How To: Retraining a Racehorse
My apologies for taking so long to get this post finished, I have been having too much fun with the horse and blogging has taken a back seat, but not to worry I am back.
Well it was a full-on first 4 weeks for Shaft and myself as we start getting to really know one another and progress with his retraining.
It has been a steep learning curve for me this past month and I hope you enjoy reading about our progress in this second in the series of blogs - How To: Retraining a Racehorse. There have been some wonderful moment and I have made a few mistakes as well.
Working with horses has its ups and downs, sometimes daily. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows and in an effort to keep it real I will be sharing my mistakes as well as the successes.
OK so what have we been doing and how has it been going?
Before The First Clinic
If you have read my first blog How To Retrain A Racehorse you will know we were off to our first clinic together in late February.
Before we left I spent about 2 weeks working on the Seven Games with him. I am a strong believer that being able to control your horses feet on the ground is the best way to start with any new horse.
This gives you the opportunity to start building that partnership, showing your horse that he can trust you and that you are a strong and capable leader ... may be even one worth following.
You might recall in my intro blog I thought Shaft was a Right Brain Extrovert. If you are not familiar with the various quadrants of horsenality check out my blog Horsenality - What Is It?
I was wrong!
Don’t Jump To Conclusions
Even though I had been spending quite a bit of time with Shaft and working through the Seven Games, because of my innate personality (I am an Introvert) I hadn’t really pushed him hard enough to reveal his true personality.
I am a soft, go slow type of person. A good friend of mine reminded me while we were away at the clinic of my often quoted saying when I am working with my horses “I am giving him the benefit of the doubt”.
Some may see this as a cop out. So the horse is a bit slower to respond, or offers just a little but not much towards achieving what I have asked. And so I give the horse the benefit of the doubt, I am quick to accept and reward that response.
You see I find it hard to really up my energy, to be more demanding of my horses and to expect a snappier, more correct response. I know this about myself. I have been working on this side of my personality for the past 4 years since becoming a student of Natural Horsemanship.
You know the other saying “a leopard never changes its spots” well that’s pretty much what I have come to accept about myself and my horsemanship.
So because of my personality I wasn’t pushing Shaft out of his comfort zone to really see his true personality.
At the clinic my Coach and Mentor Pauline Cowey, did just that and what would you know Shaft is actually a Right Brain INTROVERT.
Right Brain Introverts - what’s the difference?
Right brain introverts are usually the least seen of the horsenalities. These horses are often called “bomb-proof” although perhaps not as much as the Left Brain Introverts.
Let’s deal with that term “bomb proof” straight away though. In my opinion there is no such thing as a bomb-proof horse. Horses are prey animals and through training and taking into account their inherent natures some horses will be less reactive than others, making them appear braver and less likely to spook and shy.
This doesn’t mean they can’t and won’t be reactive in different circumstances.
Also you shouldn’t use your horse's horsenality as an excuse for bad behaviour.
Knowing what horseanility your horse has is important, but as you can see if you get it wrong sometimes it isn’t a big disaster depending on how you naturally work with your horse.
In our case it turns out we are perfectly suited because Shaft needs a mellow calm natured person, high energy would tip him over the edge. I need a horse that doesn’t require me to up my energy and become the dominant one - it’s a win win for both of us.
So what have we been doing?
Taking an ex-racehorse away from home will often be a non-event because they are use to going to the races. They are used to experiencing new stalls, new horses around them and lots of commotion and people going too and fro.
But what I have found is Shaft’s tendency to be “looky” always in all new surroundings, but he will do it in his yard at home also.
By looky I mean he needs to visually investigate EVERYTHING. Not just things close to him but pretty much as far as the eye can see.
Because of his inherent nature he isn’t going to spook or become unruly, he just needs time to investigate and reassure himself that all is safe. If I push him at this time by moving his feet and demanding “come on do what I say you need to concentrate on me” he becomes worried because he hasn’t been given the time to absorb the surroundings.
Back to one of Pat Parelli’s often quoted saying “Take the time it takes so it takes less time”.
This is so relevant here, if I simply give him a few minutes to look around he can then concentrate on what I am asking and everything goes smoothly, if I don’t then we have to spend more time trying to work through the angst and worry the horse has unnecessarily developed.
Now this won’t work for every ex-racehorse you need to know your horse and act accordingly.
But I digress again - I have so much I want to tell you guys!
So this is relevant because when we got to our Instructors place I had to walk him around in the paddock for a good 30 minutes to allow him time to take in the new surrounds and become settled and feel safe.
