Thoroughbred re training at School Creek Equestrian.

What a great intimate day of working with good people with their beautiful ex racehorses. An educated and focused audience had the opportunity to ask all of their questions and gain valuable advice on the retraining of their horses. I did my best to speak one on one with every attendee.  We worked with 5 different horses on the day ranging from one off the track who hadn’t been handled for 6 years through to a grand pre dressage/ A grade show jumper. A fantastic cross-section of horses and a spectacular environment at the glorious School Creek Equestrian Centre in Kangaroo Valley, no doubt one of the most beautiful locations in Australia.

A perfectly sized round yard sits in a wonderful natural amphitheatre of comfortable grass hills, perfect for a blanket or fold up chairs, to the right an immaculately groomed dressage arena bounded by   forest on three sides acting as wind breaks to create a still and tranquil riding area, to the left lush green drought proof paddocks with post and rail fences. This is where you want to keep your horse.

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Foundation,foundation,foundation.

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I’m sure we have all heard the house building analogies, “If you build on sand, you can build a hut. If you build on solid foundation, you can build a sky scraper.” How true that is when we are working with horses. Every good instructor I have had has said the same thing. I have read it in every good book, I say it to every one of my students and at every clinic I run.

It’s interesting how we hear things said and think to ourselves, “Yeah that makes sense,” and then let the idea drift away until one day it comes back to smash us in the face. Then we say, “I remember so and so saying blah blah blah.”

Have I lost you yet? Are you thinking I’ve heard all of this before?

Often when faced with the realisation of the fact that they have neglected this basic, yet imperative principle, riders refuse to acknowledge their shortcomings. They try every kind of gadget, they blame backs, teeth, saddles, feet and use a million other excuses but eventually, if they are honest with themselves, they will have to draw the same conclusion: they didn’t build the foundation, they have built a house of cards that is destined to collapse at some stage.

Am I boring you?

Let me go over it again. Take some bricks and pile them one on top of the other and see how high you can make the pile. You may get to a metre and a half but eventually the pile will topple over. Start again, take the same bricks and build a base one-meter square. Cement those bricks together then build the next layer 950 cm square and cement it again. You can imagine you might build a tower several metres tall on your second attempt. Understandable that you failed on the first attempt, but you learnt and did better the next time. So if you are able to admit you made a mistake with your horse, you can go back to the beginning and start again, right? WRONG!!

The emotional, physical and mental damage done to your horse on your first uneducated, unthinking or rushed attempt can’t be completely undone. Yes, you can go back and try to re-educate him, you can build some of the muscles you neglected the first time around, but he will remember the point where he fell down before and will always be tense when he approaches that place.

Be it show jumping, dressage, cross country, racing or any other equestrian sport, there are certain foundations which cannot be neglected lest we pay the price of mediocrity.
Look at a dressage situation. Go to a local competition in the preliminary class and there will be 20 or 30 riders. Novice will have similar numbers, in the elementary tests there may be 10 on a good day, then in medium there are three and occasionally there will be two in the classes above. This is my experience in local competitions in Australia. It is very difficult to go past elementary without a solid foundation, this is where it all falls apart.

Occasionally horses fake their way forward but if you look, it is usually easy to see their shortcomings. I am seeing Grand Pre horses advertised in Europe for 200,000 Euro that only flex correctly in one direction.

Let’s say in your local dressage community there are 200 aspiring competitors. Some will never raise the courage to even get into the arena. There always seems to be one rider who has achieved the lofty heights of advanced or above – lets say one at Grand Pre, they have built the foundation and reaped the rewards. One in 200, that’s 0.05%. So let’s be generous and say less than 1% of riders are building a foundation to reach a serious level.

If you have ever had the wonderful experience of sitting on a horse with a real foundation you will know it, you will never forget it and you will always strive to achieve it.

Are you in that under 1% who are doing it correctly? I’m sorry to tell you, but I doubt it.

Great and safe product, what’s not to like.

 

A big shout out to bounce back fencing who have supplied materials for us to fence our new training arena and yards which are under construction at Cana farm. I love the product , it’s hard to imagine why you wouldn’t use it. It has the look of post and rail, is super easy to install, requires no maintenance and last much longer than timber. Not to mention it is safe for your horses. Every big stud knows how much damage young horses can do to themselves on post and rail no matter how careful you are.

Its great to have bounce back as a supporter of the thoroughbred rehabilitation trust. It’s a credit to them to put back into the industry on which they survive.

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The hermit and the horse.

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Dee Teevee was nothing out of the ordinary, a typical entrant to our retraining program; a four year old bay gelding, 16 hands. He is so typical of the horses we are given. He had run in a few races, actually showed some promise but his owner was only interested in racing in the city and Dee Teevee was really only a country standard racehorse.

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Bradley photography 

There are lots of horses that don’t make it in the city and end up on a downward spiral from owner to owner to provincial races then country then picnics and God knows where else. Luckily for Dee Teevee, his owner didn’t want this for him and handed him over to us at the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Trust (TRT). He was an immature looking fella and it never ceases to amaze me what babies most of these horses are when they come to us at the end of their racing careers. This guy still hadn’t finished growing, lots of Thoroughbreds continue to grow into their fifth year. He was nothing to write home about, but he had a lovely, friendly temperament and he had not been ruined by his racing experience. In fact, I would say he had been well handled and had obviously interacted well with whoever had looked after him. He was a people-horse, he wanted to be with you. At the time Billy, as he came to be known, arrived at the TRT, we had just formed a partnership with Cana Farm at Orchard Hills in Sydney’s west. Jill, one of our volunteers, had introduced us to Cana as she volunteered there as well.

