The Story of a Loser
Life does not always hand us a clear path to our destiny. Especially if someone else is in charge of plotting our course. These words have been proven equally true, for both humans, and animals. Some beings, are simply born into the wrong family. A family, which has built in standards, or expectations, that cannot, or will not, ever be met. For little Seventytwo, who hit the ground in the spring of 2010, at a farm in Nicholasville Kentucky, that… is quite clearly, what happened.
Seventytwo, is and always will be, a thoroughbred. Thoroughbreds…especially those born in Kentucky, are all born to become racehorses. In fact, whomever bred the almost twenty thousand other thoroughbreds who foaled that same year, likely had the exact same expectation. All baby thoroughbreds carry the hopes of the people surrounding them…of winning the Kentucky Derby… and then, of course, the Triple Crown.
Seventy two, actually looks like his sire, Catienus. Not in stature but his face is quite similar, as is something about the look in his eye. His sire could not deny him… looks wise, that much is clear, even from a photo. However, Seventy two could easily be the forgotten son. He was not destined to procure his sire, fame, glory, or additional stud fees. Not on the racetrack anyway.
It is likely, that those who evaluated little Seventy two, as a dark bay youngster growing up in the fields of Kentucky,…guessed, that the diminutive weanling, with the crooked stripe on his face, and two white hind socks, was not going to set the world on fire. Not with his athletic prowess, nor with his blinding speed. Partly because he was small and not that fast, and partly because he was very opinionated and did not like being bossed around. Seventy two was known for being contrary, without an actual reason, pretty much whenever he had the opportunity.
Those in the racing industry who are dedicated and knowledgeable, those who have spent time studying foal crops, are pretty good at picking out the ones most likely to succeed. These owners, breeders and trainers, the ones always searching, for that ever rare, diamond in the rough, likely viewed little Seventy two as the equivalent of a lump of coal. One who would stay, just that.
There are so many versions of the little engine that could. The underdog that defied his circumstances. The unlikely subject who went against all odds and surprised everyone, winning the day, along with the hearts of many, as those closest to his struggle, cried tears of joy. This is not going to be one of those stories.
This will be the story of a funny, and surprisingly intelligent horse, who managed to survive being a bad race horse, and actually have… a life ever after. It is the story that only half of those same little baby racehorses born the same year Indy was, even live to have.
The racing industry is an extremely huge business and the breeding, training and racing of horses in the United States, and around the world seems to be one of glory and splendor to those on the outside looking in. For a very select few, this statement is actually true.
Just as every child who runs a lap around the track at their school, does not go on to become a track and field Olympian, every horse born and bred to race, does not always succeed, or even survive, their journey. Those same children, the ones who cannot come close to winning a foot race in their grade school, are not cast off. Nor are they shipped away to a dire ending before they reach the second grade. They are allowed to live and develop any other talents they might have, however hidden they may be.
Little Seventytwo, was not evaluated to see what else he might be good at. That is not the way with baby thoroughbreds in Kentucky. They are race horses or……they are cast off. Seventy two, who along the way, garnered the nickname of Shorty, could have been the poster boy of what not to choose in a racehorse.
He was short. Short, as in not tall, but also proportionately. Short legs, short strides, short tight back. He was contrary. Prone to not paying attention to a first request and then arguing with the second, he tended to try the patience of whomever he was with, be they two legged or four. Some may have noticed, that on the other side of an argument, he was actually almost cheerful even if the argument did not go in his favor. Indy liked conflict, but then also, the other side of it. He was funny and he was smart. He also figured out that people liked giving horses treats and they liked it if you let them pet you, so he put up with the petting because he liked treats and attention.
Little Shorty likely grew up with colts his age, toughing it out in the field with his peers as they raced around their pastures and argued about, pecking order, food and who was the boss of who.
Any horse with the temperament that Seventy two had, would likely have gotten frustrated from time to time. He could not physically back up his bossiness, but he still wanted to be in charge. When he did make a run at whomever the leader was at any given time he was always set back in his place, by the bigger, tougher, and more physical specimens in his group. However his desire to be in charge of his environment did not change.
