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December 29, 2012

We have had the horses for four weeks and have three more before they appear in front of the crowds in the chaos of the Maryland Horse World Expo. Training horses for a show or an event feels different from training on the horse's timeline. The strategy that I try to instill in myself and in students is to separate in our minds the expectations of judges and spectators from the intimate relationship between ourselves and our horses. It's hard to listen to the horse in the moment when our brains are busy with fantasies of glory. The nice thing about this 100 Day Challenge is that we have no prescribed course or test to perform. Our job is to educate the public and inspire them about Thoroughbreds off the track. My biggest fear is that the horses come undone completely in the arena and confirm the stereotype that they are there to destroy. All we can do to prevent that is to plod forth with our training and invite the horses to find confidence in their work with us.

Alluring Punch  

northviewlogoAlluring Punch has shown us his jumping talent and wowed us with his movement and natural balance, but he still feels a little like a pinball for the first ten minutes of each ride. His relationship with the bit is more confrontational than the other three horses. Even when there is minimal contact from the rider he starts out hurling his head about, sometimes just making the point that he will not be controlled by the bit and other times using his head to initiate a change of direction away from the one he knows we are pursuing.

oakley lookWe want to establish boundaries and consistency with these horses but we must be careful with the mouth and the attitude of a horse like this. For the first few weeks we sent him forward and matched his strength with leg and rein to keep him on the track of our choosing at the pace and balance that we thought he could handle. That was tough on him in some ways. It was hard work and I don't think he got much pleasure from it. The warning came when I started to feel that he was not connecting well to the bit. He was sucking back slightly and curling to avoid the contact.

This is a common problem with the horses who pull hard. The harder we have to work the less tactful we become, and it doesn't feel any better to the bars of their mouths and neck muscles than it does to our arms and shoulders. All of a sudden they feel light in the bridle and take smaller steps and we think we have made great progress. If we are training for Western pleasure we want the horse "off the bit" and moving very slowly, but if we are training for the English disciplines we want the horse "on the bit" with more power and impulsion.

I had felt poor Punchy sulking a bit, then surging into the bridle, then sulking again. My job then was to look for and find a rhythm and a direction that would make him happy again, and restore his trust in the contact. We found that yesterday in the canter. In that gait he is most rhythmic, straight, and balanced. He becomes happy. It is almost like a mental break for him, after which he does better at the walk and trot.

I had planned to do a little jumping yesterday but changed my mind during our ride. I finally had him happy in his walk, trot, and canter, and the last thing I wanted to do was complicate it. This guy was born with a magnificent jump and we want to preserve it by only jumping when we think we can get him to the fences with the peaceful mind that comes from balance, straightness, and rhythm.

All of the struggles with this horse are a function of his youth and the short amount of time he has been in training. Both Michelle and I agree that he is just about ideal as a prospect for upper level eventing. He will be one hell of a five year old if he ends up in the right hands.

Declan's Moon 

CountryLifeLogoI am sorry about the whole favoritism thing here. I just have to say that riding this horse is the highlight of my day. If nobody had told me that he was the great champion of his time I might not be so smitten. But then again, I might.

They say he is a gelding, but neither he nor I believe that to be the case. There is a certain feeling of sharpness that I always felt from Salute The Truth, the Thoroughbred stallion that I competed for many years and now stand on the farm. I always had to be thinking about what might come next, because the stallion's mind is so independent and creative, and the physical movements can come as fast as lightning. I loved that feeling, even though it was always accompanied by a little fear.

HRHDeclansMoonHRH Declan's MoonDeclan is always watching, always listening, always thinking, and he is very quick. He needs to believe that I am his master but know that I will never threaten him. He can never learn that he is stronger than me.

We lost a week of training due to the bruise on his hind foot, but have had a good week back. The cold weather and a bit of snow put a little more spark in Declan. The other day I put him on the longe line for a couple of trot circles before mounting and saw a little of what I'd like to avoid while on his back. It is all very deliberate when he steps out of line and he knows he's being bad. Whether it is his snarl when he doesn't want his mane pulled, his threats to other horses who get too close in the arena, or his tendancy to stop, drop his head, swing it in a circle and kick because I squeezed my legs to go forward, it is all done very deliberately.

To anyone on the ground Declan appears to be a beautifully trained horse on the flat in all three gaits. He looks impressive because he goes in such perfect rhythm and balance. The only resistance he offers is when I ask him to canter. I try to coax him into canter and he prefers to show off his huge trot. I have assured him that he was not a champion Standardbred racehorse and never will be. After a couple of times around the arena with me clucking and squeezing but trying not to offend His Royal Highness, he breaks into a slow motion canter that could win any hunter hack class in America. I have a feeling that when I get him cantering in an open field that hunter canter is going to grow and grow and grow. I watched some of his races and his stride was so big he looked like he was cantering to everyone else's gallop, but still passing them.

Any eventer or dressage rider, however, knows that a horse who doesn't move forward willingly from the rider's leg is just plain not broke. It is the most important response that we must teach our horses. We get a lot of non-Thoroughbred horses in for training who are a bit sour and won't go forward. The obvious solution is to pop them on the rump with a nice long dressage whip when leg doesn't get the job done.. That tends to either work, or create a bit of a buck, or some combination of the two. The other part of the formula that often gets forgotten is that going forward has to feel good. If you keep squeezing and gripping as you go that's not much of a reward for a correct response.

