Today, we're bringing you the new incarnation of the Aftercare Spotlight. Each month, we'll publish a column from a different person training an off-track Thoroughbred telling us what they're working on with their horse and what they've learned from the process so far. Our goal is to bring our readers a variety of perspectives and tips they can use with their own OTTB. Today, we begin this series anew with a column from Dr. Elizabeth James.
Born and raised in Montana, James is a lifelong horse woman and long-time educator. James has a master's degree in equine genetics from University of California-Davis and recently earned her PhD in experiential education from the University of Kentucky. She taught colt starting at Laramie County Community College before accepting positions in equine education at Bluegrass Community and Technical College and University of Kentucky. She now serves as business manager for Double Dan Horsemanship from the company's Central Kentucky base.
The excitement, the anticipation, the reward, and the letdown that comes with any competition are not unique to me, or my 2018 RRP Thoroughbred Makeover horse, General Relativity (better known as Ozzie). Every time a post parade begins, trainers, jockeys, grooms, and racing fans across the industry feel the same set of emotions. Nor is the concept of retraining a horse something new. Professionals and amateurs alike have been doing it for decades. But if there's one thing that makes Ozzie's story unique, it's the particular career he's been retrained for and what exactly he will be stepping into in the coming year.
As much as I loved competing in the RRP Thoroughbred Makeover this year, I didn't get Ozzie for the competition. In fact, when I first got him there wasn't any competition on my mind. I got Ozzie as a project horse to add to the Double Dan Horsemanship Team. Ever since meeting my husband, Dan James, I have been intrigued by and interested in liberty training – the type of training where horses perform with no tack, no halter, no equipment, no treats, no physical connection between them and the trainer. From the outside looking in – when done well – a horse working at liberty looks like magic. Watching horses rear up, lay down, spin, piaffe, stand still, jump, all based on subtle, often invisible, cues from the trainer is enough to leave even the most astute horsemen and women wondering, “How does he get them to do that?”
Personally, I didn't just want to know how Dan got horses to do what they did, I want to learn how to train them to do it as well. To do this I needed a horse. One with no previous liberty training. Because off-track Thoroughbreds have always been a personal favorite of mine, I reached out to my friend and esteemed trainer Kenny McPeek to see if he had any that weren't going to make it as racehorses and as luck would have it – he did.
Learning to train a liberty horse for someone with previous training experience is like relearning to walk. In many ways it would have been easier had I never touched a horse before. Likewise, going from being in a controlled environment nearly every day to learning how to work and move while completely free was as foreign to Ozzie as day is to night. Nonetheless, we stumbled our way through.
What I love about the Double Dan Horsemanship training program that Dan James and partner Dan Steers developed is that not only can anyone learn it, not only is any horse capable of doing it, but as I experienced first-hand it really works. In nine months Ozzie went from a green broke 3-year-old to a liberty performance horse. He performed two complete five minute freestyle routines in front of crowd, in a high energy environment, completely at liberty and never once did he leave or not complete the maneuver asked of him.
Yet as impressive as all that was to me, it was the influence of Dan's liberty training techniques on Ozzie's ridden work that really changed the way I looked at training in general. Going into this experience, I couldn't wrap my head around how teaching a horse to lay down or circle around me without a halter or lead rope would transition to all the different things I wanted to ask of them under saddle. But boy, did it.
The idea behind liberty work is teaching a horse how to make decisions on its own – without being forced, influenced, or controlled by equipment. As Dan puts it, through liberty training horses learn how to learn. This problem-solving skills Ozzie learned from working at liberty transferred directly to his ridden work. Questions I asked of him became problems to solve instead of arguments to have. The freedom to choose to stay or leave, which is an inherent part of liberty work, helped this young, high energy horse stay focused when I was on his back.
I've retrained, sold, and kept several OTTBs over the years but none using Dan's liberty training techniques. At the end of the day what Ozzie and I both learned from incorporating liberty training into our makeover regime was two things: 1) Learning to work at liberty completely changed the way we related to and interacted with each other and 2) We still have so much to learn!
In the coming year Ozzie will go from being a horse in training to an active member of the Double Dan Horsemanship Team. Currently, we are training for his debut performance at the National Western Stock Show in January, where he will be performing in both the Wild West Show and Dancing Horses. Ozzie will also be integrated into several Double Dan performances and expos throughout the year and is being trained for some specialty acts involving liberty jumping and bareback and bridle-less riding.
In his transition to an equine entertainment performance horse, Ozzie will go from training at home to training on the road, from life out of pasture to staying in new environments, from our home arena to ones full of lights, music, and loud crowds. It won't happen all at once. Ozzie will tell us how well and how quickly he is adapting to his new career. However, given the incredible talent, mental capacity, and discipline that Ozzie displayed time and time again throughout the Makeover process I have no doubt he will excel in his new job as well.
Throughout the year ahead, Ozzie will also continue his western ridden work with an eye towards a few ARHA (American Ranch Horse Association) competitions and Dan is considering entering him in some low level eventing competitions because he really enjoys to jump. In looking at all of it, I don't think Ozzie's versatility is unique to him, or to OTTBs. In my experience most horses, given the chance, enjoy and excel at participating in different types of work.
Last but not least, Ozzie has been contracted for a few photo shoots in 2019 and I can't wait to see him in that environment. Until I watched Dan work his horses for a photoshoot with Versace in 2016 I had no idea the level of training involved or the precise planning that went on the behind the scenes for photoshoots. Dan is especially talented at training horses to excel in that line of work and the shots he is able to produce with them are stunning. At the end of the day, I think it's going to be a lot of fun for racing fans everywhere to get to see one of their own in that capacity.
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