Retraining the Racehorse Part 2

Retraining the Racehorse – PART 2

Schooling Your Racehorse…

Renee Swanepoel
N Dip Equine Studies
SANEF Level 1

Your new arrival is settling well into his new home, gaining weight nicely and the time has come to start the next section of his education – riding and educating him for his new role in life.

It is very important that before your Thoroughbred is started on a new schooling and exercise regime, that his health is good and he is pain free, that he is gaining weight and that you have had his teeth seen to by a specialist. I have yet to see a horse that has not benefitted by having a specialist work on their teeth! If costs allow, it is also a good idea to have your horse seen to by a qualified Equine Physiotherapist. A horse off the track often has some kind of muscle injury or strain which could put quite a damper on any schooling process! Before the training commences, it is always a great idea to get the small niggles out of the way first. The Physio will also be able to show you how to do a number of stretches with your new horse which will not only be of benefit under saddle, but will also be a super way to get physical and bond with your new horse right away!

When planning my training program with any new horse, I like to use the following guidelines:

You will note that the foundation of the training pyramid is a mental one. The levels are progressions – so you would probably find it harder to train the physical aspects of the horse if the mental aspect has not been dealt with. If you approach the reschooling of your new Thoroughbred off the track in this way, it makes it much easier for you to reach the ultimate goal – a well-schooled, obedient horse that performs at the top of his chosen discipline. The tools I use to achieve my goals are listed in the blocks, but really, you could include any method that you know works to achieve that goal. I have listed mine.

Each level has its own progression too, as will be discussed later. Sure, you could train the heck out of the horse physically and with a beating or two, take a shortcut to the top, but in the end you will not have what you started out to achieve – a SAFE, pleasurable ride. You will end up with a horse that requires force to ride it and is probably fearful and distrusts you. This applies to the schooling of any horse.

Not all horses are the same – some are very tense, very unwilling and can take a lot of know-how to get going. Some have physical problems that they have picked up on the track and can take very specialized physical training before they come into their full potential. Others are loveable puppy dogs that have no problem trusting and will do anything to gain your approval. If the horse is secure in one area, move on to the next!

I should also state that training any horse is a great responsibility and that a beginner rider on a beginner horse is a bit like the blind leading the blind – it may go well for a while but you will eventually hit that wall! Retraining racehorses is something that I would not recommend to anyone who does not have some kind of experience in TRAINING horses – being a good rider does not make you a good trainer! Never be afraid to ask for help and get guidance and know when to hand your horse over to a professional who knows what they are doing. You may just be saving your own life!

1. MENTAL TRAINING (Alter the Adrenaline Response)

As mentioned in Part One, the key to understanding your Thoroughbred off the track is to remember how his brain has been wired. Racing is an Adrenaline response.

One of the phrases that is often bandied about when discussing the animal kingdom is the ‘fight or flight’ response. When faced with danger, the two main options open to any living being are fighting (when you perceive the enemy to be weaker than you, or when defending your cubs or herd) or running away (when your enemy is perceived as being stronger than you or you have the advantage of speed). When faced with a perceived ‘threat’, the body undergoes physical and hormonal changes to enable the desired reaction.

When the brain interprets a scenario as a threat, it causes various chemicals to be released in the body, such as adrenaline and other stress hormones, as well as endorphins. These chemicals have the following effects on the body:
- Increased heart rate and respiratory rate (this supplies more oxygen carrying blood to the muscles and speeds up the removal of waste products from the muscles enabling physical exertion)
- Increased levels of blood sugar (this allows an increased and rapid energy use and increases metabolism for emergency actions)
- Increase of red blood cells in the blood as well as a general thickening of the blood (this increases the oxygen carrying capacity of blood, as well as an increase in platelets to enable clotting and white cells to protect from infection)
- Blood supply is increased to the heart and peripheral muscle groups and to the motor and basic function areas of the brain. Less blood moves to the digestive system, non-essential pats of the brain.
- Adrenaline causes a sharpening of the senses – pupils dilate, hearing is sharpened, etc.
- Endorphins are released as natural pain killers and supply an instant defence against pain.

The Thoroughbred has evolved over centuries to respond to the race day and more specifically the starter’s bell and running in a group with a surge of adrenaline that elicits a flight response. The horses with the best response to this adrenaline rush were often champions and were selectively bred for this trait. (whether knowingly or unknowingly) This is why they have earned the reputation of being ‘difficult, spooky and flighty’ by some people – they really are only reacting in the way they have been selectively bred and in the way they have been trained to in their formative years!

