As you know from previous posts, Chaplin and Lightening Ball are two of the ex-racehorses that I'm working with at Hy Court Farm. On the surface, the two horses couldn’t be more different from each other. Chaplin is a small (14H) 6 yo Arabian ex-racehorse who retired with just a few races under his belt. LB is a tall 15 yo TB gelding who raced until age 9.
Chaplin is short with a stocky, pony-like build. LB has the classic frame of his breed — long, elegant, very athletic. Chaplin is quite green, with little riding experience outside of racing (see video of Chaplin before he came to Hy Court). LB was once adopted to be a dressage lesson horse (only to be returned due to spookiness under saddle). Since becoming a PR “spokeshorse” for LOPE, LB has been to several clinics, participated in two schooling shows, did some trail riding and even went to winter camp at Tom Curtin’s ranch.
My time with Chaplin has been focused on following the work Janet Manley at Hy Court Farm did with him earlier this year. Ground work, gentling exercises and colt starting rides (by that term, I mean riding with saddle, halter and reins, but no bit yet). In contrast, LB has been my primary mount for my ongoing lessons at Hy Court — we have started learning some elements of classical dressage foundation work together.
The more I work with these horses (and think about horsemanship principles), the more I see that Chaplin and LB have some key things in common. Both have some gaps in their original foundation work. That might sound strange, since they both have been ridden successfully at the track and (in LB’s case) for years after their race career. But good foundation work goes deeper than simply training a horse to carry a rider, it also helps build into the horse a sense of confidence about his balance, movement and ability to deal with new situations consistently.
Both Chaplin and LB at times have some anxiety about being asked to move in new ways. Chaplin had some difficulty with his right side and with his right hind to left foreleg diagonal (see original post). LB has trouble with the same diagonal, and because he is older and has many more years riding, he has developed stronger muscle patterns and tightness (especially in his right shoulder, which tries to counterbalance the stickiness in the left foreleg-right hind diagonal).
Just like people, horses can develop physical patterns and muscle memory — and when they are asked to change these patterns, it can be stressful for the horses. They might really feel that they can’t move any other way — and if a horse feels like he can’t move (and starts feeling trapped), that’s when things can get a little exciting or anxious for him.
Good horsemanship gives the rider the tools to introduce and reinforce these new ways of moving to the horses — so that they can develop the “try” and the trust to take those new kinds of steps (both literal and metaphoric ones). If the rider gets frustrated and tries to “make” the horse do this, it won’t work out too well. As the same time, if the rider gets too soft in their approach and helps the horse avoid things — that will create a poor outcome as well.
It’s a big commitment to take the time to understand and learn these tools. Sometimes it can seem so much easier to just strap on a spur and “get it done” (even if the horse doesn’t really flow properly into the movement, but instead just reacts away from the spur). And I can always talk myself into not pushing my horse out of his comfort zone, because it’s “too hard” for him (even though what I really mean is that it is too hard for me).
When I slow down and take the time to understand what is really happening physically with each horse’s way of moving and carrying himself, I then can better set up the horse (as well as myself) for success under saddle. It takes longer and requires more of me as a rider. But the results are very much worth the wait (for both me and the horse).