As a late yearling or early two year old, Shorty proceeded into training. and from there, on into into his lackluster racing “career”. Somewhere along the way he gathered a new nickname. Indy. So he was Indy, or Shorty, depending on who was looking his way. No one called him by his papered name.
Seventy two raced into his five year old year, and that alone, is rare in the industry. In fact, he raced a total of 43 times. Racing only amongst horses who had never won anything, he still did not win. It took an astonishing 20 trips to the post before little Indy finally won his first race. A maiden claiming race.
A claiming race allows anyone to claim, or buy, the horse in the race, for the amount announced on the claiming entry. A horse can enter a claiming race where their stated value, or “price,” is four thousand dollars, or one where their value, is over one hundred thousand dollars. A maiden race is only open to horses who have never won a race. So…Indy raced among other non-winners twenty times until he finally crossed the finish line in front.
Apparently Indy did not then ” see the light”, and tear up the tracks with his blistering speed and dogged determination after that long awaited win. No…Indy languished some more. He finally won his second race in March of 2015. He won by over five lengths at the six furlong distance and still was not overly tired as he crossed the finish line. He was a long shot in the cheaper race, going off at over 30-1, and he won it like he was meant to be a good horse. However, it is hard to be good or great as a racehorse if you are not willing to try hard enough to get tired. Indy had great wind and great lung capacity and he just did not like exerting himself, to the point of becoming out of breath. He seemed to be saving himself. For what, no one knew.
Indy would not win again. By October of 2015 he was done racing, with his statistics, saying all that needed to be said. 43 races 2 wins 1 second and 1 third and a total lifetime earnings of 21,056. Not enough to pay his bills and so he was officially given up on as a race horse and picked up by a trainer that had plans to make a riding horse of him.
Now we introduce Yvonne Barteau. Yvonne is a lifetime horse trainer. She started training horses in her head about the age of 12 after reading umpteen books about them as a child. Much to her families dismay, Yvonne would not to be derailed from her chosen path for the rest of her life. Despite no family support, and desperate attempts to steer her towards academics in school, she knew horses were her destiny. It became her steadfast journey to become as proficient as she could. First at understanding, and then, at educating horses, of all ages, and of any breed.
By the time Indy entered her life she had already trained, hundreds of horses for a variety of occupations. The first horse she had actually gained access to, was an unridden youngster she had climbed on out in a field with only a yarn rope to steer with. After figuring out it was more fun to stay on than keep falling off she was even more dedicated in pursuing her destiny. Teen years were spent alternating between hunters and western horses and then after high school she went to the standardbred and thoroughbred racetracks of America for a period of about seven years.
On then to renegades, and problem horses, and from there into the equine theater world. Her evolution as a rider brought her next to the sport of dressage where she became one of the top FEI riders and trainers in the United States training over fifty horses to the FEI and fifteen to the Olympic or Grand Prix level of competition. Dressage was the discipline Yvonne was willing to hang her hat in. The word dressage simply means training, and the gymnastic and systematic development of a horse up through increasingly complicated movements captured her interest in a most permanent way.
Yvonne would be the first to tell you that she liked all horses, had loved quite a few, and had her heart broken by more of them than she could count. She maintained a “price of love”, sort of attitude about the heartbreak thing, realizing her heart would always be with the horses and therefore prone to damage now and again. Yvonne was as committed as they come to her destiny, which would always…include horses.
She knew them inside and out. Like people know their own families or spouses. Yvonne could spend a bit of time around a horse and get a very good read into their character and personality. The information she gleaned from spending time around each individual helped with her understanding and training of them to be sure.
When Yvonne heard about the Retired Racehorse thoroughbred Makeover Challenge it seemed a very just cause. After a bit of research she chose a horse whose destiny might not be secure if he did not receive remedial training. Indy entered her life after watching an IPhone clip of him jogging in hand on cement to determine if he was sound enough to retrain. His personality quirks did not put her off. Yvonne had written an award winning book on equine personalities. She would figure him out.
