle more self­aware­ness. They do tend to worry, how­ever, and need a rider with a se­cure po­si­tion. Es­pe­cially as young horses, they are more sen­si­tive and aware so they are af­fected by sub­tle move­ments made by the rider if he or she starts to get un­seated. They feel the ten­sion of an un­cer­tain rider, but con­versely, if the rider stays con­fi­dent and steady in the sad­dle, they gain re­as­sur­ance.

I see peo­ple who just want to do lower-level dres­sage at lo­cal shows but feel they need to get a warm­blood for that. They think ex-race­horses are crazy or can’t be quiet or am­a­teur-friendly enough. Then they get warm­bloods who buck them off or spook and they can’t take them out of the in­door ring. They don’t re­al­ize that once off-the-track Thor­ough­breds are trained for their new work and more con­fi­dent, they can make great mounts for ama­teurs and Young Rid­ers, pro­vided those rid­ers have suf­fi­cient ex­pe­ri­ence and are se­cure enough in the sad­dle. I have sev­eral stu­dents who have nice horses off the track at var­i­ous lev­els.

Mak­ing a Come­back

There ac­tu­ally is a resur­gence of Thor­ough­breds in event­ing. Ap­prox­i­mately one-third of the horses at the Rolex Ken­tucky Three-Day Event last year were Thor­ough­breds. Af­ter the 2014 All­tech FEI World Eques­trian Games in Nor­mandy, France, when many horses couldn’t fin­ish the cross-coun­try course be­cause its ground con­di­tions and de­sign de­manded so much en­durance, there were lots of ar­ti­cles on­line about the need for Thor­ough­bred blood in event­ing. The top-plac­ing horses at WEG all showed a good per­cent­age of Thor­ough­bred blood, which made peo­ple pay at­ten­tion.

With pro­grams such as the Re­tired Race­horse Project’s Thor­ough­bred Makeover and the Jockey Club’s Thor­ough­bred In­cen­tive Pro­gram, along with in­creased me­dia at­ten­tion, peo­ple are be­gin­ning to un­der­stand that they can get a horse off the track with­out spend­ing a lot of money if they are willing to put in the time and train­ing them­selves. You can’t take that ap­proach with many other breeds.

As more and more peo­ple are go­ing back to Thor­ough­breds, prices are start­ing to in­crease for the good ones. Ac­tu­ally, in terms of horse wel­fare, that’s not a bad thing. As prices rise and horses be­come more valu­able in the sporthorse mar­ket, race­horse own­ers and trainers will sell them as po­ten­tial rid­ing horses and won’t break them down by rac­ing them too long in an at­tempt to earn more money with them.

There are still plenty of bar­gains out there, though. You can get a good prospect straight off the track for $5,000 or less in most places. (The most I’ve paid is $6,000.) As soon as they come off the track and some­one puts a week or two of train­ing into them, which may make them ap­pro­pri­ate for am­a­teur and young rid­ers, the top price could go up to $7,500.

How to Find a Good One

It’s some­times hard to find the best Thor­ough­breds. There are so many out there that it’s a lit­tle bit of a num­bers game. Not ev­ery OTTB is go­ing to be an up­per-level horse, but many can still be­come fab­u­lous lower-level pack­ers.

You could try a Thor­ough­bred res­cue group as a source, but be aware that some have a pro­vi­sion pro­hibit­ing buy­ers from re­selling their horses.

I buy horses off videos from race­tracks out West. The North­east tends to get a lit­tle tapped out be­cause we have so many more even­ters and jumpers as well as peo­ple who know about Thor­ough­breds. Some­times, if you go to a more re­mote area, where they’re not turn­ing around as quickly, you can get a bet­ter find.

If you look at a Thor­ough­bred’s eye, you can get a read on his char­ac­ter. It takes prac­tice, but you’ll get to the point where you can judge a sweet, sin­cere look. That’s im­por­tant be­cause a lot of times you won’t be able to ride a horse you’re buy­ing off the track be­fore your money changes hands. So you don’t nec­es­sar­ily know what you’ve got when you pick up a horse from the race­track.

