September 2013 | Newtown Tragedy Sparked Retired Racehorse Challenge
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Newtown Tragedy Sparked Retired Racehorse Challenge

September 2013 - Suzanne Bush

Retired Racehorse ChallengeAmber Lynn Longreen, at 13 the youngest trainer competing in the Retired Racehorse Challenge, shares a kiss with  Same as Always or Al, an off the track Thoroughbred she got through the New Vocations adoptions program her mother runs.
Photo Credit: Cheryl Kreider

In the profoundly sad days following the massacre of 26 children and teachers at their Newtown, CT school last December, grief engulfed our nation like a toxic cloud. People wept openly as they watched the news. It was hard to imagine how sunshine could ever pierce the cloud that stalked communities from Newtown to Honolulu. But humans are wired to move forward, to look up, to cope—and so they stabbed at the darkness with gestures of compassion, with generous spirits, with courage. Erase the tragedies? Impossible. Fight grief with good deeds? Yes. In thousands of ways throughout our country, people and communities began to fight grief with kindness.

And that is how 26 retired racehorses recently met 26 enthusiastic, optimistic trainers from as remote as South Dakota and as close as Hummelstown, PA. Steuart Pittman, Jr., President of Retired Racehorse Training Project (RRTP) explains. “Our Vice President, Carolyn Karlson, who owns racehorses, called after the Newtown tragedy. She wanted us to do 26 acts of kindness. She wanted to retrain 26 racehorses.”

Thus the Retired Racehorse Challenge was born. Pittman says that in designing their competition, they looked at the Mustang Makeover competition, in which individual trainers work with Mustang horses and then showcase their work. The idea is to demonstrate the trainability and versatility of Mustangs.  “Right from the beginning, the Mustang Makeover was a great model. We were surprised nobody had ever done that for Thoroughbreds off the track.”

None of the racehorses involved in the Challenge has been trained for anything but racing. The trainers were given 90 days to start their racehorses on new careers, and they each received $1,000 toward expenses.  The results of their efforts will be unveiled in a two-day event at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland on October 5 and 6.

Twenty-Six Hopeful Trainers Prepping for the Big Show
The 26 trainers represent disciplines that range from barrel-racing, to dressage, to eventing, to team penning, to show jumping. Right from the get-go, it seems, the trainers are out to prove Pittman right about the versatility of Thoroughbreds.

Versatility may not be the first attribute people might ascribe to Thoroughbreds, particularly those that are retiring from racing. But Pittman sees them differently. He describes them in language almost identical to that used by the Mustang trainers. In a presentation to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association in October, 2011, Pittman outlined the attributes he has found and cultivated in the retired racehorses he has trained. “Nobody denies that to win at the top level of eventing today requires a horse to be sound, brave, athletic, intelligent, responsive, elegant, trainable, and versatile. Maybe that’s how we should begin to describe ex-racehorses.”

Thus it’s not at all surprising to discover just how disparate are the disciplines of the people who have accepted the Retired Racehorse Challenge.  Nikki Eyged is a 22 year-old from Paso Robles, CA, whose specialties are barrel racing and gymkhana—not with Quarter Horses, but with Thoroughbreds. She has long been an advocate of using Thoroughbreds and former racehorses in those sports.

Another competitor who defies tradition is Mark Powers, a 55 year-old professional polo player from East Palestine, OH, who estimates that 80 per cent of the horses he rides in polo matches are Thoroughbreds.

Patti Fiedler of Pinellas Park, FL, is a 47 year-old former state champion barrel-racer who now trains retired racehorses for police work.

Dale Simanton, a 57 year-old from Newell, SD, trains Thoroughbreds for ranch work.

And, representing the youngest cohort in this competition is Amber Lynn Longreen, a 13 year-old from Hummelstown, PA. The eighth-grader has been riding for, as she puts it, “as long as I can remember.”

Responsible and Hard-working
Longreen was just 12 when the competitors were chosen in June. On her application, she noted that, although young, “I am responsible and I work hard to achieve my goals.” Her mother, Cheryl Keller, operates Bowcrest Farms in Hummelstown, which is a New Vocations Racehorse Adoption Program site. When she considered competing in the Retired Racehorse Challenge, Longreen was not intimidated. She had been working with retired racehorses from nearby Penn National Racetrack for a long time. “For the Challenge I could go and buy a horse,” she says, “but we decided to represent our adoption program.”

