Tag Archives: retraining Thoroughbreds

Riding Hot Thoroughbreds

This post is by Katie Hill, a professional trainer who writes about horses at Reflections on Riding. Katie and I share a fondness for hot horses, and if you’d like to join the fan club, check out her tips below for a confident ride on a confident horse.

I love Thoroughbreds (and I’m guessing you do, too, or you wouldn’t be reading Natalie’s blog). I’ve been riding ex-racehorses since I was a child, when Thoroughbreds off the track were the trade up from Shetland ponies.

grey thoroughbred racehorse

Demand Better at Belmont Park, in 1998... Photo: Bob Conglianese

Today, when so many other breeds (or in the case of warmbloods, registries) have unseated Thoroughbreds from their rightful place in the stable, I have to remind people that not every Thoroughbred is hot. If you don’t want a hot horse, I tell dressage riders and hunter/jumpers alike, then just look for one that’s not. There are plenty out there.

Which will leave more hot Thoroughbreds for people like me, who really like them.

Why do I like a hot horse? Training a hot horse to be “hot off the leg” is easy. Sensitivity is built in. Expressiveness, even brilliance, often come gratis with the hot horse.

I’ll admit, though, that hot horses’ behaviors can be challenging. Rushing, rearing, bolting, studly neck-shaking, and playful bucking are only some of the shenanigans. (According to the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins the origin of the word shenanigans is likely the Irish sionnachuighim — “I play the fox” or “I play tricks” – inspired by an Irish Thoroughbred, perhaps?).

If you’ve ever ridden a hot horse, you’ve heard the phrase “I play tricks” right through your saddle, I’m sure. So what to do about the shenanigans played by your hot OTTB? Here’s my top ten list:

1. Manage the problem while you’re not in the saddle. Lots of turnout. Room to run. Preferably with others if you can manage to dispense with hind shoes. Free choice hay. No sweet feed.

2. Discover what you need to do to get your horse calm (remember “Calm, forward and straight,” the mantra of Alexis L’Hotte, Ecuyer en Chef at Saumur from 1864 to 1870). Maybe the only way you can get calm is to start work with your hot horse in trot. Or in canter. Work up (or should I say down?) gradually to what should ideally be your warmup — a 10 minute walk on a loose rein.

3. Don’t be a prison guard — let your horse look around, and express himself a bit. Be a good friend and understand that your horse is a little edgy, a little anxious or maybe even a Type A. That’s okay. Be a role model for calm focus and stay cool. You can’t take too many breaks. When you do take a break, try walking on a loose rein or just standing to let things “soak.”

4. Don’t get sucked in. When you’re with your horse, on the ground or in the saddle, the agenda is yours. (See above, though; don’t be a prison guard.) Don’t fight the misbehavior. Correct and move on. Don’t take any of it personally. Smile, laugh or sing if you can.

5. Be brave. If being on a hot horse scares you, work on it. But work on it somewhere else than on your horse’s back.

Thoroughbred dressage

...and Demand Better at a dressage show, 2004. Photo: Katie Hill

6. Voltes (or small circles) are your friends. If your horse is rushing and your half-halts meet with “la la la, I CAN’T HEAR YOU!,” ride a volte. Voltes are easier when horses are balanced, so horses end up trying to rebalance themselves and that slows them down naturally.

7. Be the kind of partner everyone wants — reliable but also fun and creative. Keep sessions with your horse interesting, employing lots of different figures, lengthenings, cavaletti, jumping, liberty work (hot horses love liberty work) and changes of venue. Transitions in and out of gaits are useful and important, but try not to live there (overdo it, or do it tactlessly, and you’ll drive your hot horse insane). If you feel up to it and there’s a place to do it, there’s nothing like a good gallop.

8. Lunging is a great tool, but not to get the energy out. That won’t work with a hot horse. Most hot horses have “no bottom,” as they say. If your hot horse is racing fit on top of it, you’ll just add fuel to the fire. But lunging is a great tool for focus and freedom (leave off the side reins) and the ritual can be calming to a hot horse.

9. Make sure your hot horse isn’t rushing away from pain. Check for ulcers, and if you suspect something’s amiss, check in with your vet. Vets with a focus on holistic medicine can rebalance a hot horse with alternative remedies ( Dr. Xie’s Jingtang Herbal’s Shen Calmer is magic). Maybe your horse has a magnesium deficiency (Performance Equine’s magnesium is getting rave reviews). Maybe one of the other calming supplements would help. They’re finding out that Omega 3 deficiency may be linked to ADHD; why not try Wellpride?

10. Finally, embrace the power. Enjoy it and see where it can take you.

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3 Comments

Filed under Success Stories, Training Theory

The Retired Racehorse Book: It’s a Maybe

originally published at Equestrian Ink

Sometimes I think that my greatest talent is coming up with awesome ideas and then sticking them on the back-burner until I have “time.” (As if “time” were something I was ever going to possess, to clench in my fist, to cackle a villainous laugh over. I’ve got you at last, Time! Probably not.)

