UPDATE 7/08: On July 7, the Retired Racehorse Project Board announced that the Thoroughbred Makeover 2020 would be postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns. Marion’s blog this month was written prior to this announcement. Read on for our fifth update from Marion Edel.
The last month has been quieter for Grey and me – no field trips, no horse shows. Grey had a break from riding while a scrape on his withers healed. My saddle and pad seemed to irritate the scab, delaying healing. After consulting with my vet, we decided not to put a saddle on Grey until the scrape was fully healed and the hair had grown back.
I tried to ride bareback a few times, and while Grey was perfectly well behaved, he is wildly uncomfortable to sit on without tack. This is a “it’s not you, it’s me” situation, since the only horses I’ve ridden bareback are plump warmbloods with cushy backs (i.e. fat rolls) to sit on. Grey’s wither is the very definition of a “shark fin,” and his topline still needs a lot of work before his back is less bony. After deciding that riding bareback was too painful, I was officially “grounded” until the scrape healed.
About a week into Grey’s recovery/vacation, I found myself getting discouraged. I didn’t want to miss time in the saddle when Grey has such a long way to go before being ready for the Makeover…and especially with quarantine, I just missed riding a horse. During my pity party, I realized that I needed to change my perspective and be thankful. I’m fortunate that Grey only had a superficial wound, not a significant injury — and otherwise, he’s perfectly healthy.
I also remembered the Makeover trainer’s mantra of “stay in your lane.” It’s okay to have a quieter month of training. If you were to chart the training a horse, you would never just see a straight line on an upward trajectory. You would see plateaus and low spots, too. Training a horse is more than just riding, and work needs to be done in and out of the saddle.
Grey is one of those tack-up-and-go type of horses, so I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t focused on his groundwork as much as I should have. My mandatory “grounding” forced me to take a step back and look at Grey’s training more critically: What needs improvement? How can I make those improvements from the ground? Before I knew it, I had a long list of things I wanted to work on, and the halter rope, lunge line and long lines came out from the hidden depths of my tack trunk.
My first project was lunging. Grey is good on the lunge but is a leaner. He loves to stay at the end of the line, relying on me to hold him on a circle, instead of giving to pressure and maintaining his own track. For the first week, the leaning was our main focus. Once that improved, I lunged him over trot and canter poles, and we did a few sessions with Vienna reins to encourage him to stretch over his back.
From lunging, we graduated to long lining. Grey picked up on long lining very quickly, especially with his new appreciation of voice commands from lunging. By the end of our first session, he was comfortable with walking around the arena, backing and changing direction on a serpentine.
From a riding perspective, Grey’s biggest challenges are using his body correctly and giving to pressure. As I’ve mentioned before, his movement is improving as he’s gaining muscle in his hind end and learning to use himself correctly (pushing from behind and using his back, vs. pulling himself along with his front legs with no impulsion from the hind end). The lunging and long lining helped him use his body correctly, and I wanted to use groundwork to help Grey learn to give to pressure.
Under saddle, Grey’s initial reaction when you ask him to move off your leg is to brace against it before giving to the pressure. Same thing with the bit –- When I ask for a soft feel in the bridle, he’ll do it, but not before initially pushing against the bit. I focused on groundwork exercises that would teach him to give to pressure at his poll and through his ribcage, which then translate to under saddle work.
I also focused on just general ground manners. Grey is already polite and responsive, but at 17.1h and 1,350 pounds, I want him to be an absolute saint to handle. I worked on exercises to help Grey focus on my body language, walking when I walk and stopping when I stop, without me having to pull on the lead rope. While he does get distracted around other horses or at feeding time, this has improved significantly.
One of the more exciting things that happened since my last update is the purchase of a horse trailer, that we affectionately named “Julie.” With the addition of Julie, Grey and I should have many more field trips in our future, and working on his trailer loading has jumped to the top of my priority list.
Grey doesn’t do anything bad for loading, but he does plant his feet in protest at the bottom of the ramp and won’t get on the trailer until someone comes behind him. Once he realizes there are two people involved, he loads easily without any drama. This method has worked fine until now, when I’ll be traveling alone for most of our outings.
For Grey’s introduction to Julie, I grabbed a friend from the barn who helped me load him once the “old” way. I wanted to make sure he got on the trailer before introducing a new method. After that, I worked on teaching him to self-load, with me standing next to the ramp instead of walking into the trailer with him. I was thrilled that within 15 minutes, he figured out what I was asking and got on the trailer by himself. Since then, we’ve practiced a few more times and Grey seems to be a confirmed self-loader! As someone who has never owned a horse that was easy to load, I’m absolutely thrilled.
After about three weeks, Grey’s scrape was healed and all the hair grew back. Seeing how my saddle irritated the scrape made me realize that my saddle needs more wither clearance, and I’m waiting on a rep to come out to change the panels. In the meantime, I’ve started riding with extra padding and am keeping a close watch on his withers to make sure he stays comfortable.
Grey’s first ride back was a throwback to the Grey of January and early February –- nothing bad, but limited steering and no circling ability whatsoever. Thankfully, after our second and third ride, he seemed to pick up right where we left off at the beginning of June. All our work on the lunge also paid off, and during his fourth ride back, Grey really stretched under saddle for the first time. Until now, Grey hasn’t had the hind end strength or the overall balance to stretch his nose to the ground.
Photo by Marion Edel.
Training a horse comes with plenty of challenges and frustrations, but when you hit a milestone that you’ve been working towards, the sense of accomplishment and feeling of joy is unrivaled. Regardless of what happens with the Makeover, I’ve loved how rewarding this process is and have enjoyed sharing Grey’s journey.
Marion Edel is an adult amateur who lives in Greenville, SC with her husband, Chris. They share their home with a Rhodesian Ridgeback and two cats. Marion grew up on a Hanoverian breeding farm and has been riding her entire life, focusing mostly on hunters and jumpers. Marion recently purchased her first OTTB and is a first time trainer for the 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover.
All photos by Marion Edel.