When I’m as­sess­ing horses, I look for con­for­ma­tion and move­ment. I tell the own­ers to just let them loose in the ring and video them. I want to see their nat­u­ral bal­ance. I want them to be up­hill and light. They’ll stay so much sounder if they’re light on them­selves and not heavy on the fore­hand. It doesn’t mat­ter if they’re only 2 years old—you can see if they’re nat­u­rally bal­anced and can change leads.

If I like the look of a horse, I’ll do a vet­ting with some­one from the area where the

horse is sta­bled. I ask for a base­line set of X-rays of his feet, an­kles, knees and hocks. Then I have the X-rays sent to my vet at home. I want horses to be clean-legged and sound. A lot of times, if they re­tire sound off the track, they’re pretty sturdy— and more likely to stay sound through­out their sec­ond ca­reers.

Should any­thing come up in the course of the vet­ting, such as with the flex­ion test, I have the vet call me. If there’s a real prob­lem, I’ll stop the process there. An­kles can be par­tic­u­larly un­for­giv­ing, so I tend to stay away from horses who have an­kle is­sues.

I also con­sider some of the breed­ing when I make my se­lec­tion. When I was a se­nior in col­lege in Florida, I bought a horse from Michi­gan who was off the track. He had been started in a new ca­reer for a cou­ple of months. He turned out to be an amaz­ing mover and jumper, re- ally sweet. He had ev­ery­thing you would want to have in an up­per-level horse. The only prob­lem was that once I got him to Pre­lim­i­nary, he was too timid to move up on cross coun­try. He would keep try­ing, but you could tell he was scared. I ended up sell­ing him to Phillip Dut­ton, who did a two-star with him and sold him to a Young Rider.

I had liked this horse’s at­ti­tude so much that I con­tacted the breeder and learned that his sire was a Cal­i­for­nia stal­lion named Fruition. I told the breeder, “If you have any more of these Fruition horses, con­tact me. I’d be re­ally in­ter­ested.”

I got two oth­ers through that breeder. One is Cow­boy, aka High Stakes, who never raced. His own­ers had started en­durance rid­ing him in Ari­zona. They sent me a video set to mu­sic. He was trot­ting and gal­lop­ing with his head in the air on a straight line to­ward the cam­era, so you couldn’t see any­thing about his stride or way of mov­ing. Then the cow­boy rid­ing him got off and tied his shoe—and the horse just stood there. Af­ter that, they threw a tarp over him and he still was mo­tion­less. I looked at the video and thought, “This horse is a saint.”

I wound up buy­ing him as a re­sale project for next-to-no money. I fig­ured a pa­tient 5-year-old like that would be good for an am­a­teur. Af­ter he made it through Pre­lim­i­nary I sold him to a stu­dent who com­petes at Train­ing level.

The next horse I got from that blood­line was Fruition’s First, who had been on the track. I shipped him east from Cal­i­for­nia as a 4-year-old and he went through In­ter­me­di­ate af­ter win­ning the Amer­i­can Event­ing Cham­pi­onships at Novice. I even­tu­ally sold him to a stu­dent as well.

How I Start OTTBs

When horses come off the track, I put them into work right away and get them go­ing with ground­work and longe­ing. If you throw them out in the field, they’re

kind of lost for a lit­tle while. They hate to be left to their own de­vices. My ex­pe­ri­ence is that they like be­ing in a pro­gram and hav­ing some­thing to do ev­ery day. My event horses turn feral when they get time off. They’re harder to han­dle and fall apart a lit­tle bit.

Af­ter a new ex-race­horse ar­rives at my barn, I don’t put him into in­tense work. In­stead, I treat him like an un­bro­ken horse. Since I don’t know how he was bro­ken or what he was like at the track, I be­gin with the ba­sics.

