by Melissa Bauer-Herzog
If you follow the Retired Racehorse Project’s (RRP’s) Thoroughbred Makeover, chances are you’ve often seen Isabela De Sousa’s name at the top of the results. The young rider has quickly made a name for herself, winning the show jumping division at the Makeover for three years running among her long list of accomplishments.
Born to a horse racing family, her mom is an equine veterinarian at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute and her father a manager and partner at Hidden Brook Farm so there was little doubt De Sousa would join the horse industry. She can’t remember a time when she didn’t ride horses and soon she was retraining retired racehorses, with illustrious names such as Dewey Square and Cozmic One among the horses she’s trained.
“It was always our plan, that when we got an OTTB (off-the-track Thoroughbred) we would retrain them! When we got our first one, Dewey Square, that we took to the Makeover we didn’t even know when we first got him that he was eligible or know about the program,” she said. “We just wanted to have fun with him and see what he could do! When we realized he was eligible and we could do it, it was a goal for us that year. I have learned so much working with these horses and had so much fun, that we have continued to support the program each year.”
After winning De Sousa her first RRP show jumping title, Dewey Square moved over to eventing where he is excelling in his new career with multiple wins under his belt. Rapidly moving through the levels, the gelding has been shown in recent months by Olympian Clark Montgomery with De Sousa proudly watching his progress.
While making sure her graduates are ready for a second career is one goal De Sousa has, another is to show off the racing industry and training process with a strong social media presence on Facebook through her page De Sousa Stables. Her goal with the page is to show the positive side of racing and the Thoroughbred industry, something she thinks isn’t shown often enough.
“What we need to show is the positive side of the Thoroughbred Industry and how much owners old and new love their horses and want to give them a second career and life,” De Sousa said. “All we usually see are the negative things that are posted about what ends up happening to some horses after the track. With the Makeover and social media in general, we like to show that there are also many good things happening to horses as well.”
In recent months, a new face has appeared with the famous Cozmic One, aka “Coz,” entering her program. While the gelding never won a race, he came to De Sousa with a dedicated fan base as a son of Hall of Famer Zenyatta, one of the most beloved racehorses in recent history. She’s channeled his popularity into education, using the Facebook page to educate his fans on racehorse retraining and letting them follow along with his new career in the lead-up to the Makeover.
“I believe social media is a big way for people to follow something they are passionate about,” she said. “When we first got Cozmic One and we posted about him, people who care about both Cozmic One and Zenyatta were so excited to know they can still follow Coz’s progress as an OTTB and watch him begin and hopefully excel at his new career. It’s good to not let the horses disappear and posting about them keeps everyone involved and excited about the industry. I hope that what I’m doing with Cozmic One and our Facebook page and just updates on what he is doing will inspire other fans of these ex-racehorses to continue to follow along that horse’s journey even when it’s not on the track!”
A major goal for De Sousa’s OTTBs in their first year with her is the Makeover but if something happens to derail the plan, she is okay with regrouping. The ultimate goal is to find the horses a new home and the Makeover is just a good first target for their new career.
“If we get a horse and it is eligible, but say it’s not ready to show at the Makeover or if it doesn’t make it to the Makeover we are okay with that,” she explained. “At the end of the day our primary goal is retraining the OTTBs and helping them get a great foundation and start to their second career, the Makeover is just the icing on the cake. We believe that retraining is the key for finding new homes for retired racehorses. [The Makeover is] a great community to be part of, everyone is so relaxed and excited about their achievements with their OTTB regardless how big or small it is, just the connection with the horse gives us a great feeling. For me, it gives me a chance to learn how to train or retrain a horse.”
One other thing De Sousa hopes to impart in her followers is that the stereotype that all racehorses are crazy isn’t true. While Thoroughbreds have a reputation for their behavior, she says they’re just like other horses but the situations they’re put in can affect their behavior and feed the stereotype.
“Many people think they are crazy just because they ran at the track,” she said. “The track has a lot going on so it can make a horse nervous and therefore a little anxious, but with a little bit of let down time that goes away. I think if more people understood the breed and that the [horses] are so smart they can do two different careers, they may not think they are crazy anymore.”
While it may be hard to show the softer side of Thoroughbreds on video, De Sousa has allowed fans to see it in person as well by taking part in RRP demonstrations in Kentucky. In mid-July, fans were able to get up close and personal with Coz at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Breyerfest, a fitting event for the gelding to attend as he had his own Breyer made at just a few months old.