Power, speed, agility, and heart; traces of Thoroughbred blood can be found in almost every top event horse. So, what happens when a horse with 100 percent blood, known as the full Thoroughbred, is taken up the levels of eventing? With a program built around exactly that, Meghan O’Donoghue knows a thing or two about how to produce a young Thoroughbred into a top event horse.
After a life on the track, it can become difficult to determine which off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTB) will excel in eventing. Therefore, the United States Eventing Association (USEA) tapped into O’Donoghue’s expertise on the Thoroughbred breed, specifically ones that come from the racetrack, and how these horses can succeed in the USEA Young Event Horse (YEH) Program.
For O’Donoghue, the reason why Thoroughbreds make great event horses is due to “their heart. It is what makes them try so hard. They might not be the biggest mover or the most scopey jumper, but time and time again the Thoroughbred’s heart is what wins.”
O’Donoghue and Pirate jumping clear at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. Pirate made three consecutive trips to Kentucky, all with clear cross-country jump rounds. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.
O’Donoghue made headlines with the rags to riches story of her off-the-track Thoroughbred known as Pirate. She and Pirate (Pirate Stronghold x Stars Heir) climbed the ranks of eventing together from Beginner Novice to many years at the four-star level. However, Pirate is not the only Thoroughbred she has found international success on. O’Donoghue and her current upper level mount Palm Crescent (Quiet American x Edey’s Village), a 12-year-old Thoroughbred owned by Darcie, Chase, and Ron Shipka, landed a spot on the USEF Eventing High Performance list in 2017 and are entered to compete in the upcoming FEI Eventing Nations Cup at Great Meadow International.
Her program, MOE Eventing, where one can find plenty of Pirate lookalikes, specializes in the Thoroughbred breed. Correct training, discipline, and a natural talent, it’s a guarantee to see O’Donoghue on a Thoroughbred at any level.
With top placings on almost every Thoroughbred she produces, her number one tip is to have plenty of patience.
Prerequisite for Purchase
For a Thoroughbred to fit into O’Donoghue’s program it has to show three qualities: soundness, type, and quality gaits. “I am always looking for my next upper level horse, so they have to be sound. Then, I look at the ‘type’ i.e. the expression, the conformation, and the presence they have. [Lastly] it would be their gaits. I try to find a horse with some kind of looseness to the way they go so there is a bit of natural cadence in the gait.”
One of the 20 off-the-track Thoroughbreds O’Donoghue has restarted, A Boy Named Rozy (Distorted Reality x Rozys Account), as a 3-year-old showing off the type O’Donoghue looks for in a young event horse. Photo courtesy of Meghan O’Donoghue.
With fancy movement as one of her last items on her checklist, she states that, “it doesn’t have to be a huge mover but something that looks like you can improve and has some natural balance.”
These three qualities align cohesively with USEA’s Young Event Horse program as judges are looking for horses that show three or four-star potential. Judges want to see a horse that is well-balanced and has three correct and regular gaits.
A rule of thumb O’Donoghue emphasized was “I go with my gut, if my first impression says, ‘That’s a nice horse and I want it in my barn,’ I go with it!”
O’Donoghue shares the similar mindset when purchasing OTTBs as YEH judges judging a competition. Stated in the YEH Judging Guidelines, judges base their decisions by asking the question, ‘Which horse would make the best international eventer?’
Another tip is to not shy away from the young Thoroughbred that has had a long career on the track. O’Donoghue said, “There is always a strong case for the warhorse! I have so much respect for them and the passion they have.”
Palm Crescent (Quiet American x Edey’s Village) enjoying his job as an Advanced level event horse with O'Donoghue. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.
Time to Unwind
With over 20 off-the-track Thoroughbreds restarted as young event horses, O’Donoghue has developed a system that is tried and true. “I prefer to give them a few months off to mentally and physically unwind. During that time, I try to make them the most comfortable I can.”
To make them comfortable, O’Donoghue manages their teeth, feet, and gut, schedules body work appointments, slowly changes their diet, and aims to add weight.
After their break, the happy and healthy Thoroughbreds are ready to start their new career as event horses. O’Donoghue’s first step in the restart process is to develop a line of communication. “When I get a sense they are ready to have a job again I start from the ground. I enjoy getting to know them and developing a form of communication through ground work. That is also how I introduce the jumping. I want to encourage them to think on their own. You can learn a lot about them from this stage of training. Slow and thoughtful to earn trust and respect.”
Letting the young horse think for themselves is yet another similarity O’Donoghue shares with YEH judges, as it was the common theme in the article Behind the Judge's Eyes: Are You Losing Points in the YEH Jumping Test?
It’s a Pirate’s Life
A horse of a lifetime is something every eventer hopes to experience. The innate bond between horse and rider, unwavering trust, mutual respect, and passion for the sport of eventing are several ingredients for this to occur. It was love at first sight when O’Donoghue met her horse of a lifetime 14 years ago. “I was 15 years old when I first saw Pirate, but I knew I had to have him. He had a look that said he would never know his limits.”
O’Donoghue gives her longtime friend Pirate a pat after completing the final phase at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.
Pirate’s heart is how he showed his four-star potential as a young horse. “He has never said no his whole career! As a young horse he was a natural, careful jumper. He has always been happiest when he’s being ridden, I believe that comes from his heart for the game.”
One horse is all it takes to mold an eventer’s career, catapult riders into the limelight, and fulfill the dreams of young horse-crazy girls. “I owe my career to that horse and I’m thankful every day to get to see him. I love him.” O’Donoghue reflected.
By providing a framework for young horses, expert feedback at competitions, and educational opportunities, the USEA Young Horse Program aims to help each and every rider identify their own horse of a lifetime. Please click here for more information on the USEA Young Event Horse Program.
About the USEA Young Event Horse Program
The Young Event Horse (YEH) Program was first established in 2004 as an eventing talent search. The ultimate goal of the program is to distinguish horses with the potential to compete at the three- and four-star levels, but many fine horses that excel at the lower levels are also showcased by the program. The YEH program provides an opportunity for breeders and owners to exhibit the potential of their young horses while encouraging the breeding and development of top event horses for the future. At qualifying events, youngsters complete a dressage test and a jumping/galloping/general impression phase. At Championships, young horses are also evaluated on their conformation in addition to the dressage test and jumping/galloping/general impression phase.
"No matter how old you are, be open to all disciplines, learn how to ride a dressage horse, a gaited horse, a show jumper. Go fox hunting and point-to-pointing and horse showing. You’ll learn from all of them and when you do decide which discipline you want to do, you’ll be better at it anyway.”
The University of Findlay’s Three-Day Eventing Team was established in 2013, the same year USEA voted and approved the USEA intercollegiate program. The UF team has over 30 members encompassing a variety of majors at the university. The team has access to two indoor arenas, a large outdoor arena, and 70 acres of on-site cross-country fences.
Bellamy, an Oldenburg/Thoroughbred gelding of unknown breeding, came to Tamra Smith’s farm in Southern California with his mane half-way down his neck and filled with burrs. Bellamy had been sitting in a field for a little over a year after unseating several riders in a row and Smith, known for being good with tricky horses, agreed to take him on.