Cana is a fantastic place, it is a 40 hectare property where people who have, for some reason or other, been separated from society as we know it, come to enjoy the environment of farm life. They are made up of reformed drug addicts, recent releases from prison, long-term unemployed, homeless and people with mental disabilities. Daryl was one such person. Daryl had had a tough life. He grew up in western Sydney with his single mum and siblings. On Fridays, in a strange Fagonesque way, she would send the kids out to see what they could steal; it was part of the family income. No doubt Darryl’s childhood was nothing like yours or mine and eventually Daryl and his brother progressed to armed holdups, with Daryl developing a serious heroin addiction. At some stage, Daryl’s brother, who had been arrested for some other offence, rolled over to the police and handed them Darryl in return for a lighter sentence. Daryl did a long stint in jail. He had to go cold turkey from his heroin addiction whilst locked in Long Bay Correctional Centre.

Once Darryl was released, his faith in everyone was gone. Darryl retreated to a small flat where he became a hermit. For 14 years, Daryl associated with no one, only surfacing to walk the street and do what needed to be done between 2.00 am and 4.00 am daily. There was no meaningful relationship or even conversation with anyone for 14 years.

Somehow Daryl had ended up at Cana Farm, no one can remember how, but thankfully, somehow he did. Daryl was very prickly. He wasn’t at all eager to mingle, so largely kept to himself. Julie, who runs Cana Farm, remembers he didn’t speak to anyone for nearly 12 months. He referred to her as Miss, as is done in the prison system. Now Julie is not ‘Miss’, Julie is Julie, and every time Daryl called her ‘Miss’ he got a kiss – she was soon Julie.

Cana knows how to work with people like Daryl and he received the counseling and support that he so needed and was welcomed into the community. Cana is not a community as in people live there. They don’t. Community is a lot more than living in a group. It’s belonging to a group who don’t judge you, who care about you and are there to help when you need it. So Daryl was on his way back and he needed something to sink his teeth into. He dabbled in many of the activities that the Farm offers – agriculture, woodwork etc. and as the people from Cana unraveled Daryl’s past, it was revealed that he had had some involvement with horses as a kid. His uncle had trained harness racers and Daryl had done some work around the stables, nothing flash but it was one part of his life that he remembers fondly.

When the partnership between Cana and the TRT struck up, the people at Cana realised it would be a good opportunity for Daryl to take ownership of an important part of the daily operations. Daryl was given responsibly of feeding, watering and generally keeping an eye on the horses. Billy was one of the first to arrive. Billy had just come off the track, he had no social skills and was ostracised by the other horses. Daryl empathised with Billy, after all, he had done his time as a loner. Daryl gave Billy special attention and fed him separately so he didn’t have to fight for his food. Daryl took him out for hours at a time to graze on the lush green grass that grew outside the horse paddock. Billy was happy and so was Daryl and they formed a bond. Daryl began to communicate better with people as he was the horse guy and he told people what they could and couldn’t do with the horses. He had a responsibility and Billy had a protector and friend. For Billy, in his hostile new real horse world, Daryl was Billy’s Cana Farm.

I started to give Daryl some instruction on retraining horses and he relished the chance to work with Billy, to help him find a life after racing.

Billy grew from a gangly immature four year old into a very handsome, solid, confident, five year old. Daryl had handled him well and he responded beautifully to training. Daryl decided that Billy was ready to find a new home, he was too nice a horse to just sit in the paddock doing nothing and unfortunately he wouldn’t fit into Daryl’s flat. So the search for a new home began and Daryl continued to care for Billy, whilst we at the TRT began to school him up for his next career; there was no limit to his potential.

Daryl was now being paid to work at Cana Farm and he has also become involved in the woodworking program where they make furniture from recycled timber. Daryl was meaningfully employed.

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Photo eddy furlong 

Billy’s education progressed well and Daryl took on something of a leader’s roll at Cana Farm, even assisting with mentoring one of the young guys. He was still prickly, but would now communicate well with all comers.

After some time, Billy’s training was completed and soon after, a young girl came to look at him as a future partner. Daryl had always had a view that Billy would be great for a young girl, so he approved. The young girl was a very tidy little rider and her mum supported her in her showing so it looked like the perfect match for Billy.

Unfortunately, as is common these days, the family had had a break up, mum was now looking after five kids, all very active in sports. Mum was flat out, the budget was tight so the four wheel drive and float had to be sold and trying to find money for Billy would be difficult. I could see that this would be a good home and more importantly, Daryl agreed.

Daryl was a bit confronting for people from the other side of the tracks, but he soon showed mum and daughter how much he loved the horse and gave them his approval.
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                                                                     Photo eddy furlong

After a few visits the decision was made, Billy would go to his new home, Daryl was beaming, and there was definitely some sense of accomplishment from a fella who had had no sense of accomplishment in his life. Both Billy and Daryl were better for the experience.

Now there were financial issues. We sell our retrained horses for $5000 with the money made going back into the program. The potential new owners couldn’t come up with the funds immediately but asked if they could go on some sort of a payment plan. Unfortunately I don’t hold the purses strings and this is not something that I am able to facilitate.

