My Mustang Isn’t Who I Thought She Was

What a surprise!  My mustang isn’t who I thought she was.

Stellar is my mustang. I adopted her late last summer, or rather she adopted me.

I am a volunteer member of a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) District’s Resource Advisory Council, a committee that meets regularly to learn about issues and actions the BLM district is facing. As committee members, we do research and provide input.  Early last summer, as part of that committee, I toured a new BLM off-range holding facility for wild horses in Bruneau, Idaho. It’s a well thought-out, well-designed facility for holding horses too old for adoption or otherwise less likely to be adopted—nearly 3,000 of them. The intent is to hold them there until they can be sent to long-term holding facilities back East.

Stellar, in lucky Pen 13 with the older mares.

Photo: Alayne Blickle

The tour was quite interesting and as we were going along it was only natural for me to admire the horses, so many nice-looking ones with good confirmation. That’s when I saw Stellar, in lucky Pen 13 which held all older mares. I was struck by her kind, calm eye and beautiful long mane all in dreadlocks. As I reached out to touch her, I realized she wasn’t frightened of me like most wild horses. I touched her face, tentatively at first, then her ears, neck, and shoulders. She stood next to the fence with her eyes half-closed, craving attention as I scratched her withers.

I left her side to continued with the tour but soon realized she was following me, begging for more attention and pushing other horses out of the way to stand as close to me as possible, quietly waiting for me to notice her again.

Eventually Stellar did come home with us, and I’ve been working with her as much as possible, doing my best to teach her to be a solid citizen—to halter, lead, be groomed, move body parts, stand tied, pick up her feet, be saddled, bridled, ground driven with long lines, trailer loaded, hosed off, be ponied (at the walk, trot, and even lope). She’s learned to stand to have her feet trimmed and we’ve even begun riding under saddle. She’s been calm, kind, and so appreciative of attention a along. For me it’s been a blast, an amazing journey I never expected to experience.

Now for the surprise—the cavalry has arrived!

For the most part, mustangs are thought to be descendants of horses brought to the North America by early Spanish explorers. Stellar looks to me like a Quarter Horse draft pony mix, but with her beautiful long mane and tail I figured she had some Spanish blood in there some place. I recently learned about equine genetic testing for horses where DNA testing is used to determine ancestry. I eagerly sent in my 30-50 mane hairs with follicles, then sat back awaiting my results.

Stellar looks to me like a Quarter Horse draft pony mix, but with her beautiful long mane and tail I figured she had some Spanish blood in there some place

Photo: Alayne Blickle

How amazing a thing it is to have a peek into my calm and kind mare’s ancestry!  Stellar’s genetic debut revealed something much different than I expected:

  • Selle Français,
  • Hackney, and
  • Holsteiner!

When I spoke with the researcher at the Texas A&M University laboratory where I submitted the test, he explained a few things to me. I wasn’t familiar with the Selle Français and was quite curious about her Hackney and Holsteiner parts. He referred to Selle Français as “French Thoroughbred,” and said they are the genetic backbone of a lot of working horse breeds, including many of today’s Quarter Horses. He also made it clear that all three of the breeds in Stellar’s genetic makeup were imported from Europe to the New World as workhorses (he said Hackneys were used as carthorses) and the U.S. Calvary relied heavily on all three breeds. Stellar grew up in Wyoming in the Adobe Town Horse Management Area—in the 1800s there were several military posts and forts nearby. I picture her great-great-great grandparents pulling heavy military wagons and helping to build forts or railroads.

So, based on Stellar’s DNA typing, my mustang actually carries bloodlines of hard-working relatives in her background—surprisingly European and not at all Spanish. I wonder if that means Stellar and I have a future in carthorse driving? 

My Mustang Isn’t Who I Thought She Was

What a surprise!  My mustang isn’t who I thought she was.

Stellar is my mustang. I adopted her late last summer, or rather she adopted me.

I am a volunteer member of a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) District’s Resource Advisory Council, a committee that meets regularly to learn about issues and actions the BLM district is facing. As committee members, we do research and provide input.  Early last summer, as part of that committee, I toured a new BLM off-range holding facility for wild horses in Bruneau, Idaho. It’s a well thought-out, well-designed facility for holding horses too old for adoption or otherwise less likely to be adopted—nearly 3,000 of them. The intent is to hold them there until they can be sent to long-term holding facilities back East.

Stellar, in lucky Pen 13 with the older mares.

Photo: Alayne Blickle

The tour was quite interesting and as we were going along it was only natural for me to admire the horses, so many nice-looking ones with good confirmation. That’s when I saw Stellar, in lucky Pen 13 which held all older mares. I was struck by her kind, calm eye and beautiful long mane all in dreadlocks. As I reached out to touch her, I realized she wasn’t frightened of me like most wild horses. I touched her face, tentatively at first, then her ears, neck, and shoulders. She stood next to the fence with her eyes half-closed, craving attention as I scratched her withers.

