Cosequin Presents Aftercare Spotlight: The Journey Of Retraining Isn’t Always A Straight Line

by | 06.17.2019 | 3:25pm
Nixon and Fedorka on a recent ride. J. J. Sillman Photo

Four years ago, I was at the top of my game.

Fresh off a good sales year, where I had taken three horses and retrained them for their second career, I found myself feeling pretty invincible.

They had all been different types. One a fancy Warmblood who just didn't want to dressage anymore, a massive 4-year-old Thoroughbred gelding who had come straight from the track, and another firecracker of a 4-year-old sprint type who had sat in a field for a year. All came into my life, went into what I had defined as my program, and exited better for it into their next home – all of which ended up being superb show careers.

So, cocky and full of myself, I began my search for the next member of my team. The next star of the show. And another bright emblem that I knew what I was doing and do it well.

And in entered Nixon.

He went by the race name Called To Serve. A towering Afleet Alex gelding with a prestigious race record to boot. He was a Grade 3 winner, with a G2 and G1 placings on his page. He was dark. He was handsome. He was sound.

So he obviously became mine.

And I journeyed off to do the retraining things that had worked in the past. My horses get exposure to many things quite quickly into their retraining, and I still believe this to be the key to success. But where the others had swam, Nixon didn't just sink, he cannon-balled. Or swan dived. And then started doing laps.

We would have days, weeks, and even months of greatness. We went on to win the dressage discipline of the Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover, and jumped some big fences.

Nixon on the cross country course

We trained in front of some of the greats, with each saying he was the real deal. And we journeyed around the state, collecting admiring views and sparkling trophies.

But then, we deteriorated. It began with an injury. A simple splint bone fracture and a few months off, and I could feel the stitching on the fabric of my training begin to fray. But we regrouped. Took three steps back. Two forward. And plugged along.

But as is life, we encountered another setback. A loading accident left my horse broken and bruised and my trailer in many pieces, and another 120 days off. And alongside the fractured hind leg, I had a 1,350-pound animal with a fractured mind. Many people said that they would have simply put him down at that time, but I had the word greatness lingering in my brain. I couldn't. I know this horse was The One. I had to try.

Try we did, but we never got back.

And finally, last year, realizing that I was putting my own safety and health at risk as I continued to climb the training ladder, I hung up his show bridle. I pulled his shoes and turned him out and stared with my chin resting on the four plank at the (still) sound, (still) massive, and (still) beautiful horse who just didn't want to play the same game as I did. And I resigned myself to that being ok.

Fedorka and Nixon at a clinic

But it wasn't. I wasn't ok with the decision. And I wasn't ok with admitting I could fail. Moreso, I wasn't ok with never being able to feel the good days and the unique power that this horse contained. So almost a year later, I have decided to wipe the dust off of that bridle. Nixon was looking better than ever, and I found myself with a few spare moments a day and the craving to feel that Maserati roar underneath me again.

So I tacked up, swung on, and rode off. And Nixon was great.

We are now four weeks into this sixth regroup and reset of the retraining project that is known as Nixon. I've had good rides and subpar, and yet I truly believe he's enjoying the attention and the job. He nickers at me as I enter the barn, and grabs my shirt as I walk by his stall.

We hack on some days, and flat on others. We travel to equestrian parks around the state and let his Aunt Leah play along the creeks. He is truly a joy to be around on the trails and is as brave as they come, and we joke about some competitive trail or an endurance ride in his future.

Nixon on a recent trail ride

I don't know if this one attempt to regroup will end any differently than the five resets in the past. I don't know if Nixon finally matured at the age of 10 and suddenly decided to be a willing participant. But I do know that a horse previously described on ESPN as “The Bully of The Barn” has picked me as his person and he is safe with us for life.

I also know that I took on this horse four years ago without ever knowing that he was going to be like this. I consider myself part eventer, part cowgirl, a little bit Western pleasure, and a hell of a lot of Thoroughbred-enthusiast. When I signed that dotted line over “owner,” I had no clue if he would want to jump, rope, slide, or hack. But I knew that I wanted to retrain him. At first it was for eventing, and then straight jumpers. This shifted to dressage, and now is possibly just a trail horse. A once expensive yearling turned great racehorse. A great racehorse turned sport horse phenom. And now a once Big Horse who may just have found his calling meandering the wilderness.

Skill sets gained. Lives given purpose, no matter how great or small.

And at the end of the day, that is all that truly matters, no matter how many times you have to hit reset, rewind, or regroup. For that's what retraining truly is, no matter how many careers and how many times it's done.

So Nixon and I are onto the fourth career and the sixth reset, and all we can do is ask that you wish us luck.

Dr. Carleigh Fedorka who obtained her doctorate in veterinary science and who has worked in all aspects of the Thoroughbred industry. She is an avid eventer, RRP Dressage Champion, and the keeper of a rotating cast of OTTBs. You can follow her OTTB adventures at her popular blog, A Yankee in Paris.

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