lessons from baby horses

It seems like at least half the teachers in my horse education are baby horses themselves.  They are wise and clever and sneaky in their baby horse ways.  Murray has taught me a lot, but he was just one horse, and it turns out there’s still a lot to learn.  Trainer took students to Fresno County Horse Park this weekend, so and I was in town for once, so of course I offered to work the baby horses (all two of them…  but I also worked two friends’ babies so that kinda counts).  And I had a pretty neat little a-ha moment while doing so.

First up was zennMr. Zen, who is very cute but pretty lazy.  He thinks he’s too cute to lunge.  He wasn’t directly disobedient, but any time I asked him to slow down he used it as an excuse to turn to the inside to avoid more work.  He was quite clever, too, and knew that if he just kept himself pointed slightly away from me he could most effectively spin his hind end away from me.  But I buckled down and engaged ninja mode, and focused on just the most basic of lunging manners.  Zen was somewhat shocked by these rules, but I let up and praised him mightily after just 3 good circles with polite walk-halt transitions. Result?  Today we only had one disagreement about it.  I still had to be quick and I obviously couldn’t text and lunge the same way I can when I’m working Murray (pinnacle of safety over here), but massive improvement.  This is standard baby horse training, though, and not the massive a-ha moment.

The a-ha moment came when I was working little Marshawn Lynch.  Marshawn’s only tasks in life right now are to relax and learn to go and woah when asked, both on the lunge line and under saddle.  Marshawn was a little tense on the lunge though, so it was a bit tough for him to get the “woahhhs” through his ears.  But even baby horses relax eventually, and so when I saw Marshawn slow his step and stretch out his topline a bit I took advantage of that moment to say “woahhh,” and Marshawn came to a walk.  Super.  Back up to a trot, and this time Marshawn was quicker to relax, so we came back to a walk easily.  I repeated this a few times in each direction, and I could really see the wheels turning in little Marshawn’s head as I said “woah” and then put a little pressure on the lunge line.  It was very cool, and a good example of antecedent-behavior-consequence training.

Antecedent: I say “woah”
Behavior: Marshawn slows
Consequence: praise, less pressure

The neat part to me was connecting all the piece of the training.  First, rewarding Marshawn for relaxing on the lunge line, which is a huge thing to me.  I’m not interested in contributing to tension, or making a horse who just wants to run around on the lunge like a maniac.  I don’t mind getting your yayas out, but lunging is also for work, yo!  Marshawn visibly relaxed in the first lunging session and was much more relaxed coming into the second session.  Second, putting together the voice aids (woah, clucking/kissing) with the behavior Marshawn was already demonstrating — relaxation or slowing.  And finally, adding in the lunge aids (which will contribute to rein aids, as the lunge goes to the bit) with the voice aids.  All just one piece of the puzzle of creating a well-trained horse.

I love learning from baby horses!!  They are so fun.

When your trainer goes out of town and you get to play with all the baby #ottb's #ridealltheponies

A post shared by Nicole Sharpe (@nicolegizelle) on

a beautiful day

Saturday was a beautiful, thoroughbred-y day.

I started the morning riding one of Alana’s new prospects, who I shall refer to as the Gray Baby.  (We just can’t decide on a name for him, and he’a resale project, so really, why waste a good name on him?!)  He’s been off the track a few months and I’m not sure if he ever raced or not.  He’s shockingly well balanced with great brakes and steering.  He’s a bit timid on the ground but super under saddle.  Such a fun baby to ride.

IMG_20150607_124837Gray babies look adorable in pink and purple.

After my ride, I went with my roomie J and Alana to get a couple of new horses off the track.  We went to a trainer-friend’s barn and toured around and patted her winners and the losers and even coaxed the goat out of her stall for some cuddles too.  I met my future project horse — a big gray stallion who is horny as all get up (even though he’s never bred anything but his hay bag) but who works fast.  Anyway, the horse we picked up, Auggie, is a 17.2 hand 2 and 1/2 year old who had brain surgery recently — by which I mean, he was castrated.  He took a bit of a tough look at the trailer but got on for his trainer and settled in for the ride.

IMG_20150606_175948Auggie after settling in at Alana’s — his pen got a little mod to help him rehab a minor injury.

Next we picked up a mare from a breeding farm.  Scarlet hated the track, and went off all feed, so she was quickly retired and we’re hoping to place her as a sport horse soon.  She’s petite and adorable and I, like a twit, didn’t get pictures.

