That Thoroughbreds are great riding horses, sport horses, trail horses and equine partners is the firm belief of enthusiasts who know, understand and appreciate this breed’s incredible heart and athleticism. Some, however, go above and beyond ‘talking the talk’: Valerie Ashker decided to demonstrate the durability and indomitable work ethic of ex-racehorses by making an epic 3300-mile cross-country ride with her two off-the-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs). They departed May 9 from Valerie’s Crows’ Ears Farm in Georgetown, California, and followed Route 50 across the nation to Virginia. On November 19, they rode triumphantly into the Middleburg Training Center to an enthusiastic welcome organized by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and Laine Ashker.

Valerie Ashker’s Epic Cross-Country Ride Showcases Off-The-Track Thoroughbreds Photos by Nancy Kleck
Valerie Ashker’s Epic Cross-Country Ride
– Photos by Nancy Kleck

“My passion for Thoroughbreds was the motivation for this incredible journey — I wanted to raise awareness of second careers for ex-racehorses,” said Valerie. “The Thoroughbred has amazing versatility, strength and heart and is capable of great achievement beyond racing. ”

Valerie utilized Facebook to reach out to as many people as she could about her epic cross-country trek. Her parents, George and Lillian Stephenson, were very involved, joining her on three different occasions for weeks at a time. Her father George drove her “chase” truck and trailer. Valerie’s Facebook page has more than 6300 likes and offers photos, videos and updates from start to beyond the finish in Middleburg. She chronicled her broken clavicle and bruised ribs that resulted in a cancer scare, but turned out to be a blood clot, and the incident that caused her to re-injure her collarbone.

“The injuries took away travel days — we could have finished a month earlier,” said Valerie. “The bottom line is that I was lucky that the injuries were not life-threatening.”

Valerie utilized the time off to post on Facebook, consulting friends, old and new, about the journey ahead. She had to make plans how to tackle riding through Utah, Kansas and the last bit of Appalachian Mountains that are so cold in the winter.

“This cross-country ride was a collaborative effort, helped by many people on Facebook,” she said. “Some of them didn’t know anything about off-the-track Thoroughbreds, but they now know more, especially how wonderful they can be. My two horses were great examples and showed what amazing things ex-racehorses can do.”

Valerie’s OTTBs provided even more impressive proof to her claims by finishing their ride from coast-to-coast in glowing health and in terrific physical and mental condition. She piloted 7-year-old Primitivo; her companion, Peter Friedman, partnered with Solar Express, who served as trail boss and leader from coast-to-coast and took great care of his inexperienced rider.

“My lovely Solar Express is 17 and has some issues,” said Valerie. “He has PSSM [excess sugar storage in muscles, resulting in soreness and stiffness, similar to tying up], navicular changes in his front feet, arthritis in his rear end. That horse led the entire time. He was always so energetic, like the Eveready battery raring to get over the next mountain. Primitivo also did great. His barn name’s Tevo, but when he’s naughty, he’s Dirty Bird. In the video on Facebook, I called him Dirty Birdy and people loved that. Both my horses were absolutely wonderful.”

Valerie happens to be the mother of 4-star 3-Day event rider, Lainey Ashker, who recently moved her training operation in Virginia to Keystone Acres Farm in Chesterfield. Valerie is, in her own right, an event rider and trainer. For many years, Valerie has visited racetracks, local to where she lives, in order to search out prospects to train for eventing — the discipline that tests horse and rider in dressage, cross-country jumping, and show jumping. Not all Thoroughbreds make it in racing, but with time and proper re-training they can be very successful in new careers. As with all things equine, the re-purposing process starts with a good temperament and the willingness to do the job.

“I dedicated this ride to Eight St. James Place — my daughter’s first four-star horse and an off-the-track Thoroughbred,” said Valerie. “He would never vet out, but he was successful, because he wanted the job. Jamie put my kid on the map and made Lainey the rider she is today. That horse never had a “no” in him. He would have done this ride and, with two days’ rest, he would have gone back out and done it all over again. Horses like that — they’re once in a lifetime and they show you, they pave the way. When I go back to the track for another prospect, I have Jamie’s type in my mind and I might think that a horse kinda reminds me of Jamie… That horse may not be the best mover, but he’s got this presence and a very confident way — I think, he might like this sport… But it won’t matter if the horse vets clean, if it’s a 10 mover, if the horse cost $350 or $10,000 or more — if the horse doesn’t want to be an event horse, we try to find the right job for him.”

Big Ride, Big Move

Primitivo and Solar Express stayed with Lainey at her new training facility, because Valerie’s relocating to Virginia to be closer to her daughter. She will also be based out of Keystone Acres Farm. Currently, back in California to finalize the sale of her farm, Valerie shipped the rest of her horses East before winter could make the mountain passes a nightmare. It’s a big change, but she’s looking forward to the future. She has several OTTBs to re-train, a 2-year-old to start, and a young horse that will make its debut at a lower level event. She also plans to help others find and train the OTTB of their dreams.

“I would like to educate the general public with candid videos,” said Valerie. “How I go into a race barn and why I choose the two horse that I want to take home, what I do with them when I get them home, how I start them once they have their lay-off time, and then Phase D — taking them to their very first event. I’m not going to do a dressage show, I’m not going to do a hunter show. I’m going to do an event. It’s not that I’m a phenomenal trainer or rider. I’ve been eventing half my life and never won anything. I’m lucky I made it to one-star, but I love what I do and I know how to bring along ex-racehorses. I think that Lainey and I have taken the most off-the-track Thoroughbreds from racetrack to Rolex. How we do it is what I want to share.”

The key, according to Valerie, is that you have to believe the horse can do it. “I really want to see each horse enjoy its job,” she said. “When you have a passion like this, it’s amazing the things that you can do, the mountains you can move. You have to spend time and understand this breed. You can’t just say, oh, get that new horse and bring him out for 20 minutes. There has to be a better plan than that. They have to be part of the family. They can’t just be a number. When you believe in the horse, the horse will gain confidence, and there’s nothing like a Thoroughbred that believes in itself. It starts because you want this horse to enjoy its job.”

It’s a win-win situation, especially when you start with an off-the-track Thoroughbred that has a good mind.

For more information: follow Valerie Ashker and 2nd Makes Thru Starting Gates, both on Facebook.

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