Aug 5 / The Foundation a Racehorse Receives

Sunday, August 5, 2012

In March of this year I began to break my baby horse. He was born on Mother’s Day in 2010. This is an exciting time as we begin the journey to the races together. There are many thoughts that come to mind with regard to the foundation a young racehorse is provided and how it equates to his show or pleasure training, if he is lucky enough to have a future after his race career ends.

The basic premise when green breaking a yearling is KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid. When we break the baby to saddle, we begin with several basic objectives.

Don’t scare him/her.

We don’t want to promote any sort of defensiveness toward the rider or being ridden. We wish to develop confidence in the young racehorse. Confidence is a winning quality. If we frighten the young horse we must then back up to a point in the training when he was completely confident and proceed from there.


Forward is the answer to most any question the young horse may have. Wait and Ho come later for several good reasons. Forward thinking horses are winning horses. From the time we start riding them we ask them to go forward. Forward is good, many times lack of forward means something bad is about to happen. The answer to most any problem or question the young horse may have is “Go forward”. By forward, I mean open your stride, lengthen it. I do not mean take many more strides. If the young horse sees something he doesn’t like, we tell him to go forward. He’s tired, go forward. Going in company? Forward, stay together. Even when we “Hold” them, they are to be forward.

Once the horse is confirmed forward, we begin to ask him to wait and ho. Our goal is that he wait or stop in a relaxed and forward way. In races we need them to settle and wait for the run. If we have to fight the horse to stay back or he is very tense doing it, he uses up vital energy he needs for the stretch run. Remember, when we are breaking these horses, they are so young that wait is a much more difficult concept and you are likely asking too much if you introduce it too early. Besides, most are happy to stand around unless you have frightened them. In the rare cases the young Thoroughbred is dragging the rider around, we put them with the pony and slow down the progress of the training, because they are displaying anxiety, not true forwardness.

We are training to develop a ground covering stride. Breezing – a timed work out is the preparation for racing. Going to the pole, we push them forward into the bit compressing them like a spring. When we break off (usually the pole before, we soften our shoulders, and allow the “spring” to begin to unwind. This causes the horse to cover more and more ground, not more take more steps. More steps is running and running makes a horse tired. Breezing is longer strides, that cover more ground with less effort.

Much focus is given to getting and keeping show horses in front of the leg, in dressage, show jumping and of course, eventing. Since keeping the horse consistently in front of the leg is a fundamental component of training show horses, it is obvious to me that a forward thinking horse is more likely to accept training that requires him to be in front of the leg.

Be comfortable training with other horses.

This is very important. Racehorses compete and train with other horses. We don’t break them alone. We put them in sets and in my case we start them from the very first day with the pony – a retired racehorse. Racehorses generally train in sets until they become too competitive to ride together. We are concerned with how they handle working with and around others, we don’t have any incentive to get them to work by themselves. There are always other horses in a race.

Something you need to know when you are retraining a retired racehorse is that they are used to training around lots of other horses. This becomes an advantage after you properly introduce the horse to training in a much more confined area. Racehorses train on large wide tracks together. Many arenas are not as long as a racetrack is wide. It is not uncommon for 20 or 30 other horses to be on the track at the same time. However, due to the speeds we work, the space we give to each other is much bigger. It may be confusing that the ottb is not happy when you ride him alone, but seems spooky or shy when ridden in an arena with other horses, particularly if they are coming at him. We do travel opposite directions at the track, but the horse is accustomed to a wider berth. The “fix” for this behavior is usually quite easy and I can say this because I correct it quite a lot. You need to tell the horse to “go forward”. He’s asking you what to do, and you must tell him. He doesn’t have to remain uncomfortable about training in such a small area with other horses – unless you are.

I will likely have more insight into the training racehorses receive and how it relates to show and pleasure riding as Mr. Z develops. He just made his first trip to the track to train. He was a super star! Z loaded on the trailer, shipped to Laurel Park. Found company and made his first gallop around the track. Normal for a 2 year old racehorse, sophisticated for a 2 year old horse.