On our way back from the breeding farm we stopped in at Tractor Supply to get a couple of new big water tubs and some shavings for Auggie to sleep in on his tender nuts.  We were there during the Belmont, so J quickly pulled HRTV up on her phone (thank you HRTV!!!) and we watched the Belmont in Tractor Supply.  The three of us were crowded around the little phone screen watching American Pharoah win by miles with two ottbs in the trailer.  It was insane.

I cried.

I don’t know that I could accurately describe all my feelings watching the Belmont, but AP was impressive.  And it was amazing to watch history in the making — for a title I have read so much fact and fiction about.  I know there are so many mixed feelings and fucked up things that happen in racing.  I know there are bad trainers and bad breeders and people who don’t care about the horses.  But I spent my day in the company of people and a trainer who really, really, really care about the horses.

So that was pretty sweet.

IMG_20150606_100040Gray Baby

the amateur and the ottb

There’s been a bit of buzz in my blog feed lately about off track thoroughbreds, amateurs, and their appropriateness together.  In case you missed them, SprinklerBandit started it off with her “The Case Against The OTTB“, Lauren rebutted with “The Case For The OTTB“, and Calm, Forward, Straight chimed in with her personal story.

Oftentimes when I read posts that generate discussion at various blogs I think about writing a response, but often hold my tongue as all of my opinions are already collected in the comments.  And the comments become a wonderful area for discussion, and clarification, and they add so much to the conversation.  But I’ve got a big mouth and I can’t help but say something here too.

In case you were unaware, I love ottbs (if you’re wondering why sometimes capitals and sometimes not, I prefer little letters, but the former authors included capitals in their titles so I followed their lead).  I have been captivated, impressed, and fallen in love.  Thanks to my trainer’s projects, I have, under supervision, ridden ottbs in all different states — straight off the back side, after months or years of let down, after a few months of retraining, after years in another career.  In all this time, I have never felt unsafe on one of these horses, either under the watchful eye of my trainer or not (on the ground with a certain someone is an entirely different issue).   In fact, in all of my riding the horse I felt least safe on had been off the track for 10 years, and that was simply because of my own inexperience riding.

But to buy a horse off the track — and I make the distinction that SB did here, because there’s a serious difference between horses off the back side and horses with retraining — is a far cry from buying a made horse.  I disagree with SB’s statement that they aren’t green: you simply cannot call a four year old, even with two years of training on the track “seasoned”.  However, they are trained, fit, and ready to work in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

2011-9-2

Buying from the track can be an ordeal in and of itself.  Austen made the excellent point that it’s hard to evaluate a horse at the track, only their trainers and grooms really have the experience with them to know them, and a quick visit might not get you everything you need to know.  A trial from the track is also almost impossible, I’m pretty sure random visitors can’t just ride a horse on the back side, and I’m sure the number of trainers willing to let a horse disappear for a week or two is probably limited.  There’s also all the track lingo, which might not be crystal clear to everyone who hears it.  (Why yes, I’m sure that horse has a knee, I was hoping he had two of them?)

Having a friendly, knowledgeable connection at the track can be invaluable, both to help you find good horses and give you insider knowledge on others that you might be interested in.  These horses work hard and do it young, so there’s more to consider in terms of long-term soundness in a 4 year old retired racehorse than a barely-touched 4 year old fresh from the field.  Horse traders will be horse traders, regardless of discipline or breed, and dishonest people exist in every business.  We all know this, however, I imagine it’s much easier to overlook little hesitations you might have with the price tag many ottbs come with.

Then there is the retraining, which SB cautioned is a long process, and Lauren suggested brings the joy of the journey rather than the destination.  In my opinion, few amateurs are capable of training green horses alone anyway, regardless of their prior training, be it converting them from the racetrack, western life, hunters, or pasture puff.  Untraining old habits is hard no matter what they are — running counter clockwise on the turf or never having to work and eating grass all day in a pasture with your friends — and training new ones is just as hard!  However, there are lots of amateurs who have the temperament to do this successfully with help, and the rewards far outweigh the pace of progress, to me.

So yes. A straight off the track racehorse, be it thoroughbred, standardbred, quarter, or appaloosa, is not the best horse for everyone.  However, I think they might be the right horse for more people than you think.

free jump 1

Racehorses have an absolutely wonderful work ethic.  It’s not just their early training, it’s bred into them.  Certainly highly performing warmbloods have it too, I saw the way Flexible looks at Grand Prix jumps, the determination with which little Rothchild faces down his competition, and the look on Valegro’s face when he does his victory lap at the CDI.  But how many amateurs have access to such well-bred, hard-working warmbloods?  There’s a population of hard working, determined, athletic, enthusiastic horses in every state, working their asses off for people they might not know that well — imagine what they could do for someone they were committed to.

