The American political system is passionate about reviewing what the president has achieved after 100 days office. It regards it as a good measure of things to come. I think the same can be said when you get your ex-race horse off the track. The difference is with good and focused work, an adequate review can be made within only 10 days.
Work your new horse in a focused way
Thoroughbreds that have raced are used to routine and work. The racing barns are stressful environments – and they are run like machines. There are set times to work, to eat, etc. What this often means is that your new horse will probably take a bit of time adapting to his new environment with you. For example, if he gets paddock time this may come as a bit of a shock. Racing horses in training often don’t get much paddock time in order to prevent injury.
What this all also means is that your horse will be used to working, and you can expect him to apply himself to his work from day 1. Therefore don’t baby him – work him. If you need to, ask him kindly and firmly to perform to standard – but do it for shorter periods of time. Doing 20- 30 minutes of focused work correctly is better than an hour of incorrect work. He can build up from there over time.
Retrain your horse for a new environment
Your horse must immediately learn that a new environment means new rules. If you teach this from basics, it will make it easier for him. The start is that he learns to stand still when requested. Jockeys often mount and move off immediately. I teach my horses to stand still when I mount. They must stand patiently until I ask them to walk. It’s a basic of obedience in riding for a horse – move forward on command and halt on command.
My first bit of basic schooling the green horse focuses on:
- Moving off the leg on command
- Slowing down and downward transitions
- Not allowing leaning on my hands or pulling
- Circles, serpentines and turning in response to leg aids and looking where I go
- The horse maintaining attention and learning
At this point I don’t worry too much where his head is, as long as his nose isn’t poking up to the sky.
If you focus more on riding a set path that the horse should follow you start getting:
- Straighter lines or rounder circles instead of zigging around feeling like you have an inch worm under you sometimes
- A better quality pace
- A more confident horse because he is sure where to go and what to do.
Socalizing your new horse
I’ve just started producing my new baby King William who has just come off the track. Within the first week I worked him with other horses and rode him in a warm up arena at a training show. Riding with other horses produced high excitement – especially when they came towards him. Socializing an ex-race horse means they have to learn to work with other horses in a variety of settings. As long as we ride them calmly and confidently this can be achieved. (Though I have to say I also had to manage to sit a few fly leaps as well).
What they also have to learn is that the music at shows doesn’t have to get their adrenaline up – they are not about to race. I’m all for taking the ex-race horse to show environments as soon as possible. Let them walk around, watch and stand still when you ask. If there are not hundreds of ponies galloping around the warm up arena madly, do some quiet work in the warm up arena. The idea is to let your horse have a good and calm working experience, not make them crazy.
Expose your horse to different environments and things
Besides going to shows to walk around, I’d taken King William on a trail on the fourth time I rode him. I think trails are great for any horse – it gives them a break from schooling, builds fitness and is generally good for the soul. It introduces the young horse to a range of new things in a relaxed manner – just go with a steady companion. This ‘stable old timer’ can teach him that outrides and the “big wide world” are fun, enjoyable and “there be no dragons.”
Exposing your horse to new things can also mean that you can introduce him to pole work. I think walking and trotting over poles from the beginning of training is great for show jumpers in the making. It can’t harm their joints but it teaches them to pick up their legs and start judging distances. They also learn not to be scared of poles.
Teach your horse what it’s like to be loved
The racing yards are somewhat impersonal. There are a lot of horses and they are there to work. Some lucky race horses that have companionate owners and/or trainers, and they get placed in good homes with people who will look after and love them. These ex-race horses need to ‘learn to be loved’. Each horse is different and some like to be fussed over and cuddled more than others. But there is nothing more rewarding than giving a horse a good home.
Assessing your young horse after 10 days
After 10 days of focused work you should have a good idea of the following:
- Your horse’s work ethic
- How quickly your horse learns
- How your horse learns best
- Which side he is stiffer on
- How he works with other horses
- How quickly you are able to settle him in new environments and get and maintain his concentration
- How naturally brave he is and how you can build his confidence
- How you can bond with him
- How you can get the best out of him
The information you get from these first 10 days can help you moving forward. It gives you a good idea where you are working from. If you diarise it, it will be great to look back on one day. The more detailed you are the more you will notice progress because young horses learn in small steps over time. The information also provides keys to your training programme. Each horse is different and we need to work with them in different ways. This all also helps you to nurture what will hopefully be a wonderful and fruitful partnership with your ex-race horse that develops over time.
Tanya van Meelis is a competitive show jumper with two horses. She has the blog Horse Thought.
“The blog is the personal opinion and views of the author. It contains general information and may contain inaccuracies. You should always seek the advice of a professional horse riding instructor on your own specific situation and circumstances.”