One H&C user wrote in for help training their ex-racehorse.
Fred and Rowena Cook of Equine Management and Training replied:
The secret of successfully schooling an ex-racehorse is patience and the ability to be very flexible in your approach. While repetition is required in order to make improvements and positive progress, it is important that schooling sessions are interesting and stimulating for any horses - but this is paramount particularly in the early stages of re-training as the thoroughbred is active minded and needs to be kept forward thinking. So this means not continually flogging away at one particular exercise but varying what you are doing.
Schooling sessions should be kept short not only to take account of an unbalanced, stiff horse but also one that needs time to adjust and learn what is required of him. You don’t want to sour him before you have hardly got started! It will often seem like you take six steps forwards and seven back, but give yourself and your horse chance to build your relationship.
Aids should be exaggerated so the horse is on the receiving end of very clear signalling to help him learn and understand what is being asked of him. Rider position is important so no slouching, place the legs down the girth (not drawn back) – and no riding too short - as this not only tips rider weight forward putting a horse on to its forehand but also does not allow the rider to use the leg effectively. A light seat is important so that the horse can lift his back once he has begun to engage his abdominal muscles. If your horse is not responding, chances are you are not making your instructions clear or are giving conflicting signalling. Too many riders drive downwards with their seat which actually blocks or even stops a horse; check you are not one of these.
The rider should hold their hands low and very wide apart (at least six inches away from the neck) as this encourages the horse to lower his head and seek the bit; while the hand can be restraining so that the horse learns not to keep thrusting his head forwards or up to evade At no time should there be a backwards pull on the reins, nor any see-sawing of the bit in an attempt to lower the head.
Endless working around the outside of the arena achieves nothing but by incorporating lots of loops and changes of rein, serpentines, tear drops and circles, not only are you working the diagonals evenly and stretching the muscles equally on both sides of the body, but you are working on improving balance, suppleness, co-ordination and co-operation as well as keeping training sessions interesting by not letting the horse have the chance of anticipating what is coming next. With regard to circles, a couple at a time is plenty as in the early days your horse will be learning to balance himself in an unfamiliar way but is least equipped to do so due to lack of suppleness and muscle; keep circles large, not less than 25m.
Don’t forget about transitions. Downwards ones need to be very progressive, until your horse begins to learn to step under with his hind leg, but you can be more demanding with the upwards ones – leg on means "do something now”.
Leg yielding is an invaluable exercise to help encourage use of the hind leg as well as improving suppleness and teaching the horse to move away from the rider’s leg when requested to do so. It is often easier to introduce leg yielding on a circle rather than on a straight line as a horse naturally wants to move outwards. Being on a circle also affords the rider more say in what is happening.
While putting down a row of trotting poles may serve to excite your horse or even un-nerve him – some do get flustered by poles in the early days – laying single or double poles around the school, particularly on corners, helps maintains interest, promotes joint flexion and improves the stride. Placing a barrel, or similar, here and there in the school helps both horse and rider with turns and circles.
Most people are in too much of a rush to get canter work underway. A lob around the school to help work off excess energy is fine, but the racehorse has to learn all about using his back in order to canter smoothly within an enclosed space, let alone cantering slowly. Canter, of course, is the pace he knows all about and this is where he can gain the upper hand. Far better to concentrate on the trot work – encouraging the seeking and acceptance of the contact, a lowering and stretching forwards of the neck which helps to build the all-important top line muscles which then allows the development of engagement.
For horses that appear to be struggling, ground work is of great benefit as the horse can learn without having to cope with the weight of a rider.
Training is challenging and there are times when you will undoubtedly feel very frustrated and that is the time to stop, do something your horse finds easy and call it a day, as you will only serve to compound your own feelings as well as build tension in your horse. As said above, repetition is the only way to gain improvement in anything that you do, but done in such a way that your horse doesn’t realise he keeps coming back to the same exercise – keep him guessing.
If you have any particular issues with your horse, then please contact the RoR Helpline for advice or contact Fred and Rowena Cook of Equine Management and Training www.equinetraining.co.uk. Their book Re-Educating Racehorses – A Life After Racing is available now.