I’m going to write three blogs to update you on different aspects of Dulce’s healing and progress. I say let’s start with the fun part. Before I start, I am not teaching anyone how to proceed with training their horse. I am simply sharing what I did with Dulce. What you do with your horse is totally up to you, and I bear no responsibility or liability with that. Let’s get started.
Dulce and I have been doing a lot of groundwork and desensitizing work. Movement plays a huge part in his healing and recovery, so I decided to put him into light training. We’ve been working for 15 to 30 minutes four to five days a week followed by stretching and massage.
Since Dulce was a racehorse, he barely had what could be called a saddle on his back. The exercise riders use a bigger saddle, but they are still smaller than the traditional saddle. If he was going to wear a Western saddle, there were some steps to take before I put one on his back.
Before going any further, I want to state don’t do as I do if you are nervous about it. If you don’t feel confident about training your horse to do this transition, get a trainer to help you. You want to get your horse off to the right hoof with a bigger and heavier saddle.
Before you start, you want to make sure there is no back or shoulder pain. I’ve been working on Dulce since I brought him home. He had severe back, shoulder, poll, TMJ, and neck pain. I worked with the Masterson Method, Acupressure, Myofascial Release, stretching, and Tellington Touch before I even considered putting a saddle on him. Also, I waited until he gained enough weight. Most racehorses have severely tight polls, back pain and sacrum area pain to say the least. Again, to get off to a good start, make sure you have all of this worked out.
Since Dulce has been turned out for about a year with no work, I started out with simple desensitizing work such as tossing a rope over his back, rubbing my stick all over him, petting him all over with a plastic bag, and rolling a ball underneath him and at his legs for instance. I also desensitized him to what it might feel like if a rope or wire got wrapped around around his leg. We walked over poles in all sorts of different positions to start strengthening his hind end and topline, which were weak.
I then put a rope around his barrel where the cinch would go. I slowly tightened it, and as soon as he relaxed by cocking his leg, letting out a sigh, or licking his lips, I immediately released. I gradually worked with this increasing the tightness until we got to where he probably would be cinched to. He never had a reaction to it, and actually would start to fall asleep.
I also rolled a big, inflatable ball along his back to remind him of what it felt like to have something on his back. Sometimes I lightly bounced it and other times I put pressure on it. He accepted this easily.
All of this teaches him he can trust me. I always start with the lowest of lowest intensities and slowly work it up. Whenever he shows signs of relaxing at each level, I stop, and I love on him big. The first day I may only do the lowest of intensities, next day take it a slight step higher, and we keep progressing until we get to where we need to get to. However, if he ever shows signs of nervousness, we may stay at a certain level of intensity for a few days until we find the right amount of relaxation, or I may need to take it down a noch before we progress. I go based upon what my horse tells me he needs; not what I think he needs.
We then began to do some light longing work. I do this to help develop communication with my horse on the ground preparing for when I get into the saddle. We both learn each other’s cues. I can find holes in his training and work on those areas. I learn how he responds to different stimuli, and I decide what to toss out and what to keep. I want us to have a great working relationship, so groundwork is a time for us to learn each other in a good and steady way.
People want to skip over groundwork a lot when they get a new horse that has been ridden before, and this can be a huge mistake. The horse had a trust relationship with his previous owner; not you. There is a story about how the famous jockey Angel Cordero asked to sit on Nashua or Bold Ruler, I can’t remember, and the horse bucked him off. Why? He wasn’t his jockey. You aren’t your horse’s jockey. You need to develop a good relationship with your horse before you get on his or her back. You want your horse to know that he can follow you even if he is nervous, to trust you in scary situations, and to listen to you when there are a lot of voices all around.
To prepare him for the western saddle, I put on a surcingle. I will longe him around and hand graze him with it on. This way he gets used to the feel of the cinch in moving through the different gaits and walking on uneven ground. Once he is good and solid with the surcingle, I put the saddle pad on his back, put the surcingle over it, and then I hand walk him over poles and hand graze him. The saddle pad is much bigger and heavier than anything he is used to, so this is a good prep for the saddle. Once this is good and solid, I put a bag of feed on his back to remind him about carrying weight on his back. If he responds well to this, I bring out the saddle and I put it on the fence. The first couple of times I just let him explore it and sniff it. We then move on to me holding it while brushing his side with it to see if he spooks. He never did. If he did, I would have stayed at this spot until he was over his fear of the saddle.
Since he was perfectly calm with the saddle, I gently put it on his back. I didn’t cinch it or anything. I simply loved him all over letting him know that he could relax and how proud I was of him.
The next day I slowly saddled him up, letting him sniff the saddle pad, letting him sniff the saddle, while loving on him after putting the saddle pad on…loving him after I put the saddle on. I slowly pulled the cinch off the saddle, slowly brought it up to his belly letting him feel it and then releasing it, bringing it to his belly and releasing before I finally started to cinch him up. I did it slow as I have done everything else to make sure he was comfortable. Each time I went up a step, I would stop and pet him making sure he was comfortable while also being ready to release it. I watched his ears, head and back to see if he had any signs of discomfort, anxiousness, or irritability. None were seen. Finally, I got him to where I knew if he bucked, it wouldn’t slide, and I began walking him. This is so important! Don’t do any kind of movement work if the saddle is loose. You don’t want it to slide down under his belly causing him to become terrified of the saddle. If you don’t feel comfortable fully cinching the first time around, that is fine. .This is what I did with my horse Shandoka. I put the saddle on his back, brought the cinch under him, got him used to feeling it, and then I tightened it without pulling the latigo through. Instead I grabbed the metal loop where the latigo is tied on to, and I pulled down on that gently while lifting up with the cinch. I worked with it this way until I got him to where he could stand a full amount of tightness with the saddle being pulled down on his back without having to tie it off. This way if he moved, I could let go, and the saddle would slide to the ground instead of the underside of his belly. It didn’t happen of course, because I did a lot of surcingle work with him, so the cinch turned out to be pretty easy. Remember, you want to get off on the right hoof.
He was so calm with the saddle on that I wasn’t worried. If he wasn’t calm, I would have stepped way back to be prepared. Is bucking bad? No. It is something that can be worked with, so if you aren’t experienced working with horses that buck, get yourself a trainer. DO NOT HANDLE THAT ON YOUR OWN. YOU AND YOUR HORSE COULD GET HURT.
As you can see, he was very calm with it.
I let him have a day off to think about everything that we did. On Monday he and Chaco had their morning race, so all of their fresh energy was worked out. It was the perfect time to put the saddle back on going through each step slowly. I walked him around with the saddle, and then I round penned him with the saddle on. He was worn out from his morning romp with Chaco, so I had a bit of a hard time keeping the momentum up. In short, he did fantastic. I had him walk, trot, and canter in each direction, had him turn directions a few times, and there was never a buck, hesitation, or any sign of being uncomfortable at moving under a western saddle.
I then decided to get on him, but before I did, I put downward pressure on both stirrups with my hands to make sure he felt okay with that. He did, I then patted the saddle and put some downward pressure on the saddle. He was fine with that. I brought him alongside the fence, climbed up it, and I put my leg across the saddle while pushing down on the saddle with my leg. He was fine with that. I then slid onto the saddle, talking soothingly, and rubbing my hands all over him. He loved that! I then moved his feet to the right a few steps, stopped, and rubbed him all over. I moved him a few steps to the left, stopped and rubbed him all over. I then walked him along the fence talking to him the whole time letting him know what a good boy he was. We went a hundred feet. I stopped him, and prepared to dismount. This is an important step before hopping off. I put alternating downward pressure with with both of my feet in each stirrup to get him ready for me putting full weight on the stirrups for a dismount. I first push down with my left foot, then right foot, left foot and so on. When I feel he is calm, I bring his nose over towards my left leg, which disengaged his hindquarters preventing him from being able to buck, and I get off. He was a perfect gentleman. I couldn’t be more proud of him. Not only hasn’t he had anyone on his back in a year, he also did all of this bitless! He picks up on everything so fast!
How did it feel to finally ride him? Sweet!!!!!! He walked easily, full stride, calm, held his head in a good way, and listened to me as I spoke to him.
Did I find any holes that need to be worked out? Yes. The moment the saddle went on Saturday, I realized he got nervous any time my training stick went towards his hindquarters. I think he was worried I may hit him with it like one would with a riding crop. I’ve watched his races, and his jockey used the crop on him a lot. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time desensitiizing him to all sorts of things touching his hind end with the saddle on. Yesterday, he really relaxed. We will keep doing this until he shows no signs of caring about it.
Do I follow this plan for each horse? Loosely. The horse will tell me what he or she needs, and I adjust accordingly. I may have to go back to the very beginning steps of our groundwork if the horse shows me he or she needs more work on something. Remain willing to adjust and be flexible while working with any horse. If you are rigid in your training, then your success will be highly limited.
Remember that OTTB’s received a lot of training at the track. They were asked to do all sorts of things from a very young age, and learned to deal with all sorts of things around them. Thoroughbreds are smart and versatile. They can do anything out there. The only limits they have are those that you put upon them, or physical injuries they incurred from the track.
When I go out to train my horses, my attitude means everything to the success of our work. I’ve learned from my past mistakes on this. If I go out there doubting me and my horse, the lesson will fall apart. The horse doesn’t fail at all, rather I failed my horse. If I have an attitude that my horse is going to spook or overreact to something, guess what my horse does? Spooks and overreacts. Horses are perfect mirrors for our doubts, fears, and insecurities.
If I go out there calm, my horse will be much calmer, easier to work with, and more open to me and my suggestions. Does that mean that our lessons always go as planned? Of course not…lol. If I go out there with a calm and positive attitude, then I am more open to solutions in the moment to help my horse. Usually, it is an error in my idea for how to proceed that creates an issue, and for us to have success depends upon how well I learn from what my horse is trying to teach me and implement it.
Of course issues arise due to past training and failures to solves past issues by the previous owners/trainers. These issues can be more difficult to resolve, but usually it is possible if you allow yourself to step outside of the box and find new ways.
When a problem arises, it is important for my mind and ego to not take it personally, to take a step back and breath, watch, and then figure things out. You are the deciding factor in so much of the work you do with your horse. Yes, you will have problems, but look at it as a chance for you and your horse to learn from one another, to get to know each other better, and to learn how to communicate better. Each problem is an opportunity. That is what riding is all about….communication and partnership with your beloved horse.