I left her side to continued with the tour but soon realized she was following me, begging for more attention and pushing other horses out of the way to stand as close to me as possible, quietly waiting for me to notice her again.

Eventually Stellar did come home with us, and I’ve been working with her as much as possible, doing my best to teach her to be a solid citizen—to halter, lead, be groomed, move body parts, stand tied, pick up her feet, be saddled, bridled, ground driven with long lines, trailer loaded, hosed off, be ponied (at the walk, trot, and even lope). She’s learned to stand to have her feet trimmed and we’ve even begun riding under saddle. She’s been calm, kind, and so appreciative of attention a along. For me it’s been a blast, an amazing journey I never expected to experience.

Now for the surprise—the cavalry has arrived!

For the most part, mustangs are thought to be descendants of horses brought to the North America by early Spanish explorers. Stellar looks to me like a Quarter Horse draft pony mix, but with her beautiful long mane and tail I figured she had some Spanish blood in there some place. I recently learned about equine genetic testing for horses where DNA testing is used to determine ancestry. I eagerly sent in my 30-50 mane hairs with follicles, then sat back awaiting my results.

Stellar looks to me like a Quarter Horse draft pony mix, but with her beautiful long mane and tail I figured she had some Spanish blood in there some place

Photo: Alayne Blickle

How amazing a thing it is to have a peek into my calm and kind mare’s ancestry!  Stellar’s genetic debut revealed something much different than I expected:

  • Selle Français,
  • Hackney, and
  • Holsteiner!

When I spoke with the researcher at the Texas A&M University laboratory where I submitted the test, he explained a few things to me. I wasn’t familiar with the Selle Français and was quite curious about her Hackney and Holsteiner parts. He referred to Selle Français as “French Thoroughbred,” and said they are the genetic backbone of a lot of working horse breeds, including many of today’s Quarter Horses. He also made it clear that all three of the breeds in Stellar’s genetic makeup were imported from Europe to the New World as workhorses (he said Hackneys were used as carthorses) and the U.S. Calvary relied heavily on all three breeds. Stellar grew up in Wyoming in the Adobe Town Horse Management Area—in the 1800s there were several military posts and forts nearby. I picture her great-great-great grandparents pulling heavy military wagons and helping to build forts or railroads.

So, based on Stellar’s DNA typing, my mustang actually carries bloodlines of hard-working relatives in her background—surprisingly European and not at all Spanish. I wonder if that means Stellar and I have a future in carthorse driving? 

A Valid Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship

Every month I hear from at least a reader or two who are gravely disappointed that we won’t tell them exactly how much of what type of treatment or supplement to use for a specific horse. They’ll say that we simply cover topics too broadly to be useful. My response to these readers: Are you looking for treatment advice individual to your horse? If so, please, please call your veterinarian.

Practitioners have years of training and experience and can weigh treatment benefits with potential dangers.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/TheHorse.com

Similarly to humans, each equine patient is different. Their health, as well as ours, is the sum of our genetics, health history, environmental exposures and experiences, and a host of other influences. And just as a physician isn’t necessarily going to prescribe the same treatment for me as he would another 39-year-old female, he certainly isn’t going to do it sight unseen. It would put him in danger of violating the “do no harm” tenet. The patient’s health could diminish or worse could happen.

In the February issue (now available here) you’ll see the first of a two-part series on first-aid supplies and techniques. Our editorial board advised against running a list of prescription drugs to keep on hand because a lot can go wrong with these meds if given without a diagnosis and especially without an established veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR). A classic example that comes to mind is clostridial myositis following intramuscular administration of Banamine (I’ve seen several of these painful cases of muscle infection caused by anaerobic clostridial bacteria). Similarly, using the wrong kind of medication—even an over-the-counter one!—can cause a corneal ulcer to deteriorate.

Practitioners have years of training and experience and can weigh treatment benefits with potential dangers, such as antibiotic resistance.

I’m fortunate enough to see the VCPR work as it should in my barn. The reality is you’ll be hard-pressed to find any horse owner or farm operator who doesn’t have a prescription drug or two left over from previous treatment courses or for use at their veterinarian’s instruction in case of emergency. The important distinction here is my barn friends and I are not do-it-yourself-ers; we consult our veterinarians for advice.

Recently my gelding developed a hematoma on his neck from a kick. I called his veterinarian with vital signs and texted her photos. She said it looked minor and advised me to cold-hose the swelling and administer an oral anti-inflammatory from an earlier visit, and to call with updates in the morning. He fared fine.

A more poignant example: Just a few days ago I held my friend’s older horse while she gave him a tranquilizer dose at the advice of her veterinarian. The gelding’s blindness had progressed to where he was frequently agitated, and she wanted nothing more than to calm him for a short time until the vet could come out to usher him to his final rest.

