They’re Not Warmbloods, and That’s Okay

After the previous day’s work, which was long and strenuous and a bit stressful, I wanted to keep today’s ride short and sweet. I felt like he’d gotten a bit balled up and tight, which led to our argument in the first place. That my own stress level is creeping higher and higher by the day was certainly no help at all.‬

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Thoroughbreds, the fact is , are too bright for their own good. They learn too quickly. One of the more interesting training dilemmas I’ve run into is that old Warmblood Trainer divide. You know the one: So-and-so is only good as a Warmblood Trainer. No good with Thoroughbreds.‬

Pshaw, you think. No such thing. How dare they imply that Thoroughbreds aren’t good enough to work with So-and-so? So-and-so has gone to a dozen Olympic games and won thirty-seven USDF Platinum Diamond-Encrusted Medals. And he speaks GERMAN. He should be begging to work with your genius Thoroughbred!‬

For a while, all is sweetness and light. Literally, sweet gaits and light frame. Your horse is truly a dressage genius. You are about to crack the Training Level ceiling at last.‬

And then – yawing gaping mouth! Heavy head like a sack of bricks! Ears in your mouth when you ask for a nice halt! Where did my budding First Level dressage horse go?‬

He had a hot-blooded little nervous breakdown, that’s what happened.‬

As some of you commenters have noted before, OTTBs tend to prefer low hands, down on the withers. But the classical dressage seat calls for high hands, and this leads to a tension that will simply ball the unprepared Thoroughbred up into a tense little disaster.‬

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Then it’s back to long, forward movement with the most gentle, low, open fingers you can manage, to let the horse stretch out and feel comfortable again. It isn’t a difficult fix – the key is to avoid a relapse. Sometimes that means talking back to the So-and-so dressage trainer.‬

“Raise your hands!”‬

“No!”‬

Like any bright child, Thoroughbreds can be pushed over the edge fairly quickly, and they’ll keep smiling as they trot right up to the edge and tumble over. The line between cheerful hard worker and nervous breakdown disaster is very, very fine and crumbly at the edges. The thoughtfulness of adding long and low, easy days to their routine, and recognizing immediately when contact is resented, is usually enough to keep them back on firm ground.‬

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The thing about planning short rides, as I’ve said here before, is that the horse always throws some sort of fit about something and you feel honor-bound to fix the problem, and it turns from a half hour into ninety minutes before you know what hit you.‬

I think that sometimes it can be easy to forget just how low expectations can be set. I wanted to set the bar so low today, he couldn’t even trip over it. Give me a long, low frame at the trot, give me a nice easy canter, give me a halt or two, and I’ll give you a shower and a carrot.‬

‪Deal. With a smile.‬

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9 Comments

Filed under Dressage, Training Diary, Training Theory

9 responses to “They’re Not Warmbloods, and That’s Okay

  1. Laurie Bochner

    One of my friends owns a big Warmblood. So big I have to turn the block on end to get on him. He likes an argument, he picks fights, he has an opinion on everything, we expect this. My TB is a charmer most of the time so when he decides he’s had enough everyone is taken off guard. I’ve learned that a little diplomacy goes along way.There’s no point in going head to head because he simply will not come back once he has crossed that line. The Warmblood you can fight with he expects it and more importantly respects it if you stand your ground. Trooper on the other hand gets mad and stays mad. I am happy with the little victories, stay open minded and try to finesse him into thinking that it was his idea all along.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      So true, great point!

      I once rode a little Thoroughbred cross. Her Thoroughbred side wanted to be an athletic demon. Her cross side wanted to go back to the barn and eat hay.

      You had to pick a fight with her before every work-out. It was amazing. You had to kick her and smack her and jab her mouth – seriously! And then she’d put her head down and work like an angel. It was insane. I loved her. Talk about a quirky mare.

