The Thoroughbred, some believe, finds it easier to run than to walk. I set out to prove them wrong with Remarkable 54. He is a horse who can gallop, but he can also stand, walk quietly, trot and canter. His jump is easy and his playfulness makes me smile.
I found Remarkable in May 2015 with the idea of competing him in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium the following October at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. I’d wanted to compete in the Makeover since watching Olympic eventer Phillip Dutton win it in 2014.
The 2015 event was open to tattooed racehorses who had not started second career training before January of the same year. Each horse could compete in one or two of 10 featured disciplines. At the event’s end, one of the horses would be crowned “American’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred.”
I planned to enter Remarkable in the eventing and freestyle disciplines. The eventing consisted of dressage and a short jumping course outside. Half the jumps were show jumps and half were cross-country jumps. In the freestyle, competitors crafted a six-minute routine that highlighted their horses’ strengths.
I announced in June that Remarkable and I planned to win. He had everything I look for in a horse: the gaits, the jump, the brain, the heart. So why not aim high?
Remarkable retired from the track in 2014 with The Jockey Club name Mr. Pleasantree. Now 5 years old, he had raced 20 times in Phoenix, Arizona, and won four, but it’s doubtful his heart was ever truly in it—“he would rather eat the turf than run on it,” said Reed Zimmer, DVM, his first owner off the track. Dr. Zimmer sold the horse to his girlfriend, who sold him to trainer Liz Millikin, who told my wife about him, who told me about him. He is a tall horse with the classic head and eye of a handsome, old-fashioned racehorse.
We changed his name in honor of a special horse my father owned when he was about my age. The suffix 54 is to promote Liz. (Many sales barns add a distinctive word or number to the horse’s name in the hope that the horse will go on to reflect well on their business.)
As training with Remarkable began with me in New Jersey, I thought ahead to where I wanted him to end up, not just in six months but also in six years. The farther ahead I think, the more attention I pay to the foundation of training so my training pyramid won’t topple over. One of the hardest parts of training is knowing when to back off and when to forge ahead, and it was no different with Remarkable. I started to develop a plan for him that revolved around three concepts.
Concept 1: Start from A Point of Success
The first concept I followed was “Start From a Point of Success Rather Than a Point of Failure.” As my horses try to figure something out, I don’t want them to feel frustrated or wrong. I would rather back up to a simpler exercise until they figure it out. This applies to many situations, from starting a young horse to training dressage to jumping.
With Remarkable, one goal was that he would be able to stay calm and focused on me in front of a crowd in a main area with lots of music and movement because I knew we would have to face that at the Makeover. What I didn’t do right off the bat was go into a crowd and work until he paid attention.
During the first months, I would ask for calm and focus but only in situations where he could easily give them to me. Then I would slowly take him out to places where there were more distractions. He got better and better around other horses, people and noise. We went to four horse trials on the East Coast. We did a small demonstration at Bucks County Horse Park in Pennsylvania. Each time I could push a little more, but I was still careful to train rather than test what I was doing.
Another example of this concept was in our jumping. I wanted Remarkable to be able to jump bridleless so I could show off his rideability at the Makeover. But I started jumping in a bridle and worked on communication. Could we easily go? Could we jump, then easily stop? Could we easily turn? Did he understand?
Next could I ride him in just a neck strap? Could I still canter, halt, turn? Could he still pay attention outside? In the wind?
When the training went too fast, Remarkable let me know. With most Thoroughbreds, it is easy to read their anxiety simply by how much they want to move. We then returned to a situation where we were successful and started again there. I tried to set him up to succeed.
A horse does not spook or show evasions for no reason. There is always a reason. The difficult part can be figuring out the reason, then helping your horse be OK with that before advancing. If the problem is not addressed, tension builds up, like steam in a kettle until all it takes is a whisper for the kettle to boil over.
In the five months I had to prepare, it wasn’t until the last two weeks that we actually tried to jump with no bridle.
