Funny how stories that start with a human helping a horse become stories of a horse helping a human. That’s the case with longtime hunter/jumper competitor Melissa (Doddridge) Hamm and Blueberry and their quest to contest the Thoroughbred Makeover.
Melissa quit riding six years ago to focus on her career as an airline pilot. When COVID hit, the need for pilots plummeted. “I was looking at a career that might be over,” she says. “I was feeling pretty lost.” Many had it much worse, she emphasizes. Yet, “I was in a bad place. It was a very tough time in my life.”
Enter Blueberry, an Off-The-Track-Thoroughbred enjoying grass pastures at the Anacortes, Washington home of Melissa’s mother. The coming-4-year-old is one of two horses Melissa plans to take to the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover. Although the Makeover is not until October, the process of preparing both horses for the competition has already taken the pilot from slipstream to updraft.
A Mother-Daughter Passion
Racing and Thoroughbreds were a shared mother-daughter interest throughout Melissa’s youth. A trip to Kentucky Bluegrass country and cheering Zenyatta’s 19-win career in the late-2000s were highlights of that time.
Melissa’s mom Pam Doddridge took her enthusiasm a step further about eight years ago when she purchased a few broodmares and began breeding Thoroughbreds. She sold most as yearlings and kept a few to race until becoming disenchanted with the sport. Blueberry is one of three homebreds Pam kept. The mare left the track in November of 2019 and was hanging out in Pam’s pasture.
A few months into 2020, Melissa accepted a six-month leave of absence as the airline she flies for sought ways to survive the pandemic. Conveniently, that coincided with Blueberry and two other homebred OTTBs having had several months to decompress in Washington after leaving the track. They were under Pam’s care and had Melissa’s retired show horse as a role model. Letting racehorses chill out for a good stretch of time is a common precursor to training them for new careers. When Melissa arrived in Washington, they were settled and ready to start learning new things.
Sharing the project doubled the fun and revived earlier days when Pam and Melissa rode together. “She moved (from California) up to Washington at the end of my riding career and I didn’t think I’d get back into riding as I went off on my career,” Melissa explains. “It has been a wonderful and very rewarding opportunity. It’s almost like my mom and I were able to take this step away from the world.”
The initial plan was to spend the six months in Washington training the young OTTBs to be sold to good homes. That veered in a different direction when a friend mentioned the Thoroughbred Makeover, which Melissa and Pam hadn’t heard of it before.
The Thoroughbred Makeover
The event was launched in its current form in 2015 by the non-profit Retired Racehorse Project. The Makeover and a concurrent educational symposium anchor the Project’s “market driven approach” to creating second careers for Thoroughbreds by creating demand for them. It’s described as a “training competition” and successful applicants must establish their ability to effectively restart an OTTB and showcase its talents and trainability. Eligibility requirements for the horse ensure that all have had similar experiences at the start of their re-training.
Competition takes place in 10 disciplines: Barrel racing, competitive trail, dressage, eventing, field hunter, freestyle, polo, ranch work, show hunter and show jumper.
At the participant’s option, the horse may be entered for sale in the Makeover Marketplace during the event. The educational symposium that addresses all aspects of post-racing life for the breed furthers the RRP’s mission of increasing the number of well-prepared owners.
Having missed the entry deadline, Melissa’s application for last year’s Makeover was waitlisted. When the show was cancelled because of COVID-19, however, her entry with Blueberry was put forward for this year’s competition. Set for October 12-17 at the Kentucky Horse Park, this year’s Makeover will host twice the normal entrants. Those accepted in 2020 and those recently announced as accepted trainers for 2021 will all converge in Kentucky. Each year’s horses will compete in separate groups to ensure they are judged against horses with similar training time invested.
When Melissa rode and competed regularly, she trained with Tracy Burroughs of Windsong Farms in Orange County, California’s Huntington Beach. Her horses over the years included youngsters she developed with Tracy’s help and even a 2-year-old. She rode some Appendix Quarter Horses (part Thoroughbred) as a youngster, then Warmbloods that have dominated the hunter/jumper circuit for many years.
