I didn't know how much of a passion riding would become for me when I took my first lesson a little less than five years ago at the age of 30. All I thought of at the time was that it would be cool to learn ride horses after announcing them in races for more than half my life.
I now know that the phrase “learning to ride” is about as open-ended as “learning to throw a ball.” Sure, but what type of ball and what type of sport? Because my trainer, and now broadcast partner and fiancé, Ashley Gubich, is an eventer and specializes in working with retired racehorses, “learning to ride” translated to eventing on off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs). I now know that's like learning to swim by jumping straight into the deep end.
The sport of eventing involves three distinct phases, like how the triathlon involves swimming, cycling, and running. For eventing, it's dressage, cross country, and stadium jumping. Here's how the Olympic website describes the challenges eventing presents horse and rider: “Eventing is the most complete combined competition discipline and demands of the competitor and horse considerable experience in all branches of equitation. It covers every aspect of horsemanship: the harmony between horse and rider that characterizes Dressage; the contact with nature, stamina and extensive experience essential for the Cross Country; the precision, agility and technique involved in Jumping.” Thoroughbreds excel at eventing because they possess a combination of the athleticism, bravery, and fancy movement that the sport requires.
Eventing is an unforgiving sport. You can do nine beautiful jumps on the cross country course, and a refusal at the 10th can knock a rider from first to 20th. Imagine a basketball player that makes his or her first nine shots but airballs the 10th. That's a great game.
So, I picked eventing on Thoroughbreds, a breed characterized as “hot-blooded.” Oh, and the two main lesson horses I rode for the first 2 1/2 years, as well as the first horse I bought two years ago, were chestnut mares. There's a stigma associated with riding and handling chestnut mares. It's apparently so strong that the Maryland-based aftercare organization After the Races even created the “Chestnut Mare Initiative” that would waive all fees for trainers willing to (read: crazy enough to) adopt chestnut mare OTTBs.
So, given these naïve first choices of my equestrian life, there have been many times when I've been in over my head. Some can be a case of “ignorance is bliss.” My favorite example of this is when we went cross country schooling for Ashley's birthday on September 20, 2017. We came to a Training-level trakehner jump that consisted of a three-foot-tall floating log over a ditch. Ashley asked, “Would you like to jump a trakehner?”
I answered, “Sure, what's a trakehner?”
Ashley knew my lesson horse could carry me over. Only afterward did I realize how challenging it was. The same naiveté is why I thought that after all challenges I faced learning to ride with experienced horses that it would be a good idea to train one straight off the track for the Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover.
But, most of the time, being in over my head when riding means I'm overwhelmed and wondering, “Why did I just buy a new pair of breeches when I'm planning to quit riding anyway?”
Now that I'm the first person to work with Cubbie Girl North off the track on our road to the 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover, those moments are becoming more frequent. They're learning moments, as has and will be a theme of this series.
But, when dealing with the four-legged females in my life becomes too difficult, I have some amazing two-legged females to turn to for guidance. That's because the sport of eventing attracts strong alpha females. If they won't take grief from a 1,000-pound animal, they won't take grief from a 200-pound human. One of the first recognized events I did, the 2018 Round Top Horse Trials in Colorado, had about 50 female riders across all the levels, and I was the only male in the field.
The first months of training with Cubbie have brought me to two impasses that two incredible trainers in Colorado have helped me overcome. They are two critical issues for people working with horses straight off the track.
One is how to handle OTTBs on the ground. The second is how to be positively assertive in the saddle. Racetrack life and life on a farm are very different. The main goals for a horse on the track are run fast and stay healthy. Having good manners, such as standing still when a rider mounts up, are secondary. Any movements other than at full gallop are secondary.
For ground manners, I struggled with developing consistent messaging to Cubbie so that she'd walk with me and head in the directions I was going calmly. For that, I turned to Amy Bowers for a lesson. Amy won the Freestyle discipline at the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover with her 2013 dark bay OTTB mare Grande Warrior, who coincidentally shares a March 30th birthday with Secretariat…and me. She travels nationally and internationally to teach clinics as a 4-Star Senior Instructor for Parelli Natural Horsemanship.
Amy was visiting our farm in the process of adopting the horse that will become her 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover prospect, Mr Wild Kitty, from CANTER USA. So, I took advantage of the opportunity to do a ground lesson with her early in my retraining with Cubbie. The tips I learned from Amy can apply to anyone trying to build a foundation with a horse right off the track.
