The Blueberry Bulletin Presented By Equine Equipment: With Makeover Two Weeks Away, This OTTB Is Already A Winner – Horse Racing News

The author with Blueberry after a dressage show on Sept. 25

Exactly two weeks from today, I will have finished my second dressage ride at the Thoroughbred Makeover. The last few months of training and competing with Blueberry have been preparation for two five-minute sessions in the enormous outdoor stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park normally resolved for much more advanced, professional riders and very expensive horses.

For those who aren’t familiar, the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover is a training competition open to recently-retired off-track Thoroughbreds. Much like the Kentucky Derby, you’re only eligible to do it for one year, because the purpose is to show off how much Thoroughbreds can learn in the first ten months or so of training for a new sport or ‘discipline.’ There are ten different horse disciplines running at the Makeover, and you may pick one or two to compete in. Blueberry and I will be competing in dressage, so the format for us is that we will perform two tests – a prescribed test which we must memorize and replicate as accurately as possible, and a freestyle where we have five minutes to ride in whatever sequence or pattern we choose to show off what he has learned. We’ll get to do this in the Rolex Stadium, which is a giant arena with plenty of distractions so he’ll also need to be calm and focused in order to do well. Our placing is determined by our combined score from the two rides.

The top five scores from each horse sport will return for a finals round to determine the winner from each discipline. Then, an overall winner is chosen from the various horse sports, with the judges favoring the horse who has proven the best example at their chosen second career.

While we have a few things we’ll be practicing in our last two weeks, I think we’re as ready as we can be. Reporters always grumble a little in the last days before the Derby as the field’s trainers all give us very much the same quotes morning after morning. Their work is mostly done by those last few days. They’re hoping to keep their horses happy and sound; you can acclimate them to the new track, you can school them in the paddock, but you’re either almost ready to run 1 ¼ miles or you aren’t. If you aren’t, you’re already out of time. There’s not much else for a trainer to say in that situation, but it makes for boring copy. As a rider though, I get it.

Likewise, we will school in the big stadium, and we will practice making our trot-to-halter sharper, our right lead canter departs smoother and more correct…but the big pieces are in place. Since we began training in late April, Blueberry has gone to two shows as a non-competing entry just to check out the environment and four shows as a competitor. He has performed four different tests a total of six times, including one we’ll do at the Makeover. He has seen chaotic show environments and spent a night away from home, handling all of that with the ease I’d expect from a horse who witnessed busy racing barns and spent lots of time on the road during his race career.

My conditions for whether we’d attend the Makeover were always two-fold: He must be sound and healthy (so far so good, but cross your fingers his front shoes stay on), and I must feel I’ve mentally prepared him for what the competition requires of him. I feel like I’ve accomplished the latter, which is an enormous task in itself.

There are hundreds of horses and riders coming from all around the country to compete at the Makeover, and nearly 100 pairs in my dressage class alone. I’m a competitive person, but I’m also a realist – our goals for this event aren’t about where we finish, because we’re not likely to appear in the finals. We’ll be facing professional riders with horses who started their training months before us; while I believe that Blueberry is athletic and has a lot of potential in dressage, there will also be horses with more raw talent here than us.

And all of that is fine. Because we’ve already won.

An evolution of Blueberry’s body condition and muscling through this year

In the five months we’ve had together, he has completely changed jobs and made it look easy. He has completely changed the way he uses his muscles, and built muscle in new places, keeping his little ears pricked even when I know I’m asking him to do something challenging. When we ride down the center line of a dressage ring at a show, a switch flips in his mental energy. With no previous experience, he somehow knows when he is competing, despite the fact his competitors no longer run alongside him. He stands patiently in the wash rack at home or the trailer at the show grounds like a horse who has done this all for years. He lets me kick my feet out of the stirrups in an open grass field and carries me carefully, allowing me to wobble as I work on my core strength and balance. He walks through puddles and over tarps, trots through ground pole exercises, and calmly ignores it when his friends in a nearby pasture start galloping and bucking while we’re trying to finish up a schooling session. In many important ways, Blueberry is so advanced for a 4-year-old in this stage of training.

My mare, though I love her, was a tough ride. He has made dressage fun for me for the first time. He has taught me that patience can be rewarded. He has helped me retrain my own muscles to ride more correctly and quietly. He has given me so much confidence. And it’s all just the beginning.

The Makeover was a bucket list event for us, but it’ll only cap off our very first season together. We plan to have many more, with new goals. The way we’ll ride a Training Level test in two weeks will be very different from the way we ride it in another year. But when we come down the center line to salute the judge, I will be so incredibly proud to present him. However he compares to everyone else, he is an absolute champion to me.

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