Yesterday I had a new person helping and she mistakenly tacked Declan up in a dressage saddle. She brought him into the arena that way and I decided to see how it felt. Well, it's much harder to allow a horse to canter freely forward when your long legs are wrapped around their belly than when they are jacked up a little in a jumping saddle. Declan was particularly sticky in his canter as a result. Back to the jumping saddle until he is really ready for that full seat- and leg- feeling.

He also gets to do a little playing over jumps this week. I can't wait.


SagamoreLogoHere is an email I got yesterday from Katie Tolbert, the exercise rider at Sagamore who did most of Gunport's early training:

Hi, I was just reading your posts for the Trainer's Challenge and was so excited to hear how well Gunport is doing. I work at Sagamore Farm, and rode her the majority of her time there: riding her as a yearling, galloping at the farm, and even a short stint at Laurel and Pimlico. I always really enjoyed her, and got along with her pretty well. She could be such a sweet filly, but as you already noticed has some nervous/anxious tendencies, that life as a racehorse did nothing to help. So glad she is getting a chance to find something she really can enjoy, with people who enjoy her too! My husband and I have another retired horse from Sagamore who we were planning to sell, but I have fallen in love with....Its such a joy to see them flourish. I would really love to see my little "munchkin" and hope to make it out to the Horse Expo for her big performance! Keep at it. She'll settle in and repay all your patience!

RacehorseGunportTwo-year old Gunport training at Sagamore Farm with exercise rider, Katie Tolbert. Photo courtesy of Shelly MilletWe love hearing from the people who worked with all of these horses in the past. It's easy to forget that racehorses are trained by human beings who love them, care for them, and have dedicated their lives to their well-being. The really lucky ones are raised at places like Sagamore.

Michelle has done all the riding on Gunport, so rather than mess her up while Michelle was away for Christmas we gave her a break for a few days. Before that we had introduced her to some baby jumps. Talk about careful. She didn't want those dainty little feet touching those rails, but she was game enough to get to the other side. We won't know the extent of her jumping talent for a while. Maybe she'll get up off the ground over the free jumps when we introduce them. I'd put money on a bet that she'll be good with her knees.

Yesterday was a bit of a surprise with Gunport. She had started out every ride before that with jigging away from the mounting block and not really walking until after some trot and canter work. Yesterday was her first day back with a bit in her mouth. The cut on her lip was finally healed completely. I doubt that had anything to do with the change, but she stood to be mounted and walked off rather than jigged. We worried that something migh be wrong with her.

Also good news was that she accepted the bit in her mouth and was more responsive than with the bitless bridle. She seemed very comfortable with the connection and while sometimes behind the vertical she was nicely connected. It is still all about trust and routine with Gunport. We can't make her settle, but we can allow her to settle. The Expo environment will be difficult for her, particularly the stabling. We will do everything we can for her but in the end she will need to decide that she is in fact as wonderful as all of you think she is and choose to bask in her glory.

Suave Jazz 

WalnutGreenLogoSuave Jazz continues to shine as the most trainable horse ever. Every single day he does his very best. His connection in the bridle is honest and even and he moves away from leg pressure immediately. The hardest part of the flat work has been the canter. He is so accustomed to bearing down in to the bridle and clawing at the ground to pull himself along that shifting his balance to his hindquarters and slowing down his rhythm is a foreign concept. The thrilling part is that he is starting to get even that already.

Most days we start out with a fairly long period of walk with a little shoulder fore and leg yielding to supple him and remind him where the boundaries are. Then we trot for a while and find rhythm and as much relaxation as we can get out of his tight back. When it's time to canter we start in two point, well up over his withers to allow him to get comfortable in his rhythm, first around the whole arena and then on circles. Finally I sit in the saddle, put the inside leg on firmly and encourage him to raise his poll. We do this first on the circle. In the first weeks he would fall in so badly that just keeping him cantering was difficult. Now we get a full circle with a shape much more like we want from a sport horse. It is a huge effort for him and he's not ready to canter down to jumps that way, but it's great to feel him getting it for short periods. We always let him come back to trot from the good canter.

Jazz is also jumping whatever we face him with, but we are keeping it small and doing it mostly from the trot. He is game and smart about it.

jazz huntsSuave Jazz's first outing with the Marlborough Hunt ClubAfter last week's fun trail ride and introduction to streams, I decided to try him foxhunting Sunday. He was exactly what we look for in a field hunter: attentive but settled and brave. He walked rather than jigged right from the start and trotted when most hot horses would be cantering. Most importantly, he stood at checks. And no, he had no chemical, herbal, or mineral help. He just has a good mind.

It was going great until we got to a nasty looking stream crossing that horses were leaping across to keep from getting sucked into the mud. Our one stream school turned out to be not enough, and this smart old war horse made a firm decision to stay as far away from that grave of mud and water as he could get. Since the hunt field is no place to school a horse we turned around and headed in early. We will go back, lead him across, go over a bunch of other crossings and be back out when the hunt returns to Dodon at the end of January!

Final Thoughts

Most of you reading this are probably painfully jealous of the fun we are having with these horses. I hope you are, and I hope that jealousy inspires you to either choose an OTTB for you next horse, or improve your skills to the point where you can train one, or use the skills you have to train more of them, or buy one that's already trained, or pay for some kid to get one, or volunteer for a nonprofit that places horses off the track, or support RRTP, or whatever other outlet you can find for your passion.

We know that you are awaiting more videos. We hope to get some done early next week.