Setting Boundaries that Work with Your OTTB

Setting Boundaries that Work with Your OTTB

Setting Boundaries that Work with Your OTTB

It can seem like a strange topic for many OTTB riders and owners. One that, initially, may not seem all that important.  And yet, for many OTTBs, the lack of boundaries is the number one frustration.  And, it is something that can eventually undermine the whole relationship between horse and rider.

Setting boundaries requires that both you and your horse are part of a conversation about what is acceptable and what’s not. 

And, it is important to consider all aspects of your relationship with your horse when setting your boundaries.  From working together on the ground to lunging, and then to riding.  All areas matter.  Strong, well-thought-out boundaries are similar to having a great measuring stick to use when it comes to developing your partnership and relationship together.

Having strong boundaries allows both you and your horse to know what is ‘acceptable’ behavior and what is not. 

What is a Strong Boundary?

Weak, hastily applied, or ‘wishy-washy’ boundaries do not help horses or riders.  And, over the long term can negatively impact all areas of the relationship and conversation between horses and riders.  Many riders fail to see the relationship between less than desirable behavior on the ground and rides that fail to inspire good feelings!

In order for boundaries to work for you and with you, they must be well thought out before they are enforced. 

Start by asking yourself a few simple questions such as… What do you want your horse to do?  Are you happy with what he is currently doing? If not, what would you like to change? This is a good place to begin deciding what is allowed and what’s not.

There are no right or wrong boundaries when it comes to what you want and what you don’t want. Your ‘acceptable behavior’ may look very different from other riders. 

Be as specific to your unique situation as you can in order to create a relationship you want to be a part of with your horse.  However, also keep in mind that, if you do want to sell or lease your horse out further down the road, there are basics that most riders expect.  Standing at the mounting block.  Or not running away when faced with an open field are a few that spring to mind ;)

Boundaries on the Ground

Start with what happens before and after each ride.  Often frustrations here can have a huge negative impact on the ride itself, so it makes sense to deal with them first and ahead of time.  I personally become irritated when a horse begins to ‘dance around me’ while I’m grooming and tacking up.  I think this is probably something many riders will take issues with.

Therefore, my expectation when working with horses on the ground is that they stand still until I ask them to move. 

Once I have decided on this clear expectation, it now becomes my responsibility to effectively communicate this to my horse in a way he understands and can follow. For many retired racehorses, this may take time.  Many have been allowed to ‘walk in circles’ while at the track.

However, by remaining committed, consistent, and neutral (not becoming irritated or tense), I can continue to correct my horse until he understands the new expectation.  Boundary set :) 

Being open to correcting your horse is a key part of this process.  It may initially feel like you are doing nothing but correcting.  But it is important to stick with the process.  Don’t become annoyed.  Just reinforce the behavior you want by rewarding it, and quickly without fuss correcting what you are not enjoying :)

Boundaries on the Lunge

Just like when you are leading your thoroughbred, boundaries are equally as important when you work your ex-racehorse on the lunge as well.  I think this is particularly important as I recommend using lunging as a tool to re-train or re-school OTTBs.

Boundaries can be as simple as remaining focused, as much as possible, on you during the session. 

As opposed to the other horses in the paddocks, arena, or stables.  Boundaries on the lunge can also encompass remaining on the circle and not cutting in at every opportunity.  Or halting on the track without turning in.  You can even think of ‘speed’ as being a boundary; what is allowed and what is not during your lunging session together.

Boundaries While Riding

This is often where riders want to begin the conversation with their horse.  However, I don’t actually recommend this.  I think it is far more beneficial to have made certain decisions regarding boundaries before you get into the saddle.

These ‘pre-riding boundaries’ will help to set the tone for the conversation you have with your horse while actually riding. 

Once you then transition into the saddle, boundaries can have to do with aids.  For example, when I ask with my leg, I would like you to respond ‘this’ way.  They can also do with responsibility.  This could be that when we are on a circle, your horse continues on the circle without falling in or out (as much as is possible for the level of training).

Being clear on what your boundaries are before you mount up, will allow you to more effectively communicate these to your horse from the saddle. 

It will also allow you to do the ‘groundwork’ in order to prep your horse from the ground as well before each ride. Contact boundaries can be redefined in this way.  So too can attention and focus boundaries.  All contribute to you and your horse having a more enjoyable experience together.

Explaining Boundaries to your OTTB

Start by understanding that whatever your horse is doing right now, is something he has either been trained to do or has been allowed to do. Horses, for the most part, are not really ‘naughty’ or ‘bad inclined’.  There is usually a training (or lack of training) issue going on.

What does your horse understand at this moment?  How can you use this to begin to, or better, explain what it is you would like?

I personally find that the voice is a great tool for this type of work. I love how you can use the tone, pitch, and speed of your voice to enhance this aid.  It works to focus your thought and actions.  Your voice can help you ‘explain’ things out loud, which is often more beneficial for the rider than the horse.  It will also help you to continue to breathe and remain relaxed.

If your horse does not understand or misunderstands you the first time, look for a different way to express the same thing. Tweak one small part of your communication and try again. 

Finally, make sure you reward generously (again, I use voice for this), and promptly.  Your horse must make the association between your ‘ask’ and his ‘response’.

Remain calm, commit to consistency, practice patience and compassion, and remember to have fun while introducing or reinforcing boundaries to your OTTB.

Keep well

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