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Off-the-track Thoroughbreds

Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners sneak peak

Turning Challenging Horses into Willing Partners due for public release in 2010. Discounted bulk pre-publication orders now being taken.



Chapter Eight

Sometimes they’re just plain crazy

On occasion, you really do find yourself burdened with a nut. While preliminary bad breaking definitely exacerbates problems, when you strip it all down and finally get past the baggage, there are times you must admit that the horse you’re working with is simply just not right in the head. Interestingly, these critters can be very predictable in what sets them off, but how they react is never a given. Surprisingly, they can usually handle distractions and circumstances that should make a sane horse blow, but freak out with stuff that shouldn’t be a concern.

Crazy horses rarely give you an opportunity to completely relax. There will always be issues that make them occasionally frustrating and often dangerous. Horses that are totally governed by fear rarely consider their own welfare when reacting, and this is a common trait of equines who are nuts. Mean horses are always limited with what they will do by a self-preservation instinct, making them at least predictable in how far they will go. Not so with crazy horses. They’ll crash through fences, impale themselves, flip, run off on unsafe ground, and have occasions when they go deaf, blind, and oblivious to immovable objects that cross their panicked path, while reacting to ghosts in ways that make no sense.

Sometimes, you’ll encounter a psycho that has so much talent it seems worth the effort. Usually, it isn’t. Still, we’ve had some success with crazies, and some failures too. Most, ultimately, leave you shaking your head on the time and money spent to get them two strides forward and ten steps back, wondering if the sanity issue extends beyond your equine’s behavior and if there’s a white jacket in your size.

While it seems prudent to try to recover your investment, sometimes it’s best to cut your losses. Time and money gone is just plain lost — and putting good money after bad is rarely a good idea.

If you’re determined to proceed, the anecdotes below may help guide you in your quest.

Flash — hurdler extraordinaire

Flash was a narrow, five-year-old, 15.1-hand Thoroughbred that somehow wound up as a lesson horse at an area riding stable. He was a terror with students, running off at will and occasionally unseating the brave kids who dared to try to conquer him. One of our former riding instructors asked us to take a look at this horse. She was considering buying him. He was deemed unsuitable as a lesson horse (imagine that) and was on the block. We hopped on him in the arena, and after a brief flatwork primer, pointed him at a 2’6” line (there was something about this horse that squealed natural talent over fences). He cleared the fences easily, correctly, and with a ton of finesse. He had never jumped. We leapt off immediately and said “buy him.”

She didn’t, and we landed the prize for $500.

The next three years netted unimaginable nightmares. We figured he had just been mishandled, poorly started, and conditioned to react inappropriately. Certainly, with patient and skilled guidance, he’d transform into a cooperative steed. We were wrong.

We’d spend minutes or hours working with this horse one day, progressing to a new understanding, only to find those lessons not only lost but problems magnified by the next day.

Compounding the frustration was the fact that this horse would willingly clear jumps of any size placed before him, but was out of control after hurdling the fence, not to mention during flat exercises. We progressed to the point where we were competing in events, and if we didn’t get eliminated in dressage (this was a common occurrence — he had no qualms about hopping over the arena perimeter, particularly when the judges used a horse trailer for shelter), we were sure to go clean during cross-country and stadium, almost always finishing in the ribbons. Consequently,

we were thrilled if we were able to complete the first phase. We were also convinced his incredible talent over fences made it worth the temporary embarrassment and extreme frustration borne while we worked through his issues.

Quick Tips on working with Off-The-Track Thoroughbreds

Chill time can be critical
Many Thoroughbreds (TBs) behave differently on the farm than they do at the racetrack. Still, if you’re looking for a good plan to begin on the best note, give your project a couple of months of turnout and gentle handling prior to hopping aboard. Recognize many TBs have not seen a paddock (at least not the grazing kind) for their entire racing career, so make sure you start with small spaces and, done best, a single, proven companion to help keep them calm, ease them through the socialization transition and stay safe. Know too (although steroids and other drugs that they actually test for are now becoming banned in many states) that there may be products in your horse’s bloodstream that impact his behavior and thinking process. Let them dissipate prior to throwing on tack and a rider.

Pulling on the bit often doesn’t mean stop for racehorses
Many TBs are taught to pull against the bit and this can also serve as a cue to go faster. Do not make the mistake of applying non-stop contact with the bit on a horse you are trying to convert to a riding horse. As in any discipline (in my opinion, anyway), it’s best to give and release if you want a horse to feel your request. Often, simply releasing the reins will cause your mount to slow down or stop.

Remember to relax
TBs are a hot-blooded breed, and the tenser you are, the more concerned and hotter they will get. If your horse is anxious, hyper, spooky or concerned, take a deep breath, let your seat sink deep into the saddle, stop gripping with your knees, shortening the reins, tipping forward with you upper body and simply sit up, stretch down and be a quiet and encouraging force with your horse vs. a impediment to his reaching a calm understanding.

Patience is key
It’s likely going to take you a while to understand how your OTT TB horse has been conditioned and trained to react. Don’t assume he’s misbehaving if he doesn’t do what you ask. Take your time and be ready to try different approaches to problems that aren’t getting resolved. Give him the opportunity to shine by watching and listening to what he’s trying to tell you and adjusting your approach to accommodate his needs and concerns.

Be ready to call it quits
Sometimes it’s best to admit you don’t have the horse and/or the skills to bring him to where you want him to go. There are tons of great OTT TBs who are eager and willing to consider a new career and prove to be safe and dependable mounts for their new riders and jobs. It’s easy to fall in love with a horse and be determined to ‘fix’ them, but some are just too far-gone and/or unsuitable for you due to your skill level or interests. Consider improving your quality of life (and in many cases, your horses) by being big enough to admit defeat and move on.