Training the Ex-Racehorse

Eddie race trainingNothing comes close for excitement to working with an ex-racehorse out in a big Australian paddock .  As a teacher of horsemanship, I travel with my wife Meredith, 3 children and 5 horses to the most amazing places and it seems, no matter where we go, from the dusty stock routes of the Kidman Way to the suburbs of the big cities, there is always an ex-racehorse or 10 in the bunch of horses to be trained. We have been on the road teaching for more than 20 years now and I think the hotblooded horses of Australia have taught me the most about teaching horses rather than just training them. I have ridden unhandled Canadian horses on the Montana boarder, unhandled horses from the the Australian outback, brumbies, whalers, stock horses and have done many first ride demonstrations throughout Europe, but nothing comes close for excitement to working with an ex-racehorse out in a big Australian paddock. The horse trainers that we teach at courses often joke that they would rather have an untouched horse to ride than one that has learnt a bad habit. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean all racehorses have bad habits. Actually, their sport is the most natural action to the horse that there is; in what other sport do you get to run flat out in a group of other prey animals just like horses do in the wild?

People see the ex-racehorse or a rescue horse at the sales and see those big brown eyes and have to help it so they come home with a horse they bought with their heart, not their head. Don’t feel bad if this is you – there should be more heart in horsemanship anyway – but the problem is most of these people who buy with their hearts aren’t all that big on confidence or skills; no offence meant – we all could do with a bit of nervousness to keep us safer and we all need our skills better anyway. But, in short, we end up with an uneducated hotblood and a nervous rider. Who wouldn’t be nervous on a horse that has had the flight from fear instinct reinforced over and over?

As my wife, Meredith, and I were faced with this scenario again and again, clinic after clinic as we traveled Australia, we evolved into the coaches and trainers we are today. We had no choice but to get good with hotblooded horses and help people overcome these situations. It wasn’t something we had set as a goal – it just unfolded that way out of necessity. It seems we have a lot of hotblooded horses in Australia and I think this is what makes Australians stand out when it comes to horsemanship because, when you go back to the good old domestic horse after working with hotbloods, it all seems very easy. You find you have developed good habits because the hotblood won’t cut you much slack! This is why, when you go overseas, there will almost always be an Australian horseman/ horsewoman who has been invited over to help.

By chance, then, as we traveled Australia, people got to know we could help them be safe and confident with their nervous or touchy horses. However, to make it work, we had to develop some methods and a training program that was repeatable when they went home, so they could stay safe and continue to build confidence.

What are some of these amazing things that help hotblooded horses? Well, actually, these few things are more concepts or principles than tasks and they work for all horses: cool, warm and hot. Let’s begin with a big, fat untruth: just run him till he slows down and eventually he will stop running off! Yeah right – they sure weren’t riding a racehorse or one of our station horses or an overfed Arab when they made this one up! Ok, so if they run off, turn in a circle, flex, slow enough and get off and lead you horse home for more preparation. The principle here is you can’t teach a right brained horse so that includes a scared, nervous, defensive or confused horse. If they run off, they are right brained and you will be able to tell because the more right brained they are, the stiffer to flex and turn to stop they will be, and not much can beat the stiffness of a right brained racehorse, so avoid this by doing lots of preparation.

What preparation is going to help? There are 2 parts to this answer and they need to go together or it won’t work all that well. First up, we are going to have to get our right brain trigger horse to face their fears a little at a time; each time they get a little scared you will need to get them calm again before you try again or finish for the day. That doesn’t mean go out and scare your horse. It means find a small, simple task that you can sort of do but causes the horse to get a bit braced and get them to where they can do it easily with no brace or fear. For example, a goody for racehorses is transitions; I don’t think many of them go to transition school and most just have 2 gears: stop and go flat out, and the only speed adjustment you get is the brakes. So, start on the ground, online, and get them doing walk/trot first up. If they run off at the trot and start to canter, then ask them to slow to trot and try again. If they are a real good right brained trigger horse, they will keep running off after a little bit of trot, so just keep slowing them until they get the hang of the transition and realise they don’t need to run off and you will have just desensitized the right brained trigger to instinct in this horse by helping them face their fear. If they just don’t get it, then they are too far right brained to recover, so you will need to find something more achievable for them. If they are just starting to go right brained and you bring them back to calmness with a transition down, they will get better very quickly.

You can apply this to any task that is triggering your horse but that is only half the soloution. After desensitizing the right brain you will need to go one step further and develop the left brain of the horse; this is the part of their brain that makes decisions. No offence but not a biggy in most racehorses – big heart and loads of try but logic is lacking a tad; good qualities for a racehorse but not a riding horse.

To develop the left brain, you will need to give your horse options, which means drop contact on the lead or reins; what we call release training in our horsemanship program. Release training will give the horse an option to continue doing what you want or go do what they want. If a racehorse does what they want, it is usually run off so here are some ideas that will help you get started and maybe see if your good ol’ riding horse can do these just to check how their brain is working. On the ground to start with and after you have mastered the transitions we spoke of before, see if you can get your horse over some barrels laying on their side. Once you can get them over, do they trigger and go for a right brained run for a bit? If they do, then do the jump with a stop on the other side for a while to desensitize the right brain a bit, then to develop the left brain logic send your horse toward the barrel and release the lead a little as they come up to the jump. This will give them the option to dodge the jump or even stop. If they do this, ask them again with no extra pressure, just the same scenario and give the lead again. Do this until they go over, then allow them to stop like you have done before and give them a rest; this will give them time to think about the outcome of their decisions. In riding, you can do a circle and let the reins go for a few strides of release and see if your horse can keep going in the same gait in the same direction. If they change, then put them back on the circle and try again. After a while, they will figure out where to be and it will have been their idea to stay there with no contact or pressure from you – well done you are on your way to developing your horse’s left brain with the release method. To help our horses, we need them to get real good at finding the release in every deal we offer them and most of all we need to get good at offering a good deal and giving the horse a chance to think.

In history, anything that has ever been tightly controlled eventually rebels, which rings very true for anyone trying to contain a right brained horse. Whether it is a farmer trying to farm against the elements by farming the wrong crop for that area or a dictator of people trying to stop them from having opinions, there will eventually be a rebellion. Horses have been forced and controlled by people for too long now and it is time to change. It is time to release them and give them back their options. Get good at giving release and enjoy the amazing results and relationship that follows. Join the release rebellion.

Cheers Shane

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