We get many inquiries about our training technique at the LOPE Ranch. It’s usually a straightforward process that simply involves some time and patience with the new ex-racehorses that arrive here. Below is the basic outline of our approach:
If the horses are coming straight from the track, we like to give them some time in the pasture to “just be a horse.” Some horses do really well with going right into training directly from the races. But we have found that nearly all of them appreciate a little vacation time between disciplines — even if only to give them a transition phase to adjust to the diet and routine here.Our training approach truly comes down to the horse for us — so we do our best to adapt to fit the situation that he presents.
The turnout time might be as short as week or as long as a couple of months. It all depends on each horse’s individual needs. Some horses come here a little body sore and muscle tight — the time with the herd really seems to help them unwind (both physically and mentally). Others might benefit from becoming barefoot for awhile — in order to grow a more natural hoof (especially if they have been racing for a long time). Turnout in soft pastures will allow those horses to do that more easily. Occasionally, we have a horse come with ulcers — and pasture vacation with some mellow herd buddies can make a difference in their ulcer treatment and recovery.
We also learn more about each horse’s personality and natural way of moving by observing their behavior in the herd. Is a horse more dominant or submissive? Are they social or aloof with their herd mates? Do they move tightly or more loosely? This last point becomes especially important when we begin restarting them under saddle. If a horse has relaxed, free movement out in the pasture but then has short, choppy strides under saddle, it tells us quite a bit about where there might be anxieties or gaps in foundation for the horse. It also might indicate a lingering muscle soreness or low-grade injury, if the horse floats in the field but shuffles under tack.
When a horse has finished his turnout phase, we begin doing some basic ground work. Typically this will involve exercises with a rope halter and longer lead rope at first (rather than free lunging). We work on yielding hindquarters, separating the hindquarters from the front quarters, going by in a circle, bending, backing up and some light flag work. Each of these exercises gives really good information about where a horse might be physically tight, emotionally tense or mentally unprepared. They also help to build confidence in the horse — as well as help us get to know the horse better.
A caveat though — ideally, we prefer to not ground work the horses for too long. Short, productive sessions tend to have the best results for us — rather than lengthy rounds of repetitive exercises that might feel like a grind to the horse. This may be different Short, productive sessions tend to have the best results for us — rather than lengthy rounds of repetitive exercises that might feel like a grind to the horse.for other people and horses however — and in general the handler should take whatever time is needed (whether more or less) to safely prepare the horse on the ground before mounting or riding.
Another form of ground work that we do is simply leading the horse to our round pen. Our driveway is about ¼ mile long — and the round pen is at the very end of it. We have found that the horses will give us all kinds of interesting feedback about their foundation and world view during a long walk down the driveway. During the walk, we will work on helping the horse to stay a respectful distance from us — as well as supporting them when they maybe lose their focus for a moment or two. Eventually, we like to see the horses lead down the driveway with a float in the lead rope — while staying slightly behind and to the right of us. We also will sometimes lead the horse on the right side — which often can produce some entertaining reactions (“What! You people are supposed to be on my LEFT side”).
When the horse is ready, we then will do some free lunging in the round pen (again without being too long or overly boring for the horse). Our goal here is to teach the horse to “stay in school” and keep their focus on the handler — without being stressed or coerced into simply performing repetitive maneuvers. I like to see how a horse carries himself when moving freely in the round pen — as well as how naturally the horse is inclined to pay attention to me. Is he sticky or does he rush? Is he likely to turn immediately into the center and try to get in my lap? Or does he trot around with his head turned to the outside, utterly ignoring my presence? These questions (plus many others) are fun to ask and then answer during the free lunging.I am looking for consistent, clear signals from the horse that he is mentally and emotionally relaxed with each phase before I move on to the next one.
Sometimes all of the above steps (from ground work to free lunging in the round pen) take a week or ten days. Sometimes they take longer or happen even faster — it all depends on each horse’s needs and personality. It can be a delicate balance. We don’t want to rush the horse — but at the same time, we don’t want to hold the horse back and keep hammering away on ground work when he is ready to restart his saddle work. I am looking for consistent, clear signals from the horse that he is mentally and emotionally relaxed with each phase before I move on to the next one.
If we have done our homework and properly prepared the horse, the first saddling should be incredibly dull to watch. I usually saddle in the round pen. The horse stands near the fence, while I hold his lead rope over my arm. I saddle him (without tying him) and then lead him around a little to see how he carries the saddle. My normal approach is gradually tighten the girth (a courtesy all horses appreciate) while walking and doing some light ground work.
