To those who might denigrate the Thoroughbred’s capacity to compete in the dressage world—oh, they’re just not born for it; not “uphill” enough— exercise rider turned OTTB trainer Nuno Santos has a horse to tell you about. Actually, make that two.
A dressage rider who helped transform a nervous, somewhat flighty Thoroughbred named Ken’s Kitten into a third-level mount capable of incredible movement and scope, can hardly conceal his glee today as he speaks of Kitten’s burgeoning four-star achievements.
Sire: Kitten’s Joy
Dam: Cruise Line
Foal date: April 11, 2007
Dam: Redness, by Tale of the Cat
Foal date: April 3, 2010In only a year’s time, since Santos and Ken’s Kitten were the star attraction at Steuart Pittman’s Retired Racehorse Project Makeover show at Pimlico Race Course, the flashy OTTB has flourished into a full fledged competitor, now floating through piaffe and passage moves at a four-star level.
“He’s such a different horse now,” Santos says. “He has matured so much, and is so willing to do thing without getting nervous. He does his tempe changes, some piaffe and passage … and he has so much more expression in his movement.”
Like a proud papa, Santos says Ken’s Kitten has utterly blossomed under the tutelage of USDF silver medalist (and older brother) Carlos Santos, in California, and now stands poised to take on the Prix St. George test this year.
But Ken’s Kitten, Santos explains, was no flash in the pan, or rarity among today’s Thoroughbred.
Thoroughbreds, he asserts, are coming back into vogue. Even in dressage. And to prove it, he is schooling a previously injured, 5-year-old stallion by Tapit for the upcoming Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover Show.
Later this month at a showground in Kentucky, Santos will ride Rapsandtaps in a demonstration highlighting the skill of the mellow Thoroughbred.
In personality, he is totally unlike his predecessor, Ken’s Kitten. Whereas Kitten was nervous and needed to be channeled, Raps is mellow and willing, with the occasional burst of quirky energy, he says.
But what they share is an ability to excel in a reach outside of horseracing, Santos says, noting that Raps comes to Dressage after recuperating from a condular fracture in his right leg. And still he is great, he says.
The two OTTBs are brilliant examples of the basic talents waiting to be unlocked in ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds, says Santos, noting that several of his riding students recently switched to riding Thoroughbreds after riding Warmbloods.
“My clients had started with Warmbloods, and don’t get me wrong, I love Warmbloods. But they realized that Thoroughbreds are so much easier. They give you energy right away, whereas with the Warmbloods you have to push and push,” he says, adding, “I think the way people look at Thoroughbreds is totally changing, because of all the organizations” working to raise awareness—the Retired Racehorse Project horse shows among them. “Thoroughbreds are getting back into vogue.”
Steuart Pittman, who pioneered the Retired Racehorse Project to remake off-track Thoroughbreds into valuable, competitive sport horses, says he is thrilled with the impact of Ken’s Kitten and soon, Rapsandtaps will display his moves at the show, which takes place at the fabled Kentucky Horse Park this month.
“Very few of the best dressage riders put time into working with Thoroughbreds, and that’s the reason that very few Thoroughbreds show at the FEI levels of dressage,” Pittman says. “Silva Martin proved with Sea Lord in 2011 is that Thoroughbreds can still show brilliance at the Grand Prix level, but that was a very rare situation where one of the most talented dressage riders in the country had a Thoroughbred sent to her as a sale prospect. The result was incredible.
“Nuno Santos is the next person who will work this kind of magic with Thoroughbreds. He has the talent, he has the feel, he knows and loves the Thoroughbred mind, and he has the connections in racing to find clients who will put their money into the long-term training that it takes to reach the top level.”