BY FRAN BURNS
I’ve always had affection for Thoroughbreds. Growing up riding and showing in Maryland, I rode with Jill French, John French’s mom (Yes, that John French), at Oldfield’s School where I leased a Thoroughbred for the summer. Several years later, I took Jill with me to look at buying another Thoroughbred, Ben, (JC name was Ineluctability) whose sire was Horatius, once Maryland’s most popular stallion. We both liked him. I loved his eye, his temperament and the way he jumped. We looked at five more, but I kept going back to him. He was smart and quite honestly probably way more talented than for the job I had for him.
Honestly, we joked every day about how he was the best horse ever. Even the vet and blacksmith called him that. He passed away in August 2019 at age 32. After I learned his riding days were over I purchased another thoroughbred—this time literally off the track. Seriously, they loaded him onto the trailer at Pimlico. He was three, and his exercise rider liked him. He had a bad case of the “slowbies” and never raced. Lucky for him the exercise rider thought he had a future, because the trainer did not and his next stop was not going to be a good one. So the exercise rider paid off his board bill at Pimlico, borrowed a friend’s trailer and brought him to a farm he leased next door to my farm.
Watching him being ridden over the next few days was quite a sight. This scrawny bay gelding (plain as a paper bag) came walking up the hill with the exercise rider garbed in his green muck books, a cigarette and baseball cap. I asked what his name was. The exercise rider said he didn’t know, but that he called him “Doofus.” I hopped on him, and found the horse as quiet as can be. Mind you he knew little other than to gallop counterclockwise.
I wanted a trail horse, nothing really fancy, so I bought him. I had not considered showing until one of our lessons. My friend who worked at the farm used to teach riding at Garrison Forest School and had always loved Thoroughbreds—that’s all we rode back then. They are smart, athletic and excellent students. My friend became a trainer for my new horse.
Retraining a racehorse was new to me, and tough early on. But after popping him over a few cross rails one day all of our eyes got big. That plain horse could really jump! Even with a low fence you could see he had talent.
I had back issues, so I put Plan B into effect for him. I had a good, young rider at the farm work with us at first until we found our way to a local experienced and very successful rider and trainer, Jennifer Marshall.
Doofus, now re-named Dreamer, was really smart and talented—and he knew it. As a five-year-old, Jennifer would not let him get away with anything. She focused on rebalancing him especially at the canter, and he soon became a different horse. They became quite a team. First we went to local shows, then rated. At the time, there were a ton of Warmbloods and few Thoroughbreds (this was before Thoroughbred divisions at rated shows). But I was determined to show people that this little horse could compete—and he did. Jennifer made him look like a polished Bentley. I wanted people to know that there are a lot of these thoroughbreds available at the track and at good rescues. With time and experience they could have amazing second careers as a show hunter, fox hunter, trail horse , etc.
I invested my time and money into Dreamer, and it paid off for him and for me. We didn’t push him beyond his abilities. He never went to a show unless he was ready. After winning a lot for a few years I overhead a friend say, “That horse only wins because he has a professional trainer riding him.” So my trainer and I discussed having a child show him. She had a student who needed to move up from a large pony. We leased Dreamer to her and they had tremendous success, proving that yes he was about as versatile as they come.
Perhaps the best compliment my trainer ever gave him was one day at a McDonogh School horse show. After having a hard ride on a wild horse, she came over to me and Dreamer and called him her “ringer.” She then went in and won both over fences classes with him.
He had come a really long way from the gangly gelding galloping around the farm.
To those thinking about getting their own OTTB, I have the following advice:
- Do your homework up front. If you have not adopted, purchased or ridden an OTTB before check around for an established trainer who has or currently works with thoroughbreds. Really take your time with this step.
- If you need to invest in a trainer, get your costs up front. This is part of doing your homework in #1. If you can’t afford the costs of the training needed, refocus on a horse that is better suited to your abilities and pocketbook.
- These thoroughbreds have amazing brains. They are smart and focused. However they need to be in a program. Some need to be ridden 5-6 days a week, some 2- 3 times a week. Give them a job.
- Train them at their pace. Some horses require way more ground work than you would expect.
- Savor the little victories. Sometimes cross rails are a major victory when you start.
- If you struggle, network around to other OTTB people. There are a lot of great contacts to help.
- This was an amazing experience (once in a lifetime) for me. It opened my eyes further to the perils of horse slaughter and how it happens daily even to the nicest of horses. Thus, why today I work to educate the public about the tremendous abilities of the thoroughbred.
My horse’s JC name in this story is Token Gesture. He was a Pa. bred sired by Oblique. Nothing fancy in his pedigree. His show name is Dustin’s Dreamer. He is now retired at 19 living the life. And by the way, the young 15 year old girl that started his training is Sara Katz. Sara was the 2019 Winner of the Retired Race Horse Makeover Fox Hunter Division. Now you know the “rest of the story.”
Fran Burns is a thoroughbred advocate. She worked with the now closed Angel Acres Horse Haven Rescue in marketing. She currently volunteers and supports Beverly Strauss at MidAtlantic Horse Rescue in Chesapeake City Md. and the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. She is one of the founders of The Thoroughbred Alliance Show Series which hosted a series of thoroughbred only horse shows several years ago. While the horse show series is no longer active she hosts an active FB page that networks and provides up to date info re thoroughbreds/ horse shows/ events. Fran is also the Head Tour Guide at Sunrise Tours at Pimlico Race track and guides guests at Timonium Race Track during the Md. State Fair. In her spare time she owns 2 retired thoroughbreds and boards 2 others along with a retired quarterhorse at her farm in Monkton, Md.