Indy arrived beginning of Feb 2016. At six years old he had seen more laps around a racetrack then most, even if they weren’t at top speed. He was not very eager to interact and figure out his new surroundings. It had been more of the same for as long as he could remember. His first stall at Grand Prix Equestrian, home of KYB Dressage, was off in a side wing in a somewhat quiet corner. Yvonne was in early the day after his arrival to meet him. She gave him his breakfast which he picked at, choosing a mouthful of hay for every two mouthfuls of grain. She wondered if his stomach might be bugging him. He had that dull coated appearance and a somewhat pained look in his eye that she had found, added up to ulcer activity before. His muscling was not what she would look for in any athlete. He had no back or topline development and the ropey stringy muscling in his neck and shoulders suggested he had run in a tight flat way, pulling himself along with his shoulders while somehow staying earthbound at the same time. No wonder he hadn’t won much. His lack of bulk or strength muscling along with the dull coat and possible stomach distress gave Yvonne her first course of action. She would start him on some Regener EQ an appetite stimulant which she had found to cease ulcer activity with one hundred percent success whenever she had introduced it, as well as some Gastra FX, and a Biotic 8 powder. A lifetime of too many falls and injuries, and the resulting ibuprofen remedy that could keep one working, had given Yvonne stomach issues herself, and so she was particularly sympathetic to any horse who had ulcer like symptoms.
His legs and feet on the other hand looked quite good. No evidence of soft tissue damage and his feet while small were in good shape and looked durable. His joints were also clean looking and while Indy seemed to be ignoring her scrutiny, she could tell he was monitoring her as well. She got the sense there was a clever little horse in front of her and liked that about him.
As soon as Indy lost interest in his food altogether she brought him out to the big field behind the barn and began his formal education with a “join up” session that lasted longer than it needed to as Indy tested his options.
Joining up is usually done in a round pen or smaller enclosure. The process allows the horse his freedom, but rewards choices made to turn towards, or face, their handler, and discourages choices to disregard or ignore, by basically creating a herd of two, with the human establishing the lead horse characteristics,
The object is similar to driving the horse away until he makes a choice to become part of your herd. Indy finally decided Yvonne was not going to be denied and trotted up to her as if it had been his idea all along. Their journey together began at that moment.
Yvonne brought little Indy back to the barn for some clean up and bonding time, choosing to give him his first bath herself. Time would not permit her to do all of his daily handling as this partnership was an unpaid project and she needed to earn a living with her paying clients but whenever her schedule allowed Yvonne chose to groom, tack and bathe her charges herself realizing that valuable interactions came from these moments. Indy was content to receive both the attention and a carrot and seemed pretty comfortable with his new location.
Yvonne was happy to notice that he was not “sour”. Many horses with Indys temperament and past lifestyle would become shut off and cranky. Scowling at the world through disheartened eyes, convinced their past experiences would equal all future ones they could be hard to turn around. Indy was clever enough to discern that things might be different here, and seemed willing to interact with his new situation.
Horses are truly amazing animals. Training a horse involves teaching them to make choices that in the end make the horse feel secure with both his actions and his established” leader”. Horses should respect their trainers but not be fearful of them. Only those who understand basic horse temperaments ever really succeed at forming the kind of partnerships, regardless of discipline, that stand out from all the others.
The best thing any good trainer can have is an understanding of each horse as an individual. All horses will respond best to whomever treats them the way their personality indicates they should be treated. Seventy Two found an understanding partner in Yvonne.
Indys training began with ground work. Using a rope halter and a long rope Yvonne started to instill the very basics of Liberty work on Indy. Shoulder and Hip control using the whip to signal movement of each part laterally Yvonne quickly learned just how clever Indy was. It took very few repetitions of anything for Indy to figure out what was wanted. Complying was another matter. He liked to test the system both casually and persistently. Yvonne was quick to reprimand non compliance with a stronger dosage of the aids and equally quick to reward and get peaceful when he was agreeable and prompt with his answers. As with many ex racehorses Indy was more stuck in his left shoulder than his right which also caused the right hind to be laterally stiff as well.
With an aim towards liberty and trick work as well as riding work Yvonne chose to introduce the bow first as it is easiest for the horse to learn to bow, lay down, and then sit, in that order. Again showing his remarkable intelligence Indy learned to bow in record time and then quickly made the association between the lay down and the aids as a separate request. He took advantage of his desire to roll anyway and so soon had all the basics of Liberty work introduced well enough to work off rope in the round pen.
