Retraining OTTBS

When Pie and Sovereign, two Off-Track Thoroughbreds, arrived at our farm on February 22, 2009 I was excited and had a plan, but you never really know how something like that is going to turn out.  In my arsenal I had my horse experience (see Confidence) and  I also had quality Books that I had read and reread and reread again in preparation.   I knew enough to go slow.  There was no reason to hurry these horses - or any horse.  Ever.  No one was using a stopwatch.  If, for some reason I felt that I had to hurry, I would stop and quit for the day.  I knew that horses do not react well to being hurried for any reason.

The horses were with us initially as fosters for me to retrain and help find them suitable homes. I had to make sure that whatever I did to start them on their way was going to work for their new owners.  We ended up falling in love with them, of course, and adopted them ourselves, but I did have their possible future jobs in my mind when I started the retraining process.  My goals for ground manners were pretty standard.  There are so many goals in this area, but I thought it was most important initially to teach them to lead safely, quietly enter and exit gates and stand patiently for gate latching, cross-tie, stand for the vet, stand for the farrier and perfect these basic lessons until they were habits. I aimed to work through the Thoroughbred tickles for grooming and tacking but I knew that would only come with time. 

My riding goals seemed simple enough - on paper.
1. I wanted to ride everyday.
3. I wanted to be able to ride bareback whenever I felt like it.
4. I hoped to keep the horses barefoot if my farrier said it was ok.
5. I did not want to lunge or use a round pen.  Ever.  Not even at the beginning.
6. I wanted to only have to ride at the walk and if I wanted to trot or canter, I could add that in later.
7. I wanted to ride outside of the ring primarily.
8. I did not want to die attempting the above.

I thought my riding goals were unusual, so I never wrote them down or uttered them to anyone.  They were my "perfect" riding experience; a grand synthesis of my favorite parts of riding and my philosophy about what I think horses enjoy.  I spent many years asking horses to do things I didn't think they were all that keen on doing.  I yearned to have daily rides that the horse might enjoy as much as me.  I did not think that my goals were too unusual, however, to serve as a safe base for any discipline that the new owners might want to pursue. I did think I would have to teach the horse to go in a bit if they were adopted.

I was 42 years old when the horses arrived and I had a  happy marriage, 11 year old daughter, and part-time job as an adjunct Humanities professor.  I had 2-3 free hours to devote to retraining each day without upsetting the balance I needed with my family. 

My mother, an accomplished rider, stayed away from the barn for the first few days of my training.  When she did come over on the horses' third day, they were turned out in the small paddock in front of the barn and I was cleaning a stall.  I peeked my head out of the barn just in time to see her watching the horses.  At that exact moment, Pie commenced jumping straight up in the air and bucking so forcefully that my heart skipped a beat.  Sovey joined in the fun and my mother turned around and crossed her eyes and said, "You have fun with this, but I am never going to be able to ride these horses."  For a second I wondered what I had gotten myself into!  Was I going to be able to do this?  And then I remembered...relax, take it slow.  You can do anything if you are kind and don't rush it.  Just like Judy in my favorite book.  I know horses and they love to please you if you ask in a kind way and ask for new things in small, baby steps.  

I started the blog to chronicle what I was doing for me and for any possible future owners.  The early posts, beginning right after the horses arrived, really tell how slow I moved with them.  I only posted a few days a week, but I worked with the horses every single day.

Very early retraining posts:
of course these were only the beginning...see the archive for the rest of the story!

Along the way, I did learn a new and important way of horsekeeping. I explain this in detail in my Happy Horsekeeping page. I was able to achieve my goals without using this system initially, because I just didn't know about it, but I highly recommend keeping a horse this way for even more ease (if possible) than I had in retraining.

I am soon going to be 44 years old and while retraining the boys I was able to maintain the balance of my marriage to Brian, and life with daughter, Maizie, and my part-time job.  I mention this only because I want to stress that this training was not so intensive, so specialized, that I had to do it full time.  Yet, my daily horse joy is abundant.

I have a friend my age who has a mare who has been in and out of boarding stables going from trainer to trainer.  Although my friend has a riding background similar to mine and has a lovely property with a bank barn, pastures, sheds and 22 acres, she is never able to ride her own horse without driving to a trainer's barn.  When she gets to the barn there is lunging first and zero time outside of the ring or indoor.  She doesn't want to show.  She doesn't want to do anything but ride her own horse on her own property.  She recently asked me in an email what I would do if I owned her mare.

I told her that I would do exactly what I did with our boys.  Here is an excerpt from my email to her:
They came in February of 2009 and I worked everyday with them grooming and hand grazing on a lead.  (This establishes your bond and erases any memories of "riding is scary or bad" for the horse and you!)  After a few weeks, I started to tack up at the end of the hand grazing session and walked the horse in the first location I intended to ride.  After two weeks or so of this I mounted and only walked a few minutes then rewarded with more hand grazing and grooming.  Everyday, I increased the walking time and distance on the ground and in the saddle.  I never walk longer or farther than the horse is comfortable with.  Using this crazy slow method I was riding both horses all over the farm (40 acres) by May 7th.  By June, I was able to ride them into town and down the back streets and alleys. 
I know your mare has been ridden before and it sounds like I am advising you to start too slow with the hand-grazing and hand walking but it works!!!  As long as she is able to be ridden at the walk according to your vet and farrier, then you can get to the point where you are able to ride her around your farm anytime you want.

Now, it is January of 2011 and I've waited to compile my retraining thoughts for almost 2 years so I could objectively assess how we are doing. I can honestly say, that together the horses and I have achieved most, if not all of my "lofty ideal" goals. Their ground manners are almost perfect. Sovey still doesn't feel too comfortable in cross-ties but he ground ties super well.   I am able to ride everyday in all weather without a bit, without lunging and I ride mostly outside of the ring on trails and through the fields.  My mom did end up riding too. The horses are barefoot and seem to have healthy feet.  I ride bareback anytime I want, including in winter (although I have so many clothes on it doesn't seem like I am bareback!).   I rattle off this list of achievements with serious gratitude.  I am proud, but my pride is in the horses and their amazing acceptance of my desires.  I am so grateful that I am able to ride them this way.  Hacking out, cross-country, trail riding, whatever you want to call it is the way I love to ride, I live to ride.  I do not like bits and I don't like round pens or lunging.  I really don't even like rings at all.  I like walking best when I ride.  These are MY loves, and I am unbelievably lucky to have convinced these two (now three!) horses to allow me to do this everyday.