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 rider you have begun the search for a new dressage partner. Ideally you look for a good walk, good canter, nice temperament and good conformation. We all have hopes and dreams of winnings, placings, possible regionals and maybe even nationals!

Can an ex racehorse really fit the criteria for your asperations ...

you now have a horse who has been ridden and kept in an environment which seems completely different to what you have or wanted. The horse looks like a defined athlete; fully toned muscle, no excess fat and seems, at times, a little awake, shall we call it? You wanted a dressage horse, who oozes suppleness, cadence, calm, yet powerful, so how and where do we start? These athletes can run fast in a straight line and the only form of ‘bend’ they know is the bend into the final straight of a race course……

Getting on ...

It may sound simple; however, your defined athlete is used to either having their jockey legged up on the move, or being vaulted on, again, on the move. We now want them to stand at a mounting block and wait for us to mount. It takes lots of practice and ultimately patience. I use a mounting block, slightly positioned away from the fence, so the horse can walk around the block. I break then down the ‘getting on process'. Can I jump up and down without them moving? Can I put my foot in the stirrup and stand into it, again without them moving? Do they stay relaxed? It is only once you can answer ‘yes’ to these questions, do we then get on. I always have someone on the floor, offering treats to the horses, to encourage them to stay with us, rather than run on. It also teaches them to ‘go to the person’ on the floor if they get worried, and more importantly, they breathe. If the horse is chewing it stops them holding their breath and possibly over reacting to any situations that may occur.

In the beginning: As you can see the lunge line is there as a precaution. We just get the thoroughbreds used to having a jockey on their backs with their legs in a slightly longer and lower position and less weight carried ‘above them’ and more on their backs. We don't ask for a frame/ contact and just let the horse find their way. I would call this frame the ‘poked nose’ frame IN the beginning

I then ask the horse to move forwards from the voice, with an ever slight turn to the inside. Then we ask them to stand again, reward with a treat and move on from there.

It may be that your horse doesn't want to walk for too long. I don't force the ex racers to walk. If they want to get moving, then I allow them to and encourage the walk more towards the end of the session, or in between the other two gaits. The scales of training always have to be considered and applied. Rhythm is the most important and fundamental part of the beginning stages, before we even consider asking them to become round, soft and submissive. It may appear or be seen as a slightly ‘poked nose’ frame to start with once you're either walking, trotting or cantering around.

First and foremost, your horse should be in front of the leg and going for you. Forget about the frame, that will come with time, patience, strength and better balance. It is not uncommon to get on an ex racer and for them to be slightly cold backed, or want to jog for the first few steps/circles. This doesn't mean that they are bad, it could just be a case of nerves, anxiety, excitement, and general weakness in their back muscles.

2: Once your thoroughbred is travelling happily in front of the leg, they will start to draw the contact forward. One hand is always kept on the neck strap, so you at all times, go with the horse, rather than against them. Also, note the mouth of the horse. We encourage our horses to take treats from the rider and person on the floor to promote chewing and noon holding of breath as they go round. It stops tense jaws and ultimately tense necks occurring.

All of my horses whether a baby, just starting retraining, or an advanced horse, have neck straps on. Its a ‘just in case’ measure and means that we as riders don't pull on their mouths for balance if anything goes wrong. For the first few times riding I make sure that I have someone on the ground at all times, and if possible, we attach the horse to a lunge line. Again, this a ‘just in case’ scenario so everything starts off on the right foot. One of the main differences, for me, between the warmbloods and the thoroughbreds, is how we begin to ‘work the body’ and get them to soften, relax and supple up across their back, neck etc. The warmblood usually has the ideal conformation for dressage, it is a question of working ‘back to front.’ How can we get he back legs to engage to allow the front to ‘let go’ and relax, which, in turn, begins to form a good contact. With a thoroughbred, we have to start by working front to back, to allow us to then work back to front.

You have to be aware that Thoroughbreds use their necks to balance (hence the poked nose frame). Think of it as their fifth leg. Thoroughbreds are built as ‘one unit’ to allow their body to connect in a way to allow them to run as fast and efficiently as possible. In our new dressage star, we require lift, bend in the rib cage, softness and release of the neck and jaw.

Yes we want our athletes to start to ‘stretch’ and seek the contact forward, but what we as re trainers need to consider is the conformation that we have to work with. If we truly get them to stretch down and forward at the very beginnning, all we are doing is encouraging them to fall on the forehand and not actually lift through their stomachs/rib cage and back, which is where we need to build the most strength.

