The Life and Times of Annie ~ A Thoroughbred’s Second Chance
By Nikki Alvin-Smith
I nearly didn’t buy her. Annie was the youngest of the three bay Thoroughbred mares that stood nervously as my husband Paul and I examined each one. The offer of three mares with a free breeding to a Thoroughbred stallion from their owner had tempted us to make the drive and check them out.
Annie had manure stains down her back legs and was suffering from diarrhea. Of the three she was the most underweight and while all three mares were young she was the youngest at just three years old. The other two had been raced and had tattoos to prove it. Annie had not made it that far.
Paul and I mulled it over. I wanted to take all three. If we didn’t buy them the owner said she was sending them to auction and I believed her. We checked out Annie again, anxious about her condition. As I held her halter she nuzzled me and the connection was made. I liked her nature the best of the three. She was coming home with us.
I loaded Annie on the trailer myself. She balked at the steep ramp so I just waited a moment, turned her around and walked her back up. She complied with my request and was the first of the mares loaded. The other two followed reluctantly.
It was snowy but the temperatures weren’t bad and we turned the gaggle of new horses out together every day in a pasture quarantined away from our other horses. It was hard to tell them apart to begin with and for a day or two we had Annie and another one that had raced and won over $95,000 mixed up. As Annie was the best behaved of all three, we assumed she was the oldest.
She led out each day quietly and came in like a lamb every evening. She was great to handle, pick feet etc. Her diarrhea had disappeared altogether and we noticed that it only came back when she came in and then only if she became excited because it was grain time. She had a nervous tummy. That was all. It nearly cost her the new home! Thank goodness I had followed my gut and not panicked about the state of hers.
We decided to keep all three of the Thoroughbred mares and fatten them up, get them healthy and well and get to know them before determining a breeding stallion match for them. I ardently researched their pedigrees and spoke to their breeders directly. For one I had to track down the breeder in Mexico. I wanted as much background and information as possible on them.
Despite the offer of a free breeding to the Thoroughbred stallion Paul and I did not want to become involved in breeding horses for the racetrack. After 20 plus years breeding Warmbloods and Iberian horses we were not headed in that direction.
January turned into February and the mares started to look shiny and had gained some weight on our home produced organic second cut hay and some light grain rations. Our adult daughter came home to visit and as we worked the morning barn chores and watered up the horses I asked her which one she liked the best.
“I don’t trust that one,” she said of the $95,000 mare, “She seems fine but every time you turn your back she pins her ears. The one on the end is weird. She is scared of everything, even her manger. It’s like something is wrong in her head. I like the youngest one the best. She is sweet.”
Ah. She liked Annie the best too. Interestingly my research had yielded interesting results. The breeder of Annie and also of her dam told me that the line was a great line. She told me her dam was a good producer and that the dam had always been very sweet. She remembered being present when Annie was foaled out too. This notable breeder was very forthcoming and very generous and honest, as she spoke with me as a colleague, breeder to breeder.
“If you are in the stall and the horse blocks the door, don’t take offence. She just wants you to stay and give her more attention. Her mom was just the same,” she said.
The same lady had also bred and housed the $95,000 mare and she was just as open about this horse.
“Watch her,” she said when I explained we planned to breed her. “She attacked her first foal and killed it when we left the stall. The second time we bred her she seemed O.K. with it. When we turned our back she went for it. It took three of us to pull the foal out of the stall and she had damaged its hock.”
I wondered why they had even attempted to breed her a second time but did not comment. I could guess. There were 95,000 reasons why.
Paul and I discussed which mares to have checked for breeding. We were not going to breed the $95,000 winner and we determined the best option for her was to train her under saddle and place her for sale and hold on to her breeding papers so others were not tempted to repeat past mistakes.
We had our vet come in and give the other two mares a breeding exam. He explained that one had a damaged pelvis and that she would not be a good breeding candidate. This was the mare that was scared of everything. No matter what we had tried to develop her confidence over the past three months, nothing had changed her mentality. That explained a lot. We wouldn’t be breeding her either. The vet explained the damage was healed and that she could be ridden. We determined that this horse would also be trained and the resold along with the other one.
