Training Report #2
December 18, 2012
Today was Tuesday of the third week of training. Before even getting into how much fun we are having with the horses I have to say just how overwhelming the response has been already from the public. Our Facebook numbers shot past 5400 fans today with a weekly total reach of nearly 20,000. Eleven thousand of our 110,000 You Tube channel views happened in the last two weeks. We are all over the net: Chronicle Forums, Eventing Nation, Daily Racing Form, and had a photographer out on Friday for a feature story in Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred. In addition to Thoroughbred Charities of America, Maryland Horse Breeders Association, and Bourbon Lane Stables, we have just signed on Maryland Jockey Club, Stübben, and Bit of Britain. This is all just the start.
These four horses couldn't know that they are ambassadors for their kind, and that they have the power to convince thousands of people to learn to ride better and to find themselves a Thoroughbred off the track. They can't know, but they act like they do. That's how hard they try every day. At least that's how it seems to those of us lucky enough to be working with them.
Samantha Siegel's superstar lost a full week of training. Monday last week he was off on the right hind at the trot. Hoof testers showed an obvious sore spot near the toe. Vet and farrier expected to be able to get it to drain with a little digging, but nothing came out. We packed and did some soaking. Still no draining. By the weekend he was much better and by yesterday and today he was sound in the sand footing, so I went ahead and rode him very lightly yesterday and a little more today in the indoor.
Last week I raved so much about Declan that my wife accused me of playing favorites. Well, I have to be honest. The others are magnificent, but in addition to being magnificent, Declan has a personality that fascinates me. He is as proud as any stallion and just as sensitive. I must not offend him or he will sulk. I must not surprise him or he will flee. But when he understands the game he plays it like a champion.
We haven't progressed in our week off, but I know him better than I did. Whether it's packing and wrapping his hoof or getting on for the first time after a week off while people are jogging a horse on the asphalt just outside the wall of the indoor, I am better off waiting for Declan's permission. Just waiting for him to settle before moving on means everything to him, and when he does settle, it is because he understands what we are doing. Then he becomes a very quiet, rhythmic, and relaxed horse.
The Maryland Horse World Expo will be a challenge for all the horses, but for Declan it will be especially interesting. He might figure out right away that the crowds are there for him. He might also be so interested in showing himself off that he ignores the person on his back. Whatever he does he will represent Country Life Farm and Jay Em Ess Racing in style. He is a fantastic animal.
Michelle Warro does great with the hot mares and has done all the riding so far on Gunport. She is still in the bitless bridle even though the cut on her mouth is pretty close to healed. We don't want to knock off a scab and create an irritation. Our goal for these horses is to accept the bit comfortably.
MidAtlantic Thoroughbred had sent Lydia Williams to get photos, and there's nothing like natural sunlight for good photographs, so out we went.Friday last week was Gunport's first day outside the indoor. We had wanted to really give her time to settle in there and learn some things before adding the distractions of the great outdoors. But
I was on Suave Jazz who already had proved that nothing phases him. I figured we'd give Gunport a lead and grab on and pony her if it didn't go well. Well, that scared little filly that shook before we mounted her in the indoor not only walked ahead of us down the road and past the scary house to the big open jump field with the unfenced sand arena in it, but marched right through the big puddle and among all the colored jumps like she owned them. She walked, trotted, and cantered around until Lydia had enough pictures and even tried to stand still for some standing shots. The last part wasn't easy, but she's getting better even about standing still.
Clearly this is a talented filly who is winning the hearts of everyone who sees even her picture. She's even better in person. Her training is simple. We will keep doing what she's good at, going forward in her natural rhythm to build up her trust. She carries herself well naturally and enjoys the work. We will have her on the trails soon, and hopping over small jumps for fun.
Sagamore Racing should be commended for retiring a horse from racing as sound in mind and body as this filly is. She has a big future ahead of her.
Michelle and I both independently started calling this one Punchy. He has the body of a five year old but the mind of his actual three years. It shows up when you want to go in a straight line and he wiggles left, then right, then left.
On the other hand this is the horse who canters like a jumper. His sloping croup seems to keep his hind legs under him and his long legs just seem to work in circles under his body. On his first trail ride he needed a lead to step over the first log, but jumped the ones after that. He was not pleased about the big mud puddles, but went with a lead from another horse. He was not completely settled out in the woods, but wasn't bad.
On photo day he was a bit tough to get around the turns cantering with no rail at the edge of the ring. He never actually left the ring like some horses do, but I had to work to keep him on his track.
Today, however, young Punchy really shined. Samantha set up some baby jumps in the indoor for Michelle on him and me on Suave Jazz. We started with some poles that had one side lifted up eight inches off the ground and the other end on the ground. There were three in a row, each about 18 feet apart. Punchy was ok going through but tough to steer in the beginning. They we did a very low x and a very low vertical. He actually rocked back and jumped where most horses simply step over. Then we built an ascending oxer set at maybe 21 inches. Michelle trotted him over it maybe four times, and each time Samantha and I said either, "Wow," or "Cool," or "Damn, did you see that?" He didn't overjump or show extraordinary scope. He just used his body so smoothly and landed so softly. Each time he cantered away happy, rhythmic, and calm.
So now we really have an incentive to get this youngster to respect the leg and stay straight. He has a lot of simple flat work ahead of him. Lots of walk, shoulder fore, halt, circles, and straight lines. We will do a lot of what he does well and very little of what is difficult for him. We want him to develop good habits.
