Tag Archives: racehorse training

One Small Thoroughbred World

It’s a gloriously, happily, exhilaratingly, ridiculously small horse world. I spent a wonderful morning last November with a friend of mine, Monica Driver, who I simply never see enough of. She’s great company. We talk books, dogs, politics, and that’s just in the first five minutes. We were watching two of the young horses she bred, Analysis and Circuitous. The colts were training on the farm where they live when in New York. I snapped a few pictures. Little did I know the small world would start spinning.

Thoroughbred colt at racetrack

This is Analysis (by Freud, of course) as a long yearling that late November 2011 day being ridden at Stone Bridge Farm, New York. Analysis is Circuitous's half brother.

The pictures provide glimpses of a training farm and the routine a young horse in race training goes through.  It was a day exemplifying what one of my heroes William Steinkraus says makes for a good day’s training: nothing happens.

Circuitous is such a lovely bay I forget I’m a grey-aholic. Maybe because his sire is that grey poster boy: Skipaway. Others might even forget for a nano-second or two their passion for chestnut mares. Circuitous’s demeanor as much as his looks captivates. He’s outgoing yet calm in his stall, happy to interact with humans, and developing a prodigious work ethic and concentration.

Monica is an owner who manages Mosaic Racing to race her fourth generation homebreds. Monica has her horses thoroughly trained and provides funds for their life after racing. Just as all OTTBs are not the same by reason of conformation, soundness or innate temperament, OTTBS vary based on handling and training regimes in their formative years.

Thoroughbred colt at racetrack

Circuitous looking at Monica. Her shadow is on the right. A cool, crisp day and the young Thoroughbred stands almost perfectly square only moving his ears to keep track of the conversation.

Small world event number one occurred when Susan Salk profiled Circuitous and his winter training regime on her blog offtrackthoroughbreds.com.

Colt at racetrack

The humans kept talking. Circuitous has become interested in something else. His head is alertly up but he's relaxed as the brisk November breeze lifts his mane and fringes his tail.

Small world event two happened shortly after Susan’s profile appeared. Another friend, Amy LeBarron, mentioned what a pity there wasn’t a picture on Off-Track Thoroughbreds of Circuitous being ridden by his New York exercise rider, Gavin. Amy inspired me to dig up my snap shots of Gavin on Circuitous.

As the small world was turning Amy came up with a photo of herself riding Circuitous in New York. Event number three. What synchronicity. Amy was the person who skillfully, tactfully, patiently, positively, and with a sense of humor backed and trained the first two Thoroughbreds I bred. Here is a visual example of her doing the same for Circuitous.

Circuitous gallops on training track for Mosaic Racing Stable

Amy riding Circuitous mid-October 2011.

Event four shrunk the small world down to about tennis ball size. Heidi White has been on my radar for many years thanks to her international advanced level 4-star Thoroughbred Northern Spy.

Northern Spy shares his name with the Vermont goat farm with Thoroughbred connections owned by friends of mine, Brad Kessler, and Dona Ann McAdams. Lo and behold, Heidi White is the woman training Circuitous at his winter digs in Aiken. Years ago I reveled in the name connection, now here was one even more concrete.

Thoroughbred walking at racetrack

Followed by a vehicle Circuitous remains flat footed as he learns to walk around the farm on his own. Gavin keeps watch while Circuitous seems to have completely placed his trust in his rider.

Event five might stretch credulity so I hesitate to include it, but to get my horse world down to pingpong ball size it was Amy who sparked Dona’s photography of Thoroughbreds.

Oh and by the way, does this make this horse world example ball bearing size if Circuitous is the front page horse on the Stone Bridge Farm website, where White trains?

racehorse in training

One can never see enough pictures of Thoroughbreds walking calmly, especially when they're three, in race training, and it's a brisk, breezy, cool, November day. This is the kind of "early childhood development" that makes for great OTTBs.

So, thank you Monica, Amy, and Susan for the opportunity to wallow in warm memories of a November morning with Circuitous and friends sharing our appreciation for Thoroughbreds.

International Women’s Day was March 8th this year. In recognition of my own ridiculously small horse world peopled with warm friends I hereby declare today, March 27, to be Local Thoroughbred Women Friends’ Day. A toast to small horse worlds.  It’s been fun to celebrate with you. Here’s to a thoroughly friendly day in your horse world.

