'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.

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