This is an article that I submitted to Dressage Today magazine. As we await word on whether it will be published I thought I would share this draft for comment from readers of this blog.
It has been a while since Hilda Gurney dominated US dressage on her Thoroughbred ex-racehorse Keen and placed 4th in the 1976 Olympics. It may no longer be possible to rank near the top of world standings on a horse not bred for the sport, but we can still move up the levels on a Thoroughbred ex-racehorse, win some nice ribbons, and have a blast doing it.
Americans love Thoroughbreds. They carried our soldiers, they delivered our mail, and their intense desire to win races inspires us every spring as we yearn for a Triple Crown winner. In my thoroughly biased opinion as founder and president of the Retired Racehorse Training Project, I am convinced that their suitability for dressage is underappreciated in today’s marketplace. Ex-racehorses still win the dressage phase at every level of eventing, and if more went to top dressage trainers we might see more at the FEI levels of dressage. I find that horses off the track find comfort and peace in dressage training, and that many are very forgiving of their rider’s mistakes.
If you happen to be one of the twenty thousand people to visit the Retired Racehorse Training Project website during our recent Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge, then you saw on video the process from day one to week five of four recently retired racehorses with three very competent professional trainers. Many were surprised by how quickly these horses learned to shift their balance from that of a leaning racehorse to something closer to a training level dressage horse. Or maybe you were lucky enough to be one of the three thousand to squeeze into the Trainer Challenge finale at the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo on February 25 and saw how the success of all four horses moved judge James Wofford to threaten to pull a trailer up to the arena door and take all four horses home.
The Trainer Challenge was a thrill for thousands, but for the average professional three day event trainer, it was nothing new. We know how easy it is to introduce an ex-racehorse to a career that includes basic dressage training. We also know that the process is a little different from what we do with a green-broke youngster of any breed who never ran. Those of us who put ourselves through the United States Eventing Association’s Instructor Certification Program were asked to become fluent in the terminology of the German National Equestrian Federation’s training scale or pyramid. Rhythm, looseness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection are the words we use in English. Let’s see if this terminology helps to describe our work with ex-racehorses..
Applying the Training Scale to the Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorse
I may be stoned at X for blasphemy, but open your mind and pretend for a moment that a happily galloping Thoroughbred and exercise rider demonstrate in some way the first five elements of the training scale. They maintain a lovely rhythm, their looseness is demonstrated by the full range of stride, the rider maintains a consistent contact in the bridle, the impulsion is felt in every stride, if not contained in the manner of a sport horse, and while some manage to run crooked, the faster they go the more straightness they show. There are moments of great harmony between horse and rider in the mornings at the track. The riders that encourage rhythm, looseness, contact, impulsion, and straightness in their horses are in great demand by good trainers. Their horses stay happier and sounder, and are therefore able to win more races.
No, no, you say. That isn’t dressage at all. I am completely twisting the meaning of those sacred training scale words! Of course I am, but I am doing it to make a point. All the masters stress that the early stages of training are about going forward, forward, forward. They might not have to say it so many times if they were working with ex-racehorses. The willingness to go forward, I believe, is the primary reason why horses off the track take so readily to the beginning stages of correct dressage training.
The feel of a three or four year old horse who raced recently is very different from that of a horse of the same age that is green-broke outside of racing. The sport horse is usually more reluctant to march forward into the bridle, but finds rhythm and looseness in its body more easily as long as no fear is present. The ex-racehorse tends to be eager to go forward at all three gaits, but has difficulty with rhythm and looseness. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides.
It is the relationship between rhythm and looseness and contact that we must resolve early with a horse off the track, and they way we do it makes all of the difference.
Balance, Balance, Balance
For the observer from the ground the progression up the training scale toward the ultimate goal of collection appears to be all about shifting the horse’s balance from its forehand to its hindquarters. When starting with a horse off the track, we have no choice but to address this balance from day one.
Racehorses lean into the bit and not only push from behind at speed but also pull at the ground from the front. We are told by the experts that a galloping horse carries 60% of its weight on its front legs, but that a balanced cantering sport horse carries 60% behind.
We feel this leaning on the forehand with most ex-racehorses as soon as we pick up the reins and ask for a trot. With some horses it becomes even heavier at the canter.
If we refuse to support the horse in the bridle with the reins, we feel the horse rushing forward in a tempo so quick that we are forced to break the rhythm with inconsistent pulling on the reins, which punishes the horse for going forward. Rhythm and looseness are difficult to achieve on a fit horse who has worked daily at the race track with ten or more pounds of weight in the bridle.
