'Aiken' for Thoroughbreds

I spent a weekend in Aiken, South Carolina with Corinne Ashton and Erica Larson during March 2011. Corinne Ashton is a world class, four-star eventer and now Grand Prix dressage hopeful. Erica Larson worked with Corinne for a year as an assistant. My purpose was to investigate the world of Eventing and Dressage at the three and four-star level, and learn about how OTTB’s come to excel at second careers. I admittedly also became curious about what these non-racing sports have in common with the Thoroughbred in general. I discovered there is more cross over than one might think.

Caption: Dobbin and Corinne Ashton testing.
Photo by: Erica Larson

While spending time with Corinne, I asked many questions about her love for horses and talked with Erica on why Corinne seemingly preferred Thoroughbreds. The consensus I gathered is Corinne wants to find talented horses who are already in need of a home.

For quick reference here are some background notes;

-    The World Equestrian Games (WEG) and Rolex Three Day Event are four-star level competitions. There are only five other four-star events in the world: Burghley and Badminton in England,  Luhmühlen in Germany, Stars of Pau in France, and Adelaide in Australia..

As far as the city of Aiken goes, it is a horse paradise. The training track proved to be the hub the town was built around.

Corinne took us on a tour of the homes near this track and honestly, the area is a horse owner’s paradise. Horses most certainly come first. Darley has a stable near the training track we visited during the tour, as well as magnificent estates and dirt roads with “horse right of way” signs everywhere.

Back on topic…

Corinne had her four horses at her property in Aiken. Three are Thoroughbreds and one is a Thoroughbred mix. Of the four you have Dobbin, a world renowned eventer, worth a cool million, and now history maker in dressage. Bubbles and Baby are off track Throughbreds (OTTBs) and Biggbe is a Thoroughbred/Hanoverian cross.

Dobbin may be a name you already recognize. He's an incredibly smart and insanely talented Thoroughbred who never raced. This horse has been an eventer from the start. A testament to the agility and ability of Thoroughbreds, to not only be on top of the Eventing world, but the dressage world. Dobbin was crowned the United States Eventing Association's Horse of the Year in 2008.

Dobbin and Corinne are now working together towards history: they're attempting to become the first in a four star eventing team to compete successfully in Grand Prix dressage. This is much harder than it sounds come to find out. Talent aside, who thought there could be politics at play in the sport. Alas, how naïve I must be…just looking at horse racing and all of the drama and politics that can occur in it.

VIDEO (below): Dobbin and Corinne taking a dressage test.

Bubbles ("Bubblesphere") is an 8-year-old OTTB. He ran under the name "Rub Softly Rube" and is by Deputy Minister's son Rub Softly. Bubbles earned less than $2,000 on the track, so it's no surprise he was up for sale at Suffolk Downs a few years ago. Corinne has brought Bubbles up through the levels and he's currently competing at the Preliminary level (just Intermediate and Advanced lay ahead of him). He has a huge stride and absolutely devours the cross-country courses, and he's a very careful jumper.

Baby ("S.S. Bank") ran under the name "Sweeteasternsaint," and as you might have guessed, is by Sweetsouthernsaint. Baby, also 8 this year, won a semi-respectable $9,000 on the track before he retired at 3. His old owners said he didn't want to run anymore, but by the time he hit 4 and 5, he couldn't get enough time to run. He's a challenge on cross-country…he never wants to stop! But he's a good jumper and he's getting better with dressage.

Caption: Baby looking on at the food buckets being filled
Photo by: Erica Larson

Biggbe ("Ardastra") is a Hanoverian/Thoroughbred cross. Corinne put a syndicate together last year to purchase him in October. He's only been competing since the beginning of this year, and already he's proving to be a star. Corinne has high hopes for this one…he's got a great mind, a great jump, and incredible dressage paces.

Caption: Biggbe finding me interesting.
Photo by: Erica Larson

Corinne is a wonderful trainer, she even generously provided me with my first riding lesson (Corinne was impressed that I learned how to post in just 10 minutes!). She's done great work with some challenging horses (although Biggbe's making life easy for her by being such a good boy!).  

For two days I groomed, tacked, and observed her training in jumping and dressage. Erica explained how the horses were skill- and conditioning-wise when she left Corinne's program six months ago and the growth or improvements these athletes had made since that time. I was also put to work hanging tack racks in Corinne's tack room/barn =).

All four horses are active in competition.

Previous to the trip, I was not sold on the thought of Thoroughbreds competing alongside Andalusians, Friesians, and other breeds bred for dressage. Eventing I can see, due to the athleticism in Thoroughbreds, but I didn’t want to think of this breed I find so enamoring as "prissy." I mean that too, I can watch eventing, stadium jumping and other similar equine sports all day, but not dressage. Or so I thought.