Racehorse galloping at training track

Circuitous galloping. This unedited point and shoot picture shows his length of stride and balance. Before this winter's round of training in Aiken you'll see he's not boring down on the forehand as so many horses might do at his age.




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Filed under racetrack life, Training Theory

Leave the Barn? Go Outside? Yeah Right.

The weather outside is frightful. So bad, in fact, they cancelled racing today. Like any good rider, I’m always looking for an excuse to not ride, and fifty mile an hour winds and sideways rain seem like a good place to start. But this is the racetrack, and these are racehorses, and the more you don’t ride them, well, the more you don’t ride them. Riding lessons become flying lessons.

Now, we all know that I learned to ride at a posh fancy hunter barn. I learned to do things the right way. The British way, the time-honored way, the safe way.

I would have gotten in so much trouble if I’d ridden in the barn! You always, always dismounted outside! What if you rode into the barn and the horse went into a wild tantrum and knocked you into a wall? Then what? Well you’d just be so screwed, that’s what!

Now it’s like, “Hey Natalie, your horse didn’t go into a wild tantrum and knock you into the wall. Maybe check his temperature, huh?”

Okay, it’s not that bad. Not quite. But I do get to ride in the barn. And it’s awesome.

Also in the shedrow we don't wear hard hats. Hah just kidding. This is a track pony we were playing with after work.

I’d shedrowed horses before in Florida. Racing barns are just very cleverly designed so that the stalls are back to back, instead of facing a central aisle, and so when it’s raining or snowing or there’s hurricane force winds threatening to blow you out of the saddle, you can ride down the aisles that run in front of the stalls. The first time I went to ride in Ocala, I was completely astonished by this set-up. I still don’t know why you’d have a center-aisle barn if you could have a shedrow (especially in Florida, where you don’t need exterior walls and can let the breeze float in, like the aisles are wide porches shading the stalls and your work area.)

Of course the shedrows at Aqueduct are a little more treacherous than these breezy open places I rode at in Florida. It’s older, and darker, and narrower, and there are buckets and wheelbarrows and chickens and pigeons – any number of dangerous obstacles in your path. There are also other horses, other people, farriers, vets, innocent bystanders, magical falling rakes and pitchforks… basically, scary stuff.

Remember the old video game Paperboy? It’s like that, for racehorses. Shedrow, that would make an awesome video game. Get the racehorse around the shedrow without getting smushed against a wall.

It’s not really the walls that bother me, actually. Remember I hit one of those already, over the summer, and that did stop hurting. Eventually. About two weeks ago. It’s the pipes that always concern me. There are these pipes running along the ceiling, as if you’re riding in a subway tunnel or something, and I’m nervous of anything above my head when I’m riding, courtesy of that fancy hunter barn and their Worst-Case-Scenario approach to teaching.

But still, I’ll take pipes over fifty mile and hour winds and blowing rain. Go outside and ride where? I am not – leaving – this – barn!




Filed under racetrack life

Schooling Sessions: The Starting Gate

Just like taking a horse to a few practice runs at horse show grounds – “Oh we’re not showing, we’re just schooling,” is always one of my favorite excuses for not getting a horse braided up and looking like a confused movie star – at the racetrack, the daily grind of, you know, boring everyday work like galloping really fast and spooking at plastic bags stuck up in trees along the backstretch has to be mixed up with schooling sessions.

Gate schools come first, by necessity, because there’s nothing like convincing a horse that going into a narrow metal box with sides that actually touch their skin is a good idea. In Florida, we’d take the yearlings into schooling gates, big stationary wooden structures with no doors at all, nothing to rattle or shake or in anyway intimidate the baby. They’d get used to walking through the gates, which in retrospect were probably like high-walled versions of the catch pens that they’d been fed in as foals and weanlings.

Some training centers have actual starting gates, but very few of them, to my knowledge, come equipped with a fabulous starter crew that handles the afternoon races, or a fancy ringing bell like an old-fashioned alarm clock. And these things are key. The horse has to learn that an apparent stranger is going to walk up and take him into the scary gate, and then when the doors burst open with no warning at all, a loud bell is going to go off like a fire alarm and scare the bejesus out of them.

"I promise the gate will not eat you."

Of course, chances are that as they learn that the gate means they are going to get to gallop flat-out, they’ll learn to appreciate the ringing of the bell. But to start, it’s just a frustratingly loud noise on an oddly confusing morning.

