Over the years, I've attended the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo many times. The crowd that gathered in the Equine Arena to see the finale of the Retired Racehorse Training Project's Trainer Challenge was by far the biggest I've ever seen. The seats surrounding the arena were completely filled well before the 2pm start time, and the arena continued to fill well after the program began.
The events were delayed a bit as the Parade of Breeds completed. The fanciful Friesians and dedicated Days End Farm Horse Rescue drill team captured the imagination of the crowd and served as a brilliant contrast to the four Thoroughbreds who followed them.
When I attended the Maryland Horse World Expo in January, I wondered how much of an effect the five weeks of blogging, Facebooking, and tweeting would have on the attendance of the finale of the Trainer Challenge. Social media turned out to be a HUGE reason for the enthusiastic reception of the event. Each of the three trainers had their own fans and cheering sections, and the horses had become internet stars in their own right.
All four horses were ridden and led into the arena at the same time. Trainer Eric Dierks got right to work with his mare, Brazilian Wedding. She was visibly concerned with her surroundings, but as Eric worked with her, she settled and focused on her rider instead of the crowd and the other distractions. RRTP President Steuart Pittman asked the audience to be gentle with their applause, and the audience graciously complied.
Midatlantic Horse Rescue's Finger Lakes hero, Solidify, was led into the arena while trainer Tiffany Catledge worked with her second mount, High Level.
All four horses were in good flesh and had visibly built muscle during their 5-week training time. Excellent farriery kept their hooves balanced and healthy.
High Level was showcased first. I visited High Level and Tiffany Catledge just a few days before the Expo, and his gaits and balance had improved even within those few days. High Level was behind the curve and lost training time due to a sole bruise, but he caught up with the rest of the gang with leaps and bounds.
High Level sought contact with the bit, showed adjustability and elasticity in his gaits, and exhibited superb self carriage when his trainer showboated for the crowd and took her hands off the reins, reached her arms out, and cantered down part of the long side of the arena.
Over fences, High Level continued to impress us all.
You can see a loop in Tiffany's reins after the jump in the following photo. This shows a sympathetic rider, as well as a horse with natural rhythm and balance. Horse and rider were in such balance that it looked like they could have taken an entire course of jumps. The horse with the fewest training hours under his belt shows massive potential.
Trainer Kerry Blackmer has a gift for instilling confidence in a horse. Her trainee, Tempyst, was the youngest of the group and showed the most fire in his evaluations. In Kerry's training blog videos and at both expos, she always had a smile on her face and her horse seemed to appreciate her game attitude. As they made their way around the arena, Tempyst charmed the audience by fearlessly peeking through the railing and nosing people's hands for a pat.
Each trainer spent time preparing for the sights and sounds of the Expo, and every little detail, down to standing quietly while the trainers were mic'd up for their rides, was a test of training.
Once they got to work, Kerry and Tempyst wowed the audience and the judges with some greatly-improved trot work.
Over fences, Tempyst showed his age a bit when he greenly but gamely jumped a single cross rail and a one-stride line.
Molly Sorge referred to Eric Dierks as "The Professor" in her excellent Chronicle of the Horse writeup, and he truly schooled us. Watching his video blogs was like auditing a mini-clinic, and he gave the Harrisburg crowd a free lesson as he explained his ride on Brazilian Wedding.
Through Brazilian Wedding's body language, it was clear that her rider had helped her to relax in the strange surroundings. Her neck was tight when she entered the arena, and had loosened up by the time she did some work with Eric.
The sophistication of Brazilian Wedding's training was showcased when Eric counted strides down, "6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1" as he rode in to each jump. The mare's strides were consistent and adjustable, and Eric was able to clearly see distances as a result. She was capable of jumping the highest jumps of the group, and happily took cross rails, verticals, and small oxers. She knew her job, and she enjoyed it.
Solidify, the tall bay with the "10" canter, was the final horse ridden. Tiffany did an excellent job of bending him and settling him into a more relaxed trot and canter. Like Brazilian Wedding, Solidify's confidence was boosted by his skilled rider. Like the schooling ride I photographed earlier in the week, Tiffany used circles to let Solidify find his rhythm.
Over fences, Solidify was less focused than he was in his training videos, but still showed that great potential for collection before fences and power over them.
An hour was simply not enough time for this exhibition, and I wish it could have been longer. Judging the event were 3-time Olympian and legendary trainer Jim Wofford, CANTER executive director Allie Conrad, and author Alex Brown.
The judges gave their observations and awarded points to the trainers. The trainer with the most points was Eric Dierks, and he was announced as the winner of the challenge.
After taking a victory lap around the arena, the trainers returned to the RRTP booth for a brief Q & A with press and fans. From owners to trainers to fans, there was a collective feeling of pride. These horses, some off the track for less than a month, blossomed under the tutelage of three fantastic trainers, and exceeded all expectations.
I was concerned that the Trainer Challenge would be difficult to follow for anyone who was, unlike me and my friends, not compulsively following it online; I was pleasantly surprised to see that people seemed to understand what they were seeing. Although these horses were not bedazzled and sequined like the Friesians in the parade of breeds, they sparkled like the stars they are.
This is Part 5 in my series about the RRTP Trainer Challenge. Stay tuned next week for my closing thoughts on the Trainer Challenge. Here are the first four parts:
Keeping Up With the Challenge
A Visit with Tiffany Catledge