Engage the Mind First . . .

I had such a phenomenal workout on Sush today—she has started to lengthen down to the bit on the lounge line to the point I am lengthening the side-reins to give her more room–almost out to the full length of them while she is warming up. I want her to seek and find her length and her balance–if she is reaching for it on her own without even a rider up to ask thru the reins…so much the better. I have been thinking about what you said about her training tho…..while it is true that I have done a lot of reading and research on differing thoughts as to how to accomplish retraining of these guys…I have still followed my own thoughts so far that seems to be working for me…but doesn’t seem to be the overwhelming path most seem to follow. I also have given it some thought as to exactly why I am doing what I am doing and why….

I really believe that training a horse—any horse–you have to first engage the mind and the heart of the animal…always have. In the case of most of what I read on the OTTB’s it seems most articles deal with the gaits and tendencies of the horse to run and to stiffen and not respond to traditional aids etc….and are control based—if not directly at least implicitly. People need and want to feel safe with their mounts. As you know I am a nurse..and as such—a muscle is a muscle—how a person runs or walks is a matter of bio-mechanics and can be significantly influenced the physical therapy and rehab etc. It is no different with a horse–whether a horse goes short-tracks properly-moves with head up and locked etc is simply a muscle response on the most basic level.

No training of a racehorse to a jumper/dressage horse/trail horse–western pleasure or whatever is possible until you gain a hold on the mind and heart and confidence of the animal you are working with because end of the day—like us, their minds control their muscles and how they are used just a surely as ours do. All you have to do is remember the last time something terrified you to equate.

With this in mind–it seems a no-brainer to me that the only thing that really counts with these guys is what they think and feel and perceive about their world—of which we are a part. It has been that vein which I have taken my cues from retraining Sush. I don’t really care at this time if she is stepping thru or her head is up or she is bending or if all she does is walk or whatever—except as a reflection of how secure and safe and relaxed she feels in her new world. My assessment of how she responded to her race world was my starting point—most of the horses I have dealt with of any breed look for bonding to some degree with their people—they are herd animals and if we join their world in any significant way we become part of that herd–interdependent. She came to us uncertain as to her surrounding and routines—as she should have–we are a long way from a race barn. Saddling is different–mounting–leading–lounging…everything—so we had to find a common language to speak to each other…so we kept it at basics to start—ground handling–feeding–I fed her–leading—showing her around like I would if I was showing a toddler child of mine something I didn’t want him to be afraid of. As much as I don’t want to be afraid of handling her–I am the brains of the operation (at least in theory) and am certain most of the time she acts out it is from as much fear and uncertainty as I feel at times myself with her—not knowing what she is going to do or how she will react. Likewise I have to see and hear what she is afarid of—the routines that seem reasonable to me may scare the life out of her—like not being asked to run when that is all she knows—what then????—etc. When I started working her—and it was right away–next day after she arrived—I lounged until she relaxed thru the frame—until you can see the eye soften before we even think about anything else–not tired—but relaxed—is a diffence, and I still do. If she doesn’t relax—I look for why—what is bothering her—I have to crawl inside her head as much as I would my wife or sons to make her world right…cause only then will she make my world right in response. If she can’t relax—we simply do not go furthur and we wait till the next day or whatever till she can —maybe she is just scared and it takes a day or two to for her to trust…is ok. The other thing is I put her to work with the idea that for me—there is nothing worse than sitting and waiting fretting for a shoe to drop—if I am nervous I want something to do….I figured she is the same way—and she was, but again—all things in moderation—sometimes I am so stressed I just want to eat bon bons and watch TV—sometimes she does too—I have to see that. I have had Sush a month now….I still haven’t cantered her–not even on the lounge line, but she was sound sensitive–running on the track with ear muffs—and here she has stood under a clanking hay conveyor with hay bales being tossed and dealt with barking dogs etc.–so she has done some other things that were above and beyond for her I know that sounds like a travesty from reading every other article—and even on your website it seems the immersion of the horse is promoted—and I agree to a point. If the horse can do it and not unwind–not hearken back to the track-not flashback to unpleasantness—yes by all means….but my impression of Sush is that she was so stressed by trying to please–by being a racing machine without the human comfort of someone to do it for….it takes her back to a bad place. She gives me everything in her work now—she rounds thru her back and frame—which is hard for her–she isn’t muscled properly to do it fully but she tries. She bends to the softest touch….and that is totally new to her and hard. I ride her without any form of restraint on her head so if her head goes up….it is up there….I don’t want to force her…that is no different than the track…..BUT—when she gives it–when she gives her jaw—when she mouths the bit—when she steps and relaxes under saddle it isn’t coercion—it is true training and connection…and she is giving it True—she isn’t really coming thru strongly yet….more like western pleasure—but it is all her–her mind and heart—and it is sound and relaxed—and she will give me more…she has the engine…she just has to know when I ask it isn’t speed I want but energy and stride—and all of the half steps we are taking is building that language for us to really talk together. When I do ask her to canter—and it is coming soon—I can feel it—it won’t be the lets run mode—but some portion of her mind will be engaged—will be able to listen even if she hears the echo’s of the track when she hits third gear…and we will be set to build on that.

I guess what I am trying to say and illustrate with this is that while I do acknowledge the proper bio-mechanics of dressage or jumping or whatever are important, the first thing you have to do with any horse–esp these guys, is make your mental connection. It has been tempting to measure myself and Sush against what I have seen on your website and other articles…but have to bite my lips and pinch myself and persevere at Sush’s and my rate. Nothing good will ever come from cramming a horse into a frame and a stride or whatever without dealing with their mind first. These OTTBs seem even more sensitive to that aspect just by the nature that they have been driven into warping and abnormal stresses since they were in the cradle practically….and we need to understand them on that level—whether they are walking for a month or at a dressage show in a month after getting them. That is the essence of my approach with our girl…but am thinking it probably isn’t the most widely accepted or popular way of looking at these guys retraining.

A horse a riders connection—at the end of the day—is always about faith…faith in each other….that is where I feel you have to start….everything else comes. I don’t know if this is going to help you in any way….bu this is how I am doing it. Sush seems to like it—and somewhere down the road–we are going to find out if she is as good as I believe she is……I really think there is going to be a day when she is going to make folks riding against us cry ….but we’ll see…who knows. It’ll be fun even if we don’t.