Friday, May 24, 2013


Whenever you take on a new horse, you can never really be too sure of it's history.  I've taken on very fancy, expensive Warmbloods with impressive show records, only to realize that they weren't quite what they were made out to be.... Some "trainers" can do a lot with whips and spurs and a a very tight curb rein. Because of this, I treat every new horse like a baby.

With a horse from the track, you at least know that you aren't getting a fancy show horse. I like that honesty, it's refreshing.  But, you still need to figure out what your horse knows and what he doesn't.

Most American racetracks are run counter-clockwise.  That means that your brand new American OTTB probably only knows how to bend to the left.

Now, some trainers do train their racehorses like riding horses, and you might get one of those OTTBs, but most of the time the trainers teach the horses to do their job.  I don't fault them that, when's the last time you breezed a quarter mile on your dressage horse, or worked cows on your eventer?

Jack was trained to do his job.  He sucked at it, so now he has to learn a new job, and part of his new job is bending right.

I decided to start his new education on the lunge, and I'm glad I did.

But, let's back up.....  Prior to officially starting his new education, I had spent a lot of time with him.  We went on long walks in hand around the farm, I got on him and just hacked around (little contact, very relaxed, just getting him used to dressage gear and moving forward). I also lunged him a bit in just a halter, to get him used to the idea.  In these preliminary lunge sessions, I noted a reluctance to track right.

And then it came time to start him into real work.  I started him on the lunge in full gear, with loose side reins, on a 20m circle.

He was perfect tracking left.  Walk, trot, canter... no problems.

Then I asked him to lunge to the right and he was like, "Nope, I don't do right. Let's go left."  And he told me that in the most spectacularly athletic way I have ever seen a horse refuse:  He reared straight up, turned 180 degrees on his hind legs, then set his front feet down and struck off to the left.

I was left holding on to the line and thinking, "What just happened here?".

I stopped him, pointed him back to the right and tried again.  Once again, Jack said, "Nope, I go left" and reared his way back to the left.  I tried a third time, because I'm sort of dumb.  But, when I got the same result again, I decided to I needed a new plan.

I took him in hand and walked him around the whole arena to the right, because I knew that was something he could do.  And I praised him immensely for that. Then, I asked him to walk a smaller circle, and then a smaller circle, until he was walking a 20m circle in hand.  Then I asked him to trot the 20m circle in hand.  Then I asked him to do it on the lunge again. He balked at first, he wasn't sure he could do it without me, but I was able to get him moving out.  All the while I praised him for every forward step.  Even if those forward steps were racing around at Mach 9, he was praised as long as he was going right.

We did that for a couple more days, each time reinforcing the lesson that tracking right was doable.  We also worked on the idea that you don't have to race around to go on a 20m circle to the right by doing lots of halts and changes of gait.

And then it was time to try it out under saddle:

He's a clever fellow!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Action Jack!

Jack is so ridiculously quiet, he's almost comatose.  I was beginning to wonder if he might be better suited to a career in Western Pleasure.

But I finally managed to get some pictures of Jack in action today!

He trotted and cantered over the whole pasture.  And what was the catalyst for this sudden display of athletics?  A fly.

It appears our little Jack does not like flies.  Which is a problem, because we live in New Jersey and there are a lot of bugs here.

The horses already get Simplifly, which is a feed-through growth inhibitor for flies.  Basically, it keeps the flies from breeding in the poop.  I don't use Fly Predators, because I have free range poultry.  The Fly Predators end up being very expensive chicken snacks.

I use fly spray, but only sporadically.  I've tried every fly spray on the market and none of them seem to do a thing.  I'm not even sure why I buy it, really.  I guess the companies who make it just have good marketing.

I've got Jack in a fly sheet right now, but I'm thinking of trying one of the feed through fly-discouraging supplements.  Most of them seem to contain garlic, brewer's yeast or some combination thereof.  I've never tried one before, my other horses don't really get worked up about the bugs.

Any recommendations?  Do they even work at all?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Spicing Things Up

Anyone who has ever been married, or been in any sort of long term relationship, can tell you that after awhile you reach a point where you just start ignoring your mate's insanely annoying behaviors.  I don't know if it's self-preservation, or just your brain's way of preventing you from committing a homicide, but you eventually learn to just tune out.