Longreen’s discipline is eventing, and she has been working with another off-the-track Thoroughbred, Curtis, for a couple of years. Together they’ve competed at the 2010 and 2011 American Eventing Championships (AEC) novice level, and they qualified for the 2012 championships in Georgia.

Thinking about the Challenge, she says “I was looking for a nice big horse able to do eventing. He was a good size, and built very nicely,” she says about the horse named “Same As Always.”  She calls him Al, and she liked him right from the start. “I rode him once and realized he was a really nice mover.” She has already taken Al to two shows.

At the final event at Pimlico in October, Longreen and the other competitors will have 15 minutes to demonstrate what they’ve taught their retired racehorses. “Riders will have headset mikes,” Pittman explains. “They’ll show off what their horses have learned. We’ll go through all 26 of those over the two days.”

Longreen is not sure yet what she and Al will demonstrate at Pimlico, “We’re doing a lot of Dressage work. He’s working on relaxing and bending, and we’re doing a lot of leg yields.” She says that she has jumped him, but right now he’s got a splint, so she is taking the time to work with him on other aspects of his game. “He’s been working out great so far,” she says. “He’s really nice and sweet in the field.”

Articulate and poised, Longreen seems older than 13. Her mother says that people often think she is older because she is tall and well-spoken. Longreen is studying via Cyber School, so she can do school work and ride every day.  “I have five other horses of my own to ride every day,” she says, and Al is also a big project requiring her time and attention. “He gets ridden for an hour every day, and he gets lunged for 15 minutes.”

Music, Stories and Celebrity Riders
Pittman says final plans for the October event at Pimlico are still evolving, but there will be seminars as well as demonstrations. “We wanted to do something that was closer to a national meeting, and to do something that would attract the general public.” He says that seminar sessions on Saturday and Sunday morning will be geared to helping people who are serious about the work of training retired racehorses. “One of our panels is with some vets discussing pre-purchase exams and soundness issues with off-the-track horses.” He says that people don’t realize that retired racehorses often have great bone density, especially if they’ve been started properly.

Along with the demonstrations by the 26 trainers, Pittman says that there will be lots of surprises, including a small demonstration polo match, a jumping exhibition by some of the more experienced horses and even, possibly some team-penning exhibitions featuring off-the-track Thoroughbreds and celebrity riders from the horseracing world.

Saturday night will be memorable and special, Pittman says. “It’s about celebrating the diversity and trainability of these horses,” he explains. “The party will have dinner, beer and wine, live music and Thoroughbred story telling from fairly famous people with famous horses.” Since the weekend of the event at Pimlico coincides with the Morven Park (VA) Horse Trials, Pittman says he’s renting a bus to bring some of the nation’s top eventers from Morven Park to Pimlico. They’ll recount stories about their horses and their careers.

Amazing Grace
Amber Lynn Longreen says that her horse, Al, is a great mover, with a lovely personality. She says that he is willing and eager, and she fell in love with his personality. Pittman has more miles under his saddle than Longreen, but he is as smitten by the potential of Thoroughbreds as she is. His organization is built on respect for the breed, and for all they have given humans. He wants to ensure that retired racehorses are viewed not as throwaways, but as creatures of uncommon grace and beauty.

In his presentation to NTRA, he encouraged the audience to embrace and promote the numerous talents Thoroughbreds possess besides speed. “Convincing the public that Thoroughbreds are athletic is easy, but showing them that their bodies can be transformed from tightly strung running machines into supple, elastic dressage horses and powerful, careful show jumpers is a tougher sell. Transforming a football player into a ballerina would take time, and the same goes with horses. But an athlete is an athlete, which is why we see ex-racehorses like Sea Lord doing Grand Prix dressage with a brilliance that takes your breath away.”

Much has been said about the dismal futures many retired racehorses face. Pittman is an evangelist for a different future—a future to which everyone who cares about horses should be dedicated.