All of the ottbs I’ve ever ridden have so much try, on the flat or over fences, even with only a little training, and all of the opinions certain creatures have.  I’ve never started a warmblood, but I’ve been on a few, and I’ve definitely been on ponies, and by comparison the attitude the tbs bring to the table definitely impressed me.  They’re also athletic as hell, as Lauren pointed out, and can be competitive in all kinds of arenas at a fraction of the price of the warmbloods.  When we did our pace gallops this weekend the thoroughbreds came off their sets barely blowing, and the warmblood and quarter in our group were not quite that fit, despite the same frequency of riding at home.

For these reasons, and many more, I will recommend an ottb — in this case, not one straight off the track — to anyone looking for a horse for any discipline, any day of the week.  I don’t personally know the western-inclined ottbs (well, I know one), but I know they can succeed there just as well as they can in eventing, hunters, or jumpers.  And I know that once they find their discipline, they fucking kick ass at it.

IMG_0456Why yes, I CAN jump, thanks for asking.

But let’s go back to the straight off the track horse — the off track project.  More important than the off-track project not being for every ammy, I think project horses aren’t appropriate for every ammy.  Every project comes with baggage, be it an unsavory past, medical issues, behavioral problems, or a history as a pasture puff.  None of these problems is worse than anything track training could install in a horse, and in my opinion the track past is preferable to any of these.  At least track horses don’t (typically) have a history of rearing in the show ring until their rider falls, of stopping dirty at fences and flinging their riders over their heads, of bolting until they are given what they want, of bad training, bad aids, bad habits.  What ex racehorses do have is a history of going forward, listening to their rider (albeit for different things you might be used to asking them for), and working hard.  What about that isn’t a good project for an amateur?  These are the reasons I think an ottb makes a perfect project for an ammy — as long as the ammy is ready and capable of handling a project.

A project is a journey.  Lauren pointed this out, and I want to expound upon it.  There is more to riding than competing and winning ribbons, and I think that beyond good performance, more and more amateurs are seeking something greater with their horses.  To be able to say that they made something, fixed something, helped create something, helped teach something — to be able to say that the progress is yours and yours alone.  Even when you do it with a trainer, when you’re in the saddle and putting the miles on, there is an immense sense of accomplishment that you managed to do it.  Sure, it may have taken longer than when Dom Schramm or Hawley Bennett gets on, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a wonderful journey and learning experience for both of you.  But the pride you can feel when you get a quiet, balanced trot to canter transition, a perfect, quiet jump over 2’6″, or your first stretchy trot circle will be well worth the struggles, tears, and many hours of repetition it takes you to get there.

dressaging01
I made this!

This journey is not for everyone, and perhaps an ottb is not for you in this journey.  Not all trainers and people get ottbs — this is okay, goodness knows I don’t understand warmbloods or mares at all — and understanding how a horse thinks is a huge part of training.

I will never regret the time I have spent with ottbs, training them, riding them, fawning over them.  I will always encourage someone looking for a horse to consider an ottb, be it one that has already had retraining, or as a project to take on if they are prepared for it, because in my opinion, the journey is worth it.

the six stages of the OTTB Connect cycle

I don’t know if any of you are members of the Facebook group OTTB Connect, but it is an ottb-centric group that can be a great resource for owners, afficionados, and admirers of thoroughbreds.  I love OTTB Connect, as it is a great group, and have really enjoyed being a part of the community.  Just being around so many ottb lovers is wonderful!  You can get a lot of useful information off of the group, and people are always eager (and sometimes a little too eager) to help.  I found Murray’s full brother on there, and while I didn’t manage to help him find a new home, I gave his owner some useful information about what his potential might include.  However, if you’ve been part of the group for any amount of time, you’ll probably notice that the content gets a little…. repetitive.


All that has happened before will happen again….

As if the search bar never existed, the same topics seem to come up over and over again.  It’s kindof like the Wheel of Time, only a lot less long.  Or perhaps the Battlestar Galactica Cycle, without cylons or intergalactic travel.  Regardless, there’s a pattern, and here’s my tongue-in-cheek interpretation of it.

1. Can someone tell me about my horse’s pedigree please?

As though nobody had ever written pedigree analyses before, new-to-ottbs owners are always eager to find out about their baby’s pedigree.  I too was eager to know about Murray’s pedigree, right up until the moment that I realised he had absolutely nothing notable within three generations.  Regardless of how big the name, and how much both racing and sport-horse analysts have written on the topic, no pedigree shall be left uncombed for notable athletes.  And somehow, everyone is a great, great, great, great grand child/nephew/neice of Secretariat.