I will go through the basic exercises (yield hindquarters, bending, go by, etc) with the saddle and watch to see what might prompt a reaction. Again, if I’ve done my homework well, there should be few surprises — though every now and then, something interesting happens and I need to support the horse through an anxious response. I will also do some flag work here as well — to see if the horse handles the flag while saddled the same way he did before (while unsaddled).If we have done our homework and properly prepared the horse, the first saddling should be incredibly dull to watch.
If all goes well, I then free lunge the horse to see how he moves with the saddle. Again, I like this part of the session to be shorter, if at all possible. The goal is to end the round pen time on a relaxed, happy note for the horse — so that he associates his first post-track saddling with a pleasant experience. But if the horse needs more time at this session, then we take whatever time he needs to conclude the session with a good tone. What the horse needs is so much more important than how long other people say saddling sessions “should” take or whatever the conventional wisdom is about technique. It truly comes down to the horse for us — so we do our best to adapt to fit the situation that he presents.
The next phase — which may happen with the first saddling or at later time — focuses on prepping the horse for the first post-track ride. Now of course all racehorses have been ridden before — but not all of them are acquainted with how to stand still for mounting or how to approach a mounting block.
We will do exercises that help him get ready for a different kind of ride. The horse will be saddled and have on a rope halter with a longer lead rope. Sometimes, I climb up the fence panel and lead the horse by me so that the stirrup is perfectly placed for me to mount. Some horses think this is just crazy — why I am up on the fence and asking them to lead in such a weird way? Where is the jockey already?The goal of the first post-track mounting is that the horse feels so relaxed about it all that he simply stands calmly while I sit in the saddle and pet him.
The point of this exercise isn’t to pull the horse into place so you can mount. It is a continuation of the ground work sessions — where the horse has learned to go by without being pulled on and to follow the feel of the lead rope. It also is teaching the horse that you are in charge of where he puts his feet — and right now you have a very particular place that you’d like his feet to be. He then can search and figure what you are asking for — while also getting used to you being up above him. This will really come in handy when you mount him too.
I also will do the same exercise while I stand on a mounting block. After working on the fence, the horse often perceives the mounting block to be much easier to understand than he would have before. If he leads and stands where I’d like him to be (with the stirrup next to me), I then pet and rub him while giving him a quiet moment to enjoy the correct answer.
From there, I might smack the saddle lightly, lean over and move the right stirrup, lean over and move my hands, etc. Then I might put my left foot in the stirrup (while keeping my right one on the mounting block) and put weight into it. The next step might be to put weight in the stirrup, lean over and move the right stirrup, pat him on the hindquarters and so on.
If I have done my job properly, the horse will react to all of this with a yawn or maybe lower his head while licking and chewing. At this stage, I might repeat the last steps again — or I might prepare to really mount. In that case, I would bend the horse’s head toward me, put my weight in the stirrup, lean over, pet him, repeat whatever steps the horse seems to ask for, and then actually mount.
The goal of the first post-track mounting is that the horse feels so relaxed about it all that he simply stands calmly while I sit in the saddle and pet him. No anxious scurrying off at a rapid walk or startled head bobs. Just a mellow standing around and enjoying the scenery kind of moment.
Depending on the horse, I might just end the session there. Or if the horse says he is ready, I may decide to go ahead and ride him for the first time after the track.
The Waiting is the Hardest Part
The most difficult aspect of this process is recognizing how different it might be for each horse. I have saddled, mounted and ridden a horse for the first time during a single session. Others have taken multiple sessions spread out over weeks just to get used to the flag. Sometimes I will berate myself for being too fast and choppy — and then a horse will arrive who really appreciates and needs a sporty, bold first ride experience. Then just when I am feeling proud of my scrappy, “get it done” approach, several horses show up who require slow-motion replays of every single phase in the process. Waiting to figure out which approach is the right one can be challenging for me — but the horses are good teachers, so I am improving steadily at this over time.
Stay tuned for Part II on how we approach the first rides at LOPE.
Note: For more information on the ground work exercises described in this post, please see our DVD on Retraining Racehorses with Tom Curtin or the 7 Clinic DVD set with Buck Brannaman (which shows full step-by-step breakdowns of each maneuver).