Photo Credit: Chris Gooden

Third generation horsewoman Missy Rothfuss has had the magic touch with her horses, from retired Quarter Horses to Standardbreds, throughout her Outriding career of over 20 years. Taking the old expression “you can never have too many shoes” and revising it to “you can never have too many horses”, Missy has been working with retired racehorses and teaching them the ropes of Outriding since she started at the Meadows Racetrack in 1996.

Harness Racing has always been in her blood. “When I was in high school, Race Secretary Tom Leisure asked my mom, Sharlene Dufford, if I would be able to help out as an Outrider,” she remembered, adding that she was showing jumping horses at the time. “My high school principal arranged my schedule in the afternoon so I could ride Qualifiers”. Starting out, she had what she called “a bad horse” who threw her off as she was catching a loose horse, all caught on tape by the TV department at the Meadows, explaining that unfortunately, not every horse is cut out for the job. She then bought a Quarter Horse named Henry, who she said had never done that type of work before but wasn’t afraid of the challenge, so together they learned from the ground up.

Soon, drivers George Brennan; Brian Sears; Ray Paver; and Donny Rothfuss started to help with her training by bringing her “wicked, evil, crazed horses” to learn from, teaching her how to do the job. She’s been at the Meadows ever since, and along with husband Jim, she has a stable of 16 horses, some racing and some for Outriding.

Training for outriding is extensive and requires a lot of patience, starting with walking the horses on the backside among the horses returning from jogging to gauge their reactions, watching to see if they are focusing, and remaining calm. If they are adapting well, the next step she does is to pony them with one of her horses in a jog cart, with Jim driving, on the backtrack. Once they are comfortable, Missy heads to the main track so they can watch the horses jogging and then eventually, riding Qualifiers. “Each horse responds differently”, she explained. “My Paint took right to it, eager to work, but his biggest problem was learning to stop when I wanted him to stop, not when he wanted to stop,” she laughed. “I work on their weaknesses and make sure that every time is a good experience for them, so that way, when I do need them, they’ll trust me enough to go after that loose horse or go into that horse that’s freaking out”.

Missy Rothfuss and Tia Shafer, Outrider at the Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono

Missy has worked with retired Standardbreds and Quarter Horses, and in the past, a few retired Thoroughbreds. “My one little trotter we have, I’m retraining him to be an Outriding horse”, she said, adding that she gets along great with the breed. “I lean more toward working with them and Quarter Horses as opposed to the retired Thoroughbreds. Tia Shafer, (Outrider at the Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono), does an amazing job with her Thoroughbreds, but Standardbreds and me are a better fit. I love working with them! “ Missy said emphatically.

Quarter Horses are laid back, tough, and hard workers, she said, but can only run for a quarter-mile, so she tries to find cross-breds to retrain for Outriding. “Salem, my old horse, is a Standardbred/Quarter Horse, so he has the best of both worlds; the endurance of a Standardbred, with the quick speed of a Quarter Horse. I really love that cross,” Missy explained. Her latest investment is a Paint, who she describes as “the next Salem”, just as quick and smart and who has taken to the job almost overnight. “He just rode in the Breeders Crown at Hoosier Park with Jazmin Arnold”.

Although she wasn’t riding him at this year’s Breeders Crown, Missy was featured in two at Pocono, in 2013 and 2018, which she describes as one of the highlights of her career. She was accompanied by her trusty horse Salem at both editions, and in 2013 she also brought her Palomino, who was comfortable with carrying the flag and standing at attention in front of the crowd.

Photo Credit: Chris Gooden

Missy attends a lot of the auctions, searching for horses that catch her eye and that she can rescue and retrain for outriding. She found her Paint at an auction in Ohio, and her husband Jim insisted she buy him after they saw him jump up the cattle shoot and then stand patiently. After treating him for an injury, he was ready for Little Brown Jug week.

Looking ahead to the future, she and Jim will continue to manage their stable and keep looking for horses to add to their racing operation. “We tend to go with the good-bred horses that the bigger stables didn’t do well with,” she said, adding that Jim is really good with the “project horses”, those needing more time and confidence.

She remembers something that trainer Ron Burke once said to her. “Ronnie said the best thing to me. You’re asking your horse to go into a group of horses and run and be the hero and stop and pull up. You’re going against their natural instinct to run. What Outriders teach their horses to do is unbelievable”, she remembered. “When my horses make the cut, and we are out there, we become one, and we listen to each other.” Undeniably excellent at outriding, as well as retraining horses to work with her on the track, Missy Rothfuss’ future unquestionably includes more horses, the more challenging to retrain, the better!

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