It's the same with horses.  For many years, I've only ridden Spider and he's only been ridden by me.  In many ways, that's a good thing.  Spider and I have a solid rapport.  I know exactly which buttons to push and when, to the point that he feels like an extension of my body.   That's a great feeling.

But, over the years, we've become like an old married couple.  I know him so well that nothing surprises me anymore, and so I let things slide.

Case in point: The house on the other side of my arena has recently been rented out to someone with approximately 100 dogs.  OK, that's a slight exaggeration.  There's three dogs, but they bark a lot.  I'm guessing they've never been around horses before, because they completely lose their minds every time I get a horse out.  Personally, I don't care.  The dogs can bark all they want because right now I've got 3 roosters that are way more annoying.  I won't complain about their dogs as long as they don't complain about my roosters.

Spider, on the other hand, has a pathological hatred of dogs.  I learned this when we boarded at a place where the owner had a gaggle of Jack Russells that Spider routinely tried to flatten.  We didn't stay there long, for some reason the owner didn't like us.

As soon as the dogs moved in I knew Spider was going to turn into the Incredible Hulk every time I rode near the dogs, and I resigned myself to my fate.  So, we'd go down the far long side and Spider would be all "Spider SMASH!" and I'd be like, "Seriously, can we just do this damn shoulder-in and be done with it?".

And then I started working Jack in the arena.  The first time we went down that long side, Jack never batted an eyelash.  And a light bulb went off in my head.  If the recently gelded 3 year old who has only lived here for two weeks doesn't care about the dogs, why am I tolerating stupid behavior from the well-trained 18 year old who has lived here for years?

Well, I'm not putting up with it anymore!   Now when he starts with the "Spider SMASH" Hulk routine, I start with the "Shannon SMASH" trainer routine.  No more ignoring it and doing half-assed work just to get it done with.  I've come to the realization that my horse can be a real jerk, and it's my job as his partner to help him be better than that.

P.S. If my new neighbors happen to read this, I'm very sorry for the new words your kids may have learned this week.

Saturday, May 11, 2013


There is a lot of mythology surrounding the Off-The-Track Thoroughbred.  Some of it is hype.  Some of it is misunderstanding.  Most of it is just plain bad handling by people who didn't know better.

Racehorses are not the insane, fire-breathing dragons that most people (particularly dressage riders) make them out to be.  They are actually very well trained animals, just trained in a different discipline.  You have to understand that when you take one on, because you're going to need to do some "de-tracking".

Racehorses can walk, trot, and canter under saddle while going past a grandstand full of noisy spectators on race day (try that with your fancy Warmblood!).  They are very used to tractors, dogs, chickens and people popping out of everywhere, because they're exposed to that on the backside of the track.  They get clipped, bathed, and groomed over every inch of their bodies.  They see the farrier much more frequently than our horses, and will stand quietly for the farrier.  They load into trailers constantly to go from racecourse to racecourse. They will even stand nicely if you tie them, but only for a straight tie... there are no cross ties on the track.

But, a racehorse's life revolves around one thing: Running. Running fast!  It's the end goal of their training.  Every aspect of their lives caters to this training goal.  That's a big difference from the goal in dressage, and we need to be sensitive to that if we're going to train these horses to new careers.

Thoroughbreds are very intelligent, sensitive horses.  They want to please, and will become upset if they don't understand something or feel like they're failing.  Going from track life to farm life is a huge change for them, and if handled poorly can result in very upset, confused horse.  You need a good plan.

Of course, I had a plan in place when I got Jack.

First order of business:  Diet!

Diet is important.  Racehorses are fed massive quantities of high calorie grain to give them the energy to run as fast as they can.  That's not really what I'm looking for.  So, I transitioned Jack over to higher fat/protein, decreased carbohydrate diet.  He currently gets three meals a day: Breakfast and Dinner are 2lbs of a senior feed, 1lb of a high fat ricebran/flaxseed feed, 2 lbs (dry weight, but soaked) of beet pulp, Lunch is another 2lbs of beet pulp and he gets all the hay and grass he can eat.  I chose a "senior" feed for him because "senior" feeds are lower starch.  He's obviously not a "senior", but I think those designations are mostly marketing, anyway.  He was also started on ulcer meds and probiotics as soon as I got him.

