Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries Presented By Excel Equine: Extreme Sports

Cubbie Girl North went from receiving praise from an Olympic rider to trying to kill us both, all in less than a week.

Whatever Thoroughbreds do is to the extreme. When the 4-year-old bay filly that I’m hoping to compete with at the 2020 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover has been good, it’s really good, like “the-chemistry-between-Ben-Affleck-and-Matt-Damon” good. But, when she’s been bad during this one-year journey from racehorse to eventer, it’s really bad, like “being-on-an-episode-of-Jerry-Springer” bad.

As opposite as the best and worst moments seem to be, they actually reveal the same thing. Cubbie tries her heart out. Below is a glimpse at one month of our journey from mid-May to mid-June, which also marks the one-year anniversary of when she finished a four-race career at Fairmount Park in Illinois.

How do I, an announcer that jumped in the deep end learning to ride horses by eventing on OTTBs, deal with it all?

“They key to riding a hot horse is to just ignore 90% of the weird things they’re doing and carry on like everything is fine while having mild panic attacks inside the whole time,” wrote Leah Cothran in a frequently-shared Twitter post under the handle @justeqthings.

But, the “90% of the weird things” are so incredibly entertaining.  So, here they are…

Learning from an Olympian

Hawley Bennett has competed at the highest level of eventing, from the Land Rover Kentucky Three Day Event to the 2004 and 2012 Summer Olympics representing Canada. She came to Colorado to offer a two-day clinic on May 23 and 24, with one day of stadium jumping at Platinum Farms and one day of cross country at Mile High Horse Ranch near our farm.

Our first day started off eventfully. Before I even got on her back, Cubbie pulled away from the trailer while I was tacking her up and went for a gallop without her rider. Riding a horse through the cross country field at Platinum is exhilarating.  Chasing a horse on foot is not.

“Good, she’s warmed up and so are you,” said my fiancée and trainer, Ashley Gubich of Super G Sporthorses, trying to add some levity to the moment.

What I was thinking, though: “Now I’m supposed to ride her. Let’s try not to embarrass ourselves.”

Cubbie gets overwhelmed, like many other OTTBs do, being in a new environment. She gets overstimulated. However, what was amazing was that Cubbie found comfort when she was presented with something familiar. Her nerves settled when she started jumping.

Hawley Bennett put us through complex patterns combining multiple jumps. The jumps weren’t high, and this reflected my previous “Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries” about how maneuvering between and approaching the jumps is more important, at least for an athletic Thoroughbred, than the jump itself.

“That’s a million-dollar brain,” Hawley said about how locked in Cubbie became at whatever was presented to her. “For 4-years-old, that’s pretty amazing. The jumps don’t have to be big. But, teach her to do an angle. Teach her to do a skinny. All my 4-year-olds would do this. Don’t put them off, but train her.”

During one grid, Cubbie knocked a rail on a jump whose height had just been raised. The next time through, she tucked her knees more and cleared it. Cubbie started looking to me for direction, and it made me feel like the countless rides and times we spent together were revealing our growing partnership. During another grid, I set her up well to take all the jumps but didn’t plan for where we would turn afterward. Cubbie squirreled toward the end of the arena.

“Which way were you turning there?” Hawley asked. “You looked like a drunk driver. Don’t do that. This [the jumps] couldn’t have been any nicer.”

Every stride and communication mean something to horses.

The next day on cross country, Cubbie schooled water, ditches, and banks. When it comes to retraining horses off the track, where the routine is generally pretty standard from day to day, exposing them to many different environments and scenarios goes a long way. I was so proud of Cubbie. But…

“How do you think your next ride is going to go?” Ashley asked me after the clinic.

“She’ll probably try to kill me,” I responded without hesitation.

Jonathan Horowitz and Cubbie Girl North receive instruction by Hawley Bennett on May 24.

Surviving a Near-Death Experience

As willing as Cubbie can be, she can also be just as equally unwilling, and that’s what happened when we were walking past the construction site where an indoor arena is being built on our farm after a dressage lesson. Cubbie scooted to the left, her coping mechanism when uncomfortable, into a ditch where dirt had been removed to create a pad for where the arena would be built.

We squirmed our way out, but we’d have to revisit that scenario again so that Cubbie would learn what the correct way to handle it was. So, we went back in the arena for a few minutes. Now to walk again between the arena and the ditch.  I was ready for the scoot, but after stopping it, Cubbie was incensed that she didn’t get to do what she wanted, regardless of whether it was for her own safety or not.

