Some people believe that horses off the track need turnout time to be “let down.” I do not insist on this unless the horse seems sore. Most of the soreness that we see is in the topline. We can stretch and soften those muscles with correct flat work, but if there is real pain there our work will make it worse. Those horses need time to heal.
Race horses have been taught to lean into the bit. They go forward, and they steer in a rudimentary way, but they do not generally accept or move away from pressure easily. Because most of these horses don't mind going forward they usually learn quickly to accept the bit and leg pressure. In the case of both the bit and the leg they have to learn to yield from the pressure, but also to become comfortable with the connection. They also must gradually learn to accept the rider's seat, but this is only possible when the back is relaxed and swinging.
As much as possible we adhere to the principles of the dressage training scale, which starts with rhythm, then looseness, then contact, then impulsion, then straightness, and finally achieves collection. With the race horses, however, contact may have to be introduced when rhythm and looseness are not yet confirmed. I've found that once they accept the bit and the leg, the horse's rhythm can be helped and relaxationfollows. In other words, race horses need boundaries to be established early on. Those boundaries are defined by the rider's legs and the bit. Within those boundaries the flight instinct is calmed and the real work of training can begin. We keep in mind that those boundaries can never be rigid or harsh. We encourage the horse to reach into the contact with the bit and we encourage him to trust and react calmly to pressure from the leg.
None of this is new. It's just what people whose riding skills are well developed can accomplish on any horse. Eventers in particular are very good at working with race horses because their sport requires the skills that these horses need in their training.
If we were to ask a football player to learn ballet, we would start by stretching his muscles and working on his balance. These horses need the same physical therapy, and with good riding we can provide it. Once they accept our aids our riding becomes physical therapy. We stretch them where they need it, and we show them that they can carry themselves in ways they never imagined. As their bodies evolve their minds always follow.
Most horses off the track end a month of training here quite rideable in the walk, trot, and canter. They will usually have crossed streams, stepped over logs on the trail, and learned that riding in the open is a way to relax. They will also have had at least one opportunity to free jump.
Two Months of Training
During a second month of training most of the horses who have come off the track are accepting of the riders aids to the point that we can start to stretch muscles that are rigid and build new strength in areas that are being used for the first time in the horse's life. In other words, we begin to see changes in the horse's balance and a degree of comfort and relaxation in the gaits that is usually not present in the first weeks of training.
During the second month most of the horses are introduced to jumping under saddle. See Steuart's article for insight into how we present this new activity. Some end the month trotting small fences and those who have the best quality in their canters often end the month cantering small courses, both in and outside the ring.
All horses are doing short hacks before or after their schooling sessions most days, and longer group hacks from time to time. The schedule is flexible. The portion of training done on the flat versus jumping versus hacking the countryside is determined in part by the owner's goals for the horse and in part by what the horse tells us it needs.
Three Months of Training
A third month of training allows the horse to become truly confirmed in the work of the first two months. By now most of the horses are ready for the distraction of a horse show or a fox hunt. It is also a good time for the owner to start riding and working out his or her relationship with the horse under Steuart's supervision.
For horses who will become eventers we continue with a focus on their flat work and jumping, and make a point of introducing them to ditches, water, banks and solid fences in the open. Future foxhunters will spend more time in group rides. Horses whose owners seek a laid back partner for low level work get an easy time in this third month. We do not push these horses to learn new skills, but instead allow them to become almost bored by the routine. Horses who are headed for more intense careers as athletes in eventing or in the show ring must continue to learn. We hope that their personalities are the type that thrive on hard work.
We can continue with a horse for as long as the owner chooses, with a focus that depends on the needs of the owner and the horse. As a part of that training we can introduce him to eventing, fox hunting, dressage shows or hunter/jumper shows.
In most cases we allow the rider to substitute training rides for a few lessons. If the owner wants regular full lessons during the training period they will pay the difference between the cost of a training ride and the cost of a lesson.
We are always available for trailer-in lessons.
Some people may decide at a certain point in the training that their new horse off the track is not suitable for them. Dodon will not represent just any horse for sale, but if we can agree with the owner on a fair asking price and believe that the horse is marketable we can keep the horse in training and advertise it for sale.
Steuart Pittman is also available to give talks and do demonstrations on the subject of retired race horses and their training.