When I was younger, it seemed that racehorses were the noblest of creatures. They were always so elegant, beautiful and well turned out for the races I watched on TV. I couldn’t imagine any other horse that would stir the imagination, the heart or the pulse the way a thoroughbred at top speed could.
It only made sense that as I grew and learned my path would eventually lead me to working with racehorses. At the age of 16, I undertook the actual conditioning and training of a track thoroughbred. His name was Façade and at one time in his life he had run in a Stakes race in Louisiana. Now he had been brought to me for conditioning and race preparation. His owner hauled us to the local schooling track for our works and stood at the rail clocking each one of our works. Because of my age, I was not able to obtain a trainers’ license so Façade ran under the name of another trainer in his races.
I have never learned so much, so fast as I did in working with that horse! When you are hurtling along a deep sand track at top speeds, cutting along the rail, and he is there at your touch… it is amazing and humbling. It also teaches you a deep and unyielding respect for the thoroughbred racehorse. I have spent many years since then working with horses that are fresh off the track, teaching them to be ‘just horses’ and most of them ‘show horses’. Façade was my teacher in more ways then just one. When his racing days were over, we made the trek from racehorse to show horse together. Many have followed in his wake; none will ever give me the same gifts I am blessed with today because of him.
Here are some of the lessons I learned:
1. Pull harder if you want to go faster - teach your TB to accept rein pressure as a command:
Yes, that’s right! You will find that most racehorses have been taught to lean into the pressure of a rider’s hands when they run. They use the rider almost as a fifth leg - imagine yourself running with an all out effort, you lean as you run, sometimes you might stumble or fall if you get too ‘forward’. Well a racehorse is using his jockey’s hands for support and balance.
Although popular thought is that they can’t, a racehorse knows how to walk (sometimes it’s a jig) and they usually can canter beautifully; although it is with a strong rein. Of course they know how to run that is what hey are bred and trained for. Believe it or not they know how to stop too! The ‘problem’ is that a racehorse doesn’t have to stop like a regular riding horse at the track. He is asked to come down to a controllable gallop, then a canter/trot then after that a walk. He knows how to do this; it makes sense to him. What doesn’t make sense to him is stopping immediately - not even stopping within 200 meters! On the track a fast stop means wear and tear on delicate legs that have to hold up to pounding every day of training. So a long gradual stop is the rule.
When training an ex-racehorse to accept your commands for slowing down, you have to be patient and compassionate. Your hands are your communication lines. Keep things simple; ask for things that are in his range to grasp. Work in a ring if you can when you are starting to train your horse. A smaller area is not only safer for you but keeps his head out of ‘the race’. He is used to a saddling area, he knows this isn’t where he runs, this is where he is mounted and walked. Use that to your advantage.
Ask him for a walk, ask him to change directions, ask him to make turns. Don’t goose him with your legs; remember that your horse doesn’t KNOW what a leg is for. He probably hasn’t felt one in a long time (if ever). Be soft with your hands and your heels and go slowly. As you work on turning and circling etc, begin to gradually work in half-halts. A single rein halt is probably going to be the most effective method at first, because your horse will say ‘hey, what’s that mean? One rein?” Don’t expect him to settle and balance with your half halts. Expect only a ‘disruption’ of his forward motion and a moment where he computes what you are seeking exactly. Use this tool at the walk - but only if he becomes forward or fast. Don’t hang in his mouth. Keep a soft supple contact while you work him. Use the half halt on your turns particularly, they will help (by their very nature) to balance him. If he becomes very strong, use a full half halt (both reins). Think of a two rein half halt as your emergency break.
Gradually as you begin to see him accept the half halts as a means of slowing his forward motion you will want to begin work at the trot. Again, use the same technique. Work on a LOT of transitions. Begin by trotting for only 4 or 5 strides and then going back to the walk. Use a quick succession of half halts to ask for a transition. They should be firm not ‘grabbing’, remember the idea here is to accustom him to your hands, to your desire to slow down within a set distance. Don’t be upset if he takes a while to slow down. Don’t be worried if it takes him 10 strides to go to a walk when you were shooting for only a 4-stride trot. It will take him a while to understand what you want. By doing the transitions up and down and only allowing him a few strides of the trot, he won’t become overly excited and will learn you only expect him to work slowly at these gaits.
While you work on the transitions and acceptance of the bit, you should begin infusing the lessons with change of directions (i.e. large figure 8’s and serpentines). Also work on large circles, staying balanced and quiet is the goal so make sure that the circles are big enough to discourage leaning in. Everything you do at this phase will translate into the work you do later. So remember you are building a foundation for your horse to grow from.
When you begin the canter work it should be done in the ring and only on straight stretches at first. Canter work shouldn’t begin until you can do solid up and down transitions at the walk and trot. Your horse should have a grasp of the half halt and what you expect from it. Work on going from a trot to a canter and only go for two or three strides then use the successive half halts to come back down to the trot then to the walk. Remember that walk to canter transitions are good ways to incite an ex-racer to RUN and that canter to walk transitions are physically demanding and do not teach your horse that he can accomplish the goals you have set for him easily.
It will be slow going. Sometimes you will get on and think, “What have I spent the last 3 weeks doing with him? Did he forget it all?” There will be days he won’t seem capable of walking much less doing reasonable transitions. On the ‘hard’ days, take it down a notch. Put him on the lunge, let him blow off some steam. Remember there will be times when you aren’t able to give him 100% of yourself, so be fair. He is an athlete (and if he hasn’t had let downtime, he is a finely tuned machine with a lot of energy to burn) and he needs to use his nervous fuel some way. Let him loose in the ring before you ride, give him a day out in the pasture with his buddies! Let him spread his legs and fly a bit! Remember, for every day you make strides forward - you may have 2 where you feel like you are starting all over again.
Have faith; know that the lessons and your patience will pay off. When you are able to take your OTT TB out and canter with out fear, managing a controlled stop… well then EVERY day will have been worth it to you and to him too! For every day you dedicate yourself to teaching him what you expect by going slowly and consistently, it is a day you invest in his future and in your own well being.
In the next installment: 2. Squeeze if you want to rodeo - learning to accept the leg aides: