by Natalie Voss
As many horsemen know, there is no single ‘right’ way to train a horse. As attendees of the Thoroughbred Makeover Master Class learned earlier this month, there’s also no single ‘right’ way to restart a horse off the racetrack.
The event, held at the conclusion of the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover at the Kentucky Horse Park, featured a trio of recently-retired horses, three different trainers, and three commentators. Trainers Elizabeth James, Rosie Napravnik, and husband/wife team Tom and Clare Mansmann were randomly matched to horses they had never seen before the event and asked to take the horses through their typical restarting program.
Elizabeth James, who owns the Australian Equine Performance Center with husband Dan, has a lifetime of experience in various Western riding disciplines, and took a horse through the Makeover in ranch work and freestyle this year. Rosie Napravnik, retired jockey and eventer, assessed the gelding assigned to her to feel out his suitability for English disciplines. Tom and Clare Mansmann use Thoroughbreds extensively in their Virginia-based business and have backgrounds in eventing, hunter/jumper, dressage, and cutting.
Here are a few takeaways from each trainer’s first session with the newly-retired Thoroughbreds.
- Liberty work can be a good base, even if you plan to use the horse for something else. Horses performing “at liberty” can learn to move, stop, lie down, rear and perform lateral movements with no rider, bit, or bridle. She started her Master Class filly with the basics, which she said benefited trainers restarting a horse for any discipline — natural horsemanship and similar methods focusing on rewarding the horse for choosing to engage with a human handler as their leader.“The best way I’ve heard it said is sometimes horses have to learn how to learn,” said James. “These racehorses, or any horse, have been told a lot where they need to be, how fast they need to go, where they need to stand. The nice thing about the liberty training is mentally, for the first time, you’re letting them choose to learn that and choose to stay with you.”
- Gaining trust takes time. Tom Mansmann pointed out that for a horse who has had a lot of starts (and therefore a lot of different riders), “I’m just another guy.” A horse doesn’t necessarily realize that unlike a jockey or exercise rider, you’re going to be the only one in the tack for an extended period of time.Horses need to go through several experiences of uncertainty and reassurance before they have a sense for who you are and what you want.
- Shielding the horse from a busy environment will ultimately backfire. Napravnik hopped on the gelding assigned to her straight away, with no groundwork, and began walking and trotting even with the Mansmanns’ horses working nearby. It can be tempting, she acknowledged, to keep a green horse in a ‘sterile’ environment where noise and visual distractions are at a minimum. Although her first few rides with a young OTTB are often quiet (in contrast to the crowded indoor arena at the Master Class event), she doesn’t keep them sheltered very long.“I sometimes put my horses I haven’t even started yet on a trailer to go to a show and I don’t have them do anything, I just have them sit alongside the ones who are schooling,” she said. “I do it in a mindset that the new experience is what they’re learning.”
Richard Lamb, renowned riding instructor and longtime Chef d’Equipe and/or coach for the US Pony Club Team, agreed.
“I try to get more noise, more stuff. Not deliberately, I don’t bring in firecrackers, but I don’t worry if the dog is running through the arena, if the tractor is going by, if the radio is turned up high,” said Lamb. “Racehorses are used to all of that, plus goats, plus this, plus that. If it’s really quiet in a working situation, that’s almost more different for them.”
- Sticking to what’s familiar can sometimes provide comfort. Tom and Clare Mansmann use ponying for the first few works with young OTTBs. Horses fresh off the track start working off the pony without a rider, and then a rider is added and the pair work together for the walk, trot, and canter. The Mansmanns believe the young horse takes cues from the pony, and since many horses at the track are ponied, the process is a familiar one.“It has helped us a ton,” said Clare Mansmann. “They get their saddle on and they go out. They go through the gates, the creeks, the ditches, over logs, everything on the first day. They don’t ask why, they just go with the pony horse. Before they know it they’ve done all these things.
“It also allows us to really evaluate them. We get to know the horse a lot better, especially if they’re coming in for a snapshot of time.”
The ‘pony’ in this scenario doesn’t always need to be an aged Quarter Horse, either. For the Master Class, Tom Mansmann brought his 2018 Makeover horse in to serve as the pony.
- Left lead bias may be a myth. Many people expect racehorses to struggle with their right lead canter or other movements performed in the clockwise direction, since American Thoroughbreds constantly run turning left. Napravnik doesn’t believe it, since horses are often asked to switch to their right leads in the stretch.Most horses, off-track or not, are known to have a preference for one lead or direction of travel over the other. Napravnik’s Master Class horse actually struggled to get the left lead and had an easier time with his right lead canter.
- Resist the urge to hold tight. Napravnik also reminded the audience to stay as loose as possible in their bodies and reins when OTTBs get tense – which can be counterintuitive for a rider picking up on their horse’s anxiety.“You can see that most of the time, I have the horse on a super long rein,” she said. “When he spooked, the first thing I did was let his rein out. That is a big, big thing for horses coming from the track. If they’re nervous, give them a long rein and sit back. I don’t know if anybody knows this, but this [leaning forward with a tight rein] is jockey position.”
Similarly, Napravnik points out expecting an OTTB to stand still in a tense environment is a losing battle. She allowed her gelding to pace quietly on a loose rein as he took in the noise of the indoor arena until he felt comfortable enough to stand toward the end of the ride.
- Poles can sometimes provide focus. Lamb finds ground poles can be useful for directing a horse’s attention – even if you aren’t planning on making the horse a jumper.“For me, just putting a pole on the ground and walking over it, they have to literally and figuratively become grounded, and they start moving in a different way,” he said. “I do that riding, I do that in hand, I do that at liberty. Trot poles, canter poles, raised poles. I do it with dressage horses, all of them. It gets them to engage their brain and their body in a slightly different way.”