The importance of education is paramount and boy was I educated. Friday I watched Corinne’s friend Elly Schobel work with her on the rigorous specified movements of the horse and movements around the arena, followed by working with Elly and Erica on editing a song for freestyle Dressage.

Caption: Dobbin and Oye, Elly Schobel's horse, sharing afternoon snacks.
Photo by: Adam Spradling

YouTube has a lot of neat videos of fancy movements in dressage that were neat to watch and I could respect for horsemanship and rider/athlete connection. However, now that I have seen all the steps, prep and limited amount of time riderse have to practice the routines and tests, I am impressed. Dressage riders are given specific instructions on the tasks and movements that must be performed, perfectly, sometimes as late as the day before the dressage event.

I was not naive enough to think any Joe can jump on a horse and fluidly work with the horse to achieve such graceful and often unnatural movements.

Thus, when I think of OTTB’s and second careers, new lights go off in my noggin. I am all about people adopting and second careers, but with an intimate knowledge and appreciation now, I am better educated and see even more the great potential for Thoroughbreds to demand their time in dressage.

Caption: Dobbin and I hanging out for his next Dressage test.
Photo by: Erica Larson

In closing, a few months ago I started posting an OTTB on our The Blood-Horse Facebook page and Twitter account weekly, or almost weekly. It is a small thing, but every little bit helps, if you would also like to spread the word by just a viral link post here and there, the OTTB's would appreciate it! 

Erica Larson contributed to this article.


Leave a Comment:

anita b

Hi Adam,

 Thank you for such a neat article about thoroughbreds and dressage/eventing. If I were a lot younger I would have liked to have lessons--not that I would have been a good rider. Who is Dobbin's sire? And I will look for your posts again. Anita

16 Jun 2011 7:44 PM

I was fortunate to see Corinne and Dobbin at Rolex.  It was wonderful to find this article.  And now I know that Dobbin is still in training.  The pictures are wonderful.  I hope you do more OTTB stories.

16 Jun 2011 10:00 PM

It's people like this that keep me interested in the sport; either racing or events like the ones they participate in.  Some people I have been around are only particular to warmbloods for the types of events as three day eventing and so on.

I applaud and Thank people like this for giving OTTBs and TBs respectively a second chance at life.

Every TB foal is planned and it pains me when I read about a TB going through an auction and off to slaughter.  I wish I could buy everyone of them.  

Thank you for this article!!

17 Jun 2011 12:29 AM
Susan from VA

Nice article - but it's naive, not nieve.

17 Jun 2011 9:28 AM

having owned an off the track thoroughbred in the '70s, I can tell you that there is nothing this breed cannot do. I wish more people could see that. Buck was the best horse I ever owned and so trusting....they are a great bunch of horses. I hope more find that out.

17 Jun 2011 10:16 AM

"Dressage riders are given specific instructions on the tasks and movements that must be performed, perfectly, sometimes as late as the day before the dressage event."

WHAT?  Dressage tests are available from the USDF, and changes for the year are announced well in advance of recognized dressage competition.  If you're talking about dressage ONLY as it pertains to three-day eventing, maybe so (although I doubt it).  But if you are competing in DRESSAGE, you sign up for specific tests, or for freestyle which must include specified movements.  

I'm sorry you think dressage is "prissy", but if that's how you view subtle and exacting communication and harmony between horse and rider, well, horses for courses, I suppose!

17 Jun 2011 5:18 PM
Rachel NH

Every thing you see in the horse world is built on the principle's in dressage. When I was younger TB's ruled.

PS They still do, just look at the last couple of Olympics, especially the American team.

19 Jun 2011 6:11 AM

Great feedback, thank you everyone!

I will have a few more OTTB topics coming your way throughout this year. As well as racing and other pieces.

mirlacca: First, thank you for taking time to post your thoughts!

You are correct in that I thought of dressage as "prissy" and as you continued to read in the blog, hopefully you saw that by the end of my trip, I grew to feel otherwise impressed and realized how challenging it could be.

BUT if I may, I think most red blooded American males, uneducated on dressage will not find it the  most masculine sport. Seeing and learning in first person...living it for a few days if you will, altered my perception. =)

Susan: Thanks! I corrected the spelling of naive.

19 Jun 2011 3:27 PM
kelso fan

Thanks for the great article.  

Aiken is one of my favorite cities - I grew up just across the river from there.   It is an amazing place for horses and my screen name reflects one of the greats who trained there.  Adam, I hope you make it back for the spring trials and the steeplechases.

