Since October 5, Mystery has been in training at Poseidon Sport Horses with Laura Whitfield. Since Laura’s program has a terrific emphasis on classical foundation horsemanship, she typically likes to focus on groundwork and handling for the first few weeks of training.
Many people might think that spending time on the ground for that long is silly — after all, Mystery has been ridden before (while she was racing) and also had some post-track riding time. So why not start riding her immediately?
As some of our own experience at LOPE has shown, proper ground work can give the trainer a huge amount of information about a young horse’s physical (as well as mental) state. When this is approached with thoughtfulness and care, a good horsemanship trainer can work out numerous minor issues before ever getting in the saddle. Which of course makes the first ride so much more fun and easy for the horse (and the trainer).
Laura like to see how a young horse handles basic tasks such as being tied in a busy barn and being led around a new farm (with unfamiliar paths and obstacles to navigate). Most ex-racehorses haven’t had to stand tied for long periods — they are more familiar with being tied to a walker or being tacked up in their stalls quickly. And of course, most OTTBs right from the track haven’t been trained to stand quietly for long (whether tied or being held by their handler) — the track is a bustling place and the horses are usually on their way to or from some important activity (like working out in the morning or racing in the afternoon).
After Mystery had been with Laura for one week, I came by to visit and watch them work together. Mystery was tied in the barn and was watching the activity in the indoor arena next to her. She was alert and perhaps a little bit restless (she would occasionally shift her feet, wiggle a little and sigh) — but Laura’s patient work with her was already paying off. There were no signs of pawing, neighing or high anxiety at all — even as horses clopped by her heading to the arena and the barn staff began loudly leaf blowing the barn aisle.
After awhile, Laura took Mystery into the indoor arena. A couple of horses and riders were schooling in the ring, trotting and cantering along quietly. Laura had Mystery stand beside her as we talked — so that the filly could practice relaxing and being attentive to Laura first (in spite of the interesting horses and leaf blower nearby).
Mystery settled quickly. She was alert but calm — and quietly took in the scene around her. Laura then began to do some simple ground maneuvers with her – to see where Mystery was tight in her body and in how she moved her feet. She asked for some neck bends and shoulder movements — these were particularly difficult for Mystery on her left side. As we discussed in the Chaplin post, knowing where a horse is physically tight is key. Sometimes horses get into muscle memory patterns (just like humans do) — and they truly don’t realize that another way to move is even possible. Just like a person with a stiff neck can become awkward and tense in their movements — and not realize how much they are accommodating that tightness in their neck.
As Laura worked with the filly, she pointed out that Mystery had trouble moving her left shoulder easily. Because of that, her front feet had some difficulty stepping forward in a free, relaxed way. If you picture that in your mind, you will see what I did. Mystery has a tendency to carry her neck up more than she needs to — because her shoulder is tight – and so her front feet take shorter strides than her very nice conformation should produce.
How do you address this? The most basic approach would be to do more ground flexions — so that Mystery can feel that her shoulder can indeed move more than she thinks. As that happens, she will also start to feel freer in her front end — which in turn will also help loosen the shoulder (and begin to end the circle of physical tension she carries now).
Does this mean Mystery would have bucked or reared if Laura had ridden her that day? Given Mystery’s temperament and willingness, I would say that the odds are very low that would have happened. But she would have carried Laura while feeling tight and less mobile in her front end — and the ride would have been much less comfortable for the filly because of that. Why start out a training ride this way when you can fix up much of the issues before getting in the saddle?
Laura did some more exercises with Mystery, like trotting her while leading and so on. In spite of Mystery having some tightness in front, we were both super pleased to see that she didn’t carry that to her back. Instead, her topline remained quite relaxed and fairly soft — which was impressive, since most horses who feel a bit stuck in front will hollow their backs and tighten there as well. Because her back wasn’t tense, Mystery had good diagonal rhythm at the trot — which was very fun to watch!
The session ended with a big test — Laura led Mystery out to the general pasture areas. There was a big, wooden bridge there — with solid but creaky boards. Many horses will balk or shy from the sound of their feet hitting those big wooden planks for the first time. Not Mystery — she dropped her head and walked easily beside Laura. No big deal at all!
Laura then had Mystery put one front foot at a time on the bridge — to help her stretch and work her shoulder muscles in a different way. Mystery did well and was very willing to try to stand in this odd new position — and was rewarded with lunch and the rest of the day off.
During the next few days, Laura continued with the ground work and leading exercises. She introduced Mystery to a new activity — standing next to the mounting block with Laura while listening to Laura talk to her students and the other riders in the arena. After a short while, Mystery thought the mounting block was a pretty relaxing (maybe even slightly sleepy) place to be. Laura occasionally would step in the stirrup or pull on it — Mystery was content and calm throughout it all.
And then Laura just mounted her during one session — and Mystery thought that was equally relaxing to just standing around by the mounting block. They had a great first ride together and walked all around the arena, practicing neck flexions and stretches.
For Laura (and Mystery), all of that slow, dull groundwork was worth it — to get that awesome, relaxed first ride together. Congrats to them both — we are so proud of Mystery and are thrilled that she has such a kind and patient trainer!
PS: For more information about Laura’s training philosophy and experience with ex-racehorses, please see our interview with her below (or in another post?)
Interview with Laura Whitfield of Poseidon Sport Horses
What is your typical assessment process for a young horse in training (with the understanding that of course all horses are different and that assessment technique can’t be a formula because of that)? What do you look for on the ground initially?
Most horses come in and spend two weeks or so working on the ground to gauge their softness and confidence levels. I spend that time working through tightness in their body and building the leadership roll. I spend time just hanging in the barn, working in hand and the round pen, roaming the property. I look at the horse’s fitness level, conformation, saddle fit and confidence. We play on both sides of the horse and look for training opportunities in everyday life around the farm.
What are some things many OTTBS tend to have in common during the initial training period? (ours are all individuals, but there are few things we see over & over — like a sticky shoulder or tightness somewhere in the neck and/or poll).
Every OTTB I’ve every met had to be taught to stand, both tied and in hand. They’ve just never been taught to park, either by themselves or with a handler. It depends on the horse how long that takes. Most of them tend to be tight and resistant in the jaw, underside of the neck and shoulders (especially on the left). When you start to get them to release those parts, it is always interesting to see what emotion comes up.
What have you especially noticed as cool or unusual about Mystery?
I’m pretty smitten with Mystery. I think she is going to be a very special partner to her new owner. While she isn’t very confident on her own, she is a very trusting mare makes me feel like she’ll follow me through just about anything, even if she’s a bit worried about it. That is something to be carefully nurtured, not taken advantage of. I’d like to see her come to the point of “Let’s do this!” when faced with a new challenge.
Do you have a favorite story about an ex-racer you trained or owned? Why do like them so much?
I was 14 when my parents bought me my first horse, a off track APX named Freedom, and that is what he was to me. He was right off the track and had spent 60 days with a barrel trainer. When I went to try him out, I rode him in a big field next to a VERY busy road with semis flying by and cyclist cruising around. Freedom just did his thing, even if his thing had no finesse. My parents bought him and with Janet Manley’s help, I did my best to turn in him to an eventer. He was my very best friend in the whole world.
Horses from the track may have any number of physical and mental issues, but in the pursuit of that one Kentucky Derby winner, we have bred them full of heart and try. Every one of them “could have been a contender.”