1391787763SecretariatPreaknessWhether or not they ran like Big Red.

2. Confirmation Conformation critique

Right after someone finds out what important sires are in their pony’s pedigree, it’s important to understand what potential their baby’s body suggests — nothing negative, please!  Confirmation Conformation can tell you a lot about a horse, and if you ask enough people you’re bound to hear exactly what you want to!  No need to focus on studied angles and lengths, even soft tissue is up for critique here, and somehow everybody’s topline needs improvement.

3. I need training halp my horse won’t do X

We all know ottbs can be smart, stubborn, and wily, and inevitably they outsmart their owners regarding at least something.  Whether it’s teaching their rider that they don’t really have to canter because cantering will lead to bucking, or simply refusing to get in a trailer, it’s important to nip these problems in the bud.  And if other ottb owners have some tricks that might work, we want to know about them!  Guaranteed responses: give him lots of cookies, natural horsemanship, don’t let him be the boss of you, don’t beat your horse!, Parelli, carrot sticks, and logic.

4. People who say ottbs are CRAZY must be ON DRUGS

Look at my horse not being crazy!  He’s so not crazy!  Look he put his head down!  Look I can walk around on a loose rein!  Look I can ride him in my halter!  I put my neonate on him and he’s so quiet he’s packing the kid around a 2’6″ course though my baby can’t even lift his head yet!  WHO SAYS OTTBS ARE CRAZY??! THAT IS INSOLENCE!!!!!!!

bucking
Not the bucks of a wild, crazy creature. Not at all.

5. Transformation Tuesday!

These posts show what a little TLC can do to a horse.  You see weight go on, blooming, metallic coats, and happy chubby horses.  Horses that were sickly or lame that are now happy and free, running and jumping, living with friends.  Horses that sucked at racing are suddenly invigorated with new life and excel when presented with barrels or reining patterns or fences or a dressage court.  I love these posts, because I am a sucker for a happy ending.

6. I hate my horse’s racing name what should I call her??!!

There are some for real dorky JC names out there (e.g. Hot Tub Aaron, Tommydelu, Ima Looking Cool?!), and I totally get the struggle about your horse’s name.  The JC name gives homage to their heritage and pedigree, but do you really want to be walking into the show ring with Arrrrr?! Somehow, other users of the group are supposed to come up with a good show name for a horse that they’ve never met and may never have seen (pictures, of course, optimal), that give a little bit of a hint to the horse’s fantastic pedigree while alluding to his talents and complementing his colour.

TOABH: Making of the Horse

Here’s the second installment of Beka’s great 18 Before 18 blog hop!  This week, we’re talking about the Making of the Horse.

Last week, we talked about our babies.  This week, let’s talk about our greenies.  Who trained your horse?  Is your ponykins still in the process of figuring out this whole monkey-on-my-back thing, did you send off for thirty or sixty or ninety days, or did you buy a horse with all the bells and whistles?  Who has helped your horse become what he or she is today?

As I discussed last week, Murray spent about a year of his life on the track, actively in race training.  That was in 2011, when he was a rising three year old.  And as I mentioned last week, he sucked at it, hated it, and worked hard to make everybody around him miserable.  From what I understand, his breeders put just about zero handling/training on him, and his trainer was expected to teach him all of that and get him raceworthy in a year.  Murray was trained at the Pleasanton track with a female trainer, a female jockey, and this is all probably for the best: likely before his time at the track (considering how speshul he is), Murray developed a deep distrust of men (let me tell you sometime about how my farrier FIRED ME as a client).  Unfortunately, he’s also a HUGE RACIST and has an even deeper distrust of Hispanic men, which means that my barn’s incredible sweet, kind, and amazing feeder is perpetually on Murray’s shit list.

2011-9-2

I digress.

After leaving the track, Murray was trained at Sunfire Equestrian Training for 90 days in 2012 and 90 days in 2013 before I started leasing him.  He was ridden both by our head trainer and our one working student in 2012, and in 2013 by our barn manager’s daughter (not technically a working student, but works a lot of training horses).   Murray was always pretty compliant under saddle at that time, it was just getting there that challenged people — he was so afraid of girthing, to the point of breaking halters and running away through the barn.

Since September 2013, I’ve put every ride and moment of training on Murray, except when I’ve been out of town (and one notable bucking incident in April).  I take lessons weekly, except when I’m really struggling with my finances, and my amazing, wonderful trainer has helped me learn about the retraining of a baby ottb.  In the beginning, every lesson Murray and I took was a combination of a bit of flatwork and then some jumping, since they go so hand in hand.  I started jumping Murray every single day, just 5-10 little Xs at the beginning of our ride, so he remembered our jumping better between lessons.  I still take weekly jump lessons, and throw in a dressage lesson either with Alana or Tina Steward once a month or so.  It’s not that I don’t need the dressage training — I desperately do — but Murray’s learning rate for dressage is so much slower, and at this point so much of it is simply strength building and exercise repetition.  I go into every single ride with the mentality that it’s a training ride — every interaction you have with an animal is a training session, after all — and even our hacks have some purpose, whether it be stretching over our back, picking up our feet over obstacles, or practicing being calm and happy on the gallop track.

DSCF9914 - CopyTrying and failing to be a DQ back in February. We’ve come a long way since then.

Training Murray has in no way been a solo venture, however.  Even outside of lessons, I rely heavily on my barn family!  Without my barn manager, Lisa, Murray would definitely be a bit of an uncontrollable wild child.  Lisa is the one who had most of the long conversations with Murray about walking politely next to a human, putting one’s head down when required, not breaking the cross ties just because you feel like it (hmmm, also remind me to tell you sometime about the day he pulled back from the trailer four times in 45 minutes FOR FUN), and generally being a well-mannered individual.  Alana is the one who really saw Murray’s potential as a sport horse when he was just a scrawny, skinny, failed racehorse.  Alana saw the good beneath the silly, lazy, behind-the-leg, squirrelly, boy and has always encouraged me and put me back on the right track when we’ve drifted away from it.

Murray doesn’t have any bells or whistles right now, unless you count that he’s basically a point-and-shoot jumper up to 2’9″, and that he’ll willingly jump out of his stall’s 4′ back window at any moment on new shavings day.  But I hope to get some installed soon!  I hear that you can get a group discount when you do 5 or more ponies at the same time.

Retired Racehorse Project TV

As the full leaser of an ex racehorse, you might accurately predict that I have a bit of a soft spot for thoroughbreds and ottbs.  But in all honesty, I’d characterize it as just a big squishy heart for ottbs in general.  Ever since I  started riding with Alana, she has had off track projects around, and I have always loved watching these guys progress from little baby noodles (or perhaps big baby noodles) into solid riding horses.  I even helped a little with one or two, but Murray has been my first full-time project (though of course he was quite a ways off the track before he came into my life).

There is just so much to love about the process of retraining an ottb.  I like watching them learn their life is a bit different now, that they can relax a little bit, and seeing the changes in their bodies as they come down from a racing fit and develop into .  I love watching their personalities come out as they relax and heal — my previous lease horse, Quincy, stared broncing and kicking out with joy after his first chiropractic adjustment.  I really love when they start to figure out this whole riding thing; there is just something about watching a smart horse problem-solve (oh, you want me to use my back like this? You want my head here? I have to go over those coloured poles every time? Going over this is FUN?) that really warms my heart.

This was, I believe, after dumping me in the water complex by rolling and taking off back to the trailers. Yeah, after never acting out once in a lesson, his personality really started to come out that season.
This was, I believe, after dumping me in the water complex by rolling and taking off back to the trailers. Yeah, after never acting out once in a lesson, his personality really started to come out that season.

So of course I’ve always been a fan of the Retired Racehorse Project, and whenever I’ve had time (even in Africa! When my internet was crappy and I had to buffer videos for half an hour to watch 5 minutes!) I have kept up with their retraining challenges.  Do you love RRP?  Well, if you do, get amped: RRP is now offering a TV series!  Steuert Pittman plans to highlight a bunch of different ways of training ottbs.  Their first episode, “East meets West”, features trainer Dale Simonton faces off with Steuert to not only discuss the features that make a good ranch horse, but also see if he can put some Western moves on Steuert’s English-only trained horse.  If you think you aren’t interested in western or working ranch horses, you’re probably wrong: RRP cuts in some fantastic footage of horses naturally cutting cows, and Dale ropes the legs of his horse, Rikim, and then has the horse walk out of it while under saddle.  I was absolutely thunderstruck by that move!  If I tried to rope Murray’s feet while he was walking with me on him I think he would dump me forever!

This episode gets three thumbs up from me. I don’t know where the third thumb came from but I loooooved the episode!

Check out the first episode here: http://vimeo.com/110858352

In the immortal words of Steuert Pittman: LTFR!