Lined up with other horse/rider teams waiting to try their hand at cowboy-mounted shooting exercises one February day in Indiana, Amy Latka and her ex-racehorse listened as the bang of six-shot revolvers and the pop of balloons ricocheted off metal walls.
“There were no bullets in the guns, but they fired gunpowder and a piece of paper. The paper would light on fire and when it hit the balloon, it would pop it,” Latka explains.
Just four years after first sitting on her off-track Thoroughbred Jewel to embark on “explosive” lessons that often left her in tears, Latka and Jewel were cool customers by the winter 2008.
“By the time it was our turn to try, every single person who was there that day crowded in to see me and my racehorse,” Latka says. “I had her on a loose rein; I took the gun and fired it from her side. There was no problem. Then I fired at a balloon, and still, no problem. In the last round, I trotted around on her and got all six balloons.”
Jewel in the Hills
Sire: Judge TC
Dam: Ground Pine
Foal date: May 6, 1998Since that day, Latka and Jewel have continued with the cowboy exercises, and so much more: Jewel also participates in parades, goes sidesaddle, and is now a third-level dressage performer who will be featured soon in an issue of Midwest Thoroughbred Magazine. And Jewel is also the designated representative of The Indiana Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.
The journey from racetrack to new career path had its rocky moments.
After purchasing Jewel from a Thoroughbred training facility in 2003, Latka waited until the following year to climb aboard the mare who previously raced for three years. “I wanted to give her time to figure out she wasn’t racing anymore, and to come down off the 18 pounds of grain she was getting a day,” she says.
When she finally did embark on her first ride in March 2004, two things happened: The first was that the ride was a “non-event.” There was no bucking or spinning. “I felt like she looked at me as if to say, ‘Duh. You’re finally up there.’ I never felt like she was going to run away with me.” The second occurrence unfolded then, and over that first year of rides—being “explosive” events in which Jewel fought, pinned her ears, and was otherwise uncooperative.
“I’d come home from the barn crying some nights after taking my lesson, and my husband would ask, ‘What’s going on? This is the horse you wanted so much.’ ”
This was true. Latka was captivated by Jewel the first time she saw her prance in her paddock at the Thoroughbred facility. “I was smitten,” she recalls. “She just had this air about her. She would trot around, and then look back over her shoulder at me to make sure I was watching.”
But Latka soon realized the beautiful mare had a “bag of tricks” she learned in her three years on the track, like, putting her head high in the air and resisting leg signals.
Latka and her trainer decided to bring Jewel back to square-one training.
“My trainer introduced me to a concept that came from her training in French classical dressage. Her point is if the horse is going to go around, she has to go around slowly, and she has to have her head down,” Latka says, noting Jewel’s big no-no was to immediate put her nose in the air as soon as her rider picked up the reins.
“We went back to basics, and worked with one rein at a time. Our first lesson was only at a walk,” she says.
Step by step, Jewel and Latka figured it out.
Jewel learned to stretch down into the reins and move with a long, loose connection. Through repetition, she learned to transition up into her gaits with her head down, and by the time a fellow equestrian boarding at Latka’s facility caught sight of the new Jewel, the team had come a long way. “Another boarder came over to me and said, ‘Is that Jewel?’ and I said, ‘Yeah. Can you believe it?’ ”
Jewel has proved herself time and again since those beginner lessons.
She is doing third-level dressage, as well as parades, and serving as a representative of the Thoroughbred breed at fairs and events.
In 2007, Jewel developed colic, but made a full recovery after undergoing surgery at Purdue Large Animal Hospital. After surgery, as Jewel stood in the large, padded recovery room, Latka says she never felt closer to her pet and friend. “She was trembling all over, but in the spots where I touched her, she would stop shaking,” Latka recalls. “When I tried to leave she followed me.”
Jewel didn’t need to worry about being left behind.
“This horse will have a home with me until the day she dies,” Latka says. “I’ll never sell her.”
Working with Jewel set Latka on another course as well. She volunteers with Friends of Ferdinand Inc., an organization dedicated to transitioning ex-racehorses into new careers, and has thus far fostered 11 Thoroughbreds. She blogs about her experiences on http://retraintb.wordpress.com.