From the Race Track to the Show Ring: Basic Flat Work

No matter what future plans you have for your Thoroughbred, you need to be prepared to spend a lot of time on rudimentary flat work before you start whatever specialized training he needs for his future career. In the long run, you will be rewarded by a horse who is physically and mentally fit to try a new sport, rather than one who is body sore, nervous or frightened, and rank due to being rushed through the early stages of their training.

Story originally posted by: Heather Bailey

In last month’s installment we discussed how to start riding your ex-racer, and what to expect. By now, we will presume that you have had many successful rides (done mostly at the walk) and that your horse understands the seat and leg aids, and something of the hand aids. He should steer and stop fairly easily, and he should be comfortable with his new position in life as an ex-race horse.

Now is the time to start working on refining your horse on the flat and fixing the little things, like body frame, balance, rhythm, and, yes, the dreaded canter leads.

Any horse, by nature, has a specific natural balance and body frame. Some horses have long backs, low-set necks, and are heavy on the forehand, others are built “upside-down,” with ewe-necks and dropped backs, but have very uphill balance. Most horses fall somewhere in between these two. At a certain point you cannot make drastic changes to your horses natural way of going, but any horse can learn how to carry themselves. “Self-carriage” is an elusive and long-sought concept of dressage, which sounds simple (the horse carries his own weight and balance, rather than hanging on your hands and dragging against your leg and expecting you to carry him), but in practice it’s rather complex. At this stage of the game the main tool you should use to start to affect your horse’s frame and balance is to start to work on his rhythm.

Rhythm is one thing that Thoroughbreds in general and racehorses in specific seem to lack at the trot. Some horses have trots you could set a metronome to because they are so even, regular, and cadenced. However, if you aren’t blessed with a horse with this natural gift (in 20-odd years of being around horses, I’ve had one), you have to create and train that rhythm yourself.

The best way to do this is to simply post the trot to a specific rhythm and don’t deviate from it-the horse will eventually change his pace to meet you. Now, if you don’t have great natural rhythm, yourself you can either try counting aloud or, for a little more festive training session, put on some music. Pick music with a strong even beat and try to post in time to the music. Following the music rather than your horse, can help create rhythm. Now, if your horse has a very scattered trot, it can be hard to “post on” in a 1-2-1-2 rhythm when the horse is going, 12121212, but if you learn to ignore what the horse is doing and stick to your own rhythm, you can affect change without a lot of big or drastic aids.

Once you have established a rhythm that is consistent from ride to ride you will find that the horse will begin to look for his balance point. Keep a soft, flexible contact with the mouth and begin to introduce the concept of the half-halt, backed up with a lot of leg. If the horse tips forward on to your hand, “drop” him by quickly putting your hands forward, slacking the reins, and not allowing him to be carried, followed by a strong leg aid to push the horse forward. At first, they may seem wobbly at the end of the reins, but as long as you maintain your position and balance, this is a natural part of the learning process.

When you have established a good trot rhythm, it’s time to tackle the canter. Most horses, like most people, have dominant sides. Just as a person can be right-handed, a horse can be right-sided. Sometimes, humans can influence this, but often the horses are simply born this way. This one-sidedness can manifest itself in several ways, but one of the most obvious is a preference for one canter lead. Most ex-racers strongly favor one lead over another, and most often it’s the left lead. Horses can favor either lead, but since most U.S. horses race left-handed, that becomes their dominant lead. There are many, many methods for teaching or correcting canter leads, and I’ll try to highlight the best ones.

For a horse to pick up the correct lead, it must be shifted onto its hind end, have the weight off its outside shoulder, and have it’s inside hind leg activated. When first training the leads, the easiest method to try to make this occur is counter-bending the horse. That is, as you come in to a corner of the ring, bend the horse slightly to the outside, while you stay sitting straight and tall, and apply the proper legs aids (at this stage of the game, inside leg at the girth, outside leg slightly back). By turning a green/unschooled horse’s head to the outside, you force it to shift off its outside shoulder, as they lack the ability to counter-balance against you.

When the horse gets the correct lead, and it may take several tries, be sure to praise lavishly so he understands what you want. As the horse gains more confidence and understanding of his leads, you should begin to counter-bend him less and less, and make him straighter and straighter. It should be remembered however, that counter-bending is a “trick” and should not take the place of feeling where your horse’s body is and how to move it.

To improve your own feel, try this exercise, starting at the walk. As your horse is walking, close your eyes and try to feel the front half and back half of his body. Where are they in relation to each other? Feel the shoulders shifting back and forth, and practice trying to keep the horse straight on the long side of the ring using primarily leg aids (some hand may be necessary, but ultimately you can never hold a horse straight with your hands). Practice bending the horse, a few steps to the inside, a few steps to the outside, aiming to be perfectly straight before, in between and after. Again, be sure you are using more leg than hand.

Be aware of your own body language. Be sure that you are sitting straight and tall, not cocked or hunched to one side, and that your body movements, as you change your aids, are smooth and subtle, not big and rough. Try not to “shout” at the horse, using strong kicks, when gentle leg pressure would do, or yanking on the mouth when a soft rein aid will work. If your horse doesn’t seem to “feel” your softer aids, try carrying a dressage whip, and using it to enhance your leg aids, until the horse responds to the softer aid.

While you are working on all of the above, there is one other “trick” you can try if the counter-bending does not work. In dressage we often refer to a horse that “jumps” into his canter. Whether you ride dressage or not, keeping this analogy in mind can be helpful. Take a ground pole, flat on the ground, or raised up just enough to get the horse to take a small jump (a few inches off the ground is sufficient). As the horse approaches the pole, get him off his outside shoulder, and apply your aids for canter. As the horse begins to leave the ground, shift his weight, and give him the strong “CAN-TER” aid. Sometimes the act of getting into the air, even just a little bit, can shift the horse’s body position enough to get the correct lead.

When the horse does get on the correct lead, be sure to do two things: (1) praise lavishly so the horse understands this is the right answer to your question, and (2) be aware that since the horse hasn’t cantered much on the difficult lead, his muscles for sustaining it will be weak. It will be to your advantage to practice this lead in short, useful bursts, rather than long sustained trips around the ring.

Lion was fairly typical in that had a pretty decent natural left-lead canter, and a very disorganized right lead. Because he’s pretty long and flexible, the counter-bending routine had to be done with some care to ensure he was shifting his shoulders properly in relation to his haunches. At first he couldn’t hold that right lead canter for more than half of a long side of the ring before he would become so unbalanced and awkward that he would break to the trot to catch himself.

You will note that nowhere in this piece have I mentioned anything about headset or neck frame. That is because I very often see ex-racers who have been taught to “put their head down,” without ever learning the underlying aids and cues properly. A horse who has come into a frame properly is put there by riding forward from the leg to the hand, or from the hind end to the front end. If you teach your horse to move off the leg, understand the seat, and can keep a soft, pliant, but steady contact with their mouth, and you create good rhythm and bend, your horse will, in time, become round in the neck and back. Patience, as always, is the key here.

Read Part I.
Read Part II.