Most of us have heard the stories. Thoroughbreds are hot headed, overly energetic, can’t stand still, and are prone to taking off. Especially off the track Thoroughbreds – they are broken, crazy, and good luck if you’re going to try and retrain one.
I’m here to debunk this myth, and share with you some of my tips and secrets to the success that I have with these powerful, athletic, agile, smart, hardworking, and versatile horses.
Who am I?
My name is Lindsey Partridge. I’m the founder of Harmony HorsemanshipTM. A training technique that is growing rapidly with certified instructors popping up all over North America.
I have a lot of experience training horses, especially off the track Thoroughbreds. You may have heard of me from the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover held at Kentucky Horse Park annually in October. It’s a competition where hundreds of recently off the track Thoroughbreds compete across 10 different disciplines. Competitors can compete in a maximum of 2 disciplines per horse, and can compete with a maximum of 2 horses The purpose is to help show case Thoroughbreds in a second career after racing.
In 2015 my horse, Soar, won the overall title of “America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred” and along with my horse “Lion of Wallstreet”, won 1st and 2nd in Trail, and 3rd and 10th in Freestyle.
In 2016 I became the first trainer to win two disciplines when my horse Trivia Time won both Trail and Freestyle. You may have seen the Freestyle video where I rode bareback and with no bridle performing stunts with a massive 50ft tarp https://youtu.be/jJbqYUjtr4Q . I also became the first trainer to have all of my horses finish in the Top 5 for their disciplines in all disciplines I competed.
My horse Pentland placed 3rd in both Field Hunter and Trail with me, and my horse “You Got to Be Kidding” placed 5th with my 14yr old junior student Franny Galvin-Hynes.
In 2017 I continued my success with my Thoroughbreds having all my horses finish in the top 5 for a discipline.
Bowdrie finished 2nd in both Trail and Freestyle, in his freestyle I do liberty tricks and ride bareback with no bridle with balloons and the tarp (watch it at https://youtu.be/YwejclExbGw ). My horse ‘Here Comes Adri’ placed 6th in Field Hunter and 3rd in Trail. My horse ‘The Bowie Van’ placed 1st in Trail and Top Junior in Field Hunter with my student Franny.
If you don’t know me from the makeover, then you may have seen some of my horse adventures. I like to take my horses places to show people that with a calm connection you can take a horse anywhere. The most famous horse adventure was when I took Here Comes Adri (nick named Blizz) to a hotel in Kentucky when I was checking in for the makeover. The story went viral and ended up on The Talk, ABC news, Fox News, Breakfast Television, and tons more.
The Unexpected Twist
Now here’s clincher – all of these horses were bought (or given to me) without me going to see them first. Some were the ‘unwanted’ horses that nobody else bid on during auction, or were given to me with the cautionary note that they were ‘highly spirited, need a lip chain, and kick’. Some are war horses that raced more than 50 times. Some were from Ontario, others from the states – but all were purchased via Facebook based on their photos, videos, and description from the seller/adoption program. I didn’t go out and pick the slow and already quiet horse. In fact two of my mares (Soar and Trivia Time) were originally purchased by other people off the track and then rejected and offered back up for sale. They did not have retraining done before I got them, and some I picked up directly from the race track. I am so confident in these training methods that behavior or temperament aren’t part of my pre check when I am searching.
Okay so I have shown you how successful I’ve been with off the track Thoroughbreds, now let me share with you some of my tips for how I succeed.
My Tips for Re-training an OTTB
Tip #1 – Teach them to be a Horse
A lot of Thoroughbreds retiring from racing don’t have a lot of recent experience in the language of ‘horse.’ They’ve been a conditioning athlete often kept by themselves in stalls or private turnout. It can definitely be to your benefit to turn your horse out with a few other horses so that they can practice social skills.
Other horses can teach manners, how to respond to rhythm and cues, how to play, manage their energy, and follow a leader.
There are some safety considerations:
- turn your horse out in a group that will be flexible enough to accept a new member
- make sure the paddock has safe fencing with lots of space for them to explore relationships and have personal space
- Remove any back shoes (consider pulling all shows so that they don’t lose a shoe while ripping around in the field)
- Allow your horse to time to play and learn, try not to intervene or watch from the fence rail or you may distract your horse – keep a watchful distant.
Just imagine for example a child that has been cooped up in their bedroom all day and you want to bring them right into a private lesson and expect them to focus. Can you imagine how scatter brained they would be? Your horse is likely not too different.
Now take the same child but give them an hour of free time with other kids of different ages and temperaments before the lesson. The different kids will challenge them, show them different examples of behavior, and help them burn off energy. Can you see how this would make the lesson easier?
However it’s important to be mindful of the group your turn them out in – bullies or boring buddies don’t make for great experiences.
Tip #2 Get them in Good Health
This is so important. Race horses have a lot of demands – they are elite athletes and often experience stress. Many will have stomach ulcers or some other form of discomfort. It’s important to connect with your local equine health professionals and get your horse on the path to health – it doesn’t mean you won’t start some training, but it might mean you make a training plan that meets your horse’s physical needs. For example sometimes you may need to spend time regularly walking your horse over poles or up and down hills to help them with their back/leg muscle tone or balance.
