We all have goals, ideals, and expectations.
Some are more attainable than others. Some sound good in theory, but may not pan out in application. Achieving goals takes courage and a willingness to be adaptable, but deliberate. It takes courage to stay dedicated through the inevitable failures, obstacles, errors, learning curves, and slow progressions. However, it takes even more courage to walk away from a goal you could easily achieve by compromising your integrity, beliefs or another individual.
I had a goal this year: to compete in the 2019 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover. I had the means, I had the horse, and I had a plan. Grab an off the track Thoroughbred, do a few months of groundwork, build up to a saddle, gain confidence undersaddle, start jumping, go to a few shows, then head to Kentucky for RRP.
However, I knew this was going to be a challenge for me — not because I’d never had any experience training young OTTBs; I’d successfully brought along & competed many OTTBs. It would be a challenge because I wanted to use +R for Mac’s training, and when I met Mac, I’d had about 3 months of experience. I knew I’d have to relearn how to train in this new way as I trained the horse. Not ideal! Regardless, that is how I wanted to train my Makeover horse. This time around, I wanted to show what +R can do. That it is a real training method. That is works for all horses and is not some joke only tree-huggers and looney idealists participate in. I had something to prove.
Mac was my RRP intended & is owned by my friend & boss who was kind enough to offer me this incredible opportunity. When we began our journey to RRP, the day he stepped off the trailer, he was a different animal. That horse seems like a stranger now. He began scared, likely in a state of learned helplessness—no running, no quick movements, no freedom, just frozen. Gradually, as he realized things would be different from his last life, he changed… and not for the better. He began to bite, to strike out, and to bolt. Things you don’t talk about online to an audience because some will say, “See, she’s making the horse dangerous.”
When I signed up for this challenge, I didn’t account for trauma—physical and mental. I should have; especially since I was met with a horse that has a lot of it. I also didn’t account for free will because I’m so used to bending it to match my own. I didn’t account for my own shortcomings. I’d hoped by the time the competition was upon us, I’d be at the same skill level at +R as I was with traditional training. Trying to train what I didn’t yet know was proving more difficult than I’d anticipated. Duh?
But recently, and most importantly I’ve realized that somewhere along the way, I lost the care for the horse’s best interest. Consumed with worry for how well I’m doing, how fast I’m progressing, how impressive my results, needing to prove to all the naysayers that what I do is no less valid than what they do, and with wanting to do well at a competition, my learning stalled, my progress stalled, I lost the horse, and I lost my drive. Training wasn’t fun, but instead frustrating and intimidating. Each session mattered too much due to the timeline.
Movements I made around other horses would terrify him to the point of triggering his fight or flight—survival—mode. Simply reaching up to stroke his face would result in a threat by teeth or feet. This horse was afraid. He’d been mishandled and no longer trusted humans. So, when he was no longer being reprimanded or controlled to such an extent, he began to be bolder. Verging on dangerous. But I knew if I reintroduced parts of his old life, he would never be comfortable around me and, subsequently, safe to handle.
So, we spent months working on him letting me touch him instead of transitions; teaching him not to bite instead of saddling; treating him for ulcers instead of getting him comfortable with me on his back; relearning over and over that I would never hit him instead of riding; helping him understand that I would not ear-twitch him instead of going to school off property; the list goes on.
My end result does not look the same as others. Many other RRP hopefuls are jumping courses, doing shows, have freestyle routines, and I have a horse that is finally “normal.” Now, instead of, “See +R makes the horse dangerous,” I have, “He seems totally fine, what’s the hold up?”
Finally, we at the stage where we can actually get somewhere. It took months to undo his history and assuage his fears. I could’ve said “get over it horse, you won’t die,” thrown a saddle on, forced a bit in his mouth, and lunged him until he was calm, but that’s not good training. I would’ve suppressed that fear. I would’ve missed so much. I have learned more about this horse from working with him at 110% liberty than I would’ve if it had been more important to me to compete.
Perhaps a more experienced or professional +R trainer would’ve gotten further with him. Perhaps if I had forced my way to the competition, we might have done well. Perhaps we might have even placed. But I would’ve compromised Mac. For other horses, it may not be the same. Not all histories are alike, and unfortunately, Mac had a rough one. Some horses come from brilliant backgrounds, and some race trainers are not as hard on the horses. But they were on Mac, so we worked on what he needed.
Now, Mac is at ease with other horses, allows his face to be touched, halters seamlessly, walks up to me, leads like a pro, works eagerly at liberty, no longer bites, no longer cowers in the corner of his stall at the presence of something as trivial as a saddle pad, no longer jumps when someone coughs, no longer bolts because I walked a little faster or moved my hand; he is a new horse.
It is all thanks to his willingness to work with me, his bravery to overcome that which frightens him, and the trust in my intent that he’s put in me. It feels incredible to have accomplished something so powerful, to have given a horse a new understanding of the world, of people. I am so grateful to have been allowed the chance to experience it.
But the competition is only a few weeks away, and we are finally at the start line. To push him enough to be able to perform flying changes, tight turns, jumps at a height he’s never seen would risk undoing that work. It would risk his comfort, his anxiety, his willingness, ulcers and his trust in me. A competition—no matter what I had to prove, no matter how much it meant to me, no matter who I let down, no matter what those waiting for me to fail will think—is not worth compromising Mac. I wouldn’t do it to Zoë, and I won’t do it to Mac. This is not to say that he will never be a show horse, I have no doubt in my mind that with the right person and the right training, he will be the most confident, bubbly, and lovely horse to ride and be around. But I also know how fine the balance is, how easy it is to corrupt that. Especially when we’ve only just come to begin to work together.
I realized the only one I needed to prove something to was Mac, not an audience. I learned through this process that the horse is what matters most to me. Competition, opinions of others, my own sense of failure, none of that matters more than what I feel is in the horse’s best interest. Rushing Mac’s training to meet a deadline is not in his best interest.
So, as much as it breaks my heart to say, we will not be attending RRP. I cannot risk compromising his progress and the trust we’ve worked so hard to build. Not all horses are the same, and he just got a bad start & took a little longer than most might. I hope that everyone who has so supportively followed us will understand my decision. It’s disappointing and heartbreaking for me to not be able to compete, but above all, I am so proud of Mac. He has become so close to my heart & I love him endlessly despite him not being mine. Due to that love and respect, I must do what I feel is right.
The good news is, now, he is trusting, vibrant, and safe. That is a win in and of itself to me. Much better than recognition or a ribbon. While obtaining both a confident horse and a ribbon would’ve been nice, both Mac and I have our entire futures ahead of us to do just that.