With thanks to Equestrian Ink – Writers of Equestrian Fiction, who have allowed me to guest blog once again on their fun website, comprised entirely of horsepeople who love to write, I’m sharing my guest blog post from last year. I like this one – for one thing, it was written in March of 2010, when I was two months into training Final Call, whom you might recall was the Original Retired Racehorse!
Who’s having fun here, exactly?
I spend my days with Thoroughbreds. I breed, I train, I reschool OTTBs. In prepping my posts at Retired Racehorse Blog, I do a lot of research, lurk on a few message boards, and try to find out what people are doing with their Thoroughbreds. There are so many issues out there, so many OTTBs that are slipping through the cracks after their “forever homes” turn out to be very temporary indeed, that I knew there must be some sort of communication gap between the racetrack and the boarding stable.
What I find is that there is a significant population of riders and trainers which thinks that anything outside of perfectly contained, on-the-bit, submissive obedience, is nothing short of dangerous.
Horses are motion. They are prey, constantly on the move, scenting the wind, listening to the sighs of the natural world around them, waiting for the shoe to drop. When you are prey, you are always waiting for the end, and you know it will be messy.
Extreme submission calls for the horse to put away his instincts and follow blindly. Some might call this a beautiful expression of partnership. But submission/domination is quite the opposite. You might be having fun, but what is your horse thinking? Nothing. He’s waiting for you to think for him. It really doesn’t sound like fun for either party. You’re working too hard – your horse is just going through the motions.
I went through a very windy spell as a teenager. My Thoroughbred, Amarillo, had taken me through some frightening rides, I’d taken some very bad falls, and although we had found a physical reason for the behavior and corrected it, the incident left scars. I’d grown up on his back, but now, after six years together, I was terrified to take him to shows.
I eventually got up the nerve and took him to a horse trials. Convinced that he was going to start leaping about and showing his heels to everyone (and I’d seen his heels, from underneath of him, and wasn’t looking forward to a repeat performance), I took him for a walk around the grounds. He went like a giraffe, all neck and his head so high I couldn’t have reached his nose, despite being just fifteen three. His reach was incredible; even at the walk, I could barely keep up with him. He pulled at the halter and broke the chin strap. I felt dread at the thought of getting on that beast.
But eventually, the time came to tack up and I swung into the saddle, sick with anxiety. I got the same reaction walking him under saddle that I had in a halter and rope. Amarillo’s brain was clearly going at a hundred miles an hour, and I had nothing to do with it. We went towards the warm-up area to prep for dressage, and I felt like I was looking at the world framed by two pricked ears.
Then someone’s voice called out to me across the ring. “Look at that horse, he’s having such fun!”
And it clicked. Amarillo was happy.
He was happy to be here, amongst all the other horses and excitement. He was a racehorse. He was in his element.
I loosened my tense fingers, asked for a trot, and he ducked his head into the bit, not to buck, not to grab it and bolt, but to round up, trot with pleasure, do his job as he wanted to do it. There was no question of submission, there was simply the two of us, jogging across a field somewhere in Florida, surrounded by joyous, leaping horses. And if we didn’t perform a Grand Prix dressage test, well, we got a few sevens and eights in a Training Level test, and we did it on each other’s terms, not on my own iron-clad ones.
Thoroughbreds thrive on one-on-one communication. They know their jobs, as racehorses, and the very good ones know how to work with their jockeys to get to the front of the pack and stick their nose in front. Trying to dominate a racehorse is simply nonsensical. Asking for total submission, a denial of the heart and intelligence that makes them great.