Monday, May 26, 2008

Transitioning Thoroughbreds -Day 2

New arrivals at Chez Chevaux  start their first morning in a new barn displaying  typical eagerness for breakfast and curiousity about the morning routine. They are happy to find out that the humans feeding  and cleaning stalls always have some carrot treats in hand!
After breakfast, it's turnout time. For some TBs that are unaccustomed to regular turnout, we begin with monitored and incremental turnout. Whenever possible, after suitable introductions and monitoring, our horses are turned out in twos with a compatible playmate. New horses will begin turnout in the arena alone, but will be able to socialize over the fences with the horses in both the east and west adjacent turnouts. No halters are left on during turnout time. All horses that can be turned out stay out for at least half the day, weather permitting. The turnout  areas are big enough that they can really run if they like. While turnouts are not available while away at a show, it's an important component in keeping horses happy at home. We will reject any potential adoptive placement that does not have regular and adequate turnout. While thoroughbreds at the track do not have free turnout, they do get PLENTY of exercise and attention. The average performance or pleasure barn is unlikely to offer that amount of exercise . Here, turnout time is a must.
Unless we have to leave early for a show, they get at least one hour turnout time before schooling .   
When schooling time begins,  new horses will be moved out of the arena and into a paddock where they can watch (and they do, with interest!) what's going on and get a sense of the routine. After a couple of horses are schooled, I'll bring the new horse back into the arena for a little more time at liberty, and then,  it's time to see what they do(or don't)know about longeing.
Some OTTBs need a substantial amount  of "R & R" before they are ready to think about starting a new job, while some are immediately eager to get involved with going in a new direction.
With horses I know have some previous familiarity with a bit, I'll begin by bridling (without reins) and attaching the line to a plain snaffle bit. Using a "Y" attachment that clips to both sides of the bit and then to the longe line eliminates the need to switch the line when changing directions. 
I always begin using a bit on OTTBs as some, who may have no prior clue about longeing, equate the circle to the hotwalker and want to pull and play. The occasional OTTB will still pull HARD in a regular snaffle. If so, then I'll utilize a gag snaffle.
For a horse that has no prior clue about longeing, I'll be happy with three or four revolutions, in both directions, at something resembling a circle at a decent trot. I don't generally bother with the walk at this stage, and I don't encourage the canter yet as OTTBs, unless they  possess a natural collected canter, are likely to get heavy on the forehand on the longe circle at this point. It should also be noted that some OTTBs don't respond at all to  "Whoa". If half-halts don't work, then I'll decrease the circle size and finesse them into facing me and halting.  I think it's a waste of time and often a source of confusion for the OTTB to try and perfect the halt on the longe intially. If a horse has no understanding of "Whoa", it's quicker and easier to offer bribes: On the way to turnout every morning, and whenever being led, I stop and say "Whoa". Equine complicity, or any reasonable attempt at it, earns a little piece of a carrot.  Also a good way to teach them to stand still (for moment anyway) at the mounting block. OTTBs are used to moving forward while a rider is being legged up. 
The saddle is now put on, and the reins to the bridle. One or two revolutions at the trot, with stirrups down, in the horses' best direction, then it's time to get on. I introduce them to the mounting block. If they stand still a moment or two, then they get the a little piece of carrot. Yes, with a bit in their mouth!
I like to have someone on the ground stand with them and try to keep them quiet as I mount. 
Beginning in the horses more supple direction,  it's off large around the arena at the walk with an approximately 20 meter circle in each of the four corners. It is key to keep the circle large enough to ensure than the horse does not lean on the inside shoulder or counterflex. Should this go well, then the next revolution will include an upward transition to the trot. As this gait is powered by two diagonal pairs of legs, then a suggestion from my properly placed inside leg should prompt the horse to begin the trot from the inside hind and the outside fore, with my upward posting diagonal accompanying,or forward and lightened inside seatbone, if sitting, this transition. We'll  once at the trot (sitting or posting as best suits each horses' natural way of going) and utilize the circles' completion for the downward transition back to the walk. If the horse shows no response to the half-halt, or leans on the bit (can be an OTTB habit) we'll continue the circle at the trot and I'll become more insistent that s/he engages and moves their hindquarters to the outside of the circle and off my inside leg, engaging the outside hind leg (the opposite diagonal pair from the upward transition)for the downward transition to a half-halting outside rein. During these upward and downward transitions, I am able to assess how naturally supple (or not) the horse is and establish some communication thereby of the basic aids ( especially for the less-than-supple horse), and develop the best individualized action plan for teaching the basics of a subsequent and essential lesson: The shoulder-in exercise. 
As the last circle at the walk is completed, I'll ask that the horse halt as we come back to the rail utilizing the same downward transitional aids. Should I get a halt, and hold it for three seconds, SUPER!!!
Reverse, same as above.
This usually goes well as by beginning with the horses' more supple direction, we're ready to work on their less flexible side.
Remember, most people aren't wholly ambidextrous; nor are horses.
Paying attention to what's going on with my mount through every step s/he takes, and making adjustments as needed, establishes the framework that assures the horse that a rider is, and should be, always open to feedback and dialogue. Comfortable horses are, or will become confident horses and then re-training can proceed swiftly and easily.
This entire session shouldn't take more than 20 minutes. That's enough. Remember the OTTB's prior work, schooling and attention span...races are run in a few minutes! Throughout the session, I praise all positive efforts the horse makes.
The reward for doing, or trying to do, what I've asked, is that the horse gets to stop doing it and go play. The tack is taken off, they get a little piece of carrot, a roll in the sand, and turned loose in the arena for a few minutes before it's back to more turnout before  lunchtime. The new horse usually runs a victory lap, showing off for the other horses who  have been watching throughout to see how it went!