I turned her toward the arena to keep her pointing in the direction away from danger. But, Cubbie decided to back into the ditch. She continued to drift up a slope and positioned herself next to a pasture fence. I thought the best decision would be to get off, but there was no flat ground nearby. I was worried that she would flip down the slope in response to any weight imbalance. I attempted to grab onto the fence by the pasture, but I couldn’t pull myself up enough.

So, we sat there and waited. Cubbie was trembling. I called out, but no one was around. After what seemed like an eternity, Cubbie got her senses back and jumped around the corner of the fence into our front yard. Back on flat ground, I hopped off, but I was shaken by the experience.

It’s funny that the most dramatic moments we experience are either before or after lessons, but that’s part of working with a baby horse. It can be scary, but that’s the path I’ve chosen. So, I embrace it.

“[…] just ignore 90% of the weird things they’re doing and carry on like everything is fine while having mild panic attacks inside the whole time.”

We put the moment behind us and headed to our first two eventing horse shows.

The Highs and Lows of Eventing

I learned some valuable lessons from the first two events in which Cubbie and I competed during the first two weekends of June.

One: It doesn’t have to be pretty. At the Pendragon Beginner Event on June 6, we had zero jumping faults. I was annoyed that our jumping wasn’t as smooth as I thought it should be. Cubbie would drift “to the left, to the left” before jumps or when going by the judges’ stands. (“Yes, Cubbie, I get it. Those are the lyrics to a Beyoncé song, but we don’t have to follow them literally for me to realize that you’re ‘Irreplacable.’”)  But, the more important perspective is that I embraced a tenacious attitude and got her over each jump.  We finished fifth of eight, our shortcoming being a nervous dressage test, which leads to lesson number two.

Two: Be present when your horse needs you. Cubbie is like other young horses that get overwhelmed by new environments or new tasks. We’ve spent enough time together that she looks to me for direction. Just like with the clinic with Hawley Bennett, it’s up to me to provide the support and instructions she needs to be successful. I left her hanging during our dressage test at Pendragon. I got her relaxed before the test, but when we went in the ring, I didn’t give her enough cues to signal her to give to the bit or move forward rhythmically. I was a passenger. We changed that mentality for a much-improved dressage test the next weekend at the Mile High Derby on June 14.

Cubbie and I complete our cross country round at last weekend’s Mile High Derby, the culmination of a roller coaster month that I wrote about to be published soon in @paulickreport for “@RRP_TBMakeover Diaries.” Referencing Beyoncé, Damon, and Springer in the article sums it up!

— Jonathan Horowitz (@jjhorowitz) June 18, 2020

Three: That’s eventing. With a more active and effective dressage test at Mile High, we were ninth of 21 in a large Intro division as we warmed up for a challenging, winding cross country course of 21 obstacles, including water, a ditch, and a bank. Cubbie has really appreciated when I have a loose rein and direct her with my body rather than get in her way with my hands.

We had a phenomenal cross country round, except for when we got to the water. Cubbie was wary and came to a stop. We tried again. Stop. There was one more refusal before we trotted in. I could have been more assertive with my legs after the first refusal rather than circling her back around. Lesson learned. Unfortunately, with the way the combined test was scored, we were eliminated after the third refusal, although we were allowed to finish the course.

The rest of our cross country was the best ride we’ve had together. Because we had lost time at the water, I urged Cubbie to pick up her pace, and we cruised, taking many jumps at speed.

However, the one flub at the water eliminated us from the competition. Had we successfully gone through the water, we would have finished second of 21. Had we only had two refusals instead of three, we would have finished fifth. It was a tough pill to swallow. A basketball player that makes 20 of 21 shots but airballs one of them has one of the greatest games in history. An eventer with the same strike rate has a big “E” next to his name.

“Cubbie doesn’t know that,” Ashley told me afterward. “She feels great about herself. She did every jump you asked her to do. The water isn’t a jump as far as she’s concerned. It’s a scary death trap.”

That was an amazing takeaway. If my horse felt proud, I should, too. We’re becoming a team, and we’re actually developing a connection that is making this journey rewarding…and terrifying…and rewarding…and, well, let’s see what next month brings.

Jonathan Horowitz has announced horse races at 29 tracks over the past 20 years. He is also involved in Thoroughbred aftercare as the president of CANTER USA and announcer of the Thoroughbred Makeover. He is the author of Paulick Report’s Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries series about his adventures riding and retraining Cubbie Girl North for the 2020 Makeover.

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