Before the Clinic
At the beginning of November, I began working with Showtime Queen (aka “Queenie”) in the round pen. My goal was to prepare her for the Tom Curtin Colt Starting clinic at the end of November. We began with some simple ground work (walking circles around me, suppling exercises, backing up, and so on) — and then progressed to free lunging in the round pen.
Queenie was willing but tight in her body — especially in her left shoulder (but her right shoulder wasn’t very loose either). She has some old scars on her hind legs, and it was a little difficult for her at first to step her hindquarters in and cross the inside hind over. From that description, you can probably tell that bending wasn’t easy for her — Queenie’s shoulders really wanted to lead the way and her hindquarters were a bit stuck as a result.Huge thanks to Retama Race Park and Dana L. for sponsoring Queenie’s registration and paddock costs for the clinic! And I’d also like to thank Tom and Trina Curtin for their extra coaching and help — it made a big difference for Queenie and me.
She also needed help staying focused during the sessions — I was reminded of my own somewhat distracted personality as I watched her attention flit rapidly between me, the grass, our neighbor’s cows, her pasture mates, and random birds. I contributed to this issue, as I sometimes wouldn’t wait on her long enough (so she could respond) and instead was too quick to jiggle the lead rope and be somewhat spastic myself.
Overall, though, she was pretty relaxed and curious about what we were doing together in the round pen. She really wanted to be supported and helped! I worked with her on learning how to relax and drop her head while being held in place along the fence. At first, she thought she couldn’t possible fit in that space — but when she did exhale, relax her neck and raise her withers a little, Queenie realized that she felt much more comfortable.
That one simple maneuver seemed to build her confidence quite a bit. During the free lunging, she tended to trot with spiky, big strides — but with her head high and her shoulders fixed in place. As we practiced dropping her head and relaxing, she began to take a few steps in a draping, “long and loose” type of trot. Upon feeling that, she typically would suddenly put her head back up, hop for a few steps and look at me as if to say, “How did I DO that?” Very cute!
Colt Starting Clinic
Tom Curtin’s Colt Starting seemed like an ideal clinic for Queenie. She is very green, so the foundation work that Tom stresses is ideal for her. At the track, Queenie was known for being nervous and unhappy — and I thought Tom’s clinic would help reassure her that work doesn’t have to bring out that response in her. Tom creates a very clear tone in his Colt Starting classes — and the horses (as well as the riders) make progress quickly (especially the ones that might be anxious or worried).
And I was a little anxious myself. A few months ago, I took a good-sized tumble off a young horse. While that kind of situation can occasionally come with the equestrian way of life, I still wondered if I would be nervous with Queenie in the clinic. The last thing a green filly needs is a rider who tightens at the wrong moment — so I wanted to be as confident and relaxed as possible for her sake.
Another level of concern descended a few days before the clinic — at a routine chiropractor visit, some xrays showed that I might have some ligament issues in my neck (from the fall). Fortunately, after a hasty MRI and a consultation with an orthopedist (the day before the clinic), I was approved to ride in Colt Starting — but with the caveat, “please try not to fall on your neck.”
First Day of Clinic
At the clinic the next morning, I was doing my best to focus on the filly (rather than my neck). In a new place, with lots of other horses, Queenie’s nervous persona from the track appeared. She paced, jigged, and swiveled her head (and attention) almost constantly. Tom worked with all the colts individually on that first day in the round pen. Queenie responded immediately to him (as all horses do) — and I could see how hard she was trying to understand what was being asked of her. She really wanted guidance — and that is exactly what Tom gave her. By the end of their short session together, Queenie seemed more relaxed and comfortable with herself.
After working with all the colts individually, Tom had them turned out together in the big outdoor arena. From horseback, he moved them as a group and also worked with them one-on-one (using his flag and horse to encourage the right things and make the wrong things difficult).
By the end of the first day, we were all riding our saddled colts together in the round pen (using just the halter and lead rope on their heads). Queenie did really well — she was baffled by the whole clinic structure, but she knew that Tom was there to help — and she decided I was on her side too.
Second Day of Clinic
On the second day, we rode in the same way for most of the class. Tom flagged us from horseback while we worked on separating the hindquarters from the front quarters. This is a familiar exercise to many clinic fans. Tom would ride up behind us and say, “Come with your right hand and right leg — and move the hindquarters.” This was my signal to take the filly’s head around to the right, while cueing her with my right leg to move her hindquarters to the left.
When the hindquarters stepped over behind, Tom would then say, “Now come with your right hand and left leg — for the front quarters.” I would then take the lead rope to the right (at a straight line out and away from Queenie’s head), while cueing her with my left leg to move her front quarters to the right.
Queenie can be stiff in her shoulders, as noted before — but she gave this exercise her 100% try and we had some very nice moments in both directions. Tom praised her efforts as well — which meant a lot to both Queenie and I.
Our main challenge on the second day involved ground work. I was still slow on my timing when Queenie would start to get distracted — I was waiting until she was already mentally elsewhere and then would try to redirect. With Tom’s and his wife Trina’s help, I made some progress — but noted to myself that this is an area that I need to work on in the future.
Third Day of Clinic
By the third day, Queenie and I were feeling pretty good about things. We rode in the outdoor arena (in a snaffle bit) and she did a wonderful, floating, extended trot on a loose rein. It was the first time I had ever felt that from her in the saddle — and it was a really special moment for both of us. As Tom encouraged us to lope our colts, I fumbled in my stirrups and felt a little off balance.
As luck would have it, one of my doctors (also an equestrian) was watching the clinic that day. As I straightened myself in the saddle and reached for a better feel in my stirrups, I saw my doctor’s expression from the sidelines. Remembering the caveat, “please try not to fall on your neck,” I recognized that this was the moment to dial it down rather than push for glory. Silently apologizing to Queenie, I instead asked her to practice that lovely, extended trot — and left the lope for another, less neck-stiff day.
Our Colt Starting class concluded with the group riding out to the facility’s obstacle course. Queenie was bold and curious — until a truck went by. I could feel her wondering if she should get scared, be calm or dance around. With coaching from Trina, I simply worked on bringing her head around and walking her off confidently to somewhere I wanted to go (naturally, I chose to head toward Trina and her horse — always a good place to be).
We had a big encounter with a wooden bridge obstacle. Queenie really wanted to be brave and cross it — but she needed lots of leg and rein support to set her up on a straight line and keep her there. Unfortunately, Queenie and I both have some difficulty with straightness — my timing and aids were very disorganized, so I wasn’t much help for her. But Tom rode in and coached me (even taking the rein a couple of times, so Queenie and I could both feel the difference in his intent and feel over mine).
While it took quite awhile for me to finally make some changes, I was really glad for the learning opportunity — and Queenie and I ended by going over the bridge together while staying straight and confident. I then rode Queenie all the way back to our trailer (down a long driveway and past the busy barn). I could tell that Queenie felt really good about herself during that walk back — and so did I.
Huge thanks to Retama Race Park and Dana L. for sponsoring Queenie’s registration and paddock costs for the clinic! And I’d also like to thank Tom and Trina Curtin for their extra coaching and help — it made a big difference for Queenie and me.
If you would like to learn more about Tom Curtin’s clinics and his upcoming winter camp, please be sure to visit his website — his 2013 clinic schedule is already posted. Or check out the LOPE DVD with Tom, Retraining Racehorses: Back to the Basics.