I remembered how honourable and fair to the horse the previous owner, Alec Leopold, had been. He was always very keen to see Dee Teevee looked after and had even paid for his keep until a position came up at the TRT. So I decided to get in touch with him. I sent Alec an email in the hope that he might provide some assistance for Dee Teevee’s future and to Alec’s credit, he immediately came back and said he would cover the cost of Billy’s rehoming. Well, there were tears all around. Mum cried, the girl cried, even Daryl geared up a little. What a great gesture from a good man, if only all owners of racehorses showed this responsibility.
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Just before Billy left, Daryl got the chance to ride billy. He hadn’t had the joy of riding since he worked with his uncle 37 years previously. He was nervous to start, but by the end he was all smiles .
I will always remember the picture of Daryl sitting up there on his mate Billy; this job of mine is so much more than horses.

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                                                               Photo jill Moore

Horses from courses UK tour.

Since the release of my book, Horses from Courses, last year, I have found myself much more involved in the retraining of people than ever before in conjunction with retraining of ex-racehorses. This is where the future of the OTTB (Off the track Thoroughbred) rests, in the hands of those willing to put the effort into assuring there is somewhere to go and something to do at the end of the horses’ racing careers.

On my recent trip to the UK, I was able to take part in an exchange of ideas with some of the longest serving and best known Thoroughbred retraining and rehoming programs in the world.
I visited the Godolphin Retraining Centre at Newmarket England, where I toured the facility and gave a somewhat impromptu demonstration of my Horses from Courses/TRT (Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Trust) training system.

Godolphin, from my experience, is the most responsible Thoroughbred racing and breeding organisation in the world. They do everything they can to ensure their horses are well looked after from birth to death.

The Godolphin Retraining Centre has 12 horses in work at any one time with a small paid staff, as do we at TRT, and like us, numerous invaluable volunteers.

Godolphin has knowledgeable and committed staff, as do all rehoming programs. Whilst there, I did some work with the staff and a couple of horses, introducing them to my simple systematic approach to retraining and as I always explain, I have invented nothing. All I have done is take a very effective and relevant training technique and put it into an order which by virtue of its simplistic step by step nature, makes retraining horses off the track simple, effective and efficient. You don’t take the next step until you have solidified the previous step.

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Godolphin fund the program at Newmarket and horses are virtually given away at the end of their training. Only a very well funded organisation, with a serious conscience, can and will do what Godolphin do for their horses.

Next stop was Lambourn, two hours drive south where I met with Di Arbothnot the CEO of ROR (Retraining of Racehorses). This organisation is committed to the cause with a strong focus on developing the perception in the less accepting UK market that Thoroughbreds can do well in the general equestrian world. ROR is privately funded through sponsorship and donations and they run competitions specifically for Thoroughbreds as well as training clinics for those interested in rehoming. Di introduced me to Grace Muir  at the HEROS (Homing Ex-Racehorses Organisation Scheme) organisation. HEROS retrain ex-racehorses and find them new homes. The horses from HEROS go out on a lease arrangement and are followed up throughout their lives after racing.

At Lambourn, I gave a full demonstration to the ROR and HEROS staff and it was very well received. The educated horse people of these organisations saw immediately the simplicity of my system and recognised its value for the retraining community.

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I have been invited back to do some training with their staff and run a clinic and demonstration for the general public. The horse I worked at Lambourn had been diagnosed with kissing spine. This seems to be the most recent catch phrase amongst the equine community in the UK. Put simply, horses who don’t carry themselves correctly, engaging their core and lifting up toward the carried weight, finish up with hollowed backs which in time can lead to the process of the spine compacting, thus causing discomfort and pain. I am, as was Grace at HEROS, a strong believer that correct riding and training can eliminate the oinset of kissing spine and go very far to rectifying the problem should it already exist. Had I not been told about the horse’s diagnosis, I would never have guessed, as when asked to hold himself correctly, there were no symptoms.

My final equine engagement was with the IHWT (Irish Horse Welfare Trust) at balcultry stables in Swords, just north of Dublin City. As with England, Ireland has a perception issue with the idea of using Thoroughbreds for purposes other than racing. Their rich equine heritage, spanning back thousands of years, has seen the development of horses for every purpose. The niches filled by Thoroughbreds in Australia are well serviced by several different types of purpose-bred animals. Along with developing an accepting OTTB market, IHWT recognise the need for training and support of those who are interested in taking a horse off the track.

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I presented a demonstration/clinic to a committed and focused audience. Working with one horse who had already had some work after racing, who exhibited the familiar traits of those we receive at the TRT, had already been started by those well-meaning, but maybe not quite as qualified as required, owners/riders. I often describe these horses as a handful of tangled fishing line; it can be difficult to unravel the tangles already created. The horse was very nice, as were his new owners and with commitment to what I showed on the day, they should finish with a good result.

The second horse was straight out of racing and presented a great opportunity to show the effectiveness of my training system. He was a dream and flowed along through the process without incident. It’s often embarrassing how simple the system can be and it was good that everyone knew I had never seen the horse before the clinic. They may have otherwise questioned whether I had spent several sessions with the horse tuning him to my methods.

