Dressage in the Corners

Oh, early mornings in September are so lovely for doing a little dressage work. You tack up, head out to the arena, do some figure eights, some bending, a few trot-halt-trot transitions… you barely break a sweat in the cool dry air. I’m really in love with fall, by the way. It’s one of those seasons you just don’t get in Florida, along with spring.

Now I know I’ve thrown everyone through a loop, so here is a little background –

With the Puppy Dog

One of our horses, whom we shall call Puppy Dog, because that is his personality, put in a request for a little work on his hind-end. Well, I told him, my dear boy, that happens to be my speciality. And while I am well aware that all of our racehorses have very well-realized talents in the high school dressage division (I think all racehorses secretly long for an interview at the Spanish Riding School) I suggested that perhaps he do a little remedial Training Level work.

So Puppy Dog and I went on a long, cheerful walk down the horsepath, past the evil fallen Willow Tree of Doom, past the Wild Death Goat By Contessa’s Barn, and, apparently, past a ghost. (Seriously, every other horse that went past this one particular spot absolutely lost their minds. One did a few steps on his hind legs. Talent, I tell ya.) Because Puppy Dog is, well, a puppy dog, he merely pricked his ears and looked thoughtful. 

We went up the ramp to the chute, which, thankfully, didn’t house the big blue gate this morning. There’s nothing quite like jogging along in maiden fancy-free and hearing that rrrrrriiiiiiinnnnggg!!! as some hapless horse is seeking his gate card, and hanging on tight as your horse puts in a fast break of his own. The chute this morning was more like a three-sided arena. The side that didn’t have a fence, of course, was the very inviting expanse of the backstretch, littered with dancing horses. 

But Puppy Dog and I did our dancing alone, quietly, jogging through figure-eights and halt-trot-halt transitions. Riding with loose fingers, open leading reins, guiding legs – it doesn’t go away, this style. Dressage is the fundamental base of all riding, and it never loses its value.



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12 responses to “Dressage in the Corners

  1. Very cool.

    The friend that connected me with the Bar-man is big on Dressage and using it to rehab horses–including her own ex-racer who is 20 and can piaffe with the best of them.

    I haven’t gotten around to taking lessons, yet, but I will. I think it would be good for both of us!

    • Yeah, it would be!

      Dressage at its most simple builds a strong horse that is capable of carrying himself and that just leads to all kinds of improvements – more confidence, better gaits, less lameness and soreness.. mentally and physically it’s a win

  2. What a great blog! Glad I found you. I understand, appreciate and enjoy your perspective. The intersection of “racetrack” life and “dressage” life, is not all that common, unfortunately.
    Keep building up that hind end and tell us when “puppy dog” is going to run.
    Keep up the great writing.
    I’ll be back!

    • Well, when people teach themselves to ride, as is so often the case here, the fundamentals are never touched upon.

      When I rode yearlings for a big consignor in Florida, we certainly did dressage with them. Figure eights, circles, transitions – those babies did it all, and without martingales, I might add, which is pretty unusual in racing. If the riders didn’t know they were doing basic dressage work – well, what they didn’t know won’t hurt them. And the babies were fantastic, of course.

      I wish that the show and racing worlds could intersect more often. We all love horses. It is truly amazing how different the cultures are.

  3. I just think about how much good you are doing for Puppy Dog. Even if he’s a stellar racehorse and runs until he’s 10 (yeah….), you’re giving him a taste of what (hopefully!) his life will be beyond the track. I know if I was looking for an OTTB and his description included the fact that his exercise rider did figure eights and transitions on him outside of the track, I’d be alllll over that:)

    • Thanks, I’d like to think that, too. He’s going to be an awesome dressage horse someday – after that old ten year mark 🙂 I can feel this fabulous smooth trot, all shoulder and no knee! *sigh* I mean, you get on a horse and he just goes straight onto the bit – that’s the best.

  4. Nicholas

    Very interesting. I’ve wondered for a while if there wasn’t a way to put a floor under the value of TBs (especially geldings) by training them with an acknowledgment that most were going on to second careers. The latest stats I can find (after about 5 minutes of googling) show that 54% of TBs never win, and 63% never win twice.(1) So track life isn’t going to work for 2/3 of the foal crop. In the past, fillies could lean on their families, but with the foal crop down to late 70s levels, there’s an overhang of indifferent mares in the market too.

    But if a trainer/owner combo, or even better, a breed/race operation, trained with an eye to easing their horses transition to their almost inevitable second acts, I wonder how much extra expense it would take to turn the hay burners into acceptable eventing or hunter prospects. The horse can already walk, trot, canter, switch leads, load in a trailer, etc. If the horse has been handled and trained with an eye towards it, would 2-3 months post training be enough? Would that boost their value enough to justify the hassle/expense?

