I hate routine, but it’s hard not to provide a horse with a little bit of one. It changes and evolves as the training process changes and evolves, sometimes lasting only a week or two before turning into something else altogether.
In January, Final Call was a green, goofy, racehorse, straight from the training center to my yard. The routine, by necessity, was more about tiring him out than anything. I like to look at it like this:
Month One: Wear your racehorse out.
My best friend is my round pen, but it was flooded out. Here I was with a green OTTB whom I had only ridden in a round pen previously. Trust me, controlled spaces are your best friend when dealing with a newly retired racehorse. You know this. I don’t have to tell you this. I was confronted with the prospect of riding in the paddock far sooner than I was comfortable with. But life is all about going outside your comfort zone. And longe lines. Life is all about longe lines. What a nice surprise, that someone had already taught Final Call to longe and voice commands. Twenty minutes on the longe line, fifteen minutes under saddle. Trot trot trot head in the air head in the air head in the air. Oh this is a treat, to be sure. But nothing surprising. And no bolting, possibly most important.
Month Two: Stretch that neck, old boy.
Nose on the ground, nose on the ground, everyone loves a green horse with his nose on the ground. Or something to that effect. Long and low! Magical words, to the dressage crowd. My horse stretches into the bit, what can your horse do? It’s counter-intuitive – you teach your horse to move into the bit, essentially, by annoying him with the bit and stopping the motion when he stretches into it. Horses crave stillness. Stillness means they’re not being bothered and hopefully soon you’ll get off and they can eat some grass. And so I wiggle the bit, and he stretches. He stretches so much he pulls the reins from my hands and I’m riding on the buckle. Which is an accomplishment, with racing reins.
Month Three – Alright, pick your head up already.
Finally completely over having the reins pulled from my hands when he stretches, and then tightening them when he picks his head up again, and then repeating this over and over for the next thirty minutes – see how my rides have progressed, we are up to half an hour! – I start pushing him into the bit and asking for half halts. Side reins become part of the daily longing session. This is not a popular idea with him, but it gets the job done. And circles. And serpentines. And halts. And trots. Ad nauseum.
Month Four – Get Bored, Start Jumping.
No more dressage! Can’t take any more dressage! BAHH! Actually I love dressage. That was Final Call talking. He needed something else to do with his day. Cavelletti join us in the paddock. New riding routine has progressed considerably – canters have ceased to be a prerequisite to get anything done. We have a much more normal schedule now – five minutes or so on the the longe, with side reins, as a warm-up, then straight into the trot. Lots of trot. Then some canter and some jumping as a reward for good behavior. Sounds like your riding lessons as a kid, doesn’t it? Follow it up with a winning ride at your first hunter pace. (Had to throw that in.)
Month Five – We are all grown up.
At last, a riding routine that might last longer than a few weeks. The longe line is retired and is slowly rusting over the washrack fence. We mount up, go for a long walk without stirrups or contact, and then segue into a nice forward trot, with some poles and canter work thrown in, for a warm-up. Then we get down to business. Whether that business is jumping (rarely) or canter transitions (often!) it is hard work. And then we take a nice long walk to cool out.