Second order of business: Groundwork!

While Jack knows how to ride, tie, load on a trailer, and doesn't spook at much of anything, there are many things he doesn't know how to do.  Racehorses aren't lunged, so I have to teach him that.  They also don't know how to stand at a mounting block (very important, as Jack is 17h and there is no way this 5'3 person is getting on him from the ground!).  He also knows nothing about the rider's leg and seat, or what he should do with contact in the reins.

In order to introduce him to these concepts, I like to start on the ground.  It's easier to take a break when he becomes frustrated if we start with groundwork.

On his first day here, we took a walk around the whole property.  I kept the lead line loose, so that he could look around.  I find a tight line usually increases anxiety with horses.  Sometimes it's necessary, at shows and such, when you can't afford to take the time to deal with naughty behavior.  But, for introductions, a loose line is better.  A loose line allows him to approach things or back away as he feels comfortable.  It gives a feeling of security, but not confinement.  Of course, any naughty behavior was corrected immediately.  A loose line does not mean it's a free-for-all!

We continued with that for several days.  During our walks we also worked on basic things, like moving away from pressure.  I would place my hands at the girth, where my leg will go, and ask Jack to move away from me. I brought out my whip to tap him with, asking him to move away from the tap, but not run.  I also walked him to the mounting block, where I asked him to stand quietly while I stood on it and fussed with him.  But, mostly, we just hung out together on our walks.  Horses are very social animals, the most important thing you can do with them is to just spend time with them.  It really makes a huge difference in their training.

Ordinarily, I would have started Jack lunging and riding during this time.  But, we had a bit of a roadblock in that I was also waiting to have him gelded.  I knew he would need time off after the gelding, and didn't want to start teaching something new only to have to put it aside for a week while he healed.

But, his "rear lobotomy" took place last Saturday and went perfectly.  He was gelded standing, under only a light sedative and local anesthetic.  We're still friends, and I don't even think he knows they're gone.

It's now been one week, his incision looks lovely, and he's going to start working!

Friday, May 3, 2013


Good Man Jack!

Good Man Jack (just "Jack", for short) is a 2010 off-the-track Thoroughbred stallion.  Yes, you read that right... I have acquired a 3 year old OTTB stallion.  No, I'm not off my rocker.  He's very quiet and and has no clue that he's a stallion.  I'm going to take care of that "stallion" thing before he figures it out, though!

Jack retired from racing after 3 starts because he wasn't taking well to life on the track.  He was 100% sound, but just not running well and obviously stressed.  Life on the track is hectic and intense.  Some horses thrive on that type of busy atmosphere, but Jack wasn't one of them.   So, his owner and trainer decided to take him off the track and find him a home where he would be happy.

He's much better suited to hanging out in the back yard.

I'll admit, I've always been a sucker for a chestnut.  But what impressed me most about Jack was his sweet and gentle nature.  I know a certain 28 year old grey gelding who is not as quiet and sensible as this 3 yr old stallion!

He passed the "kid test", he's a keeper!

And it doesn't hurt that he's got pretty good conformation.  He's not as croup high as some Thoroughbreds, which will be a plus in his new vocation as a dressage horse.

He's pretty skinny right now, that's a side effect of coming off the track.  Racehorses are fed large amounts of high energy grain and have very intense daily exercise regimes.  Many are also given steroids or similar drugs to help them breathe and recover from the intensity of race day.  After they come off the track, they usually have a "crash" period while their bodies adjust to their new life.  He'll put the weight back on, but it takes time.

I tried to get some action shots, but Jack isn't really an "action" type of guy.  He prefers to spend his time eating, napping, and trying to get me to come pet him.  I've actually been very impressed with how intelligent and inquisitive he is.  He hasn't spooked once since arriving here.  When confronted with something new he stops, looks at it, and then approaches it.  That's an attitude I will be looking to cultivate, for sure!

He has nice reach in his gaits, though... always a plus!

For now, all the "action" Jack is interested in is getting his ears scratched.  Every time I go into the pasture to get a good photo of him, he follows me around like a puppy, just begging to be loved.  He's really not living up to the stereotype of the chestnut OTTB, or the stallion stereotype, either!

Obviously a dangerous animal.


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