There is a record of every horse’s every break from the starting gate, which is important, because no horse with bad habits or erratic behavior, or who simply hasn’t proven that they are able to leap straight out of the gate in company, can be allowed to race. A horse that doesn’t school well, doesn’t get to race until they prove to the gate crew that they can do it properly.

(Let’s pause for a moment and imagine that there is someone at the in-gate at every horse show, checking off names, and saying, “I’m sorry, but the last time you showed this horse, he acted like a complete maniac and frightened everyone else’s horse, so you’re going to have to go the schooling ring and prove to me that he behaves himself like a gentleman before I will let you in there with all those other horses.” Ah. How refreshing that would be.)

No rushing is allowed. Keep cool.

So a member of the gate crew spends time with each horse before he takes them into the gate, patting the neck and reassuring the horse – “Yes, I’m a stranger, but you can trust me…” Some are recalcitrant time and time again, and the crew will go through several techniques in their effort to get the horse to go politely into the gate: first with a person well behind the horse swinging a lead strap (just a thin piece of leather that they use to hook through the bit ring), then maybe shaking a driving whip behind them, and then finally all the men will look at one another, nod, and wait for a moment for the horse to stand quietly before they link arms behind the hindquarters and shove that naughty horse into the gate. The ones that are just being stubborn will heave a sigh as they go in, because they knew all along they’d have to. It’s similar to loading up in a trailer, except, with a rider that you must be conscious of and keep safe.

And, of course, instead of a long and tedious trailer ride, (I have yet to meet a horse who genuinely loves to go on trailer rides) the reward for all this schooling is to have the gates open, and the bell ring, and the rider to shake the reins and shout, and off you go…


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The Break From the Gate

I have to confess, a month ago, going into the starting gate was the farthest thing from my mind.

One of those things best left to professionals. You know, the hardened types with the gnarled fingers from clutching reins four hours a day, seven days a week, for untold decades. I was having a nice time and all, and surprising myself every day, but… a starting gate?

Have you seen those things?

I’ve been in them before, actually, but just to walk babies through. With the doors open front and back. And I didn’t like it then. I’m claustrophobic, horses are claustrophobic – it’s just a bad combination, I’m thinking.

Somewhere in the past month, though, I developed a very strong desire to get into one of those terrible metal contraptions with a young, hot-tempered racehorse, and wait for the door to open so that we could burst out.

I’ve gotten crazy. That’s the only explanation.

...ME! There - in the middle! Okay not really...

I had the same anticipation to take a horse to the gate that I imagine a child has who is standing on line for their first roller coaster. It looks awful, it looks like a terrible decision, but I just had to do it. All the cool kids go to the starting gate, right?

So this morning I took out a horse for a jog around the track and, when we came back to the chute, turned down the chute instead of heading back to the barn. She immediately knew what was up. Most horses were walking decorously around behind the gate, just as they would before a race. My horse? Oh no. Sideways. She’s – um – excitable. It would annoy me more than it does if she wasn’t so thrillingly competitive. She isn’t meaning to misbehave – she just has so much heart that she truly can’t contain herself. There’s a lot to be said for that, and it has to overcome a multitude of sins. Even the jigging frantic misbehavior she was throwing at me.

There’s a whole crowd of trainers and miscellaneous observers by the rail of the chute, and I hated being on display like this, mainly because I had no idea what to expect. All I could do was follow the example of the other riders. And wish I wasn’t on the only horse that was behaving like a complete fool. Finally, someone called that we were next. I rode up to the gate with serious misgivings, just like that kid must feel when he finally gets to the head of the line, and sees the attendant ready to drop the safety bar over his head.

“You want to lift up your feet up really high, to avoid the padding,” the crewman told me, taking the horse’s bridle. He knew I’d never been there before – either someone had told him, or he just knew he’d never seen me before. I experimented with lifting my stirrups near the withers, as I saw jockeys do every afternoon at the races. Only – it’s really high. Try it sometime. You have to lift your heels all the way to the withers. While being led into a metal box. On a racehorse. There’s letting someone lead your horse, and then there’s ceding all control and all possibility of handling a situation yourself. That’s going into a starting gate.