Concept 2: The Olympics Of Everything
There is an Olympics for dressage, eventing and show jumping, but what would the Olympics of saddling be? What would be the four-star of trailer loading?
Imagine a World Cup for ground-tying: Not only does each horse stand untied where he is placed, but he does it with relaxation and understanding, his head low and mouth salivating. And he can do it with horses galloping around and crowds screaming.
What about the Burghley of leading: Each horse stays with his partner with no lead rope or halter. He stops when his partner stops and goes when his partner goes. They turn in unison and stop together, just as a mare and foal might.
Before Remarkable and I left for the 12-hour trailer ride to the Kentucky Horse Park, we could walk and run with no halter. He could ground-tie and wait for me patiently. Trailer loading? Not a problem.
Trying to be the best at such basic skills gave Remarkable and me a concrete foundation that I knew would serve us well. At a major competition, there will always be the unexpected, and the stronger a horse’s basics skills, the easier it is to deal with new experiences.
Concept 3: Make the Whole World Neutral
The third concept I followed was “Make the Whole World Neutral.”
Every horse is born with innate motivations. They are drawn to open spaces, other horses, water, food and play. They are curious. They don’t like predatory acts. They tend not to like things that move quickly, erratically or toward them. They are scared of sudden loud noises, especially new ones. Wind in the branches? Probably danger.
Once the horse enters the human’s world, we start to influence those likes and dislikes. Whereas a feral horse is scared of humans and barns, he can quickly associate it with food and comfort. I try to look at everything in the horse’s world from his point of view. Objects push them away, draw them closer or are neutral.
When Remarkable was scared of a water crossing, I made it neutral by offering him food when he walked up to it. When he would rather be in the grassy paddock than with me, I made it neutral by doing some of the harder work in the paddock and then bringing him to me for a rest.
Once the whole world was neutral, I could shift his interest by adding the tiniest amount of leg or by giving him the smallest treat. It was like having an hourglass that was balanced equally and all I had to do was shift one grain of sand to adjust his interest and movement. That, of course, is a lifelong pursuit.
Concepts in Action
In the 2015 Makeover’s freestyle, there were 25 entrants. Riders had six minutes to show off their horses however they saw fit. Acts included costumes, castles, flaming rings of fire and obstacle courses. There were blindfolded driving horses and bowing trail horses. Trainers had the option to talk during their demonstration, have music playing or a combination of both.
I planned my performance to be simple. There were to be as few props as possible. I wanted it to be about Remarkable and our partnership. When the rider before me finished, I took off Remarkable’s halter and prepared to enter the ring. I waited for the music to start, and I hoped he would follow me in.
The day before the freestyle we’d been allowed to enter the arena and walk around. Remarkable shied away from every banner on the rail. I asked Rick, my father, and Emily, my assistant, to walk around the outside of the ring and stop at every banner with a carrot.
So during the performance, when the music started and the judges picked up their pens, I knew that he wasn’t scared of the banners anymore. Of course, that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to be afraid of something else. I had only our training to keep him with me as we hopefully played in the arena together.
We entered the main arena shoulder to shoulder. We looked around—the crowd was a lot to take in. We started to trot. We turned. We stopped. The people started to disappear and blur until it was just the two of us in the building.
The first three minutes, I was on the ground and he was at liberty. He ran and he bucked, but he kept an eye on me and he kept coming back. The second three minutes I rode with no bridle. We galloped around the ring, but we walked as well. We jumped and we halted.
We were alone as the music stopped when the six minutes had passed. I looked around. People were clapping. I looked at Remarkable and he looked back at me. I stood up on his back and waved. Then he got a carrot, and we walked out of the arena together.
Believing in a Mission
At the same time that Remarkable and I were preparing for the 2015 Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, Steuart Pittman, president of the Retired Racehorse Project, and his team, were preparing to host it.
In its third year, the Makeover is a national gathering of farms, organizations and trainers interested in transitioning former racehorses into successful off-track careers. In addition to the competition, there were 10 educational seminars and a Makeover Marketplace that presented Thoroughbreds for sale or adoption and a sponsor fair.
