The Eleventh Commandment of OTTB Trainers

Today’s Guest Blogger is Teri Ramos Cangelosi, whose first OTTB, Rascal, challenged all the training experience she’d acquired over a lifetime with horses. Also, Rascal is really, really well-named.

Rascal is mouthy; these cones are too much temptation for him...

A year ago in January, I bought an OTTB. Official Tester of a Terrified Beginner. Although I wasn’t actually a beginner, within a few days of owning Rascal, the confidence I had in my ability to train horses plummeted. He was a five year old gelding and fresh from the track. Really, what was I thinking? I had ridden most of my life, owned five horses previously, had several dozen ribbons hanging on my wall, and a few broken bones that were all hash marks on my tally to becoming an experienced horsewoman. However, with Rascal in the game, clearly as my opponent, I started over at zero. When the first couple of lunging sessions involved pinned ears and alternately being either charged or dragged helplessly at the end of the lunge line (is barefoot waterskiing across a muddy arena a sport?), clearly I had to change the game. He obviously had no respect for me. I was going to have to rethink and relearn everything I knew about training horses.

Thou Shall Do Thy Groundwork” became my eleventh commandment. Considering that most sessions had me praying (or screaming) for help from above, it was rather a spiritual experience. Faithfully I worked with Rascal at least five days a week both on and off the saddle. Some people may consider that excessive, I thought of it as insurance. No doubt in my mind, without that frequency, there would surely be an accident. If I couldn’t gain his respect by my skill alone, I was going to win it by determination and a few tricks up my sleeve.

Our groundwork routine consisted of lunging and my own strange combination of dog training and synchronized dance. Learning that there really were two gaits in between reluctant walking and his “Oh no, it’s a garbage truck” gallop, was an eye opening experience for Rascal. As for me, I no longer needed to use a pumice stone for my overworked hands when the lunge line so easily got right to the calluses. When my waterskiing skills failed to improve, we moved to the round pen with its seven foot solid walls and door that apparently resembled a starting gate. My horse training had somehow become a slap stick comedy routine.

Must... throw... cones... over... fence!

I learned early on in our partnership that Rascal was an OCD afflicted OTTB. Obsessive Compulsiveness made our other groundwork much easier for him to learn. Perhaps it’s the routine that is drilled into them with track life or his own love of the expected, but Rascal would day after day try the same stunts to tickle his own sense of humor. His favorite involved my after-ride routine. I would take off my helmet and put in on the mounting block before I cooled him off with a walk around the arena. Without fail, Rascal would step off beside me, hesitate for a second, then reach over with his nose and knock my helmet into the sand. Accomplishing that, he was ready to continue with our walk.

Playing upon his fascination with clearing off the mounting block and his puppy-like desire to get his mouth on everything, I eventually taught him to fetch my crop off the mounting block.  Our groundwork had included the commands for “back away” and “come” to me, so by positioning him on one side of the mounting block and me standing on the other, I could ask him to “come” to me knowing that his OCD wouldn’t allow him to resist grabbing the crop. From that point, I used the “hold it” command and “come” and presto, a successful fetch. (He only walks a few steps with the crop but well, it’s the thought that counts!) If moving the feet is the key to gaining a horse’s respect, teaching Rascal to fetch was the icing on my “herd leader’s” cake.

With patience, persistence, a sense of humor and a good pair of gloves, our groundwork paid off well. Rascal became a partner whose consistency enabled me to plan for the expected and dodge the potholes. Through our diligent Ringling Brothers vs. Three Stooges routine, we were able to come to a mutual agreement. As long as Rascal sees me as the ringmaster, he can be Curly, Mo and Larry and chuckle to himself every time he knocks my helmet into the sand. Do I still feel like a beginner? Yes, some days I do, but definitely a less terrified one. My advice for other amateurs who may be considering acquiring one of these wonderful, exceptionally smart OTTBs – be faithful to the eleventh commandment and don’t under estimate what learning a few good tricks can do for your partner.  




Filed under Training Theory

7 responses to “The Eleventh Commandment of OTTB Trainers

  1. Loved this! Reminded me so much of my own OTTB, who fortunately came to me already trained, but who still retained his love of “tricks” similar to yours. A perennial favorite: grabbing the crop. Another favorite: tossing arena cones. And finally: tug-of-war on the lead rope while hand-walking. He loves to grab it in his teeth and just pull…

  2. Great post! I was definitely not an expert, and in someways… maybe that was good?

    Bar was very much comforted by routine and very much disturbed by any inkling of a hoof step out of the routine. At first, anyway. He’s gotten better, and a lot of that had to do with–oh yes– ground work. Adding a tiny different thing here and there. Plus trail riding, too.

    I sometimes wonder if my lack of horse-training experience allowed me to be more experimental with him until we found our groove? Or at least the groove on any single given day. And then being willing to change said groove on a whim.

    But I am a firm subscriber to the Eleventh Commandment for sure!

  3. Love it! My OTTB and my dog are both OCD. Actually I say my horse is ADHD. He loves/needs to keep his mind moving all the time. So I taught him a couple tricks too. He loves it and it sure did help in our relationship department! Here he is feeling shame – command “Shame!”

  4. Love this! Nicely written. I couldn’t agree more with the importance of the “11th commandment.”

  5. I loved this article! I just got my OTTB less then a month ago and I too am retraining her myself. I have started her on ground work and shes better some days then others, she hasn’t dragged me around the ring… yet. Stories like this really help me gain perspective. Thanks!

  6. Sam

    haha! I have a track veteran (95 starts total) and although I’ve had him for three years, more and more of his personality comes out all the time! His favorite trick? Untying himself from a tie ring! He then looks at me as if he has no idea why his lead rope is covered in horse slobber and hay.

  7. Hehe! I love it! They are definitely comedians with a desire to be the center of attention. My OTTB is a clown and just loves to play, it has definitely been the groundwork that has established me as “ringmaster” (most of the time!). Taking the training with a huge dose of humor does the body good.