This is the second installment in our monthly column from editor-in-chief Natalie Voss following her journey with her 2021 Thoroughbred Makeover hopeful Underscore, fondly known as Blueberry. Read previous editions in this series here and learn Blueberry’s origin story and the author’s long-running bond with this gelding and his family here. You can find Blueberry’s Facebook page here.
Horse racing is a sport predicated on comparisons – both of horses actively competing against each other and those generations apart. For some years, Racing Twitter loved nothing more than to pit two greats from different eras against each other in a theoretical race (Man o’ War vs. Secretariat is the one that used to make the rounds) and ask which one would have won. It’s a question people still love to ask jockeys and trainers who have been lucky enough to work with more than one top-level runner. The interviewee almost never has a very stunning or insightful answer and I frankly think that’s because it’s a ridiculous question.
As someone who rides, I have a keen sense for what unique individuals horses can be and that’s probably why I’ve never found these comparisons all that interesting. Great horses are no more similar to each other than mediocre ones, so a lot of it has seemed like comparing apples, oranges, and bananas for me.
And yet, I find myself doing exactly the same thing in my own riding life.
Although I’ve been riding my whole life, Blueberry is just the second horse who has been my own. My first is an opinionated Percheron/Thoroughbred cross mare named Jitterbug, who I have written about here before. She was a neglect case in her youth, essentially feral until the age of three. I began working with her when she was five and unbroke. While teaching her to carry a saddle and rider was surprisingly easy, it took years for her to become a reliable mount with a solid walk/trot/canter who could reasonably be said to stand for the farrier, bathe, tie, clip, load – the most basic list of skills you see in most sale ads. She has been a challenging ride, made more challenging by the fact I encountered her at a time I was retraining my hunt seat to dressage.
We have accomplished a lot together when I think about where she started – a buggy-eyed, rank individual of Too Much Weight and Too Much Brain, shuddering in the back of her stall the fall morning I first met her more than a decade ago. We’ve competed successfully in horse trials, combined tests, dressage and jumper classes; we’ve hacked many miles in the local parks and on hunter paces; she is now reliable enough to carry children around, as long as they have no ego at all and tell her how pretty she is. I cannot pretend that she has always been easy or good for me as a rider. Flatwork sessions on late nights under the arena lights have sometimes ended in frustrated tears. She’s bigger than me, and she will never unlearn that. We know each other so well, we crawl into each other’s brains and play chess over 20-meter trot circles. A lot of effort goes into minimal improvements in our dressage training, but I have to admit there were many times I had doubted she would be rideable at all so perhaps I should take what I can get.
Jitterbug is now 17, and Blueberry’s arrival in my care after his retirement in November was impeccably timed. Jitterbug is partially leased by a kind family who ask relatively little of her, and she and I needed a break from pushing each other’s buttons. As I’ve brought Blueberry along under saddle these last two months, it’s been hard not to think about all the positive qualities he had that the big mare … well … doesn’t. (A work ethic, for example.)
I’m trying to reframe this way of thinking, as I don’t think it’s totally fair to the OG. So instead, I’ve been trying to think about the lessons one horse has taught me in order to prepare me for her polar opposite.
- A horse with a good mind is worth their weight in gold. Mentality was more important to me than anything else when I began thinking about my next riding partner, and that’s what attracted me to Blueberry. Jitterbug has kept me safe through fireworks shows, rogue wildlife, loose horses flying by us at horse shows, and all manners of klutzy moments as I’ve led her to and from the field in icy mud. So far, Blueberry has shown similar wisdom, tuning out galloping pals in neighboring paddocks on late evenings in the arena, staring placidly at loose horses at shows (it’s a jungle out there) and learning to ignore a Most Unsettling Power Saw. He’s an athletic little thing, but even if he moved like a giraffe, I’d know I was safe. As I get older, I have come to appreciate that I do not bounce so well when I hit the ground, and as such I value a horse that will avoid any unnecessary gravity checks.
- At some point, if you chose well, your developing horse will outclass you. This discovery with Jitterbug came when she progressed from smaller fences to three-foot monsters and I realized suddenly that all that talk about a tight lower leg was not a suggestion based on aesthetics but practicality. That was several years into our journey together. In true OTTB fashion, Blueberry learns new things quickly both mentally and physically, so it was a matter of weeks before he went from doing the drunken sailor/baby horse wobbles around corners in the arena to proudly holding himself up. While he was getting stronger, I was staying basically the same and as soon as he was capable of taking bigger, more upright strides, I started looking like a beginner. Floppy lower legs, a wobbling core, weak wrists – it’s all I can see when I watch video of us working together. I suspect all riders hate watching their own equitation but I’d forgotten just how much I hate it. I think I’d assumed I had more time to develop myself and now we’re waiting on my fitness level to catch up to the 4-year-old greenie.
- The answer to this is always to drop your stirrups and suffer through as much posting trot as you can. This is tougher once you get a horse with a Thoroughbred-sized stride, by the way. I hate this truth, but I can’t escape it.
- Smart horses will learn from you every moment, even when you aren’t trying to teach them things. I can no longer blame my horses for immediately running out of gas after a nice transition from canter to trot. I apparently am so relieved to have kept a consistent position from one kind of bouncing gait to another that I immediately become a wet noodle, inadvertently suggesting ‘You know, this is a great time for a nap.’ All this time I had blamed the half Perch for halting a few steps after a lovely canter, and in fact I am the lazy one. Sorry, Jitter.
- You’re playing the long game here. It’s easy to become discouraged when considering the above, especially when you’re an amateur rider like I am, fitting in lessons and training rides around the edges of a full-time job. It’s easy to feel like you’re behind where you could or should be. Jitterbug has taught me though, that any real progress worth measuring takes place over months and years. I hope Blueberry and I will be partners for many years to come, and that means each of us will have periods of rapid progress and plateaus, both physical and mental. Yes, he seems like an easy ride right now, but we will have our struggles eventually. That’s just life with horses. The more important thing will be looking at how far we’ve come, and working through those challenges as a team.
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