If you own an off track Thoroughbred you’ve probably heard of an organization called the Retired Racehorse Project. Each year the Retired Racehorse Project holds the Thoroughbred Makeover, an annual competition designed to showcase the versatility of off the track Thoroughbreds by trainers of all skill levels and ages.
When I got my OTTB fresh off the track late last summer, I seriously considered setting my sights on Kentucky to compete. This past week I attended the Makeover, not as a competitor but as a spectator, and I’m happy to report I made the right decision. I’m glad I didn’t end up entering the Thoroughbred Makeover for more than one reason.
Before going any further I’d like to remind you that these are the opinions of one person. It is not my intention to insult anyone in the process. Everyone involved with the show from the competitors to the volunteers and organizers all deserve a round of applause. The amount of coordination it takes to seamlessly pull off a 4 day horse show with a few hundred competitors is daunting and these guys managed to get through just about everything without many hiccups. As I learned to say during my week in Kentucky, “Y’all did a real nice job.”
Let’s start with the positives first and unpack some of the pros of this show, because there are plenty of those too!
The People & Horses Are Great
Unlike many other horse shows around the country, this show is geared specifically at competitors with freshly retrained off track Thoroughbreds. It is incredible to see what some trainers and trainers at ALL levels — professional, amateur, or junior — can do with these retired racehorses after some have been working in their second career for 6 months or less! The partnership that some horses and riders are able to develop is simply amazing. It can’t be stressed enough how incredible it is to see riders of all skill levels in just about every discipline, English or Western, doing such fine work to retrain off track Thoroughbreds.
From my limited vantage point, everyone attending and competing in the Makeover seemed to be incredibly understanding, respectful and above all else, patient with fellow riders and horses. I’m no seasoned show pony but I do know this just isn’t the case at many other shows where competition is rampant and patience is thin.
The Focus Is On the Horse & Horsemanship
What makes this competition different from others is that the focus is on the horse. Every discipline at the Thoroughbred Makeover incorporates a scored horsemanship component, in other words, you’re not only being judged on the skills required by your discipline but also on how well you’ve prepared your horse and how well you handle your horse on that day. This applies to every discipline at the Makeover, including events that are traditionally judged on time alone like Barrel Racing and Cross Country.
While this raised a number of questions at the event and some nasty comments on social media afterwards, I understand and support the inclusion of the horsemanship component because if anyone doesn’t want to be scored on that all they have to do is go to a local show or a local jackpot barrel race. No one there will mind if you’re riding the fire breathing dragon and you’ll still walk away with a check as long as your time is the fastest.
If it isn’t clear already, this isn’t your average show. It’s an event designed to showcase the training and versatility of OTTBs, in which case adding a horsemanship component simply ensures that each of these horses are being given a solid foundation.
Compete on a Professional Course or Arena
If you’ve ever dreamed of riding at some of the most famed arenas and courses in the country, entering the Thoroughbred Makeover will give you a chance to do that. You’ll be wandering around some of the most prestigious courses in the country, like the Kentucky Horse Park or previous events were held at Pimlico. Dreaming of dressage in Rolex Arena? You can do it.
Even with all of the positives there is always room for improvement. Here are a few of the reasons why I’m glad I didn’t end up competing in the Thoroughbred Makeover.
Before the obvious, I know, I know, any horse and any horse show is expensive. But this one is exceptionally so for out-of-towners. With a $300 application fee alone, I found myself hesitant and wondering what else I could do with that $300. I did some quick division and figured that would easily cover the cost of 5-6 local shows… or a new camera. Yes, I got the new camera and didn’t go to so many shows but that’s neither here nor there when that initial $300 application fee is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to added costs of hauling a horse more than 500 miles across the country and a week of overnight accommodations for both horses and humans. The dollars add up quickly unless you live within trailering distance of your home barn. While this money goes towards funding the event, there’s very little chance that you’ll recoup that cash from winning a division because…
You’re Competing Against the Pros
While many shows separate competitors or classes based on skill level or experience, every division at the Makeover is open to trainers and riders of ALL skill levels. This means that as an amateur or junior, you’ll be competing against some of the best professional horse trainers in the world.
Maybe you want to compete against the pros to show the world you can hang with the big dogs. But why not have separate divisions so the professionals could be leveraged as a way to attract spectators while amateur and junior competitors are still encouraged to apply? This was a huge factor in why I decided not to apply. With zero show experience under my belt, why would I drive 500 miles to get my butt kicked by a bunch of professionals? Just so I could ride in Rolex or attempt to have my own Disney miracle moment? While I’m no fan of the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality the reality is that it makes it incredibly difficult for amateurs and juniors to be recognized for their immense efforts when they’re being compared to professionals.
