Michael Wrona, the announcer at Los Alamitos Race Course and a great friend and mentor since I was a teenager and started broadcasting horse races 20 years ago, once told me, “The trouble with racehorses is they can't read scripts!”
That line has stuck with me years later. It's a shame that horses don't always follow a script because horse people are very good at creating them. Horses carry the dreams that “this is the one” for their breeder, owner, trainer, rider, and fans. From the stakes winner to the single in a Pick 6 to the horse that will take its rider up the levels, these dreams are motivation to push harder and keep going during difficult times.
As soon as I saw the 3-year-old bay OTTB filly Cubbie Girl North listed with CANTER Illinois last July, I started dreaming and scripting my journey to go from announcing the Thoroughbred Makeover to competing in it in 2020. Unfortunately, Cubbie went off script (again) about a month ago. This time, it turned out to be a good thing, but I didn't think so at the time.
When it comes to working with a retired racehorse straight off the track and having less than a year to train them for a new sport in the Thoroughbred Makeover, it often doesn't go as planned. According to Retired Racehorse Project, the 679 trainers accepted for the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover collectively registered 589 OTTBs to train for the competition between February and August 2019. Of those, 474 remained when final entries closed on August 15, 2019. In the end, 374 horses competed at the Kentucky Horse Park from October 2 to 5.
Why did just 63 percent of the horses training for the Thoroughbred Makeover actually make it to the competition? There are setbacks due to injuries or how horses progress in their training off the track. There are changes to people's plans because they've sold their Makeover prospect or decided not to compete. More succinctly, the script changes when working with horses.
So, here's where Cubbie went off script last month.
Setting the scene — Ashley and I live on a 10-acre farm in Parker, Colo., where we have our horses and Ashley operates Super G Sporthorses.
Setting the characters — Between boarders and ourselves, we currently look after 12 horses. We started with four when we moved in a year ago, and apparently that's just how math works in the equestrian world. Between feeding four times a day and riding, we're grateful to stay active and be around the animals while we're hunkered down at home because of COVID-19.
Setting the plot twist — During night check on March 22, I noticed that Cubbie was lame in her pasture. She had been fine when I fed her dinner a few hours earlier, but now she could barely walk. This was not part of my script for Cubbie. She's been a handful, as is usually the case for young OTTBs, and I figured we needed every ride we could get if we were going to compete at the Makeover. By this point, I had ridden Cubbie 53 times.
We put Cubbie in a stall overnight, and arranged for Dr. Tom Wendel to make an emergency call the next day. I couldn't help but think of the what-ifs.
Worst case scenario: she fractured her fetlock. Unfortunately, that seemed like a real possibility because it was muddy and slick in Cubbie's pasture following a blizzard, and she likes to run around and play up, as is the personality of a 4-year-old filly. That would be the end of our journey to the Thoroughbred Makeover.
Best case scenario: hearing the vet say, “It's an abscess” would be like hearing a game show host say, “It's a new car.” An abscess comes from an infection in the foot that builds up pressure and consequently becomes incredibly painful for the horse. The release of pressure is like pulling out a painful splinter. It's uncomfortable but temporary and horses usually heal completely.
As someone that has to give news covering a wide range of scenarios, Dr. Wendel is remarkably even-keeled. He makes you feel comfortable regardless of what the diagnosis is. Dr. Wendel pulled off the shoe and snow pad on Cubbie's front right hoof and cleaned the hoof. He applied pressure with a hoof tester and found the spot where Cubbie was painful. The shoe and snow pad were keeping the pressure on an abscess, but with their removal, the pressure was relieved. Along with it came what you would see if you removed a splinter that had been stuck inside and caused an infection, so I'll spare you the imagery in case you're eating breakfast while reading this article.
Instead of a career-ending injury, this was an infection that would require 10 days of stall rest. The timing worked out well because our farrier, Renee Arreola, was scheduled to be at our farm the next day and could remove the other front shoe. And, our regular vet, Dr. Deb Straker, was conveniently already scheduled to be on our farm that day as well and could offer a glance at Cubbie's first steps to recovery. Crisis averted, but a reminder to expect the unexpected when working with horses.
Now here's where I learned a big lesson. I figured any delays would be a setback to our ultimate goal of competing at the Thoroughbred Makeover. The fixation on “Makeover or bust” has led to many frustrating moments when things don't go according to plan. That was the focus of my last “Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries” that I just so happened to write and submit the same day that Cubbie went lame.
Giving Cubbie two weeks off has changed our lessons since. During those two weeks, I rode my other horse six times. Grand Moony is a 7-year-old chestnut OTTB mare who now shows under the name Sorority Girl because it fits her personality. “Moo” presents similar challenges to Cubbie. She likes to be the boss, lock on the bit, and only do what she wants rather than submitting to the rider's requests. But, once asked properly, Moo obliges and is a wonderful, athletic ride. There's a moment where it's like she says, “Oh, that's what you wanted me to do. Well, why didn't you ask sooner?”
With Moo, I was able to hone in on establishing the persistence retraining Cubbie requires, and my confidence grew because Moo would respond when I asked properly. Cubbie is still learning what the cues mean. The highlight during this time was when Moo and I raised the bar on some jumps. Our previous high in an arena was 3 feet, and we managed to clear 3-foot-3, 3-foot-7, and 3-foot-11.
With more solid fundamentals and renewed confidence and determination, I hopped on Cubbie for the first time in two weeks on April 7. I was more resolute in pushing Cubbie forward to establish a rhythm, in not letting her lock on the bit, and in establishing contact for her to meet so that we could work toward more rhythmic riding, as opposed to being flat and choppy. The next day, we hauled to Spring Gulch Equestrian Area to school cross country. We had a meaningful breakthrough with our first jump at the Beginner Novice height of 2-fot-7.
I'm writing my next “Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries” for @paulickreport. Cubbie and I made an exciting breakthrough on our journey to the 2020 @RRP_TBMakeover with our first cross country jump at the Beginner Novice height of 2-foot-7. pic.twitter.com/pmLZA5AZQq
— Jonathan Horowitz (@jjhorowitz) April 20, 2020
Now, I feel like I'm working with a horse with a foundation upon which I can build.
“Aren't you glad you went through that difficult month to get to where you are now?” Ashley asked me afterward.
The progress Cubbie and I are making didn't come the way I expected. Cubbie could care less about the script I wrote for her. I'm fortunate, at least for the moment, that she's authoring a better one. I'm sure it will change several more times before October. At least I'm learning to enjoy the ride.
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