January 12, 2013
The Maryland Horse World Expo begins this coming Friday. Michelle Warro and I plan to ride the horses in front of a crowd that is seated in tall bleachers set two feet from the railng of the 60' by 120' arena. Two weeks ago we were worried. Now we are more confident. Steady progress with all four horses, but a bump in the road for Gunport.
The expo takes place at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. Tickets are purchased at the door for $10. Parking is free. Our booth is near the southwest corner of the Cow Palace. We will have our magnificent black Equicizer, Idle Dice, and 100 Day Thoroughbred Challenge t-shirts designed by our funky cool designer Julie Magruder, along with RRTP hats, saddle pads, and fleeces. Here is the schedule:
Friday at 4pm in the Exhibition Hall Arena (building uphill from outdoor show ring) - We will present each horse in hand, moving free, and jumping through a chute. This will be an educational forum in evaluating Thoroughbred horses for various sport disciplines and be the only opportunity to watch these superstars free jumping.
Saturday at 11 am in the Cow Palace Seminar Hall - I will lead a discussion about Selecting and Starting Your Ex-Racehorse. We will cover as much as we can get to in an hour and take questions from the audience.
Saturday at 1pm in the Cow Palace Main Arena - Michelle Warro and I will each ride two of the horses. We will discuss where they are in their training after six weeks and where we expect them to be at 100 days. This is the horses' first public appearance under saddle since their last races. We will do basic flat work and a bit of jumping.
Sunday at 1pm Exhibition Hall Arena – This has been titled Jockey Dressage but is actually a presentation about how sport horse riders can integrate the methods of exercise riders and jockeys into the basic flat work that we do with our horses off the track during that critical time when they are learning to rebalance themselves as riding horses. In years past we have had retired Lady Legend jockey Andrea Seefeldt Knight, but this year will have a guest appearance from another star jock who can do dressage in a racing saddle. We will use the two of our Challenge horses who have seemed to enjoy the crowds most.
Now for the actual report on the horses...
Michelle and I got a big kick out of watching our Punchy Pony's race video from his one win at Charlestown. He was well in front heading into the turn for home. Then the announcer says, "Alluring Punch taking a wide turn! Taking a REALLY wide turn! Alluring Punch is stopping for a hot dog!" As soon as he got onto the straightaway that huge, powerful stride put him way out front again.
I've talked about his steering issues and lack of focus. You saw in his training videos that he was more reluctant than the other horses to take a consistent contact in the bridle. I am thrilled to report that he's made great progress. He will still drift for the door or the edge of the outdoor arena at the start of his rides, but within five minutes he feels very rideable.
We didn't do anything special to get to where he is. We just stayed within his comfort zone and rode him around the arena until his rhythm and natural talent gave him the confidence to cooperate. He was so strong and determined in his resistance early on that maybe I was too strong and determined in my response, maybe asking for too much too soon. Or perhaps it was inevitable that he confront those boundaries early on. In any case, he is clearly enjoying his work now and we are enjoying riding him.
We free jumped on Tuesday and Thursday this week. Most horses are a bit klutzy in their first session and then play the game with enthusiasm a few days later. This horse jumped brilliantly from the very first x. He was brave as a lion going into the chute, and ended the short session (we always keep these session to about ten minutes with lots of breaks) jumping a tad over 3 feet like he was born to do it. His magnificent canter allowed him to adjust his stride in the approach without any loss of balance, and his sloping croup kept his hind legs underneath him where they provided enough power to get him over the tops of the standards if necessary.
His second free jump session was also magnificent, but he was clearly having too much fun. His canter became more of a gallop and we kept having to move the x further and further away from the ascending oxer one stride away. We raised the jump to four feet and stopped, not because he was anywhere near his limit, but because his level of excitement was rising and he was getting a tad reckless. We want to keep him in a quiet rhythm when he jumps so he can learn that the game is about the footwork and being careful. That will happen with a rider.
Declan is still a week behind the others due to his bruised foot in the second week, but is catching up fast. The last video showed my struggles with getting him to really respond and go forward "in front of my leg." I would nudge him forward with my legs but if I pushed too hard he would snarl back with a whirl of his head and sometimes a kick or a little buck. A more experienced horse would have earned a clearer and stronger signal to get to work, but something told me that Declan wasn't ready for that, or that I wasn't ready for his response to that! I did start carrying a dressage whip, however. With that I have been able to tap behind my leg without taking a hand off the reins. Sometimes I find it to be more subtle, more precise, and more obvious in meaning to the horse than stronger leg.
So between the dressage whip, a few good trail rides, and a lot of transitions between trot and canter, I finally feel as though Declan understands what I mean when I squeeze my lower legs and does not consider it a huge insult. His natural self-carriage is so perfect that I have found that with a bit of a gas pedal he suddenly feels like a horse that can do almost anything. Country Life Farm's Christy Holden and I have speculated about how he might react to the expo crowds next week. There is a distinct possibility that he will stand in the center of the arena and carefully stare down each and every person in the bleachers, refusing to perform until each one of them has dropped to his or her knees. We'll see.