I start with our OTTBs by turn­ing them loose in­di­vid­u­ally in the in­door ring. We use two peo­ple to keep them go­ing so they step out and stretch, and they soon get the hang of it. When I free-longe like

this, horses see the whole ring from dif­fer­ent an­gles, so I move them in cir­cles up and down the ring with the help of the other per­son. If you start by keep­ing them on one cir­cle un­til they’re per­fect and then you ride them around, they haven’t been able to take in ev­ery­thing, so they might say, “What’s that horse I see out the win­dow? What’s out­side that door?” I like them to see ev­ery part of the ring.

Af­ter that, we free-longe them in a small ring a bit in side reins ad­justed fairly loosely at first be­fore putting them on the longe line then ad­just­ing the side reins as the horses progress so they get used to the con­cept of con­tact. Some­times they panic when you ask them to go on a cir­cle be­cause they never go in small cir­cles on the race­track, but they fig­ure it out. They also need to get used to go­ing to the right be­cause at the track they al­ways go to the left.

Once you build a re­la­tion­ship on the ground and have a bet­ter sense of what you’re deal­ing with, you can tailor your train­ing plan to what your horse needs. I don’t start train­ing them un­der sad­dle un­til they un­der­stand how to go for­ward, ac­cept con­tact and know voice com­mands on the longe line. The time frame is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent for ev­ery horse. Some pick it up in a week while oth­ers take a month. But for the most part, Thor­ough­breds un­der­stand all the ground­work within one or two weeks and it builds a re­la­tion­ship. In my early un­der-sad­dle train­ing with an OTTB, I walk him over a pole on the ground and do things to ex­pose the horse to new ex­pe­ri­ences, from trail rid­ing to go­ing to small shows where he doesn’t com­pete. This also helps a horse to re­cover from flash­backs of his race­track days.

Some horses han­dle the tran­si­tion from the race­track en­vi­ron­ment well; oth­ers need more time, es­pe­cially if they get flash­backs. If you take an OTTB off your prop­erty in a group of horses, for in­stance, it can be a track flash­back. Loud­speak­ers also trig­ger mem­o­ries. One horse I trained was fine in the in­door, but when we opened the doors, he tried to bolt. Walk­ing through the open doors was a flash­back to the start­ing gate.

Once a horse can han­dle dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments and ex­pe­ri­ences con­fi­dently, I know that he’s ready to start a suc­cess­ful sec­ond ca­reer as an event horse.

Af­ter a new ex-race­horse ar­rives at my barn, I don’t put him into in­tense work. In­stead, I treat him like an un­bro­ken horse.

Holly (right) with her mother, Mar­i­lyn Payne, at a fundraiser for Holly’s trip to Great Bri­tain’s Land Rover Burgh­ley Horse Tri­als

Holly was glad she was on a Thor­ough­bred at Great Bri­tain’s 2016 four-star Land Rover Burgh­ley Horse Tri­als, where a lot of horses tired while travers­ing the rain-soaked cross-coun­try course. Never Out­foxed, how­ever, still had run in him at the fin­ish line.

Holly and Never Out­foxed at the 2016 Rolex Ken­tucky Three-Day Event

Tak­ing trail rides on young Thor­ough­breds at Old Fox Farm is part of Holly’s train­ing method for de­vel­op­ing off-the-track prospects.

Holly and Santino were eighth af­ter dres­sage at the 2016 Blen­heim Palace In­ter­na­tional Horse Tri­als and fin­ished in 13th.

Holly and Never Out­foxed per­form in the show-jump­ing arena at Rolex Ken­tucky.

Thor­ough­breds tend to be a lit­tle bit sen­si­tive, but once you have a re­la­tion­ship with one, it works to your ad­van­tage, says Holly, jog­ging Never Out­foxed at the Rolex Ken­tucky Three-Day Event.

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