An important thing to remember is that when the horse is in this state of adrenaline response, the small ‘learning’ part of the brain shuts down and the body merely reacts. In order to help your horse learn, and for him to be receptive to you and your training, he needs to learn to override his inbred ‘flight’ response and not react with bursts of adrenaline.

There are a few ways in which a horse off the track can be helped to move away from the ‘react by adrenaline’ response and into a more relaxed, non-threat state. Each horse is different and while one method may work well for one, it may not work well for another.

Traditionally, horses off the track are turned out for a period of a few months in order to settle down, gain weight and detox. Why this works for some horses is because it removes them from their stressful, adrenaline pumped environment into a completely new one which is slower in pace, where they have the opportunity to interact with other horses and revert to a more ‘natural’ state. A period of at least 3 months is often recommended. Once the horses are relaxed, have gained weight and seem more at ease, they are then started on a training program. This method has its benefits and also its downfalls, depending on the individual’s unique situation. Firstly, in a setup where horses are being purchased cheaply off the track, schooled and resold, there is often neither the time nor the space to turn the horses out for such a prolonged period. Time is money – the horses need to recuperate and get sold as quickly as possible in order for the dealer to make any money.

Also, some horses do not adapt well to the sudden slowing down of pace and can even become depressed by the lack of stimulation and excitement. Perhaps this is also a type of ‘withdrawal’ symptom from the lack of adrenaline stimulation – almost like the adrenaline junkie who gets locked up in a room for months and is told to entertain himself! These types of horses do better with a bit more stimulation and a bit less ‘holiday’. Often these horses will refuse to eat, spend all day running up and down the fence and may even show some type of stereotypy like weaving, windsucking, crib biting and pawing. They struggle to gain weight and seem restless. Creativity is called for here, and games should be invented as well as ways of keeping the horse busy and stimulated!

Herbal remedies can be of use to calm the horse and help him get over the excitement phase after leaving the track. Mixes containing chamomile, Vervain herb, Valerian Root, Hops flowers, Passiflora, rosehips, dandelion and skullcap can be of great use. Bach Flower remedies are also of great use when dealing with stress and anxiety. Other products known to assist the horse in winding down include the B Vitamins and Magnesuim.

Lock on (also called join up) is a wonderful way of helping the horse understand that the trainer is to be trusted and that the horse can take his cue from the trainer. There are a number of very good books and websites explaining this principle.

In order for the horse to override his flight response, he will often take cue from the dominant horses in the herd, mostly the alpha individual. If the trainer can take the role of alpha leader, the horse will learn to take his cues from the trainer and this will help overcome the confusion/fear/adrenaline rush that may otherwise take place. Desesitization is a way of doing this. There are many ways in which the horse can be desesitized, but the main idea is to put the horse in a situation where it brings him close to the flight response and then work then through it.

A feed bag is usually a good way of doing this. The trainer remains ultra patient and ultra calm and asks the horse to approach the object of his fear, one very small step at a time. If the horse does so, he is rewarded by ending the session or taking a walk away from the scary object. Once the horse can be enticed to face the scary object head on and he comes to no harm, and there are no tigers that jump out and eat him up, you will see signs such as licking the lips, chewing, lowering the head and blowing out. (We call that ‘letting out the butterflies’!) This is the point where the horse is relaxed and submissive. Things that can be done are stepping onto feed bags, rubbing the body all over with feed bags, stepping up to quivering bushes, standing with feet in water, approaching scary objects like umbrellas, balloons, noises and so on. Use your creativity and come up with different tests for your horse and soon you will notice that he starts enjoying it as much as you do.

Be very careful when doing this exercise that you do not get to the point where the horse is operating under the adrenaline response – the typical Thoroughbred ‘freak-out’. You need to back down before he gets to that point. Once you are in the adrenaline response, the horse will not respond to any cues, will not ‘listen to reason’ and will only be looking for an escape route as quickly as possible. If this does happen, take him right away from the exercise and let him walk around, calm down, do something familiar to him, and only when he is calm again, go back to the exercise.

This exercise takes us to the next level of our training scale – the formation of trust between the horse and trainer.

2. RELATIONSHIP TRAINING (Establish the Trainer as an Ally)

As mentioned before, the trainer’s relationship with the horse is vital when helping him override the fight or flight instinct. Too many people misunderstand their role in the relationship with the horses in their care and try to become the horse’s ‘mother’ rather than the alpha leader and the person setting boundaries for the horses. To many people the relationship they have with their horses is likened to a Hollywood movie – feed him up with treats and ride off into the sunset! The reality is that this type of relationship can become fraught with problems and can be counter-productive to training. I am not in any way saying that treats are not allowed or are not important, they are. What I am saying is that too often horses become confused because their trainers and riders make the horse believe that they are only there to provide food and treats and the horse is left with the impression that the human is in fact the submissive partner while they are the alpha leader. Once the rider enters the arena, a power struggle ensues because now the horse does not want to take cues from the rider, and why should he, being the alpha leader!

