Silver Red Bird (aka “Red Bird”) is a beautiful, six-year-old grey mare at LOPE. She came directly into our Training Initiative Program straight from Retama racetrack in early January. Red Bird had come in second and third a few times, but had never won a race. As a six-year-old maiden, her racing options were limited — and her trainer donated her to LOPE.
For the past three weeks, Red Bird has been with Laura Whitfield of Poseidon Sport Horses as part of a 30-day assessment. Laura has been helping Red Bird begin her let down and transition from the track — and also has been using the time to observe Red Bird and get to know her personality.
Initially, Red Bird was very uncertain and anxious in her new surroundings. She had trouble relaxing and trusting new people — so Laura went very slowly with her. Much time was spent with simple things such as being caught in the field, proper haltering (Red Bird was pretty sure she could just turn her head away while Laura put the halter on) and leading. That is all very basic — but you would be surprised how many seasoned, well-trained show horses also have trouble with haltering, being caught and leading quietly!
In the round pen, Red Bird didn’t want to look at Laura — especially from her right side — and she would canter around the pen, looking out over the panels to the pastures beyond. As Laura often says, “Fast doesn’t necessarily mean forward or confident.” In Red Bird’s case, her quickness meant that she was eager to leave any unknown situation — due to a lack of confidence, rather than a dominant attitude.
On the plus side, Red Bird clearly was very intelligent and wanted to bond with Laura — she just wasn’t sure how to go about that. Laura helped her by taking very small steps each day to improve each task they did together. There was no pressure and no rush — just clear boundaries (like for how to be haltered or how to walk through a gate with Laura) that were quietly and calmly reinforced.
Red Bird has excellent feet and is going barefoot during her 30-day assessment. Laura’s farrier was impressed with her hooves and felt that shoes simply weren’t necessary for her at this time.
Red Bird also is a lovely mare — very feminine, with an elegant head and the longest eyelashes we have ever seen on a horse! Her anxious demeanor was oddly appealing too — we could tell there was a plea for assistance (rather than an aggressive refusal) in each of her nervous moments.
I watched Laura work with Red Bird in the round pen — and several elements in her movement immediately stood out. She was very much on the forehand (which can be typical of racehorses) — so much so, that her muscles were much more clearly developed on her chest and shoulders than on her hindquarters. Red Bird also had some strongly marked muscle patterns on her flanks and back — we could literally see the outline of where a jockey’s knees and upper legs would be. Whether that was due to her running style or to exercising with lots of tension in her body was hard to say. But it was definitely an interesting element to note.
Red Bird liked to trot and canter with her head up during the round pen sessions. While we have seen that pattern before with racehorses right off the track, Red Bird added her own special flair to the move. She would also stick her nose up and curl her lip — as if she was making faces at the clouds. The maneuver seemed to be emotionally expressive — as if it was her way of saying, “I’m ignoring you,” with extra emphasis.
During the round pen session, Laura encouraged Red Bird to try dropping her head a little — so that her back could lift and her shoulders could move more freely. When Red Bird did take this invitation, she would drop her head for a stride or two — and then abruptly put her head right back up again (as if to say, “What was that cool feeling?”). It was very cute to watch her feel these new (and more pleasant) ways of moving her body.
As I watched Laura lead Red Bird back to her pasture (past scary things like peacocks and suspicious tractors), I noticed that Red Bird was trying to stay “with” Laura even when she was nervous. Sometimes it was only a small try — but other times it was a much bigger effort. Laura rewarded each of Red Bird’s tries — no matter how small — and in this way helped Red Bird begin to build confidence in her as a leader.
Red Bird is up for adoption now and would be a wonderful project for an experienced, patient person who can help Red Bird become more relaxed and comfortable with new experiences. She is one of those sensitive horses who will give 100% once she knows she can trust her person. Red Bird is up-to-date on coggins, shots and dental work — and is ready for her special person to come along and give her the loving home she deserves. See the LOPE adoption page for more info.
UPDATE: Laura recently reported that Red Bird is now nickering at her when she comes to catch her in the pasture — and even trotted up to Laura and met her at the gate! Very nice sign that Red Bird is beginning to trust people and enjoy her work sessions. Based on Laura’s assessment so far, it looks like Red Bird would greatly benefit from having some extended time in pasture turnout — so she can relax, just be a horse and take a little vacation after her racing career.