From RaceHorse to Dressage Horse

Louise Robson, a sought after specialist in the field tells us more about what is involved in the retraining of a racehorse and the success she has enjoyed.

As a trainer, it is very difficult to know what to do when. To me, it is very important that the ex racehorses brain stays relaxed and focused, without pushing the body too hard. In todays world, with the accessibility to technology that everyone has, it is easy to video and photograph every one of our moves.

It is brilliant as we can see progression and learn from what we are seeing vs feeling when riding. However, it can become very detrimental, as we as riders/trainers, can focus too much on the negative and how we should; ‘sit up more,’ ‘have better hands’ ‘have the horse more forward’ etc etc etc. Within the white boards it is very difficult to be able to separate wanting to do well vs. where is my horse at?

In the last few weeks I have had a couple of instances where the riders that I help train have been exceedingly hard on themselves as they have looked at, and studied photos of themselves on their horses.

Yes, what we do as riders influence our horses way of going, there is no question about that, but is by making ourselves adapt the ‘perfect position’ actually hindering our lovely ex racehorses at the level of training that they’re at? Are our equine partners putting us in a certain position to help avoid their weaknesses/weak side, are their struggling with a certain movement and therefore have to do something with their body to compensate?

What we have to remember is that we are on a horse that naturally wants to go slightly on the forehand, push the croup up and has absolutely no concept of what ‘bending in the rib cage’ or a ‘supporting hindleg’ is all about. In this piece I want to look at one horse; Mission Impossible, over the course of a year and how he has changed physically, but also, how I as a rider, have been able to change my position as he has developed form a racehorse into a dressage horse. I thought about using images form the canter, but I thought I would tap into the racehorses weakest, and least used pace: The trot.

For most Thoroughbreds, the trot is their weakest pace. Although it is regular and correct, the word ‘flashy’ is never usually associated with a thoroughbred. The main saving grace, that us as trainers have is that, over time, with various exercises you can ‘make’ the trot. You can develop, strengthen and start to use their body and trainability to create as more expressive version than their original version that you witness when first out of racing. The trot is also the reason that many do not purchase and ex racehorse for dressage.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (stable name Silver)

12 year old Gelding. Ran 69 times on the Flat

Winnings: £25,688

Trainer: Tracey Waggot

Owner: Thoroughbred Dressage

Retraining Started: July 2016

Highlights: RoR Novice dressage Finalist 2017 (5th place), RoR Novice Music winner 2017 (80.8%), Has qualified for winter regionals 2017 at Novice and Novice Music

The physical development is obvious through the images; however, it may be the finite details that some may not see that show the true progression of the Silver and how over the course of the year we have developed his trot.

Silver has a naturally very good and expressive trot for a thoroughbred. The reach of his hindleg is incredible. His hindleg naturally steps under his body and his hock flexes. When you see him move from a side profile, the hindleg looks good; however, in photo one we have to ask, is the hindleg stepping under and pushing forward, or merely pushing the hind end up and pushing all of the power onto the forehand. The latter is true. You can see this from the position of the saddle and how it slightly tilts downward. My hands are there as a support, so all of the energy does fall onto the forehand. At this stage Silver is just starting his re training, so I am trying to give him as many ‘comfort aids’ as possible. My hands are recreating what the exracer knows and is comfortable with: the bridging of the reins. My lower leg could be a little more forward; however, we have to consider the level of training.

At this stage, Silver actually pushes himself out of balanced and as a result, become strong in front. Yes the neck is long and the poll is the highest point; however, (not that anyone would expect) there is no suppleness, or relaxation of the back, neck, shoulders etc. We are ‘straight and forward’ based at this stage.

Photograph one

The first thing to note in comparisons to photograph one is the reduced activity of the hindleg. Sometimes we have to ask for less and ride with less expression for a while to allow the brain and body to cope and understand what we are aksing. Usually, with most thoroughbred, putting ‘the power’ in isn’t an issues. The ride ability i.e adaptability, balance, straightness, acceptance and harmony is the hard bit to obtain, keep and develop throughout the levels. Lots of traditions between trot, walk and halt, taught Silver the meaning of the half halt. This was pivotal in his training as it allowed me to begin to adjust his balance and get him to begin to accept hand and leg at the same time and not run through both. It also allowed me to begin to flex him a little left and right, to begin to get the suppleness of the neck, which in turn, would allow me to begin to work the rest of his body.

