Yesterday I took Dove to her third Dressage schooling show since she retired from her racing career a little over 6 months ago, and it did not go at all as I had planned. Ever since I started working with Dove, she has been the epitome of calm, cool and collected. She has handled ground driving in an indoor arena during a severe windstorm that actually tore off part of the roof while we continued working, she has gone on trail rides, she quietly stands ground tied in the barn aisle, she is a saint for the farrier and has had riders of varying levels on her without any issues.
But yesterday was different for Dove, and that's okay. I recently posted the following on Facebook, and re-reading it gives me a great feeling of pride for knowing that I did indeed put it into action at the show yesterday.
Always take it slow, don't get angry at your horse but also don't be afraid to give him boundaries, set him up for success with small wins and never be too proud to go back down a few levels to help rebuild confidence for both of you when something goes awry.
So, what happened?
Let me set the stage by providing some background that may sound more like pre-emptive excuses:
How did I respond?
I was convinced that she would begin to relax once we got into the show ring area because it was fenced and she'd be the only horse, and I kept reminding myself that we only needed to walk, trot and halt so we can at least attempt it and just not worry about the judge's scores or comments. I wish that had all been the case, but when we entered the show ring for our ride and began going farther from the barns directly into the wind, I could feel my little mare developing instant ulcers underneath me. She was completely out of her comfort zone - or more accurately, she was completely in her comfort zone and confused why I wouldn't let her do the job she had trained to do for so many years.
So, I decided to swallow my pride and scratch from the class before ever entering the Dressage ring. Perhaps I could have completed the test or at least made it down centerline at a walk, but by pushing her I also could have swallowed a mouthful of dirt and watched her gallop riderless back to the barn. What kind of training would that be for her?
It is these moments that make it so critical to know your horse and to LISTEN TO THEM. If it had been Freja throwing a temper tantrum, I would have pushed her because I know she's lazy, but for Dove it was all stress related anxiety. I could have rodeo ridden her and crossed my fingers and maybe nothing dangerous would have happened, but it certainly would have left an impression on Dove, so I made the decision to fold.
Don't give up, just change the approach
I believe it was the right decision to scratch from the test, but it would NOT have been the right decision to simply put her back on the trailer and head home. Instead I had to present her with something that she could confidently complete in this new scary environment. Perhaps working under saddle was too much of a ladder, but I could present a shorter ladder of working in hand in a halter and slowly work our way up to bigger and bigger ones. So that's exactly what I did.
After getting her to stand quietly enough for me to dismount safely, we walked back to the barn where she got a drink and a snack while I took off her tack. Then we headed back over to the warm-up ring in a halter and lead rope to practice halt, back, and go. We trotted in hand, and once she was responding well in the warm-up ring the timing perfectly worked out that that there was a break in the show ring so we were able to work in the space directly alongside the show ring going both toward and away from the corner that was super windy and farthest from the barn.
Once we achieved success with halt, back, go and trotting in hand in a halter quietly, we returned to the barn to put her saddle and bridle back on. It was time to try out riding again in the scary stimulating warm-up arena. We managed to walk with less fussiness and even hacked back around the barns and returned to the warm-up arena, but she still started to grab the bit and rock her front feet off the ground ready to break from the "starting gate" every time we trotted, so after we walked quietly a little longer I dismounted once again and began working her in hand with a Dressage whip. We started with halt, back and go and then moved on to yielding the haunches and changes of direction in the bridle.
These are all exercises that I have used for Dove's foundation, so we just went back to the basics and slowly began to rebuild the structure on top of the reinforced foundation. After she began to pay closer attention to me for changes of directions and yielding in hand, we moved to working on the lunge line - thanks to a good samaritan named Gail who allowed me to borrow hers since I spaced and forgot that mine was not in the horse trailer because it was actually on the backseat of my truck.
I should pause here to point out that in hindsight I wish I had put Dove on the lunge line as soon as I arrived, but I typically avoid lunging my OTTBs in new environments because I feel it often can have an opposite effect of actually revving them up even more. With that being said, I now know that the next time I take Dove to an offsite outdoor arena I will most certainly put her on the lunge line for 5 to 10 minutes before mounting. Each horse is different which is why it's so important to always be flexible and never "poo poo" any sort of training technique or tool.
...and try again.
After a short lunging session - approximately 10 minutes - in a smaller outdoor riding area, Dove began to give me the signs that she was beginning to relax. She began to chew slightly and stretch over her back. Her gaits became more rhythmic and balanced. She was beginning to look more and more like the Dove that I have grown to love.
So, approximately 2 hours after I initially walked her from the barn to the warm-up arena for our first attempt, we walked back to the mounting block. She stood quietly as I mounted, and I chose to ride her across a small stretch of grass to the small area where we had been lunging to begin our ride. We walked, trotted and halted in that area for 5 minutes or so before we returned to the big warm-up area with the other horses, the wind, the woods and all the other distractions.
She started out a little tense, but she was paying attention and doing her best to remain relaxed. She started to relax more on a looser rein at the trot, so when she offered a canter we went with it because I could feel I had a different horse underneath me this time. This was a horse that was cantering because it felt good, not a horse that was cantering because it was a step on the way to an all-out gallop.
We cantered around the arena for a few minutes passing other horses, returning to the trot, letting other horses pass us, and she cantered quietly on the buckle before we stopped to mark the day off as another successful training session.
Perhaps we scratched from both of our classes and never actually rode down centerline yesterday, but we were still very successful. Dove had her first outdoor show experience since her racing career, and I survived to write about it. More importantly, in 2 hours, she went from a nervous tense horse to one that was able to relax at the canter.
I look forward to returning to Wyn Farm for another show this year - it is a great facility, the show was VERY well organized and all the staff was super supportive and encouraging. I am confident that Dove will be a very different horse the next time we go, and I am honored to be a part of this special horse's re-training for her second career.
By Kyle Rothfus
This blog is dedicated to providing insight about OTTB re-training, Thoroughbred pedigrees and general equine care. You can also track the progress of horses I have for sale through posts here.