Horowitz On OTTBs, Presented By Excel Equine: Finding The Right Personality Match For Horse And Rider

Certain things just go together. Mike Smith and Zenyatta. Bill Murray and a Wes Anderson movie. Peanut butter and jelly. As great as those ingredients are individually, there’s something magical that happens when they come together.

How a horse matches up with its rider in an equestrian sport is very much like a director trying to cast the right actor or a chef trying to put the right ingredients between two pieces of bread.

I’m grateful for the talent both my OTTB eventers have, and they also could not be more different in terms of how I match with them.

Since she became my first horse in 2018, Sorority Girl (Jockey Club registered as Grand Moony; Barn Name: Moo) has always been the hotshot talent who knows she’s good and questions whether I’m good enough to be her teammate. I could not think of a more perfect horse to make me a better rider when I was just starting to learn the sport of eventing.

My newest project, Rocketman (Jockey Club registered as The Gray Man; Barn Name: Uno), wants to get to know me, hang out with me, and be the best teammate he can be both under and out of saddle. I could not think of a more perfect horse to teach me about how special it can be to bond with a former racehorse.

I competed in events with Rocketman and Sorority Girl each of the first three weekends of August 2021, and the personalities that they brought to the show—really, the personalities they bring to all our rides—affected what I got out of and learned from showing them.

I took Rocketman to his first horse show at the Spring Gulch Horse Trials in Colorado on August 8. We went on a whim. After having a month off with a minor injury and illness in June, Uno returned like a champ in July, happy to work under saddle and eager to try the jumper courses I put him through. So, less than a week before the show, I made arrangements for Uno and me to replace another rider and horse who could no longer compete.

I flew back to Colorado the night before the show after announcing the collegiate box lacrosse national championships in California that weekend. I had no idea how my lovable 4-year-old grey gelding with one eye would handle his first show environment. He was a joy to be around. He warmed up calmly and went in the dressage ring for his first test — which also happened to be the first full dressage test we ever did — willing to do whatever was asked of him.

My goal was to make the show a positive experience for Rocketman, so that he wouldn’t be “burning out his fuse up here alone.” After the 16.3 hh gelding still trying to figure out where his feet are tripped during one movement, I rebalanced Rocketman and gave him a pet on the neck. I pet him during other moments of the test as well, telling him he was being a good boy. After we halted, I pet him again…and then remembered that I was actually supposed to salute the judge first. The judge and scribe smiled.

We didn’t score that well, with a lot of the reasons for my struggles with dressage falling on my riding shortcomings. However, we received the most flattering feedback from the judge, Cindy DePorter from South Carolina, “Going in the right direction! Tactfully ridden! Good start. Work on continuing the kind hands. Good luck. Have fun.” It also brought a smile to my face that the scribe had noted Uno’s “one eye” and put a heart next to it under “Distinguishing Marks.”

Uno loves to jump, and we moved up the standings after stadium jumping and cross country to finish ninth in a field of 16 in the Intro-A division. We also earned The Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Incentive Program High Point Award for the Intro level.

The next week, Uno and I moved up from the 2’3 Intro level to the 2’7 Beginner Novice level at the relaxed mini trial schooling show at Sunrise Equine. Uno jumped clear to finish on his dressage score, placing third in a field of six in the BN-A division.

 

More than just competing well, Uno relished the show environment. When we were done, but more students from our Super G Sporthorses barn still had to compete, I walked Uno around like a puppy dog, and he happily grazed, rolled in the dirt, and was doted on by others at the show.

This was all unlike what my first shows with Sorority Girl were like, when both she and I were new to the sport of eventing back in 2018. Yes, she had raw talent and I was fairly precocious to be competing in recognized events after less than three years of riding horses, but we struggled. I chronicled our early epic eliminations at shows from too many refusals to falls to dressage meltdowns earlier in this column in “Horowitz Learns That In Eventing, Winning Isn’t Everything.”

Unlike Uno, Moo tests her rider. She has her own agenda and has strong opinions about her rider’s agenda. As many special moments as we’ve had together, including her stealing the show during the wedding ceremony for Ashley and me, she lives life on her terms. So, unlike Uno, who wants to please his rider, Moo wants her rider to meet her expectations—stay balanced, set her up properly to jumps, ask her to work with purpose on the flat. Then, we make a great team.

The author with Moo on the cross country course

The personality Moo brought to our partnership when I was first learning to ride fit with what I needed. I wanted to be a legitimate rider and not just the novelty of the horse race announcer that decided to hop on a horse. Moo made me that rider.

So, at The Event at Archer in Wyoming from August 20 to 22, the hard work I’ve put in on Moo showed through. Yes, we still struggled with dressage, but that’s because I struggled and not her. She did everything how I asked. I’m just having panicky brain freezes in the arena in front of a judge.

After that, we turned in double-clear cross country and stadium jumping rounds, making us one of only four in our ON-B division of 18 and one of only six across the whole Novice level of 34 to finish on our dressage score — albeit a dressage score I continue to work hard to improve.

 

Now, Uno has come along as the right horse for my goals because of his personality. I found a horse that wants to bond with and please his rider. It’s actually taken some getting used to that I don’t have to be on guard for mare-ish tantrums when I hop in the saddle.

Most Thoroughbreds, if they retire from racing relatively sound, can physically do whatever tasks an amateur rider like myself will ask of them in their second careers and beyond. When their personalities come out — a topic I’ll explore more in a future column — that’s what determines what the experience will be like. Like a director looking for the right actor to cast, a general manager looking for the right player to draft, or a hopeful romantic looking for the right partner in life, I wish that all the people that want to do good finding new homes for retired racehorses will find that magical match.

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