Written by: Louise Robson
Re training ex racehorses comes with so much; joy, pride and moments of feeling very proud. However, the journey is also littered with; self doubt, frustration, feeling of inadequacy and moments when you just question your utter sanity. We are taking an animal who has been bred for speed and agility and we are asking them to be; calm, obedient, supple, harmonious and not to use their adrenaline for haste and lightening quick reactions. For some it can take years, some it takes months, some never actually complete their ‘retraining journey’ for a multitude of reasons. Everyone approaches things differently, each horse and rider learn differently and at different rates.
I believe that if we can have the greatest amount of knowledge and understanding of what it is that we are trying to get our ex racers to do then we will not only be better advocates for them, but also better riders, trainers and coaches. With this in mind, what I am about to ask and explain over the next article, I am asking for you as the reader, to approach with an open mind, and be willing to; get down and try……..
In my previous articles I have used photographs of myself riding some of my wonderful ex racehorses at various stages of their training and development to help explain some of what, I feel, to be some of the most ‘common’ problems, or targeted training areas that the ex racehorse may struggle with in comparison to those breeds that have a conformation more suited towards dressage. I have explained what we are trying to achieve, the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ that we are searching for, but I realised when teaching the other day that you can only explain so much before you just have to get the rider to do it themselves!
it isn’t every day that I ask a rider to get off and get down in the sand (I am usually trying to prevent that from happening, not to encourage it) As the saying goes:
“You cant understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”
Well, how about 40 metres up the arena?
All horses, regardless of breed are wider at the hips than compared to the shoulders. What separates the racehorse from other breeds is that you have the above ‘problem’ combined with; being croup high and having limbs that don’t naturally ‘bend’ but stay in more of a ‘straighter’ action.
The bending of their joints, especially their hind limbs, isn’t really the thoroughbreds ‘thing.’ Due to the length of the hind limb in comparison to the forelimb you usually have what appears to be a straight action, almost like a tin man. This is not to say that through time and exercises you cannot encourage the hindlimb to bend, it’s more a case of ‘how’ rather than ‘cant.’
What I am about to demonstrate is obviously an ‘extreme’ of what your typical ex racer may look like and how they move, like I mentioned perviously, keep an open mind. From Fig 1 you can see that you start off in a naturally ‘croup high’ position.
Start off in position 1, shown in fig 1. From position one, bring each foot inline with your hands (Fig 2.1 and 2.2.) From there walk forwards with the hands, one by one, and then bring in the feet, one by one (the same foot pattern as a horse walking) Firstly, keep going like that for the duration of the length of the arena and see how much of a toll it can take on your body and breathing, secondly, now think about the pressures and forces that have been used/what hurts?
When you’re in the position shown in Fig 2. you will feel a slight ‘toppling’ effect. All of the force feel like you are tipping from the back end, on to your shoulders and the feeling of almost falling downwards into the sand/floor. You will balance yourself by putting your weight into your arms and hands-you are on the forehand! (See Fig 3 for direction of forces and loads placed)
This is what happens to most, if not all croup high ex racehorses, especially those with the bigger walks. As riders, the feeling we get when on the horse is a slight pull forward and down on the rein and that we are being pulled slightly forward and out of the saddle. The most ‘go to’ answer is to either try and pull the rein or to ask the horse to go more forward from the leg. In both cases this will not help improve the feel, but only exaggerate it. Sometimes the reason that your ex racehorse walks around with their head in the air is to actually help balance themselves. Their neck is like their fifth leg. If you repeat Fig 1-2 with your chin tucked towards your chest, it is even harder (Fig.4) . If you extend your neck more forwards and out, it helps your balance as you move forward.
If you then think of this movement in the faster paces of the trot and the canter, you can see why your ex racer in the early days will have a very varied rhythm as they will have moments of not being able to find their balance/work out where their feet have got to go without standing on themselves. What is also worth bearing in mind whilst performing Fig 1-2 is that you’re doing this alone, without any tack on, and without rider, who will have their own balance issues. Furthermore, you will be doing this exercise, hopefully, without any pain, or too many asymmetrical issues. Add these to the list, of what already seems to be a difficult thing, and then we are part of the way to appreciating how much our ex racers try and give us and how vitally important it is that we give them time, patience and understanding to avoid any orthopaedic, sort tissue and mental problems.
So, how do we begin to ‘resolve’ and begin to develop our new dancing partner? It is commonly said that; The horse ‘owns you’ on the soft and you ‘own’ them on the hard. The same can be applied to your training approach. You can have greater influence and a greater effect with your ex racehorse on a curved line, they can have a greater influence on you on the straight. Your ex racer will not naturally ‘connect’ from front to back end i.e. the hindleg supporting and using forward into an uphill frame. They will predominantly be ‘front end’ driven. As previously mentioned, they will use their neck to balance themselves and due to their slightly croup high conformation they will be loading the forehand. In the early stages they do not know or understand how to lift the forehand by engaging the hindleg, we have to explain this to them.
When your ex racer is straight they go back to Fig 2. Going back to Fig1. from that position if you place both hands to either the direct left or the direct right of your feet (Fig 5.1 and 5.2.) and then try to walk forward from your feet, you will have your inside foot placed underneath and to the middle of your body. This will help you ‘push’ forward. (fig 6.1 and 6.2) I called this ‘threading the inside hind between both front fee.’ Walking forward becomes easier than before, you end up bending the knee to push forward and when you do so you no longer feel the pressures and forces that you felt in Fig 3. Your shoulders and arms feel less pressure aka you start to lift the forehand. You are placing the forelegs and hindlegs on a different line to each other and creating a space to allow the hindleg to step through and under. You’re creating a connection and through this, a better balance. (Fig 7.) You will also notice that when you move in this way, you have more ability to move and adapt your neck.
In the early days of retraining, circles, serpentines, shallow loops, baby leg yield, all of these exercises will help develop the connection and creating the ‘new language’ between you and your ex racer. Each of the exercises place the shoulders on a different line to the hindleg whilst being able to move forward. You have to be careful that you’re not pushing/asking for too much sideways step otherwise you can create a ‘collapse’ of the hindleg rather than trying to encourage and develop it in a supporting, and ultimately pushing role. In Fig.8.1 and 8.2 you can see how the collapse can cause the pelvis to ‘roll’ rather than staying straight. This in turn will not help with your connection
Ultimately, when you’re having; contact, connection, rhythm and balance issues, which may lead to behavioural and mental issues (from both horse and rider) put yourself back into your horses hoses. Think, understand and then develop.
Photos Courtesy of: Louise Robson