The thoroughbred horse is an exceptional animal, a supreme athlete with considerable intelligence, agility, strength, endurance and beauty.
I would personally describe the thoroughbred as a moderately sensitive breed of horse. Sensitivity, in my opinion, equates to intelligence so far as training is concerned. A sensitive horse will respond to minimal aids which makes it relatively simple to influence, this sensitivity also lends itself to confusion when faced with an inaccurate, clumsy or inconsistent handler—less sensitive breeds tend to put up with more clumsy lines of communication.
The thoroughbred, thrives on consistency and is easily influenced by a
confident, accurate and assertive handler. Unfortunately not many horse handlers possess all of the aforementioned qualities. The thoroughbred race horse, whilst in the racing environment, receives little consistency in the way of handlers and is, most often, handled only in such a way as to get the days work done in the easiest and most time efficient way possible.
Horses in racing are given limited education and are often ridden by whoever is available on the day. Many track riders possess rudimentary riding education at best which in general is sufficient to carry out the task at hand, to get the horse fit enough to run the required distance at maximum speed. One could debate, that better preparation, in relation to education, balance and strength could provide a better result from the race horse.
I have become very proficient at re training horses off the track and I can assure they all have issues that need to be fixed if they are to become quality riding or competition horses. Most are pretty standard, but
occasionally one comes from the racing industry which has been so affected by the experience that is not suitable for re training as a riding horse. They are either physically or mentally damaged to the extent that they will either not hold up to work or pose a danger to someone trying to help them through their issues. Generally these horses don’t come to me—as a rule we won’t take them on. Most race trainers recognise the horses issues and don’t pass them on, unfortunately sometimes euthanasia is the safest and or most humane answer.
Bazaconi came to me at the end of his racing career, a beautiful dark bay horse with that intelligent looking white eye that seems to say I’m watching you at every moment. He was a striking horse with incredible movement. A glamour.
His previous owner and racing trainer was a friend of mine and she was forthcoming with Bazaconi’s issues. He had been an erratic racer, very difficult to handle at the track and very inclined to take the bit at the end of a race and continue to go, sometimes for another full lap of the track before he wore himself out. Now I often get these stories only to see horses come to hand very easily with constancy of handling.
Bazaconi’s previous owner had trained Baz off the track because of his anxiety issues, unfortunately galloping him on bush tracks had resulted in two broken clavicals. Prior to coming to this owner, Bazaconi had had a short racing career interstate, he had not been very successful and was then used as an extra in a racing movie “The Cup” unfortunately, many many takes of short sprints up the home straight didn’t agree with Bazaconi’s sensitive and intelligent temperament, why would it, it just didn’t make sense, gallop for a couple of hundred yards as hard as you could, fight with your rider for a couple of minutes and then gallop a couple of hundred yards again. I’m sure Bazaconi wasn’t the only horse that came out of this experience with issues. After the film Bazaconi found himself at the tried horse sales he was purchased for $300, the going rate for the pet food market.
Luckily for him he was purchased by my friend who could see where he was headed should she leave him at the sales. His second racing career followed, he found some minor success in country racing, luckily for him he found an owner who was determined to see that he got a fair chance at life after racing and he came to us at the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Trust.
When Bazaconi arrived he was not recognised by his action or demeanour as a horse that would cause any more drama than the next. There was no doubting his outstanding movement and striking presence. I was recovering from an injury when he arrived so I had little to do with his initial ground training—we do several weeks of ground work before we start riding them. He was a little rushy on the lunge and did not accept contact well when worked in hand. Had I had more involvement with Baz I would have recognised his issues in the early stages.
At this time we had a 100% success rate in the retraining of horses off the track and I assumed Bazaconi would just be another, maybe a little tricky but just another horse. I was wrong. The first time I mounted Baz, he put his head in the air as high as he could, twisted his neck and took off across the arena crashing into the fence on the other side. I don’t know if you have ever ridden a camel but as a horse person I found it a horrible experience, the camels neck reaches off into the distance, it weaves and bends like a snake and there is no senesce of connection or oneness, such that you feel when riding even a moderately educated horse. That’s what Baz felt like though he was endowed with a little more power and grunt than the average camel.
He was a mess. Normally when we ride our horses for the first time they work well, their frame and posture has been established and they are ready to go on with. The correct frame is imperative, it gives the horse the correct posture to carry weight. No one rides a horse at our training centre unless it has an understanding of maintaining correct posture. It’s not fair to ask a horse to carry weight and be expected to work with his back hollowed and his head in the air. I would not allow a young weight lifter to lift any serious weight without developing his technique, so why would I ask it of a horse ? The classic round dressage frame, developed through the action of a horse engaging his core and back muscles, is the correct frame for the horse to carry weight on its back. We don’t work them in this frame because it looks good, it has practical foundations. It just so happens that it looks beautiful as well, an old saying is “you will know if you are riding your horse well because he will become more and more beautiful if he doesn’t you aren’t”. You might see the correct classical frame in a magnificent statue or painting of horse and rider.
Horses weren’t designed to carry weight, they were designed to eat grass. We weren’t designed to carry weight either probably less than a horse with our upright stance and bipedal walk, however some people carry weight for a living and do it until a ripe old age, if they develop the correct muscles it is possible, if they don’t they will finish up on workers compensation. We don’t want our horses on workers comp before their time so we need to help them develop the required muscles to do the job we want them to do. Horses trained correctly will work well into their twenties, horses not conditioned for their work will break down too early. They may not necessarily break down in the back, but by compensating for poor posture they will break down somewhere.
Bazaconi’s posture was appalling, that of most race horses is poor but this guy had spent so much time resisting and twisting that he had built muscles that were working against him, his carrying muscles had atrophied, his body was twisted, his neck was twisted there was no way of creating a decent connection to allow communication. No wonder he was hard work on the track, all his pre race photos show him being led. He really couldn’t be ridden, just loaded into the barriers, pointed in the right direction and fired.
Now, loads of horse owners would say get a chiropractor, acupuncture or massage… my experience tells me that the best thing for horses with these kind of issues is quality and correct riding. Get the muscles to work the way we want them to work and just about all muscular damage can be reversed.
He was going to need unusually extensive ground work to prepare him for riding. I took him on personally. I went way back to the beginning of his re training. He needed to understand that the bit was not an enemy but a means of communication, he needed to get to the point where he sought the bit rather that avoiding it. This was starting to look like a real challenge, not just gaining his confidence but getting past real physical issues which had developed and consolidated over a number of years.
Thoroughbreds are smart, they pick things up very quickly so communication wouldn’t be a problem. Once clear lines can be established, muscle takes time to build, there are no short cuts, it’s one thing knowing what the rider wants, it is another thing being able to physically do it consistently and with ease. There are plenty of people who can espouse the correct theory of riding but very few can physically do it.
The groundwork would start in earnest and only time would tell.
End of Part One.