Put yourself in the mindset of a 3-year-old Thoroughbred filly. Now, take a guess of the best way to solve this problem.
January 21, 2020: Cubbie Girl North, the former racehorse with whom I've been playing a daily game of picking petals off flowers and saying “She loves me, she loves me not,” is about to try a jump chute for the first time. A jump chute is an inviting way to introduce horses to the physical and mental skills required for the jumping that is part of several equestrian sports. Running freely without a rider, Cubbie is then directed toward an alleyway with four-foot barriers on each side and a line of jumps between them ranging from about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 feet.
So, did Cubbie: (a) go over the jumps in the jump chute; (b) grind to a halt, refusing to jump; or (c) do something we didn't expect was possible?
If you answered (a), you're an optimist and believe Cubbie did what we hoped she would. If you answered (b), you're a pessimist and believe Cubbie wouldn't do what was presented to her. If you answered (c), you know what horses are capable of, and you answered correctly.
Instead of jumping the 2 1/2-foot tall jump in front of her, Cubbie pivoted to the left and jumped over the 4-foot vinyl fencing that lines our arena. Off she went, galloping toward her pasture.
“Well, we know she can jump,” said my fiancé and trainer, Ashley Gubich of Super G Sporthorses.
This moment provides a poignant glimpse into the body and mind of Cubbie that can be applied to what goes into retraining a former racehorse for a new sport. Thoroughbreds are incredibly athletic and smart. Cubbie innately has the physical ability to jump anything I'm going to ask her to from a standstill as we train for the 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover. The focus of our training is to get her mental ability to catch up to her physical ability.
Rather than charging her to a 2 1/2-foot jump that overwhelms her so much that she'd rather jump a 4-foot fence to get out Dodge, can I make that 2 1/2-foot jump inviting for my horse? Here are a few moments and tips I've learned that have helped me get Cubbie to relax and have helped us work together toward a common goal.
The overall theme, as Ashley explains it, is, “You want her to figure out that: one, what you're asking her to do won't kill her; two, you're going to make her do it regardless; and three, it's really not that bad. When she figures that out, she'll trust you more, and you'll become a team.”
Take it Slow
Cubbie and I had just finished our third flat class at our first schooling show last December. We were getting more and more comfortable after each one and had just captured a blue ribbon as part of a class with three green horses. The judge, Laura Backus, who runs the winter schooling show series at Pendragon Stud Equestrian Center in Larkspur, Colo., came over to us and said, “You have a really nice horse. Take it slow. The tendency is sometimes to keep pushing a young horse that figures things out so quickly off the track, and you don't want to do that.”
We did a crossrails class at the show, and then we didn't jump again for another month. The goal was to introduce Cubbie to the idea of going over jumps but then lay the foundation for how to do that properly. In our first full lesson after the show, we only walked.
“It's amazing how much work you can do at the walk,” Ashley said.
The gait beginners like myself would take for granted is one of the hardest to master. It's where I get some of my lowest scores in dressage, and where my first OTTB, Sorority Girl, decided she could back out of the dressage ring and make a scene by kicking over the “A” block at a recognized show. Watch the video from my first episode of “Eventful Adventures.” I promise you'll be entertained.
Things slow down enough while walking for both horse and rider to process a myriad of scenarios. The gate was open. Cubbie tried to walk out. She would try to drop her left shoulder tracking to the left and bulge it out to the right. We addressed these challenges and accomplished the goal of the lesson and what will be the goal of our entire training. Relax, relax, relax.
The Dreaded 9-Inch Log
The day after I turned in my last “Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries” for Paulick Report where I gushed about riding Cubbie over her first cross country jump at the Beginner Novice height of 2-foot-7, Cubbie lost her mind when I asked her to walk over a log on our farm that was about 9 inches high and 18 inches wide.
Instead of walking calmly, Cubbie wanted to rush, tense, and lock. She physically went over the log, but it was with the same attitude as a bratty teenager who crumples their clothes and aggressively throws them in a drawer when asked to clean their room.
And so began a weeklong temper tantrum from the bay filly because I cared less about whether she could get over a baby log as I cared about how she did it. It was ugly. Cubbie insisted that she wouldn't do it. She would bolt to the side, charge backward, spin around, or dig her heels in the ground and not budge.
While it was tempting to dismiss her attitude and get back to navigating bigger jumps, getting Cubbie not to make a big deal of such a simple task is a big deal.
What got Cubbie to give up her fight were repetition, allowing Cubbie to throw a fit but not giving her something from me to fight against, and working her out in a neutral setting like a round pen for a few minutes before trying to walk over the dreaded nine-inch log again.
The Thoroughbred breed is characterized as “hot-blooded.” They can make a big deal about anything, from a plastic bag, to a puddle of water, to a boring nine-inch log. Life doesn't have to be such a big event every time. I try to learn from that message in other parts of my life.
I've tried to find many opportunities for Cubbie to work her brain. Ultimately, that will be more beneficial than constantly testing her physical boundaries.
I rode her around the construction area where an indoor arena is being built on the farm. Cubbie sniffed out the heavy machinery and took in many unique and different sights.
We jumped a cross country fence that was carved like a fish with a giant eye. I knew the height of the fence wouldn't be an issue because, you know, she can jump out of an arena. But, what about the bright colors and strange shapes? Cubbie took a hard look. I put my leg on, and she trusted me.
When we finish a lesson, we'll stay behind while other horses leave. This is her nemesis. Then, we'll leave the arena and walk back in, and back out, and back in, and back out. We'll go through different gates on the farm with the impunity of a TSA agent walking through the airport. The point is that I dictate the agenda, not the horse.
“For 23 hours a day, Cubbie gets to be out in her pasture with her friends and do whatever she wants,” Ashley said. “But, that one hour belongs to you.”
This is the first time Cubbie and I ever attempted a jumper course. The heights of the jumps are no issue to her. She once jumped a 4-foot fence out of the arena. So, I'm writing about training the mental side of OTTBs for my next @RRP_TBMakeover Diaries for @paulickreport. pic.twitter.com/46RCzS6ghu
— Jonathan Horowitz (@jjhorowitz) May 19, 2020
Half Halts are Your Friend
Last Sunday, May 17, I rode Cubbie over her first jumper course. We set up nine jumps made up of colored poles and blue barrels in the arena and charted a course of turns and lead changes so that we'd eventually jump them all in a single round.
It was less than four months since we tried the jump chute where I learned that physically getting over each jump wouldn't present a problem. Riding between and approaching the jumps would be more important.
“Half halts are your friend,” Ashley said.
The advice was to use my body to balance Cubbie and communicate the rhythm and straightness I wanted her to maintain.
The moments between the jumps, like those little unnoticed moments in life, are the ones I now appreciate the most. They made the jumps themselves more enjoyable.
There will always be “jumps” placed in front of us as we navigate the arena of life. If we can take those moments between and before the jumps to “half halt,” rebalance, and recollect, then we can soar over the jumps calmly with the form that makes me admire Cubbie so much. It's a much better option than clearing a four-foot fence out of the arena. I'm glad I can pass that message on to Cubbie, and I'll try to embrace that for my life as well.
Jonathan Horowitz has announced horse races at 29 tracks over the past 20 years. He is also involved in Thoroughbred aftercare as the president of CANTER USA and announcer of the Thoroughbred Makeover. He is the author of Paulick Report's Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries series about his adventures riding and retraining Cubbie Girl North for the 2020 Makeover.
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