Nowhere to Go But Up

In keeping with the conversation on the Leap of Power – and breaking from starting gates – it’s nice to remember the Thoroughbred mantra: move move move.

Bred into them over the centuries, there is no escaping the genetic power of bloodline. These are horses that were selectively bred for one purpose, and excuse me for saying so, but that purpose is not to halt at X and stand like a Roman statue while you salute the judge.

But Thoroughbreds excel at sport, no? Of course they do, because just like your first, utterly confusing dressage instructor told you, all that energy and power can be funneled in the direction that you want. It’s catching lightning. It’s guiding quicksilver. It’s an art, and anyone with sensitive hands and seat can learn to do it.

Of course, what you really have between your hand and your seat is an explosive combination of body and brains, with the constant need to survive and move working against your best intentions. While the dream is to have a horse that trusts you implicitly and will cheerfully do whatever is asked, the reality of the herbivore’s flight nature always has to be respected.

When the flight response is awakened – then you see the fireworks!

We talked about letting the retired racehorse have space to find himself when he loses his mind and begins working on instinct and experience. What happens when you don’t?

Waiting to load. Think of the in-gate. Some are worriers, some relaxed.

I was watching a race on television several months ago. It was a fairly cheap claiming race for fillies and mares at Charles Town, West Virginia, where they happen to race under the lights. I don’t know anything about this filly, whether she had raced there before, whether she had a problem with the shadows of the gate, whether she just really hated the world that night, or what the story was, but she was vehemently refusing to go into the starting gate. She froze. While she kicked out viciously with one hind leg at a time, she stood still with the other three legs, head up, ears pricked, eyes wide and unseeing. As my old trainer of backing-up fame used to say of Rillo, she was “playing that tape”  in her head.

The next track on that tape was probably the “Spin and Run for Safety,” single, but before she could cue it up, a member of the gate crew gave her a mighty crack with a leather lead shank. It was ill-advised, unattractive, and completely the wrong thing to do. The filly bolted forward and found herself in the gate. “Watch that filly flip over,” I said to the sleeping dogs on the floor, who ignored my genius as always.

It only took a moment for the terrified filly to realize she was shut in the gate, to frantically search her tapes for the next move, and to come up with the first and last answer a horse has got: Move! So she moved – but where do you go in a starting gate? Up. And over.

No one was hurt – not even the filly – as they freed her flailing body and unloaded the other horses. She was looked over by the vet as they stripped her tack, and the jockey went trudging off with the saddle and cloth, tiny on the horse-scale of the racetrack. And as she went moping back to the barn, the other horses broke angelically from the gate, ran, won, came in last, were claimed and handed off to new trainers, or went back to their own stalls for a snooze in the straw. There was no drama in their lives that day, nothing had set them off, no one had failed to understand them, no one had denied them the opportunity to stay in motion, and they were permitted to do what they loved. If only that filly had been so lucky!

The moral of this story, kids, is that motion, like nature or love or an electric bill, finds a way. Sometimes it is forwards. Sometimes it is up. Which do you prefer? Stop. Think. Read your horse. Think like your horse.



Filed under Stereotypes, Training Theory

2 responses to “Nowhere to Go But Up

  1. Ugh, the dreaded tape. My quarter horse mare has one of those playing in her head. Her tapes says, “when alone, haul a$$ back to the barn, NO MATTER WHAT!” Getting that tape off repeat has proven to be extremely difficult.

    Had you been at the starting gate would you have tried to back that filly to snap her out of it?

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      That’s a good question and I don’t know the answer. It can be rude to second-guess someone’s decision when you weren’t there. I will say this. When you see a horse assume that deer-like stance, square with head straight up, and they aren’t responding to any stimulus at all, you must move their feet. And it is easiest and safest to move their front feet. I’d like to say that I’d shove and shove at her shoulder until I got her to at least turn on her haunches. That’s what I have done in similar, high-stress situations. It’s useful for taking an explosive horse off-balance without the disruption that backing them might cause. In this situation, the crew could not have backed her for ten or fifteen minutes to break the cycle – and obviously since it is exhausting, they would not have wanted to. But moving the feet from side to side can be useful as well.

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