To me this is the ultimate example of how a valid VCPR helps us be the most responsible, ethical, loving horse owners we can be.

This Viewpoint appears in the February issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.

A Valid Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship

Every month I hear from at least a reader or two who are gravely disappointed that we won’t tell them exactly how much of what type of treatment or supplement to use for a specific horse. They’ll say that we simply cover topics too broadly to be useful. My response to these readers: Are you looking for treatment advice individual to your horse? If so, please, please call your veterinarian.

Practitioners have years of training and experience and can weigh treatment benefits with potential dangers.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/TheHorse.com

Similarly to humans, each equine patient is different. Their health, as well as ours, is the sum of our genetics, health history, environmental exposures and experiences, and a host of other influences. And just as a physician isn’t necessarily going to prescribe the same treatment for me as he would another 39-year-old female, he certainly isn’t going to do it sight unseen. It would put him in danger of violating the “do no harm” tenet. The patient’s health could diminish or worse could happen.

In the February issue (now available here) you’ll see the first of a two-part series on first-aid supplies and techniques. Our editorial board advised against running a list of prescription drugs to keep on hand because a lot can go wrong with these meds if given without a diagnosis and especially without an established veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR). A classic example that comes to mind is clostridial myositis following intramuscular administration of Banamine (I’ve seen several of these painful cases of muscle infection caused by anaerobic clostridial bacteria). Similarly, using the wrong kind of medication—even an over-the-counter one!—can cause a corneal ulcer to deteriorate.

Practitioners have years of training and experience and can weigh treatment benefits with potential dangers, such as antibiotic resistance.

I’m fortunate enough to see the VCPR work as it should in my barn. The reality is you’ll be hard-pressed to find any horse owner or farm operator who doesn’t have a prescription drug or two left over from previous treatment courses or for use at their veterinarian’s instruction in case of emergency. The important distinction here is my barn friends and I are not do-it-yourself-ers; we consult our veterinarians for advice.

Recently my gelding developed a hematoma on his neck from a kick. I called his veterinarian with vital signs and texted her photos. She said it looked minor and advised me to cold-hose the swelling and administer an oral anti-inflammatory from an earlier visit, and to call with updates in the morning. He fared fine.

A more poignant example: Just a few days ago I held my friend’s older horse while she gave him a tranquilizer dose at the advice of her veterinarian. The gelding’s blindness had progressed to where he was frequently agitated, and she wanted nothing more than to calm him for a short time until the vet could come out to usher him to his final rest.

To me this is the ultimate example of how a valid VCPR helps us be the most responsible, ethical, loving horse owners we can be.

This Viewpoint appears in the February issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.

9 Ideas for Giving Tuesday

Today, on Giving Tuesday, we pause to contribute to
charitable organizations that are meaningful to us. Keeping these groups in
mind is important year-round, of course, but today is set apart on the
calendar-right after Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday-as
a reminder to donate during this giving season.

Every person’s heart is pulled a different way
for their giving-as I said in my presentation to an equine studies capstone
class at the University of Kentucky a few weeks ago, if everyone’s heart was
bent toward one cause alone, we’d live in a boring one-dimensional place.

If you’re looking for a
place to make an impact, here are some options I’ve visited or worked with. Some
are local to me here in Central Kentucky, while others are international
organizations whose work I have seen in person at their facilities. And here are some others I’ve highlighted in the past

Central Kentucky
Riding for Hope
is a multifaceted program dedicated to enriching the community by
improving the quality of life and the health of children and adults with
special physical, cognitive, emotional. and social needs through therapeutic
activities with the horse. http://www.ckrh.org/

The Donkey Sanctuary exists
to transform the quality of life for donkeys, mules, and people worldwide
through greater understanding, collaboration, and support, and by promoting
lasting, mutually life-enhancing relationships. I visited their facility near
Debre Zeit, Ethiopia, a few years ago, and Erica, our news editor, visited
their facility in Sidmouth, England, in 2014 and wrote her award-winning Tale
of Two Donkeys longform feature
. https://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/

Friends of the Lexington Mounted Police Inc. supports the horses and officers of the Lexington, Kentucky, mounted police unit and their outreach to mounted officers throughout North America with an annual National Mounted Police Colloquium. The Lexington mounted unit also offers a Civilian Equine Sensory Clinic where officers teach civilian horse/rider pairs the same techniques they use to help police horses adapt to the conditions of urban work. Happy and I participated in this clinic in October. Shawna, our brand manager, and I have volunteered and taught riding lessons to the officers on the unit. They are actually looking for a couple of new horses to add to the unit at the moment.
http://friendslexingtonmountedpolice.org/ 

Stephanie and “Happy” (second from left) and The Horse Brand Manager, Shawna and her horse “Chunder” (far right) with the mounted police at the 2016 Masterson Equestrian Trust (MET) Hunter Pace.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