Overall the tour was a great experience, I met very well meaning horse people I hope to work with in the future. I was made aware of the variations of circumstances facing the Thoroughbred rehoming communities in different countries. And I came away confident that my ‘Horses from Courses’ retraining system holds up very well on the international stage. It made me very proud of my staff and volunteers at the TRT. Thanks to all of you for your ongoing efforts.

Different strokes for different folks. Varying strategies for thoroughbred re homing organisations

On my recent trip to the UK, I was astounded to see variations in horse cultures from countries with a common ancestry. I would like to discuss specifically, the variations in relation to the perceptions of the Thoroughbred horse and how those perceptions and history influence the best practices for organisations committed to the welfare of horses at the conclusion of their racing careers.

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Until  recently 95% of police horses in Australia were thoroughbred

In Australia, the Thoroughbred has always been recognised as a competitive equestrian and pleasure horse, as well as a supreme racing athlete. The Thoroughbred is a relatively new breed of horse, beginning its development only 400 years ago and has been in Australia for the country’s entire equestrian history. It is the foundation of the only recognised Australian breed, the Australian Stock Horse.

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The all purpose Australian stock horse sports some of the best thoroughbred blood lines in the world

Up until only 20 years ago, Thoroughbreds were double registered as Stock Horses and Thoroughbreds. The Stock Horse foundation has some of the best racing blood in the world. When Australia burst onto the international equestrian scene, they did so on the Thoroughbred. Our second Olympic Games, brought us three equestrian medals; two gold and silver all on the backs of Thoroughbreds. image

The highly successful Australian olypic team from Rome 1960 all ride thoroughbred horses 

From that time forward, the Thoroughbred has been the backbone of Australian equestrianism. Up until recently, the Thoroughbred was trained to the highest level in dressage, show jumping and eventing. The introduction in any serious way of the European Warmblood and other foreign breeds is relatively new, occurring in the last 30 years or so.

A market for the Thoroughbred exists and always has. Some damage to the market has been done by the introduction of the foreign breeds, but largely, Australia appreciates and utilises the abilities of the Thoroughbred. The focus for the rehoming of Thoroughbreds in Australia needs to be education of riders, particularly those who have been influenced by the current fashion of the foreign breeds. Professional retraining of Thoroughbred horses, in numbers that can supply the hungry market and to a lesser extent, the renewed promotion of the Thoroughbred as a competition and leisure horse.

The UK has an historic and rich horse culture that goes way back before the advent of the Thoroughbred. In fact, in the 10,000 years of history of the UK, the Thoroughbred is a very new addition. Breeds have, over the millennia in the UK, been developed for specific purposes, such as, war horses, Draft breeds, riding breeds, carrying and carriage breeds.

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Purpose bred horses in the equestrian environment of the UK. Top left the Irish sport horse, top right Spanish breeds found there way into the UK with the Romans. Bottom right the ancient Cleveland bay developed as a load carrying horse.

The original English-bred horses were combined with an infusion of Arabian blood only recently, to develop the speed and stamina of the modern Thoroughbred. The Thoroughbred has not been needed for any specific purpose, other than racing.

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Only in recent times were these three foundation stallions added to the equestrian landscape in order to develop the modern thoroughbred.

So in the UK, the Thoroughbred is a racehorse, the Irish sport horse is great for jumping, hunting and eventing, the European Warmbloods and Spanish breeds suit dressage, with various breeds of ponies and mixtures of the aforementioned breeds having served as pleasure horses. There has been no need to bring the Thoroughbred into the equation.

Now with large numbers of Thoroughbreds leaving the racing industry and with greater expectation of the population in relation to horse welfare, Thoroughbred rehoming organisations in the UK need to promote the use of the Thoroughbred in the various equestrian fields. Money is being spent promoting competitions featuring Thoroughbred classes and awards are given for Thoroughbreds excelling in open competition. This needs to be the main focus of this rehoming market, but it needs to happen in tandem with an educational focus giving potential Thoroughbred owners the tools and support needed to make the rehoming of these ex-racehorses an enjoyable experience.

So two surprisingly different market places. Australia with an existing market, requiring a focus on education and supply to the market and the UK still in the process of developing an accepted and viable market, but also with a requirement for education and support for that market.
I have been retraining Thoroughbreds for nearly 30 years and it wasn’t until I visited the UK recently with a focus on Thoroughbred rehoming, that I became aware of the acute differences in the horse cultures and the varying requirements in the field of Thoroughbred rehoming throughout the world.

Each market must be assessed and focused on the most relevant issues in its unique environment. There is no doubt that each market in each country with a thoroughbred industry will face its own challenges and must develop strategies to siut their particular needs.

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Education, training and support are esential elements of any thoroughbred re homing program . 

Largely, I think a three-pronged approach of establishing a market, producing a product and then developing an industry around the development of the product, is the way forward for the Thoroughbred racehorse. Rehoming industry, these three elements will be required in all environments but each in varying portions determined by the individual market places.

Personally, I am happy to be involved in such a worthy cause in a positive way, it’s disappointing to see some of the passionate anti-racing organisations wasting their energies in a negative way, rather than working positively to produce a better outcome for horses at the end of their racing careers.