The theme Amy instilled was that the person should be in charge in interactions with a horse. That's not so easy when the horse outweighs the person by more than 800 pounds. However, through a balance between stringency and reward, the person can motivate the horse to want to follow the directions presented.
For example, to teach Cubbie to accept pressure as cues, similar to when a rider would use their leg to influence the horse's shoulder, she would continually tap the filly with the Parelli Carrot Stick she brought with her until the horse processed what was being asked and made the appropriate reaction. Then, the pressure would go away, and the horse would process that her action led to a moment of relaxation.
“I'm not trapping her to make her feet stand still,” she said. “But, this pressure is not going to go away because you moved your feet.”
The messages, she said, were that “pressure motivates, relief teaches” and that “she has to think, 'What do I need to do get this pressure to go away?'”
Amy's expertise is reflected in a calm persistence that she will get the response she wants and then knowing the moment to punctuate what was taught by releasing pressure.
“It's really important to be really rhythmic about the pressure,” she said, “because they can predict and anticipate the pressure when it's rhythmic. When it's erratic, it's really hard for them to get used to.”
Beginners like myself struggle with rhythm. That's where a trainer can be a huge help in figuring out how to communicate to horses depending on, Amy says, whether they're dominant versus unconfident and extrovert versus introvert.
For working under saddle, I turned to Ashley. While the first few rides with Cubbie showed a lot of promise and successes to celebrate, a lot of that was because I took the approach of keeping expectations low and allowing Cubbie to dictate how the ride would go, as I covered in my last diary entry about our first rides together. As long as she was willing to walk calmly, she could do it at any pace she wanted. If she trotted at a controlled pace, that was a victory. We even popped over some small jumps in an arena and on a cross country course.
But after a few weeks, we raised expectations for Cubbie. Now we'd pay more attention to how Cubbie walked and trotted rather than just whether she could do it. Cubbie wanted to do it her way. For example, she wanted to lean on her left shoulder–not unlike a human who wants to slouch on a couch rather than have good posture and sit up straight. She wanted to lock on the bit because it's more comfortable to lean on something and be carried rather than carry oneself.
Cubbie is a 4-year-old filly and has the life outlook of a teenager. She thinks she knows how the world should work and gets offended when others tell her it works differently. When I asked her to push her shoulder out (translation: walk straight and not slouch), she wouldn't respond to my leg cue. Or, she would find other ways to refuse and pick fights with me. At that point, our lessons would devolve.
When we reached an impasse because Cubbie was consistently getting the better of me, Ashley started riding Cubbie at the beginning of lessons before I hopped on. Like Amy on the ground, Ashley achieved the balance in the saddle between establishing boundaries of what was acceptable and then rewarding when the desired action was achieved. For example, when Cubbie drifted out to the left and would not want not respond when Ashley asked her shoulder to be in place, Ashley would ask her to do a quick circle in the other direction. The small circle is a harder task, reinforcing that keeping a consistent bend would actually be easier and lead to more relief. Ashley could quickly turn to other fixes to diffuse Cubbie's outbursts.
“How much does she work a week?” Ashley asked. “Five hours? And then, the rest of the time she can be with her buddy eating hay. So, for those five hours, she has to learn what's acceptable and what's not.”
However, in working with a horse right off the track for the first time, I'm not as good a judge at determining what to tolerate and what not to when I ride Cubbie.
“If she thinks she can get away with it, she'll continue to do it,” Ashley said.
That's why pretty much the entire month of January was a disaster in our retraining. After the first month of letting Cubbie dictate her rhythm and how she carried herself, I couldn't communicate to the filly that she should engage her hind end and lift her back up so that her movement would be more rhythmic. I was missing the quick subtleties that are necessary to ride effectively. Those come with experience.
“You kind of had to go through the challenges in order to appreciate what goes into the retraining,” Ashley said.
Working with OTTBs will be challenging, and sometimes the challenges will seem like they're too much to handle. In those moments, that's when it's good to turn to an expert and get a helping hand.
The uncertainty that comes in working with OTTBs is now mirrored in the uncertainty our world faces because of the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19). We're hunkering down in our homes and are more and more on our own, but we can still turn to others during times of uncertainty. Having strong people in our life will help us get through the tough times.
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