Kentucky Equine
Humane Center’s
horses and other equids in need come to them from a variety
of backgrounds. Some are surrendered by their owners and others have been
rescued from abuse and neglect. Once healed and (re)schooled they are made
available for adoption. The Horse
team has spent a day volunteering at their facility in the past, and it’s a
well-run place with equids of all breeds, shapes, and sizes. http://www.kyehc.org/home.html

Maker’s Mark
Secretariat Center
is a premier reschooling
facility showcasing adoptable Thoroughbreds, and horses emerge from the program
to become ambassadors for racehorses in new careers. I had my eye on a horse at
the Secretariat Center before buying my off-track Thoroughbred privately from
his racing owner. This is a beautiful facility that does good work. http://www.secretariatcenter.org/

Masterson Equestrian
Trust
(MET) Foundation supports
a lovely multipurpose equestrian-friendly municipal park-Masterson Station Park,
here in Lexington. It offers free access to all horse enthusiasts, regardless
of discipline or experience level. The goal of MET is to ensure that this
beautiful facility remains a valuable asset to the equestrian community. http://mastersonequestrian.org/

New Vocations Racehorse
Adoption Program
offers retiring
racehorses a safe-haven, rehabilitation, and continued education through
placement in experienced, caring homes. Their new Lexington-based farm
is just a few minutes from where I live and they are doing great things there.
Happy and I have also participated in their all-Thoroughbred show. http://www.horseadoption.com/

Old Friends provides a dignified retirement to Thoroughbreds
whose racing and breeding careers have come to an end. The operators use
education and tourism to promote these
one-time celebrated horses and hope to raise awareness of all equids in
need. https://www.oldfriendsequine.org/

SPANA believes
that a life of work should never mean a life of suffering, and their mission is
to improve the welfare of working animals in the world’s poorest communities. I
visited their facility on the ground in Debre Zeit in 2013. https://spana.org/

Who do you support on Giving Tuesday?

9 Ideas for Giving Tuesday

Today, on Giving Tuesday, we pause to contribute to
charitable organizations that are meaningful to us. Keeping these groups in
mind is important year-round, of course, but today is set apart on the
calendar-right after Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday-as
a reminder to donate during this giving season.

Every person’s heart is pulled a different way
for their giving-as I said in my presentation to an equine studies capstone
class at the University of Kentucky a few weeks ago, if everyone’s heart was
bent toward one cause alone, we’d live in a boring one-dimensional place.

If you’re looking for a
place to make an impact, here are some options I’ve visited or worked with. Some
are local to me here in Central Kentucky, while others are international
organizations whose work I have seen in person at their facilities. And here are some others I’ve highlighted in the past

Central Kentucky
Riding for Hope
is a multifaceted program dedicated to enriching the community by
improving the quality of life and the health of children and adults with
special physical, cognitive, emotional. and social needs through therapeutic
activities with the horse. http://www.ckrh.org/

The Donkey Sanctuary exists
to transform the quality of life for donkeys, mules, and people worldwide
through greater understanding, collaboration, and support, and by promoting
lasting, mutually life-enhancing relationships. I visited their facility near
Debre Zeit, Ethiopia, a few years ago, and Erica, our news editor, visited
their facility in Sidmouth, England, in 2014 and wrote her award-winning Tale
of Two Donkeys longform feature
. https://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/

Friends of the Lexington Mounted Police Inc. supports the horses and officers of the Lexington, Kentucky, mounted police unit and their outreach to mounted officers throughout North America with an annual National Mounted Police Colloquium. The Lexington mounted unit also offers a Civilian Equine Sensory Clinic where officers teach civilian horse/rider pairs the same techniques they use to help police horses adapt to the conditions of urban work. Happy and I participated in this clinic in October. Shawna, our brand manager, and I have volunteered and taught riding lessons to the officers on the unit. They are actually looking for a couple of new horses to add to the unit at the moment.
http://friendslexingtonmountedpolice.org/ 

Stephanie and “Happy” (second from left) and The Horse Brand Manager, Shawna and her horse “Chunder” (far right) with the mounted police at the 2016 Masterson Equestrian Trust (MET) Hunter Pace.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

Kentucky Equine
Humane Center’s
horses and other equids in need come to them from a variety
of backgrounds. Some are surrendered by their owners and others have been
rescued from abuse and neglect. Once healed and (re)schooled they are made
available for adoption. The Horse
team has spent a day volunteering at their facility in the past, and it’s a
well-run place with equids of all breeds, shapes, and sizes. http://www.kyehc.org/home.html

Maker’s Mark
Secretariat Center
is a premier reschooling
facility showcasing adoptable Thoroughbreds, and horses emerge from the program
to become ambassadors for racehorses in new careers. I had my eye on a horse at
the Secretariat Center before buying my off-track Thoroughbred privately from
his racing owner. This is a beautiful facility that does good work. http://www.secretariatcenter.org/

