By Emily McAtee.
This is it.
I’m not going to say that our last month of Retired Racehorse Project work was pretty. I got too intent on getting canter departs and contact, and I messed up both. Essentially what happened was I got so focused that I started forcing contact from my hands rather than allowing it to happen because I had a good seat. I’m not saying that we didn’t get results: we did. And I think mixed somewhere in that mess was some stuff that we both needed to learn, although I can’t put my finger on what that might be. But whatever it was, it was painful for Champagne, and it was unpleasant for me.
Once again, our saving grace was my trainer Amanda, who let me reach the peak of frustration, then after a few days off, put me back on the lunge line and schooled me. Half an hour later, the source of the problem was clear, and guess what? It had nothing to do with Champagne. It had everything to do with me. So she talked me through a solution, and low and behold, we’re now getting beautiful, exquisitely soft gaits and transitions. Our contact isn’t perfect or necessarily consistent, but every day it gets better as Champagne gets stronger and more limber. Today when we rode, he felt sooooo good: the kind of ride that makes you want to cry. It was that magical. We’re still not perfect, but in my opinion, we are exactly where we need to be. And honestly, I am thrilled.
We have about two weeks left to set up a mock dressage ring and work on the finer points of corners and circles and so on, and that is actually exactly what I was hoping for. The way the Thoroughbred Makeover has it set up is that everyone does the training level test first, then has three minutes to show what else their horse is capable of besides walk, trot, canter. Then, if you make it to the finale, you do your freestyle test to music. I don’t have the highest hopes of making it into the finals, but I’m still going to put together a little test, just because how else am I going to show the world how awesome this horse is?
I can’t even begin to describe what an incredible journey this has been for us. Remember, this was basically supposed to be my senior project to show my best work, and then to show that I was ready to go out into the real world as a professional. But the learning curve for both Champagne and I has been unreal. Champagne went from being this skinny, broken little thoroughbred to this unbelievable athlete. When we had the equine dentists out after six months, they didn’t hardly recognize him. We’ve gone through two saddles and at three half pads as we’ve adjusted for his growing frame and back, and we’ve switched from a regular snaffle to a French link snaffle, because his mouth has changed along with the rest of his body.
But none of that came easily. We’ve battled tight hamstrings, pulled back and leg muscles, tight muscles, weak muscles, hot joints, cold joints, soft feet, flat feet, thrush feet, long toes, short toes, locked up poll, horrible teeth, nutrition issues, mounting issues, riding issues, lunging issues, trust issues, and the list goes on and on. Every step of the way it was a balancing act to figure out how much to push him and how much to baby him, because too much of one or the other would destroy any hope of him being sound enough to work, let alone sound enough to compete. I made piles of rice bags to heat in the microwave or freeze in the freezer for the bad days, and we ended up using a good number of muscle relaxants and bute on the worst days. It was about three hours a day, four to five days a week, for seven months, of physical therapy and massages and rehabilitation. So far, I’ve logged over 260 hours of hands on work. Then there were the hours of research and tack repairs and putting together supplements on top of all of that, and there’s no logbook for all of those hours. I can only describe it as physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting.
It actually seems kind of surreal. I worked so hard to not get my hopes up because there was a good chance that Champagne would get injured or sick or something long before we ever got close to the Thoroughbred Makeover. But my fees are paid. We have a friend in the area letting us stay with her. We have an RV hookup on site reserved so that we have somewhere to hide and take naps during the day (a staple of my mental health). I even received my stall assignment a few days ago, which was super exciting. I’m setting up the last of the necessary appointments and compiling the last of the required documents. Every day we check off one more thing on the list, and I’m starting to get excited.
The biggest downside right now is that I had to put together a sale ad. It’s not like I’ll be heartbroken if he doesn’t sell right away: but this is part of my grad project too. My husband is in the military, and it’s not really fair to him or the horse to haul Champagne around the country when we can’t always be certain that I’ll be able to give him the time or care that he deserves. So I feel like it’s important to give Champagne a chance at the ever elusive “perfect” forever home. Besides, I think there’s someone out there who will be able to grow with him and love him the way that he deserves, and I think that’s an opportunity that’s just too good to pass up.
There’s always the chance that we could get there and fail miserably. Champagne might pick up on my anxiety and leap over the barrier, or decide that one judge was particularly terrifying, or just decide that he’s had enough of me after seven and a half months and that since I’m wearing white breeches and a $100 show jacket that it’s time to buck me off. We might get the worst marks from the judges, telling us that we clearly did not put in the necessary time or effort and that we should never have even bothered coming to the competition.
I don’t care.
I do hope that there’s a chance for me to talk to the judges, if nothing else because this will be my first dressage competition ever (go big or go home, right?), and I want to talk to them about what they saw so that I can get better. But I also want to brag.
I want to brag to the whole world that I have the most spectacular Thoroughbred. Someone thought he was worthless and sold him to a kill pen. Look at him now. He wasn’t really up to cantering, and he had no idea what this trotting thing was. Look at him now. He was terrified of even flicking an ear around people because he was certain he would get spanked. Look at him now. He was skinny and improperly developed. Look at him now.
Because when it comes down to it, what can I say that you can’t see for yourself?
Champagne, Month 0
Champagne, Month 7