We have to be able to make the jaw supple and relaxed, to the left, right and centre. Having raced, your thoroughbred may favour a side, and end up holding/resisting to one side more predominently. This is very natural, you have to be able to assess the horses conformation and muscular structure, to see what is weak, what is stronger, needs developing/ changing and how the disparencies in muscular structure can alter/affect gait movement. A very high percentage of ex racers have strong left hand sides of the their body and weak right hind legs. This is due to the proportion of racecourses in the UK being left handed tracks, which results in a weaker right hind as this is the trail leg.

Once ‘control’ of the jaw has been gained, we then have to be able to make the thoroughbreds ‘fifth leg’ bend, flex and become less of a balancing structure. So how do we achieve this? We turn them!

In the early stages we have to almost take more bend/lower the neck more than may be desirable. This is to allow the complete release of the neck, and to allow the back to begin to work. What we have to be very careful of, as retrainers, is that when the neck releases and the horses back begins to be engaged, we are asking them to lift their rib cage, engage core muscles and make their back stronger. Its the human equivalent to a sit up, and we all know how much they begin to burn after some time. Lots of breaks and doing little and often, and building upon moments, allow for strength to be built without too much pressure being applied. Be aware, that your thoroughbred may find it easier to bend one way more than the other, or release their neck quicker. We have to be very forgiving at this stage of training as it is polar opposite to what they have previously known, and in terms of ‘sit up strength’, are very very weak.

Naturally, thoroughbreds are very good at slotting their neck back into their shoulders and inverting themselves. They are very good at holding the muscle that attaches the wither to the neck and ‘assuming the position’ rather than releasing and allowing the back to come up and through and ultimately ‘swing’. So to make sure that we have, or are encouraging proper release and gaining connection, I ride a series of figures of eight, serpentines, tear drops, and 20, into 15, into 12 metre circles then leg yield back out. When you turn your thoroughbred onto a smaller circle, you will feel them stiffen, and almost try to run through what you're asking of them. Back off the tempo and allow them to work out where their feet have to go. As you lower the tempo they hopefully lower their neck.

Once they have release their neck, following the line of the rein, then leg yield back out to;

  1. Take the pressure off both physically and mentally
  2. Allow your horse to see this as a release from tension
  3. Allow your horse to accept the leg whilst beginning to step under from behind with a soft neck.


By Invincible Spirit out of Lost in Wonder (Galileo)

8 runs: 3 wins, 1 third

Trained by William Haggas, Bred and owned by HM The Queen Stable Name: Phillip

Age: 7 Years old

Level: Novice

Time at thoroughbred Dressage: 2 years

Highlights: Paraded in HM The Queens 90th birthday celebrations in 2016. Phillip has taken a while in his retraining due to the injury he sustained whilst in racing. His nature/brain is quite excitable, so it has taken a long time for him to mentally and physically build up. In 2017 he has started competing affiliated BD Novice and is being placed with mid to high 60’s tests.

At the beginning stages of re training, encouraging a softer neck may position the poll lower than you would require. Over time, as the back muscles become stronger, the poll can then become the highest point, without any tension in the neck or back. I do not ride the canter in a ‘stretch’ when we first start working them. This is because the thoroughbreds conformation already encourages a low wither and high croup action, which we, as dressage riders, do not want to encourage as this prevents the back being soft and the horse truly working through the body. To encourage the softeness/ throughness to come, we do the same as in the trot but on a smaller scale.

First off, I do not work the canter with me sitting on their backs. As long as they are safe, I stay half seat and work the canter with me out of the saddle. In the beginning stages our ex racers are not strong enough through their backs to take us sitting, which leads to tension and resistance to the body and leg. If you can work them in the half seat this encourages the back to stay up, I would do this until you feel that they are becoming stronger and softer in their necks and backs, which will then allow you to sit comfortably and your thoroughbred to stay relaxed and happy. So not to daunt our ex racehorse in re training, the smaller circle is only metre or two in, otherwise if we make the circle too small, we will lose balance, encourage four beat canter and also run the risk of the thoroughbred brain becoming panicked. The small leg yield away from the inside leg, whilst encouraging the idea of dropping their nostrils over their inside knee allows for the bend to come through the whole body.