Thus terrified, we got into the gate, and the doors were closed behind me. My horse stood still, ears pricked. She wasn’t terribly experienced at the gate, but she’d been in it before. And, presumably, she’d seen other horses do it. And I assumed she’d follow the lead of the horse next to her – that is, if he had any idea what to do.

The crewman stood in front of the door – another one had clambered up next to me, and was holding the bridle. “Okay,” he said. “Whatever she does, just go with it, okay?”

“Okay,” I breathed.

He opened the gate.

There was no bell, no bursting open with a cessation of magnetic charge. It was just some guys opening a gate. But it’s like magic to a horse, when you open the gate. They leave – they don’t always leave straight off the mark, galloping like hell, sometimes they leave and turn right, sometimes they leave and stop dead – but generally, they leave.

The filly jumped out. I lurched up onto her neck, gave her rein, and she jumped again. Somewhere to my left I saw the neighboring horse come out easily and then take off. I asked the filly to give chase. I shook the reins at her. I should have used my stick to straighten her out, but I was flustered. She went on jumping, hopping, but we were galloping, finally, going forward, and as she went plunging down the track, I started laughing.

“Go with it, go with it, go with it!” I sang out, letting her leap as she pleased. “Go catch him!”

I’ve always been a noisy rider, I confess, a person who was dumped not once but twice in a row by a green pony because every time I got him to canter, I let out a triumphant whoop that sent him into a bucking fest. There’s something about the glee of a horse in their foolishness, when they’re clearly having fun, when they’re obviously living with me on their back as they would in an endless field, as if I’ve been invited into their own private world of sun and grass and limitless strength and four fleet legs to devour the distance with. It is the feeling that others describe as wings, as the sensation of flight. Of leaving the human experience for something altogether more earthy and exciting.

And we were suddenly eating up the ground, flying across the clay and sand, and the distance between us and the front-running horse melted away, until we had caught up, and sailed on by, whirling into the turn, all hot hot heat and rushing heart.

The starting gate seems to somehow compound the horse’s notorious need for freedom. That thirty seconds of claustrophobia creates an explosion of emotion and power that can’t be replicated.

Do give it a try.


Filed under racetrack life

Again With the Tack Malfunction

This is getting monotonous.

I could call this “Natalie’s Tack Disaster Blog.”

Or, I suppose, I could be optimistic and call it “Natalie’s Still Got It.”

You might recall a month or two ago, I wrote about riding a two-year-old in Florida, which nearly ended very badly when I lost both my stirrups and ended up galloping flat-out around the racetrack sans irons. It was an alarming experience but it wasn’t the end of the world. Like all good dressage students, I have spent enough time without stirrups to know how to keep one leg on each side of the horse without support.

The nice thing about the Florida experience is that it went largely un-noticed. Only the other exercise rider, and the trainer (who subsequently fired me) witnessed it.

The unfortunate thing about yesterday’s experience was that other people probably saw me, and wondered why the hell I was riding without my feet in the stirrups.

It was probably hard to see that the left stirrup just wasn’t there.

I was galloping, and I’ve been working hard on my galloping position, shortening up my stirrups little by little and trying to reach that strange, happy place exercise riders inhabit, where you hover far above the horse, hands down near the withers, face unpleasantly close to the horse’s hard, hard poll and undelicious ears. (Yes, I have tasted ears in the past week.)

I have gone through a period of intense pain in my legs, and realized just yesterday that the straighter your legs, the more comfortable and less fatiguing the gallop. So I had finally, finally, after a summer of seeking, found that wonderful place where I was standing in the irons, bent at the waist, leaning over my horse’s neck, and at long last riding the way I had always wanted to ride, as I had longed to ride since I was a little girl, and we were whipping up a little dust along the stretch, past those empty grandstands, almost to the wire –

And my left stirrup just wasn’t there anymore. It was, and then it wasn’t.

I don’t remember slipping at all, although I must have a little. My horse didn’t break stride at all, and I closed my knees tight, dropping down closer to the saddle, then sitting on the flat cantle, thinking rapidly. I’d better pull up, of course – galloping this fast without any stirrups was a recipe for disaster – but of course I couldn’t be much further away from the backstretch – here I was by the wire. I settled for an easy canter and the horse, bless him, gave it to me.

You’d weep to see me balancing off his mouth, like a repudiation of everything I’ve ever learned about riding, but I sat way back, closed my legs, and leaned on the reins for balance. We came cantering in like a show team, my right stirrup bouncing along at mid-calf.