Masterson Equestrian
Trust
(MET) Foundation supports
a lovely multipurpose equestrian-friendly municipal park-Masterson Station Park,
here in Lexington. It offers free access to all horse enthusiasts, regardless
of discipline or experience level. The goal of MET is to ensure that this
beautiful facility remains a valuable asset to the equestrian community. http://mastersonequestrian.org/

New Vocations Racehorse
Adoption Program
offers retiring
racehorses a safe-haven, rehabilitation, and continued education through
placement in experienced, caring homes. Their new Lexington-based farm
is just a few minutes from where I live and they are doing great things there.
Happy and I have also participated in their all-Thoroughbred show. http://www.horseadoption.com/

Old Friends provides a dignified retirement to Thoroughbreds
whose racing and breeding careers have come to an end. The operators use
education and tourism to promote these
one-time celebrated horses and hope to raise awareness of all equids in
need. https://www.oldfriendsequine.org/

SPANA believes
that a life of work should never mean a life of suffering, and their mission is
to improve the welfare of working animals in the world’s poorest communities. I
visited their facility on the ground in Debre Zeit in 2013. https://spana.org/

Who do you support on Giving Tuesday?

Two Very Different Racehorses

One was an attractive roan Thoroughbred gelding with 12 race starts as a 3-year-old. He never placed higher than fourth. The lanky gelding won a touch more than $1,400 before retiring, and I met him as a fleabitten gray nine years later on a farm in Northern Virginia.

The other is a striking chestnut gelding that retired at 8 years old a bit more decorated. His first graded stakes win came when he was 5 … it would be three more years before he and I would meet. He raced with some well-known jockeys in the irons, such as Rosie Napravnik and the late Michael Baze, and he amassed 51 starts and winnings of nearly $696,000 by his retirement in July 2014.

Both Icy Edge (“Icy”) and It Happened Again (“Happy”) feature strongly in my office decor.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

These two Thoroughbreds have very different racing backgrounds, and several decades separated their time on the track.

But they have two important things in common.

First, both of them—Icy Edge (“Icy”) and It Happened Again (“Happy”)—feature strongly in my family’s horse history and in our hearts. Second, somewhere along the way, someone made forward-thinking decisions about their racing retirement, retraining, and marketability as athletes.

While I don’t have many details on Icy’s progression from racehorse to sport horse, he was a made eventer schooling intermediate under young riders by the time we bought him at age 12. He was smart, willing, athletic, brave, and notably quirky.

Icy Edge

Photo: Sarah Lynn Church

The family selling him was committed to finding great owners, and I remember taking them a VHS videotape with footage of our barn and horses to get their approval.

Happy had what seemed like a small army ready to promote him for his second career. One person told another person, who told another that I was looking for a sensible, “happy” off-the-track-thoroughbred (OTTB), and within a month I had heard about Happy, flown to Arkansas, tried him, and made the phone call to purchase him.

I agreed with his racing owner that if I ever wanted to sell him that I would call her first, which was an easy promise for me to make. I know she loves Happy and wants him to always have a great owner.

I write about Happy a lot in my print magazine column, and also here. He is smart, willing, athletic, brave, and seems eager to learn. And, of course, he’s super quirky. (Quite honestly, I’ve been hard-pressed to find a memorable horse or pony that isn’t.)

A few years ago—incidentally at the Kentucky Derby–I spoke with several racing Quarter Horse owners about the versatility of their charges. When I think about Quarter Horses, I think about great, reliable all-around mounts—sort of the Honda Accord or Ford pickup of breeds, with the potential to be enjoyed by multiple people in their lifetime. This family’s racehorses became second- and third-career ranch horses, trail horses, and even children’s mounts. I talked with one couple about their currently successful racehorse that was already flagged as a roping mount.

Thoroughbreds are no different. They’re athletic, versatile, have tons of heart, and have just as much enjoyment potential. I’ve seen this not only in Icy and Happy but also in countless friends’ horses over the years. And while not every Thoroughbred racehorse has its own built-in grassroots marketing team the way my two did, the performance horse industry’s renewed interest in Thoroughbreds over the past few years, after a few decades of Warmbloods dominating the disciplines, means more and more Thoroughbreds are gaining such teams organically.

We off-track Thoroughbred owners are notorious for researching. As we examine our horses’ pedigrees—and, with them, histories we can sometimes trace back to their foaling stall—it’s as if their heritage becomes ours. We pore over their race records; visit their sire and dam if we can find them; follow their half-siblings in their racing and second careers; and we get a little sad when horses in their bloodline die. For instance, Happy’s sire, Proud Citizen, whom I was lucky to get to meet this past winter, is now gone, as is his broodmare sire, Quiet American.