Basic groundwork exercises form the foundation of my training program. Exercises in hand can be used to teach commands, understand cues that will be used later under saddle and that establish the trainer as the alpha leader. Horses should be taught to walk correctly next to the trainer, shoulder to shoulder, halt even though the trainer keeps walking, stand even though nobody is holding him and trot, rein back and yield to pressure from the ‘legs’ (in other words, move away from pressure applied to the sides). This is done by reward and repetition and horses are very receptive to this type of training. Another groundwork exercise which seems very insignificant, but has huge implications for the horse is to ask for halt, and then proceed to lift and hold up each leg. In the wild, a horse on three legs is a dead horse! By allowing you to lift each leg the horse shows you that he trusts your leadership and is confident that you will protect him. Racehorses can be notoriously difficult from the ground, mostly because they have never been taught to lead well, stand quietly and so forth, as well as not having confidence in their trainers. You will need to spend time teaching them to walk calmly, not barge past you in the stable and out the door, stand quietly and so forth.

The key to success in training is patience and consistency. You have to be consistent 100% of the time. If your horse is allowed to do something on one day but not the next, you confuse him and break his trust in you. One loss of patience during a sensitive moment in the training process will mean that you will have to work ten times as hard to regain it.

Obstacle courses done in hand are a super way of building trust was well as teaching the horse to become more aware of where his feet are. Remember, the racehorse has not developed his sense of proprioception and has no idea of where his feet and body are in space. He is used to running on flat ground in a straight(ish) line. These can include walking over poles, raised and on the ground, weaving in and out of cones or barrels, jumping over a small crate or stand in water. Anything you can think of that will help him think about where his feet are.

A short word on grooming your new horse. When you get your Thoroughbred, he may not like being groomed very much and may even want to bite or strike you if you do. The first thing you should know is that he has an extremely thin and sensitive skin and is probably not covered by much of a fat layer to protect his bony bits underneath. He also probably wasn’t very sensitively handled in his days as a racehorse. Firstly, throw away all those hard bristled brushes and combs and invest in the softest brush you can find. Add to that a sheepskin mitt and you are now better equipped to groom your ticklish horse! Try to find a very soft, squishy rubber comb to act as a curry comb. Start him off gently and stick to areas he does not mind as such. Slowly progress to the rest of his body and if you do it properly, in no time at all he will enjoy the process. Be aware that your groom also knows what to do and does not ruin your good work with the first brush! If he does try to bite or kick, do not shout or slap him. Turn him around in the stable and ask him to stand again. In that way you are in control and emphasizing your dominance. (Although sometimes a well timed slap does make you feel much better!) By making a fuss, you are feeding his nerves and pushing him closer to the adrenaline takeover – he thinks ‘if she is shouting and going crazy, there must be some threat around here somewhere!’

Finally, we get to the last and most exciting part – schooling your horse under saddle!

(More great groundwork training methods to try include Parelli Horsemanship and Clicker Training)

3. PHYSICAL TRAINING (The Part Where He Learns to Carry You!)

There are so many theories and methods when it comes to schooling horses under saddle, I would need a book to explain even half of them, but I am going to focus on a few of the areas of schooling that are important to the horse off the track. Summarized, the problem areas you are likely to encounter include the following:

- Won’t stand still for the rider to mount and may even rear up if restrained
- No idea of any aids such as hands, legs, seat, voice
- No brakes – no idea of what ‘stop’ means
- Poor balance and even worse suppleness – they are very ‘one-sided’
- A hollow, upside-down musculature that makes working correctly impossible
- No idea of legs hanging next to the sides – may even panic at the feel
- Panic attacks when confused – including standing in one spot and refusing to move

