The Blueberry Bulletin Presented By Equine Equipment: Lessons From The Thoroughbred Makeover - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

The Blueberry Bulletin Presented By Equine Equipment: Lessons From The Thoroughbred Makeover

Blueberry gets a big hug at the end of his Training 2 test at the 2021 Thoroughbred Makeover. Pyrois Media Photo

Three weeks after the Thoroughbred Makeover and I'm still walking on air when I think about Blueberry's performance. My big goals going into the dressage competition at this year's Makeover had been that he be mentally prepared for the situation – two back-to-back dressage tests in the Rolex Stadium, a large and echoey structure unlike anyplace he had competed before – and that we not finish last.

Our scores on our two tests weren't the highest we've ever gotten, but they were solid and the tests themselves were the best we've ever put in. We came 40th out of a group of 89, many of whom were dressage professionals. I am thrilled with that outcome.

I started this series with a list of early lessons I took away from my first months with an off-track Thoroughbred (OTTB). (You can find that post here.) That seems like a good way to sum up the many things we learned from this wonderful, crazy, exhausting experience.

  • Last-minute hoof issues aren't necessarily the end of the world. Any time Blueberry experiences any kind of discomfort, he is pretty dramatic about it. We say he's a sensitive flower, which has its advantages in the dressage ring. I actually consider it a good thing that he's unafraid to express to me when he's in pain, because I know right away when something is wrong. This also meant that when he got his first hot nail (the first one my farrier has been responsible for in a decade working at my barn, just my luck), he acted like he was dying. Naturally, this happened about nine days before we were due to ship in to the Kentucky Horse Park. Initially we weren't sure whether he had a hot nail or a brewing abscess and I quickly learned that the former will resolve very quickly while the latter, though similarly minor in terms of seriousness, would probably take more than a week to get him back to full strength.We spent three days with his shoe off, diligently packing the foot round the clock and soaking it just before the farrier's recheck just in case he had both a hot nail and an abscess. In three days, the nail hole had closed clean and we were dealing with minor bruising from the time the shoe had been off. We practiced our Training 2 test two days before shipping, charging into the biggest horse show week with exactly two training sessions in the previous 10 days. By the time he arrived at the Park, he was sound, rested, and ready to go, if a little lighter on practice and fitness training than I had intended.

    So the next time I hear about a Derby prospect with a last-minute foot issue, I'm not going to throw them out until I know more about what's going on. A turnaround can be possible, even in what feels like the eleventh hour.

    A moment from our Training 2 test

  • Horses don't always fit into the timelines we've laid out. Ok, I knew this one already but I'd always thought of it upside down – that if anything, you have to move slowly doing anything with any horse just on principle. But that's not right for everyone. With a month or two to go until the Makeover, I was aware we'd need to step up from the Intro Level tests we'd been performing in competition to the Training Level 2 test we'd be required to do at Makeover. I also knew in advance that we'd only have one show prior to Makeover where we'd have a chance to ride that test. Each level contains three tests, which get progressively more difficult, so Training 2 is actually the fifth and most difficult test we've tried. With a few weeks to go, I still believed it was possible that after Makeover we'd need to step back down to Intro C, the test I figured we'd have been riding if we hadn't had the Makeover as a goal. The one time we competed Training 2, I forgot part of the test and missed a few key technical marks. We were still struggling to get our correct canter leads on the first try. It was — not quite a mess, but not an auspicious beginning.We got a lot of practice in during Makeover week, drilling Training 2 over and over. Leaving the Rolex, I knew I was sitting on a Training Level horse. In just a few short weeks, we belonged at that level. I didn't think we could both improve that quickly but we did.
  • A bored baby Thoroughbred in horse show stabling will eventually, with great determination and practice, find a way to poop into his water bucket. And his feed tub. My mare did not prepare me for this level of depravity. Gross, dude. He will also not learn from the experience and may do it again tomorrow if he has finessed his aim.
  • The notion that a seam ripper is a critical tool in your horse show kit is not a suggestion. I had Blueberry professionally braided because my braids are absolutely awful and I wanted him to look amazing. He did, and the braider sewed the braids in (which explained how they stayed in so well, no matter how he rubbed his neck along the door frame). She did a beautiful job. I reluctantly took them out at the end of the evening, in the dark, carefully hunting for black thread with bandage scissors so as not to cut holes in his mane. When eventers (at least the eventers I know) braid, it's usually with bands that are easy to pull, but the hunters mean business, even when they do button braids. Seam ripper = vital equipment next time.
  • Do not underestimate the bombproof nature of a well-behaved 4-year-old Thoroughbred. Our stabling for the Makeover faced out onto one of the busiest parts of the park for vehicle and foot traffic. We hacked through the show grounds and around the edges of the cross country course to get to our schooling area every day. Although Blueberry had been to small horse shows many times before this, he had to see and hear a lot during this particular week, and he feared nothing. Other horses spooking, bolting, galloping cross country, dogs, golf carts, backfiring tractors – he thought about none of it. Even the echoey Rolex grandstand and brightly-decorated judges' booths were of very little concern to him.The only thing he looked at was the giant rack of colorful jump poles that was being unloaded by volunteers on our first day at the Park and must have looked to him a little like windmills looked to Don Quixote. Fair enough. He stared, planted his feet, and shook in his bell boots. I was nervous, not knowing if he would try to bolt. I considered dismounting, but I sat still in the saddle. I patted him. I let him think for a few minutes, trying consciously to lower my own heart rate. He took a breath, chomped on his bit, and decided to believe me when I promised him they were safe. Is there a greater feeling than your horse saying, 'I trust you'?

    All smiles after our second and final dressage test at the Makeover.

  • The greatest lessons sometimes evolve from a tough warm-up. Blueberry handled the atmosphere of the Rolex Stadium brilliantly, but we did have a bobble in our first schooling session on Monday, several days before our competition on Thursday. We were running through our test and were just passing the judge's booth when someone dropped something inside the grandstand. It sounded like something heavy, maybe a folding table, making a big, echoey boom. I watched Blueberry's ear move towards it, process, and ignore the sound … but unfortunately, about two steps later, it was time for me to ask for a left lead canter. I wanted the transition to be sharp, and I rotated my knee about a half inch too far, touching him gently with more spur than heel instead of the other way around. I don't know if it was the sonic boom or the unexpected spur poke, but he took off bucking. It was a short episode and I sat it well, but I did have long enough to think about how much I did not want to fall and have my horse run loose through one of the more famous outdoor arenas in this country.I can't lie – this moment rattled me. I spent two days overanalyzing it, and then I realized that 1) He had almost certainly been reacting out of indignation and not fear 2) He had almost certainly forgotten about it as soon as I sat up, gathered my reins, and taken us through a 20-meter circle still in the canter and 3) I came out of this moment just fine. I didn't even lose a stirrup.

    All along this journey I have doubted myself more than Blueberry – am I a good enough rider to teach him this new sport? Do I know him well enough to read his moods and his emotional needs? Am I capable of putting the pieces back together when things go wrong? And thanks to our amazing support team – my husband, my trainer, my barn friends – I came away from that schooling session eventually recognizing that my horse has faith in me, and I should, too. (It helped that after a couple of days of long workouts and daily walks around the park, he was also probably too tired for a repeat.) This is something that I know will come up again and again. Unshakable confidence doesn't grow overnight, but it does come through repeated good experiences, and I know Blueberry can give me those.

Paulick Report Icon

Receive daily headlines, breaking news alerts, promotions, and much more!

Become An Insider

Support our journalism and access bonus content on our Patreon stream

Learn More