Stuck on my backburner I have various art projects (what to do with that charming little Sam Savitt paperback before it decays entirely? Something amazing. I’ll look it up later), an entire manuscript imaginatively named The Eventing Novel (I’ll completely rewrite that eventually), and, most annoyingly of all, the Retired Racehorse book.

I’ve been planning the Retired Racehorse book since the day I started Retired Racehorse Blog. You might know it, a little WordPress project that made me moderately Internet Famous amongst a small proportion of Thoroughbred enthusiasts and got me a lot of Facebook friends. (Hi Facebook friends! xo) I meant to just keep training Off-Track Thoroughbreds and blog about their training as I went, and eventually put it all into a lovely retraining manual, since it can be difficult to consult a blog before you go out to ride.

YOU PROMISED ME A BOOK

But it spun all out of proportion and somehow I ended up a writer in New York City. I attribute this development directly to Retired Racehorse Blog, and I still want to write the book, out of appreciation, at the very least! The blog deserves its book!

The problem, of course, is that I’m not training horses anymore, and I can’t just make up fixes for problems. I don’t have a set curriculum for a horse. I’m not Natalie Keller Reinert Horsemanship MasterClass, Inc. My blog posts were mentally composed as I was riding, thinking through the problems that the horse was presenting me as I tried to trace them to their roots in his early training as a racehorse.

And then yesterday I was in the basement of the Strand Bookstore, which is one of my favorite places to be (certainly it’s my favorite basement) and I found a gorgeous little vintage hardcover of Ahlerich: The Making of a Dressage World Champion, by Reiner Klimke. It’s basically a detailed—incredibly detailed—training diary of one of the most wonderful dressage teams we’ve ever seen. Just wonderful.

I didn’t buy it, because it was $40 and my price limit for books is closer to $1.

But it did remind me that I had a perfectly good diary of training a retired racehorse from racetrack to amateur eventer in five months, and I really ought to pull the Retired Racehorse Book off that back-burner.

Except I still really don’t have time.

And then today I saw a WordPress plug-in called Anthologize, which is supposed to make your blog into a book automagically, and I thought, this is the sign! I’ll do it today! 

But then I read the instructions, and it doesn’t work on WordPress.com hosted blogs. (i.e. dot wordpress dot com blogs, aka free blogs.)

So I pulled out my hair for a few minutes (it’s really long and I can spare a few strands) and then took a deep breath. I’ll still do the Retired Racehorse Book. Just not at this exact moment. When I have time.

7 Comments

Filed under The Retired Racehorse Book, writing

And oh, his lovely manners

“I got a new horse,” I told Sue when she drove in. I’d heard her coming from down the road; her rattle-trap Oldsmobile had a distinctive I’m probably going to fall apart or explode really soon sound that shattered the morning quiet. Sue was an exercise rider, the grizzled leather-faced unbrushed-hair kind of exercise rider, who had finished her days’ work and was returning to crash in the barn apartment while I was still mixing morning feed.

“I heard him last night,” she said grimly, stepping out of the car and revealing herself fully clad in hat, safety vest, and fringed leather chaps which, ironically, did nothing to cover up the holes in her jeans. Her underwear had unexpected butterflies fluttering across the fabric. She bent down, revealing vast flocks of winged insects, and riffled around under the driver’s seat, finally emerging with a battered box of Marlboros.

“He kept me awake half the night.”

“Oh,” I smiled uncertainly. “He was quiet when I got here…”

“Wore hisself out,” she said, lighting a cigarette. “Well, ‘night.”

I went back into the barn as she shut herself into the barn apartment for the rest of the morning. The bay Thoroughbred gazed at me guilelessly. I couldn’t believe he’d been noisy enough to keep anybody up all night. He’d been a perfect angel for all of my waking hours. From the second he’d stepped off the rusty trailer, fresh as a daisy after his long bumpy ride through the Ocala National Forest, to the moment he buried his face in a pile of orchard grass hay in his new stall, he’d been exactly as he was this moment: the strong and silent type.

Tall, dark, and handsome, I thought with pleasure, burying concerns that he’d kept Sue awake, and went back to mixing feed. To my mind, his leggy athleticism compared most favorably with the chunky Warmbloods who occupied this little private barn I managed. He was taller than the Dutch Warmblood, Lucky, who had been on a long-ago World Equestrian Games show-jumping team, and the Holsteiner gelding Bankrobber, who had been some sort of Green Hunter Champion, and had an infinitely prettier head than Geronimo, the big grey show jumper with a noggin like a misshapen cinder block.

And cheaper than all of them, I crowed in my head. Manners, brain, body, he’s got it all. I’ll show them a jumper. 