Smart from The Start
Her Makeover OTTBs, Blueberry and Sixes, are very different characters. Yet they share what Melissa describes as the breed’s strongest common denominator: Intelligence. “It’s not that Warmbloods aren’t smart,” Melissa clarifies. “But they take longer to mature.”
Retention of what she’s learned is the clearest example of Blueberry’s smarts. During a formative stretch of the mare’s under-saddle work and prep for jumping, Melissa was going back and forth between her husband and job in California and Washington state. She was often away for two weeks, then in Washington to work with Blueberry for one week between. “She didn’t regress at all. She was able to pick up exactly where we left off, which shocked me every single time it happened. Consistency is so key in training a horse and how I was doing it was not ideal, but she still flourished.”
Pam Doddridge did ground and lungeline work, but otherwise Blueberry kept herself fit roaming the pasture and was ready to advance when Melissa returned. Level-headedness is another of Blueberry’s assets. She’s not spooky and has welcomed each new task or jump set before her.
Help from Friends
From the start, Melissa counted on Tracy’s help in bringing both horses along. YouTube videos and a growing network of friends in the Thoroughbred Makeover community help, too. One of them is a friend of Melissa’s from aviation school, Muri Triantafilo. The experienced Montana horsewoman is a barrel racer. Her Makeover OTTB is coming along nicely as another poster child for the breed’s versatility and she and Melissa are sharing the horsemanship adventure through compared notes.
Like most OTTBs, Blueberry was very good at going to the left when Melissa started riding her. Steering and an understanding of any other aids, however, were non-existent. With Tracy and Pam’s help, Melissa has taken the mare from that to jumping full courses. Blueberry has a rack of ribbons from success in the .7M and .9M classes. That bodes well for Melissa’s plan to compete her in the Makeover’s show jumping division, with show hunters as a back-up.
Blueberry’s attitude has changed radically, too. “We initially thought she’d be the most difficult of the three horses when we started training them,” Melissa reflects. “It’s hard to say this now because I don’t see it in her anymore, but she was mean. When I tried to put a saddle on, she tried to kick and bite. Now, she may be the sweetest horse I’ve ever had.”
Promoting Thoroughbreds’ talents and trainability is a Makeover mission Melissa has taken to heart. Competing on the hunter/jumper circuit, “People have been surprised that Blueberry is a 4-year-old racehorse,” she shares. “She jumps anything, she has a good mind and she’ll do anything you ask her to do.”
She enjoys bringing OTTB and Makeover awareness to the hunter/jumper world. Like many, “I’d had no idea this whole world existed.” OTTBs, she asserts, “are a really great option for people. I wish more people would go back to the roots of training racehorses. They can be really phenomenal.”
Now back flying part-time and spending most of her time in California, Melissa is working mostly with Sixes. He recently did well in his first arena ride at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center.
He showed nice jumping form over cross-rails in the field in Washington, but it’s too early in his training to know which discipline will best suit him. “We are a few months away from starting real jumping and we’ll just see what he tells me he wants to do.” She hopes it will include the Makeover’s jumping or hunter divisions and possibly dressage. “Dressage would be new for me and I think he has an aptitude for it because he is athletic and well put together.”
Blueberry is back in Washington under Pam’s care for now because California horse keeping costs make it tough to maintain both in a public boarding situation. Missing Blueberry is difficult, Melissa acknowledges, and it may presage a tougher phase in October. The current plan is to keep Blueberry or Sixes after the Thoroughbred Makeover, assuming a good home is found for whichever one is sold.
October is a long way off and the past 18 months have highlighted the unpredictability of life, in and outside of the horse world. Some things are sure even amid the uncertainty. “Blueberry has done more for me than I’ve done for her,” Melissa explains. “When this opportunity happened, it gave me a new purpose. Being able to watch her get better every day has been very satisfying. It’s been a light during this really terrible time.”
Editor’s Note: Melissa and Muri will be chronicling their adventures leading up to the Makeover in October. Be sure to subscribe to theWestEquestrian.com so you don’t miss it!
For more information on the Retired Racehorse Project and the Thoroughbred Makeover, visit http://www.retiredracehorseproject.org.