If you think about the life of a racehorse it is easy to see why retraining them in a new way would cause them to complain a bit. For the most part, racehorses don’t get asked to soften their backs and track under from behind. They don’t do a lot of trotting either. They go out and do a little jog and then maybe a gallop or they might do a faster work. Then they get put back in the stall until they do it again the next day. There isn’t a lot of strengthening work done to create topline or build back muscles. They tend to have these overly bunched up muscled out hind ends from pushing so hard but it’s not the proper kind of pushing! I have seen some horses get very upset about being asked to soften their backs when they physically aren’t capable.
I think one of the most obvious cases was the horse I bought for myself, Lettermans Humor. After 50+ races he retired from the track at the age of 8. He was a really odd type of horse who wasn’t sure about humans but he really understood having a job. I started his retraining and at first he was pretty game to learn new things. He wanted to go in the bridle because most good racehorses that have raced a long time often carry themselves that way. However, I think what happened is that he started using muscles he didn’t know he had and he got PISSSED. He had spent years going a certain way and now I was asking him to bend, soften and use his body and he thought it was really hard and he was sore all over.
You start doing the investigative work. He had xrays of his feet, ankles and knees and they were very clean so you knew that wasn’t the culprit. He took a trip up to New Bolton and the vets there went over him really well and said okay well perhaps add some hind shoes and do some work getting him stronger over his back. He looks weak in the stifles and just a bit stiff but we don’t see anything structurally wrong with him. So hind shoes went on and I tried to keep going but he wasn’t having any of it in the ring. He bucked, kicked out, pinned his ears, wouldn’t go forward and was just grumpy. I told the program director that he was going to be a long term type of project because I couldn’t market him. I just started riding him out of the ring because he was pretty close to violent in the ring and would have been very violent if pushed. I rode him on the trails several times a week and when I wasn’t doing that I was lunging him to get him stronger over his back and let him figure out forward without a rider up. I had a lot of chiropractic work done on him as well! You sort of go well how did a horse who made $200k on the track and raced 50+ times including winning some stakes races not know how to go forward??? Well sometimes they just don’t. They don’t have the muscles, they don’t have the understanding and when they are asked sometimes it hurts and they just shut down.
So why did I buy this cranky horse who hated flatwork and didn’t know how to go forward? Well out on the trails he gave me a feeling that let me know there was a really nice horse in there. He went forward, round, had a canter to die for and was just overall a great ride. I had hunted him, paper chased him and xc schooled him and he loved being out of the ring! I had seen him free jump and free move and he was absolutely lovely. I knew it was all in there. I just didn’t know how long it would take. I figured I liked a project and nobody else was going to take him on so I would. That horse went from hating dressage..I mean really he thought it was absolute torture…to now being in the top 5 in dressage at the local events. He is now in the ribbons each time out and he is good at flatwork. He is fancy! It just took some time.
I now have a horse following a bit of a similar path and this time it is a sales horse of mine. I am not a non-profit so the goal is to buy the really nice horses that I find on the track or elsewhere and put the initial training into them and rehome them within 90 days. I get their feet fixed, do their teeth, get their minds and bodies happy but I do start riding them fairly soon after I get them home. For most of them, this works just fine. I combine some free jumping, trail riding, light flatwork and some baby jumps to keep the work fun and interesting. I don’t crank on them and I don’t drill them. They are used to having jobs so this is just a different kind of job. However, there is always a horse or two that says they just need more than my basic program J
Hebe’s Pride is this absolutely lovely 16.2 h 6yr with the sweetest personality. He raced around 28 times and was well managed. His legs look beautiful. He has lovely feet. His conformation is really nice! When Herbie came in he was really really slow in the ring. I am talking whip..spurs and you were still barely moving. He was tight everywhere but not lame. You could just feel the overall tightness. Even with that tightness he wanted to go naturally in the bridle and he has a nice stride. When he started out he was pleasant and tried hard for you. I had gotten him out on the trails and he was a totally different horse. Forward, soft in the bridle and really marching forward. Fancy..really fancy! He jumped logs, did ditches, water, motorcycles passing at 50mph and more. What a great brain! People had come to see him and liked him but found him to be too slow. You just couldn’t get a good read on what he was going to become so nobody took that jump into buying him. He was only about a month off the track at that point and here he was doing baby courses, w/t/c and trail riding in groups. Not bad for 30 days post track. I free jumped him and wow..just lovely. Forward, brave, scopey and just beautiful movement. I loved how he just jumped the barrel and this big black pipe we put under the jump like it was no big deal!