The folks at Northview Stallion Station would not be surprised to hear that this horse jumps well. Nor would owner Barbara Ryan. He is by Two Punch. They are magnificent athletes. We know that, but it is still a thrill to see.
Saintly Suave Jazz continues to do exactly what we ask of him with absolutely no resistance. He still feels tight through his back, and he still leans in on his turns at the canter, but his connection in the bridle is consistent and he immediately moves away from leg pressure.
Yesterday I rode him on a hack with a slightly more experienced horse. From the moment we left the barn in a direction he had never been I felt as though I were on a seasoned field hunter. He was alert but absolutely comfortable in his surroundings. We trotted and cantered in an open field with the same attention to his rider that he offers in the ring. We trotted over logs. We schooled some major stream crossings.
I was a little stupid in choosing our first stream crossing. It was one of the ones worn down in the banks so that you are entering a narrow chute going down and up the other side. Horses never like it at first. Rather than get into a kicking battle I dismounted to led him across. It took some time and he got away from me at one point when I let go rather than be stomped on, but he didn't go far and came back to get it done right. What I loved was Suave Jazz's expression as he stood halfway down the bank worrying about how he got where he was and how he would solve the dilemma he was in. Lots of horses shut their handler out of their mind in those situations and just spin around and do whatever it takes to get back home. This horse was way outside his comfort and experience zone but trusted me enough to stick around and figure it out. It is amazing what a trusting horse will do for a human.
After getting through the steep and narrow stream with not much water a couple times we went to the big wide stream with the easy banks. After a good sniff or two Suave Jazz was splashing up and down the stream and seeming to actually enjoy the sound of gravel and water under his feet.
The Marlborough Hunt Club starts from our farm on Sunday. I don't hunt regularly, but do when they start from Dodon. Most of the horses we have in training would be made a little crazy by a foxhunt, but I like to try it out on the ones that seem like they might take to it. Suave Jazz will be my mount and I can't wait. Joint Master Christy Clagett is on the RRTP board and the club did a fundraising raffle for RRTP at last year's hunt ball. We made a display board of great horses in the club with their race records and pedigrees. These people appreciate a good Thoroughbred.
Today I played with Suave Jazz over the same little jumps that Alluring Punch was hopping over. He was very willing, but took a little time to figure out that jumping was easier than trotting through and trying to figure out how to get all four legs over without stepping on the rail. When he did finally jump it first felt like he wasn't sure if his back would open up and allow him to bascule. His hind legs came down quickly and he scooted away a bit tense. The last time over the little oxer, however, felt different. He actually landed on his front legs and cantered away more settled. We stopped on that and will try again in a couple of days.
Suave Jazz is so settled and happy on the trails that I think we'll do more of that than the other horses. We will continue his flat work in the ring and pop him over little jumps every few days, but we know that stretching and building his topline can't be hurried. We can't take advantage of his willingness to try new things and move along before his body is ready.
People are always encouraging me to write a "how-to" for training OTTBs. Anna Ford of New Vocations hit that one out of the park with Beyond The Track already, and seeing how different these four horses are should make it clear that Thoroughbreds and the experiences they come with are as diverse as human beings.
I did write up a little piece that was published in the December issue of Equine Journal in answer to the question, "What are some things I should be aware of when retraining an off-the-track Thoroughbred?" I had forgotten about it until the magazine came out, but kind of liked it when I read it.
The first thing to remember when working with an ex-racehorse is that it is a horse. It wants security, predictability, rhythm, and boundaries. No surprises.
Thoroughbreds love to work, and they usually come from the track with a willingness to go forward. They have been ridden by professionals every day, were professionally started, and professionally handled.
Some of the best horsemanship in the world is on the backstretch of our racetracks. Don't start by thinking that the resistance or fear that your horse presents is because somebody in the past was cruel or incompetent. Take responsibility in the moment. Your horse is responding to you, so you must strive to be confident, consistent, clear, sympathetic, and perfectly balanced over your feet at all times.
Most people find that their horse off the track reacts to uncertainty by moving its feet, sometimes going sideways, and every once in a while going backward. We might feel like an explosion is coming, and the natural thing to do, as a rider, is to fold up into a fetal position and squeeze.
The opposite is more effective. The best exercise riders and jockeys are the ones who can settle a hot horse. Every single one of them keeps his or her hands low, finds perfect balance over his or her feet, and relaxes into the movement of the horse. That is a skill that doesn't come overnight, but that is what helps the horse.
Boundaries are also important. Horses at the track go in a frame and connection that is closer to "on the bit" than some equestrians expect from a green horse. The connection in the bridle and acceptance of the leg are security for the horse. That means we should work to establish that connection right from the outset. Within the boundaries of our legs and independent hands, the horse can find rhythm and peace. Both the outside world and the rider itself are less of a threat inside those boundaries.
Sometimes your best strategy will be to allow your ex-racehorse to go forward. Remember, within rhythm is relaxation, and you can't get much rhythm going sideways or jigging. Set your hands down firmly in front of the withers, get your butt out of the saddle (your seat is a driving aid and sometimes a major source of irritation), and trot or canter forward. When you do it, keep a good hold. You can soften when you've found the rhythm. Hopefully, it happens before you collapse in exhaustion and start flopping about!
So get fit, take your time, and feel the power of earth's fastest and most generous domesticated creature: the Thoroughbred horse.