Annie's lab results came back clean for breeding and I had already contacted stallion owners and done some research for likely partners. We visited prospective candidates in person to evaluate them first hand, not just their conformation but also their temperament and progeny.
Paul and I were both smitten the moment we met the GOV licensed stallion Gambol. His conformation was flawless. He was a modern type with excellent Dutch bloodlines and had been competed on the international dressage circuit with some success by Ashley Holzer as part of the Canadian team. A breeding contract for both Annie and another one of our mares was executed and thus began a series of many two hour drives to Cornell in Ithaca, to collect semen for transport home. Gambol’s owner was great to work with and was always on cue when we called for a collection.
However despite decent quality semen Annie did not take that year at all.
For various reasons the next year we switched vet practice and a newly qualified vet that had graduated from Guelph Vet School in Canada was our AI specialist from another local practice. She arrived with her ultrasound machine at the 14 day post breeding date. After all these years as a horse breeder I’ve seen my fair share of vesicles/zygotes on the monitor. However, on this occasion the vet announced that Annie had a cyst. We peered at the screen together and I questioned the vet on the likelihood of a four year old mare having a cyst when she had been checked so many times last year and shown none.
I specifically asked, “ How certain are you this is a cyst?”
“100%, I’ll go get the lavage kit,” she said and off she marched to her truck.
I was not convinced. Yes, the vesicle was extremely small and it was precisely round. This was the first Thoroughbred mare I had ever bred. Previously it had always been Warmbloods or Iberian horses. While a check at 14 days is a normal program when you are using AI so that you can notify the stallion owner as to whether you’ll need another collection around 21 days post breeding, I thought to myself perhaps this was just a young zygote (embryo). Paul said, “ I’ll leave it to you.”
“I’m going to wait and ask you to come back again in four or five days,” I said to the vet when she came back in the barn. She looked surprised. We discussed it and of course she had to acquiesce to my request but she did not agree. Thank goodness we did not let her lavage that fertilized egg. There would be no foal the next year if that had happened. When the vet practice sent a vet out the next time I requested a more experienced breeding vet and they sent their number one repro vet. She was stunned to find that it was not a cyst as her colleague had described. It had grown nicely and we finally had Annie in foal.
Interesting side bar: When I had come back in that day I had researched online every college or vet paper I could find on Thoroughbred breeding timelines etc. and apparently it is not uncommon for Thoroughbred mares to produce a smaller vesicle (zygote) in the early stages of fertilization.
As the foaling dateline window approached we watched Annie like hawks, with in person checks every two hours including overnights for many days once her udder had ‘bagged up.’ Cameras are great but they are not as good as a hands-on check. At Easter our family came to visit from the U.K. and we had a full house. I was certain Annie would pop during that weekend. She did not. Although she did get down and behave as though she might.
The day after everyone left Annie foaled out. I had done the 4 a.m. check and by the time Paul went out at 6 a.m. he saw two little ears above the front grill of the double stall moving around. He exclaimed, “Hey There,” and that is where Georgy Girl got her name. The Seekers song “Hey There, Georgy Girl.”
Annie was a diligent and caring mother, and she had produced a lovely filly for us. Frankly we were hoping for a colt, because Paul’s horse Lafite was aging and we wanted a replacement. But the quality of the filly was high and we were happy for that.
We determined as we had a filly it was time to sell Annie. I contacted a friend, Ramzi Abuhaidar, that had an interest in Thoroughbred breeding and who had been to visit us to see Annie and her foal at foot. He had liked Annie and I thought it would be a good match.
Ramzi decided to buy Annie and took her to his friend’s Thoroughbred farm, Keane Stud in Amenia, NY, for breeding there. The friend was horse vet Win Stevens. Ironically Win had been my first repro vet back many years before, when we lived in the Hudson Valley and started our warmblood breeding program. An awesome guy who taught me a lot in my early years of horse breeding.
The day for her departure arrived and Paul and I were both sorry to see her go. Annie loaded like a pro, and off she went. I gave Ramzi a letter for Win detailing my experiences with the smaller sized 14-day zygote in her breeding history in the hope that Win would read it and make adjustments to the 14 day ultrasound so as not to miss a conception.
