Working the ‘Race’ Out of Your Ex-Racehorse

Part II
By Krista S. Bracken

Façade. A name full of grace and intrigue to a young girl learning all about racehorses. He was a beautiful black leggy beast with a heart of gold, and hooves of steel. I remember the feel of his powerful body flying along; barely touching the earth as the sand flew up around us. I can still feel the lash of his mane against my face and smell the heat of his body as we circled that track, racing the wind and ourselves. Sheer exhilaration coursed through my body every time we set foot on the track, and after a work I would leap to my own feet, standing on legs that seemed somehow inadequate in comparison to the absolute power of the graceful animal beside me.

Transitioning Façade into a show jumper was a learning experience for both of us. He was a classically beautiful horse with a ‘look at me’ type of beauty. Conformationally he was an outstanding specimen. Learning how to put the brakes on him was a real experience. Teaching him how to accept my legs spanned a great many lessons and today I look back on all I learned, grateful for the patience of one amazing horse whose beauty on the outside was outdone only by the beauty on the inside.

Here are some of the lessons I learned:

1. Squeeze if you want to rodeo - learning to accept the leg aides:

Most racehorses have no idea what the leg is for. When they come off of a track the closest thing to a leg they have ever felt is perhaps an overly large exercise rider or perhaps a tall rider back on the farm. Some horses that come from the fancier barns do learn leg aides before race training, but this is not the norm. Teaching an OTT TB how to accept the leg is a process that grows as the horse learns.

Racehorses only understand three directional aids, go, turn and stop. We covered how to teach your OTT to accept the bit in our first installment. Your job as a rider is to teach your horse to accept your leg and seat as an aide in helping him learn he has other directional ability. Racehorses will often come right off your leg if you ask for a yield. Wow! Imagine a totally green horse that leg yields! This is not a schooled reaction, it is a ‘flight’ reaction. Your OTT is trying to get away from the pressure so he is actually evading your leg. What you want is a horse that responds to the leg because he understands the command you are giving, not because he is trying to escape it.

First things first. When starting work with OTT’s I always recommend the use of a double pad system. Meaning a fitted pad and perhaps a square pad under that. Secondly I believe in putting a fleece cover on the girth. Remember these horses have never worn a saddle like what you will be asking them to work in. All they have ever known is a small saddle with a light girth and an overgirth. The jockeys and exercise riders are light and few of us in the real world are as small or skinny as they are!

When starting out with your new OTT remember that you shouldn’t ask too much too fast. When you are using the clues and tips I provided in my first installment you will want to ride with a quite leg. Let the horse learn to accept the feel of your legs before you begin to ask him to accept commands.

Gradually your horse will begin to accept the bit, and leg aides. Start with simple aides, use an outside leg when you turn. A soft leg that is placed slightly behind the girth will work best. Make the most of that outside aide, as you are working on simple changes of directions begin to incorporate the inside leg every so often. Remember the horse may feel trapped between the pressure of both legs and most exracers will go up if they feel they can’t go forward or sideways or backward, so keep the pressure soft.

You will begin to use your seat during your walk/trot, trot/walk transitions so that your horse will learn that you will not ask him to stop with your hands but with your body. He will quickly learn that the feel of you deep in your saddle means he should engage and elevate. Try working at the walk, pulling your shoulders back so they are aligned above your hips and sitting deeply. If you do not get a response, they you should begin to ask with a soft half halt. Remember the idea here is that you want to stop the horse’s forward momentum, but only for a split second. He should carry himself and transition down once you have asked with the half halt… and keep your eyes up!

Once your horse has learned to accept the pressure of your seat you will begin to phase in the leg aides. Remember, before now, you were only using your legs to squeeze your horse forward, so he will associate pressure with going. However, if you have begun to incorporate the seat aide and you are using it effectively, your horse will begin to understand you are asking for a transition downward. Sit deeply and apply a soft supporting leg, he should understand that you are not asking him to go but asking him to balance back, round up and elevate his front end so that he can slow down.

This technique is the beginning of collection. By teaching the horse to rock back, elevate and stop from back to front you are building the basics for future work in a shorter frame. The idea will be to have more power in the hind end. However, collection is a difficult stage to move into correctly and should not be attempted until your horse is firmly schooled in the very basics of flat work and has learned how to stretch down and go long and low.

Once you are able to begin applying your leg to the horse as you ask for a halt you are half way there. Don’t forget your body, or your seat or your hips! Remember to be an effective rider you have to use every part of you, especially your brain! So now you are working on simple direction changes and you are phasing in the inside and outside legs as you turn, placing the outside leg slightly behind the girth and the inside leg at the girth.

Exracers usually put the pieces of riding together quickly. They have willing hearts, soft mouths and tender bodies. It is their only desire to do the things that will make their own work easier. Keep these thoughts in mind as you ride. You will begin to really see and feel your exracer responding to the use of your seat, legs and hands in turning and transitioning.

Once he has learned to circle and accepts the leg pressure you will now move onto more advanced work. Ride on a circle and using your leg aides ask your exracer to come onto the outside aides. Working from inside to outside is an important step in the training process. You will use an inside leg and supportive inside rein that will shift the horse to his outside aides. By using your inside leg and rein and asking the horse to come to the outside aides you are creating a more responsive and subtle horse.

From these simple lessons you will build. You will gradually phase in the downward transitions at all gaits using a deep seat/supporting leg to help your horse balance. Remember you must always move slowly and don’t push your horse. He will be building completely new muscles and tearing down old ones. He may still have days where he is hot and hard to ride and he may have days where he is brilliant! As a rider you will have those days too be patient with him, because I assure you he will try his best to be patient with you!

Remember that retraining is asking your exracer questions he doesn’t know the answers to. It is up to you to make sure he is able to find those answers. So make sure YOU know what you are asking for and how to achieve the results you want. If you have never worked with an exracer before, seek the help of an experienced professional who has. Most importantly ride safely and have fun!

For Part I Click HERE.