There seems to be two types of riders in the world, those that love an OTTB and those that don’t! I am squarely in the former category and if you are also there, well make yourself comfortable because this week on Daily Strides we are focusing on basic exercises you can begin implementing with your OTTB today that will help lay a solid foundation for future schooling, regardless of the discipline.
An OTTB, or off the track thoroughbred or retired racehorse, are athletes whom are bred with a specific purpose in mind; to get from A to B as fast as possible while remaining sound. They also, through years of selective breeding, mature earlier, have quicker reaction times and have a winning attitude which can sometimes be difficult to work with if you do not understand how to use this to further the horses training.
However, for all their wonderful attributes, OTTBs are often looked down on by many pleasure riders and competitive riders in specific disciplines alike, which is a shame because a quick flick through the history books will soon highlight numerous thoroughbreds who, once finished their careers on the racetrack, achieved glory in both dressage, jumping and eventing.
The OTTB has a sensitive and quick mind and because of this, they do will under the guidance of riders who are careful and mindful of what they ask and how they ask for it. The thoroughbred also has fantastic athletic ability and are wonderful animals to train because of how well they can use their body and brain.
Of course, it goes without saying that initially choosing the correct horse is vital, with emphasis on the horses age, confirmation, temperament, racing history, soundness, to a lesser extent breeding and the all important condition and shape of the hooves.
Being such a highly prized and bred animal, the OTTB may need extra care which might just equate to extra financial implications and while purchasing an OTTB may be cheaper initially, he may just cost you in other areas in the long run.
When your horse first retires from the track, you can either ‘allow him to be a horse for a while’ and after roughing him off correctly, turn him out for a few months into some nice pasture, or you can start him in work straight away. It seems to depend on the horse and if he is not happy and needs more time ‘away’ he will let you know! Of course before starting any training program, ensure all the necessary health checks are performed; teeth, back, dewormer, inoculations etc.
Begin With Training Your OTTB to Lunge Correctly
Your initial goal in your training program should be to achieve a level of relaxation from your horse. Keep in mind that his life up to now was very ‘busy’ and he will need a transition period where he can start enjoying his new career. Lunging is a super aid to begin both building a bond with your horse and achieve that goal of relaxation.
Use the time on the lunge to train your horse to your voice. Simple commands such as Walk, Trot, Canter, Steady and Whoa, will go a long way to helping him understand your new seat and leg aids when you do mount up on him.
Lunging also helps divide his past life and his new life. It works as a transitioning tool from one to the other and allows your horse to ‘let down’ and realize that life is now very different, as is the work expected of him.
Once your horse has a good grasp of the voice commands, you can begin to incorporate some loose schooling into his training program as well, particularly if he will be going forward to a jumping career (whether pleasure or competitive). Beginning over poles on the ground and building up smaller fences as his confidence grows will allow him to perform the all important task of figuring things out for himself.
Transitioning to a New Career Can be Difficult!
When you do begin to work your OTTB under the saddle, use a general purpose or jumping saddle initially, not a dressage saddle. Your horse is used to having his rider do most work in a 2 point seat, not the deep seat that a dressage saddle encourages.
Begin with being very mindful about what you are asking and how you are going about asking for it. Remember your horse was asked to ‘go’ and ‘stop’ very differently in his past career and it will take time and consistent aids applied with patience and kindness to show him what you want when you apply your aids.
Consistency is the key to retraining your OTTB and building a strong bond forged in trust will ensure you have a willing partner with whom to have wonderful adventures for many years to come.
Another piece of information to bear in mind is that while your retired racehorse may rush and want to run on initially, this may not so much be caused by him being unbalanced, more that he just doesn’t understand what is being asked of him and old habits, as we can all attest to when put in stressful situations, die-hard! This is a horse who has possibly years of training in him and who knows how to do a job… Just not the job you want!
Focus on asking for halt first, using all the correct aids and not worrying about anything else, just the fact that the horse ceased moving, if only for a second or two initially. Your horse may not initially understand what you are asking, as using the seat and legs is probably a whole new experience for him, but with patient repetition and having your voice aids back up your seat, leg and rein aids, you will slowly begin to convey what the aids to Halt are.
Make sure you reward every small step forward. Thoroughbreds are often sensitive by nature and telling him that he is doing well, no matter how small the progress is, will go a long way to keeping him relaxed and happy in his job, rather than anxious and nervous. As with all horses, as soon as he stops or yields to your aids, release the pressure and reward with your voice as well, so he begins to understand the reward system.