Annie was bred the following year but did not take. Ramzi persisted however, and the following year she was in foal to the Multiple Stakes winner Disco Rico. She produced a spectacular colt. It was wonderful to go down and visit Annie at Keane Stud and meet her bouncing baby boy. Though both Ramzi’s wife Nancie, and Paul and I urged Ramzi to keep the colt and not race him, Ramzi had bred the horse for the track and he stuck to that program. The colt was sold and did go on to race though sadly he was sidelined with a suspensory injury.
Meantime, Annie was placed back in the breeding shed.
For whatever reason she did not take on foal heat or during the next season and Ramzi and his wife Nancie, determined they would be better off bringing the horse home to their own barn.
Nancie worked with Annie extensively on her groundwork and as things progressed Nancie saw that Annie was enjoying her new job.
“She needed a job,” says Nancie. “I introduced Annie to Sarah Wohrman who was working at the time with my trainer Michelle Clopp at MLC in Millbrook, NY. I showed Annie to Sarah on the longe line as a prospective purchase for one of Sarah’s clients, but she didn’t feel it was a good match. In fact I think she thought Annie was a little nuts. Much later, we talked about Annie again, and Sarah gave her another chance. While it wasn’t always a calm, smooth ride, Annie really blossomed with the work. I’d been working with Annie on the ground, seeing great improvement in her demeanor. Annie needed a job. Though she seems to love her off days now.”
Young professional Sarah Wohrman has made great strides with Annie in the last year. Here is her timeline and notes on her experiences along the way:
“Annie was very hot, nervous, and unpredictable in the beginning. I wasn’t sure I was skilled enough to work with a horse like her, but Nancie helped me where I needed it. It was very hard to obtain and keep her attention, much less get her to think about what she was doing. With lots of slow work on the ground I got her trusting and respecting me, and she was able to keep her head straight on her shoulders for longer.
Tacking her was a challenge for a while. After having her back checked and ruling out ulcers, we concluded it was completely attitude and got it under control.
One of our biggest hurdles has been mounting. The first handful of times she stood at the mounting block and let me get on fine, then she started to get an attitude about working. She would get antsy at the mounting block and try and dart off bucking when I swung my leg over. Through repetition she finally started to get over it.
She can still be a little cold backed now and then, but she stands to be mounted and lets me get on from just about anywhere.
From December to April I was working 5 days a week at MLC Farm, and through August training and competing a Morgan mare named Sweetie. Nancie also had a lot going on which made it difficult to coordinate our schedules to do Annie any more than three times a week, plus the weather never seemed to be on our side. Once I started working for Booli (Selmayr) fulltime, I lacked enough spare time do much with Annie the first month. Sweetie remained priority while I was eventing her until the end August, when I decided to devote all of my time to Annie.
Began groundwork and lunging sessions 1-2 times a week.
Worked on saddling.
Continued lunging with full tack.
Introduced poles and cavalleti.
Backed her for the first time.
Started with being led around, then stayed on the lunge line for a few rides until she responded to my aids enough.
Started using half the ring off the lunge.
Continued with basics under saddle. Added trot poles.
I started working full time for Booli Selmayr, so Annie went on the back burner for a little while.
This was our break through month. We took a few lessons with Booli to get new things to work on. Booli pushed us and got me riding her more assertively, not afraid of her temper tantrums. We had a good handful of rides where she really tested me and tried to get me off, but I persisted and stuck. I started to ask more of her and not baby her so much.
Finally stopped lunging her before every ride, and just got on. We continued progressing. Towards the end of the month was when Tucker flipped over on me, putting me out of commission for a couple weeks.
I went back to work and got back on a horse the beginning of this month. It wasn’t for a couple more weeks until I was back to riding normal and well enough again to get back on Annie. At the end of the month I competed Sweetie for the last time and made the decision to devote all of my time to Annie in order to make some real progress.
Started jumping! On the 3rd I took her to Gracehill Farm to school over their jump course. It was her first time cantering a real course, she handled it all very well.