  2. Oh thank goodness I’m not crazy! I’ve been riding my OTTB w/o the benefit of a trainer (I know, bad, very very bad)-and I KNOW my hands are “too low” and my fingers are not closed…something I used to get yelled at for all the time on my last horse. But Miles doesn’t LIKE it when I close my fist-honest I can feel the difference exactly as you’ve described:)

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Oh no you’re not crazy! I think it’s one of the first tenets of OTTB riding, loooooose fingers and loooooow hands. Go back to the first few entries on this blog, we talk a bit about it there. So happy you joined us. Love the name.

  3. Ahhh…yes, so very true indeed. There is a difference of night and day in Gabe’s attitude and willingness when I move my hands up and close my fingers. He does not like it one bit.

    So, we’ll just keep the hands low, the fingers open and sloppy and I’ll have a happy, willing TB every day of the week. We won’t be winning any equitation classes any time soon, but I am quite alright with that!

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Why bother with Equitation? The Equitation riders certainly don’t anymore. Smirk. The closest I’ve been to a showring is the cover of Practical Horseman at the feed store and it does not show me things that I want to see. But hey, if you want to jump a course of fences with dressage-length stirrups, that is your call. I choose to jump them all with XC length, so who am I to talk?

      I once had Bonnie in a tight little ball of dressage disaster. I was riding with a German man. She was up to lead changes and then her mind started to go. I suddenly realized that I had my hands up as if she were a Grand Prix master. I dropped them. He yelled at me. I quit riding with him.

  4. blob

    There’s definitely a middle ground there. I’m a dressage rider who’s worked with several OTTB and know first hand that a TB can do just as well even with “correct” hand placement. The trick lies in all those riding books we got as kids that outline correct position with lines that we all later forgot about. But any good trainer SHOULD remind us. There should always be a straight line elbow to bit– especially in dressage and this helps maintain the correct frame. A training or first level horse has a longer, lower frame, therefore our hands should also be longer and lower. At this stage fingers a little loser is good– it encourages horses to seek the bit and come through over the back and start building those muscles that will eventually bring the shoulder up. Once you start getting into 2nd level, and especially once you’re safely into 3rd level category, the horse’s frame should be higher and so should your hands. But this is only after the horse has built the proper strength through his back and hindquarters to carry himself that way. You can get away with trying to force carriage a horse isn’t ready for more easily with some horses and with some breeds. Most tbs don’t let you cheat that way. I think it’s easy for riders, and sadly for trainers too, to get caught up in visualizing grand prix horses and riders and aiming for that right off the bat. Yes, those riders have high hands– but they also have a serious amount of collection (and full bridles).

    OTTBs don’t let you cheat the steps and good for them. But a good trainer shouldn’t ask a horse (even if they let them) cheat either. It might take longer but at the end of the day it prevents you from having a tension ball of a horse. In the end you can get a high level dressage tb who doesn’t get tense and is completely at ease with that higher hand because that’s exactly where he/she expects your hand to be.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      “OTTBs don’t let you cheat the steps and good for them.” Well said!

      You’re absolutely correct, of course – there is a middle ground. As you note, it is usually at second level where you can comfortably ride with higher hands. If only more trainers would wait that long…! How many times have you gone to a schooling dressage show, or an event, and heard “Seesaw the reins until he puts his head down!” CRINGE!!! Oh I hate hearing that. And I had trainers teach me the exact same way. It’s so common… about as common as novices on thousand dollar (and under) OTTBs, heading for a crash.

      I will admit I rarely ride a horse past Training Level, and I rarely have occasion to ride them in such a high frame. I sell them too soon… So you will find that most of the advice on this blog is filtered strictly for the green, “just-off-the-track” type horse, similar to Final Call, who of course has only been with me since January.

      What I experience often with trainers is that they will say, “Oh, he’s so smart, let’s progress on to the next step!” without taking pause and realizing that they’re pushing the horse. And, as you say, TBs can’t stand for that… not for very long. Gifted children are all the same, in the end, aren’t they?

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful response!

  5. Again, great training tips! I, like MilesonMiles, am trying to train Bar on my own with input such as I find here.

    Most of the traditional trainers want me to tie his head down and–yep–see-saw on the reins.

    If I wanted to irritate him, I’d do just that.

    I think I prefer the methods and time-frames described above, thanks!

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