I see it so often. The first thing people want to do is ride, ride, ride their new off-the-track-thoroughbred. Of course, it’s important to give a test ride to assess chemistry, gait and overall compatibility before you adopt or buy. Of course, you have to enjoy the way the horse moves and their disposition under saddle. The excitement of riding your new horse is an amazing, liberating feeling. Not to mention all the new tack you get to buy, and color coordinating everything. And, a new pair of riding boots, because you have to get something for yourself too. You deserve it.
Let me be clear about some things up front, so I don’t create any misunderstanding. If you have adopted your horse from a recognized TAA organization or an unaccredited facility that retrains OTTBs and places them in homes—understand this: they have limited time to work with the horse. These organizations are often times inundated with ex-racehorses, have limited funding and must retrain them under saddle as quickly and efficiently as possible to ensure they are safe and ready to adopt out. In addition, they have to make sure that potential adoptees are suitable for the horse. All of this has to happen to make room for the next horse that needs to get in that stall. The transitional training from these organizations is often a good baseline, especially if they are coming from organizations like ReRun or Akindale. Surround yourself with knowledgeable horse people, preferably ones who have experience with OTTBs. Please, do thorough research about what is required when adopting or purchasing an OTTB. There are a lot of bad articles and myths about them. Be sure to enlist a good trainer if you are an intermediate rider or horseman with limited ex-racehorse experience before committing to an OTTB.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the racehorse isn’t used to having constant weight on their back and the center of gravity of the rider changes often during exercise. For example, going out for a morning gallop or jog usually isn’t 20-30 minutes of consistent exercise–unless the rider gets dropped and the horse runs off evading the outrider every. damn. time. The rider is seated on the horse's back for a short time during the walk to the track and sometimes at a posting trot. When the horse is ready to gallop the rider raises up into a 2-point putting their weight into the stirrups, allowing the horse to gallop freely underneath.
The exercise saddles are very light compared to saddles of other riding disciplines. Every horse is built different, and just because your saddle fit one OTTB doesn't mean it will fit another. Make certain your saddle fits your horse properly—or you’ll have problems with soreness, discomfort and/or negative behavior.
Even though a horse’s natural balance is more on the forehand, this can become exaggerated when more weight is placed toward the front of the horse. This is compromised even more when the hind end is weak. Developing strength in the rear of the horse is essential as it is responsible for the propulsion of the horse. It is also equally important to strengthen the deep core muscles of the horse’s neck to aid in the elevation at the base of the neck and for flexion at the poll.
In order to achieve true collection, more engagement from the hindquarters is required. This happens when the horse's hind legs step further underneath the body. This propulsion from the hindquarters allows the horse to be “lighter” on the forehand while aiding in the elevation of the neck and flexion at the poll.
So, what do I suggest to get collection? Groundwork. Try gymnastics, in-hand work and core exercises. These are the best all-around training for your horse, regardless of your intended discipline.
Any horse can benefit from in-hand work and core exercises, especially ex-racehorses. You want to teach your OTTB to get off the forehand and engage those hindquarters and become strong enough to collect himself. The result of doing this work often, though it's a slow process and takes time–is a balanced, supple and well-trained horse. One that can carry itself properly. The better the horse can support itself the smoother and more enjoyable the ride.
Many horses can come off-the-track with injuries or body soreness. Because of this, they develop unevenness—which has to do with range of motion issues. This can be a major cause of pain or discomfort in a horse. Sometimes it is responsible for those funky gaits and not-so-fun smashing your ass on the saddle transitions. My horse had a trot so bouncy and uneven I was posting all over the place and FORGET about a sitting trot--I'd be launched to the moon.
Creating balance in your horse starts with better symmetry in their body. I have personally experienced great results after only 30 days of solid groundwork before riding under saddle. You don't have to give your horse time off from the track unless they require layup time or have an injury. In fact, many OTTBs enjoy having "a job to do." Yeah, you will meet some lazy or obstinate ones. I sure have, but groundwork is suitable for almost any temperament. You are asking them to trust you, think, use their body and interact with work in a new way.
Not only will your horse improve by developing better responses and sensitivities to your aids, you will establish a stronger relationship and a better understanding of your horse. By observing their thinking process, examining their work ethic, noticing where they are weak in the body and how they respond when you ask for something–you too are learning a new way to powerfully interact with your horse. You can learn and notice things about the horse you might have missed just purely working the horse under saddle.
If you must ride, consider taking 15 minutes before you mount and do some lateral bending exercises. Don’t just lunge in both directions and not do anything else with the horse and expect miracles, because s—t doesn’t happen that way. Besides, ex-racehorses have the going-in-circles thing down pat. I'm not saying lungeing is bad. What I am saying is if you are going to lunge, consider incorporating other groundwork exercises too. Yes, the horse may be more relaxed with lunging, but in my opinion, you aren’t doing much to correct the imbalance and strengthen the horse if that's the only thing you are doing.
Developing a well-balanced horse starts with slow, consistent and patient training with a variety of conditioning exercises. Groundwork, long-reigning (long lines) and in-hand exercises can help build a strong core, topline, hindquarters and more. This is part of the key to developing a supple, sound and happy horse.
Keep in mind, you can't "train away" muscular imbalances through conditioning.
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