I am tempted to say nothing about Declan's free jumping. The video will be up very soon and speak for itself, but...I can't resist. Yes, an athlete is an athlete, and this one does everything well. His stride is deceptively long, and it took him a few tries to figure out that there were two separate jumps and that he needed to focus on the first before looking at the second. But he was brave and it was easy for him. In his first session he jumped three feet without really needing to lift his knees. In the second session he jumped four feet and could easily have gone to five. When he got there right his form was about perfect. The incredible part was watching him canter down the long side on his right lead, do a perfect flying change as he approached the left turn, and then canter around to the chute as though ridden by a top professional. He didn't rush and there was no anxiety. It was all elegance. You'll see. Having my 93 year old father seated in a chair at the center of the arena made it even more special. Declan greeted him with respect before his performance commenced.
Well the good news is that she is coming along like gangbusters. She is jumping anything in front of her and going from just looking good to accepting Michelle's aides with some precision. Her tension was fading with every ride as she learned more and more that her rider offered rhythm, a connection, consistency, and no surprises. Michelle has not been able to resist taking her out in the cross country jump field and jumping logs and simple solid fences. She proudly announced on Wednesday that her little filly had even jumped the scary blue barrel with the ugly green planks in the middle of the sand ring.
In her Tuesday free jumping session Gunport was a little more careful and concerned about the chute than the brave boys, but once she figured it out she made it look easy. As we expected and saw jumping under saddle, she is very quick in front, which is a good thing. She also uses her back well and practically stares down at the jump as she goes over. She has all the ingredients of a very correct jumper but is not the type that you would ever want to risk over-facing. She has to feel like she owns the exercise so that she can settle into it and discover the most efficient way to get it done.
The bad news is that our dear Gunport has a swollen hock that appears to be from a kick. She is a little sore on it, so we will back off of all riding until the swelling has come down. We are taking it one day at a time with Surpass and anti-inflamatories and hoping that time heals quickly. She free-jumped on Tuesday but was out of work by Thursday when we had the video camera out. She will be at the MD Expo, hopefully doing more than just standing around looking pretty.
Jazz continues to progress a little bit every day. I think he studies at night. The quality of his trot and canter improve as he learns to shift his balance from racehorse to riding horse. He bravely jumps anything we point him at, but we do it mostly from the trot to keep a lid on his enthusiasm. Cantering circles on Jazz still requires a very solid inside leg and some support in the bridle to keep him from falling in and collapsing into a running trot or a gallop. We reward him for making the effort in those canter circles by then putting him back on a straight line or letting him take a break.
Free jumping brought out another side of the Suave Jazz personality. In his first session he decided he was running a race. He would whip through the chute, hang an immediate left and get back to the entrance as quick as he could. He has an amazing ability to sit and turn like a barrel racer and when he decides that there is a job to be done he bangs it out like a pro. As long as the one stride distance between the x and the oxer was 26 feet or more the jumps looked good, but he also was very smart about shortening his stride to the x when he needed to. He moves with a lot of knee action and is extremely quick in front over the fences. We would like to see him slow his world down and jump around the jumps rather than across them, but we are not surprised. It is partly a function of being tight in his back.
In his second free jump session he slowed down in his circle back to the entrance. In fact he decided that his power trot was a good way to get there. When he locked on to the jumps he would canter forward like they were a magnet. We jumped to 3'6" but did not go higher. More height would have forced him to jump with a better bascule or fried his brain. Rather than risk the latter we stopped while he was happy.
Hacking out with Jazz is like taking a coffee break. No spooks, no pulling, no pushing. You think it and he goes there. Sweet.
If anyone is interested in our free jumping philosophy and methods, watch this video from about a year ago in Practical Horseman.
Thanks to Bruno Favre of Favre Equine Dentistry (410-935-1478) for doing all four horses' teeth this week with no drugs but lots of soothing French words that nobody but the horses understood.
Shear Convenience Grooming (240-393-1091 and on Facebook) for body clipping all four horses. The arenas at the horse expo are heated and those nice winter coats really are not nice in that environment. The horses look magnificent in their hunter clips.And thanks to Kirsten Lagerquist of
Samantha Bilodeau of SB Equine Sports Massage Therapy (413-325-1660 and on Facebook) will do one more massage on each horse before the MD Expo and make sure that they are thoroughly spoiled and comfortable. If we can keep their muscles loose and circulation going during this winter training everybody will be happier and healthier.
And of course, thanks to Bit of Britain, MD Horse Breeders, MD Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Charities of America, Stubben, NA, Bourbon Lane Stables, Be Photography, Nutramax, Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue, Spursuaders, Dodon Farm Training Center, Larking Hill Farm, Wow Graphic Designs, Maryland Horse Trials, and everyone else who has generously contributed time or money to this critical effort to Increase Demand for Thoroughbreds Off The Track. Let us know if you'd like to join our list of sponsors in time for the Pennsylvania Expo at the end of February.