 

A diamond in the rough. Finding the hidden horseman

 

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When I first started working with the inmates at St Heliers prison, I would go up for a week at a time in order to train the inmates in the skills required for them to do their part in the retraining of the ex-racehorses from the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Trust. Horses donated to the Trust, go to St Heliers to let down before we commence working them. Most racehorses, when they leave the track, have had no socialisation since they left their mums as foals. Generally, for most, if not all of their lives, they are wrapped in cotton wool, stabled and spelled in individual yards so they don’t get hurt. Because of this, they miss out on learning the critical social skills required to be a horse. Imagine keeping a kid in an isolated room, sometimes letting him see other kids, but not allowing him to play, touch or interact. You feed him what he needs, you keep him immaculately cleaned and healthy in the body, lock him up from say, one until twelve years of age, give him very little education and no communication skills and then send him to high school. The result would be terrible for the kid. Well that’s where a racehorse often is at the end of his racing days. At St Heliers, we have big paddocks where we put five or six horses in together, often with a horse that has already been socialised or better still, an old tough draught horse. Let the old fella teach the young fellas how it’s done.

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Once they have had six months of lessons from the other horses and time to let down from racing, the inmates start to work with them. The inmates do around six weeks with each horse; natural horsemanship for want of a better word. Work in hand and lunging usually, no riding. The inmates do courses at the local TAFE in horse management, stable maintenance, farriery etc. In the first group of inmates I was involved with, there was a guy named Digger. Digger was a nice bloke, very polite and respectful – a fair effort when you consider I am an ex-copper. Digger was there when I gave all of the boys as a group, a lecture on what we do, how we do it and what was expected of them. Digger was quiet when I started to work hands-on with the horses. He stood back and carefully watched what I was doing and unlike some of the other boys, he wasn’t going to tell me what he knew and what he had done. Digger was fit with a hard look about him, and between you and me, about 10 kgs lighter than he is now. He seemed to have respect around the place, he was a trainer who worked out in the gym, did some boxing, and was always eating an egg to get his protein intake up. Gradually I got to work with all of the guys and Digger was one of the last. I asked him what he knew about horses and he told me he had done a bit with them as a kid. So Digger comes into the round yard with a horse they had christened Cranky. Now I knew Cranky’s reputation, the inmates didn’t know that as a racehorse, he was known as Evil. Cranky had his ears back constantly whenever a person was around and he would turn his backside to you if you went near him. He had bitten one inmate on the head, causing a nasty gash and scaring him out of the program. Digger was in the round yard working with Cranky under my instruction. He had chosen Cranky as his horse as he knew he had issues and had felt sorry for him. We were in the yard working on getting Cranky to lunge in a halter; he kept stopping and presenting his backside to Digger. Now Digger was very passive towards the horse and he needed some assertiveness. Eventually, with a bit of instruction, Cranky was lunging around the yard but quickly knocked up and decided he had had enough so he put the breaks on and was going nowhere. Very passively, Digger tried to encourage him forward, I gave him the spiel, be as firm as you need to be but as soft as you can be. Digger was too soft, not what you would expect for a tough bloke who had been in and out of prison all his life. I tried to talk him into a little more assertiveness, but he just wasn’t getting a result. After a while of ignoring Digger’s efforts to get him to go forward, Cranky decided to back up. Well that was it! Digger flogged him with the lunge whip and Cranky surged forward out of control, “Steady mate, steady.” I called to Digger, “Whoa, whoa.” I preceded to explain that there are a lot of grey areas between black and white and you need to just do what needs to be done, not over do it. Digger was red faced, fired up and a little embarrassed. In jail, you can’t let anyone get on top of you. This was the issue I assumed, conditioned reflex when someone is having a go at you, attack is the best line of defence. I went back to the hotel that night and couldn’t get that episode out of my mind. Digger had a very good feel and he could make a horseman but he needed to learn to control his emotions. The more I thought about it, the more I thought to myself, ‘I bet this is the way he leads his life. It’s probably why he finished up in jail.’ The next morning at the prison, I had decided that Digger could make a horseman and I was going to do my best to make it happen. Digger came up to me at the beginning of the day while I was standing by myself and said, “You know what happened yesterday? That’s how I live my life, that’s how I got here.” Who would have thought?…. We sat down and talked about him and where he had come from and Digger started to loosen up. He had a long-term girlfriend, whom he was loyal and seriously committed to and they had a son. At some stage, Digger’s good mates had started to warn Digger that they felt his misses was up to something shifty. Initially they didn’t go into detail, but told him to keep an eye on things. Digger wasn’t concerned, as he couldn’t see any issues and life went on. A mate started to warn him that another mate may be making some moves on his girl and Digger wouldn’t have it, “He is a good mate, he wouldn’t do that to me.” And after all, he trusted his girl. His mates kept giving him the heads up but he didn’t believe it and didn’t want to believe it and he did nothing proactive, didn’t raise it and went on with his life. One night his girl was staying away from home, they had been having a few issues, but she had sworn there was no-one else. Early in the morning, a mate turned up at Digger’s house and forced him to get into his car, “You need to see this.” he said. He drove Digger to where his girl was staying and he went into the house and saw his mate’s wallet on the table. He then found his wife in bed with his best mate, All his denial became an uncontrollable rage and basically he flogged the guy to within and inch of his life. Digger got eight years for the assault, which they also called a home invasion. Some would say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The reality of the situation was that had Digger taken some action earlier, instead of doubting the honesty of his mates, he would probably not be in jail. Sure the relationship might have been over, but he would be out on the street. In a much smaller way, this is what Digger had done with the horse the day before. Digger told me he had worked as a stockman in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, “The things I have seen done to horses I won’t even tell you about, but I always believed there was a better way. I like what you do and I want to learn how to do it.” he said. Digger had committed and I could tell that his loyalty would not allow him to let the horses, or me, down. He decided to stick with Cranky and committed to him as well. Long before I had turned up, even though Cranky had some bad traits, Digger believed there was good in him and he was going to prove it to everyone. It was about a month when I returned to the prison for my next visit and I was working in the yard with a horse. Digger was standing watching from outside, with a horse standing quietly beside him with its head basically resting on Digger’s shoulder.

