Two weeks ago when American Pharoah won the Belmont Stakes and became the first horse to win racing’s Triple Crown in almost 40 years, he captured America’s imagination and became an instant star.
A lesser known fact is that another horse who has won races at Belmont Park is enjoying retirement and a second career in Surry County’s Fairview community. His name is Curve Ball and though he did not win the fabled Belmont stakes, his two wins as a Thoroughbred racehorse were at Belmont Park, the same track where American Pharoah became a legend.
American Pharoah’s career and celebrity are still in full bloom but Curve Ball has retired from the track and now leads a quiet life at the Jumping H Farm where he occasionally goes on trail rides along the Mitchell River but spends most of his quality time grazing in the pastures of the 25-acre farm.
Curve Ball is just one of 19 horses that Nicole Huttar, the owner of the Jumping H has rehabilitated, retrained and re-homed as a partner farm of Turning for Home, the racehorse retirement program of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. Turning for Home has provided a safe retirement for more than 1,000 horses since it was founded in May 2008 and is considered a model program in the horse racing industry. Jumping H Farm is the southernmost of 14 or 15 partner farms where horses are retrained for their new careers.
Huttar began her association with Turning for Home when she got her own horse from them four years ago. She saw a picture of that horse, Murder in the First, on the group’s website and immediately fell in love. She adopted him sight unseen, a move that she does not recommend but which in this case worked out well. Since arriving four years ago, Murder has become a farm favorite despite his intimidating name.
“He’s a big baby,” says Huttar of her 17.1-hand giant. “When I saw him first, he was on a trailer and didn’t look that big. But when he came out, his head kept on going up and up. In the four years since that first meeting, Murder has matured from a high strung racehorse to a saddle horse who can be ridden even by inexperienced lesson students but will still kick up his heels in a show ring and show off his considerable skills.”
It has not always been easy for Thoroughbreds to find a second career after their racing days are over. Not every horse who races is going to be a champion and the sad fact is that some of them don’t make enough money to earn their keep. If a horse doesn’t consistently place in the money, first through fourth place, he can become a financial liability. There can also be injuries. Racing is harder on a horse’s body than anything else, except maybe polo, says Huttar.
“I’m not saying that the owners, trainers and jockeys don’t love these horses but they are commodities. It’s a big money sport. It is, after all, the sport of kings.”
In the past, when a horse ceased to be profitable, he would be sold at auction. From that auction, he could end up anywhere. He might go on to steeplechase or he might end up at the slaughterhouse. The Parx racetrack in Philadelphia, where Turning for Home is based, does not allow anyone who races at their track to use these auctions. Any trainer who does so will have his license pulled and not be able to race there any more, according to Huttar.
Nicole Huttar believes that thoroughbreds are much more than just racehorses. “To say that they’re not good for anything else is a misnomer. Given the proper amount of time and training, they can be successful at any discipline.”
That time and training is what she gives the Thoroughbreds who come off the track and into her care. Some of the horses arrive sound. Others have injuries that require time and care to heal. She gives them that.
Huttar also lets the horses be horses which is a brand new and sometimes scary experience for a Thoroughbred who knows only the sheltered life of a racehorse.
Once a Thoroughbred is old enough to begin training to race, they spend their entire lives either in their stall, training or racing. Huttar says that the first time she turns a fresh-off-the-track Thoroughbred out into the pasture, they sometimes are confused and don’t know what to do and can just stand there. It is literally the first time since they were very small that they have been outside their stall without a human being leading or riding them. It takes them a while to realize that they can move freely around the pasture and socialize with the other horses without human intervention.
During her time with the horses, Huttar assesses their capabilities and limitations. Some have sustained injuries that make them unsuitable for certain jobs. Curve Ball, for instance, doesn’t jump. He is perfectly sound for “flat work” as horse people call it but jumping would risk re-injuring him so Curve Ball doesn’t jump.
Safety is of paramount concern to Nicole Huttar; safety of both the horses in her care and the humans who interact with them. No horse performs any task that might jeopardize his well-being and every rider on the Jumping H wears a helmet at all times. The first and foremost thing she drills into her students are core safety and balance. With those, she says, you can go anywhere.
Huttar is also a matchmaker. Her more than 30 years of experience with horses as a rider, as a trainer and as an owner give her significant insight into the personalities, needs and quirks of a potential adopter of one of her horses. Earlier this year when a woman came to look at one of her horses, the potential adopter felt the horse was too quiet. She wanted a horse that had the heart to gallop and had a little more fire in him. She was better suited to another of Huttar’s horses who had those qualities and the two of them are now rapidly moving up the levels of three day eventing, a rigorous discipline for both horse and rider.
The horse that she originally came to see was adopted by an owner who enjoys grooming her horse more than riding and when she does ride, she likes a quiet stroll on the trail. Horse and rider are both happy.
Huttar’s goal for each horse is to find it a “forever” home. She says, “I don’t want someone to take a horse and give him six months of training and flip him. They’re not used cars.” Of the Thoroughbreds that Huttar has found homes for, she says about half are now pleasure horses and half are competing seriously. It is no surprise to Huttar that her thoroughbreds are so versatile.
“I love their minds and their trainability. With thoroughbreds, you have to think. You don’t tell them what you want them to do. You ask them.”
Huttar has formed a 501(c)3 non-profit called Jumping H Farm Re3 Adoption and Therapy. Re3 refers to rehabilitating, retraining and re-homing. That part of her mission is well underway and now she is focused on getting the therapy piece up and running. She says that as far as she knows, no one in Surry County is offering therapeutic riding for people with mental and physical disabilities. The closest is Riverwood in Winston-Salem and Huttar feels the need for such a facility in our community.
She has the horses and is working on doing the upgrades on her farm to make the facility wheelchair accessible as well as getting the necessary certifications and training volunteers. It’s a lot of work and there are timing issues since Huttar still works full time away from the farm.
“It’s my way of giving back to the horse community,” says Huttar. “I didn’t grow up in a horse family. My family didn’t own horses and I wanted one as a child.”
Huttar’s parents offered her a deal. They would buy her a horse but she had to pay for its upkeep. “I worked at the barn where I boarded. I cleaned stalls, groomed horses, washed cars and cleaned houses for people in our neighborhood. I did anything I could do to earn money to pay for shoeing and upkeep.”
Huttar now offers the same sort of sweat equity to teenagers who want to ride but lack the means. “There’s always something that needs to be done around here,” she says.
Some of her lesson students might only be able to afford a lesson once a week or even every other week but they can earn extra saddle time or additional lessons by working for Huttar on the farm.
Huttar’s vision for Jumping H Farm Re3 Adoption and Therapy is clear. She has a plan and is working to put it in place. Now she just has to get to the point where the work she loves can be her only full time job and not just the full time job she does when she gets home from the one that pays the bills.
Jumping H Farm Re3 Adoption and Therapy’s website is www.re3ottb.com where photos and sometimes videos of horses available for adoption can be seen. Riding lessons and guided trail rides are available at Jumping H Farm and support the work of rehoming the farm’s off the track Thoroughbreds. Contact by email at email@example.com or by phone at 336-345-1377.