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Off the Track, Back on Track with Robyn Cuffey

Published: 10/6/2012
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By Maddy Butcher Gray

Harness racing is big in Maine. Every year, scores of horses head to the tracks in Scarborough and Bangor. Hundreds do poorly or never even make it to the starting gate. Not surprisingly, many end up in the rescue population.
The Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals has taken in dozens of racing’s Standardbreds and Saddlebreds over the years. Although reared for racing, these lean, athletic horses have great potential in any number of disciplines, including dressage, trail riding, and driving.
Who better to retrain them and provide them with a fresh start, than the founder of the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization of Maine?
Who better than a woman highly skilled as both a rider and a driver?

That woman is Robyn Cuffey, owner of Photo Finish Farm in Buxton.

Cuffey is working with her third MSSPA horse, a beautiful and unusually colored mare named Orla.
Described as “tough, smart, independent, and wary,” the 15-hand horse is nonetheless making steady progress. Her training and experience prior to coming to the Society are not well-known, so Cuffey has started from the ground up. The two are working together for an hour daily for up to two months.
It’s a slow, foundation-building process based in gaining trust and solid skills before advancing to any new territory. Sometimes, these rescued horses have to be ‘untrained,’ said Cuffey, noting that bad behaviors can be learned from unfortunate circumstances.
Whenever possible, Cuffey tries to have the new owner or adopter join these training sessions.
“I prefer to get people more involved,” she said. “It’s only to their advantage and it’s harder on the horse if the new adopter doesn’t know what we’re doing.”
Pairing Cuffey with Society horses, especially Standardbreds and Saddlebreds, makes for a great match, said Chief Operating Officer Meris J. Bickford.
“She’s able to quickly recognize the horses’ issues and riding potential. She’s absolutely perfect for our horses,” said Bickford, who met Cuffey years ago through their mutual involvement with the SPHO (Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization of Maine).

Cuffey started riding as a teenager in Gorham. She delivered newspapers on horseback and would ride to the library and grocery store. At age 25, she got her first taste of driving. A woman showed her how to rig up the harness and then left. That was it for instruction, recalled Cuffey with a laugh.
Admittedly, Cuffey said she didn’t have a clue when she first started. Now, she’s the author of two books (“Retraining The Harness Racehorse” with Mary A. Donovan-Wright and “The Essential Guide to Carriage Driving” with Jaye-Allison Winkel).
Teaching a horse to drive requires a whole new set of skills. Good saddle horses won’t necessarily make good driving horses. The same goes for their people.
Putting a cart behind a horse, said Cuffey, “is like tying a bunch of soda cans to its tail and then saying, ‘Don’t Run!’ Driving horses have to be very accepting of the environment. Not spooky.”
Grand Prix rider and clinician Judy Westlake has instructed Cuffey for 15 years. She said her driving talents and experience make Cuffey a better rider. “It really helps her to make the horse more obedient and accepting of rein contact. It’s nice to work with someone like Robyn who understands that.”
Most recently, Westlake watched her make significant progress with a “particularly naughty warmblood,” said the expert.
“He went from jumping out of the arena to doing Level Three work. It all had to do with what she understands.”
Certainly, the tough, petite Mainer has ridden her share of bucking fits and skirmishes. At this stage of her life, she finds she “rides for work and drives for pleasure,” said Cuffey, who is 58. She’s ready to hand over the crazier horses to younger riders.
“I’m running out of body parts,” she laughs. Typical days have her training horses for six to eight hours before moving on to lessons with students.
Her prized ‘mare pair’ for driving is Soprano and Alto, another two harness racing castoffs. After multiple combinations, she found these two blend beautifully in color (they’re both bays), temperament, and pace.
“When we head down the road, it sounds like I have one horse.”
Hats off to you, Robyn!

View Reader Comments:

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10/7/2012 Chris
Kudos to Robin and the MSSPA! Is Orla a saddlebred?
10/7/2012 Brenda Bryant
That was a good article. Go Robyn
10/7/2012 Janice Hill
Yes, Orla is a saddlebred. My name is Janice and I'm adopting Orla! I am very excited that Orla is training with Robyn. I find Robyn to be very calming. She has horse and people smarts. That combination makes for a great trainer. I am hoping to bring Orla home within the next couple of weeks!
10/7/2012 Judy St.Onge
Wonderful story about a wonderful horsewoman. The mention of delivering papers on horseback brought back fond memories of a couple of horse crazy girls and two awesome first horses. Good job Robyn!
10/8/2012 Jocelyn Howe
I had the pleasure of meeting Orla several times. Right away, I noticed her unusual color and spirit. I know Janice is the perfect match and will give her a great home and life

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