This fanatical interest is no different when it comes to heart-horses long past … earlier this year I got to see Icy’s sire’s and grandsire’s graves at Gainesway—The Axe II and Mahmoud. It felt a little bit like standing near royalty.
The retired-racehorse owner’s fascination with pedigrees and race records is nothing new.  But I see evidence of the fascination spreading in the growing popularity of OTTB-focused online gatherings (Facebook fan pages, message boards, etc.), OTTB merchandise, and Thoroughbred-focused horse shows and point programs.

I’m also noticing that many owners are looking at individuals in their racing stables with intent to sell as second-career athletes. In my area—and I live right here in the Horse Capital of the World and where the Thoroughbred Makeover will commence today—there’s a strong interest in OTTBs, especially among young adult eventers. These riders network to match prospects and buyers, while campaigning their own OTTBs at various levels within the sport. I’ve even helped connect a racing owner with a college friend to create a partnership with a young Thoroughbred.

Courageous Comet is an example of an off-Track Thoroughbred who has gone the distance as an eventer with Becky Holder.

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

Indeed, many of us have known and celebrated the retired racehorse for years, but no one can deny the renewed interest in the market. This excitement about and interest in OTTBs is in great part due to the Retired Racehorse Project, its Thoroughbred Makeover, and to a variety of other organizations and individuals marketing the Thoroughbred as an ideal prospect for everything from polo to working ranch. We also have retired racehorses such as Courageous Comet (who, with Becky Holder, won the 2012 American Eventing Championships and represented the United States at the 2008 Olympics) and Blackfoot Mystery (who represented Team USA in eventing this year at the Rio Olympics) to thank, helping us remember when OTTBs like Touch of Class, JJ Babu, and Keen dominated their disciplines. And let’s not forget the incentive programs and shows.

I’m delighted about this shift, because while I’ve owned, ridden, and loved a variety of horse breeds over the years, it’s the Thoroughbreds that have truly been my heart-horses … and everyone wants to see their favorite breed make a comeback and succeed.  

Let’s review: One horse flopped on the racetrack. The other won a graded stakes. Both retired with soundness, athleticism, and heart, along with the potential to go far in their second careers.

Icy—my very favorite horse—evented into his 20s with my sister. He lived out his days at my parents’ place and died at age 30.

Stephanie and Happy

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

Happy is giving Icy a run for the money on that title, and I hope he’ll live just as long.

Who is your favorite OTTB, and why? If the horse is/was yours, what have you done together?  

Two Very Different Racehorses

One was an attractive roan Thoroughbred gelding with 12 race starts as a 3-year-old. He never placed higher than fourth. The lanky gelding won a touch more than $1,400 before retiring, and I met him as a fleabitten gray nine years later on a farm in Northern Virginia.

The other is a striking chestnut gelding that retired at 8 years old a bit more decorated. His first graded stakes win came when he was 5 … it would be three more years before he and I would meet. He raced with some well-known jockeys in the irons, such as Rosie Napravnik and the late Michael Baze, and he amassed 51 starts and winnings of nearly $696,000 by his retirement in July 2014.

Both Icy Edge (“Icy”) and It Happened Again (“Happy”) feature strongly in my office decor.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

These two Thoroughbreds have very different racing backgrounds, and several decades separated their time on the track.

But they have two important things in common.

First, both of them—Icy Edge (“Icy”) and It Happened Again (“Happy”)—feature strongly in my family’s horse history and in our hearts. Second, somewhere along the way, someone made forward-thinking decisions about their racing retirement, retraining, and marketability as athletes.

While I don’t have many details on Icy’s progression from racehorse to sport horse, he was a made eventer schooling intermediate under young riders by the time we bought him at age 12. He was smart, willing, athletic, brave, and notably quirky.

Icy Edge

Photo: Courtesy Sarah Lynn Church/TheHorse.com

The family selling him was committed to finding great owners, and I remember taking them a VHS videotape with footage of our barn and horses to get their approval.

Happy had what seemed like a small army ready to promote him for his second career. One person told another person, who told another that I was looking for a sensible, “happy” off-the-track-thoroughbred (OTTB), and within a month I had heard about Happy, flown to Arkansas, tried him, and made the phone call to purchase him.

I agreed with his racing owner that if I ever wanted to sell him that I would call her first, which was an easy promise for me to make. I know she loves Happy and wants him to always have a great owner.

I write about Happy a lot in my print magazine column, and also here. He is smart, willing, athletic, brave, and seems eager to learn. And, of course, he’s super quirky. (Quite honestly, I’ve been hard-pressed to find a memorable horse or pony that isn’t.)