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Eventually, my focus went from the horse I was working on to Digger. “That’s not Cranky?” I enquired. “Yep,” came the reply with a cheeky proud smile, “that’s him.” “No way!” I replied in awe, “I can’t believe it!” This guy was a horseman, some people are born with it. Digger had been taken off track by outside influences and he would always have to control his temper, but he had what it took, he could get inside a horse’s head. Digger became the backbone of the program in prison, as he was passionate and committed.

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I decided that when he got out, I would employ him immediately, but I hadn’t seen him ride. When Digger had about two months to go on his sentence, I turned up with a saddle. “I want to see you ride.” I said. He was apprehensive about getting into a dressage saddle as he was used to a big western or stock job. Digger had become an expert at working in hand and I knew all he needed was to learn to sit still and he would ride as good as anyone. I put him up on Cranky, “Okay, put your legs here, sit up straight, relax your shoulders.” he did this well, “Now just do the same things you have been doing on the ground.” Cranky rounded into a nice frame, he bent calmly around Digger’s inside leg and walked off in a dressage frame. By the end of the lesson, Digger and Cranky could have won a preliminary dressage test – really! This was the horse’s first ride off the track and Digger’s first time in a dressage saddle and I couldn’t have been prouder. Digger now had two months to work on his riding before he would be released. I left Cranky with him, I couldn’t have done a better job myself so why would I take the horse away? Digger came to work with us at the TRT.

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                                                    Digger part of the team

On his first day, we did an exhibition at Equitana Sydney, what a culture shock. From the prison with a few inmates, all just existing from day to day, to assisting in front of a crowd of hundreds in a team that was earning respect. Digger took it in his stride and I think he felt he had arrived where he needed to be. Digger worked with us for two years, training dozens of horses.

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                            Digger re trained dozens of ex racehorses with the TRT

He finished Cranky’s training and we found him very good home. Digger had completed a farrier’s course in prison therefore saving us tens of thousands in shoeing costs. Unfortunately, we don’t pay that well.

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                                       Cranky once his retraining was complete

Digger had a new girlfriend who had a couple of kids. She had been the wife of a mate whom he was looking after, who had died of cancer. She was a great lady and really good for Digger, eventually one thing led to another and they became a couple. Digger was being loyal to his mate in looking after his wife and kids and she had a good man. They had a child and eventually Digger had to move on. He needed to make the money he could, working for himself. He had given me two good years on the outside and became a great mate.

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Digger would do anything for me as I would for him. I wished him all the best and off he went, he now works for himself as a farrier and horse trainer. Recently he helped me out at a course for soldiers coming home from conflict with PTSD, I can’t tell you how proud I was of him. He was a teacher and I heard him give the same advice that I had given him, “Be as firm as you need to be, but as soft as you can be.”

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                               Digger up the front with the soldiers he is a teacher

Irish/Arabian hospitality

Today I present for the Irish horse welfare trust in swords just out of Dublin. The hospitality of the Irish has been fenominal. I have visited numerous studs trainers and horse facilities. The horse culture is rich, historical and varied. It’s a whole different ball game to down under. I will do everything I can to promote the fact that thoroughbreds can make it any field, traditionally they have not been the choice of most Irish riders largely because of the variety of purpose bred horses over here.

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I have to thank the Godolphin/Darley organisation for what they have done for me while I have been away they are the pinical of professionalism in thoroughbred training and breeding, if everyone followed their lead in training and management the world would be a better place for horses. Of course it’s nice to have sheik Mahammad funding things but the reality is racing is a rich mans sport if you can’t afford to manage and treat horses correctly you shouldn’t be in the game.image

            Be. Our diggs at Godolphins Kildangan stud in Ireland 

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godolphin Darley head and shoulders above the rest in breeding training and caring for thoroughbred horses 

re training the ex racehorse part 10

 

Once the work in hand and lunging are established it is time to start the horse under
saddle. All of the systematic work previously carried out has led us to this point.
If the horse is working with the four essentials, forward contact on the outside reign,inside flexion, tempo and Rhythm you can be pretty certain that there will be a smooth transition to the ridden work.
By this time, any idiosyncrasies the horse may have should have been exposed, if at any time you are uncertain about mounting the horse seek experienced assistance.
Every workout at this point should move through work in hand into a minimum of 20
minutes lunging or however long it takes to have the horse traveling as you would like him to whilst ridden.

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“Prince Thorbro” blue print for the life of a racehorse.

My old man was a punter and a pretty serious one at one stage. As I got more and more involved in horses Dad and one of our mates, Thorny, decided they would breed a racehorse. Dad decided he wanted to enjoy the journey, a good idea considering most horses bred to race don’t even make it to the track.