Had I simply dropped him in the paddock and walked away there would have been a very high likelihood that he would have run through fences and generally ended up in a lather of sweat for no good reason.
This also became the theme for the 3 day clinic.
The first 2 days of the clinic we used agility obstacles as tools to help further cement the 7 Games and to teach Shaft to be more confident and braver in himself.
The image below is an agility obstacle called the car wash. With a Right Brain Introvert you need to be patient and wait. It is not about rushing through the obstacle, you present the challenge to the horse and allow them to work out the right answer which would be going through the gap.
During the clinic I learnt to give him the time and space to look and assess each obstacle before attempting it. It became very clear early on that if I was to push at the incorrect time his feet often became stuck and if I continued to push the explosion would occur.
It isn’t that he can’t understand what is being asked of him, he simply needs time to process his worry before attempting the task.
As the days progressed his trust in me increased exponentially and this is when you have a true partner with a right brained introvert. Once they trust you you can ask anything of them and they will willingly offer.
By the end of the 3 days Shaft was confidently passing through the car wash with all streamers down.
I want to show you a picture from the clinic of my friends sweet mare Luna. The image below represents everything a solid partnership can be. At first glance it's a horse with two feet on a pedestal, that's pretty cool but it's not the half of it.
Luna offered to put her front feet on the pedestal and then my friend parked (or ground tied) her. The mare stayed in that spot with no-one around her until told she could get down.
Her owner was within site but not in the arena, I was working Shaft so there was action going on but this mare is so confident in herself and her owner that she happily went to sleep until told otherwise.
Partnership guys, it benefits you and your horse!
We didn't just do agility obstacles either. Because he is such a good student we even started on some Straightness Training just to mix it up and keep him interested.
I wanted to share with you a video of my Coach Pauline working with Shaft. They are working on him coming off the pressure at his shoulder and stepping over. You can see how soft and light he is, which seems to be his inherent nature, even though this is the first time he has tried this.
Because Pauline is rewarding the slightest try he understands very quickly what is required of him and you can see the last time she asks how beautifully he responds.
The First Ride
We had only had one ride at home in the round yard before the clinic, time was just against us in this regard.
I only have two things I ask from every horse I ride - that he stands still while I get on and off and stops when I ask. If these two things are solid it will keep you safe most of the times you ever ride a horse.
So these were the only things we concentrated on for our first ride.
This ride revealed that Shaft definitely still had the mind of a racehorse. He found it difficult to keep his feet still at the mounting block but because he had had some experience in being mounted from a block he wasn’t too bad. BUT getting off was a whole different story!
As soon as I took my feet out of the stirrups the dancing and prancing started.
If you have watched any horse racing you will have seen the horses are constantly on the move. This might be small circles when legging the jockey up and then when they come back in from racing, full of adrenaline, the jockey jumps off while the horse is on the move also.
This is often all they have experienced, not just on race day but for track work also and it becomes learned behaviour. Not naughty behaviour, it’s simply the way their worlds are and this is acceptable behaviour for a racehorse.
Now all of a sudden I am saying “hey buddy this is no longer acceptable I need you to keep your feet still before I get off”. It was going to take some re-programming to help him understand there was a different way to be ridden.
And this is where another great saying comes into play “what you allow you encourage”.
So had I dismounted while his feet were still moving, and believe me sitting on a dancing thoroughbred without any stirrups is quite unsettling and all I wanted to do was jump off, I would have been telling him “yep this is OK, this is allowed and is still acceptable behaviour”.
So I sat there, trying to keep my emotions in check and breathing as deeply as possible, until his feet stopped. It may have only been a minute or so (it felt like 5 minutes lol) but his feet did eventually come to a halt and I was able to reward that by getting off.
I have had quite a few rides since then and it took only this one time for Shaft to understand if I take my feet out of the stirrups he is to plant his feet and stand still for me to get off.
He is one smart cookie this horse. We have taken to calling him "the unicorn" he is a rare and beautiful soul indeed.
Flexion and Disengaging
The other aspect we focused on was getting flexion and being able to disengage his hindquarters under saddle so I knew we had a stop button. I wanted to be sure I had some reliable brakes in a round yard before going out to a larger area. Self-preservation is high on my list of traits!
Flexion and disengaging I had already taught on the ground as part of his groundwork preparation for riding. Most of what you teach on the ground will translate under saddle but sometimes once you get in the saddle it highlights the gaps from your groundwork or things which need to be fixed under saddle.
It became obviously immediately that flexion in the saddle was an issue for Shaft. While he was extremely soft and light to flex on the ground, he became braced and tense when asked for it under saddle. This highlighted that he was unconfident in his ridden work which was to be expected.
