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.

The phrase ‘softer over the back’ is a common phrase that many of us with ex racehorses experience/witness. Achieving this in the dressage arena is somewhat difficult as tension of being in the competition arena and asking our ex racehorses to perform in a different manner from their earlier years of training suggests is difficult. It even more of a challenge when we start competing medium and above with our ex racers as it is then that they have to start working against their conformation and take the weight onto the hindleg.

In this article, I want to start looking at some of the harder movements for our ex racehorses in dressage; the extended canter and the collected canter and the concept of ‘sitting’ working towards and performing canter pirouettes.

It is without question that Frankel is one of the most successful flat racehorses of all time. His turn of speed and stamina is something that is truly phenomenal and spectacular to watch. If we take Frankel as the ‘ideal’ mould for a racehorse and have a look at how he moves throughout the galloping stride to see what it is that we are working with/dealing with. I have highlighted the area just behind the back of the saddle, as I feel, that us as re trainers struggle to soften this area and begin to get our ex racehorses to lower their croup.

One of the most amazing thing about the ex racehorses and their canters, if the reach of the hindleg under their body. They have these wonderful ground covering canters, which eat up the ground beneath you. This is fantastic for an eventer, or a polo pony, but as a dressage horse we need to be able to have gears within the pace and be able to adjust the frame and quickness and closeness of the hindleg. We have to be able to teach our ex racehorses how to step, reach under and push up from the shoulder and wither, rather than the croup.

Let’s start with the extended canter, as this movement is potentially one of the easiest for the advanced dressage ex racer as they get so show that wonderful open stride which they are bred to do.

Racehorse ‘extension’:

You can see through the three images the elongation of the galloping stride, and how the area behind the back of the saddle elongates, and almost comes under strain, due to the speed and stride length. The hindleg comes through and under the body, but the croup goes up and the wither sinks. When the stride is its longest, the hindleg is out behind the horse, the foreleg is out in front, and the wither, neck and poll are low and reaching forward.

Advanced Ex Racehorse Extension:

Figure 1

So how can we achieve this frame, with sit and push? As a young re trainer I train the extension on a circle with a little leg yield movement in and out as I go forward and back to encourage softness and thoroughness between the gears in the pace. The circle also helps keep the neck and jaw soft to encourage true throughness. As we progress to the higher levels of dressage I ride shoulder in down the long side and varying the pace of the canter in the shoulder in position. This begins to teach your racehorse to go forward and back with the hindleg underneath and pushing, with the wither and shoulder up. If/when they become stiff, or fragile in the neck and hand, I put in a 10/15 metre circle, with a leg yielding feel on the circle. It is inevitable that your ex racehorse will try and draw their neck back into their shoulders, or pull forward through the bridle, heading downhill. The leg yield on the circle either helps achieve more length to the neck, or stops the disconnection and pull downwards. The circle and leg yield, also takes them back to a place which they understand, feel secure and have known from there previous training.

In this photo (Figure 1) you can see how the lower lumbar is soft, the croup is lower than that of the wither and the poll is the highest point with the foreleg reaching and the hindleg stepping under, a very good extended canter.

Figure 2

Riding ‘on and back’ within the canter in a shoulder fore position will help encourage the lift of the shoulder and wither, which will help us move on to the next difficult movement; the canter pirouette.

As previously mentioned, the racehorse has a wonderful ground covering stride; however, to be able to canter pirouette we need to be able to adjust the canter and make the frame smaller, but the hindleg quicker, whilst still coming underneath the body to help support the horse. This is rather difficult with a horse who's natural default is to lengthen out and fall down at the wither. Most racehorses, due to their breeding, are croup high, this is something we cannot change, or prevent, it is more a question of; ‘how do we encourage the croup to lower, soften and take the weight behind’ The shoulder fore, in essence, takes the shoulders out of the way and to the side, to help create a space for the hindleg to step into, which just happens to be, underneath your horses body. For the canter pirouette we need to be able to turn the shoulders, but the shoulders have to lift up, to be able to be turned, which is very difficult on a horse who naturally saying they want the shoulder down.

Normally, with most ex racehorses, when you begin to ask for collection and sit, due to the lower lumbar being weak, the hindlegs go wider to act as stabilisers. With the wider hindleg, the lower lumbar holds and braces and in turn the neck can become stiff and set. We can see this in the first canter pirouette of Quadrille when he was six years old (Figure 2). The hindlegs are very wide and far apart to help balance/stabilise himself. At this stage of his training, the canter would also be more working and less collected. The stride of the canter will be larger, which is why the reach of the inside hind is so great. The reason for approaching the canter pirouette in the beginning stages with a more woking canter is to keep the quality and rhythm of the canter, but also, so that we don't compromise the neck becoming shorter and drawing back.

Figure 3

Quadrille as a seven year old (Figure 3). He has strengthened behind a lot more, but you can see the width of the hindlegs is still quite wide. The frame of the canter is also still quite open as he is not strong enough to collect and keep the quality of the canter. To help keep the quality of the canter, but encourage the closing of the hindleg I ride a lot of varying size of circles going from travers, to straight to shoulder fore, to straight, back to travers. I also add in leg yield if the canter becomes stuck and a little fragile. Once I feel that this exercise is secure and confident, I begin to take it not a 10 metre circle, slowly decreasing the size, by turning the outside shoulder around the inside hind. The moment it becomes difficult, I leg yield, or ride out of it in shoulder in. This exercise helps encourage the stepping through of the hindleg even when the balance is compromised. It also takes away ‘default’ of falling onto the shoulders by riding out in shoulder fore.


Quadrille as a nine year old (above). In this photo we can see, instantly, the compression of the frame, and how with the compression the hindleg has come under the body and the the croup is lowered, the with and shoulder are up, with a soft neck, waiting for the aid to turn. Notice the closeness of the hindlegs and how the hock appears to be ‘soft’ in comparison to the previous photos, where the hock area looked a bit in bracing and static motion. To achieve this compression and softness of the back, I have taught Quad to go from a canter half pass into a pirouette. This exercise is brilliant as it gets the bend and flexion of the rib cage from the lateral work and has the inside hind already in a supporting role and under the body. At this stage Quad is only doing half pirouettes, to help keep the confidence, quality of canter and bend.


Danehill Dancer x Fictitious

Trained by Richard Hannon

Owned and bred by HM The Queen

Raced 7 times, three wins. Most notably he was secondly a nose the Royal Ascot s a three year old. Retired from racing due to Tendon strain.

Quadrille as a ten year old (left), doing his first Inter I. In the Inter I the test requires full pirouettes, one after the other. In this photo we can see where a slight tension has crept in and as Quadrille is travelling round the pirouette and the hindleg has become slightly wide. However, if we compare this to Quadrille wide hindlegs’ as a six year old, it is a lot less. The poll is the highest point and there is a flexion in the direction he is travelling without the wither or shoulder falling down. This movement for any horse is exceptionally difficult, let alone for a croup high, downhill thoroughbred!