Wednesday, May 27, 2015

"What Are You Doing With That Big Red Horse?"

I get asked this question all the time by people who have seen Jack. You'd think I've got the next Totalis standing in my yard by how people react to him. If I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me what I'm doing with him, I could probably afford the next Totalis. But, nobody pays me to ask questions, so I've got Jack. Honestly, I sometimes think they're just asking because they wonder if he's getting ready to kill me or if I've given up on him.

He isn't, I haven't, and the answer to the question is that he isn't doing much. That's why he isn't trying to kill me and I haven't given up on him.

Here's a quick rundown of what's been going on in the World of Jack for this year:

We came off a crummy winter and started out with light trail riding. Then he ran into an (open) gate and injured himself (and destroyed the gate, not even sure how that happens), so he got a couple weeks off. That was in March. We went back to trail riding and doing short stints in the arena in April, but the weather was crummy and so we didn't do much. Now it's May and the weather is getting better and we're back to nothing much, but it's a much more consistent nothing much. A friend of mine has come to ride him a few times so I could watch and gauge his progress, and I'm happy with it.

Those legs!

Wait... What?! How can I be happy with nothing much?

I'm happy with nothing much because of what Jack is. He's an OTTB, and not a successful one. Jack had three starts as a 2 year old, came in dead last every time, and retired. Yes, I know there are many stories all over the internet from people who took a horse straight from the track to a winning show horse in 6 months or less and those are very nice stories, but they aren't the norm and they aren't realistic for most racehorses. I could post a whole rant about the reality of taking on an OTTB vs. what you see on the internet, but this post is about Jack. I'll file the rant away for another day.

In Jack's first career as a racehorse, he was a complete failure. Like I said before: he had three starts as a two year old, came in dead last every time, then retired. Let's put it another way: At the time most sport horses are just beginning to learn that bridles and saddles are a thing, Jack had already been trained to his sport, failed spectacularly, and then been retired. What do you think that does to a horse's confidence?

Jack is an inquisitive, intelligent and sweet guy. He loves to work, he loves to be with people, and he loves to learn new things, but he suffers from a serious lack of confidence and maturity. His lack of confidence means that when he doesn't understand something, he gets very frustrated very quickly. His lack of maturity and his sheer size (Jack is about 17h) means that expressing his frustration, even mildly, can make things dangerous for an average sized human fairly quickly.

My solution to this is to take things very, very slowly with Jack. Every single thing he does with me has to be an unmitigated success. That requires a ton of planning on my part, and then I have to have the presence of mind to be able to completely change the plan when it falls apart (and the "plan" falls apart frequently). This means that Jack doesn't get worked when I'm tired, angry or stressed out, because I can't be cranky or distracted when I work with him. I have to give him 100%, so that he can learn to give me 100%. He has to learn that we're equal partners in his new life and that failure is OK, but he can't learn that until I've shown him that he can be successful.

Right now, success is in the smallest things. Jack is learning to ground tie, because it's an easy thing for a horse to learn and nothing catastrophic happens if he screws it up.

You can see from the expression on his face that he takes all his work very, very seriously.

He's also learning to work in long lines and in hand, and he's learning to free longe. He's learning that bits aren't things to chomp down and lean on. Most importantly, he's learning that when he's with me I will always have his back and I'll never ask him for something he can't do.

Working with Jack brings me back to my other "failed" horse. Spider was a soured Jumper before I bought him. I did the same thing with Spider: I just spent time with him doing simple things like ground tying and trail riding. I built up his confidence, and now I have a horse that will do anything for me. Jack will be the same, but it's gonna take a lot of time.

I don't expect great things from Jack today, or even tomorrow. I have time, Jack has time, and one day he will be one hell of a horse.


  1. I love this post.

    I'm pretty honest about my journey with Courage, and yeah, it's not nearly as glamorous as people who go from the track to the show ring in no time at all. I'd like to say they're all doing it wrong, but the truth is, there's no ONE TRUE WAY to bring along a horse. Their way works for them. My way works for me (I hope).

    And Jack is a lucky boy to have you.

  2. This is great! I frequently berate myself for not doing things faster, but honestly, if I'm happy with my rides and so is my horse, then that is good enough.

  3. Jack is lucky to have you as his person. i worry all the time about ruining my horse's confidence bc it can just be so so hard to get back for them - maybe even harder than for ppl bc they don't really have the same motivations as we do

  4. I have always loved your approach to Jack's training: I figured the detailed "why" was exactly what you wrote here! :) He's very fortunate to have ended up with you.

  5. Great stuff - it's those small things that build a confident foundation that will really make all the difference in the end.

  6. Love this post. This is exactly how I feel about horse training also. It makes an incredible partner.

  7. Each horse and rider have to do what works for them :)

    Can't wait to see where Jack goes!!

  8. Well done. I had one OTTB and it took a really long time to train him for similar reasons. I also learned he needed acupuncture and chiropractic work regularly. Wish I had known about ulcers back then as I would have treated him and a really suspect it would have made a huge difference. Now, my two TB's are not OTTB's and to tell the truth, in some ways it's not a lot easier. I've always said other breeds have dispositions and TB's have temperament. Love their intelligence and ability, but it's not always easy to coax them into happy compliance.

  9. Seems like this GM quote is especially applicable here, so:

    "It's water on a stone, people. Horses take patience, infinite patience. Wait for the horse." - George Morris


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