Last January, while I was in Florida, I got the call from good friend Kathryn Sharpe of Ninety North Racing Stable to see if I had room at my farm in Pennsylvania for another one of their horses. I didn't recognize the name, although most of their horses are "instafamous," having their own social media pages (let's not forget to mention stuffed dolls, hats, t-shirts—you name it). They really love their horses. So when they make an effort to retire a horse early before an injury, or, in this case, help a horse with whom they had a previous connection, I'm always eager to be a part of the mission!
Winforthezipper was ineligible to run, meaning he had finished "off the board" so many times that track officials didn't even want him to show up to fill a racing card. Kathryn (Katie) and her husband Justin Nicolson have devoted the better part of the last four years to managing the retirement and care of their racehorses through aftercare programs here at my farm and through several other organizations. Together, they still felt the need to do good by the scrawny liver chestnut gelding who stands roughly 15.1h on his tippy toes and who raced 43 times, with only two firsts, four seconds and one third to his credit. Needless to say, he needed a career change!
The second call I got was two or three days later, when "Zipper" arrived and the barn staff asked whether, for some reason, we'd gotten the wrong horse from the track. Well, how was I supposed to know? I was in Florida for three months, so my advice was take a picture and send it to Katie and Justin. According to the barn staff, he was fuzzy for a racehorse, skinny and not overly muscled, and looked as if he were a 2-year-old who hadn't started training—not a 6-year-old racehorse. He was a bit tricky when he came, too; it took him awhile to eat hay regularly. He was just sitting back quiet and easy, almost as if he was taking the whole new situation in.
I didn't hear much about Zipper after the first week and I trusted he was doing just fine, which he was; but he managed to make himself very unassuming. When I returned to the farm at the end of March, I have to admit he wasn't much to look at. But what he did have was a special "look" in his eye. He had "it." That "it" was all that was needed to pique my interest.
By late spring, we had realized that Zipper's weight wasn't picking up as well as that of the other horses we have restarted. He had come to us as a cribber, too, which, as we all know, can be a big sign of ulcers. We had Zipper treated with an eight-week GastroGard program after having him scoped to find mild/moderate ulcers.
Really, we thought we were going to find much worse, considering his appearance. But as I've learned, not all ulcer horses are the same, and to our surprise, he completely stopped cribbing and started to turn around from the treatment. He started to gain weight and we no longer saw all his ribs and hips—we stopped looking "through" him, almost. But he didn't play in the field and he didn't act up; he didn't display the behavior common to many horses when they are taken off the track. We decided for sure that Zipper was really going to need time to just be a horse and figure himself out. And that he did!
After getting home in October from the Retired Racehorse Makeover in Kentucky, Katie and I were inspired to try and find our 2016 RRP candidate out of their retired Ninety North horses. Zipper was not exactly the horse that excited everyone. But I started my first ride to see what we had, and WHOA, he was cool! A little horse with a big heart; you could just feel it. I was pretty hooked, but that didn't really tell us much about his talent or whether he had any. This probably seems a bit unconventional to some, since the horse hadn't been ridden for nine months; but I did jump him just to see whether he could—and he did! He just jumped like it wasn't a big deal. (Well, maybe more like the poles were in the way, and he made sure we got to the other side and didn't touch anything, haha.) Still, he had heart, and I respected him for it.
The one thing I did notice was that, despite being perfect for a first ride, he felt guarded in his body. I spent a few days getting him to relax his head and neck, and figuring out where his brain was when introducing him to some flat work. Still, he felt reserved about the work physically, though not in any way lame. So I called my favorite chiropractor/myofascial body worker, Hoppy Stearns, and PEMF Therapist (pulsed electromagnetic field therapy) Janet Graven of Motion Works to work on our potential RRP candidate.
Boy, we barely recognized the horse we uncovered! We unleashed his inner Wayne Gretzky (remember that hockey player?). He started going out into his paddock, body-checking horses, squishing his friends to the boards, picking up sticks and stealing halters from the fence. Nothing unassuming about this little guy anymore!
Zipper is now on turnout with my horse LaGrange, a pretty laid-back guy who doesn't buy into Zipper's instigations the entire time they are out. It's as if Zipper never really had his childhood, and he's making up for lost time! After this huge change from basic bodywork, this little guy told me one resounding fact: He was a warrior, with a lot of heart and the tenacity to keep going. I decided he would be our candidate.
We had a total of 12 rides, and then I gave him November through January 15 off entirely. Over that period, he started to look better and better, both physically and mentally—he is "the man" now! Or he thinks that, anyway. This kind of turnaround took an entire year, with help from my vet Dr. Mary Griffin and the bodywork specialists, along with support from Aaron, our local Tribute Feed nutritionalist, and my farrier Steven King.
Zipper has a big circle of influence, and I'm excited to have you join our journey to the 2016 Thoroughbred Makeover, where we will be competing October 27-30 in Lexington, Kentucky!
View more information on the Retired Racehorse Project's Thoroughbred Makeover here, and watch the video below for details on some of this year’s applicants: