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.

You may be thinking how does a picture of some Shire horses ploughing field relate to re training of racehorses? For obvious reasons;

  1. (Unless it’s for charity) Shire horses do not race
  2. A sheer volume and size difference
  3. Unless your racehorse would like to become a star of the film ‘War horse’ you are not likely to see them, or ask them to plough a field (and there would be a big question mark over their legs and body at the end of it if they did)

I always like to ‘think outside of the box’ or draw experience and training techniques from other disciplines. I believe that we, as trainers, can learn something from everyone. We are all working with our equine friends, and although its may not be discipline specific, the theory, or what you're trying to achieve, may be similar.

The dynamics of how a shire horse pulls a plough is similar to that of how a horse works. With most horses, but most notably in the ex racehorses who are built slightly croup high, when you ask them to move forwards from the leg they naturally ‘pull’ into their shoulders. All horses are wider at the hips that the shoudlers, but mores that of the ex racehorse, so the tendency to pull down is even greater. As mentioned in previous articles, the ex racehorse is not built to naturally lift though their abdomen, lift their backs, push from behind and lift through their shoulders and withers.

Dubai Prince aka Neville two months into re training.

This can be seen by how a horse pulls a plough. When you ask a Shire to walk forward, the first thing they do is pull into their shoulders, meeting the collar of the plough and therefore enabling the plough to move forward. The ex racehorse does this when you ask them to move forward; however, there is no collar to stop them so all energy falls slightly onto the forehand, which as a rider, we feel through the weight in the rein and the slight tip forward of us onto our knees, as our ex racehorse is avoiding using their back, and may not be at the stage of their training where they can take the weight behind.

In the early stages of retraining, when your ex racer loses their balance, they will pull very heavily onto the forehand, and run a little in the rhythm. The temptation of us as riders is to then pull on the mouth and take the leg away. Some see this as a ‘closing of the front door.’ What we have to remember as re trainers is that we are on a breed that likes to travel. The more we ask them to ‘woah’ and wait, especially with the rein, the more they pull into their shoulders and fight the rider. Self preservation is a bit of a hinderance for us as riders at this stage and it takes a lot of practice to let go of the front end and slowly, get our lower leg around our running ex racehorse. The problem we have as riders is that we have an animal who is ‘anti’ hand and leg at the same time. Its seems a little like the chicken and egg scenario, which one do we address first. For me, I address the leg first and the hand second. This is where my neck strap comes in. The neck strap allows me to take half halts on the horse, and prevent the pull down into the collar, without affecting or interfering with the horses mouth.

Neville, four months into retraining

For some horses it takes a fair few attempts to understand that you are no longer interfering with the front end, and that the ‘front door’ is still open, but in a more controlled and mannerly fashion. Most times, I have found that once your ex racer accepts the leg, they actually become quite lazy to it. Another hard part, for us as riders, is what we can see. When we have our slightly pulling and running ex racers, we have either lost sight of the head and neck as its pulling down, or its is right in our face. For the time being, we have to ignore what we can see and think more about making the horses body accept the lower leg, to then enable us to influence the front end. Again, this is where the neck strap is pivotal. It can help us as riders balance for those that are wanting to go around like a giraffe. The ones who want to go with their necks very high and a stilted front end action, the horse themselves is ‘closing the front door’ and becoming panicked by it as they feel they have no way forward. A slight push forward of the hand and neck strap can encourage the forward motions, along with little leg yield feels from inside and outside leg. For those that want to go very deep and pull very heavily downwards and take us with it, the neck strap stops the pull down and burying into the chest. In both cases, our ex racers backs are becoming quite sore by staying in both states, so the sooner our ex racer accepts the lower leg and moves forward with the front door open, the better.

Philip, first year into re-training.

As you can see in the photos Neville wants to pull down into his shoulders and make his neck quite short in the process. He does this as his back muscles are weak, and it is easier to élan on the forehand. You can see where he is trying to pull down into the collar. My outside hand is placed on the neck strap to stop him pulling down with my lower leg around him. If we compare this to four months later where he has become stronger over the back and learnt to go forward, with the use of his back, with the ‘front door’ still being open. The wither and holder has lifted with the neck out and soft.

It is not only the early stages of retraining that I use the neck strap. All of my horses, religiously, are ridden in neck straps. Primarily it is for safety, and to help balance myself without my hands coming in, but it is also used in the more advanced movements. I always talk about ‘default.’ Normally, when we teach our ex racers something new, or ‘ask for a little more’ in their training ‘default’ usually kicks in. Take for example, Quadrille. Quadrille is slightly croup high with the tendency to put his left hind to the side, rather than following in line with the left fore, poke his shoulders to the right and give too much left flexion and not enough right bend. When Quad struggles wth something, he will lock his back, and pull, quite heavily, into shoulders, becoming increasingly downhill and shortening his neck, whilst ‘default’ i.e left hind, lack of right flexion etc etc all happening at the same time. “Default’ isn't a bad thing, its a good thing, as I am aware that when he gets stressed, or unsure, or he is struggling, this is what he will do.

William Fox-Pitt

A very good example, would be when Quad was being asked to ‘sit’ in the canter and begin to take the weight behind. Due to his conformation, ‘default’ would kick in, and his coup would become higher, his shoulders lower and he would pull into the reins very heavily, whilst pulling me forward. My intuition as a rider would kick in, and straight away, I would want to lift my hands to encourage the head to come off the floor. If I put more lower leg on, ‘default’ would become greater and he would start to run on, a lot like the early days of retraining. So how to combat this? Go to the neck strap and look at eventers…

I defy any person to find an image of William Fox Pitt riding cross country without a neck strap on. The way in which he rides and uses his neck strap is ideal for any horse, but more so of our ex racers whether its be jumping , or on the flat. if you think of the dynamics of the horse galloping across the ground, just like a racehorse galloping in a race. Long, flat, covering as much ground as possible, frame very long and travelling. Then they come up to a rather ridiculous sized fence, how do they gather them together? You pull on the rein you could possibly get an argument with the head and mouth, which is the last thing you want heading into this ridiculous sized fence. You, as a rider, need your horses shoulders up, hindlegs underneath, head focused, and in balance, all in the space of a few seconds ... lift the collar.

Quadrille, 4 years into re-training

If you get the chance to watch William go cross country, its amazing. He very very rarely interferes with the mouth, but uses the neck strap to help get the horse together, in balance, with the neck out, and the hindlegs under, ready to jump in good balance. This can be used on the flat with our ex racehorses, when asking them to begin to sit. Whether it be in the canter, or trot, or even walk. The half halt on the neck strap, will ‘lift the collar’ It allows the chest to come up and present. The wither lifts, the head and mouth stay relaxed and untouched, whilst the front door is open. The lifting of the chest, will then in turn allow the hindlegs to sit down and take the weight behind. It must be said, that when you ‘lift the collar’ you need your weight, position and lower leg in the right place and applying an aid, so your ex racer begins to put the two together and understand what you're asking them to do.

If we look at Phillip, first year into his re training, the neck strap has helped teach him to lift and turn the shoulders in the canter, therefore staring to place the balance on the hindleg. If we compare it to Quad four years into his retraining. the frame is a lot more uphill and the chest is ‘presenting’ itself, with the neck soft and outer and the hindleg underneath

You can use the neck strap for; transitions within the pace, between the paces, asking the horse to sit, extend, compress. Its a vital piece of equipment that I feel is massively under used and makes for a happier horse with better communication between horse and rider.