March 22, 2019
Racehorses have a special job in society worldwide, pouring out their souls in a spectacular burst of speed to finish first. Money is earned to satisfy the expectations of those who bet on their athletic ability to run toward a victory that will secure their place in a palatial barn. The career of a racehorse may last up to six years after the initial preparation they receive as yearlings. But what happens after they retire?
Newk Cat Rib is the horse that trainer, Charlie Workman (Workman Farrier Services and Horse Training), was asked to work with after he was deemed unrideable by a professional reining trainer. His card was pulled because the jockeys refused to ride him after he flipped over on his rider. Loading at the gate was also a problem. His earnings of $250,000 over three years kept him in the game as a long shot at Belltara in Indiana. In his 6-year career he never placed first in any of his races. Now was the time to retire him at 8 years old.
The options in the past for OTTB (off the track Thoroughbreds) were limited and grim. Stewart P. Honan worked toward a better outcome for these capable athletes and favored the Retired Racehorse Projects (RRP) Thoroughbred makeover. By putting together the right combination of education, promotions and trainer incentives, the horses would have an opportunity to demonstrate their worth. Better horsemen are cultivated in a process that builds on the foundation put in by the racehorse industry. Though a challenge in itself, the incentive of $100,000 in prize money offered in the annual Thoroughbred Makeover for America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred, held at the Kentucky Horse Park, makes this opportunity very attractive. By keeping these retirees in the public eye, riders from every discipline have the opportunity to purchase a retired racehorse.
After losing her horse Louie of 24 years in the winter of 2016 at the age of 28, Tamala was ready to get another horse. She discovered Newk from a posting in facebook. Her plans were to make him a calm, dependable horse that she could ride for pleasure. In the midst of this nostalgic Mustang setting, it was evident that Tamala George has taken on a project horse from the racetrack.
Such is the case with Tamala George, a former rodeo and barrel racer from middle Tennessee. Newk Cat Rib was her choice because he needed a home and was marketed as being very calm and a good prospect for trail riding or third flight fox hunting. She purchased him from the horse rescue organization in Franklin, Tennessee, a non-profit corporation that focuses on rescuing, rehabilitating and retraining horses for new careers. Newk came from a long line of Secretariat descendants and was a good deal at $1,000. When she took him for a very short ride, he was very quiet at the walk and trot as advertised.
Before sending him to a professional reining trainer, she left him out to pasture for two months to just be a horse. Consequently, he bonded with a white Welch pony named Dr. Bob from Brownland Farms. This former lesson pony has become Newk’s constant companion, offering security and safety in the world of humans. Tamala knew that she needed help so Newk was enrolled in reining school. After six weeks with the reining horse trainer, he was viewed as unwilling to learn and deemed unrideable.
Her hopes of riding this well bred gelding on the trail or in hose shows were dashed. Because of his trust issues he was difficult to lead and to handle on the ground. What was she going to do with this $1000, sixteen hands retired racehorse she adopted?
Fortunately, a friend gave her the name of a local horse trainer, Charlie Workman, who was well acquainted with working troubled horses. This personal horse, Dialdo, is a Mustang that required working off another horse to gentle. He has mentored with Mike Branch, as well as spending a short period of time with Zach Johnson (bridlehorse.com). Lately he has spent time with Annette Coker (cvequineventures.com) to refine his communication skills, who stated, “If you are not black and white with what you want from your horse, how is he suppose to meet your expectations?” Yes, Charlie was willing to tackle this maverick former racehorse deemed unrideable. Could he renew her hope of riding him on the trail?
The road leading to the riding area brought a wave of nostalgia. Carr’s Wild Horse Center in Cross Plains, Tennessee is where Charlie adopted his horse, Diablo, and it reminded us of the early days of Mustang adoption, complete with sturdy holding pens and running shoots. Diablo was one of these confirmed wild horses of the western plains that were ready to challenge the domesticated world with every pound of his equine ability. Charlie’s time with Diablo would send him on a path of the deep art of horsemanship from the horse’s point of view.
The first morning, Tamala George pulled into the driveway of the barn area to unload Newk. He backed out of the two-horse, straight-load trailer stiff and high headed, looking around for some place to go even if it meant running over someone. When Dr. Bob, the white Welch pony stepped out, I thought of Seabiscuit and his companion pony, Pumpkin. It was obvious that Newk felt safe with this confident lesson pony. “So many people have impressions of the horse that are untrue. In order to actually understand the horse, you have to see them and understand them. So many people only ‘know’ what they have heard from other people and most of the time it’s all wrong,” Charlie commented as he led Newk in the round pen. Mounted on the Mustang, Diablo, he started leading Newk. Patiently and precisely he allowed the Thoroughbred to find the release from leading him forward off a lasso around Newk’s neck. Head high and feet unwilling, he would stiffly try to follow Diablo as if to say,“is this what you want me to do?” There were times when he would turn away and Charlie would bump him with a release to redirect him. As the horse began to understand, one could see the change of his expression, the willingness of his feet and the lowering of his lead. Diablo offered the same comfort that Dr. Bob did. This use of equine behavior benefitted the wary racer. “Horses are black and white in their understanding, so do whatever you have to do to help them understand what is a good idea and what is not,” Charlie pointed out as he gradually put slack in the rope. When Charlie stopped and Newk faced him, this was the horse’s way of looking him up. In his own curious way, Newk was assessing Charlie.
Before lunch Charlie saddled him and mounted him, allowing Newk to go where he wanted unbridled. Periodically Charlie would increase his body energy to ask the horse for movement, working up to a trot. It was evident that Newk was trying to interpret what was being asked of him. When the trot came, Charlie stroked his neck, and then we could see the horse lower his head and neck and relax. Next, Charlie put the snaffle bit in and began to move him left to right and back him straight. A coiled rope was used to move the hindquarters laterally. Then Newk pushed Diablo around the round pen and Charlie roped the Mustang, ponying him around and giving Newk a job. Watching this interaction between man and horse gave those watching a chance to witness herd dynamics. Horses not only look for a leader to follow, they also find comfort in the task given to them. By offering support from Diablo, Charlie was able to gain Newk’s trust for the moment.
The session ended with Charlie riding Newk in the round pen bridled and on a loose rein. The small crowd that gathered to watch came to see the unrideable horse dump the rider. Instead, they witnessed a phenomenal moment where horse and rider came together to explore the realm of possibilities that have to do with trust, not just riding.
The next day Tamala was able to ride Newk in a small covered arena with Charlie’s instruction. She would have to approach Newk as Charlie did. By allowing Newk to be a horse, she could be that human that meets him halfway. The first day it was Charlie, Diablo, and Newk. The next day it was Charlie, Newk, and Tamala. The horse deemed unrideable was now on his journey to be ridden by the woman that gave him the second chance.
Charlie will continue to work with Newk and Tamala until the time comes when it is just Newk and Tamala.
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