When I was six years old, I knew that my calling in life was to be a jockey. And so I set a goal: to be the youngest jockey and first female ever to win the Triple Crown. Simple as that! Unfortunately, I never met that goal. I did, however, do everything in my power to pursue it and without a Triple Crown to show for it, my career and my life, to the point of my retirement, had been as fulfilling as anybody could ever hope.
It's funny, though, how life changes. For me, my passion did a complete 180, but with Thoroughbreds remaining the epicenter of all that drives me. Well, that and now two little boys who have an even greater power of keeping me on my toes than any Thoroughbred ever has.
There's a feeling, which doesn't compare to anything else in the world, that I once got from a Thoroughbred as he completely stretched himself out, even lowering himself to the ground, to give me his all as he ran his heart out down the stretch. Now, I get that same feeling when he learns to engage his hind end and lift his back to prance around the dressage arena, or when he gallops confidently toward a cross country fence and sails over it, in perfect form, with his ears pricked. Or even when he conquers getting from one side of that scary water crossing to the other. It's that click moment. And with Thoroughbreds, it's like a camera with incredibly fast shutter speed. Click. Click. Click. It's all relative to the intelligence and heart that a Thoroughbred possesses.
Since I made the commitment to actually start my training business, Rosie Napravnik Off-Track Sporthorses, I have had the opportunities and the pleasure to work with a plethora of off-track Thoroughbreds. Each one has something completely different to offer in their off-track careers and also goes through their own struggles to get there. In all that they learn and work through, they ultimately remain the teacher. Each horse has taught me something different.
When I search for horses from the track I am always looking for that upper level prospect. I'm seeking the wow factor. I have been extremely fortunate to find quite a few of those horses, but sometimes the horse finds you and sometimes the wow factor is there, but just not in the way you expected. So I'll highlight what might be the most modest horse I've worked with. Appropriately, his name is “Dude,” also known by his Jockey Club name of Major Dude, by Officer.
Dude was retired from racing at the end of his 5-year-old season by his breeder and racing owner, Suzi Shoemaker. He was briefly restarted for a career in eventing for only six weeks before being turned out and doing little more than goofing around in a field for the next three years. In the later part of his 8-year-old year, Suzi felt there could just be so much more to Dude's life than sitting around. He was too nice of a horse. After watching the 2018 Thoroughbred Makeover, it had never been so clear to Suzi that her horse needed a job.
Dude came to me in late October, 2018. From the beginning, he expressed his happiness for having something to do. He is a very laid-back kind of horse, almost too laid-back, and takes everything in stride. Dude seems to always be caught between, “What can I do for you,” and, “You've got to be kidding me, this is so hard!” You can't blame him: now nine years old and his body parts haven't been asked to do anything but lower his head to graze for three years! He just has a thick layer of rust to knock off. His attitude is always positive and willing to please but sometimes he needs just that much more encouragement to keep on trying, even though connecting his hind end with his front end is a lot of work. It's also something he was probably never asked to do during his racing career.
Strengthening Dude's back and hind end has been a slow and lengthy process. It sometimes feels like, “Jeez, this is taking forever.” The reward for both of us, though, is reflecting on, “Wow, look how far he's come!” In the beginning, Dude was very content letting his front end tow his hind end around. The objective is to show him how to let the hind end drive the front end. And even though he understands, it is still difficult for him to keep his hind quarters in line with his shoulders and bend through his rib cage, with that long back in between. We have utilized lots of exercises with poles. Trot poles, trot poles around bending lines, poles raised off the ground, canter poles, canter poles on a bending line, gymnastics. These all help strengthen that large hind end of his and also improve his balance.
Dude feels very good about himself when he has put in that big effort for a nicely balanced canter and then… cur-plunk, “Thank goodness it's time to trot again.” You can sometimes actually hear me groaning through our transitions, as I am using every ounce of my core strength to help Dude balance in and out of the canter. With every transition, we aim for a little less cur-plunk. After all, it used to be a cur-plunk going from trot to walk! The most important part for Dude is letting him feel my, “You can do this!” energy. Or even more, “We can do this! You can do it, and I am here to help you.” I have found it is imperative to always consider my horse a partner. Even as the horse's trainer, I still become his partner, and we accomplish things together.
The glory in Dude is his heart. He has the heart of a unicorn. In a soft and warm way, he's a horse that someone will always be able to count on. He will be thrilled to tote a junior or amateur rider around and he will take the utmost care of them while he does the absolute best he can, to accomplish whatever it is they set out to do. Dude may go on to become a junior's hunter, an amateur's event horse, or a lady's fox hunter. I've never had him around cows but I'm willing to bet he'd “go get” ranch work or anything else one might throw at him. He is the everything horse. The wow factor is, that all comes wrapped in the same package with the intelligence and agility of a Thoroughbred.
Rosie Napravnik was one of North America's top jockeys, finishing her career with two Kentucky Oaks wins and two Breeders' Cup victories – the first female rider to achieve both milestones. Following her retirement in 2014, Napravnik became assistant trainer for husband Joe Sharp and later launched Rosie Napravnik's Off-Track Sporthorses. Napravnik, who competed successfully in the 2018 Thoroughbred Makeover (finishing third in the eventing division with I'malreadythere), offers sales, training, and marketing services for OTTBs preparing for new careers.
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