Despite the stiff competition there are plenty of amateur and junior riders who went home with ribbons or records. In fact the 2019 TB Makeover Champion and winner of the Barrel Racing division, Fallon Taylor, didn’t have the fastest barrel time of the week. That record was set by a junior rider Shaila VanSickle and her OTTB Market Risk.
Let me reiterate: it’s a huge accomplishment for anyone of any level to get to this show and have a retired racehorse that’s capable of handling such an intense environment with less than a year of training. But this is all the more reason why we should be handing out more ribbons to amateurs and juniors because it’s not just the professionals who are showing up to compete.
Not Worrying About Training on a Deadline
There’s something to be said for the amount of stress and pressure put on by deadlines and the TB Makeover is certainly a demanding one. Depending on when you get your horse you’ve got anywhere around 10-15 months in total to train an OTTB for the Makeover. This really isn’t a whole lot of time to take a horse off the track and teach them an entirely new discipline. Surely some take to it faster than others but not having the added pressure of being physically fit and mentally prepared for such a big competition has been a bit of a blessing. Training an OTTB is challenging enough but adding a tight turnaround with a competition deadline certainly makes it all that much more difficult and stressful for you and your horse.
More than anything the TB Makeover seemed to be missing a few big opportunities that appeal to the average equestrian. Things like tack and apparel shopping and showcasing the rounds of professional riders were all a little lacking.
Shopping & Education
In speaking with family and friends about our Kentucky adventure, I’d often refer to horse expos in the Northeast as a baseline reference for comparison to the Makeover. While I fully understand there’s a difference between an expo and a large scale horse show or competition, the expos also feature makeover style competitions with Standardbreds or Mustangs and professional training demonstrations so there is still a show aspect to each of them as well.
The biggest reason for this comparison is because when any horse related event spans multiple days, entertainment is everything and the expos have a few advantages that the TB Makeover simply isn’t leveraging: equestrian geared shopping and education.
At every expo I’ve visited in the Northeast the competition aspect is supplemented by dozens, if not hundreds, of vendors with terrific shopping, informational seminars, professional training demonstrations and short clinics that continue throughout each day of the event. The Makeover this year featured a few vendor booths and on Friday there were a handful of demonstrations and seminars.
It struck me that this lack of shopping, demonstrations and clinics were perhaps the biggest missed opportunities for spectators and competitors visiting the TB Makeover during the week. More than once we found ourselves wandering through the Horse Park aimlessly when shopping and shorter demos would have filled the gaps and given us something to do, something to learn, look at, and prices to compare. Instead we visited local tack shops and left the show early each day because in all honesty, we weren’t sure what else to do or who else to watch.
Making the Makeover More Accessible
The 2019 Makeover (pictured below) schedule was a little confusing to read and didn’t feature the ride times of any specific individuals, including the professionals. While it isn’t feasible to list the ride times of 400+ competitors , there’s still got to be better system of sharing that information with the public and spectators so they can have a better idea which riders might be worth paying attention to.
I can’t speak for anyone else but this schedule wasn’t very detailed or helpful in terms of figuring out which events were worth trekking around the horse park to see. Even though I knew who was competing, I couldn’t have told you when some of the biggest stars of the show were running in their respective disciplines and some of those disciplines ran anywhere from an hour to two hours behind schedule. For some comparison, you can take a look at the schedule for the November 2019 Equine Affaire here.
Improving the formatting of this schedule and adding some more detailed information on show days about who is riding when would make it much easier and more accessible for spectators to visit the show and have a great experience.
In the days following the Makeover, one of the most interesting suggestions I’ve heard is that perhaps the show could be broken up into regional qualifiers or stages, with one large scale national show taking place in Lexington. I’m sure conversations of this nature have already been had by the powers at be since I’m sure I can’t be the only one who’s had this idea.
It certainly would make it that much more convenient for competitors if instead of one massive open show, there were multiple locations that hosted qualifiers in the Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and Northwest. Cast a wider net, catch more fish.
You’re probably thinking “So this girl just wants to turn the Makeover into an expo?” and that’s really not my point. The Makeover is excellent as it is but there is always room for growth and other ways to encourage more horse people to get involved with OTTBs. That could be done by offering more education, shopping, and promoting the professional trainers who are competing in the event. The Makeover is entirely unique, still in its infancy and clearly still trying to figure out what works best. Who knows what will change in the future.
At the end of the day as an amateur without show experience, I’m glad I passed on the 10-hour haul to Kentucky for the local shows participating in the Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Incentive Program instead. For the serious and seasoned horse person, I respect and understand the appeal of competing in such a unique, international competition. Maybe for them this show is already as good as it gets but for your average horse person, it left a little something to be desired.
Despite my critique, I hope that the Makeover will continue to grow and improve over the years so we can all spread the good word that with good training Thoroughbreds can do anything!