The Makeover initially accepted 350 horses into the competition in early 2015 and then started a wait list. In the end, almost 200 competed. “Many were sold before the event or their trainers chose to keep them home because they felt they weren’t ready to compete,” Steuart said. “We’re collecting data on how many of the original horses were sold, still in training or injured.”
I asked Steuart how his team selected the 10 disciplines to be included in the Makeover competition. He said they “chose disciplines in which Thoroughbreds are used and where their potential market is great.”
This year each horse was allowed to enter two disciplines, and I competed Remarkable 54 in the eventing and the freestyle. In the eventing, which had 39 horses, we finished fifth. Judges looked for upper-level potential, harmony and trainability. In the freestyle, which had 25 horses, we were awarded first place. Steuart’s vision for the freestyle was “to bring in trainers who do something less traditional.”
The top three horses from each division returned on Sunday for the finale. These 30 horses performed again for the judges, and America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred was named at the end. The winner was Soar, a beautiful gray mare, owned and ridden by Lindsey Partridge of Ontario, Canada.
Steuart and his team believe in their mission. He is a lifelong horse trainer and the eighth generation of his family to live on Dodon Farm in Davidsonville, Maryland. He is easily likeable, and his enthusiasm for Thoroughbreds is contagious. His team wants to give these horses, and their owners, a voice.
“Thoroughbreds are second to Quarter Horses by population in this country,” Steuart says. “The American Horse Council estimates that there are 450,000 Thoroughbreds outside of racing in America. That is probably 150,000 proud owners of OTTBs. [Some owners own more than one Thoroughbred.] These people have never had a national gathering, a magazine or an association. That’s why Retired Racehorse Project and its Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine and Thoroughbred Makeover are so popular. It’s all a no-brainer. Like a great horse, it just takes a bit of nurturing.”
Steuart is already planning for next year’s Makeover, and he is anticipating a lot more entries: “Don’t be surprised if we start a day earlier to fit in more competitors and more educational demonstrations,” he says. “The application process this year is likely to start with trainer approval. Once trainers are approved, they will identify the eligible horse they will train. The reason for this is twofold. We expect over 1,000 applications and we don’t think we can handle more than 350 or so horses this year. Rather than screen eligible horses we will screen trainers. We want excellence and we want diversity. We want professionals, amateurs and juniors in each sport, but we want the best of each category that we can get.”
I asked Steuart if he could have any rider enter this competition whom would he chose? Steuart replied: “I’m greedy so here’s a list: McLain Ward, Robert Dover, Buck Brannaman, William Fox-Pitt, Nacho Figueras and everyone else who is at the pinnacle of horse sports. I’d like to see all these superstars on impeccably trained Thoroughbreds but for an unknown teenager from nowhere to blow them all away in the finale with a performance that epitomizes the horse–human connection and launches the career of another great horse trainer.”
For more information about the 2016 Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, which will be in Lexington, Kentucky, October 27–30, go to www.retiredracehorseproject.org.—Tik Maynard
Eventer and natural horsemanship advocate Tik Maynard spent six years on the Canadian National Team competing in the modern pentathlon, which includes riding, pistol shooting, fencing, swimming and running. He competed at the 2007 Pan American Games, three World Championships and 11 World Cups before focusing on eventing. He was long-listed for the Canadian Eventing Team for the 2012 London Olympics and currently is long-listed for the national team. He was a working student for eventers David and Karen O’Connor and Ingrid Klimke, German dressage trainer Johann Hinnemann and natural horseman and cutting trainer Bruce Logan. He also worked as an assistant trainer for show jumper Anne Kursinski. Married to eventer Sinead Halpin, Tik conducts eventing and natural horsemanship clinics throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Last December, he spoke at USEA’s Annual Meeting about “How Horses Learn.” For more, go to www.tik.ca. To watch a video of his and Remarkable’s winning freestyle performance, go to www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com.
This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.