The large gelding stood meekly in the Ontario barn waiting for his owner to recognize him.
Much thinner now, his once well-muscled body, more like a Warmblood’s than that of a Thoroughbred ex-racehorse, had shrunk in the months since Lauren Cheeseman had seen him last. So when she did finally have the opportunity to peer more closely at the lackluster animal who now turned an indifferent eye on her, she felt a little sick.
“Someone had to draw my attention to him” because I couldn’t find him. “When I went to see him at his barn last November, I just kept wandering around looking around for him. I actually walked right passed him.”
Months earlier, the young equestrian and busy military contract worker decided to free-lease her horse to another facility, while her hectic career impelled her on frequent business trips that left scant time for anything else.
When she made the decision, she thought she was doing her best for the Kentucky bred ex-racehorse once known as El Gran Papa, now renamed Duncan; she balanced her desire to keep ownership of her promising dressage mount, while providing him with the kind of attention she couldn’t give, but he needed.
Race name: El Gran Papa
Show name: Ecliptic
New name: Duncan
Sire: El Gran Senor
Dam: Banner Hit
Foal date: April 20,1997But mysteriously, despite an abundance of care, Duncan was down about 300 pounds on the day she visited.
It took only a moment to decide to bring him home.
“He doesn’t trailer well at all, but when I came back for him, he showed no hesitation at all and walked right on,” Cheeseman says. “I think he knew he was coming home.
But the homecoming would be just the beginning of the struggle to rebuild him.
Soon after arriving at Cheeseman’s home, he dropped another hundred pounds, and was sent to live with his veterinarian to receive more attentive care.
Cheeseman and her vet, working as a team, decided to increase his hay intake, making sure to provide the best possible quality cut, and they introduced copious amounts of beet pulp to his feed. They decided against scoping him until they determined whether the dietary changes would help.
Finally, it did. Duncan began to fatten up under the veterinarian’s watchful eye, and his lackluster spirit disappeared, and his usual energetic, bold personality returned.
“He became a happy horse again,” she says, noting that they’re still unsure why he lost so much weight. “The other barn was taking care of him, feeding him and doing his teeth.”
Restoring Duncan’s weight was only part of the effort to bring him back. Rebuilding muscle, from his legs to his topline, has required painstaking care and time that is still ongoing.
Since bringing him home last November, Cheeseman has obtained a full-time position in the military that doesn’t require travel, and so, affords her greater time to work with Duncan.
“It’s a matter of being really patient and to take a step back and see what he really needs to build back up again,” she says. “We had a lesson a week ago, for example, and it consisted of 45 minutes of walking. He was sweating at the end of it and he was tired.”
The walking lesson is helping him learn how to balance again and regain lost strength. And she’s teaching him that in the ring, he can’t lean on her to hold him up. He’s too heavy!
One technique to get him off her leg involves holding the outside rein as though it is a “nonnegotiable tool”, she explains. And by making minor hand adjustments, such as raising them slightly higher Duncan has achieved greater balance.
“In just two weeks of training, he has become so much quicker to respond to my aids, and he’s carrying himself so much better,” she enthuses. “I’ve never had a horse that’s so quick to learn. I feel like he’s saying, ‘I get what you’re asking for and I’m doing my best.’ ”
A regimen of circle and hill work has also helped with balance and strength.
Despite the challenges of weight maintenance and a bad case of thrush that knocked him out of a recent showing opportunity, Duncan has never lacked in either heart or talent to go up against the best. And win.
Even when he arrived back in November, he managed to show and do well.
During his comeback period this summer, he competed in the London Dressage Association of Cadora and also took home many first-place ribbons under his coach, Daisy Kosa.
Even though his topline, concealed beneath the tack, is still too thin, Duncan showed and won against stiff Warmblood competition, says Cheeseman, noting: “We cleaned up!”
She adds, “When I found Duncan, the very first time I rode him, I knew he was more gifted than I was. And I have learned more in my four years of riding him than I have in my entire life of riding horses.” One of the biggest lessons her off-track Thoroughbred has taught her is that with patience and time, an ex-racehorse can develop into formidable competitive sport horses that can beat the most expensive Warmblood import.
“Some people can go out and spend $50,000 on an imported Hanovarian, and yes, they’ll clean up. But they won’t learn anything,” she says. “Duncan proves that with a little love and patience, he can go head to head with any horse.
“People give up on them too easily.”