Strap in, folks, and get ready for a bit of an unorthodox success story. Freedom for D L T is a graduate of ATR that we took in partnership with Monmouth Park's Second Call program. Freedom was bred in Florida, a son of Twirling Candy and out of a Storm Creek mare. He raced 31 times before retiring in 2017. He retired with a small tendon that we rehabilitated at After the Races. Freedom initially presented as a stall-aggressive horse. He would look completely at ease in his stall until approached and then lash out with his teeth, catching the occasional volunteer or staff member unawares. What had an aggressive appearance, and was certainly a serious concern, was to us a very obvious defensive reaction. He's not the first horse over the years we've seen come in with an I'll-get-you-before-you-get-me attitude. I sympathize with these horses personally, and took him on as a bit of a project. We did what we could in the barn while he was on stall rest and then once cleared for round-pen turnout, we really began our work. Freedom bonded with me; and while I still had to be respectful of his tendencies, we had a great relationship. Thankfully his issues weren't under saddle. He rode beautifully. My challenge would be finding an adopter that could look past that tough exterior and see all the potential that lay beneath.
1. Freedom wasn't exactly an in-your-pocket pony when you adopted him. What was your first impression of him at ATR and what made you decide he was "the one" when you were looking?
When I started the journey to find my next horse, I spent weeks searching all the OTTB adoption sites I could find within a 500-mile radius. I had sent out a ton of inquiries about lots of different horses. I watched all the videos, studied pedigrees, and looked at every picture I could find. I must have researched 50 horses and I realized I needed to really come up with a plan. So, I narrowed my list down to about 20 horses, starting in VA and going up to northern PA. I had seen a few horses before I got to ATR but nothing that caught my eye.
When you brought Freedom out and put him in the wash stall, I really loved his soft eye, but it was when you walked him to the round pen that I knew he was the one. He has the most elegant and effortless walk and I fell in love before you could even get on him. Luckily, his trot and canter match his walk because I was not going to let him get away. I had already committed to see several horses after my stop at ATR, but I knew in my gut that I wasn't going to see anything as lovely as Freedom and I was right.
2. Have you had any success in taming his occasionally snake-like behavior? If so, what worked for you?
Occasional is an understatement, lol. He earned his nickname Dragon Face fair and square. The first few months were rough. I have never had a horse who enjoyed the taste of flesh more than Freedom and my husband was terrified people might think he was abusing me because my arms were always covered in bruises.
He was very protective of his personal space, especially when he was in his stall. I got the feeling that his life on the track was tough and his stall was his safe space which he protected to a fault. I never tried to do anything with him unless he was in crossties and even then, I had to tiptoe around him while grooming and tacking up. He was extremely sensitive to his environment and his go-to was to lash out with his teeth.
I never felt like he was doing it out of malice. There were underlying factors and I just needed to take my time and figure out the root cause. A huge reason was ulcers, but more on that later. It has taken me 4 years to break down his emotional wall. With lots of forced love on my part and tons of really expensive cookies, I have finally started to crack the barrier. Don’t get me wrong, he still uses his mouth as his main source of expression but it's more like love nibbles now. Plus, I know all his triggers and just how far I need to be so he can't reach me, lol.
3. I know you've done a couple career changes together with Freedom. What has that journey been like?
I have been an eventer all my life. Before I had Freedom, I had taken about 10 years off from riding to raise my family. So, my focus was to make Freedom into an Event horse. He’s always had an incredible work ethic with whatever we did, and we had several great times over the last 3 years eventing. Unfortunately, the stress of show jumping caused Freedom undo anxiety, resulting in severe gastritis.
He is quite a handsome boy and a lovely mover, and I have always wanted to spread my wings in dressage. I decided the best thing to do was to change course. This year we conquered several dressage shows, moved up to 1st Level and got our first two scores towards our Bronze Medal.
We will go down to Wellington with Jim Koford for a few weeks this winter to kick start our season and start solidifying a few things before we make a move to 2nd Level. Freedom is so talented, and I wouldn't want to be on this journey with any other horse. He has taught me that you don't need to be sitting on a warmblood to have a successful dressage career.
