Sunday, January 22, 2012

Green Horses & Green Riders; or, the Confidence Bank

It’s a cold fact, but we’ve all seen it. Green riders riding big, fancy, talented horses—and they are scared to death. They lounge the horse until it is exhausted, wait until the arena is empty, or find a secluded part of the show grounds, and get on with great trepidation. They hold their breath and tighten every muscle in their body. Through clenched jaws they mutter “Ho! Ho!” in some attempt to make the horse “relax.” Meanwhile, the horse, which looked completely calm while lounging, now has his eyes rolling to the back of his head. Mom doesn’t think this is a good idea, so why should he? Inevitably, they won’t have a good ride, the rider will lose even more confidence, and the vicious cycle will continue.

To break the cycle, the best case scenario is to get the horse in training, followed by the rider getting lessons as well until horse and rider can form a partnership. Another perfectly reasonable decision would be selling the horse for something more suited to the rider’s speed. This could be anything from an OTTB packer, to a TB/Draft cross that comes with brains “pre-installed.”  At the end of the day, we’re out there to have fun, and how much fun is it to ride a horse that is bred to do Rolex, if you can’t get him around a novice course?

Confidence, for you AND your horse, is like a bank. You can put confidence in, you can take confidence out, but you can’t take out more confidence than you put in. If you and your horse have been jumping 2’6” really well for a few months, you’ve been making small deposits in to that bank. If, then one day in the course of a jump school you raise one jump to 3’ and it goes well, you just put in a BIG deposit for your next beginner novice! If, however, you raise the entire course of show jumps to 3’, you will likely become a little strung out and frantic, and even if all the rails stay in the cups, you just took a big withdrawal out of the bank to make it happen.

Many upper level riders will only ride preliminary sized cross country efforts in the lead up to their biggest shows for this very reason. It’s important that horse and rider have done their homework well in advance of these big shows, so for the final lead up, they work on doing something the horse knows he can do, and feel good about it, adding money to the bank. When he gets out on the Big Course, hopefully his rider is giving him a good ride, but if the rider has a little bobble somewhere and the horse has to fend for himself and get them both out of trouble, he takes that big Withdrawal, but hopefully keeps going.

So think about that the next time you’re asking a big effort of yourself OR your horse. Is there money in your confidence bank?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


I took Wolfn for our last gallop together this weekend, and there is nothing in this world like a fit thoroughbred galloping underneath you. They gallop and jump and compete for the same reasons we do—for the sheer joy of it. It is such a wonderful feeling, but it got me thinking. For the first time since 2001, I will not have an OTTB in the back of my trailer this season. It made me very sad. Nothing can compare to a thoroughbred’s work ethic, their speed, or their heart.

Photo courtesy Xpress Foto

Thoroughbreds and eventing go together like white on rice. Or, at least they used to. As the sport changes to being more dressage and show jumping oriented, with less emphasis on the grueling speed and endurance day, horses who might once not have had the stamina to keep up for 26 miles of cross country are now able to dance a little bit better, and jump a little bit higher than their thoroughbred counter parts.

At the same time, the thoroughbreds are continuously being bred down ever lighter and faster, and that is making them break down ever sooner. The thoroughbred industry has become, like most things in America, a throw away culture. A horse on the track who lives to finish his career usually only has two, maybe three options. The “lucky ones” go to the breeding shed, some slow horses with considerate owners might be sold privately into “second career” or retirement homes, but the rest— like my horse Wolfn, find themselves at a meat auction. We need more horses like Zenyatta-- big, beautiful, started slowly and correctly, and oh yeah, BIG WINNER!! Seeing her get as much attention and doing as well as she did gave me some measure of hope for the racing industry.

In today’s most elite events, warmbloods are creeping into the winner’s circles, because they are finely tuned machines, purpose bred. But I believe that as long as this sport is still about running and jumping, the OTTB will always be in the fight to have a place at the podium!

We, of course, need to do our part as well. Awareness is so important, so I’m going to share some links of some great work that Steuart Pittman of Dodon Farm is doing out east to help promote OTTB’s into 2nd careers. His project is called the Retired Racehorse Training Project, and starting in a few weeks, they are doing a training challenge where 3 elite trainers (including my mentor, Eric Dierks!)  will take 3 OTTBs for one month, and then be judged by a panel including Jimmy Wofford! Very cool!

To learn more:
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If you have an OTTB, register him or her on the BloodlineBrag
If you are a horse trainer, list yourself FREE on the Trainer Directory