“Beginner Safe” is not the description we use for most of our OTTBs. We do not market them to beginners and do not profess that they would ever be beginner-safe horses. At least that's what I thought when I first began this adventure. I've happily been proven wrong several times, but one story really made me think differently about Thoroughbreds and novice riders. Sometimes, there are exceptions to the “green + green = black and blue.”
Ten or so years ago I had a fabulous volunteer who literally had the job of keeping me company while I walked the shed rows at Charles Town racetrack (W.V.). I was terrified to walk around those barns, and I often brought a friend with me just to keep me sane. She was (and is) a great friend, and we had a grand time learning the ins and outs of the racing world.
This volunteer was named Jeni, and while she doesn’t have the opportunity to volunteer any longer, CANTER Mid Atlantic would never be what it is today without her support. Jeni literally held me up, wiped my tears, boosted my spirits and made me laugh regularly when all I wanted to do was say "this sucks!" and not ever go back. (Track visits weren't always so fun!)
Jeni is the consummate people person. She got along with eeeeeverybody! This came in really handy when suspicious racetrack trainers were giving you the stink eye. Not only was Jeni good at talking with everybody and anybody, she convinced the most unlikely people to help with CANTER's mission.
One day, about two years into her volunteering, Jeni brought some work friends out to the barn where we had a group of horses living—including her boss at the time. They were very clearly NOT horsefolk.
Horsefolk have that "look,” you know? Jeans at the very least, sometimes a polo, and always....but ALWAYS appropriate footwear.
Appropriate footwear is not the latest in high-heeled Blahniks.
I was, shall we say, skeptical. Which is a really kind way of saying really judgmental.
These three well-dressed ladies were here to muck out a paddock and help CANTER. Oooohkay! I can put you all to work, no problem! Muck they did, and I thanked them profusely but never expected to see them again. ‘Tis the way things are a lot of the time.
But two of the women kept coming back. They came all the time! They decided on Wednesday as their volunteer day, and every Wednesday they were there, come Hell or high water. I visited with them each time they came out and thanked them—truly thanked them for helping with CANTER's mission. I was so appreciative and so surprised they stayed around.
One day, I was getting ready to show this tiny, homely horse for sale to a potential buyer. She was 15 nothing hands tall, 3 years old, a mare and CHESTNUT. I cannot believe I didn't have a giant line of people beating one another down with sharp sticks trying to buy her. Up comes well-dressed volunteer who asks to speak with me. I turn my head and see this woman, brimming in tears. "You can't sell Piper. You just can't!"
I responded that they all needed to go to new homes so that we could help more horses.
YOU CANT! I LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE HER!!!!!!
Um. I just didn't know what to do with that. I mean, I'm standing there in my barn scrubs, staring at this perfectly dressed woman with perfect hair and perfect skin and perfect nails who is weeping perfectly about the most imperfect horse we'd ever had. It did not compute.
My response was very easy when this volunteer said, "I'll buy her!"
Honey, you absolutely cannot have a 3-year-old chestnut Thoroughbred mare. You've never even ridden.
"But I'll NEVER ride her! I'll just keep her and love her and brush her and feed her carrots!"
I sort of giggled (under my breath—the woman was weeping, openly!) and said some words of comfort about getting attached to horses and how hard it is, then slowly snuck away.
Well-coiffed volunteer was unrelenting in her pursuit of owning this horse. I actually got to the point where I thought, "OK, nobody is banging down the doors for this horse, and she IS awfully quiet!" It was enough to allow me to just ruminate for a bit.
In that time, I had ridden the horse quite a bit and had even put my (then very brand new!) boyfriend on for a trail ride. He got on her bareback at one point and wandered around the apple orchard while I rode in the ring, much to the astounded faces of my barnmates. They were amazed that I put this non-riding boy on a 3-year-old mare to toodle around at his leisure. I figured, "Well, he's new. If he gets killed out there he's not tough enough to hang with me anyhow!" (I kid!)
So I did put some thought into it and approached the volunteer with my suggestion.
"I'm going to let you *lease* this horse for one year, and in that time you need to put her in training and take two lessons a week on school horses. Additionally, you need to keep the horse with me during this time so I can monitor the situation, and if at the end of the lease it’s still working, she's all yours."
She agreed wholeheartedly and jumped into her lessons headfirst—two a week at Waredaca in Maryland on school horses, and Piper got some basic training from local folks.
I cannot tell you the selfish joy I got from watching this volunteer—who had never sat on a horse before—and this horse, who nobody else in the world wanted—grow together.
That was seven years ago, and Shannon formally bought Piper once she completed her homework.
Grow they did. Shannon Gipson has become the epitome of a horse person. She rides five days a week and takes dressage lessons three times a week with a Grand Prix dressage rider. Piper has proven to be the quietest, sanest, funniest tiny little chestnut Thoroughbred mare on the planet. They are absolute joy to one another and an absolute inspiration to me.
About two months into the arrangement we had, Shannon confessed that Piper had changed her life, and she was so excited to become one of us "horse people." I told her that her soul had always been a horse person; she just didn't know it until she met Piper.
Now, when people ask me if OTTB's are "beginner safe" I don't immediately answer "no" as I used to. I say, "With the right horse, they absolutely can be." What can't they do?
Allie Conrad is executive director of CANTER Mid Atlantic, which provides retiring Thoroughbred racehorses with opportunities for new careers. Allie founded the organization in 1999 at Charles Town Racetrack (W.V.) after purchasing her beloved Thoroughbred Phinny, who had more than 60 starts at Charles Town, at the infamous New Holland Auction in Pennsylvania. A resident of Southern Pines, N.C., Allie also works full time as a project manager for a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. You can learn more about CANTER Mid Atlantic on their website, www.canterusa.org/midatlantic.