Susan Yeaman Deal, a professional trainer and accomplished equestrian took home top honors and $5,000 in the show hunter division finals of the Thoroughbred Makeover. This contest, held on October 5th at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, is a signature event of the Retired Racehorse Project, a Maryland-based nonprofit advocating for ex-Thoroughbreds.
Deal rode to victory against 137 competitors on Furaha, a 6-year-old chestnut gelding bred by Joan Belotti of Hi-Rock Stables and raced the track at Charles Town, West Virginia. Deal got Furaha—Swahili for “happy”—in April of 2018 right after he raced his last race at Charles Town with the help of Sara and Brian Hogan of Hogan Horse Transport. The horse was nick-named “Pearson” after Mike Pearson his trainer.
The Thoroughbred Makeover is intended to showcase the trainability and talent of off-track horses, according to the group’s web site. The contest is intended to inspire good trainers to become involved in transitioning the horses to second careers. Trainers who enter the Thoroughbred Makeover event, have 10 months to train a horse from the track for the equestrian contest.
As observed by Jen Roytz, Retired Racehorse Project Executive Director, “that Deal’s training included teaching the horse to slow down his mind and body from the pace at which a racehorse is typically competing. Deal also introduced the ex-racer to the world of jumping. But more than anything she developed a relationship with Furaha based on trust and respect, which was evident at the competition.”
At Deal’s Grovespring Farm, she uses the Forward System of Riding to start, or in the case of off-the-track thoroughbreds, re-school all of the horses. Through the consistent use of aids defined in Paul Cronin’s bookSchooling the Sport Horse: A Modern American Hunter Jumper System,the horses know what to expect. By stabilizing the thoroughbred on a loose rein using the voice and check release they understand quickly they are not racing.“Stabilization” is a key component of the forward riding system originally developed by Vladimir Littauer. Paul Cronin has captured the essence of this system in his book and provides step-by-step schooling techniques to follow.
“We take the horses here on regular long walks over uneven terrain using quiet experienced horses as babysitters at first. If necessary, we pony them cross country until they relax in the open fields with dogs and other horses and ponies.I like to sit on the horses while I teach. They watch the other horse and ponies and seem to take a breath. I do this with ring and field lessons when they are ready,” says Deal.
At the Thoroughbred Makeover, the top five scoring horses competed in the finale, performing over fences in the arena. For Deal and Furaha it was their fourth time competing together in an equestrian event since this past summer but the first time Furaha competed indoors. “He was really nervous, looking around at all the people,” Deal said. “I thought he was so good to still go in there and do his job even though he had not been exposed to that type of environment before.”
“The atmosphere at a large competition can remind horses of their former racing days, but Furaha handled the unfamiliar atmosphere as well as his new job of jumping, with athleticism and poise, which is a testament to the training he received from Susan” said Roytz.
During training for the contest, “We do a lot of ground work with the horses,” said Deal. “We take trail rides with them and ride them over uneven terrain, alone and in groups, so they get comfortable. In addition to flatwork, a lot of time is spent on jumping low obstacles and combinations. This helps to encourage evenness in rhythm to promote both physical and mental relaxation.”
A massage treatment called endotapping was also employed as well as re-schooling on a loose rein to teach the horse they will not be racing anymore. The retired thoroughbreds learn how to respond to their trainer’s voice and how to maintain speed and gait, and how to walk, trot and canter quietly with voice commands, Deal said.
Deal says she feels fortunate to have started her riding with Rosemary Thomas and to have continued to have instructors who teach the forward riding system including Jimmy Cantwell, Shelby French, and Paul Cronin and Patty Stovel. Deal also rode at Sanmar with Peggy Jones and Sandra Ruiz who helped her in Kentucky.
Susan Deal has taught equitation at Sweet Briar College, St. Andrew’s College, Eagle’s Nest Camp and elsewhere. She rode her horse, Penn Park, to the 2005 North American Field Hunter Championship. When not competing, Deal offers lessons, boarding, training and summer camps at her Grovespring Farm, near Rixeyville in Culpeper County. She said she often works with and rides retired racehorses.
As for Furaha, Deal plans to let him move on in the show world though she has gotten quite attached tohis likable personality, floppy ears and his kind eye.