A few years ago—incidentally at the Kentucky Derby–I spoke with several racing Quarter Horse owners about the versatility of their charges. When I think about Quarter Horses, I think about great, reliable all-around mounts—sort of the Honda Accord or Ford pickup of breeds, with the potential to be enjoyed by multiple people in their lifetime. This family’s racehorses became second- and third-career ranch horses, trail horses, and even children’s mounts. I talked with one couple about their currently successful racehorse that was already flagged as a roping mount.

We off-track Thoroughbred owners are notorious for researching. As we examine our horses’ pedigrees—and, with them, histories we can sometimes trace back to their foaling stall—it’s as if their heritage becomes ours.

Thoroughbreds are no different. They’re athletic, versatile, have tons of heart, and have just as much enjoyment potential. I’ve seen this not only in Icy and Happy but also in countless friends’ horses over the years. And while not every Thoroughbred racehorse has its own built-in grassroots marketing team the way my two did, the performance horse industry’s renewed interest in Thoroughbreds over the past few years, after a few decades of Warmbloods dominating the disciplines, means more and more Thoroughbreds are gaining such teams organically.

We off-track Thoroughbred owners are notorious for researching. As we examine our horses’ pedigrees—and, with them, histories we can sometimes trace back to their foaling stall—it’s as if their heritage becomes ours. We pore over their race records; visit their sire and dam if we can find them; follow their half-siblings in their racing and second careers; and we get a little sad when horses in their bloodline die. For instance, Happy’s sire, Proud Citizen, whom I was lucky to get to meet this past winter, is now gone, as is his broodmare sire, Quiet American.

It Happened Again, aka “Happy,” and me at our first combined test this summer.

Photo: Courtesy Leslie Potter/TheHorse.com

This fanatical interest is no different when it comes to heart-horses long past … earlier this year I got to see Icy’s sire’s and grandsire’s graves at Gainesway—The Axe II and Mahmoud. It felt a little bit like standing near royalty.

The retired-racehorse owner’s fascination with pedigrees and race records is nothing new.  But I see evidence of the fascination spreading in the growing popularity of OTTB-focused online gatherings (Facebook fan pages, message boards, etc.), OTTB merchandise, and Thoroughbred-focused horse shows and point programs.

I’m also noticing that many owners are looking at individuals in their racing stables with intent to sell as second-career athletes. In my area—and I live right here in the Horse Capital of the World and where the Thoroughbred Makeover will commence today—there’s a strong interest in OTTBs, especially among young adult eventers. These riders network to match prospects and buyers, while campaigning their own OTTBs at various levels within the sport. I’ve even helped connect a racing owner with a college friend to create a partnership with a young Thoroughbred.

Courageous Comet is an example of an off-Track Thoroughbred who has gone the distance as an eventer with Becky Holder.

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor/TheHorse.com

Indeed, many of us have known and celebrated the retired racehorse for years, but no one can deny the renewed interest in the market. This excitement about and interest in OTTBs is in great part due to the Retired Racehorse Project, its Thoroughbred Makeover, and to a variety of other organizations and individuals marketing the Thoroughbred as an ideal prospect for everything from polo to working ranch. We also have retired racehorses such as Courageous Comet (who, with Becky Holder, won the 2012 American Eventing Championships and represented the United States at the 2008 Olympics) and Blackfoot Mystery (who represented Team USA in eventing this year at the Rio Olympics) to thank, helping us remember when OTTBs like Touch of Class, JJ Babu, and Keen dominated their disciplines. And let’s not forget the incentive programs and shows.

I’m delighted about this shift, because while I’ve owned, ridden, and loved a variety of horse breeds over the years, it’s the Thoroughbreds that have truly been my heart-horses … and everyone wants to see their favorite breed make a comeback and succeed.  

Let’s review: One horse flopped on the racetrack. The other won a graded stakes. Both retired with soundness, athleticism, and heart, along with the potential to go far in their second careers.

Icy—my very favorite horse—evented into his 20s with my sister. He lived out his days at my parents’ place and died at age 30.

Stephanie and Happy

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

Happy is giving Icy a run for the money on that title, and I hope he’ll live just as long.

Who is your favorite OTTB, and why? If the horse is/was yours, what have you done together?  

Snapshots of Safety: Riding Helmets as a Habit

Earlier this summer while preparing for the World Championships of TREC, which my teammates and I completed a few weeks ago in Segovia, Spain, I was flipping through a photo album of images from my previous experience participating in the event, 19 years ago in France. Memories came flooding back as I flipped through the pages of training and competition pictures … until I stopped at particular photo, perplexed.

There, in the 35-mm print, I was navigating into a patch of sun along a narrow trail, map in hand, and wearing a mere ball cap on my head. Then, on another page, standing with my horse after the happy-mayhem mounted awards ceremony with no helmet. 

I was confused because as long as I can remember, I’ve always worn a riding helmet, without question, save a few silly photo-ops as a kid that I’m lucky I survived. Those training days in France were quite long, and there were plenty of precarious spots along the ground we covered. What was I thinking?