My general checklist:
- Treat for ulcers using Regenereq EQ
- Put them on a probiotic such as Biotic 8, and a preventative gut health supplement like Gastra FX.
- Have a chiropractor do an assessment and treatment plan
- Have a massage therapist do an assessment and treatment plan
- Use my Accuhorsemat on them to address back pain
- Remove shoes and allow their hooves to grow/toughen, using Scoot Boots if needed as a hoof boot to replace shoes as needed
- Make sure to have the saddle fitted and use a saddle pad with impact protection such as Thinline
- Get their teeth checked and worked on by an equine dentist
- Consult my vet for necessary vaccines, work ups, deworming, or other care.
- If they’ve done a lot of racing I also tend to put them on a joint supplement like Sinew-X.
- When buying supplements, I make sure to buy from a company that puts science behind their products and does quality tests. My favourtie is Omega Alpha.
Tip #3 Find a Calm Connection
One of my favourite sayings is that ‘with a calm connection you can take a horse anywhere.’
It’s where I think so many people get ahead of their horse – they jump right into training for performance that they forget to date their horse. That might sound funny, but horses are emotional animals that naturally have social relationships which are a major part of how they function and communicate.
If we take the take to show them that we care about them, understand them, and that they can be connected to us then it means we have a much more willing partners. It’s the reason that I can take my horses into hotels, tv studios, have them be lesson horses, jumper super stars, extreme cowboy competitors and summer camp saints. Not a specific horse for a specific task but a well rounded partner that can do all of the above – yes, Soar (and other horses of mine) have been in movies, ridden by summer camp beginners, compete in jumpers, compete in extreme cowboy/obstacles, and can do a variety of other tasks… all because she knows that people are safe and can be trusted. Recently she was the horse in the commercial by TSN for the Grey Cup 2017.
I start this by doing the calm connection exercises from the Harmony Training Continnuum. One of the exercises includes Square, which is about learning to walk and move together in relaxation.
Tip #4 Teach them to Say Yes
Neural pathways in the brain can be tricky to change. If we or horses form a pattern of responding with ‘no’ it can be hard to break. I prefer to teach my horses that it is important to say yes.
I establish a pattern of:
- I ask,
- You try,
- You get rewarded
This means I start using positive reinforcement. Rewards can be many things – treats, scratches, rest breaks, play, or something else your horse desires. We could go into a whole other article about treats, rewards, and positive reinforcement but I’ll leave you with one key tip to think about. The reward needs to be something the horse genuinely desires. So for example if you horse doesn’t like being scratched on the withers (even though many horses do), then you can’t use it for a reward.
Could you imagine showing up for work and instead getting your pay cheque you got pizza and beer? Now for some of you reading this you’re thinking that’s not too bad, but for some of you you’re thinking I don’t like that. If you don’t like it then you probably will start to work less hard, or even try not to show up to work.
Ever wondered why a horse is hard to catch? Maybe the horse doesn’t think they are being paid to show up to work and therefore doesn’t want to. Of course there are many other things about catching horses, but I want to get you thinking about what is going to motivate your horse to say yes and recognize that your doesn’t understand that you pay their expenses and therefore should please you.
Tip #5 Cross Train
This is a big one. Even if you love something, generally you don’t want to do it everyday. The same is true for horses. They might love trail riding, jumping, or some other type of work. Even if they don’t like something or it’s a little outside of their comfort zone, it can be great to switch it up.
For example let’s take a Field Hunter – I have experience and success creating top Field Hunters. Why? I don’t only trail ride and jump them, I also take them to western obstacle shows – both slow Mountain Trail types and fast Extreme Cowboy ones. They are used to performing gates, gallop stops, or other tasks in different environments.
Because I do so many things with my horses, they can’t really stay in a routine, which means they need to stay in a thinking conversation.
If you only practice one activity or pattern it might mean your horse will get bored and put in less effort, or they may start to anticipate what is happening next so they listen to you a little less.
Even if you have no desire to jump, it can be great to send your horse over a few jumps during ground work (even if they are just little). It will help your horse think about their hoof placement, be more athletic, and break up the routine. Likewise you may not have an interest in trail riding, or a place to do so, but it is worth the effort to get your horse out on the trails even if you don’t ride and instead hand walk them. It will expose them to new environments and challenge them with different footing, hills, and fallen brush or logs.
I pride myself on the fact that my horses are all jack of all trades – they can be ridden by beginners, jump, work at liberty, do obstacles, and trail ride. I think it is good for them mentally to be exposed to different things, and even if they don’t enjoy one activity as much as another, I think it helps them keep appreciating the activity they do like best.
Give yourself permission to try something new – take your hunter show team to a western speed events fun show, or vice versa. It doesn’t have to be serious and can just be for fun and change.
When I competed in Field Hunter in 2016 it was my first time ever competing in that discipline or trying fox hunting – I love it and so did my horse! I fell in love with it so much that I did it again in 2017 and now it’s something I will continue to add to my annual events to participate in.
How to Get Even More
Thoroughbreds are amazing horses, and they make great partners. There is so much to learn, try, and explore. If you want to learn more about Harmony HorsemanshipTM, calm connection or create a yes horse exercises please check out www.HarmonyHorsemanship.ca