19 Jun 2011 5:31 PM
Dawn in MN


I enjoyed this look at Thoroughbreds in English saddle discipline.  I kept thinking about this write-up after I read it the first time.  I am with centeredrider75, I wish I could buy them all.  Thank you for taking an interest in careers other than racing for Thoroughbreds.  

I respect dressage, and the other uses for the English saddle.  As a kid I watched dressage classes from the observation room at the barn where I worked to pay my horse's board.  I developed a healthy respect for the self-discipline and skill that are required for dressage.

I groomed saddled, and cleaned tack for the kids who had dressage lessons there.  All the kids who took lessons had to do was show up and learn to ride. I'm sure there were other stables where the kids learned to handle horses on the ground.  It's just that I was always envious of the kids who took lessons at the barn where I worked.

I never had a lesson, but I learned to ride on my own.  I spent my youth riding a grade quarter horse mare, the way only a horse-crazy kid can, bareback.  My friends and I rode like wild things.  The only time I used a saddle was in practice and competition at Western games and shows.  My saddle cost $19.00 at a tack auction, it was missing the horn, but they let me in the shows and games anyway.  

My friends and I dodged golfers and galloped through their courses like our pants were on fire.  We flew through beaches in deep sand as lifeguards blew whistles and yelled, we dodged headstones in graveyards, rode the horses through woods and across frozen lakes in the winter and made them swim across lakes in the summer.  Bareback.  

The experience was the exact opposite of dressage, but we learned things that lessons can't always teach.

I would be really interested in learning about Thoroughbreds that have worked well under Western tack, and successfully competed in Western games and disciplines.  I bet they'd do well there too.  They are smart, and athletic, and would probably like the games.

20 Jun 2011 6:15 AM

@kelso fan: Tell me more about the steeple chases! I have always wanted to watch one in person.

@Dawn in MN: Thank you for sharing your story, that is awesome! I admire the learning however you can, because sometimes you just have to do what you have to do, right? That is an experience, honestly, not many may have and it sounds pretty cool, even though you were envious, to look back and say you learned to ride in it's "purest form" shall we say =)

I will see if I can find some Western style connections and look into OTTB's there.

20 Jun 2011 2:15 PM

thank you Mr Spradling!  It was a pleasure having you to stay and helping you savor the equestrian delights of Aiken's eventing and dressage world.

You were very astute in all your observations! I do have to correct you though I think you only took 5mins to learn how to post the trot!! One further correction is that my 2 OTTB are actually only 7 yrs old and were successfully running Prelim level eventing at 6yrs, guess it helps when you start life early, TB's all run as 2 or 3yr olds I guess!!

And I still always on the look out for that very very special OTTB looking to become an event horse

Thanks again

20 Jun 2011 10:29 PM
Susan from VA

Dawn in MN - There is a photograph of Seabiscuit's owner riding him around his ranch in a Western saddle after he retired.  I think you can find it in Laura Hillenbrand's book.

21 Jun 2011 9:04 AM

It is humbling to be corrected by Corinne, lol.

21 Jun 2011 2:27 PM
Dawn in MN

thanks Adam-One of these days I will break down and pay for English riding lessons, so that I can learn to post too.  Thoroughbreds are so smart, and they love to have a job, I bet there are some out there doing well in Western saddles.

Susan from VA thanks!  I have wanted to read her book for some time now.  I can't wait to see it.

21 Jun 2011 6:34 PM

Great story!  Keep the OTTB stories coming!  I love mine and wouldn't trade him for the world, and it is great to see some publicity coming the tb way.

22 Jun 2011 2:37 PM

Dawn in MN,

mine is about to be in a western saddle a bit.  i'm going slow with introducing him to jumping because he had a small fracture in his last race before i got him. i'm going to borrow a saddle and he's going to go team sorting soon (should be interesting for both of us), and has been kicking some qh butt with trail obstacles for fun at our barn.

22 Jun 2011 2:40 PM
Dawn in MN

I love the Bloodhorse articles that allow comments.  

Asperecel, Reading about your Thoroughbred in training, kicking qh butt brought a big smile to my face.  It makes sense that a thoroughbred would do well with trail obstacles.  The horses who have spent time at a track have seen so much that a lot of them are probably close to "bomb-proof" before they ever see a western saddle.  

Team penning is a blast.  There is a cow farm down the road from the barn where I ride.  On Friday evenings people ride down to the cow farm and practice team penning.  One of the boarders who has a Thoroughbred gelding doesn't take him because he is afraid of cows.  

Have fun with team penning.  For many people it is a serious sport competition.  Doing it just for fun is a blast.  It is very amusing to chase cows on a fast horse. The Thoroughbred would be especially good at it.

Smart and athletic...Thoroughbreds are more versatile than a lot of people know.  

23 Jun 2011 5:48 AM

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