    I’m not suggesting you would turn a profit on a horse strictly from its sale as a hunter, but it could reduce the amount of loss an owner takes. It would be a more appealing solution for a slow horse than a $3k claimer on a Tuesday afternoon. A source of sound, athletic horses who have a reputation for being quick to learn new skills would, and who are (comparatively speaking) inexpensive, would appeal to me. I suspect I’m not alone.

    (1) http://www.thoroughbredtimes.com/stallion-directory/media/resources/averages-for-the-breed.pdf

    • Here’s my counter-offer: why is it so hard to find homes for horses who CAN “already walk, trot, canter, switch leads, load in a trailer, etc.” Or to find trainers who take them on and resell them? Why start from scratch when these horses are so well-educated already? Why don’t people ever seem to realize that TBs change their leads, anyway?!?


      Again, I don’t think it’s plausible to expect a trainer to spend time on a horse’s second career before he’s washed up in his first. There isn’t the time or the money, for starters. Secondly, you’d never train a horse like that in any other discipline.

      That being said, there are quite a few outfits that do the reschooling in-house. Some of the big trainers in Ocala do it – I think I read an interview with Niall Brennan once, and his wife does the reschooling, and shows the horses herself? And of course Adena Springs does the reschooling themselves, with quite a beautiful program, and their trainer was kind enough to give me an interview back in the spring – the post is called something like “Adena Springs Cares For Their Own.”

      A more appealing solution than a $3K claimer, in my personal opinion, would be to not permit them at all, and to speak out against the people so evidently dropping their horses in class. It would surely be simpler to send a horse to a farm, where the day rate is not a hundred dollars or more a day, and let them be turned out for a month, reschooled for two, and sold – or given away as a tax loss – than to continue to pay the rates and wait for the horse to break down or be claimed by a quiet and discreet rescue.

      For most operations, there just aren’t plans in place. No contingency plans of any sort, that respect the horse as a living creature at our mercy.

      For your suggestion to work, there has to be a farm option. It just can’t be done at the racetrack – there’s no room in most cases. And I firmly believe that PR and publicity – from Thoroughbred activists AND from the racing infrastructure (what little fractured mess of an infrastructure exists) have to do a better job pushing our horses against the influx of warmbloods and cross-breds.

  5. You know, I will totally admit upfront that I am hopelessly naive and only know about Track Life what I’ve read….Still….

    WHY couldn’t these racehorses, particularly the ones that are not winning all their races, get an “arena” education every so often on an afternoon they aren’t racing? I know, I know, no exercise rider is going to do it for free. What about the owners?? Are there not some that would pay, what, say 20 bucks a ride for someone to put a ride or two a week on their horse to teach them that there are actually 3 gaits and life outside the track? Particularly those that show little promise for racing but have a tractable temperament?

    Then, maybe, they wouldn’t have to donate their horses to LOPE or CANTER or New Vocations, or worse yet sell them at auction or run them in some crummy claiming race. Then, they could sell their horse on a track listing (of which there are plenty, some sponsored by the orgs listed above) with the bonus that the horse actually has experience as a riding horse off the track?

    I don’t know, it’s a thought. I just am amazed that so many TBs struggle to find homes….they are the best breed out there, if you know what you’re doing:)

    • I gave this some thought.

      There are a host of reasons why this idea wouldn’t mesh with the traditional economics of a workday at the racetrack (for example, just getting on the horse requires a groom, and a rider, and a hotwalker, and someone to rake the shedrow when you’re done, etc. etc. etc.) but I didn’t want to bring up some sort of “This is the way it is always done,” excuse, as that is the saddest reality in all horse sports, the way that people will discount any sort of change because it isn’t the way it is done…

      What I do believe is, firstly, that the CANTER, LOPE, and New Vocations of the world, which are overtaxed because they take in adoptions, can have some of the pressure alleviated if we continue to advocate and educate that OTTBs make great riding horses, insist upon show divisions and end-of-year awards for OTTBs the way every other breed is able to earn awards, and that more trainers are needed to specialize in reschooling and selling OTTBs (they need to be sold, to drive up prices a little.)

      Secondly, there’s a very simple reason why you don’t begin reschooling a TB before they’ve even retired. You’re making the assumption that they will fail. That they’re not going to be able to do their job. No one would ever start a young horse that has all the makings of a show jumper and pre-emptively teach him to move cows or run barrels, just in case he ended up being a terrible jumper.

      They are racehorses, that is their job, there is no reason to believe that they’re going to fail in their job. You keep trying and giving them chances.

      I think there is something of an attitude in the sporthorse world that they are only racehorses until we give up on them, and then we throw them out into the world to be showhorses. That this is the least important part of their lives. I can’t fault that attitude – was there ever a more insular, closed, totally-lacking-in-PR world than that of Thoroughbred racing? Oh, if they’d only put me in charge, kids…

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