‘People give up on them too easily’

Lauren and Duncan practice dressage

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 20,1997
But 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.

The look of contentment

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.

Way back when, on their first ride

“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!”

Duncan face

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.”

9 responses to “‘People give up on them too easily’”

  1. Paula Anderson

    This story just warms my heart. I too, 4 yrs ago adopted my first OTTB. And I will have to agree that I have learned more in these 4 yrs with my Sam than I have in all the years of working with horses. He had been abused and had no trust but with lots of love and patience he is like a giant pocket pet now, he has come a long way. I can not imagine my life without him in it. He had lost so much balance and it has taken yrs to rebuild that in him. I have even noticed in the last 2 years the complete unexpected personality come out in him…everyone at the bording barn whhere I keep him says all the time, that horse truly loves you!!!! They all say they wished they had the bond that me and my Sam have. I commend the people out there that take a chance on a OTTB, and don’t give up!!! Cause in the long run it is all worth it!!!

  2. Alivia Marcoux

    I took an 11 year old retired thoroughbred into my home just last April and at first was unsure if I would want to keep him as I was used to the older lesson horses and he was quite high spirited. But after the first week he calmed down and made friends with my 18 year old quarter horse. What I am saying here is that with a little time and love your horse will understand you and do the best to please you. My horse has taught me so much, Now everyday when I go to put him in the barn from his paddock he comes right up to me and nuzzles into my arms. He just melts my heart. Every horse will have their bad days but at the end they know just how to make you smile.

  3. Christine Conner

    What a joy to read Laura and Duncan’s story! I had goosebumps as I read it. My first OTTB, Fritz, taught me so many great lessons and made me a much better rider. He passed away at age 28, and having owned him for 22 of those years was a gift to me beyond words. I now have 2 younger OTTBs that I am working with, and they continue to teach me every single day. At times, I question whether I’m crazy to be doing this at my age, but truly, the rewards of working with these magnificent creatures is profoundly rewarding! They are sensitive, intelligent, and loyal and once they have your trust, they will give you anything if only you ask with respect.

  4. TBDancer

    When I started to read this, I was fearful that it would be a story about Lauren entrusting Duncan to someone who neglected the “free lease” horse–a scenario I’ve seen played out too many times. As I read further, however, I realized that his former caretakers simply had not exhausted every avenue to find out why he was not thriving.

    TBs are a sensitive breed, and many of them do not adapt to change very well. They develop trust in their people, gaining confidence FROM them in situations where there appears to be cause to worry. I’m glad Lauren is back with Duncan and her “team” of experts is helping him blossom once again.

    She is correct: People DO give up on them too easily. But for those of us who take our time with TBs, we will be rewarded in countless ways.

  5. Brendan Stewart

    I, too have an off-the-track TB. He is now 21 years old. I got him when he was 17. His owner had left him to languish in his pasture. The first time I met him, he was SO excited that he nearly trounced me three times. I could see he needed and wanted human interaction. I took him on and now we ride bareback and bridleless. He also taught me more than any other horse. It took me almost four years to rebuild his body, correct his movement and get his trust. His play drive is enormous and his happiness is obvious. When I drive up to my barn, he is waiting for me, knowing what time I come each day, whinnying and snaking his head in play. He breaks my heart.

  6. KC

    Cheers to Lauren and Duncan! I love that Lauren immediately took him home, and I’ve no doubt Duncan improved because she is in his life. He’s a very lucky boy, and I wish them luck in their dressage endeavors!

  7. Kim Alexander

    This story gives me goosebumps- as it does every time I speak to, or read about an OTTB becoming something special for their owners. The last comment is SO true, but then, in my experience, people tend to toss all their horses in the trash when they hit a snag or just don’t win. Hats OFF to all of us who have been so blessed to discover these amazing creatures and can patiently cultivate them to the winner’s circle – even when the ‘win’ is being a beloved and trusted family mount.

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