A Judge’s Perspective: From Capital Challenge to the Thoroughbred Makeover

Cozmic One, Zenyatta's first foal, in the 2’6 hunter flat. Photo credit Victoria Gomez

A Continuum, Not a Scale


In early September as I distractedly scanned my calendar to get an idea of what the next few weeks held, my gaze stopped at the week in October when I would be judging both the Capital Challenge Equitation Weekend and the Thoroughbred Makeover horse show. The juxtaposition of these two events seemed to look like the scales on the Lady Justice statue -with one end much higher than the other. Capital Challenge is without dispute the largest, most competitive indoor show in North America. The Thoroughbred Makeover is a breed specific event at the Kentucky Horse Park dedicated to the repurposing of Thoroughbreds. I thought I was going from feast to famine, excess to ascetic, the haves and the have nots. Well, I thought, I will just have to work on the curve, mentally even out that skewed scale.

That week in October was one of the most profound in my equestrian life. From the hallowed ramps of both the Prince George’s Equestrian Center and the Stonelea ring at the KHP, I was witness to the best of our community. Beautiful horses and talented riders- of course. A dedicated army of horse show staff and volunteers- absolutely. But, most significantly, what I observed was commitment and humanity- and I was renewed. In a world currently stained by negativity and derisiveness, I saw the bright light of compassion.

TPH Contributor Tonya Johnston of Tonya Johnston, Mental Skills Coach and Silento in the Adult Equitation 30 & Over at 2015 The Capital Challenge Horse Show.

Capital Challenge Equitation was all that it promised to be. Run like a well- oiled machine, the horse show features the best equitation riders in various age groups from all corners of the country. California, Michigan, New Mexico, Washington, Missouri, Florida- all were represented as well as Maryland’s neighboring east coast states. I judged two events- the USHJA 3’3” Jumping Seat Medal Finals and the THIS Children’s Medal Finals (3’). Both classes are transitional equitation classes designed for riders moving up toward the 3’6” equitation divisions. As such, they feature riders at different levels of skill and experience. I assume that it was the first indoor experience for many of the young exhibitors. The format of both classes feature a first round competition judged with a numerical score that determines qualification for the final rounds of competition. In the last round, the top competitors return in reverse order with the highest scoring in previous rounds performing last. It is a pressure cooker.

Augusta Iwasaki won the 2017 Taylor Harris Insurance Services Medal.

True to the fickle nature of sport, many did not have the day they dreamed of. More than one rider returned to the final round at the top of the standings, only to face the inescapable imperfection of equestrian competition. It rarely goes according to plan. Yet, between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, there were moments of personal triumph. There were riders and trainers happy to have made it to Finals and appreciative of their scores. There were young athletes conquering their anxiety and riding to the best of their ability. There were moments of pride and accomplishment to be carried back home even in the absence of a ribbon. There was a “We will get ‘em next year” quality to those who ran right up to the winner’s circle, only to fall short. I left Prince George’s Equestrian feeling buoyant and hopeful. I had witnessed and contributed to a great event. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The Kentucky Horse Park did not look like it had at any other time I had been there. I drove in and passed the horse show office unencumbered. No one stopped me and I parked next to the Stonelea Ring. The atmosphere was strangely relaxed as horses passed me on the roads and bridle paths. As I hurried away from my car, convinced that I would confront a security guard, I noticed two horses in western saddles go by- walking flat footed with their heads down. Looking around, I saw horses nervously spinning on lead shanks with the whites of their eyes showing, horses walking along with dressage saddles, horses covered in the abundance of leather that is polo gear jigging down the road toward the green fields. A hunter course was set in the Stonelea Ring and the braided manes and tails signaled that I had found my place. Different colors and sizes, different tack and gear, different performance goals – all bound by one common thread: the American Thoroughbred.

Cozmic One says “that’s the spot”. Photo credit Team Zenyatta

There were 21,500 Thoroughbred foals registered with The Jockey Club in 2018. All were bred to race, most will be unsuccessful at paying their way. If winning their cost/expenses is a measure of success, a small fraction of Thoroughbreds are winners. The need to rehome and repurpose Off The Track Thoroughbreds (OTTB’s) is a real and pressing issue. Many of these horses end up at lesser tracks, running until they cease to perform, and then sold through kill pen auctions. Founded in 2010, the Retired Racehorse Project has been one of the most successful organizations dedicated to the afterlife of Thoroughbred racehorses. As their mission statement explains, “RRP exists to facilitate placement of Thoroughbred ex-racehorses in second careers by increasing demand for them in equestrian sports and serving the farms, trainers, and organizations that transition them.” (retiredracehorseproject.org)

The Thoroughbred Makeover and Symposium event showcases the OTTB’s over three days of competition in ten different disciplines including polo, barrels, competitive trail, show hunter, show jumper, eventing, field hunter, and ranch work. Most innovative of the disciplines is called the Freestyle where trainers can choose their own performance. This year, one of the finalists pulled a cart through a line of fire, actual flames! With $100,000 in prize money, the TB Makeover went from 200 horses in 2015 to over 500 horses in 2018. The show hunter division was the largest with 173 entries competing at a height choice of 3’, 2’6”, or 2’. Each of the horses must have begun training for their second career within ten months of the show and must have raced or had a recorded work out after July 1, 2016.

Cozmic One in the 2’6 Hunters. Photo credit Victoria Gomez

Predictably, some of the Thoroughbreds adapt more easily to a specific discipline than others. Some horses are more suited to the hunter ring than others. Some of the riders have experience and understanding of our sport. Some do not and should be educated before next year’s event. But all, all of the horses and riders, were in front of me in an effort to promote the well being of the breed. The public hears about the success stories- Zenyatta, Justified, American Pharaoh. We are hidden from the horrors of the low level racehorse and potential abuses at the end of their careers.

Cozmic One’s racing owner/ breeder Ann Moss, Cozmic One and current trainer Isabela de Sousa. Photo credit Team Zenyatta

While I revel in watching horses jump and perform, the most rewarding part of my experience was speaking to the people who traveled to Kentucky for the show. Rescues from West Virginia, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Missouri, Florida- all were represented as well as many other states and Canada. As with Capital Challenge, the pilgrimage to the event stemmed from a genuine love of horses and horse sport. Many of the rescue volunteers came to cheer on an animal that they had bought cheap from a track or found in a livestock auction. They are fully invested in their commitment to the welfare of the OTTB- in many cases at personal financial sacrifice. The stories they willingly share are difficult to hear, but uncovering the raw truth of abuse and neglect best arms us against future offenses.

As I drove away from the Kentucky Horse Park after the Makeover Finale, I took with me the courageous stories of the riders, trainers, and rescuers who barely touch the need that exists in this industry. A small gesture, yes. But a ripple can become a wave as we assist the Thoroughbred breeders and owners in considering the future of their horses before they end up at the end of an ugly road. I had witnessed and contributed to a great event. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Cozmic One agrees that he did a good job in the 2’6 jumpers after a 5th place finish! Sergio de Sousa gives Isabela de Sousa a high five. Photo credit Bee Buck Photography.

From the height of indoor competition at the Capital Challenge Horse Show to the grass roots momentum of the Thoroughbred Makeover, I learned that our world is a continuum, not a scale. One does not outweigh or outclass the other. We are all pushing the same ideals of horse welfare, fair sport, and fun.

Learn more about and donate to the Retired Racehorse Project at retiredracehorseproject.org

About the Author: Sissy is a Princeton University graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a USEF R rated judge, a freelance journalist and an autism advocate. Her illustrious resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She lives with her family in Unionville, PA and Wellington, FL.

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