Not Retired Racehorses

Today, being muddy and swampy at home, was no day to train. I had to remove myself from the temptation. (“It’s sunny! I’m sure it’s drying up! There’s a dry patch! We’ll just trot a leetle tiny bit!”)

So, because my husband is super hard to convince to go to the racetrack (“We should go to the racetrack tomorrow!” “Okay!”) off we went to Tampa Bay Downs for some fast horses and some poor decisions.

Now you can learn so, so much from observing racehorses in their natural habitat. I couldn’t do half the things I manage with my horses now if I hadn’t done it already on the backs of yearlings and mature racehorses, or for that matter just grooming and handling them around the barns and at Thoroughbred sales. I’m not suggesting that everyone run out and acquire a job as a groom or an exercise rider – although it is pretty freaking amazing and you will learn a ton – but I will go so far as to suggest that you acquire HRTV or TVG or, better yet, both, and spend some time studying the way that these horses handle, learn, and live.

Last week we were talking about what I’ve decided we’ll call the Leap of Power, officially now and forever, and of course we know the tremendous power that the racehorse has to leap forward from a standstill. It’s what they do. It’s what they’re trained for. It’s a terribly unsound method of starting a race, as it’s hard on the horse, hard on the handlers, hard on everything, but it’s the only method we’ve got besides the wandering around, cantering up to the line, no-that-didn’t-work, everyone line up and let’s start again (see:Grand National Steeplechase.)

Horses at the break are bursting forward with all the energy in their hindquarters. The jockeys are sitting balanced over the withers, much like you might be going over a fence. Hands are pressed into neck or withers, eyes are forward, weight is in the knee and heel – look familiar?

It takes a few strides to balance, and notice these horses about five strides from the gate are still finding their comfortable stride. The riders are sitting in the middle of the horse, with their reins loose, letting the horse figure it out for himself.

Nice and loose, settling into stride without interference.

Which brings us to the question, when you ask your OTTB very nicely for something, say, to walk forward like the gentleman that he is, instead of staring into the distance at the Enemy Cows, and he responds instead with a Leap of Power, what do you do next?

You have a couple of options, and unfortunately most people go for the one that is most lucky to earn them a rear or a flip, and that’s haul back on the reins, freaking out and shouting. This is a natural reaction, but sometimes your instincts aren’t going to help you out. Why? Well, because you’re thinking like a human, for starters, and leaving out the horse’s instincts/history/training. Skip the instincts and go straight for rational thought. Your horse has leaped forward and bolting – so where is your horse’s brain now?

That’s right, headed for the first turn of some racetrack in their memory. Don’t confuse them. Bring them back slowly. Balance – go with it – and then stand up in your stirrups, lift your hands, rein back, and bring them back down as if you’re galloping out after the race. Questions? See any horse race. And study it.

Your OTTB isn’t always going to remember he’s in the jumping ring, or in the dressage arena. That’s just a normal fact of life. Every horse has moments. These are theirs. Ride to settle them, ride so that they remember their cues. “I gallop! Oh – and I stop.”



Filed under Stereotypes, Training Theory

8 responses to “Not Retired Racehorses

  1. Thank you for this post! I am guilty of responding as a human to the Leap of Power. And I have wound up eating dirt. This is excellent advice and I will be filing it away in my handy dandy tool kit for future use. Which I’m sure will happen sooner rather than later.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Guilty! You’re guilty! Haha!

      We’re all guilty of it. Some trainers suggest that because we, as humans, are smarter than horses, we should be able to reason our way out of training problems. But only if we’re reasoning in a way that the supposedly less intelligent animal can comprehend. . . right?

      Horse freaks out, thinks, “It’s go time!” and stretches out.

      Rider in turn freaks out, yanks back on reins, hollering.

      And horse goes, “But this is what I’m supposed to do?!?!” and of course you know where it ends. I don’t know about you but I have the marks on old hard hats to prove it. And the subsequent new hard hats as well.

  2. Barb Fulbright

    Funny (since it wasn’t me or my horse) story told about an OTTB at his first dressage schooling show who thought the ringing of the bell was the ringing of the gate and acted appropriately, he thought! Pretty easy to laugh about now!

  3. Pingback: When You’re Looking for the Safety Bar « Retired Racehorse

  4. Hee. 🙂

    I got bolted with once. It was on an outside course (remember those!) that was in the middle of a 1/2 mile training track (no rails). We were schooling, and I had to turn HARD coming off a line because some asshat didn’t hear the approximately 100 times I yelled “heads up outside line” and walked behind the jump just as it was too late for me to turn out of it.

    Needless to say, as we landed from a hard, messy turn in midair, my lovely TB engaged his leap of power, knocking my foot out of my stirrup, and the reins out of my hands, and grabbed the bit and decided to GO. I hung on for dear life, so much so that I couldn’t get the stirrup back and my hands had a death grip on his mane. Two perfect laps around the training track we went at full gallop, where he switched leads perfectly on his own. He finally decided it wouldn’t be very fun to run anymore about where the finish line would be (and facing a wall of horse show parents prepared to stop him).

    I remember thinking it was pretty appropriate that it was also Preakness Day for some reason 🙂

    Point is, even if I had the use of my reins, a death grip on his mouth wouldn’t have done a damn thing but get both of us hurt. I may not have intended to abandon the “human response” (and, of course, a faster recovery of the reins and being able to stand in the saddle would’ve been ideal) but it sure taught me to have patience when the “but I have to RUN!” mentality kicks in.

    • HAH good story! I love riding around training tracks… oh they know… they know!!

      I think a hugely important lesson for ANY rider of ANY age is how to stick with a galloping horse and not let fear overtake them. Having good balance and riding experience is a must for this, of course, but too many people live in fear of bolting when, barring any bizarre trails that lead over the edges of cliffs (or into spider’s webs) most bolts are simply going really fast for a few minutes.

      • Heck yeah they know. It’s even more exciting when a horse show is held ON a race track. “What do you mean I’m supposed to go into a pleasure class?!?! Aren’t I supposed to run?”

        Big YES to sticking with a galloping horse.It’s so funny what goes through your head. “oh crap. can’t get the reins. damn, he’s really moving. Are we going to run into someone? Huh, he’s running on the training track.” Then, as I was watching the scenery fly by I remember thinking very vividly that if I fell off it would HURT. BAD. REAL BAD. So, death grip. “Well, he has to stop eventually, right?” And he did. Then I got to hotwalk him. What a lucky mom I was.

        So really, having an OTTB was a plus in this scenario. Their incessant need to go left worked out for the best! 🙂

  5. Ah, yes.. the Leap of Power. I have been ceremoniously (and not so ceremoniously) dumped with that technique. Reasoning past the lizard in my brain only works sometimes.

    It is, however, quite lovely to watch him do it on his own–which he does periodically when I let him run loose in the arena when no one is around. Pure, explosive power. He says, I is LAUNCHING!!” I alter between awe and saying, “Ack! Please don’t hurt yourself!”

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