The first issue you will encounter when riding your new horse is that he probably won’t stand still when you mount. This is because on the track, horses keep walking or trotting and jockeys or grooms are given a leg up as they go. You will need to teach your new horse to stand still when you mount. I would recommend that for the first couple of riding sessions you have someone at the horse’s head asking him to stand and that you use a mounting block. If you have done your groundwork properly, your horse will understand the ‘stand’ command, which you will give every time you ask him to stand still when you mount. Be very aware of your own body when you mount (as you always should) so that you do not dig him in the sides, pull on his mouth or bang down on his back, as you will make it unpleasant and reinforce his belief that standing still just is not any fun at all! Once you are in the saddle, keep him standing for a little while longer. He will probably want to rush off at once – what he has been taught to do – and by asking him to stand just a little longer, you are reinforcing the idea of standing still. Let your handler do the stopping. If the horse wants to move off, don’t yank up on the reins and pull him in the mouth to bring him to a halt (as I so often see) – he doesn’t understand that. Leave his mouth, sit still and give your ‘stand’ command again while your handler places a hand over his nose, applying a little pressure and one on his chest to reinforce the stop. When he stops, reward him with a gentle rub, (don’t slap!) have him stand a moment longer and then ask for the walk. By simply reinforcing this with every session, he will quickly understand what is expected. Be very aware whenever you are working with your new horse – he may very well rear up if he is restrained, which is normal on the track!

Your new horse has no idea of aids. He has been taught that ‘forward means go’ – remember that. It is too common to see a novice rider on a novice TB, when the horse suddenly goes faster, the rider instinctively leans forward and of course to the horse this means ‘go faster’ so he does… and the rider panics even more and ends up around the neck… and the horse panics even more… and so on! This is where proper groundwork is essential! If you don’t build a solid foundation with groundwork (which was discussed before and also includes lunging and long reining) you are setting yourself up for a fight, possible injury and many months of frustration! Do not underestimate the value of the basics! Too often riders want to run before they can walk. Your work begins with teaching the voice aids from the ground, progressing to lunge work and finally long reining. Only after I am happy with this work do I even consider getting on the horse’s back. I do not regard him as safe to ride until then.

Lunging correctly is a skill that every good trainer should master. If your horse cannot carry himself correctly on the lunge, there is no way he can carry you on his back and work correctly! Lunging a horse is not about chasing him in a circle at the trot for 20 minutes – it is much more than that. This is where he must master transitions, lengthening and shortening his frame and develop the correct musculature. Your workout on the lunge should include walk, trot, lengthening the stride and coming back to the working pace, halt, rein back, and even lateral work! Polework is vital for developing balance and proprioception. Canter should only be introduced when the horse is advanced in his lunging. People often introduce canter too soon, which causes more problems than it fixes. Once the horse is able to canter in a balanced frame, transitions like walk - canter –walk - halt – walk should be done to encourage engagement of the hindquarter. Lunging aids such as side reins, de gouges, chambons, German elastics may be used to encourage correct work, however they should be fitted correctly and used for the correct purpose.

As a rule of thumb, the outline you are trying to achieve on the lunge looks as follows:

The most important things to look out for is that the horse is moving well forward, through a relaxed and swinging back, accepting the bridle and maintaining a good rhythm. The contact should remain steady – in other words not reaching and coming up, reaching and coming up as is often noticed. This is usually caused when the horse is forced into an outline before he is physically ready to maintain that outline. You will also notice, that as the sessions progress to include more advanced movements like transitions, polework and other exercises, that the outline changes. The horse will still be stepping well underneath himself but the shoulder and neck will lift in front. This is exactly what we would like the horse to do. Watch for contracting of the abdominal muscles, which will not only mean the back is rounding, but also that the hind legs are stepping up well.

Another thing to keep in mind is that before any training aid is attached, the horse should be allowed to warm up without it first. This includes plenty of work in walk and trot with lots of transitions between. (Can include a little canter if the horse is balanced and if the training has progressed that far.) Training aids often impede or spoil the walk if forward movement is not maintained, so try to do some work first before attaching the training aid. Generally speaking, I have found the following guide useful when it comes to training aids (although I must stress that every horse responds differently to a training aid and a qualified person’s assistance is vital!):

If the horse seems to be rather average and responds well on the lunge, side reins may be fitted normally. Also, fitting side reins in the normal position is advised when doing work on long reins, as well as work including canter.

If the horse tends to work too low to avoid using his back and hindquarter properly, the side reins should be lifted slightly. This has the effect of raising the front end. I would also introduce Polework and small jumps if applicable to encourage lifting the front end. Transitions are very important for the horse who likes to hang too low in front.

For a very hollow horse with a dry, open mouth, the side reins can be lowered to just behind the elbow. The effect of this is that the side reins will move the bit slightly as the horse works and thus encourage softening of the mouth and a lowering of the outline. Care should be taken because the action can become ‘sawing’ on the mouth if the reins are fitted too tightly. Once the mouth starts to soften and the horse understands what is expected, the reins can be lifted or another aid used.