Dad got into it, researching bloodlines and decided what he wanted to breed. It so happened that a girl I was working with was looking to lease her thoroughbred mare as a broodmare for a season so Dad looked at the breeding and it suited the stallion he wanted to use. Now truth be known, all thoroughbreds trace back to four stallions and it wouldn’t matter which bloodline you follow, it will lead you to some champion who did something impressive within a generation or two.

So we picked up the mare, she was small, not 15 hands but she was solid. We put her on the float and drove her to the stallion up in the Hunter Valley. This was all an adventure for Dad who hadn’t had much hands-on experience with horses. We met the stallion, a big solid fella of 16 hands. County was his name and as Dad constantly reminded us, he was the son of Vain and he was by the great Wilkes. Didn’t mean much to me but it had Dad psyched.

You should have seen the excitement when we got news of a positive pregnancy test, champaign all round! We picked the mare up and bought her back from the Hunter. She spent the rest of her pregnancy in a paddock full of massive shire horses at a friend’s property in Kangaroo Valley. Dad visited her every couple of weeks and gave us in-depth reports of how the pregnancy was going. As the big day approached, Dad moved down to the farm and stayed on his own with the mare, he wanted to be there for the birth “in case there were any issues” not that he would have known what to do in any case. He got there 10 days before the birth because “they do sometimes come early”. 10 days after the due date, Dad was still waiting. Finally, it looked like this would be the day, the mare was waxed up and things were looking imminent. Dad sat with her in the heat all day long. The foal didn’t arrive so he sat there all night; still no foal, he was starting to worry. At 6.00 am he went to bed exhausted, at
7.00 am the caretaker woke him up to say “Congratulations you have a new foal.”

The excitement cancelled out the disappointment of missing the birth. “Prince Thorbro” had arrived. There was much conjecture over the name but it had to have the word Prince in it, one of our friend’s big draft mares had died in foal a couple of days earlier, her name was Princess and Dad had nursed her through her final hours.

I was with Prince as early as I could be on the day he was born. I wanted to implement some imprinting principles. Ideally you want to be there at the birth, but you can only do your best. I sat with Prince and his mum all day, by the end of the day I could handle him all over, I could restrain him, move him around with finger pressure and touch him all over. He had had the clippers on him a halter and was leading gently, he was happy to be with me and his mum was fine with it.

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In the first week I put him on and off the float, bagged him down and put a girth on him. After a week, I left him alone with mum to do as he pleased. My friend wanted to separate him from the herd so he wouldn’t get hurt, but I wanted him to have the opportunity to live as naturally as possible. No one educates horses as well as other horses. Prince spent the next six months with mum at Kangaroo Valley in the herd of giant Shires playing with foals his age that were as big as his mum.

At around six months, we brought him to Sydney with mum, we had a paddock in Coogee believe it or not. In the middle of the eastern suburbs of Sydney, backing onto a Defence Force property, I had about five horses there, a round yard, a massive dam and a full cross country course which I had built to train on.

Prince was an independent little fella who didn’t hang around with his mum, but spent time with the other horses. He ate with mum and this worked well because she was a great eater, he learnt that if he didn’t eat up, he missed out. Being a good eater is imperative for a good racehorse, you can’t run without fuel.

Prince spent less and less time with his mum. At the same time, I had a half draft mare in the paddock, she was to have foaled but it had turned out she had a phantom pregnancy. She went through the whole process and nothing happened, she did however produce plenty of milk, which Prince discovered. I’m not sure who adopted who, but Prince was soon feeding happily from the big girl, he was happy with his wet nurse, she was happy with her surrogate foal and mum got rid of that pesky foal who was eating all of her tucker and ruining her boobs. Shortly after, we returned Prince’s mum to her owner. Mum didn’t fret, Prince didn’t fret and it was the easiest weaning you could ever ask for. Dad spent more and more time with Prince, he hand fed him and spent day on end just hanging around with him, it was good for both of them.

I did loads of groundwork with him over the next year or so and I think he saw me as his big brother, the imprinting done at birth was worth every minute, he trusted me implicitly, farriers, vets, dentists none could believe how easy he was to deal with. On one occasion, when someone left the gate open, Prince, my leopard Appaloosa, our son’s miniature pony Tuppence and Archie the shire horse; and at that time the biggest horse in the southern hemisphere, decided to go exploring. I was working at the Mounted Police at the time and we got a call to say that there were horses running loose on Anzac Parade. The location was about halfway between my paddock and Randwick Racecourse. I had my fingers crossed that the runaways were horses from the track. No such luck; the motley crew had galloped for about three kilometres down the medium strip on Anzac Parade in peak hour traffic. Anyone who knows Sydney, knows how busy that road is in the morning. Luckily no one was hurt and Prince made the papers before he even started racing. I rode the big draft horse home with the motley crew following behind.

 

It was about this time that tragedy befell my family. My younger brother, aged only 27, died of cancer. It was devastating. We all have to deal with this stuff in our lives, but things like this really do change who we are, sometimes for a while, sometimes forever. My Mum and Dad did it tough, you’re not supposed to outlive your kids. Prince became a bit of a crutch for Dad and he spent every minute he could at the paddock, sometimes just sitting and quietly watching and sometimes hand feeding or fixing fences. Prince was a great distraction – something to focus on. I just made myself busy. Prince was a part of that, I just kept busy as it stopped me thinking; I don’t think I’ve ever stopped being busy since.

