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October 29, 2012

Yet again, the Retired Racehorse Training Project, Ltd. (RRTP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing demand in the marketplace for Thoroughbreds off the track, has broken new ground. Its Fair Hill Thoroughbreds For All, generously sponsored by Bourbon Lane Stables, took place on Saturday, October 27 in Elkton, Maryland on the day before the Furlongs to Fences Thoroughbred Horse Show at the same location.

This was the first-ever marketplace of Thoroughbreds available for sale or adoption at all levels of second career training, but the day also included twelve straight hours of education about the care and training of these horses and a Thoroughbreds-only trail ride.

Past RRTP innovations that attracted national attention were its founding Training Symposium, its Trainer Challenge, its web launch with interactive databases and educational tools, and its educational collaboration with New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program in Kentucky.

A Marketplace For All

leoKait Schultz shows that OTTBs (in this case, Arctiz, an 8-yo gelding by Tiznow) can give Warmbloods a run for their money in dressage!

Despite the fact that farm owners in the area were busily preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, the events of the day were well-attended and the marketplace of horses offered for sale or adoption was, according to RRTP Secretary Malinda Lawrence, "Fascinating to watch whether you were in the market for a horse or not."

Twenty-five ex-racehorses horses were presented by local professionals, amateurs, and nonprofit organizations that had put anywhere from a week to three years of training into second careers for them. Prices ranged from zero to $25,000, and some had adoption fees designed to support the work of participating organizations like MidAtlantic Horse Rescue and Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue. Each horse was, and still is, listed on the RRTP web site.

They entered the arena in pairs and were ridden on the flat and over jumps if they chose. RRTP president Steuart Pittman read from the descriptions provided by sellers and added enthusiastic commentary. Shoppers were then allowed to follow the horses back to their trailers and stalls to evaluate horses and in some cases ride them. RRTP charged nothing to buyers and nothing to sellers for participation in the event or for commission on sales. There were 103 people who signed up to participate in the marketplace as spectators or buyers and each horse had between 82 and 518 web hits each from online shoppers. Actual sale results will not be available for a few weeks.

"Treated Like Royalty"

The day began at the Clockers Tower at the Fair Hill Training Center's Tapeta and dirt tracks. Eighty-seven people signed up to watch the horses gallop and were treated not only to the grand spectacle of six and seven horse sets appearing in their Team Valor and Herringswell Stables colors, but also insiders commentary by Training Center Manager Sally Goswell, exercise rider and author Alex Brown, and Herringswell Stable's Maggie Kimmit. A consensus emerged quickly among this sport horse crowd that horses who train at this facility are likely to be easy to transition to second careers, if for no other reason than that they hack to and from the track everyday like seasoned foxhunters.

The next stop was the barn and Therapy Center tours. Like everything at Fair Hill this was organized with the horse's welfare in mind. That meant small groups, moving slowly, and staying quiet. "These horses are treated like royalty," said one participant. "I will never say I 'rescued' a horse from racing again. If I were a horse this is the life I would want."

Thoroughbred Trail Ride

While Graham Motion's staff, Mike Trombetta's staff and Bruce Jackson himself of the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center were showing people around their barns, exercise riders Jennifer Paxson, Kendra Taylor, and Fenneka Bentley led twenty or so others on the first-ever off track Thoroughbred only trail ride. This lucky group not only toured some of the infamous Fair Hill trails but also took a spin around the training track after the racehorses had left. Only one got completely run off with, but that, we are told, was deliberate.

How to Ride a Racehorse

laineyExercise rider, Jennifer Paxson, shows off retired racehorse, No Patience Here's flawless flying changes.The showcase of horses took place from noon until 2pm, and was followed by two demonstrations of riding styles. "We like in these RRTP clinics to show sport horse people just how balanced and tactful a good exercise rider or jockey must be, and how happily the horses go when it's done right," said Steuart. And that is exactly what the crowd saw.

Alex Brown and Jennifer Paxson rode in their exercise saddles while trainer Tim Woolley, whose wife Penny organized the show the following day, and Derby-winning ex-jockey Ronnie Franklin offered commentary. Franklin's advice to prospective exercise riders and jockeys was, "You have to really like horses, and to be good at it they have to like you." Woolley was clear that he likes the riders who keep their hands down and can settle a horse's nerves.

Jennifer Paxson demonstrated consistent and clean flying changes on a horse she had never ridden who had not been asked to do them since his racing days. Alex Brown demonstrated the importance of the yoke before passing his horse in racing tack on to a very accomplished show rider who suddenly felt out of her element.

Then six game riders who had presented horses in the marketplace shortened their stirrups "as short as you dare" and trotted and cantered around the arena as Tim and Alex coached them into that sweet spot over their feet and their hands to a stable bridge. Spectators laughed freely and sympathetically as some riders struggled and others showed off skills that they hoped would land them a job in Woolley's Fair Hill training operation.

