Retraining the Racehorse for a career in Dressage

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.

THOROUGHBRED Dressage was set up in 2011. It is a stable we have dedicated to the retraining of the racehorse into Dressage. We have enjoyed success with horses at regional, young horse and National level. It really is all possible with the right ethos and training methodology! We aim to produce happy athletes and happy riders. We retrain for numerous owners the most prestigious being HM the Queen, having retrained successfully Mister Glum, Quadrille and Princes Trust. Mister Glum was in fact, the foundation horse for Thoroughbred Dressage and went on to compete at PSG level until his retirement in 2012.

Having ridden since the age of five, Mr Glum saw me through my GCSE’s, A levels and University. After some soul searching I decided that a career with horses really was the only path for me and so along with Mr Glum we travelled to Germany to train with Triple Gold Olympic Medallist Monica Theodorescu.

Monica had an ex racehorse Arrak XX competing at International GP level and so this seemed to be a great place for me to learn and train. This really was the beginning. I was Monicas travelling groom for four years until her retirement from competitive dressage in 2012.

At Thoroughbred Dressage we have a small but wonderful team. As the horses’ body begins to change it is imperative to have the best support possible to keep them comfortable and on form. My Physiotherapist Annabelle Galt, Vets Towcester Equine, Spillers Feed Nutritionalist and Phil the Farrier Pearce are all hugely instrumental to the success of retraining. We are not only retraining the body but the mind of the horse also.

When retraining a racehorse into any discipline, dressage and showjumping are for me the most difficult. We are asking the horse to begin to work against their conformation, breeding and natural way of going. The cross country phase in eventing, horse ball, reigning and barrel racing use the thoroughbred’s natural ability in speed to encourage performance.

Dressage and showjumping require the horse to learn to sit back, carry some weight onto the hocks, off the shoulder and of huge importance for the horse, to remain calm and learn to focus.

“What are we working with?”

One of the most important questions I ask when a new horse arrives is “What are we working with?” The conformation of the horse as it stands.

As a racehorse the breed is encouraged to allow the horse to move as effectively as possible for the job it is required to do. For the wither to sink, the forelegs to pull and the hind legs to push. The horse needs to stay as close to the ground as possible but allowing maximum push and ground coverage. The neck at speed elongates and is used for balance.

Many Thoroughbreds bred for racing are build downhill (Croup High) this enables the pull and push of fore and hind limbs to work at maximum capacity. With this in mind when we retrain for dressage we require the horse to step under and begin to take more weight behind instead of infront.

In retraining I use a training Pyramid.

The base being the foundations. These take the longest to establish.

In basic form, walk, trot and canter on the aids, transitions becoming fluid with no resistance or tension.

When re educating the Psyche of the ex racehorse we need to be conscious that we are dealing with an animal that has been used to a specific routine day in and day out.

Taking the racehorse out of this routined environment and introducing things such as below we do need to allow the horse some time out.

  • turnout
  • different yard routine
  • the fully fit athlete no longer galloping everyday
  • standing to be mounted

When the horse first leaves racing we allow, depending on their level of fitness, a quieter spell/ time off to mentally decompress.

There are small things we can do in terms of groundwork to help with the transition process for example -plaiting your horse at home when going training or just to another area. This will help the horse begin to disassociate itself plaiting =racing.

Putting travel boots on as and when, in the stable, in the yard, take them off, put them on without going on the lorry. this all helps to avoid the “brain snap” that triggers the adrenaline cycle.

When is a horse fully retrained?

All horses are individuals and there is no cookie cutter approach. Some take longer than others. We also consider the reason for their retraining for example is it to find a new home, or to become a competition horse?

For us it is when the horse is happy at walk, trot, canter and has a reasonable level of balance.

They are able to be hacked out and can travel and be ridden away from home happily and safely.

At this stage I would begin to think of the individual now as a riding horse rather than an ex racehorse.

CASE STUDY

Quadrille

10 years old
by Danehill Dancer Out of Fictitious and still owned by HM the Queen trained by Richard Hannon

RACING CAREER
Sprinter, 7 Starts, won 4, 3 seconds
Highlight - Second (by a nose) Royal Ascot 2011
Retired from racing in 2011 due to Tendon injury
Castrated and after a year’s rest relocated to Thoroughbred Dressage.

DRESSAGE CAREER

Won Petplan Festival at Novice, Elementary, Medium and has been to the winter championships at Hartpury twice.

He was taken to the Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and HM The Queens 90th Birthday celebrations in 2016

Quad is currently training and competing at PSG with the hope of going further. Quad is intelligent and beautiful but also a fireball of a horse. He naturally doesn’t have a good trot but has a very good walk and canter.

He is croup high and has followed most traits of young flat horses when leaving racing and growing a lot! In March 2012 he measured 15.3hh and now at 10 years old he measures at 16.3hh.

His cannon bones are very long and considerable time has been taken with him to make sure that tendons and ligaments are not stressed too much whilst he was developing and growing.