For a horse who tends to hollow (as most horses off the track tend to do) with an underdeveloped topline, the following training aids may be used with great effect:

The chambon encourages the horse to drop lower in front and stretch through his back. It encourages development of the topline. It can only be used in walk and trot and should not be used when jumping or cantering. The main point to take into consideration with the chambon is that it ends on the bit. This makes it less kind than the next aid, which also works in a similar fashion.

The de Gouge works in a very similar fashion to the chambon and also encourages a lowering of the neck and rounding of the back. The main difference is that the de Gouge forma a triangle between the poll, bit and ring, so that the horse is more able to adjust his head position inside the triangle. There is more of an indirect pressure on the bit, which in some cases can be kinder on the horse’s mouth. Work should also only be in walk and trot.

The German elastic is another useful lunging aid, and van be fitted in a variety of ways depending on the effect to be produced. Care should be taken with this aid that the horse is not allowed to ‘break’ behind the poll, thereby avoiding the contact. Watch that the nose does not become tucked in to the chest, as this is another common form of evasion with this aid.

The Pessoa Training System is another useful training aid to be used on the lunge. It can be fitted on a number of settings, again, depending on the effect. The major advantage is that the strap behind the hindquarter encourages the horse to step deeper underneath himself, thereby encouraging a good outline. This aid should be fitted correctly, as it can cause damage to the horse’s mouth if fitted too tightly! I have found that lunging with two lunge lines, one at the normal position, and another going around the horse’s hind end through the inside rind and back to the hand, has the same effect and can be controlled and loosened or tightened depending on the horse.

As a quick example of how the training aids affect each horse differently, let’s take a look at the following example:

This horse is working in side reins, and by all accounts looks very pretty on the lunge. Look closer… you will notice that the horse is hanging behind the bit slightly, tipping his head to the outside and is not tracking up as well as he should. He is working over his right shoulder and seems to be rushing into the side reins slightly.

Again, we have the horse working in balancing reins. He is not tracking up well at all and is using the rein as a support in front. The neck is way too low and the chin tucked in. The horse is not using his shoulder at all, but is merely leaning on the balancing rein for support and to aid in the bend.

Here is the same horse on a Chambon. Notice how his outline has changed – he is moving straighter through his neck and head, is tracking up better and is stretching through his neck and back. There is more control of the action too.

I am not suggesting that every horse be lunged on a chambon! In fact, I barely use mine at all. What I am highlighting is that every horse is an individual and that a close evaluation be done of the horse when lungeing to see what would suit him best. I also want to illustrate how important it is that the trainer be aware of what the horse is doing.

The difference is very subtle, however I trust that this will illustrate how important it is that the trainer understands the use of the lunging aids and the importance of choosing the correct one for the individual horse.

Lunging correctly is going to assist the horse in understanding the aids, developing musculature to correctly carry the rider and improve suppleness and balance. Once the horse is lunging well, long reining can be introduced to further solidify the aids.

Once the rider has progressed to the stage where the horse is being ridden, the horse should better understand the aids (remember to use your voice commands with your physical aids and your horse will soon understand what is expected of him) and work should progress quickly. Hillwork will improve balance as will Polework. Obstacles courses will further strengthen the bond between horse and rider. The horse should only be taken out if he is listening and responding well to the aids and at first it may be wise to take an older, calmer and bombproof companion. This will reassure your horse and help him when out.

You may need to find a quiet arena to work your horse in, as he may get very excited or upset if there are other horses working with him. Often this becomes a problem at the first show – the atmosphere ups his adrenaline levels and sometimes your young Thoroughbred will become a different horse at his first show! The best way to train your new horse to relax at shows is to take him to a few local training shows and simply ride him around. This will give him a chance to realize that he can relax and does not put as much pressure on him to perform which may stress him even further.

At this stage of the training, I would suggest that a qualified instructor be called in to guide the rider in the chosen discipline and give more feedback as per the progress that has been made.

Working with Thoroughbred horses off the track can be one of the most rewarding things and it is always fantastic to take a horse that is really a wobbly, skinny, nervous wreck and transform it in a few months to a relaxed, obedient horse that is eager to please. Starting your new horse correctly can mean all the difference in his working life. I wish you and your new horse all the best of luck!


Horse Owner said...

This is a REALLY useful post.

I have been riding a friend's ex-racehorse while she is pregnant and this gives me an insight into his behaviour.


Renee said...

Only a pleasure - always so happy when something here helps out someone else and in the end makes a horse out there just a little happier!

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