It looked like I had pulled up the horse due to some issue, a bad step or a lameness, and that was when I realized that no one could really see the missing stirrup. I had to explain the whole mess. The nice thing, of course, was that this time, I didn’t get fired.

I’m not sure, by the way, what happened. I didn’t find the stirrup or the leather. Did the leather break? Did the safety bar on the saddle slip down? Or was it pulled down by accident somehow while the horse was being tacked or the stirrups were being adjusted? I don’t know. But to all my old riding instructors: thanks for forcing me to ride without stirrups. It comes in handy way more often than I ever expected.


Filed under racetrack life

Three Good Whacks

There isn’t a lot standing between an exercise rider and the ground.

Admittedly, there is the horse, but that isn’t the most substantial of barriers. It is quite the opposite. On the best of days, the best of horses is just a few tail-wringing seconds away from depositing you in the deep sand of the track. Hopefully. That’s better than the hard-packed gravel of the horse path or, heaven forbid, the concrete walls and metal pipes of the shed-row.

And of course we aren’t really well-armed against equine eccentricities and moments of psychotic anti-human behavior. A vest, a hard hat. In most cases, nothing but an eggbutt snaffle without so much as a noseband to keep their mouths shut. Most riders I know wouldn’t take out a Children’s Hunter with an eggbutt and no noseband. Let alone a three-year-old racehorse. I rode Final Call in a flash and a martingale. You know all those pages and pages of tack catalogs full of gadgets and gizmos? Yeah, there aren’t any of those things in my tack room. 


Unsteady ground - only stirrup irons between the rider and the earth. Mike Smith stays aboard. Photo: Jamie Newell

I do have a whip.

I rode my first school pony with a whip. (And spurs, for that matter.) My riding instructor used to yell at me when I tapped gently. “One good smack, Natalie!” he’d shout. “Stop tapping him on the shoulder and reach behind – one good smack will do it!” 

(I Googled his name recently. He was training high school dressage horses in California. Uncanny. I do high school dressage in New York every morning.)

He was right, of course.

For example, take The Bad Apple. (Please! Kidding.)

The Bad Apple and I have come to a sort of an uneasy understanding. He hasn’t yet decided if he wants to use his powers for niceness or evil, but at least he is acknowledging the possibility that, perhaps, someday, he might want to behave like a classy gentleman and not make me cuss, shout, scream, kick, and otherwise display my remarkable temper.

But he still has moments when he reminds me of why I call him The Bad Apple. He had a brief but alarming period where ducking his head, bucking, and spinning were the order of the day. Come on, even the most ardent animal rights activist has to acknowledge that the only way to discipline a horse like that is to give him a whack (or five) on the ass. He’s being dangerous. He is bigger than me. What would you like me to do, sing him his favorite song and rub his neck reassuringly?

Now, the fact is, The Bad Apple has a long ground-covering trot and a canter that is akin to dozing off on a deep sofa while listening to The Weather Channel drone reassuringly in the background. He woos you with his comfort, he seduces you into quiet contentment with his pseudo-honor, and then – every now and then – dips his head sideways and makes for the big buck.

I asked his previous rider how he got him around the track. He said you had to stay on him with the whip – keep tapping his shoulder to keep him moving. That sounded familiar. Like a certain gray pony named Silver. I could hear my riding instructor yelling at me already.

So – there it was. You could  stay on the offensive, yell at him, and kick him on. He’ll do it again, though. At every quarter pole, like clockwork, and in a few extra places for good measure, just to keep you on your toes.

Or you could flip your whip over the way a certain un-named Olympian once taught you to do, give him three emphatic whacks right on his ample hindquarter, and scare him straight for the rest of the ride. Which you will enjoy, lulled by that easy, round stride of his.

Well, thanks, David. You were right now as you were when I was a little jockey-worshipping kid. Because three good smacks sends him on, and sends a message,

and that’s all you need. None of that tap-tap-tapping nonsense.

There’s gadgets and gizmos a-plenty in the horse business, but I guess the most useful one is the one I was handed the first afternoon I got on a pony. It’s one of the few tools I have, when hands and seat and weight and voice aren’t enough – and those times do come, and those times remind you of just how shifting the ground beneath your feet truly is, when that ground is the latex-wrapped treads of your stirrup irons.


Filed under racetrack life, Training Diary, Training Theory

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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