You may find that initially he might jog and crab sideways, step backwards, shake his head, paw the ground and just behave like an impatient, overly wound up ball of tension; Ignore these behaviors and continue to ask for him to stop and when he does, no matter how far from where you initially asked, reward him.
Once you have established the ‘rules’ for asking him to stop, you can then begin polishing and disciplining the stop a little more so it begins to resemble a halt in the true sense of the word.
Moving Forward From Your Leg
Same principles applies when training your horse to move forward from your leg. Ask with your voice and leg initially (this is where the work on the lunge is a huge aid) and keep in mind that he does not know what your legs are, or what they are for; let alone that he must move forward from them.
Be gentle with your legs and offer no resistance with your hand. Don’t worry about how straight he walks, or even if he trots, just reward the fact that he moved forward and slowly begin to place more emphasis on the leg and less on your voice. It will take time to establish this and, again, patience and consistency coupled with compassion and lots of rewarding will get you both there eventually.
What is also important to note here is that once he moves forward from your leg, he must also accept your leg being there as he is going forward. Don’t take your leg off if he ‘shoots’ forward, rather let him learn that your leg is something that will be a constant part of his new career, so best he gets used to it from the beginning.
Thoroughbreds like a contact and I have found it can often settle them, so don’t have your reins loose, maintain a contact, but make sure you are soft enough through your hands and arms to allow his forward movement.
Continue to work through the halt and forward aids until they become fluid and the desired response is achieved all the time and make sure you implement them both outside the arena as well as inside.
Teaching Your OTTB to Straightness
Once your horse as a pretty good understanding of what is expected when you apply the aids to halt and then again, to move forward, you can begin tidying things up by asking more questions and expecting better results with regards to where he is putting his legs.
Place two poles paralleled on the ground about 3 meters apart, I suggest on the quarter line, and begin asking for the halt between the poles. As he becomes more responsive to standing ‘straight’ and responding to your leg to maintain straightness in the halt, you can begin moving the poles closer together.
It is important to remember that while he may be getting used to your legs when asked to go forward, he initially most probably won’t understand your legs in moving laterally or sideways. However he may understand rein aids, including neck reining, to move over and so you can use this to your advantage when introducing him to moving over.
To introduce him to your legs in relation to being straight, begin in the stable with ground work done while grooming or cleaning. Place your hand where your leg will be and asking for a very clearly spoken ‘OVER’ while applying pressure with your hand. When he moves away, again release the pressure and reward using your voice and softening of the ‘rein’ or whatever you are using to control him in the stable. Over time, he will begin to understand that pressure in that area, coupled with the ‘OVER’ means just that and you can begin using your leg from the saddle, instead of your hand from the ground, to achieve similar results while riding.
You can also place a second pair of parallel poles further up the quarter line and as you move forward from the halt, begin encouraging him to stay ‘straight’ between the poles. You can alternate between halting between the poles and just continuing straight between the pole. AS he becomes more accurate with where he places his feet, you can roll the poles closer together, leaving him less space to play with in terms of stepping and jiggling.
As always, do all exercises first from walk and then from trot. You may find in trot that he drifts over, particularly to the outside and again, you can use your ‘neck reining’ aid to back up your outside leg in communicating with him where you would prefer him to go
Rome wasn’t built in a day and often when he may begin to get frustrated, old habits may revert. By changing what is being asked and not allowing his schooling sessions to become boring for his sharp mind, you will probably find it is enough to nip any bad habits in the bud, and when you return to the ‘problem area’ again, either another day or later in the schooling session, he will willingly oblige you.
In finishing, I just want to stress that patience is essential when working with this quick and finely tuned animal, however it is well worth the time invested and you will soon have a wonderful horse who really wants to please you and is ready to turn his hoof to almost anything as well!
This topic makes up one of over 100 full weeks of audio horse riding lessons inside of Daily Strides Premium. In this specific group of lessons we are focusing on working with your OTTB to retrain and re-school him for his new career as you’re riding horse. There is also a lessons on halting & moving forward from your leg and another on exercises you can do to start polishing his movements and begin asking for more accurate responses. The final lesson of the group is focused on bending correctly, with the foundation being straight through the bend. You can find out more about Daily Strides Premium HERE >>