by Marion E. Altieri
And America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred is...Old Tavern, a Thoroughbred filly who epitomizes the very best of her breed, and elegantly shows the heart and versatility of horses who aren’t meant for careers on race tracks.
Thoroughbreds have gotten a bum rap for many years. Many people think that—because yes, the breed was created by humans—that the breed is rife with genetically-determined skittishness. They’re deemed to be, “hothouse flowers,” because—for all their tremendous size and strength—a few nervous horses set the pace for human prejudice.
Thoroughbreds are more-often-than-not, judged to possess the emotional constitution of an over the top, hysterical drama queens. Yes: too many humans, even those who work regularly with Thoroughbreds, see their horses through the lens of culturally-imposed bias. (e.g., Someone’s Uncle Joe said that all Thoroughbreds are emotionally frail, or terrified of their own shadows—and so, it must be so.) But culturally-inherited information isn’t necessarily the Truth.
Thoroughbreds like Old Tavern, daughter of Peak Dancer and Modern Madame, is living proof that her breed not only is agile, swift and eager-to-please—but also, tough and ready for action. The action of polo, no less.
Old Tavern, you see, was bred to become a race horse. Her name, registered with the Jockey Club, was, Taberna. Her breeder and owner, Larry Curtis, had sent her off to train for the races—but then decided not to pursue that path for his homebred. Being a conscientious breeder—he sought other avenues for Taberna. He knew what everyone involved in the Retired Racehorse Project knows—that Taberna had value, just by existing.
However, he also knew that she should have a job—also, that, Thoroughbreds being intelligent beings—she shouldn’t simply retire from the training barn to spend the next 20 years hanging out in a meadow somewhere. She, like all Thoroughbreds—are happiest when their minds and bodies are occupied, and exercised.
So Larry Curtis, who’d sold many other Thoroughbreds to the family of 17-year-old Charlie Caldwell of Tennessee, found the perfect home and vocation for Taberna. Like the other horses in Caldwell’s family’s farm, Taberna would train to become a polo pony. This relationship, between a Thoroughbred racing professional and the world of polo, is an excellent example of the potential and mission, as set forth by the Retired Racehorse Project/ Thoroughbred Makeover concept. That is, if Thoroughbreds, for whatever reason, aren’t cut out to race—and even when they do, they don’t go on to become Secretariat—all these horses should never fear being shipped off to the slaughterhouse.
New Holland should not be on speed dial on any Thoroughbred trainer or owner’s phone. Horse racing professionals, as guardians of the horses who are entrusted to them—always should think of new jobs, new owners and loving new homes--first and always.
Larry Curtis is a shining example of a breeder and owner whose own career includes working to get Thoroughbreds into the hands and hearts of people in other equestrian disciplines, people whom Larry knows will commit to the horse until her/his natural death.
Thus the beautiful filly became a member of the Caldwell family, and her name was changed to Old Tavern. From her new home in Tennessee, she began the shift in mindset and movement that would take her from “Run straight, turn left” in racing, to the world of polo and a much different way of training. In polo training, there's a lot of stopping and turning, plus more physical contact between the horses which takes place in every polo match.
This is where that old bias against Thoroughbreds—that they’re skittish, ofttimes to the point of insanity—flies out the barn door. Anyone who’s ever watched a live polo match knows that, not only are the horses who team with their riders fleet-of-foot, and capable of turning on a dime—they are fearless.
In fact, polo may be the one sport that most-requires intestinal fortitude (guts) in their equine athletes. Between the ability to see a mallet swinging at your head—to banging, full-bodied, into another horse several times during the course of a chukker—polo ponies are trained to focus; move with their riders and her/his instructions and not blink an eye.
This outrageous ability marks polo as the sport that is most-like hand-to-hand combat in the Middle Ages, and beyond. Whether the human is swinging a sword or a mallet, the horse’s job is to dodge that threat. Again, in Medieval warfare, horses ran into each other as a matter of course—and yet, their job remained to focus, and run into the fray, not away from it.
Old Tavern left a racing training facility, and went straight to Tommy Wayman’s training facility in Big Horn, Wyoming, to become a polo pony. Tommy is a legendary horseman and polo player. That training included a new way of thinking, which paid off in spades for the duo when they competed at the Kentucky Horse Park during the Thoroughbred Makeover finals.
Caldwell, who at 17 already is an accomplished polo player, wisely asked Wayman’s advice, regarding how to ride Old Tavern in the competition. Caldwell reported that, "He said to just speed her up, speed everything up, that’s what the judges are looking for now," Caldwell said. "So I just did everything I did on Thursday, just a little quicker."
Not only did those sage words, applied with care and intention, give the duo the divisional win—one of the judges offered to buy Old Tavern right out from under Caldwell!
Old Tavern was asked not only to apply the new things she’d learned—but to do them more quickly that she’d been trained. Obviously, she’s developed a bond with her owner, Caldwell, and already trusted him, or she couldn't have responded to such rapid requests without question. At only three years of age, the filly is learning the ropes and participating in matches that other horses don’t approach until they’re four or five years old.
That bond, between horse and rider, is that which gave Medieval knights and their steeds the advantage in battle. The connection between Charlie Caldwell and his beautiful filly, Old Tavern, was not only a peek into the Middle Ages and the Thoroughbred’s ancestral Arabian war horses—it was a glimpse into the true nature of the Thoroughbred.
Horses, like humans, more-often-than-not perform according to our expectations. If we treat our Thoroughbreds like they’re frail flowers, and perhaps a little ditzy—that’s exactly how they’ll behave, because humans are the predatory species and horses, being prey species—are eager to please.
If the humans, like Charlie Caldwell, treat their Thoroughbreds with respect and the assumption that yes, his Old Tavern can throw herself fully into a full-out, no-holds-barred, lightning-fast polo match without thinking twice about potential danger—well, that’s what he’ll get.
That’s precisely what he got at the Kentucky Horse Park on the first weekend in October, 2017: a horse who’s ready to compete, at the highest level. Fearless, fast and moving with precision and grace—Old Tavern truly is America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred.
Hopefully, her success will inspire and encourage many other racing professionals to work with members of the polo community, and take their intelligent steeds to new heights of accomplishment and glory.
Retired Racehorse Project - click here to visit them on-line
Winner of America's Most Wanted Thoroughbred!
CONGRATULATIONS TO CHARLIE CALDWELL AND OLD TAVERN!
Overall Discipline Winners:
Barrel Racing: Mindy Stoops (Pr) on Not So Silver
Competitive Trail: Franny Galvin-Hynes (Jr) on The Bowie Van
Dressage: Alison Wilaby (Pr) on Chapter Two
Eventing: Allison Thompson (Pr) on Cactus Willie
Field Hunter: Lauren Burke (Pr) on Woodford Channel
Freestyle: Lauren Burke (Pr) on Woodford Channel
Polo: Charlie Caldwell (Jr) on Old Tavern
Show Hunter: Charlotte Cannon (Pr) on Seeking Fame
Show Jumper: Isabela de Souse (Jr) on Late Night Mark
Working Ranch: Russel Littlefield (Pr) on Think Global