I think that there’s a general idea out there that many OTTB’s are very forward, hot, sensitive, and hard to handle. I’ve also met my fair share of OTTBs with no desire go forward, lack sensitivity, and generally tune out to the rider’s aids. I live close to Fingerlakes Racetrack and I have several OTTBs in my barn. I also teach several students that have OTTBs, and I regularly give clinics to OTTB owners, at OTTB shows, and for an OTTB rescue organization. It’s really a special niche, and I find that OTTB’s benefit tremendously by following the training principals put forth by Philippe Karl’s School of Legerete.
I have encountered several OTTBs that refuse to go forward and vehemently despise the whip. I’m talking about the training issue here that many of us encounter when you bring an OTTB home from the track (treating for ulcers, new shoes, etc is a different story).
We had a discussion at our last Legerete clinic with Andrea Walz specifically about the training challenges of OTTBs. The good news: they usually have a great mouth. Following the principals of Philippe Karl’s School of Legerete, I’ve learned that it is very easy to teach OTTB’s to respond to the hand lesson outlined in Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage.
The downside: Many of them despise the whip. It makes teaching the lesson of the leg very difficult, and many of them really act out when you apply a gentle tap of the whip. I have two horses in my barn with an extreme disgust of the whip. Yes, we play the friendly game, they are used to the whip, but it must be used completely with respect and on their terms.
When I approach OTTBs with this training difficulty (or any horse in general that won’t go forward) I forget the notion of any contact (legs without hands, hands without legs) and retrain the leg aids first. The two mademoiselles I have in my barn would rather kick up their heels, buck, or kick out before going forward. It takes a lot of gentle tact to retrain a horse to go forward. Also, a lot of horsemanship work on the ground can help make them feel more comfortable around the whip.
At our last clinic with Andrea I rode Stella, my four year old off the track that had a year off after retiring from Fingerlakes last fall. Stella is still very green, with less than 20 rides on her since coming from the track. When Stella first arrived at my farm if I even hinted at flicking the lunge whip while she was free schooling she would kick out her heels, snake around the arena, and even lunge at me a bit in a threatening way to defend herself against the whip. I knew then that we had whip issues. I also had this distant thought in the back of my mind that all my difficulty with Gracie was just training me to deal with Stella, who is a much harsher critic about the whip.
When I restarted Stella under saddle it was the same idea. Use the leg to go forward, no response, tap tap tap with the whip and she would kick out and buck (but then grouchily go forward). First, I took it upon myself to repeat this lesson in-hand. We did many walk-trot transitions along the wall in preparation for the clinic with Andrea Walz. I tried to not even use the whip, but gently press my hand at the girth every time I wanted to go forward. Yes, she still kicked out every time.
At the clinic Andrea noticed that Stella became very angry at the whip, but she didn’t think we needed to keep schooling the lesson of the leg in-hand. Stella is a very keen and intelligent horse, and she understood the lesson of the leg, but still held onto anger about the whip. Our new trick wasn’t to use the whip in the old fashion, but to change it a bit and make it a little softer. We put a hard plastic bag at the end of the whip, folded up in a square, and started using that with Stella. At first her wary eyes looked at the bag like what is that? After a bit she became comfortable. We practiced the lesson of the leg with the plastic bag taped to the whip, rather than just the whip, and it produced huge results. Stella reacted to the new whip like it was a different object. New object = new meaning. The bag was bright red, it felt different against her skin, my timing with it was slower, and visually it looked different. I only used the red bag one time. It was really all she needed to reinforce the aid to go forward without becoming harsher or inflicting more pain. Now, Stella readily trots off when I apply the leg aid.
Stella is a young green horse with less than 20 rides under saddle after retiring from the track. I know for certain that if I chose a different road with her, perhaps becoming more aggressive to get her to go forward rather than change the language of aids I was using to go forward, that I would still be battling this issue. As of now she trots off beautifully under saddle and I no longer need to use the whip with the plastic bag (I only used that for one session). She is a very athletic and talented young horse and I am looking forward to unlocking her potential.
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