Last week the Paulick Report introduced a bay Thoroughbred gelding named “Trajan,” observing the process as the 4-year-old began his transition from a racing career to that of a lead pony. Trey immediately proved his disposition and sensibility make him an ideal candidate for the job, and the kind-eyed youngster picked up on his early training cues with ease (and treats).
During his first several rides, Trey learned how to respond to the pressure of the reins against his neck (the “neck rein”) instead of pressure on the bit, how to execute a proper turn, and how to lead another horse on his right side at the walk. Those three skills develop Trey's ability to help his rider control a racehorse, and during the second week I began to ask him for slightly more complex maneuvers.
With a new method of steering firmly established, fine-tuning Trey's responses to the neck rein becomes paramount. He will need to turn on command even when under duress, ignoring external pressures and prioritizing what his rider is asking of him, and he'll need the ability to be guided sideways at speed, in order to adjust to the part of the track on which he is traveling.
For the first challenge, I work in an environment Trey considers to be safe — in this case, the outdoor arena in which he is most comfortable. The exercise I ask him to perform is designed to set him off-balance a bit mentally, so I want the surrounding space to be as comforting as possible.
Beginning at a halt, I ask Trey for a 180-degree turn around his haunches, then to immediately trot off in the new direction. After several strides, I sit deep in the saddle and ask him to halt again, then execute a turn in the opposite direction and again to move away at the trot. As he gains confidence in the exercise Trey, like most horses, begins to anticipate the commands. When he begins to trot away or to turn before I ask him to, I increase the difficulty by asking him to pause and stand motionless before and/or after each turn, and later by asking for a canter away from the turn.
Any time he got too amped up, jigging sideways or launching forward before I asked, I simply let him walk on a loose rein for several moments to regain his composure. By purposefully exciting Trey at home, I am able to teach him to wait for and respond to my aids even when he may be distracted by outside influences. Obviously, those distractions are amplified at the racetrack by the crowds, the announcer, nervous racehorses, and any number of other things, but the basic principal remains the same.
In terms of the second goal, moving sideways while at speed, those riders who practice dressage will recognize that I am essentially asking Trey for a leg yield. When I apply my left leg, for example, he should step over to the right but not turn his head. The key difference in my aids is that I move my left leg back slightly, prompting him to move his hips to the right as my reins encourage his shoulders to do the same.
This exercise is started at the walk, and eventually progresses up to a canter, developing Trey's overall adjustability. I like to work on a circle at the beginning, asking the horse to move away from the center and then back toward it, just one or two steps at a time with lots of praise when he responds appropriately, then build on the exercise by practicing with straight lines. Obviously, it takes time and patience to teach the leg yield, so any effort Trey makes toward an appropriate response should be heavily rewarded.
It is one thing for Trey to respond and listen for my cues on the farm but quite another to do so in an environment as stimulating as the track itself. Therefore the biggest challenge Trey faced in his second week of schooling was a trip up the road to the Skylight Thoroughbred training center.
As confident as I am with Trey's schooling at this point, there is no way to accurately predict how he might react in a place that will remind him of his former racing career. I wanted to make sure Trey would not act in a way that might endanger the other horses and people at the training center, but I did not want to dull his nerves, even with a mild tranquilizer because it was important to get a true sense of his reaction.
I went with a natural alternative in a magnesium supplement, which is legal for use in both the racing and competition rulebooks and is designed to help the horse control his reaction to adrenaline without any dangerous side effects. Nupafeed was generous enough to provide me with several syringes of oral paste magnesium for the trip.
I was absolutely delighted with Trey's performance at Skylight as he emanated both confidence and steadiness, traits that will make him an enormous asset as a lead pony. He walked right onto the fairly busy training track, staying in a relaxed, flat-footed walk as my carefully-selected racehorse, an older gelding with a high number of starts and generally steady demeanor, bounced along beside him.
Taking hold of the racehorse's bridle, I urged Trey into a jog as we took off clockwise around the track, otherwise known as “backing up.” He was a bit distracted by the sights and sounds, looking around, but remained fully under control and attentive to my cues. The racehorse was acting up a bit, playing and jumping around to cause his rider's leg to graze Trey's flank over and over again, but Trey handled it like a pro, never reacting to the pressure and generally maintaining his steady pace.
After nearly a full circuit of the three-quarter mile track, Trey pulled up to a walk when asked and stood fairly quietly at the outside rail. We turned into the racehorse, pushing him to the right to orientate him the “right way” around the track, counter-clockwise, and moved off together at a trot. I let go of the racehorse, allowing him to gallop away from Trey while keeping him on a loose rein, observing his reaction to losing his “buddy.”
Trey showed no inclination of wanting to take off to keep up with the other horse and seemed okay waiting to be told what to do. Pleased, I patted him, then asked him to pick up the pace and loped steadily around the track, eventually pulling up to stand near the small schooling starting gates. Though he was clearly afraid at first, a bit of reassurance had Trey standing quietly behind the gates, and we practiced walking up to them, standing, then turning away, just as he will be asked to do on the track.
The racehorse returned from his gallop and Trey congenially escorted the snorting, happy gelding back to the barn, again oblivious to the other horse's exuberant antics. I walked him back to the gap and did a bit more standing practice, but quit soon after to end the session on a high note.
Later in the week I brought him out with my retired lead pony, Uno, for Trey to practice trotting and cantering while controlling the positioning of the horse at his side. Trey was a model citizen, side-stepping right and left when asked (though to the right still required extra encouragement), and kept his right ear, on the side Uno is positioned, flicking back and forth. That is a great sign because paying attention to the horse he is ponying will allow him to anticipate any bad behavior a real racehorse might throw at him in the future.
Overall Trey is thoroughly exceeding my expectations for his schooling, proving the versatility of an ex-racehorse. He still needs to build up confidence, to know that he is in control of the racehorse and to not be overly cautious about moving into and pushing against him, but he is definitely progressing well.
The reason Trey is such an easy horse to train is, I believe, directly related to his personality. He is quite lazy, rarely going any quicker than absolutely necessary, but he also truly loves people. He is the kind of horse to do everything in his power to please his rider, and he would bend over backward for a horse cookie, making him easy to praise.
With most of the basics well under control, Trey needs to continue to school the more complex lessons and practice ponying real racehorses. He will take another trip during the upcoming week and be asked to learn a few more skills to complete his schooling, so be sure to check back for the final installment of Lead Pony 101.
Find the first installment of Lead Pony 101 here.
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