Slowly but surely, Thoroughbreds are making a comeback in the dressage and hunter/jumper disciplines. (They never fell out of favor among eventers.) Acknowledgement of the breed's spectacular athleticism and heart has helped promote their return, as have several charitable programs, including Thoroughbred-only classes and competitions. Dressage trainer Lehua Custer is doing her part, with three ex-racehorses doing well in her program at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center.
Lehua didn't set out to be a hub for retired racers. Ten years working for Hilda Gurney, whose many credits include 1976 Olympic bronze with the spectacular Thoroughbred Keen, equipped her to bring out the best in horses of any breed. "I never assume that because a horse is a different breed, it won't be successful." In four years training on her own, Lehua has established herself as a go-to girl for those with similar convictions about the potential of non-standard dressage breeds—along with plenty of riders succeeding on today's more traditional Warmbloods.
Bryce Quinto & Been Verified
Two of the Thoroughbreds in Lehua's program, Cougarette and Exclusive Story, are owned by 28-year-old Sweden native Cassandra Andersson. A third, Been Verified, is owned by David James and ridden by up-and-coming junior Bryce Quinto. While each horse is very much its own individual, they share common traits. "They all really connect with their riders," the trainer observes. "They really try and have so much heart. They never say 'no.'" That connection to their riders includes looking to their person for support when they are confused or fearful. Thus, it's important for the rider to respond in ways that help the horse build confidence in various situations.
"As with any horse, the rider has to recognize when the horse is feeling overwhelmed or not confident," Lehua notes. One of the horses is wonderful in the first test at a show, but if he's ridden in two in the same day he gets "a little grouchy." His schedule has been reorganized around having just one class a day. Another horse is great in group situations, but gets nervous during a test when she's all by herself. In this case the mare is being gradually acclimated to the show ring, first with a few other horses, then on her own.
Trainer Lehua Custer
The Thoroughbred's sensitivity means they they're often more sensitive to their rider's mistakes. The conventional wisdom of pairing an experienced rider with an inexperienced horse is especially applicable with Thoroughbreds as they learn a new job, Lehua advises.
Cassandra is a 28-year-old amateur who aspires to take Cougarette to the FEI levels. She got "Cougar" a little over two years ago and the mare had some training beyond the "track broke" basics of her racing days. Having Storm Cat in the mare's pedigree was a positive indicator of Cougar's potential as a sport horse, Cassandra explains. The famous racer is present in the bloodlines of several offspring that have enjoyed successful second careers in the hunter/jumper and dressage worlds.
Nerves are the main challenge in training Cougar and those are handled by letting her gallop enough to burn off excess energy before attempting to tackle a training challenge. Cassandra and Cougar competed in about 15 shows last year and intend to move up to Second Level this month at the CDS show at the Paddock Riding Club.
All Systems Go
In addition to her athleticism, Cougar is great for dressage because, "She's always happy to work and do anything that you ask," Cassandra reports. "You never have to push her to move forward and she never gets tired or bored. She's easy and pleasant and happy to be working and she understands when I say, 'good girl' and relaxes."
The dark bay, 17.2 hand 7-year-old is "very sweet, loves to cuddle and follows me around like a puppy dog" at the barn.
Cougar lives at Cassandra's home stable, just a few blocks from the Equestrian Center, with Exclusive Story, aka "Lucy." This coming 4-year-old is very different from her stablemate. "She's been calm from the beginning even though she had no off-the-track training," Cassandra reports. "She moved forward easily, but had no idea what I wanted when I put my leg aids on her." Within two or three rides, she had the walk, trot and canter down. Her calm demeanor and willing attitude will make her a good candidate for a junior or amateur rider in a few years time.
Like many horses fresh from the track, Been Verified was initially clueless about cantering on the right lead, versus the left lead in which they accrue all of their racing mileage. "He's very smart and a quick learner," says 17-year-old Bryce, whose been riding "Benny" for owner David James since early 2013. The coming 5-year-old had participated in three shows as of late February, first in an in-hand class to get accustomed to the show environment. In his next two shows, high 60s and low 70s at Training Level tests earned him the qualifying scores for the CDS Championships that Bryce has in mind for him later this year.
Cassandra Andersson & Cougarette
He, too, is very sensitive, but not in a spooky way, and he's curious. "He likes to look at what's new and investigate everything," Bryce says. Been Verified acts spooky on occasion, but Bryce believes it's more a case of finding excuses to be playfully skittish. Benny is a project horse for Bryce, who chose a home schooled high school path so she'd have more time for riding. Her top mount at the moment is one of Lehua's horses, Ramazotti 75, with whom she hopes to qualify for this summer's North American Junior/Young Rider Championships.
Lehua, Cassandra and Bryce are happy to be among the growing number of riders helping Thoroughbreds strut their stuff in post-race careers. The endeavor is sometimes mistakenly described as "rescuing rejects" from the racing world and it is a reality that many ex-racers are too broken down to embark on sporthorse paths. All three women emphasize that the racing industry supports several mechanisms for helping their horses find second careers, whether they're retired or not suitable from the get-go.
The Thoroughbreds they ride came from such situations. Lucy, for example, "wasn't injured or anything, she just didn't do very well," Cassandra says. She found Lucy through an online advertisement placed by a farm in Hemet and purchased the mare at a very modest cost. She expects that putting a few years into bringing out Lucy's potential as a strong amateur horse will result in a sale that could significantly help fund her FEI hopes with Cougarette.
Lehua has trained and competed horses at every level up to Grand Prix and is a USDF gold medalist. In embracing all breeds equally, she continues the legacy of her mentor Hilda Gurney. Especially so with the Thoroughbreds, whose praises Hilda sings to this day, 38 years after earning Olympic dressage glory with Keen. The six-time USET Grand Prix National Champion was an ambassador for American dressage in his life and, even since his passing in 1989, continues to be the ultimate spokeshorse for the Thoroughbred's suitability for dressage.
CARMA & CANTER
provide headstart on
finding the right ex-racer.
CARMA is one of several sources for retired racehorses that might be suitable for the dressage, hunter/jumper and eventing disciplines. Funded by voluntary donations from owners, through a percent of their prize winnings, the California Retirement Management Account directs money to approved "aftercare" providers.
Horses first go to CARMA's "triage" unit at Winners Circle Ranch in the San Gabriel Valley area's Bradbury, where they are cared for, supervised and evaluated by the Thoroughbred Rehab Center staff. This visit usually lasts 30 days, then the horse is placed with the aftercare facility best suited to its needs, whether that's permanent retirement, adoption as a companion horse or for a second career as a sporthorse. A rehab phase precedes the adoption availability as needed.
CARMA's "resources" page includes a list of aftercare facilities, which is a great place to start looking if you are in the market for a Thoroughbred.
CANTER is another great source. The California chapter of the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses is part of a long-standing national organization that has helped place hundreds of horses in new homes. Recently accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, California CANTER was established in 2008 and works with all of the state's tracks to offer free services in helping owners and trainers place horses into good post-track lives.
There are two ways to get a horse through CANTER. The first is through the California CANTER Listings. These are horses donated to and now owned by the organization who have had two months off, undergone rehabilitation if needed, and been started for non-racing under saddle work. The other option is Trainer Listings, which post horses still at the track and for sale through trainers interested in finding them second homes.
Adoption fees and prices vary depending on the horse's soundness and suitability for another career. CANTER asks trainers posting horses to consider a $500 to $4,000 price spectrum to help ensure a home that can afford the
For more information visit www.carma4horses.org and www.canterusa.org.