Makeover trainers evaluate sport horse potential based on conformation shots
Social media has enabled potential OTTB owners to review a large number of retiring Thoroughbred racehorse listings at any given time. Newcomers to the breed might find it challenging to consider a prospect right off the track and decide if it’s a match for their desired purpose.
In this column veteran Thoroughbred Makeover trainers — professionals, juniors and amateurs alike — share their thoughts about assessing and selecting prospects and evaluate example horses based only on their conformation photos. We feature trainers from two disciplines in each issue.
■ Toni Harmon
Amateur, winner of Competitive Trail and second in Ranch Work at the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover with Belfast Cowboy
Despite her success in Western disciplines at the 2018 and 2019 Thoroughbred Makeovers, Harmon’s equestrian background is in show jumping and eventing. Since relocating to Northern Illinois from Southern California, she was introduced to the sport of working equitation, bringing a young Quarter Horse to the Top 10 in the world in 2017 and No. 1 in the world in 2018. Until October of 2017, she had never owned a Thoroughbred but now can’t imagine not having at least one at her farm.
■ Sara Katz
Professional, winner of Field Hunter at the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover with Diplomat
Katz essentially grew up on horseback, riding since age 2. She started riding trails and cross-country, which she credits with introducing her to field hunting. She retrained OTTBs as a junior rider and through a neighbor found her way to the sport of steeplechasing. Katz now retrains OTTBs, working with both flat and jump racers, and gallops steeplechasers daily with a jockey’s license.
Choosing a Horse
Toni Harmon and Sara Katz represent two ends of the spectrum when it comes to acquiring horses: Katz typically gets her horses through the tightknit steeplechase community, where she has built a reputation as a successful trainer for restarting Thoroughbreds. Harmon, a more recent inductee into the Thoroughbred world, has purchased her three OTTBs for the Makeover through Facebook listings and found lots of success with those horses.
For her hunters Katz emphasizes that the most important characteristics are the mind and attitude. “Hunting is a lot to handle, and it’s not for every horse,” she says. She’s found good field hunters among both older graded stakes winners and young, lightly raced horses. Conformationally, Katz looks for solid bone, a strong shoulder and hindquarter, a smart eye and good feet.
“Footing is often unknown in the hunt field, so a sound, strong horse is very important,” she says.
As a recreational rider and retrainer, Harmon also focus on a horse’s mind — which can be tricky to assess in just a photo and brief video online. “Without having the luxury of meeting my prospects, I am at the mercy of the seller sharing the personality traits of the horse,” she says. As such, she suggests working with a trusted reseller with lots of experience. Harmon does look for a big, sweeping walk and a soft, kind eye, which tells her a lot about a horse’s likely personality, and then uses the “trapezoid theory” to look at the balance of a horse’s conformation: Is his back about a third of his total body length? Do his shoulder and hip angles match?
Harmon and Katz agree, however, that the horse’s mind is more critical than his conformation. “My thoughts on buying a prospect are simple,” Harmon says. “Just about anything that isn’t physically, mentally or emotionally broken, I can work with — if I can gain his trust, this horse is likely to happily do just about anything I ask if I ask correctly.”
Katz agrees. “I’ve hunted so many different types of horses — I’ve sold and ridden horses with old tendons, bone spurs, kissing spines, and they all do just fine. Just like a car, they’ll all need maintenance eventually, ” she explains. “Ultimately, I want a horse that will enjoy the parts of hunting that I enjoy. A lot is intuition. Look for a horse that reminds you of yourself.”
Meet the Prospects
Our model horses all come from Second Stride Inc., in Crestwood, Kentucky. Founded in 2005 by five friends in a racing syndicate who had racing, show and pleasure horse experience, Second Stride helps about 125 horses annually find the next steps in their careers. The organization works with not only retiring Thoroughbred racehorses but also retired broodmares and unstarted young horses that never raced.
Second Stride pairs adoption applicants with an adoption counselor, who helps match people with horses based on their needs. Individuals adopting become the horses’ owners and can resell upon notifying Second Stride. The organization works to educate both the horse industry about the Thoroughbred and the racing industry about rider needs and OTTBs’ transitional needs. While these three featured horses were available at press time, they might no longer be. Second Stride has plenty of prospects looking for their next partners.
Horse 2: Ideally, I’d prefer matching angles in his feet — but this horse has a look about him that suits my taste. He has a well-balanced, athletic build and looks capable of succeeding in any discipline. I’m also partial to bays!
Horse 1: This mare is well-built and balanced and has a nice, soft eye. I think her conformation is lovely and could take her in any direction, but I prefer geldings, which is why I put her as my second choice. It was a tough choice between these top two horses though.
Horse 3: It appears this mare should have a nice big walk, which I always look for. That said, she’s not quite as balanced as the other two, and she appears to be slightly downhill in this photo. This might not necessarily be a deal breaker for me if she is good-minded and happy to go to work, but it does rank her below the other two based on a photo alone.
Horse 2: I really like this horse. He has an uphill build and a beautiful, kind expression. He has nice bone and strong-looking feet. His neck and shoulder are built very nicely. His hindquarter is strong and leg angle is correct. There is not much I don’t like about this horse. I would definitely consider him for a first-flight field hunter.
Horse 1: This horse is not a bad field-hunter prospect. She is a bit light in the bone for me. Shoulder and neck are nice, but I am not a fan of the way her front legs are placed or their angle. Her back is a little short and her hindquarter a bit weak. Most likely she’ll have a shorter stride. She does have a cute face with a kind eye. She may be better suited as a second-field or hilltopping horse versus a first-flight hunter.
Horse 3: Conformationally, this horse doesn’t have a strong figure for heavy hunting but might make a great second- or third-flight horse with some proper muscling if her personality suits. Her neck is a bit on the short side and her shoulder is small, and she doesn’t have a lot of hip bone. If she has the right mind for hunting, however, there’s no reason she can’t find her niche.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine, the only publication dedicated to the Thoroughbred ex-racehorse in second careers. Want four information-packed issues a year delivered to your door or your favorite digital device? Subscribe now!