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.
The definition of ‘Suppleness:’
Bending readily without breaking or becoming deformed; pliant; flexible: a supple bough. Characterised by ease in bending; limber, lithe: supple movements
Suppleness is probably one of the weakest parts of the training scale for the ex racehorse to achieve. There is nothing supple about a horse galloping in a straight line. Their movement is fluid, and explosive, but not supple. The most a racehorse is asked to bend is if they run more than the 6f furlong sprint and have to run around a bend of a racetrack.
Once you move above Elementary with any ex racehorse the bend in the lateral work becomes a sticking point. The thoroughbred can understand the concept of a half pass, or a leg yield, but actually managing to be supple from tail to poll with cadence and lift, is difficult for them as is going against their breeding, former training and conformation. When their former training, breeding conformation is challenged you can see behavioural issues creep in such as; lack of willingness to go forward, teeth grinding, lack of swing through the back, anti social behaviour and in some cases, an unlevel gait.
So how can we start to encourage the cadence and lift, with bend and ultimately suppleness to create happy dancing partners? Pole work!
For us as trainers it is good to get and understanding of what our ex racehorse does as ‘default’ when asked to step and lift. Usually, when their body is asked to do something which is naturally benign any asymmetry may be exacerbated as the range of movement is greater. If it is possible I long rein my horses through the combinations of poles so I can see how their body works and responds on both reins. You should be able to see (and probably feel down the rein) whether or not your ex racer loads a shoulder, leans left/right, picks one leg higher than the other, falls away through the pelvic area greater on one side or the other. (Photo A)
The second thigh muscle is an important muscle that allows, creates and generates push and lift. In new retrainers there is normally an asymmetry seen between left and right though muscle, or a general lack of. All pole work with help the building and developing of the second thigh muscle and allow any asymmetry to start to become more symmetrical. Pole work will also help with the lifting and engaging of their core muscles, which will help the swing through the back, which all leads to a greater, more supple way of going. With the four exercises below it should help develop your ex racer
Three poles in a line/curve
A good, basic set up is one of three poles in a straight line or a curve with alternate ends raised. For me, I would avoid too much straight line pole work, as your ex racehorse can start to disengage or revert back to their ‘default’ way of going, which is what you're trying to avoid. As you can see in Photo B, the greater range of motion in the hind limb (notice its comes up, but not through and under) pushes the croup higher and therefore more weight goes down onto the shoulder. The energy created by the back end is almost too great for Quad. If you look at the hindlimb action compared to the forelimb action, the hindlimb action is greater, which, over time can be detrimental and also counter productive to what you as a retainer are trying to achieve.
Keeping everything on a curve/fan shape will help with; the step, bend and encourage the hindleg to step under and support/push, therefore lifting the back and encouraging suppleness through the frame.
Figure of 8 exercise
Pole work can also help with transitions and change of direction. Probably the hardest transition to accomplish with your ex racer is the; trot, canter, trot transition. In both the upward and downward transition there is normally a loss of connection with can be shown with; running off, tossing their head, becoming inverted, trying to strike off and getting stuck, running through the bridle, pulling down. You will notice with this exercise that one one rein your horse will fall very heavily to the inside and on the other you will struggle to steer as you will struggle to turn the outside shoulder, all points, when controlled and more balanced will lead to greater suppleness.
Riding a figure of eight with three trot poles at one end of the arena, two canter poles at the other and a single pole over X is a very good exercise.
The pole over X keeps the lift through the stepping over the pole as you change direction, it can also act as a strike off pole if you're struggling with the correct canter lead. The three trot poles encourage the lift in the trot to either engage the horse before or after the canter transition. The two canter poles encourage the hindleg in the canter to not become wide and keep the break of the hindleg, which in turn keeps a softer back.
As your horse becomes more developed in this exercise you can use the trot and caner poles to either extend or compress the frame of the pace you're in. Normally when you compress the frame of an ex racer (especially in the canter) the hindleg becomes wider and the back stiffer ad they don't understand how to ‘sit’ and bend the hock, with the hindlegs close together. The widening of the hindleg acts as a support to the ex racer, but over time can be a negative impact on the long term soundness and comfort of your ex racehorse. With the hindleg becoming wider the neck becomes stiff and slightly drawn back into the shoulders. It can also result in you loosing the true forward nature, and begin to create a slight backwards tendency in your horses way of going. In Photo C we can see that the pole in the canter work has encouraged the hindleg to step under and for the croup to lower and the wither and shoulder to come up. The frame is compressed with a soft neck. In Photo D we can see where the placing of the pole has asked for the frame in the canter to slightly extend out. Note: the hindleg has automatically returned to ‘default’ which is slightly out behind Quad as poised to underneath. When the trot is compressed the hindleg will push out behind, rather than step under, which means that the lift through their middle and ‘push’ will never be fully achieved. The next exercise normally helps with the compression of the trot.
Poles in a Corner
Even simple exercises such as riding a 10 metre circle can tap into an ex racers weakness. Your ex racer can understand the concept of turning around a 10 metre circle, but the dynamics of bending and lifting around a 10 metre circle and not falling on the shoulder is difficult. A good exercise (which also teaches your ex racers about corners and using corners to help set them up for the next movement in a test) is to set up three poles in the corner of the arena and ride a 10/15 metre circle incorporating the poles. With your ex racer you have to really focus on them bending around your inside leg. It is common when you ask the body to do something that is a little difficult your ex racehorse may return to ‘default’ and go straight and slightly rigid. (See Photo E) I think of a very small leg yield feel as we begin to step through the poles to help encourage the bend the whole way through the body. (Photo F)
Once your ex racer become confident moving through the poles with a slight curve throughout their body you can start to ride deeper into the corner, therefore asking them to step over the higher raised end of the pole. This will create a higher range of motion of the limb, which will in time create more lift and ultimately bend and suppleness in the horses body . (Photo F and G) This exercise will also help with; turning onto the centre line, leaving the track onto a circle, understanding that the inside leg is to bend around and using the corners to help encourage lift, bend and step under of the hindleg, resulting in a softer, more supple frame and body.
In Photo H, we can see that the frame is shorter than that of Photo F and G. The distance between the poles has become slightly shorter and I have asked Quad to move more into the corner. Instantly Quad looks softer, rounder, more supple throughout the whole frame and has a higher range of movement in the joints. The foreleg and hindlegs match in their movement and you can see a greater lift of the shoulder and wither. For those more advanced, or wanting to start to ‘produce’ the trot, it can be a good way to introduce compression, ultimately leading towards Passage steps. The greater the height of the pole, the higher the step, which can begin to help with compression of the horse. It can encourage your ex racer to compress and lift, rather than compress and become resistant, backward and tight in the frame.
A ‘Square of Poles’
A very good setup with lots of options that you can ride through in walk, trot and canter. The lines show make you as a rider consider not only the forward motion of the horse, but also the left and right side of their body. Are they more supple one way? Are the falling in/falling out through the shoulder? Am I able to steer? Do I approach the plea on the line that I want? If you as a retrainer consider the left and right side of your horses body, it will help with etc suppleness and making sure that they stretch equally on both sides, which in turn will release the neck and back, which will then allow the hindlegs to step through and a more supple frame achieved.
I work all of my ex racehorses from juts beginning through to the ones at Advanced level dressage over poles at least once a week. For the more asymmetrical and weaker horses more time is spent in the long reins and they may have more than one session a week to help build up their core strength. As mentioned at the beginning; ‘being supple’ is not a Thoroughbreds forte. Its not that it cannot be achieved, its just finding ways that allow you to progress and develop with your dancing partner.