Have you ever had a gut feeling that someone belonged in your life?
That’s how things started with George. I saw him when I was scrolling through horses on Amy Lynn Paulus’s page, Paulus Racing and Performance Thoroughbreds. From the moment I saw that long neck and those big sad eyes, I knew that he needed to be in my life. I already had two horses that were eligible for the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover for 2018. I needed another horse like I needed a hole in the head, but there was something about him that I could not get out of my head. I waited and waited for someone to scoop him up. Surely someone would see what I saw? But I waited…and waited…and waited…and finally Amy Lynn made it clear that the poor little dude needed a home or he was going to have to try racing again; a thing that everyone realized would be bad for him, so I sent Amy Lynn a message and sealed the deal that Three Socks would be coming to live with me.
Amy Lynn then sent me Three Socks’ previous owner’s information. Kristin has turned out to be one of the sweetest, kindest, most generous people that I have ever known. She took Three Socks, then known around the barn as Boots, in from a really bad situation, and nursed him back to health. She sent me a video of his healing process, and videos of him under saddle, as well as tons of track photos. She warned me that my new boy was slow to trust, and wanted to be fancy despite his poor condition. I knew from the moment that I met Kristin that I had done the right thing in taking a chance on my new boy, and that, even if he wasn’t the horse for me, he had had the best possible care in her hands, and that she truly loved him. I always feel better when I buy a horse, knowing that they have come from a knowledgeable, stable home (no pun intended).
When Three Socks arrived, I was at work (as I often was back then in my teaching days), and the barn owner said that he was too nervous for her to let out with the other horses, since he appeared to be scared of his own shadow. She put him in a run between the pastures to let him get some grass, and it was there that I found him when I got out of work. At the time, I didn’t know whether I was going to keep the name Boots or change it, but Kristen had warned me that he wanted to be fancy like a copper penny, so I came up with a whole list of names that were both noble but also down home, and I figured I’d let him choose what he wanted to be called.
It took Three Socks and I about a month to get to know each other. During that month I called him over 100 names; everything from Conway to Todd, and nothing stuck. I rode him almost daily and discovered that he was bolder under saddle than he was on the ground, and that he had very little confidence either in himself or in his rider. Finally one day when we were walking out to the pasture, I tried calling him by the name of my beloved father and grandfather, George. His ears immediately perked up, and he gave me my first real nuzzle, and that was it, I knew his name was George.
In the first six months that I had George we had some incredible highs and some real setbacks. We were beset by abscesses. He popped six abscesses in one hoof between early June and late September. George’s feet in general are not very strong, he has a tendency to lose his shoes if he is not shod every 4 weeks (even in good weather). AND he is petrified of pulling a shoe under saddle. The moment that I got him in a really well-fitting saddle and he started pushing from behind, I could tell that he was nervous that he would step on his own hoof and hurt himself, so I started working him in overreach boots (which have been a godsend – I particularly like the Weaver variety). So his feet have been a real challenge, but for a horse who’s come as far physically as George has, I almost can’t complain.
But despite the physical complications in his first few months off the track, there have been some real highs too. I started working as an apprentice saddle fitter for TW and Specialized Saddles, and George got his very own saddle that fits him like a glove and that can be refitted and re-customized as he grows and muscles. We even got to represent the company as the Thoroughbred example in a print ad. In September I took George to a ranch riding clinic with Cal Middleton. I had never worked with Cal before and really didn’t know what to expect, and George (as I have previously mentioned) is not very good at ground work. Cal quickly ascertained that George was very resistant in the neck (very true after racing from the age of 2 to the age of 8), and that George was timid and not confident. It was the fact that Cal realized that George lacked confidence that won me over to his style of horsemanship. Many people looked at George and thought he was calm, or lazy. They didn’t realize (like I did) that he was shut down, but Cal did. In doing research in the past many months, I have learned that this is called learned helplessness. Finding out about LH (learned helplessness) has really helped me to understand George on a deeper level. Cal helped me work with George on going over or through things (like a scary gate into a cow pasture) even when George thinks that he can’t. Learning to deal with his fears and push through them, has helped George’s confidence immeasurably (even in the pasture – he’s brave enough to walk out to his friends now, when he used to run circles at the gate screaming until someone would come get him – this is a true story).
But the highest high of our first months together had to be *FINALLY* making it to the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover. I had trained three horses to go, and had never actually made it to the competition. I knew that George was not really ready for the competition, that I had a perfectly lovely mare that was further along, but I also knew that the competition would be good for his confidence and that it would mean so much more to me if I could do it on a horse that I cared for so very deeply. So my mother, my husband and I loaded up my truck and trailer and drove George to Kentucky to the horse park and embarked on a journey several years in the making.
I literally cannot express to you how much it meant to me to take George to the Makeover. Our trip took place during the first week of October, a time of year that already means a lot to me as last year my heart horse passed away on October 3rd, and since my very well-loved and sadly departed father’s birthday (for whom George is named is October 4th). Kristin’s birthday also took place while George and I were in Kentucky, and it was so great to get to celebrate her birthday with a horse that she saved. At the Makeover George and I did not set any records for any high scores, or win any ribbons, but none of that mattered to me. George walked into the covered arena for warm-up on Wednesday and was brave and confident. He stood quietly while other (much further along) horses got nervous, and he listened to me when I asked him to go forward or to back. These are small things, but they are hard for him. George hacked quietly around the horse park on a long rein. We took walks and he ground tied everywhere I asked him to. He attempted every obstacle in the ranch trail portion, even though obstacles are about his least favorite thing on the planet, and did well in the pattern portion of his work, and showed real promise as a western dressage horse during our musical freestyle.
For George and I the Makeover was a great vacation. It was not the end of our journey together, but a wonderful highlight of the start of our work together. I’ve learned so much about this sweet, silly horse in the past few months. I love the fact that he loves music and has very decided musical tastes: for example, he loves Sam Cooke and Elvis and Tom Petty and the Dixie Cups, but he absolutely hates any sort of rock, hip hop or country. I love that he likes to be ridden without reins. And I love the fact that he loves patterns and that they make him feel braver and more comfortable. I even love the fact that he adores the song “Bread and Butter.” I swear he must have been the Brave Little Toaster in another life!
So, here’s to the horses that aren’t easy! Here’s to the ones that don’t give us everything on a silver platter! Here’s to the ones that make us want to become better riders and better horseman!