Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: Arktikos, a Package Rewrapped

Arktikos in a balanced trot. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Stetson)

I have had to withdraw from the Thoroughbred Makeover, not because my horse has sustained an injury or is not doing well and not because I have experienced an injury. Rather, at the end of July we very unexpectedly and abruptly lost our barn home and my income.

I found myself scrambling to find a place for my three off-track Thoroughbreds as well as looking for a new job. All of this was too close to the final entry deadline to see a way forward to still attending in October.

After waiting and working for two years with my entry, Arktikos (R2), I felt crushed to have to give it up. 

Photo courtesy of Bonnie Stetson

I know that there are many other trainers who have had to withdraw for various reasons, all of which are disappointing to say the least. The only thing to do is to carry on. My horses are happy and thriving thanks to a dear friend, and I am moving forward.

Everyone says the Thoroughbred Makeover is more about the journey than the competition, and ours has been a great learning experience. I took the opportunity to invest in lessons during the past year with Alexa Derr of Vue de Lou Stables in Reinholds, Pa. Alexa’s insightful and patient teaching helped me to listen to my horse more acutely and about the value of the judicious use of certain tools in the training process. Moving my horses has driven home the tremendous importance of good footing for the horse’s health, positivity in the process of training, proper physical development, and last, but certainly not least, for building confidence.

The biggest frustration I experienced over the last two years was an increasing incidence of resistance from R2. He began as an eager, willing 4-year-old who was responsive to my leg and seat. As our work progressed, R2 was increasingly irritable and less willing to go forward, sometimes balking at my leg and rooting at the contact. I pressed on, thinking it was me or him.

At our home barn, I began to ride with a whip to reinforce my leg to improve his response. He resisted more. We had some bucking incidents. 

In lessons, Alexa suggested riding with spurs instead of the whip to try to sharpen his response to the leg. He responded well at her farm, but at home he would go forward for a couple of strides and then shut down again. By this time, he was beginning to push more against the bit as I asked him to round and come together, going forward in a gait, in both upward and downward transitions.

Next, Alexa asked me if I would be willing to try draw reins as he was fighting me more and more. I grew up in the school where you never use draw reins. They were one of the evil artificial aids, along with standing martingales. I had never ridden with them but was open to learning how to use them and see if they helped. Alexa helped me learn how to adjust them, so they were not too tight and pulling him down but came into play if he came up against the contact and tried to push and evade. Again, at her farm he was more forward and more giving with less work on my part. I was able to be softer to reward him when he went forward and round. I felt that this was a tool that would help us get past our evasion hurdle and allow us to finally make better progress. 

Photo courtesy of Bonnie Stetson

At our home barn however, it was still a different story. He would give to the draw reins and be forward and round for a bit, maybe half a circle, but then try to come up, balk, and stiffen. I was having to put them into play more often for longer to get a correct response. 

The one big variable that differed between the home arena and Alexa’s arena was the footing. At Alexa’s the footing was several inches of sand with a rubber crumb mixed in. It was soft and forgiving with a spring to it. At home, the surface was a hard-packed base with a thin layer of old dust from shale screenings, old dry quarter-inch square bits of hard rubber, and small stones scattered throughout. I had been working my horse on this surface for two years. He is barefoot. The evasions had been multiplying.  

It was at this point that suddenly I had to move to another barn. Here the footing was from Attwood Equestrian Surfaces. It consists of coated sand mixed with fiber and rubber. I knew good footing was important, but the difference in how R2 went on this surface compared with the hard-packed old surface was astounding.

I had been wearing spurs, carrying a whip, using draw reins, and fooling myself that the surface I was riding on was OK. With the Attwood surface providing support and cushion, suddenly my horse realized he was comfortable and could move forward without constant concussion up his legs and into his back. He is going forward willingly and coming round and soft without spurs or a whip and very little leg. I am still schooling in the draw reins a couple of times a week but also riding him without them. He’s relaxing his shoulders and neck and using his back. I have a completely different horse than I did a few weeks ago.

Footing, footing, footing goes hand in hand with “no hoof, no horse.” If every step is hard and unforgiving, the horse is going to hold back from settling his weight onto his feet. He’s going to tighten the muscles in his neck, shoulders, shoulder sling, and back to try to avoid the discomfort of hard concussion reverberating up through his body. He will try to evade anything that increases that concussion, such as going forward and round. He’s going to suck back and throw up his head. Eventually, he is going to refuse to move.

Having to leave our barn home turned out to be a blessing in disguise. All three of my horses have improved on a better surface. In case you think that the horse doesn’t notice what is under his feet, consider this. When I arrived at my friend’s farm and we took the horses for a hand walk in the arena, all three of them kept wanting to put their heads down. At first, I thought they wanted to roll in the sand, but not one of them made a move to drop. It was as if they could not believe what they were walking on and were trying to investigate the different feeling under their feet. 

I have learned every step of the way in preparing for the Thoroughbred Makeover and, while I am very disappointed to not be attending in the end, I would not trade the lessons learned for anything. After all, it is all about the journey.

We now have a new home and new footing is being installed in the indoor arena from F.I.C.S of Maryland. I am excited to move forward and train in this new venue.

Thank you to all who have followed my blog about our experience. I hope you have enjoyed our journey. Thank you to Alexa Derr for her wonderful help and to Dressage 4 Kids for supporting some of my lessons through the Teaching 4 Teaching Scholarship. Thank you to Jen Farley for her expertise and skill in balancing R2’s feet. Best wishes to all the competitors who will gather in Kentucky in a couple of weeks. May you all have safe travels and a successful competition. 

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