I dumped his grain first, and ignored him when he pinned his ears and shook his head at me on the way out of the stall. Lots of horses do that. Perfectly normal.

4 Comments

Filed under Rapidan, Thoroughbreds I've Known

Dominating Thoroughbreds, via Equestrian Ink

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!

Go to the original post for some GREAT comments! 

Dominating Thoroughbreds

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.

Final Call in field

Having fun, for a Thoroughbred, can be an alarming experience if you aren't prepared!

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.

22 Comments

Filed under Dressage, eventing, Rillo, Stereotypes, Success Stories

How to Have a Happy Hack With Your Horse

Jess @ Spotty Horse News officially blows my mind by being a psycho – I mean a psychic – because she knew I was going to write about taking your mad, crazy, wild, insane Thoroughbred for a nice on-the-buckle hack, and address some of the stereotypes  (albeit, some deserved) about trying to just chill out with a racehorse beneath you.

Now, she is one of the more brave people in the world, obviously, because in addition to trail-riding a Thoroughbred, she also rides a paint mare. Not exactly a trend-setter. Where are the gaited horses? I suppose we are old-fashioned.

Anyway, at some point you have to loosen up on your scary racehorse. You just have to. If you don’t, people will point at you and laugh. (I get this all the time, for a variety of reasons.) 

Cory riding Final Call

So that's not me - but you get the general idea. Bet you didn't know he was a husband horse, too!

Admittedly, there is a long period of time there where if you loosen up the reins, you get a jog. Just achieving a flat-footed walk can be the subject of entire training manuals. Sally Swift writes a lengthy essay on getting a spooky horse to walk slowly in Centered Riding (coincidentally, the horse was in the indoor at Claremont Riding Academy – you would think you could just run the horse into the wall to slow him down. But horses have a funny way of going faster in tighter confines. It’s that “Where is my open meadow?” claustrophobia kicking in.)

Sally Swift sits and breathes, and may I humbly second that approach.

I took Final Call for a hack around the paddocks yesterday. I would have cheerfully taken him down my driveway and down the road, but my neighbor pastures her lamentably intact palomino beast next to my driveway, and “he’s super-nice with mares, but he attacks geldin’s.” (Remember kids, you can’t hug a Thoroughbred, but evidently you can hug out-of-shape stallions that attack your gelding.) So we’re limited to the confines of the farm.

This was the first ride I’d ever taken with the intent of doing nothing. I’m not good at nothing. Trail rides are excellent opportunities to work on your laterals, in my opinion. I don’t relax by doing nothing. Doing nothing makes me tense.

But in this case, it would be interesting to see how Final Call would react to the concept of just chilling out. Can a Thoroughbred even do that? To be more specific: a five year old, very fit Thoroughbred?

We started out with firm reins, as usual. The barn is on a hill, and as we came out of the stall, he jogged down the hill, his head held high, surveying the terrain. He still finds it a novelty to be ridden out of the barn and around the front of the property, instead of being led to the back paddock for a longe session. I like his attitude, ears pricked and at attention, and it makes me want to take him for a gallop down my long driveway. Just that pesky stallion at the end… too bad.

Gleam of Hope, Tampa Bay Derby 2010

This is Gleam of Hope. Notice Willie Martinez's hands - right hand on a loose rein, left hand has a fistful of mane.

Going back to channelling a jockey, the quietest place to sit on a Thoroughbred is on your seatbones rocked back, and very close and firm from seat to knee. I think that you communicate your calm body and breathing to them most clearly in this seat. Sit back, breathe, and be cool. If your horse jogs, your horse jogs. Is that the worst thing your horse will ever throw at you? Highly unlikely. If you get twenty minutes of sideways jogging, and five minutes of flat-footed walk, you’ve both accomplished something together. You’ve relaxed your horse. That’s a win. And, you’ve relaxed yourself. Major win.

Also – notice this in the picture – if you are riding with loose reins and are at all nervous about a sudden leap or shy, consider either a neckstrap or a good grasp of mane. The neckstrap (if you don’t need or like martingales, just take the attachment off and voila, you have a neckstrap) usually sits just in front of the withers and I like to wrap a couple fingers of my left hand around it when there is potential silliness in the air. It is an excellent anchor and will keep you from reacting so strongly with your reins that you send your horse into the stratosphere over a simple spook.

And so we explored the yard, investigating interesting and mildly alarming items like some children’s toys long-abandoned to the wasps in between the buzzing bottle-brush bushes in front of the house. I gave him his head, and kept my connection by seating deep. I kept him walking by sitting deep and breathing. Gradually, his neck grew longer, his stride grew slower.

It took about ten minutes to bring Final Call to the point where he was on the buckle, nose on the ground. Then, because I really can’t help myself, I started teaching him to neck-rein. I mean, he already knows how to turn with my body. And the reins were loose. It wasn’t like I was asking for anything hard.