We started going for trail rides.
On the 17th I took her to her first real horse show at MLC Farm. We ended up standing around waiting almost ALL day until the jumpers finally went. We did the 2’3” clear round class. She jumped everything, kept her cool the whole time, and totally enjoyed it!
I brought her to Booli’s for multiple lessons a week and we really started working hard, especially on the flat. Towards the end of the month we went cross country schooling at Fitch’s Corner. She was unsure of herself and spooky to the jumps to start, but figured everything out very fast. I took her again once more before October.
On the 1st I took her to her first horse trials at Larkin Hill, we did beginner novice. She was tense and very touchy for dressage, plus she was still learning the basics of connection, so we didn’t score so well. She jumped around stadium beautifully with one green moment where she was looking at another horse instead of the jump we were headed to, causing her to pick her feet up late and knock it down. Out on cross -country she was a little wiggly to start. Before fence 3 there was a narrow path where they put black mulch down which Annie didn’t want to step on, so we went half in the bushes then she didn’t have enough time to realize fence 3 was coming up and she stopped out. We circled and jumped it fine, that being our only issue on course. She settled into a good rhythm after the little hiccup and we finished strong.
We continued a regular work program consisting of jumping 1-2 times, flatting 2-3 times, and going for hacks and trots every week.
On the 29th we went to the Arena Eventing Derby at Crosswinds Equestrian Center. She was super excited and bold to the jumps, which she was quite unimpressed by at the BN height. We ended up winning the division, which was certainly nice, but regardless I couldn’t believe how well she handled the atmosphere and all the changes in terrain, lighting and jumps!
We have been doing lots of grid work and tricky jumping exercises to work on readability.
I rode her bareback for the first time on the 5th walk, trot, and canter… she was super!
Her flatting is starting to get more consistent now that she is developing more of a topline. I plan to start flatting her in dressage tack now that her back is more built up.
I just got my wisdom teeth out on the 6th so I gave her the week off- she deserved it. I plan to get on her tomorrow.
Looking ahead, I will be doing the Boyd (Martin) Clinic with her on the 19th. Then in December I hope to take her to a couple jumper shows before we head to Aiken in January.
Nancie and Ramzi have truly been wonderful and I wouldn’t be where I am today without their endless support. Nancie helped me with Annie a great deal from the very beginning until I started riding her with Booli consistently, and she still does. She and Ramzi have gone with me to all the shows to help with Annie and of course video. Booli has really helped me become a stronger and more skilled rider since I started working for her. Annie and I are progressing very well both individually and as a pair with her help. I cannot wait for what the future has in store for Annie and me!”
Sarah is a currently a working student for Advanced Eventer Booli Selmayr, who runs Fox Valley Sport Horses at Fox Race Farm in Amenia, New York. Sadly Booli suffered a devastating loss of her horse Jaeda at Bromont in early 2017. Sarah and Annie are presently wintering in Aiken, S.C. with Booli Selmayr, and continuing their training. We asked Booli to fill us in on her thoughts on Annie.
CH: How long have you known Sarah and Annie?
Booli: I met Sarah in May when she came to interview for the assistant position I advertised. I met Annie in June when Sarah brought her to the farm for a lesson.
CH: How have the new partnership progressed since you have known them?
Booli: Annie is a particularly high spirited Thoroughbred mare and Sarah has an amazing ability to be very still yet firm which a mare like Annie needs to have any chance for success as a competitive horse. Currently we are working on Annie’s rideability and adjustability in her gaits.
CH: An an experienced and successful advanced level eventing competitor you must have lots of knowledge about what makes up a good event horse. What attributes do you think Annie brings to the table?
Booli: Conformation is key and to start with Annie has great feet, followed by a super hind end. She is very brave with a lot of courage, which is imperative for a good cross-country horse.
CH: How is it best to progress a partnership like Sarah and Annie, when one (or both) are new to the eventing world?
