Journey to the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover 2020: Marion Edel’s March Update

The journey to the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover 2020 continues! Read on for our first update from Marion Edel.

My name is Marion Edel, and I am one of the 616 trainers selected for the 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover. I’ve admired the Retired Racehorse Project’s mission for years, but I never thought I would participate as a trainer. My background is in Warmbloods, and until 2 months ago, I had never owned a Thoroughbred.

I grew up on my family’s farm in North Carolina, where my parents bred Hanoverians from 1989 to 2016. Even though I’ve ridden my parent’s Hanoverians for the majority of my life, I’ve always had a great appreciation for the American Thoroughbred. My parents started their breeding program with Closet Dancer, an OTTB mare that my dad purchased while he worked at the Thistledown racetrack in Ohio – his first job after vet school. I grew up riding that mare’s children and grandchildren, and when my homebred gelding needed to retire this fall, I found myself drawn to the OTTB. 

My dad in 1997 with one of Closet Dancer’s daughters and granddaughters. Photo by Bettie Carroll.

I started following the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover in 2018 and loved learning about the event and its honorable mission. Most impressive was watching horses with less than ten months of retraining transform into capable sporthorses in a wide variety of disciplines. As I started horse shopping, I was excited about the prospect of retraining an OTTB for sport and potentially participating in the Makeover.

I decided that I was looking for a forever partner, not a resell project, and was going to be selective in my search… in other words, I was very picky. I was looking for a mare or gelding, 16.1+ hands, with correct conformation, great movement, no vices, and scope for jumping at least 3 feet in hunters and/or jumpers. Highest on my wish list was an amateur friendly brain. I’m an amateur, but I also board at an equestrian park that is county owned and open to the public. It’s not uncommon to see families with young kids walking around the facility and admiring the horses, so a sensible temperament was crucial. On top of everything else, the Makeover was on my radar, and I was hoping to find a horse that was eligible for the 2020 competition.

I joined all the OTTB Facebook groups I could find and started pouring over the sale listings. A few weeks into the search, I connected with Ashley Blank of ANB Equine in Pennsylvania. Throughout the course of my horse shopping saga, Ashley and I became good friends, bonding over The Bachelor as well as horses. In mid-November, she texted me a picture of a striking bay gelding and said, “I think I have your horse.”

After talking more about the horse, I booked a flight to Pennsylvania that weekend. He was everything Ashley said and more – stunningly beautiful, correctly built, and a lovely mover. I got along well with the horse and enjoyed the ride, but he didn’t feel like “the one.” Ashley let me know that she had another horse that was arriving that evening and thought I should stick around to meet him. I was exhausted, had an early morning flight the next day, and my South Carolina self was not prepared for Pennsylvania’s wind chill. I almost didn’t stay but figured why not?

A few hours later, I was helping unload Aka Shade of Grey, a five year old, 17.1 hand Thoroughbred who more closely resembled a moose than the fine boned OTTBs I was used to. Everything about him was enormous. His head was longer than half my body.  He had so much bone, he could easily have been mistaken as a draft cross.

For his towering size, Grey was a total gentleman. Even though it was dark when he arrived, he stepped off the trailer quietly, and I led him into the barn without any drama. A few minutes later, we were moving him around freely in the indoor. Even though he had just gotten off an eight hour trailer ride and didn’t have hind shoes, he was a nice mover and trotted around the ring without spooking once. Shortly after, I was doing Grey’s first post-track ride (a first for me too!), and my face hurt from smiling so much.

My face during Grey’s first post-track ride. Photo by Ashley Blank.

After a little more downtime at Ashley’s and a successful pre-purchase exam, “Grey” shipped to South Carolina the first week of January. I filled out my application for the Makeover the following day and am hoping to compete in Show Hunters and Dressage. The competition is the perfect goal to have for my horse’s retraining, and since I plan to have Grey for the foreseeable future, this may be my only chance to participate as a trainer.

Since he arrived, each ride on Grey has been better than the last… other than the one time I tried to ride during feeding time and his brain took up residence in the Gator with his dinner. In a few short rides, I discovered Grey’s strengths and weaknesses and made a “game plan” for how to move forward with his training.

First ride in South Carolina. Photo by Janna Ritacco.

I’m most impressed with his brain. Of all the horses I’ve ridden, Grey seems to be the smartest and most sensible. I can count the times he’s spooked on one hand, all of which were very minor.  He has yet to try to buck, rear, spin, or exhibit bad behavior of any kind. He learns incredibly quickly.  If he doesn’t catch on after a few tries, the problem is typically me, not him. He hacks out alone or with company and doesn’t mind when my dog, ZaZu, gets the zoomies on the trail. He has a panther walk, a healthy amount of suspension at the trot, and a lovely cadence at the canter that makes the hunter rider in me swoon. Maybe best of all, he’s grey and doesn’t roll after a bath. If that doesn’t prove he’s a unicorn, I don’t know what would. 

Hacking in the woods with ZaZu. Photo by Marion Edel.

On the flip side, his biggest weakness is his lack of muscle. Especially since he’s such a big horse, Grey needs to gain a significant amount of muscle before he can truly carry himself. Any challenges we’ve had under saddle have all stemmed from his lack of strength behind, so Grey is on the body builder plan. I try to spend the first twenty minutes of each ride on the trails in the woods, where he’s having to walk up and down sloping hills. In the ring, I’ve focused mostly on walk and trot work, transitions between gaits, and teaching him to yield to leg pressure. I’m starting to introduce carrying a soft feel for just a few steps at a time, since he’s not balanced enough to carry a true connection.

All in all, Grey and I are well on our way to Kentucky in October, but we may be on a slower track than some of the other competitors. Each trainer has a different background, and each equine partner has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. We’re all on a different path headed towards the same goal, which is part of why this is such a wonderful event. I’m looking forward to sharing my (slow) journey to the Makeover with the readers of Jumper Nation and hope that our story may inspire someone to consider an OTTB for their next partner… they are worth it. 

Post-track ride #25. Photo by Connoly Sullivan.

About Marion

Marion Edel is an adult amateur who lives in Greenville, SC with her husband, Chris. They share their home with a Rhodesian Ridgeback and two cats. Marion grew up on a Hanoverian breeding farm and has been riding her entire life, focusing mostly on hunters and jumpers. Marion recently purchased her first OTTB and is a first time trainer for the 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover.