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Simple Guide to Transforming Your EX-Race Horse Into a Hunter/Jumper
Ex-Race Horse Training Tips
Retraining your Off-The-Track Thoroughbred is a challenging and rewarding endeavor. It is basically guaranteed that you will have days, especially in the beginning, that you will think to yourself, "I am selling this horse, there is no way he/she will ever make a suitable Hunter/Jumper show horse." I have had those days myself and will share some of those experiences with you. I want to stress the importance of patience. This can not be taken lightly. You will need to have unending patience with your Thoroughbred, it will be taxing at times. Yet while it is an enormous amount of work and added stress the rewards are boundless. The Thoroughbred's inherit love, bond and willingness to perform for his/her human counterpart is unmatchable and unbelievable.
The very first step and possibly the single most important step in your re-training program will be to gain your horse's TRUST. Many OTTB's find this difficult and it may prove to be your first stumbling point in your new partnership with your OTTB. To gain the trust of your OTTB you will need to think like an OTTB, which is not the same thinking as a non-OTTB horse. OTTB's generally will learn more from praise than punishment and will need to have that praise often and exaggeratedly expressed. Feed into the OTTB's own desire to please. This is extremely important in building a partnership with your new Hunter/Jumper! For the most part a stern "NO" will be enough to let your Thoroughbred know a behavior is unacceptable or not what was being asked of him. Remember, trust is not a right, it must be earned, and in a split second it can be lost. Be very sensitive to your horse's emotions. Thoroughbreds are sensitive horses and an overly harsh command or punishment for undesired behavior can set you back months in terms of trust. While you cannot allow bad behavior and must maintain the superior/subordinate relationship, you will need to always consider that your overall goal is to gain trust and react appropriately with that in mind. There must be a balance between trust building and maintaining the proper relationship status with your horse. It can be difficult to achieve, and thus why this step can prove to be challenging for some owners and horses. Trust building will start from the moment you gain ownership of your ex-race horse.
After you own your ex-race horse the first step in retraining your OTTB is providing sufficient down time (A.K.A turned out to pasture with no training, other than trust building, in progress) directly proportionate to the length of time the horse was used as a racehorse. The majority of this article will pertain to retaining OTTB's that raced for greater than 2 years. I would recommend six months minimum and up to one year based on racing history and mental state of the animal in question. Some OTTB's will need more or less time depending on temperament. This step is difficult for many people as it requires patience in waiting long periods of time without any tangible results. I assure my readers this step is invaluable in the long term training program.
Once you are certain your horse has had sufficient pasture time, it is time to start with back to the basics type trainings. Most OTTB's do not have developed ground manners expected from a "show horse" and therefore you will need to literally start from the ground up. Starting with leading your OTTB from the pasture to the barn in an orderly fashion, with him respecting your space and authority. As race horses are used to being in a state of hyper activity at all times and are high energy animals this seemly simple step that does not even require mounting can be challenging right out of the pasture gate. Do not move forward with the training until this step is mastered. You are, in addition to teaching your horse ground manners, re-framing your horse's mind for how he will interact with you and who is "The Boss". This will prove to be very important when the time to mount your steed finally comes.
Now that your horse has learned not to push, pull, or stop to graze on the lead, and is able to stand quietly in the cross-ties, it is time to consider a mounted training program. This step is always best left to the professionals and there are numerous Hunter/Jumper barns that specialize in retraining the OTTB's. Even if you have experience in riding green, barely broke horses, the OTTB can still be a challenge and can be dangerous if attempted by someone who is not ready for the task.
You will want to use a small arena that is free of distractions and obvious "horse eating monsters" as it is likely that your OTTB will be ready to spook at just about anything at this point. If possible I recommend using a sixty foot round pen inside of an indoor arena.
Additionally I recommend lounging your horse in the training space once per day until he is able to go around nicely on the lounge line without acting spooky or nervous. This could be one time for some and three weeks for another, again it will depend on each individuals personality. I would continue to lounge prior to mounting throughout the entire re-training program.
Start slow, this will be a phrase repeated frequently through out this article, slow, steady and consistent are all important elements needed to successfully re-train your good friend and new Hunter partner.
Mount and walk. Repeat. Sounds easy in print. In practice, may not be as easy as it sounds. Remember Race horses are ponied or led to and from the racetrack and practice track so they are not accustomed to waking on their own. Your OTTB is likely to be high energy and may try to gallop from the moment you get on. Your goal is to re-frame his mind set that slow is the pace you want him to go and that will be the polar opposite of what he has been taught in the past. Practice mounting and walking in the small designated arena for as long as it takes, until your new mount is able to be mounted and walk the rail without trying to "run away with you". By taking your time and mastering each gait before moving on to the next you are laying the ground work for a slow legged, open stride Hunter Show horse!
Now that you are walking around the arena with some confidence, add bending to your walking routine. Bending will be a new and confusing concept and will take a long time to master, so it is important to start training bending at this stage of the re-training program. Continue to incorporate bending into the training at each gait as they are added. Walking figure eights while bending is a good technique to use to teach bending and break up the monotony of walking the arena.
It is important to note that with a Thoroughbred you can not attempt to trot or gallop off excess energy. Your Hot blooded Thoroughbred will not run out of steam! In fact, attempting to gallop off excess energy in a Thoroughbred will only create additional energy and the more you attempt to gallop it off the more energy he will create!
When you are ready to move onto the trot, strive for a slow sitting trot. Sitting trot will reinforce the slow gaited mind set. You will now simply, mount, walk, trot, walk, repeat. Once you and your horse have seemingly mastered this, start adding halts to the regimen. Again this may prove to be harder in practice than in print and takes a lot of patience to achieve. Your OTTB is most likely not accustomed to waiting for anything especially not while mounted. Reward "big time" when he shows improvement in this step.
Adding ground poles will improve your horses knowledge of where his feet and legs are located and their spacial reference to one another. This will help improve balance and start the initial ground work for jumping.
Cantering will most likely be the hardest gait to get under control. Expect his first days at cantering to be fast. He has always been told to run, as a race horse even on practice days when they are not pushed to full speed they are still galloped at a speed greater than that which we will ask in the Hunter ring. Further Expect that your OTTB may not be watching where is he headed and may run into walls if he is not steered around the corner of the arena (one reason why I recommended the round pen).
Begin your canter departures from the trot. This will be different than the old usual departure to the gallop which was usually from a stand still. Keep your cantering limited to short amounts and keep them in a 20 meter circle or as close to it as possible. This will aid in keeping him from blasting off into a full blown gallop. Reward greatly every time he demonstrates a nice canter departure and canter transition to the trot and back down to the walk.
Now that you have incorporated the three main gaits into your training program, you will want to just spend a lot of time putting "miles" on him. Use your riding time to practice a lot of transitions, and make sure to mix it up, don't always ask for the canter at the same point in the arena or ask for the downward transition to the walk at the same point in the arena or after the same amount of strides. Spend time going from walk to trot to walk to trot to canter to trot etc.
Be sure to exercise your OTTB in both directions equally. You will likely find that he is faster on the left lead as well as more comfortable on the left lead at the canter. This is because while race horses are exercised in both directions, races are nearly always counter-clock wise or left lead. You may also find that he feels a bit out of sorts on the right lead and you may have more difficulty getting him to pick up the right lead consistently.
The steps in this article from the point after the pasture rest to the point where you feel your Hunter is ready to start learning more advanced moves is probably a year or more. Once you have accomplished this you are ready to start your jumping training program! Stay focused, stay patient, and good luck.