If we are at all sympathetic, we understand that our ex-racehorse is pulling not because it wants to run fast, but simply because it has not yet found the balance that is required to do basic work in a riding arena. We want to correct the balance problem and find the rhythm and looseness, but we sometimes fail to offer the quality of contact that these horses expect, thinking that it is premature. Here is where we can learn from our brothers and sisters at the racetracks.
I will never forget the first session of our 2009 Retired Racehorse Training Symposium. Retired jockey JK Adams rode Monster Chaser fresh from the track in an exercise saddle and racing silks. All 350 jaws in the arena dropped as he walked, trotted, and cantered in balance and rhythm around the indoor arena with the horse in a frame that looked quite appropriate for a competitive training level dressage test. His secret was his balance, his shock absorbers, and his hands.
Exercise riders balance over their feet and allow their ankles, knees, and hips to absorb the movement of the horse while their upper bodies stay still. They lock their joints to slow down and let them move to go forward. They never raise their hands. They place them down on the horse’s neck just in front of the withers and leave them there. That is exactly how Mr. Adams gave us all a riding lesson at our symposium.
Ex-racehorses will find the balance that we seek if we find perfect balance ourselves and allow them to redefine their relationship to the bit without flailing about with our hands. We seek rhythm and looseness, but we must meet the horse on its own terms to get there. An ex-racehorse needs the bit as it discovers the new balance. We must allow him to use it and not confuse him by moving it. That is why putting the hands down firmly on the neck is so effective. The horse might pull quite hard against the bit for brief moments as it seeks balance, but if the pulling is against its own neck then the rider’s balance never shifts and the solution is much easier for the horse to discover.
But contact, you say, is not only in the bridle. What about the seat and legs? Well yes, even ex-racehorses need some leg, sometimes quite sharply. The leg aids are more difficult to apply tactfully when riding in a half seat, or two point, and impossible to apply in racing stirrups. But we as riders must learn to use our legs independently even when our weight is balanced over our stirrups in a forward seat saddle. Event riders learn this skill to keep our horses balanced and flowing around the modern, very technical cross country courses. We brag about our ability to do “dressage in two point.” Try riding a good working trot correctly on a well-schooled dressage horse without ever letting your bottom touch the saddle. Then throw in some transitions and lateral work. That will test your skills!
Dressage saddles put us in a wonderful position to drape our legs around the horse’s barrel and plug our seat into the horse’s back. From there we can snuggle up and dance with our horses. We can play that game with our ex-racehorses, but only when they allow it. If that position causes a loss of rhythm and looseness, then it is too soon…or we need to learn to sit better!
Dressage saddles tend not to work well with a horse fresh off the track. Jack up the stirrups and free up those tight racehorse back muscles. Sit when you can, but understand that it might not be right away.
Beyond Rhythm, Looseness, and Contact
Once a Thoroughbred ex-racehorse is accepting the bit, the leg, and the seat in fundamental ways, and moves in all three gaits with a consistent rhythm and some degree of looseness and swing through its body, we start asking for more. Nothing is different in what we strive for than with any other breed of horse, but the obstacles to success have a common theme. These horses have a flight instinct that works for you and against you every step of the way.
When we ask for more impulsion, we might get an overreaction, leading to a loss of balance and then tension. When we make corrections to achieve straightness, the aids that we use on one side of the horse’s body might easily be interpreted as a threat to escape from. When we ask for collection, the flight instinct might again set off alarms that create a response unlike the one we seek.
I like to think of the tension in a Thoroughbred’s body as it seeks to learn the meaning of our aids as an intense desire to please us. A sensitive Thoroughbred will usually settle and return to the rhythm and looseness that we need as our foundation when it understands our exercise. Thoroughbreds tend to thrive on physical movement, and they are, like all horses, hypnotized by their own rhythms. Repetition of success creates a sense of peace. Little time is spent inspiring the Thoroughbred horse to give more effort. They were bred to try hard.
Frequent circling back in our training to rhythm and looseness is more essential with the Thoroughbred than with most warmbloods. A good trainer on a Thoroughbred will spend lots of time reassuring the horse that all is well. Some will use voice, some will relax the legs, and almost all will soften a rein to invite the horse to stretch its topline as a reminder that we seek looseness in everything we do.
Thoroughbreds seem to want to do things well, and respond to balance and tact. They are bred to be brave, to thrive on their work, and to move away from pressure. Add this to the fact that they are earth’s most graceful domesticated creature, and it is no wonder that so many of us call ourselves Thoroughbred lovers.