“Crazy Thoroughbreds can’t relax.” Scratch that. Their riders can’t relax. The horses are all right!

13 Comments

Filed under Final Call, Stereotypes, Training Diary, Training Theory

Experiments, Comfort Zones, and No More Longe Lines

Final Call makes me somewhat. . . experimental.

Possibly not the best word choice, but work with me.

You get into a pattern with a horse, and sometimes you stick with it. It’s a safety thing. It’s your comfort zone. And stepping out of your comfort zone can be the scariest thing in the world, but also, of course, the most liberating. Doors don’t open until you rap very hard on them – or perhaps knock them down.

If it hadn’t been a rainy wet winter, and my round pen wouldn’t have been flooded into Lake Okeechobee, I wouldn’t have been so experimental with Final Call from the very start. I was forced straight out of my comfort zone and to ride him in a large paddock – I don’t have a riding ring, as this is a small breeding farm and just set up for that.

If I hadn’t decided to write about Final Call, instead of keeping to myself in case someone made fun of my training techniques – and yes, that was my initial fear, and I can’t believe no one has called me out for something yet – I wouldn’t have connected my instincts with the actual riding I was doing. I’ve been riding by the seat of my pants for years. Putting it into words has been fascinating.

Final Call jumping

Take a shot, have some fun!

And of course, there’s a whole domino pattern here with Final Call, and the blog, and the opportunity to go to New York and work with racehorses first-hand, so that this blog can involve into something that I think no one else is doing, which is explaining the life and times of racehorses so that all you happy OTTB adopters and owners can apply that to your training at home.

But more immediately, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone with Final Call yet again, and done something I think everyone aspires to – I’ve stopped longing.

I think most of us longe our horses as a safety measure, so the horse can blow of steam (real or imagined) and get their bucks out. There are other good reasons, of course – if you want to see how they’re moving, or use side reins for a little bit. I had reached a point where I was longing with side reins to flex his body and blow off steam. But no one wants to longe forever. Don’t we all want to reach a point where we can just hop on the horse in the stall and go off for a ride without the preliminaries? (Only mount up in the stall if you have a nice high ceiling like I do!)

And of course, the only way you can find out if your horse is up for the challenge is to just, well, do it.

It can end one of two ways: well, or badly. Whether or not you believe it will end well is probably a good indication of whether or not you should give it a shot…

Ours ended well, and I’m happy to say it’s now our new routine. Instead of schlepping out to the round pen and running in a circle, I swing on board in the stall and go out to the paddock for a nice long warm-up walk. Yes, it’s a big, head-swinging, pricked-ears walk, maybe with a few steps of jog mixed in. He’s happy, he’s having fun – which is more than I can say for the longe line warm-up. So far, I love life without longe lines. I’ll let you know how it works out.

6 Comments

Filed under Final Call, Training Diary, Training Theory

An Aside on Grooming

I found this picture on the computer this morning – it was taken in Februray, for a blog post I promptly forgot to write:

hoofpicking from the left

Okay, from the left, I get it...

I was given my first OTTB when I was thirteen. My previous experience was on Quarter Horses and ponies. I think Amarillo was the first Thoroughbred I’d ever been on, or near.

And he used to do things that annoyed the absolute hell out of me. When I was picking his hooves, he’d pick up his right hind when I wanted his left hind. Why did he do that? That was so irritating.

Finally, several years into our relationship, an event trainer clued me in. Racetrack Thoroughbreds pick up all four hooves from the left. (Thoroughbreds, in fact, are almost solely handled from the near side. Their saddles are already buckled on the right, you know, the way you used to get in trouble for leaving the girth buckled when you were a kid? Yeah, that’s status quo at the track. Saves time – just like you told your instructor.)

Not only do they pick up all four hooves, but – as I didn’t learn until I started working with racehorses – they generally pick up the right hind first, and lift it up under the body, not out behind, as we’d done in the event barns. Strange, the way little tidbits get lost.

Handling OTTBs often seems like a game of telephone to me. The trainers at the racetrack aren’t sharing much. The grooms might mention one or two small things. And then the new owners are forced to take the little bit they’ve gleaned from a special on ESPN before the Kentucky Derby, or a passing conversation with people who were in a shedrow visiting their cousin’s five thousand dollar claimer once in 1987, or something they read in The Black Stallion when they were 12, and sort of evolve all that into a training strategy that is really nothing like the horse has already experienced.

It’s inevitable, I suppose, when the backstretch of the racetrack is locked away from visitors, and so few people crossing between sporthorses and racehorses, that the little things, like which side to pick up hooves on, get lost. It’s funny, though, that it took me ten years to realize he liked to have his right hind hoof picked up first.

7 Comments

Filed under Final Call, racetrack life, Stereotypes, Training Diary, Training Theory