Of course you would have ensured their are no physical issues which would prevent your horse from giving through the neck, and if so then the brace maybe because they are unconfident (as in Shaft’s case), they are showing signs of dominance by not allowing themselves to flex when asked or you are asking too roughly and getting push back from your horse.
Without putting too fine a point on it I wouldn’t recommend sitting on a horse that can’t or won’t softly flex his head towards you. It is a train-wreck waiting to happen.
If your horse can not softly flex his neck when you ask and they are just standing quietly, then when things go pear shaped and you ask them to disengage their hindquarters they may lean into the bridle and just keep going or you have an unbalanced horse trying to disengage but having a neck which is as stiff as a board and they will fall or trip over.
In Shaft’s case because I knew his flexion on the ground was good, there was no point getting off and doing more of it, the problem was only once I was in the saddle, and therefore I chose to fix it from the saddle.
Having said that the more solid his groundwork preparation had bee, and that I should have done, would have improved his trust in me and his confidence in himself and probably eliminated the brace from happening in the first place.
But I was up there by then, and while he was braced he wasn’t running away from the sensation, and so I chose to persevere from the saddle. Had he been I would have got off and fixed it from the ground.
Don’t be a hero. You have one brain and one body, there is no shame in getting off your horse to fix a problem. In fact it is the most sensible thing to do if you feel you can not handle the situation you find yourself in under saddle.
Another thing I have found with racehorses which again goes back to them being constantly on the move is that they can’t relax and just stand still under saddle. They are only ridden when there is work to be done, usually at speed, and they are not required to stand around with someone sitting on their backs.
So not only am I asking him to flex his neck I am asking him to stand still at the same time. For the first ride this was simply too much to ask and so we proceeded at walk to allow his feet to keep moving but turning in ever decreasing spirals, doing circles, figure 8’s all sorts of wavy movements around the round yard.
What you don’t want to do are long straight lines with an ex-racehorse. This simply encourages them to pick up speed and you will find it harder to engage their brain and therefore control their feet. Keep it round and in a smaller space if you have access to one.
As the ride continued and he realised that there was nowhere to go only round and round, that he wouldn’t be prevented from moving and that there was no pressure on his mouth (I have chosen to start him in a bitless bridle, but that’s a story for another time), he started to soften in his mind and then his body followed suit.
By the end of this first ride we were able to disengage his hindquarters and then move off immediately, giving me some brakes and a way to slow him down, but we couldn’t disengage to a complete stop.
As I said earlier in this blog I was happy to give him the benefit of the doubt and was very pleased with our first ride. He showed no vices, he was soft in the bridle and off my leg, and tried hard to do what I was asking even though it was contrary to everything he has ever known.
Takeaways from the first 4 weeks
Tip #1 - Groundwork
Do your groundwork, and make sure at the very least your flexion and disengaging are rock solid before you get in the saddle. There isn’t a time limit on this, do as much as you feel is necessary so that you know your horse is looking to you for direction and you can move his feet softly and reliably.
Tip #2 - Get Out of the Comfort Zone
Push your horse out of their comfort zone on the ground so you really know what you are working with. I am not advocating for flooding or extreme desensitising here, you are not trying to fry your horse's brain, but you do need to make them feel a little uncomfortable, take them just outside their comfort zone and see what happens. Do you get freeze or flight or fight?
Tip #3 - Using Circles
Use circles, serpentine's, figure 8’s any sort of round figure to help keep your horses feet moving, but at a slower pace than they might want. Do not try to prevent the forwards movement by hanging on your horse's mouth you will create nervous, unwanted behaviour.
If you are not confident enough to allow your horses feet to move freely, get off and do more groundwork or find someone who can to ride your ex-racehorse to start off with.
Tip #4 - Don't Judge
Don’t be too quick to judge your horse. Most horses will try their darnedest to understand what you are asking. Remember general riding is far removed from what your ex-racehorse is use too, everything you ask will likely be strange and unfamiliar. Just because they don’t comply doesn’t mean they are being naughty, trying to get one over you or not trying hard enough.
Try seeing things from your ex-racehorses perspective and tailoring your training to suit.
Where to from here
I have had Shaft for about 8 weeks all up now, and we have done another clinic just last weekend - introducing him to working with cows! That’s for my next blog, but suffice to say I was so very proud of how he handle it all.
He is proving to be a very sensible, but sensitive horse. His work under saddle is light and responsive and he has been a dream at home and to take anywhere so far.
He is one special horse and I am feeling very privileged to be working with him.
More of Shaft’s progress in the next blog coming soon, that’s if I can stay away from the stables for long enough to write it.