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As a result of our constant hands-on contact with Prince, he was like part of the family. He was the centre of every conversation – he was something positive we could all share. By the time Prince had reached the age to be broken in, he was so well handled it was just a matter of getting on and riding him. I worked and educated him as I would one of my eventers, or a Police horse. He worked around the streets of the eastern suburbs calmly in the traffic, he built a nice dressage foundation and popped over a few fences. To get him used to working confidently amongst other horses, we did troop drill with the Mounted Police. We worked in a section of four and even did a practice for the Police Musical Ride with the Police Band. We did light half-pace gallop work around a local Australian Rules football field. His dressage was going so nicely I decided to enter him into a competition. He performed admirably at a local show and came home with a first place ribbon. He competed up to elementary level.

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Occasionally I rode him to Maroubra beach before light and did laps at the canter in the soft sand, before coaching a rowing crew at the same beach and then going to work at the Mounted Police followed by working my competition horses in the afternoon. As I said, I kept busy. We did the same thing at Brighton beach. When we lost our paddock at Coogee, we kept Prince at an abandoned lawn bowling club at St George in Sydney’s south; a few warm up laps on the green, a 10 minute trot through parks and along grass verges to the beach. When the tide was out we could gallop half pace on the firm sand or in ankle deep water for 15 minutes without having to stop, it was a bit hairy in the dark but what a wonderful experience on a warm summer’s morning. We went swimming in Botany Bay once a week, right next to the runway at Sydney airport, he didn’t even sweat jumbo jets taking off and landing beside him.

Finally it was time for Prince to become a racehorse. One of my friends, Karen from the Mounted Police, was married to a vet who had decided to take up training racehorses. Karen was a great rider and horsewoman, short-listed for the Sydney Olympics. She was to ride Prince in his trackwork, I couldn’t have asked for more.

Prince floated from the trainer’s place where he lived, to Rosehill racecourse for work each day, with Dad turning up regularly to watch him work and keep us up to speed on his progress. Prince lived in a paddock, no stressed-out stable life for him, he was very happy. His training came along nicely and when he spelled he came back to me and when possible we snuck in another dressage day, even race-fit he was obedient and relaxed.

The day came when Prince was ready to race. He was to start at Cessnock, a country track in the
Hunter Valley. Myself, Dad and our mate Thorny, the Thor in “Prince Thorbro” traveled three hours in the car, it was a stinking hot day in the high thirties. Prince arrived and was more fired up than I had ever seen, pawing and anxious in the tie up stalls. Karen got him out of the stall and walked him around the parade ring and we went to checked him out; he was in awesome condition. However, as he was not stabled, his coat was bleached out and he had gone from a dark bay to a wishy-washy light brown colour – almost buckskin. Two experts stood beside us as we watched him parade, “Now you can tell this one hasn’t got a hope, look at his coat you can tell he isn’t healthy, probably shouldn’t be here, looks wormy.”

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They went to the barriers, one horse played up for a long time, refusing to go in. Prince stood sensibly until the troublemaker was scratched. The tension was terrible it was like your first kid’s first day at school, all excitement and pride and still concern for how he will cope.

They were off. Prince jumped well and went to the front immediately, he had led in a race. We heard his name over the loud speaker! “Prince Thorbro leads by a length and a half.” We looked at each other with a satisfied smile; the journey had finally come to the racetrack. Prince was battling on, Dad and Thorny, as seasoned punters, were concerned, could he hold on? I was choked up with the emotion of my baby running in a race. They hit the straight, Prince still had the lead, the finish line was looming and it looked like he was gonna win! Was he gonna win? He is gonna win!! He is gonna win!!! Woooohoooooo!! He Won!!! He Won!!!! He Won!!!!!

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Now to say we were excited was a serious understatement, I lost all control of my emotions; I was like another person, I was almost speaking in tongues. My gosh, we had won a maiden at Cessnock, there was no doubt in my mind that the serious, hands-on approach of breeding, raising, breaking and pretraining Prince made the experience all the more emotional but what must it feel like to win the Melbourne Cup? I don’t think I have another level of emotion to go to, I fear I would just spontaneously combust into a pile of ash on the ground.

I can’t imagine owners who have just paid the bills and seen a few track work sessions could possibly feel the way Dad and I had felt that day, what a sense of achievement. Prince pulled up well and we celebrated well into the night. Prince went on to win a couple of races and at one stage someone offered us four times what we thought he was worth but we were never going to take it. What a joy it was to be involved to such an extent.

Prince retired as a four year old and went on to do a few more dressage comps. Almost from the day he stopped racing, I used him to give lessons, such was his education and the trust I had in him. I gave my kids and others lessons on him and he would lunge beautifully with constant rhythm and tempo allowing total novices to develop their seat or pop over jumps kindly and calmly, coping with clumsy hands or lack of balance.

One of my students, who particularly loved Prince and had many lessons on him, was moving to the country. She was a vet student and had spent a year with me learning horsemanship and riding skills. Prince went with her, as I knew he would be well looked after.

Prince is now in his 20s and is fat, happy and gets ridden occasionally and life is good.

This is how the life of a racehorse should read. I learnt a lot from Prince and he helped our family through a tough time, we couldn’t have done it better.