On the face of it, Ollie and Jaguar Hope had little in common.
Jag, as he was called for short, had the dark, sexy looks of a matinee idol. Ollie, on the other hand, was fair-haired and cute, but nothing like his glamorous predecessor.
And yet, both ex-racehorses, with looks and personalities on opposite ends of the spectrum, came rushing into Wendy Wooley’s life with equal panache and equally compelling back-stories.
As fans of Wooley’s blog From Racehorse to Showhorse know, Jag was immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s film War Horse. An image of him frolicking in a paddock was incorporated into War Horse promotional material, including hats and a coffee-table book. (Read more about Jag’s influence on War Horse here).
Breathtaking beauty of the statuesque animal led to breathtaking pain for Wooley when her wonder horse died in a freak paddock accident in March 2009. For months, she mourned the loss, until a little gray ham of a horse began to distract her.
In July the same year, the cuddly ex-racehorse Hola C. Bright, nicknamed Ollie, appeared on the scene.
Race name: Hola C. Bright
Barn name: Ollie
Sire: Valiant Nature
Foal date: Feb. 9, 2000
Earnings:Close to $160,000Wooley had no intentions of buying a gray horse. Visions of a mud-caked fur ball requiring constant bathing and grooming did not fill her with a deep desire to run out and get one.
But, her friend and fellow equine photographer Maggie Kimmett would not let up. She’d met Ollie at a photo shoot in Baltimore, and announced in a hastily placed phone call: “I’ve found the perfect horse for you!”
She emphasized that he was a Michigan bred, and she was also a native of the Great Lakes State: the two were obviously destined for each other, Wooley recalls.
“I finally agreed. I was working on assignment and was only three hours away, so I drove up to go see him,” she says.
Cute, as promised, and a little clingy to his herd mates, Wooley figured she’d take the horse if he passed the veterinarian examination. And, she also decided to write to his breeders, Phyllis and Gene Gilmore of Michigan.
Delighted with her letter, the couple showed it to their next-door neighbor, Dr. Sebright, a medical doctor, and friend, for whom the horse is named.
“And this is the weird part,” Wooley says. “When Dr. Sebright saw my return address was in Traverse City” where she lived before moving to Kentucky “he recognized it right away. I was living in his childhood home!
“Everyone came over to meet me, and I gave them of a tour of the house, which I’d totally renovated,” Wooley says. “By the time I got to know the Sebrights, I figured I had to take their horse.”
It wasn’t all wine and roses after Ollie arrived at her barn in July 2009. Nervous by nature, the trip in the trailer had caused him to shed weight and develop ulcers.
So a regimen of medication was necessary before she could to introduce him, slowly, to dressage.
“I tried and failed, tried and failed and tried and failed,” Wooley says of her initial forays into training.
Followers of Wooley’s blog know she is more critical of herself with Ollie than even any drill sergeant would be. But, she admits they have come a long, long way since their first “disastrous” steps outside the familiar fences of their farm.
Ollie melted down a week before he was to enter a green show. Thinking it would be good to get his feet wet by exposing him to a new riding environment, she trailered him to Masterson Station in Lexington.
“He was as awful as they come!” she says. “It was a horrible day. He was super- nervous. As I started working with him in an enclosed arena, a couple of other horses and riders came in to do some jumping.
“Ollie went crazy. He went into panic mode and did a little rear, a spin, and dumped me before taking off in the arena.”
After someone finally caught her horse, and Wooley remounted, the remainder of the lesson was spent persuading Ollie to come down off his tiptoes.
“He just didn’t have his brain cells at all that day, and I remember thinking I couldn’t bring him to a show the following week,” she says. “But my instructor said, ‘You’re going! You’re paid; we’ll go.’ ”
Talk about poor dress rehearsals foreshadowing great performances!
The next week, “Ollie handled himself like a rock star!” she says.
Although she entered him as a non-compete, he still carried himself squarely on all four feet, through the gaits, and around the festive grounds.
“I’m trying to take the race out of the horse. Once I get him to understand, he’s brilliant. And when he goes around, he’s a fancy horse!” Wooley says.
As she prepares to enter Ollie in a training clinic, Wooley has beenincorporating training tips offered by the Retired Racehorse Training Project, which has published numerous video demonstrations of ex-racehorse training. (Read more about the Retired Racehorse Training Project here).
Like others who’ve paid rapt attention to the competition to retrain race horses fresh from the track, Wooley has watched, and learned.
“The other day we had three deer in a nearby field, and Ollie was getting a bit bug-eyed watching them,” she says. “I just kept thinking of the instructor (and video), and made it my goal to keep his attention on me, not on the saber-tooth deer out there.
“It worked! I just kept him focused on the obstacles on our course, and I had the nicest work with my horse that day.”
For all the frustrations that have come with re-training Ollie, so too, have come unexpected, pleasant surprises.
From discovering that her horse was named for the man who grew up in her Michigan home, to learning she is a better rider than she ever thought, Wooley has ridden forward to meet the challenges head on.
And her grief over Jag has finally faded as her attention is now riveted on her quirky gray man.
“Jag was an easy horse. He never spooked; he did whatever he was asked. But, he did not make me a good horseman,” Wooley says. “Ollie, as much trouble as he can be, is making me a good horseman.”