After I made the free jump video everybody wanted to come and see him but it started to backfire. He started to get really angry about the leg and going forward. A bit of this came from buyers who came to ride him and just wanted to jam his head down and kick him. In their defense, if you wanted him to soften to the bridle you really had to kick him to get him to go forward enough to soften his back. He took it but then he got sore in his body which led to him saying I don’t want to work. I often didn’t have enough time to get on him in between to reschool him after buyers would come so he got away with some things..mainly just stopping and saying nope make me go..haha..kick me..I don’t care…. Buyers just said forget it and let him stop. He learned that! He had just gotten worse.
Okay, time to do some investigating. Vet check was clean but had the chiropractor work on him and he was just out of whack everywhere. She said it is no wonder he is kicking out and doesn’t want to go forward. Once again there is nothing structurally wrong with him but she said all the new muscles that he is using are just causing overall body soreness. Sometimes the fancier moving the horse they more they tend to use all those muscles in places that make them go OUCH!
I had comments all over the place from buyers ranging from he is too big of a mover, he is a terrible mover, he hates work, he is too slow, he is a nice horse that needs more time, he is going to win the dressage, there are some really impressive movements and so on. Some even came back for second rides and on the first ride he would have a good day and then on the second he would be tight and not want to go forward. Even if I knew he was a totally different horse out of the ring..and that he truly loved to work because I could see it in him..I understood completely what people saw and felt. If you haven’t had experience with this stage in horses or you aren’t used to dealing with horses transitioning from the track it would be easy to say the horse just doesn’t like to work and pass him on by. I know what he feels like out of the ring (impressive!!!) and I have seen him free jump and free move and I know what is in there. It is my job to ensure I do whatever it takes to get him happy and comfortable in his body so he can perform. As a reseller, this isn’t necessarily in my best interest because time is money but when you buy horses you are obligated to do right by them. Thankfully, I only ever buy horses that I believe I will truly enjoy riding because sometimes they do need more time and they stay around longer than you expect. I absolutely love riding Herbie and if I only trail ride him for the rest of the winter it will make me very happy (since I sold everything else in the barn!). So what do I do with him? I just shut up and listen to him! I think that involves not riding him in the ring much at this point.
I have been lunging him to get his muscles built up and teach him to go forward into the bridle and he looks amazing! You watch him on the lunge and you just think to yourself this is one damn nice horse! Right now you don’t get what you have on the lunge or free when you are riding him but I know it is in there. I am staying up with the chiropractic and some massage. I put him on some muscle relaxers just to help him get past this stage. It’s easy to say well just give him more time off but I have been down this road before and honestly this is not much different than a person doing a couch to 5k program. If you just stop you don’t get better. The muscles are going to hurt. You hurt for a while. You need a slow conditioning program to ease into it. You may take some anti-inflammatories to help you past the worst of it. You have to listen to your body. It would be a lot easier if he could talk to me. I am really trying hard to use all my experience to listen and slowly build him up.
I am not sure what I do in regards to marketing him or letting people see him. I am fairly frustrated with the process at the moment because I explain to people what is going on in detail and yet they really want to come to see him. Then they just end up putting him down and all the negative comments are making me cranky J It’s not the buyers fault because he is what he is right now and I know that. You can’t convince people that this is just a stage nor do you really want to do that. If you are buying a horse you want to see a horse that is showing you they are capable of doing the job you intend for them to do and he isn’t doing that right now. How long before he does? I am not sure. I think he will tell me so for now I will just keep plugging along with the lunging, trail riding and incorporate some of my tricks into teaching them to go forward in the ring. I will do everything I can to help his muscles relax and get stronger. We had such an awesome lunging session last night. I get so pumped up and excited about working with these horses. I was so proud of him and his good work yesterday. It just makes you look forward to getting inside their heads and figuring out what makes them tick. I guess you have to enjoy this part of it to do this job but thankfully I really do!