Journey to the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover 2020: Amy Smith’s July Update

The journey to the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover continues — now slated for 2021. Read on for our fifth update from Amy Smith.

Chief Tarhe’s July Update

Over the past few months, some of my fellow 2020 Makeover participants have endured an inability to ride or even access their horses during the heart of the COVID-19 quarantine. Most of us struggled to find any opportunity to get our trainees off their home farms, even if we were the lucky ones who had been able to keep making progress under saddle — and ALL of us have been wondering whether or not our trip to Kentucky in October was in jeopardy, and how much the experience would have to be scaled back if the dates held.

That final question was answered last week, when the Retired Racehorse Project announced that it would delay the 2020 Makeover and run it in conjunction with the “Class of 2021.” So with a pause and a deep breath, October 2021, here we come…to be part of a “Mega-Makeover” of sorts. My heart ached a little when I called to cancel my hotel reservation.

My plans for Ghost have never involved resale, so this isn’t a “Now I need to decide if I’m keeping this horse another 15 months” question. My projects become family members, so I won’t be acquiring a new horse every year — and when I gave it some thought, I realized that I would want my opportunity to experience the Makeover as intended, with the gatherings, the vendors, and the spectating. So while momentarily disappointed at the news of the postponement, I ultimately appreciated the decision.

The big question now is: “How does the postponement affect our training plans?” My answer is quick and easy. I pulled out a red pen and went to town on the list of horse shows we had been aiming for in July/August/September. Thanks to COVID-19, the glaring hole in our preparation was our failure to get Ghost exposed to the horse show scene and all that comes with it (strange jumps, strange horses in close proximity, crowds, noise, strange stall, etc). I didn’t want to go all the way to Kentucky with only a small, short-haul local show or two under our belt. In order to get Ghost “exposed,” we were going to plan for some shows that were incredibly inconvenient (based on location, schedule, or cost).

Speaking of our desperation to find some horse shows to get him to, we actually made it to our first real show this past month! Our favorite local show circuit (BEST) managed to secure the show grounds on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and across the Bay Bridge on a 2+hour haul we went.  (The fact that I was willing to haul a horse trailer across the Bay Bridge is testament to how desperate I was to get Ghost to a show and how much inconvenience I was willing to embrace!)

Ghost’s first night in a tent stall – and first night (since I acquired him) in a stall other than his own at home! Photo by Amy Smith.

It was a weekend of a lot of firsts: First long trailer ride. First overnight in a strange stall. First exposure to a “tent stall.” (This one made me sweat a little, as visions of a stressed green horse and a tent collapse danced in my head). First schooling ring with unfamiliar horses. First real hunter course with lines, flowers, brush, and all the usual show filler. First time traveling with – only to be separated periodically from – a barn mate. (Not gonna lie, that last one was a doozy. I had a screamer with attention deficit on my hands, and I had to hack around for a long, exhausting time to get him to focus).

I’m so glad we had the chance to get to that show. It was a great experience for Ghost, and when he actually went into the show ring, he was such a good boy. Very soft and willing – in fact, his first real hunter round of his life produced a blue ribbon in the 2’ Green Hunter division, and he ended up Reserve Champion. 

Ghost in his hack class. Photo by Bonnie Darcey.

I was most impressed with his brain during schooling activity around the multitude of other horses. This was one of my biggest challenges with my first two OTTB restarts. My previous two had varying levels of reaction to horses jumping near them, passing them shoulder-to-shoulder, or coming straight at them when cutting across a ring. Ponies were initially terrifying little monsters and other green horses having a moment nearby was like sitting on a puddle of gasoline when someone lights a match. Not so for Ghost, who handled this part like a champ. 

Ghost after receiving his ribbons. He was 1st and 2nd O/F and 4th in the hack!  Photo by Amy Smith.

In all these months of bringing Ghost along, I’ve never rushed it – even when I felt like we might be “behind” in our preparation for the RRP this October. Our lane was a slower one. We spent a lot of time on basics. We were trotting fences long after other RRP hopefuls were cantering courses. We have never been focused on fence height as a measure of progress; the full picture of a hunter course with adjustability, balance and changes, and a proper jump was much more important.

Ghost’s first hunter round! Video by Bonnie Darcey.

But on the subject of starting to ask for more in that department, our trainer challenged us to do something “next level” this past weekend. After we easily cantered our typical warm-up fence a few times during our lesson, she suddenly told me to “bring him around and jump the roll top.” Well, let me tell you about the roll top and this ammy rider. I hate the roll top. My first OTTB had epic meltdowns over them (which is why we have one at our barn – we bought one to overcome the phobia – which helped immensely, but the scars still exist!) I would not have thought that Ghost would see that roll top head-on before, like, 2021. 

I held my breath and we did it. Twice. The first time over he jumped it huge and looked at it from between his knees (and I may have let out an obscenity as Ghost experimented with his own scope). The second time over felt like an amazing, round, beautiful jump. It was big step we for us (especially in my amateur roll top-hating brain), and I was so proud of us both!

The dreaded roll top that produced a beautiful jump!  Photo by Russ Smith.

Over this next year, we’ll keep making incremental progress. We’ll get to some shows but can now stick to the ones that we’re actually excited to do. We’re in uncharted territory for the RRP, and in some ways it’s an even better opportunity to be ambassadors for the off-track thoroughbred; we get to be the first class to present an exhibition closer to being a finished product, and we’ll get to do it alongside the Class of 2021 new starts. The “Mega-Makeover” could be a thoroughbred show for the ages.

Looking good and ready to take on the “Mega-Makeover.”  Photo by Amy Smith.

I plan to keep Ghost’s Facebook page updated regularly on his progress all the way through October 2021 for anyone who wants to keep following him!

Want to follow along on Amy and Ghost’s journey before their next blog update?  Click here to “like” and follow their Facebook page!

About Amy

Originally from Homestead, Florida, Amy  Smith moved to the DC area after college and went on to work on Capitol Hill for almost 17 years.  She now works for The Boeing Company.  She also is an active duty military spouse married to her husband, Russ, and is involved in several volunteer activities/charitable organizations, including serving as a board member for the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society and a Tragedy Assistance Program Ambassador.  Amy has ridden horses since she was a young child and has purchased and re-trained three OTTBs since 2005: Silent Thunder, National Standard, and Chief Tarhe (Ghost). She began volunteering for CANTER Mid-Atlantic in 2007 and became the Executive Director for CANTER Maryland in 2016. She visits the backstretch of Laurel Park approximately twice per month to take listings from trainers looking to rehome their horses, and has helped place homes for hundreds of horses in her years at both Laurel Park and Pimlico.