Thank goodness those first awkward dates are out of the way. I, personally, can only be on my best behavior for so long. Let’s get down the fun stuff where you can eat what you want, snort when you laugh, and start telling the truth about your crazy family.
Once the initial evaluation, ground work, and early riding feels settled, and you’ve gotten to know each other a bit more, you’re ready to begin moving forward with training. This early stage is absolutely not discipline specific. Despite our eventing background, the horses that come to us have no obligation to event, or even to jump. We are laying the foundation for a riding career, and the basics are the same. Each one of our horses will wear a western saddle and a loping hackamore and not necessarily at the same time. You should beg, borrow, and steal from every style of riding. We sure do!
A Healthy Relationship Starts with You
Before committing to anything worth doing, take a picture of yourself riding, draw a circle around it, and begin working on anything in that circle that needs fixing. Ask your trainer for help dissecting the position, fitness, and even emotional aspects of your riding. How is your posture? Is your leg too far forward? Too far back? Are you able to keep a straight line from elbow, to wrist, to the horse’s mouth (hint: this means your elbows should never be straight)? Are you reading books by Museler, de Némethy, Wofford, Dorrance, Podhajsky, and the like? Are you ready to assume responsibility for your horse’s training and any mistakes that can and will occur, and not blame the horse? Can you comfortably and correctly sustain a trot and canter for at least five minutes with no stirrups and a loop in the rein?
The education of the horseman never stops and never fades and is never isolated.
Not Just Tindering
We are working to create a long-term connection, not just a summer fling. For the next year, and even two, your OTTB will be going through all types of growth, musculature changes, changes in their feet, diet changes, and mental changes. Record everything you can because you will be amazed when you look back. Don’t worry if you see other horses moving at a faster pace. That horse is not yours and their time frame isn’t either.
The most important factor to remember is the concept of Forward. With a capital F. Forward does not mean fast; it is the willingness and responsiveness to moving off the aids. The racehorse has been trained in the concept of forward from day one, and everything we do builds on this. This is why we ride for quite a while with a nice loop in the reins, despite external pressures to make the picture sooner.
We have a very strategic purpose, despite seeing constant contact, straight arms, and rein fussing in so many riding videos. These horses are learning a new balance. They’ve been taught to ride flat and low. They lean and flatten into bit pressure, even the ones that seem to hold themselves away from the bit. They’re supposedto: that is how they are asked to increase speed and breeze. We want them to learn a whole new way of doing things, so we are going to ride forward from the leg in every way possible without rein interference.
Sounds pretty classical, right? This isn’t a new theory. We systematically teach the horse to carry themselves in the smaller space of the arena, over the terrain outside the arena, and over fences where the horse surely needs to learn to care for themselves without the rider interfering. If the rider does not hold their own independent balance and hands, they are negatively affecting the horse from creating a poor posture and muscle development to actual nervousness from the horse as they worry about the balance. They cannot do this if we are putting pressure on their front end with our hands, upper body, or both.
Contact, frame, connection, and especially stretch come first from riding forward off the leg, the energy comes over the horse’s back, through the rider, and then cycles back into the hind legs and up around again. The rider, with independent aids, helps to cycle that energy created from the leg to, first, their upper body and balance, and later through the rein connection. If you go straight to rein connection, the horse has missed an important developmental step, and so has the rider. Again, some horses progress through this quite quickly, and some take more time. A good trainer will help guide you and teach you the feel.
Variety Is the Spice of Life
Another important part of a healthy relationship is variety. We all need a little spice in our lives. We start each day with a little ground work to make sure all parts of moving in the right direction. Then some days we work in the ring, moving off the leg forwards, backwards, and sideways. Some days we go for a simple hack on the buckle. Some days we trot up and down hills. There are poles, barrels, jumps, water, ditches, tarps, bareback and backwards. They’ve already done everything on a rope without the rider, so adding the rider should be a simple next step, but if you’re unsure, have your trainer perform the tasks on your horse first before you give it a try. Also, a neck strap is never a bad idea.
Seeing Other People
It should be noted that I do not condone this behavior in humans — but in horses, I am hugely supportive. Horses need to be ridden by more than one person in their training. Humans need to ride other horses in their training. Others will feel holes in your horse that you can’t because they are already your holes. You can correct these in yourself with off-horse exercises and learning from experienced school horses, and another rider or trainer on your horse can help you identify them, and then help correct them in your horse. Seeing another rider on your horse can give you confidence in the horse’s abilities, and therefore increase your confidence in yourself. There’s no room for jealousy in horses.
Remember that this is just the beginning of years of fun and enjoyment together. There will be highs and lows, and everybody has a different journey, but be sure to always evaluate, stay in the present, stay humble, and make every day just a little bit better than it started. It adds up.
Clare Mansmann started riding racehorses in her teens to get fit and ready for an upper level eventing career. It worked, and in the process, she fell completely in love with the breed and the sport. Together she and her husband, Tom, run Pacific Farms, Inc., where they focus their training and lessons on the fundamentals of classical riding in all disciplines, and are passionate about providing the best, most comprehensive education to the transitioning off-track Thoroughbred in order to best serve them and their futures.