Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: Developing Routine and Listening to the Horse

Arktikos in unbalanced trot as he prepares for the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover. (Courtesy of Bonnie Stetson)

I am constantly reminded as I work with this lovely, young horse, preparing him for the Thoroughbred Makeover and his new life, that training any horse is not a linear progression. I continually assess and reassess all the aspects of managing and training him as I do with all my horses. Each time I think I have one thing figured out, another matter presents itself. 

So far, his body condition is good and improving and his feet are balanced and in excellent shape. The herd dynamics have returned to their previous normal as the herd leader has returned from his temporary home. All four horses in that group including Arktikos (R2) have settled back in together and are very content in their four-plus acre grass field on 24/7 turnout. It is so satisfying to see horses together in a group in a large space doing what horses are meant to do, including three OTTBs. They are happy and relaxed and enjoy coming in during the day for work.

Arktikos carrying the flag. (Courtesy of Bonnie Stetson)

One thing I am particularly aware of is that these horses need routine. Thoroughbreds on the track have a pretty set routine that they rely on: feeding, turnout, grooming, workout, shower, cool out, quiet time, race time, shower, cool out, finish the day. They are horses who have a strong work ethic, and they look forward to the contact they have with their caretakers and to working. They thrive when their routine is consistent.

I have one OTTB who absolutely does best when he is the first to work in the group. He needs to do his job to be content. He is always impatient to get through the grooming and tacking up and get into the arena. After he works, he is quiet and content. Doing his job is almost like a drug for him. Arktikos is a lot more laid back, at least outwardly, and does not become agitated if he has to wait his turn; however, he will still do his best with a routine so I need to understand what works best for him.  

I do not always have the luxury of choosing when I work with R2 and, in fact, for his new job he needs to learn how to adapt to being worked at different times of the day. As a show horse, classes will occur at different times, so he must learn to adapt. To help him do that, I need to learn how best to prepare him prior to those different ride times. When is it best to feed him in relation to work? Does he need a small meal before and the balance after or is there an optimal interval between his normal meal and work for evening rides as opposed to morning rides? How does he react to different temperatures and humidity levels? What grooming tools does he enjoy and which ones does he find irritating? How long does he need to be in for a rest before I bring him out to work (he is still growing and naps a lot)? 

According to his age, R2 should be finished growing but that does not seem to be the case. In terms of Ayurveda, his body type is primarily Kapha. Kaphas tend to be laid back, have large features, thick skin tending toward oily, they develop slowly and love to sleep. R2’s last tush came in painfully slowly, taking months to break through the gum line. He is a heavy horse with a huge head and thick lips. His rump is currently higher than his withers. He is a horse who needs time. So, we are going slowly. I am concentrating on developing his basics and not worrying about running off to show just yet. I am trying to listen carefully to what he is telling me about what he needs. 

Developing him under saddle is also not a linear progression. The dressage work requires him to use his body in a way that is not so easy. As a result, we have a constantly morphing series of evasions from week to week. He is not balanced yet in his left and right sides, so sometimes we have a different set of evasions in each direction. Each time we work our way through one evasion, he comes up with a new one. We are working on small successes to build on. 

I am providing body work to help him become more even. As is common with horses who have been in race training, R2 is much more comfortable traveling to the left than to the right. Since most of their work on the track is to the left, they naturally develop shorter musculature on the left side of their bodies (this is just a fact of repetitive use).

R2 learning to go through a new obstacle: pool noodles. (Courtesy of Bonnie Stetson)

In R2’s case, this is further complicated by muscular compensation from his left-front suspensory injury. When one side of the body has foreshortened muscles that side contracts easily but has a hard time stretching. Working on a bend to the right requires the muscles on the left side of the body to stretch. In an imbalanced body, the effort to do that creates discomfort and resistance. It’s important to understand that the resistance is not “I won’t” but “I can’t.” The horse needs help to become more balanced in those muscles so he can go straight and bend in both directions. Massage increases blood flow and fluid exchange in the tissues, relaxes the muscles, unlocks adhesions, and helps muscles return to their normal resting length, helping bring the body into better balance.  

Our trail obstacle training is a refreshing change from the serious work of dressage training and helps to keep R2 interested and happy in his work. So far, he has been curious and calm about each obstacle I have introduced him to, including carrying a rather large flag all around the arena at walk and trot. We have done tarp work and introduced walking through pool noodles. He seems to find it all rather entertaining and fun. The two disciplines complement each other and help improve the other physically and mentally. Trail obstacles keep R2 bright and eager. Dressage improves his balance and responsiveness to the aids which make navigating the obstacles easier.

I feel we are in a good place at this point and we will continue to “stay in our lane” developing his routine, honing our dressage skills, and introducing new trail obstacles as we prepare for October.

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