Long lining was next. Connection and topline use is not normally important to a racehorse, but that would certainly be important to his changeover, into a dressage career. Because thoroughbreds mostly run on their forehand and a dressage program trains a horse to build and carry more over his hind legs there was some rebalancing work to be done. Indy was quite stuck in the poll and shoulders and wanted either to lean on the rein pressure, argue with it or block it out by locking his poll and jaw against it.
It is always best in such cases to have the horse work his own body into the stiffness so he can use himself to help himself and so this is the path Yvonne chose.
Driving him into the contact first directly and then on a circle each way Indy figured out that his “normal” way of going would need to change dramatically. Initially he made a few attempts to just dash off randomly, trying to “run through” the contact, as if he could somehow escape the process that way. Yvonne had been around such horses before and repeatedly redirected his energy, more towards what she wanted. Within three sessions he understood this new concept as well.
It was gratifying for her to note that Indy started looking for Yvonne as she worked through the day, poking his head out of his stall every time he heard her voice, or steps in the isle, seemingly eager for his chance to come out and play this new training game.
By the time the real riding work began, Yvonne had a plan, and knew what to expect under saddle. Understanding the idea of conversational leg and rein aids would take precedent over all else. Teaching the shoulder and hip control that now was accepted as part of Indy’s daily ground work was a great place to begin.
The first rides were interesting. Indy was smart. That point was made evident with each interaction. All of the ground, Liberty and trick work had been new to him so he accepted it as such. However, he had built in memories of many miles under saddle, and they had not been about conversational rein and leg aids evolving into better balance and use of his back. He knew he was supposed to run fast, against his will, and so he randomly took off, with tight short spurts of energy, mixed with a little temper.
Yvonne handled this in stride, using sharp correctional half halts to discourage the run offs and working on a useable connection in between. When she had his attention she introduced shoulder control “rein yielding” type exercises from the tack, working to laterally displace his shoulders left and right. He was truly buried on that left shoulder and quite stiff in the bridle because of it. He had learned to lock his poll and shoulders into a tight resistant knot, effectively blocking out communication and connection both.
Normally these would be great things to work on in the walk but Indy did not understand that concept either. His walk was a jig. Indy would bounce along like an angry little ball and then bolt as if an invisible starting gate had opened in front of him eight or ten times a ride. Yvonne stayed with him. She used sideways shoulder control, with upwards and sideways half halts to derail the bolt and then shoulder turns to loosen him in general. Yvonne knew she was larger than a jockey by far, and also had legs which she wanted to use to communicate. Indy was not familiar with any leg aids. She tried a few interactions with the each leg independently. Speed and temper were the initial results.
It is important to note how fair one must be when dealing with temper tantrums on horseback. Temper is unreasonable no matter what species it is found in, and Indy needed relaxation and reason. He needed a reason to listen, a reason to interact and a reason to become a partner. Relaxation was non existent. Suspicious of the indoor arena, which, to him, must have appeared to be the smallest racetrack in the world he waited for the galloping to begin.
He was, however, paying attention. To everything. Not in a fearful way even though he was super aware of every bit of activity in this new environment. No his attention was more as an opportunist, looking for a trigger, or a situation, to exploit. Yvonne knew, in the end, Indy’s clever little mind, would be her ticket into his body.
So she started there. Shutting off his little fits and explosions, using as little of a correction as possible but getting loud and sharp with her aids as necessary, she started to explain the rules of connection and flexion to him. Yes he needed to accept contact on both reins, and no, he was not allowed to run through the reins, or lean on them. Yes there would be lateral and longitudinal suppleness and flexion requirements and each positive answer Indy gave was met with a relaxation of the aid until a new one was needed.
Pretty soon Indy started to get the idea that maybe he…was training Yvonne.
If he did something he could make her be still and quite and he liked that part. So the timing of the release of the aid began to make Indy engage in the “training game”. Sure he still tried the system when he sensed an opportunity but Yvonne held no grudges even though she did have to set him back a time or two. By the third ride a communication pattern was accepted. Real training under saddle could finally start.