4. Were there any challenges you faced and overcame together?
I think the biggest challenge I have faced has been dealing with his ulcers. I have never had a horse with severe ulcers so when they first reared their ugly heads I was convinced I just adopted an insane animal. I took Freedom to the Carolina Horse Park for his first “show” experience. He was fine for about 15 minutes and then all hell broke loose. I finally got off and chalked it up to nerves and inexperience.
When I got home, he tried to throw himself out of the trailer and once in his stall, he began to violently roll and kick out at the walls. I was in shock. He was always quiet at home. After some reflection, research and talking to my vet, we were convinced it was ulcers. We started treatment immediately and changed his diet.
We saw improvement in about two weeks. He still tried to bite but his attitude about things like tacking up had gotten better. The pleasantness lasted about a year. When his symptoms started again we went directly to the clinic and had him scoped. He was riddled with both squamous and pyloric ulcers. By now, he decided that food did more harm than good, which made treating an unhealthy belly difficult. Thankfully he loves alfalfa! After a month of treatment, we rescoped and the ulcers healed nicely. I finally found a grain he liked and put him on the best ulcer supplements money could buy. I even threw in pureed papaya and aloe juice for good measure. The feed room looked like a chemistry lab. I even dragged a mini fridge to the American Eventing Championships so I could keep his papaya cold. Things went well for 18 months, and then there were minor changes in behavior that led to a jump lesson where he dumped me several times. At a local schooling show, when he started pawing and running backwards in the warm up, I knew it was pain and not attitude. To my surprise we found no new ulcers when we scoped him, but the stomach lining was incredibly red and inflamed.
This was when I made the decision to stop jumping. I've also reevaluated his feed and changed things up, removing all but the most necessary supplements. I also discovered GutX, which is reasonably priced and works wonders. I recently discovered treats called Tummy Gummies which are basically peppermint flavored Tums for horses. You give 5 or 6 before you travel, ride or whatever and they work to neutralize the stomach acid in 15 minutes. Since I found these amazing treats, I haven't had to use any Ulcergard!
5. Any favorite memories that you've made together?
I think the entire process has been a favorite memory. This is my first time with an OTTB and we have both grown so much together. It's pretty gratifying knowing I have been the only person teaching him the ropes. I knew this process was going to be a challenge and I set no goals or timeline which allowed me to listen to what Freedom was telling me. We went at his speed.
My plans are always fluid which gives me the ability to adjust according to what Freedom is telling me. Qualifying for the American Eventing Championships was a goal that took me 2 years to accomplish but that was okay. When it happened, I was just so proud to have done it.
This year my early goal was to qualify for regionals in dressage, but we were always 0.2% away from the right score. It was frustrating, but I realized we needed more time to be truly competitive.
I wanted to end my season with something fun and rewarding so on a whim I entered the TIP Championships down in Aiken. Wow, what a cool experience!
To be surrounded by so many other OTTBs competing in so many different disciplines was awesome. We finished 5th in both of our tests (1st level 2 and 3) with a personal best score of 65% which ended us in 5th overall for the Championship. It was such a great way to end our year and I definitely have it on my calendar for next year. Our community is very lucky to have an organization like TIP to support and showcase these awesome creatures in their next careers once they leave the track.
6. Do you have any advice for someone considering adopting a Thoroughbred?
My advice is simple: have patience and humility. If you have those two qualities, you are golden. 7. Anything else you want people to know about Freedom?
Freedom has many nicknames that he has acquired over the years which I regularly use, so there is a good chance he has no idea what his real name is. Bubbles, Dragon Face, Monkey, Freefree and The Princess, just to name a few. He LOVES mud and living in red clay there is never a shortage of the stuff. Never in my life have I seen a horse drop to the ground faster and completely cover himself in it. His best friend is another graduate of ATR named Dezzy (Desire to Run). They are inseparable.
I have a small obsession with Harry Potter and I give all my horses Harry Potter themed show names. Freedom is otherwise known as Wingardium Leviosa. He is very quirky to get on. I've fallen off more times than I can count while trying to get on. I learned when I get to a show I have to scope out a very quiet and private place to put my mounting block. No one can be near him when I get on.
As long as we are alone where no one is watching, he stands quietly while I get on. I also use a jump strap to hold onto so I don't accidentally pull his mouth with the reins while mounting. This is probably his biggest quirk. He has so many things that make him unique and special that I couldn't write it all down. I love this horse to bits and I can't wait to continue sharing all our adventures with you guys!