Q: I just started working with a Thoroughbred recently home from the track. I’m having a hard time getting him to relax under saddle, go on the bit without pulling, and stay at a slow pace. I called his former owner, who was also his trainer at the track, and he reminded me that race horses lean on the bit and go faster when you pull back on the reins. Do you have any suggestions on how to re-start an ex-racer?
First, you have to give your OTTB plenty of time to readjust his way of thinking. He needs at least a month or more to hang out and see that life away from the track moves at a slower pace. Make sure he has plenty of turn-out time, too. Teach him to longe in both directions and introduce voice commands.
As for your work under saddle, use tack an OTTB is familiar with. Don’t rush into stronger bits and draw reins to force him to go slower and in a show horse frame. While some riders prefer a lightweight western saddle and a smooth loose-ring snaffle combined with a training fork for these early stages, you may be more comfortable in an English saddle, a simple snaffle and a running martingale. Just make sure your equipment is adjusted properly. Then start with your OTTB just like any other green horse.
Work on suppling him and getting him to bend laterally by doing lots of circles. As he tips his nose and bends his neck to turn, soften your contact on your inside rein as a reward. You’ll probably discover that he turns better to the left than to the right, as that’s the direction of tracks in North America. He’ll become more ambidextrous with time.
When you trot, use plenty of half-halts to slow him, and then soften your contact when he complies, even if it’s just for a few strides. Never resort to just hanging on his mouth and pulling; that won’t get you anything other than a fast, tense Thoroughbred. Again, make big, loopy circles to encourage him to soften through his front end and body and to accept the bit as a means of communication, not as a tool to lean on. Don’t try to canter until you have the ability to adjust his pace at the trot. As your schooling progresses, his head will begin to drop and he’ll start reaching for the bit on his own. Truly, if you’re patient and consistent, your horse will acclimate to his new career nicely.
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