Barn Buddies At The Thoroughbred Makeover: Mini Horses Make The Haul Easier by Natalie Voss|10.18.2023|9:31pm Cooper and Ninetynine Excuses at the Thoroughbred Makeover The average visitor to the Kentucky Horse Park last week may have been forgiven a few minutes' confusion if they spotted the white PVC pipe gate that was set up in front of one of the stalls in the stabling area of Barn 7. Webbings and stall chains are a common sight, but this was a decidedly different kind of barn door. That's because the inhabitant of that stall was a little bit different. While the entrants in last week's Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover ranged in height from 14.3 hands to 18.1 hands, there were a few smaller equids on the grounds as well. At least three off-track Thoroughbreds came with their own emotional support miniature horses. As we've documented in our Barn Buddies series, it's not uncommon for horses on the track to have dogs, cats, sheep, goats, pigs, or even turkeys as companion animals. Life at the racetrack doesn't allow for much socialization between horses, and some find this more upsetting than others. Show horses making long hauls to be stabled for a few nights away from their herds can sometimes also find the experience stressful and are happy to have a friend nearby. Makeover entrant Ninetynine Excuses, ridden by Maryland-based Caitlan Brooks, made the journey to the Kentucky Horse Park with his new friend Cooper. “We picked Cooper up a couple days before we came down,” said Brooks. “We wanted an easy traveling companion who wouldn't holler back. Nine is bred in Maryland and only raced in Maryland, so this was the furthest he was going to ship, so we wanted to make sure we didn't ask him to do it alone or set him up to be too upset.” Cooper is on loan from a longtime friend of Brooks. Before their departure, Brooks learned that 15-year-old Cooper is not just a horse show veteran, but was a multi-national champion mini horse in his own career. [Story Continues Below] Cooper's owner sent them with his specialized PVC webbing, which keeps him stalled but allows him to stick his head out as desired – improving Nine's sightline to his pal. Cooper's favorite part of each day was the pair's hand-grazing sessions on the cross country course in between competitive and schooling rides. “He's a reserved guy to himself, but super food-motivated,” said Brooks of Cooper. “He's well-traveled and settled right in. I think he liked coming out of his field and coming out of his retirement to rejoin horse show life.” Brooks runs River's Ridge Farm, which offers boarding, lay-ups, training and sales in Greenspring Valley and frequently trains and sells OTTBs on to new careers as field or show hunters. Nine sold to a client before the Makeover, but his new owner still wanted him to get the chance to compete. “She was looking for a young prospect, and I said I think I have a really quiet, nice one,” said Brooks. “He's been a pleasure. The sales game can be hard when you fall in love and don't want to lose sight of them, but it's great that he got to stay with me, and after here he'll move to her farm, which is around the corner, to be her second field hunter. She always says she thinks he'll be her old lady horse. He's only five, but that's how quiet he is.” Brooks said Nine's racing connections were very involved in his transition from the track. She got him from her friend and racing trainer Alison Delgado, and breeder Karen Zeiler flew down to watch him compete. The pair would go on to finish third overall in the field hunters and were 20th out of 72 in the show hunter division. Bella and Tinkerbelle at the Kentucky Horse Park for Thoroughbred Makeover. Photo courtesy Brenda Awad Bell the Cat, fondly known as Bella, also came to the Makeover with her very own mini horse. Trainer Brenda Awad keeps minis alongside her riding horses and chose a paint named Tinkerbelle for their haul from Virginia. “I felt the trailer ride was a bit long for a horse to be alone and I thought Tink would help settle Bella in the trailer and on the grounds,” said Awad. “She was specifically picked out of my ten other mini horses because she's so small, well behaved, and confident in going places.” The journey to Makeover was an especially meaningful one for Awad, who last competed there in 2018. “I've had off track Thoroughbreds since I was a kid but Bella is the first new big horse I've allowed on our farm since I was trampled by a boarder's horse leading it in,” she said. “I had just competed in the makeover in 2018 and then couldn't ride for a year and a half because of the accident and the PTSD that affects me. After finally started back riding, I was very scared of other people's horses. “But, I'd always wanted to do this journey again and felt this year was the right year. Through a friend, I got connected with Larry and Connie Smith of Hickory Made Stables and they were thrilled with the thought of having one of their racehorses compete in the Makeover. They told me about Bell and assured me she had all the qualities that I needed. My two most important were a great brain and safe to be around.” Tinkerbelle meets Thoroughbred competitors at the Kentucky Horse Park. Photo courtesy Brenda Awad When the two met at the end of 2022, Awad knew they were meant to embark on this journey together. “She loves to learn, is curious about everything, and is usually businesslike under saddle. She thinks about what I'm asking her to do and tries so hard to figure it out,” she said. Bella and Awad would go on to place third in the show hunters and fourth in the show jumpers. With the Makeover complete, Bella is now looking for her next partner to continue the career she started at local shows. Tinkerbelle, who was a hit with Makeover attendees, will go back to a life of being adored by clamoring fans. “Tinkerbelle will continue her good work with children and outreach programs,” said Awad. “She may also attend more horse shows.” This is a special Makeover edition of our fan favorite Barn Buddies series, which is currently on hiatus. If you'd like to bring Barn Buddies back to our pages each month, contact our director of advertising.