Sarah Hepler, Retired Racehorse Project

RRP Feautred Rider: Sarah Hepler

How did you get started retraining OTTBs (or horses in general) and is this your first year as part of the Makeover? What is your discipline area?

So, I have somewhat of an interesting story. My very first horse way back in 1990 was a 20 yr old OTTB. He- my dad says literally- saved my life. You see, in June of that year, I was in a car accident. My arm was severed and needed to be amputated. I had suffered a pretty severe head injury and my doctors told my parents that I likely wouldn’t wake up. My dad whispered in my ear that if I woke up, he swore that he would buy me my first horse.

Sure enough, with that promise, I woke up. A few months later, he purchased Speak No Evil for me. As I was struggling to adjust to life with one arm, I found riding was something I could still do just as well as before- I rode hunt seat at the time and my trainer had some bridged reins concocted for me. Speaker compensated for me in so many ways, including being amazing at talking the bit! Forever after that, I was hooked on OTTBs! I have had many over the years, but the two I have now are forever horses that will never ever leave me. This is my first makeover, and Princess Alisha (more affectionately called Birdie) and I will be competing in dressage.

How did you find your horse for this year’s makeover and why did you pick them? What do you feel is the horses strongest quality? The weakest quality?

My gelding was struggling with some health issues, so I wanted to find a second horse to ride in case he couldn’t overcome them. I went out with the amazing ladies of Finger Lakes Finest at the Finger Lakes Race Track in Farmington, NY. They are a trainer listing service. I was hoping to find my dream horse before they were listed as all the ones I wanted seemed to sell before I could get to them.

After seeing around 15 horses, we stopped at Princess Alisha to take her listing. It was love at first sight! I couldn’t walk away from the sweet, petite mare. Her strongest quality is by far her brain. She is the quietest, most sensible (and sweetest!) horse I’ve ever had the luck to work with! Her weakest quality is that she is definitely built a bit downhill and even early in her training I can tell it is going to be a struggle to get her moving more upright and from behind. But that’s a small price to pay compared to all her other amazing qualities!

What is your favorite thing about the Retired Race Horse Project’s Makeover?

The awareness that it has brought to the breed! At the Makeover, horses compete in disciplines that typically don’t see a lot of thoroughbred participation! I love that this show proves that they are versatile and can be used in so many ways!

What words of wisdom or advice would you give people thinking about retraining horses?

Take. Your. Time. Every horse progresses at their own pace. Don’t rush it just to meet some arbitrary deadline. Birdie and I may not be as far in our progress in October as others, but she is a happy girl, and her happiness is most important to me. We have a long future ahead of us, and October is just one stop on our journey.

Do you have any funny stories from your work retraining this year’s horse?

I guess not a specific story, but I always chuckle that my soon-to-be-4 year old off the track filly is the horse that EVERYONE at the farm wants to ride (even the beginners!), and she has toted around true beginners.

What is your greatest challenge as a rider/trainer in this year’s RRP makeover? How do you plan on overcoming this challenge?

My greatest challenge is personal and it is to stop comparing myself, and our progress, to other trainers. I am not a professional, and by no means do I have the experience that other trainers have, but sometimes I see videos of some of these incredible riders and how much further they are than Birdie and me, and I get very discouraged. I’m trying to overcome this by remembering that every horse progresses at their own pace and trying to just keep this in mind!

How can our readers connect with you and follow your progress with the RRP?

We are on Instagram and Facebook (as will be listed below) but I welcome anyone to email me at! I LOVE connecting with people!

Please share your social media profiles with us so we can tag you in our publicity of the feature.
Instagram: @birdiegoestotherrp

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