This time around during TREC training, I always wore my helmet. 

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

If I was thinking, the temperature was probably blazing hot, and a ball cap was probably a lot more comfortable than the ASTM-approved helmets of the late 90s. I likely told myself it would be fine.

A few years later, in my early 20s, I broke two vertebrae in a fall (I was wearing a helmet, which did its job). I don’t know if it was the classic experience of “becoming aware of my mortality” or if it’s the natural response to getting older, but I’ve been religious about wearing my riding helmet as an adult. There’s also the distinct awareness that I need my brain to be an editor.

This piece of safety equipment is just a way of life for me, as it is for many other riders. At this point, not wearing my helmet during a ride would feel just about as awkward as, say, going grocery shopping in the nude.  

[instagram url=”https://www.instagram.com/p/BJyns5BAOFz”]

Just a few days ago I returned from my big trip for TREC (where everyone was wearing helmets this time around, and the awards ceremony was much calmer). In my hurry to get out to the barn to see my horse, I forgot to grab my helmet from my luggage.

My Thoroughbred gelding, Happy, is one of the most relaxed horses I know. Even so, I opted to take the extra 22 minutes and drive back to the house to retrieve my helmet. I could’ve borrowed one that was an imperfect fit, but I’m glad I made the drive … because wouldn’t you know, a tree branch (probably one with fangs and talons) leapt out from the side of the trail, where we were riding alone. My relaxed, sweet red horse spooked, spun, and darted–not far, but with enough momentum to nearly unseat me in my jetlagged stupor.

My take-home? Even the predictable horses have unpredictable moments. I’m glad I was wearing a fitting helmet, just in case.

Tomorrow is International Helmet Awareness Day. If you haven’t already taken steps to protect your gourd (see my fun little meme from a few years ago), and you’ve been thinking about getting a helmet, many retailers are offering a discount tomorrow, so it’ll a good day to hop on board.

When was a time you were glad you were wearing a helmet?

A helmet-safety-awareness meme we created a few years ago.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

Snapshots of Safety: Riding Helmets as a Habit

Earlier this summer while preparing for the World Championships of TREC, which my teammates and I completed a few weeks ago in Segovia, Spain, I was flipping through a photo album of images from my previous experience participating in the event, 19 years ago in France. Memories came flooding back as I flipped through the pages of training and competition pictures … until I stopped at particular photo, perplexed.

There, in the 35-mm print, I was navigating into a patch of sun along a narrow trail, map in hand, and wearing a mere ball cap on my head. Then, on another page, standing with my horse after the happy-mayhem mounted awards ceremony with no helmet. 

I was confused because as long as I can remember, I’ve always worn a riding helmet, without question, save a few silly photo-ops as a kid that I’m lucky I survived. Those training days in France were quite long, and there were plenty of precarious spots along the ground we covered. What was I thinking?

This time around during TREC training, I always wore my helmet. 

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

If I was thinking, the temperature was probably blazing hot, and a ball cap was probably a lot more comfortable than the ASTM-approved helmets of the late 90s. I likely told myself it would be fine.

A few years later, in my early 20s, I broke two vertebrae in a fall (I was wearing a helmet, which did its job). I don’t know if it was the classic experience of “becoming aware of my mortality” or if it’s the natural response to getting older, but I’ve been religious about wearing my riding helmet as an adult. There’s also the distinct awareness that I need my brain to be an editor.

This piece of safety equipment is just a way of life for me, as it is for many other riders. At this point, not wearing my helmet during a ride would feel just about as awkward as, say, going grocery shopping in the nude.  

[instagram url=”https://www.instagram.com/p/BJyns5BAOFz”]

Just a few days ago I returned from my big trip for TREC (where everyone was wearing helmets this time around, and the awards ceremony was much calmer). In my hurry to get out to the barn to see my horse, I forgot to grab my helmet from my luggage.

My Thoroughbred gelding, Happy, is one of the most relaxed horses I know. Even so, I opted to take the extra 22 minutes and drive back to the house to retrieve my helmet. I could’ve borrowed one that was an imperfect fit, but I’m glad I made the drive … because wouldn’t you know, a tree branch (probably one with fangs and talons) leapt out from the side of the trail, where we were riding alone. My relaxed, sweet red horse spooked, spun, and darted–not far, but with enough momentum to nearly unseat me in my jetlagged stupor.

My take-home? Even the predictable horses have unpredictable moments. I’m glad I was wearing a fitting helmet, just in case.

Tomorrow is International Helmet Awareness Day. If you haven’t already taken steps to protect your gourd (see my fun little meme from a few years ago), and you’ve been thinking about getting a helmet, many retailers are offering a discount tomorrow, so it’ll a good day to hop on board.

When was a time you were glad you were wearing a helmet?

A helmet-safety-awareness meme we created a few years ago.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com