Kaytee Mountain once trotted with an awkward, sewing-needle gait.
Its odd up-down rhythm was all he could manage his first year after a racing career that went nowhere, and once he was the last horse anyone would choose to start in Dressage.
“It took us about a year to get a nice, normal trot. It still wasn’t great, it was quick; but, it was definitely better,” says his owner/rider Sue Gallagher of New Jersey.
While some may have wondered why the longtime rider, who in Australia, practiced a discipline similar to Dressage, would even consider snapping up a retired racehorse, a losing one at that, Gallagher says it was a “no brainer” for her.
The moment she stepped into Kaytee Mountain’s New Jersey pasture in 2007, she felt a tremendous welling up of joy just being in his company. While it’s true that he lacked the conformation of breeds built for Dressage —horses that leave the womb prepackaged for the physical rigors of the complex and beautiful discipline— this boy had spunk.
Entering his pasture, she glanced at the five-year-old prospect as he made eye contact with her, and with no hesitation, he came running.
“He galloped right over to me as if he was saying, ‘Hi! Here I am! What are you doing?’ ” And then, tail high, head in the air, he romped around the field as if he didn’t know he wasn’t a superstar.
He may not have had the resume to be a star, but he had personality and presence in spades.
Race name: Kaytee Mountain
Sire: Deniro, by Gulch
Dam: Kara Mountain
Foal date: April 16, 2003“I loved him instantly,” she says. “There wasn’t a moment when he didn’t want to hang out with me, he was a real love bug.”
Throwing caution and practicality to the wind, Gallagher purchased him nearly on the spot, eschewing even a veterinary check to ensure he was physically sound, and packed him up for what would eventually become the biggest equestrian adventure of her life.
Starting small, with trot sets that were so abysmal they were laughable, Gallagher spent the first full year getting her green horse to abandon his up and down motion, which was more suitable for a merry-go-round.
Patiently overcoming numerous temperamental outbursts and bouts of tension, Gallagher and her first coach, Lisa Schmidt, eventually helped him to strengthen his weak topline through stretching exercises and consistent lessons that taught him to engage his hind end.
As he improved, Gallagher engaged the help of other coaches, including Silke Rembacz, Suzy Ross and Gabriel Armando.
Little by little, over the years, Gallagher and her handsome OTTB did nothing but practice and work. What came easily to others was something they had to strive for, and when Kaytee became confused about a request or difficult movement, his tension mounted.
Tension, she notes, has remained Kaytee Mountains’ biggest obstacle. But she has learned to work through it, remaining a calming, reassuring presence even when he starts to panic.
“Hot horses get very worried about things, especially if they don’t understand,” she says. “As soon as they get tense, their bodies go stiff like a board.
“When Kaytee gets confused or when he’s learning something new, or when we’re pushing him, that’s when we’ll see the tension, and this is when he’ll have a spook fit because he’d rather have a spook fit than work.”
She has learned that this is his way of escaping, of saying no.
And she ignores the behavior as she would in a difficult child.
“I pretend it never happened,” she says. “I never ride the behavior. That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned.”
When he spooked, she’d push her arms forward, squeeze, and keep him moving in the direction already established. “If we’re heading toward F, and he says, ‘I’m going to spook!’ I say that’s fine, but we’re still riding toward F.”
She also learned not to hit, not to yank, and not to yell. She just puts her leg on and keeps going.
And that persistence has paid off!
After years of training, and of getting constantly hammered by judges for being too “tense” in the show ring, Gallagher and Kaytee Mountain have turned their performance into a cool, collected routine that has gained them entrance into a show level where few off-track Thoroughbreds have gone.
On Oct. 12 and 13, the pair will compete in 4th Level Dressage at the Horse Park of New Jersey, for The Garden State Classic.
It will be the culmination of years of exhaustive work, and hopefully, a turning point for the two as a team. Since last April, when Kaytee started to come into his own while performing Third Level, his physical strength has exploded, and his mind has sharpened to the point that he now quickly grasps and performs the harder moves.
Lead changes are a snap, and he is starting to canter pirouette!
Looking back on the hard road they’ve traveled just to get here, Gallagher feels it has all been worth it. She is honored to participate in such a high level of competition with an American Thoroughbred racehorse.
And she believes his well-earned success will inspire other Thoroughbred owners to stick with it, and get their horses strong.
“Tee has come a long way from galloping around a track. I can’t wait to see what he can do over the next couple of years as we continue to practice perfecting those basics, build strength and as a result help him become even more settled and relaxed in his work,” Gallagher says. “He is truly a wonderful boy, who strangely enough, has taught me so much about the dressage discipline.”