Booli: It’s very much 2 steps forward, 1 step back. Annie is coming into this a little older so has strong opinions more so than a horse that is started at 4 or 5. Sarah is a brave and tactful rider. It’s easy to have a talented brave horse and want to go up the levels quickly. One has to keep the basics in mind and keep it fun and interesting. When too much pressure is applied to either horse or rider then the partnership suffers, and the base of success (in any discipline) is a strong partnership between the horse and rider.
CH: Any advice to other riders planning on entering the event scene about how to start?
Booli: Find an instructor who will be honest with you as well as finding a horse that is genuinely appropriate for a newcomer. Eventing, as a sport and community is incredibly fun and inviting but I’ve seen quite a few over mounted riders and the occasional instructor who is too nervous about offending a newcomer’s pride. Start small, and beside any success you have is real success and not just a lucky day. We all need a bit of luck but sometimes we have a lucky season and think it’s time to move up. You have to “own” your level before taking in the next.
CH: What plans do you have for yourself this season?
Booli: This past season had some epic lows with the loss of my 3* mare, Jaeda and my 2* gelding being sidelined during the height of the season. I’m currently recovering from a riding accident I sustained in November which will require a few months before I’m back to normal, so 2018 is requiring me to start fresh!
I am lucky to ride a couple wonderful young horses, two of which will be aiming for 1* at some point this season, Kildare’s MHS Tampa owned by Thomas Duggan (novice horse champion at Tryon) and First Frost owned by Andrea Woodner. Kelly Morgan (former owner of Jaeda) and I have found a lovely 4 year old German mare through Christian Schacht and Jeanie Clarke. She is new to Eventing so we will be taking it very slow, and will compete at Young Event Horse Classes. The process is to build back up slowly, it’s so tempting to rush back to the upper levels but I cannot stress enough how developing a partnership at the lower levels is imperative for long term success at the upper levels. Even with Jaeda, who had intermediate experience when I took over the ride, I took back to novice, and my former advanced horse Kennedy, though he was already 10 when I bought him, I started out at novice. As a rider you need to know what your horse responds to at a moment of stress, and better you learn that over a 3’ log than an advance level table.
Also this summer Millfield Lancando owned in partnership by Jacqueline Thorne and Kelly Morgan will also be brought back to the 1* level.
Sarah explained that she is hoping to move Annie up the levels this winter and into Spring 2018, and that next year Annie may be available for sale or lease. My husband Paul had this to add about Annie:
“I am super impressed with how Sarah has brought Annie along. It was a late start to a riding career for Annie but when a horse has heart and a good nature it will go far. Annie would occasionally dance about a bit on the lead line in her excitement at being turned out but was never mean or difficult. She was a bit amazed when Georgy Girl arrived, as most maiden mares are when their first foal hits the ground. We had to twitch her to teach her to allow GG to nurse, but it only took one time and she had it figured out quickly. I was very happy when Ramzi and Nancie bought her, as I knew they would continue keeping the horse on an uptrend in her life and do well by her.
I was sorry to hear about Booli’s loss and then the recent accident and hope she is back on top soon. During our visit with Boyd(Martin) at Windurra in P.A. last year it was great to see how devoted he is to his horses. While I have spent my career in the dressage arena I have always admired the camaraderie of the eventing world and the rider’s devotion to the well being of their horses. Boyd lost his advanced mount Crackerjack earlier this year in France. Sadly these things happen. I wish everyone all the best on the go forward.”
Meantime we bred Annie’s daughter Gambol’s Georgy Girl (GG), to Lusitano stallion Baylerin Brioso of Spain via frozen semen in Summer 2016. She took first go and produced a lovely colt Extravangana WVH in 2017. As we are retiring from breeding after twenty plus years, to allow us more time to travel and spend on our busy clinic schedule both nationally and internationally as Grand Prix dressage trainers, GG is currently open and for sale. We have gone from purebred Hanoverian horse breeding for international level riders, through Iberian breeding and cross breeding Dutch, Thoroughbred, Belgian and Iberian lines for the serious amateur market. We have completed a full circle and it is time for us to disperse our mare herd.
Paul plans to keep the colt, Extravaganza WVH aka Snoopy, as a replacement for his semi-retired Grand Prix dressage horse Tiberio Lafite.