With the understanding of the half halt, I can begin to allow my hands more forward, to encourage the drawing forward of the neck and nose. This is because through training, we have taken the over push of the hindleg. Silver has learnt to trot with less emphasis, and therefore getting himself into trouble/balance issues. When he looses balance this is shown through strength and lack of adaptability between and within the paces. This results in possible contact issues an a lack of harmony between myself and Silver. I actually taught Silver mainly in the walk. I know this may seem a bit of a precarious thing; however, for this horse, as he gave so much in the trot, to more I tried to half halt and adapt the balance, Silver would become unsettled as he didn’t understand. Being able to adjust the walk, and turn in the walk was easier for him to be able to understand and gave him more time and less power which I then translated into the trot.

Photograph two

If you look closely at photograph two, you will see just how wide the hindlegs are by the outside hind stepping to the outside of the outside fore. This would also suggest that Silver has not learnt, at this stage of his training (which wouldn’t be until medium level, or more) how to move the shoulder and wither up and forward without becoming tense in front. It would also suggest that Silver has not learnt how to use the hindleg as a support.

We are still lacking the bending/ suppleness of the rib cage in this photograph. This can be seen by the width between the hindlegs. This is highlighted on the turn, as the hindlegs have to go wider to act as stabilisers to stop the energy falling onto the forehand. Where in the more advanced horse we would ask for the bend to come from our inside leg, which would ask for suppleness in the rib cage, and the step under of the inside hind. In the younger horses, we as riders, can have a tendency to place our lower leg slightly further back to stop the weight coming down on the inside shoulder. This is because the horse has not learnt, found the confidence, or is strong enough to place the inside hind underneath themselves in a supporting role. All horses are larger at the hips than the shoulders, which creates the ‘wide behind’ stance; however, in the ex racehorse this is more so due to the croup high/downhill tendency that their confirmation is bred for. We as riders may not be aware of our lower leg slightly slipping back. What we end up feeling is that the horse is slightly falling onto the forehand and pulling us onto our knees a little. In a test situation it may be hard to correct, as we do not want to interrupt the flow, harmony and confidence that the horse has in that particular moment in time. We have to be aware of what they are doing, but take into account; Where are they in terms of their training? Is the horse strong enough to step under and through, or shall we allow them to find confidence in their way of going and help support them a little, although we may end up sacrificing the ‘perfect position.’ It is a two fold argument;

One on hand: The horse is happy and going well, and finding confidence in their way of going and their new role within the white boards

On the other hand: Will the horse learn that this is how circles are done and forever more lean on your leg on the turn?

I believe the former to be true. To me, it is far more important that I slightly sacrifice the perfect image, at this stage, and work on the adjustability of my horse at home and in the warm up, and slowly creep it into test riding, when the time, movement and state of my horses brain allows. It should also be noted that at this stage of training (prelim, beginnings of novice level work) that it is difficult at this stage, to be able to sit up. The thoroughbred is still not strong enough in the back to be able to allow us to sit up, without their back becoming tense and therefore the neck drawing back.

Photograph three

In photograph three we can see that we now have a stepping hindleg, with a soft, rounded neck. Myself, as a rider, can sit up, with a forward giving hand, with my lower leg around him to help support, but also create suppleness in the rib cage.

To achieve this frame, Silver is one year one from photograph one. He has started to learn lateral work; such as leg yield, a tiny bit of shoulder fore and a bit of travers. These movements have been incorporated into the training because all of the movements encourage the hindlegs to come closer together. This in turn has taught Silver how to step under and push forward, not up, whilst remaining soft and adaptable in the neck, frame and jaw. When riding these lateral movements I am very conscious that he is only one year one, so we ‘play’ with the idea of them. To me, at this stage, it is being able to move separate parts of Silver from the left, to the right and to the centre, without him feeling like he cant, or he is stuck. The half, halt is still very much in place to help little adjustments of balance and softening of the neck and jaw.

Photograph four

In photograph four we can see that the expression and ‘dance flair’ is coming back into Silvers way of going. If we compare the hindleg from photograph one, where is is almost too active, but in an ineffective way. To photograph two and three, where the hindleg has been asked to be less active to allow Silver the time to understand how to perform the moments and new way of going to what he has understood for eleven years. Finally, in photograph four, the hindleg has been re activated, but through exercises including shoulder fore/in, travers and leg yield, to help teach Silver how to step, bend and flex the hindleg. As a result the hindleg has now become a supporting role within Silvers body. He is beginning to learn how to step under and push forward and up, not down onto the shoulder. The uphill frame, with a soft neck is then shown, with the neck drawing forward and out without tension.

To me, this frame, trot, and overall picture could rival any warmblood in the dressage arena. It takes time, patience, working out what exercises work best for your and your horse, but also a level of sacrifice. I have sacrificed my position to allow Silver to find his feet and confidence in his new way of going. I continually asses and re asses, but when you see the difference, its all worth it!