How To Ride an Ex-Racehorse

The riders were then allowed to put their stirrups back to a more comfortable length as Steuart Pittman took over the microphone for a session on transitioning ex-racehorses to second careers. A major focus was on using the balance, stillness, and quiet hands of a good exercise rider when encouraging an impulsive or nervous horse to settle into the rhythm from which it can learn.

Matt Martinez, a working student at Pittman's Dodon Farm Training Center, was asked to jump a horse in the exercise tack without lengthening his stirrups. "Matt has less hours on a horse than anybody else out here by far, but more hours on the side of a mountain with a snowboard under his feet," explained Pittman. "Watch how easy it is for him to maintain his balance over his feet and how little he moves before, during, or after the jump." His horse responded by cantering the fences in a rhythm that might have won him a hunter class in Sunday's horse show.

Local eventing professional Tracey Bienemann demonstrated on the flat and over fences with her Geoni, a four year old who raced last October and just won his first horse trials at the Training level with a dressage score of 70% over jumps at 3'3". Pittman reminded the audience that not all of us have the skills to move a horse along that successfully, but that it is commonplace among the best riders in the sport of eventing. That, he said, is why people like Tracey can pay their bills transitioning ex-racehorses to new careers. "The horses have raced, so their bodies and minds are accustomed to the work. They key to increasing the horse's value is outstanding training."

solidify-jumpTate-Pearce Williams shows off Solidify's beautiful jumping style.The session ended with two very happy young ladies riding two famous ex-racehorses.  Tate Pearce Williams is the proud owner and rider of Solidify ("Dai-O"), the Fingerlakes racehorse who was sent to MidAtlantic Horse Rescue and then entered in the RRTP Trainer Challenge at the start of 2012. He was trained during the challenge by Tiffany Cattledge of Middleburg, VA.

Susan Trumpler now owns Four X The Trouble ("Tempyst"), the youngest horse in the RRTP Trainer Challenge who was trained by Kerry Blackmer of Frederick, MD and presented by Robyn Cobblyn.

Steuart commented on the strengths and weaknesses of each horse as they worked on the flat, jumped through a grid, and schooled a vertical and an oxer. Nobody could deny that these were happy partnerships with lots of potential. Both horses had already competed in lower level eventing and the riders have lofty goals for them.

Steuart asked the audience to go to the RRTP You Tube channel to review videos of these horses in January and February to see how far they had come. He stressed that in the case of Solidify particularly the quality of his movement and ability to jump and land comfortably off his fences had improved immensely. "The take home message," he said, " is that a horse can come off the track a little sore in its topline and fool you. Six months later you might find that quality like this was hiding beneath the surface."

The Soundness Seminar

You would think people would go home and get ready for the hurricane by 5pm, but not this group. Seventy-four signed up for the evening reception and presentations at the Fair Hill Equine Veterinary Care Clinic. Dr. Kathy Anderson and Dr. Charles Arensberg welcomed everyone with some much appreciated food and drinks before shuttling us upstairs to their seminar hall for what had to have been the most comprehensive and well-prepared presentation on the topic of soundness issues in Thoroughbred ex-racehorses ever presented.

A team of three of New Bolton Center's finest did presentations. Dr. Janik Gaslorowski led with a dynamic review of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" soft tissue and bone injuries, including not only therapies and surgeries for each but also the estimated cost, rehabilitation times, and prognosis. Dr. Michelle Abraham reviewed internal medical issues focusing primarily on airway obstruction and its causes, since so many racehorses are retired due to complications in this area. Jennifer Wrigley addressed nutrition and gastric concerns for horses in race training and during the transition to new careers.

The most exciting part of the evening was when all three panelists, plus Dr. Anderson, Dr. Arensberg, New Bolton's Dr. James Orsini, and Fair Hill Therapy Center's Bruce Jackson took questions from the audience. Topics jumped from straight pasterns, to kissing spine, to knee chips, to the effect of training in young horses.

Dr. Orsini led a fascinating discussion about recent research showing stronger bones and ligaments in horses who trained as two year olds over those who did not. Bruce Jackson observed that four year old racehorses who started training later in life due to injuries early on seemed to be having more soundness issues than their peers who worked steadily through their two and three year old years. Steuart Pittman observed that homebred Thoroughbreds started under saddle at age three seemed more fragile and more difficult to train than horses who began life at the track.

A consensus emerged that RRTP and others who promote ex-racehorses for sport should spread the word that science can now prove what many of us have known for years: a young horse that has raced and retired sound is likely to be more durable and sound in the long run than one that grew up with less exercise.

RRTP has video of the evening seminar and much of the day's activities that will be available here soon.

The next major RRTP event will be a sequel to the 2012 Trainer Challenge with an exciting twist soon to be announced. All updates and notices will be posted on the Retired Racehorse Training Project Facebook page. Be sure to select it as a "favorite."