Recently, both PJ’s Wish and Mystery Blessing received some ground work and assessment at LOPE. With multiple trainers interested in working with our new training initiative, we wanted to do some preliminary sessions with both horses — so that we could decide which trainer (and discipline) might be the best match for each of them.
PJ’s Wish and Mystery Blessing have been turned out together in the “new horse” pasture here at LOPE. The pasture is full of trees — plus it is a nice size (not too big, not too small) for young horses coming off the track.
One of the first activities we like to do with new horses is to lead them from the new horse pasture down to our round pen. That might sound like a simple task — but the walk is nearly ¼ mile down our driveway. We have found that this long, leisurely walk often tells us a great deal about each horse — since the way that a horse leads is often very much related to how he will ride, how he was handled and how he views the world in general.
Each horse was led to the round pen and assessed on leading skills, personality, attention span and so on. Once at the round pen, we did some ground work exercises and general handling of the horses as well.
PJ’s Wish was the first horse we worked with. He is a sweet, young, three-year-old gelding with kind eyes. We had noticed that he was the shyer of the two horses — in the pasture, it took him a little longer to be confident about new people (but once he became familiar with someone, he would approach the person for pats and grooming sessions).
While being led to the round pen, PJ showed that he had been well schooled in good manners — he wanted very much to please his handler and tried his best to stay focused. However, there were many interesting distractions on the walk (lots of fresh grass, several other horses in the barn pasture, the sound of Mystery Blessing neighing) — so he sometimes kept forgetting to walk and wanted to stare at all these fascinating sights. All very normal and understandable responses for a three-year-old. He also was careful to not crowd the handler’s space (even when he really wanted to turn and look at something new).
In the round pen, PJ’s Wish was a little unsure of himself and seemed worried about what to do. We did some work on the end of the lead rope (yielding hindquarters, walking around the handler in a circle) and also practiced some simple flexion exercises. His anxiety level reduced quickly as he realized that the exercises would stay slow and simple (he really wanted to get the answer right — which is very typical of young OTTBs). Soon, he was able to stay focused on the ground work — and feel more comfortable “guessing” the answers if he wasn’t 100% sure what to do.
We did some simple free lunging in the round pen at that point — just to see how PJ moved and how he responded to being in the round pen loose. He is a lovely mover — very elegant and light on his feet. PJ’s Wish did seem to prefer the lead rope exercises to the free lunging — but he gradually got more comfortable and began to lick and chew. With that very nice change in his demeanor, we decided to end the session with a long walk back to his pasture.
Mystery Blessing is four-years-old and has been off the track longer than PJ’s Wish. She also has had some professional training (w-t-c with some exposure to jumps) to help transition her from the track. Her personality is calm and kind — she radiates quiet intelligence and seems poised for her age.
Her walk down to the round pen was very quiet. She led softly from the lead rope and didn’t seem anxious about all the new sights. Mystery Blessing was aware of the same interesting things that PJ experienced on his walk (new horses, lots of grass, neighbor’s cattle, etc). She was calmly alert and looked at everything — but never once broke her walk stride or signaled tension. We were very impressed — especially when two of our retired geldings put on a prancing show (in an attempt to catch her attention). Mystery Blessing flicked an ear at the commotion and kept walking steadily.
In the round pen, she handled the ground work easily. She wasn’t entirely certain what we wanted but seemed to feel confident that she would figure it out. We noticed that Mystery Blessing is very tuned into her handler’s body language. Without being in any way jumpy, she would respond quickly to small signals to move away, bend or lead forward. She is a fast learner and seemed to enjoy the new activities.
When the time came to free lunge her in the round pen, we were pleased with how easily she adapted. Mystery Blessing is an athletic, sporty mover — she slowed down, moved out and stopped nicely with little tension.
Because of her easy responses, we decided to go a step further and saddle her. Mystery Blessing stood still for her saddle and girth (even with the handler simply looping the lead rope under an elbow, instead of tying the filly). When we realized that we had selected too short a girth (she is a very well-built mare) — she stood quietly and waited while we retrieved another girth from the nearby tack area.
Once saddled, Mystery Blessing did well with both ground work and free lunging again. We were impressed again with her willingness and dignified demeanor — and decided to end the session.
Typically at LOPE, we do one or two of these kind of round pen sessions before riding the horse. The sessions aren’t very long (we don’t want to sour the horses on round penning) but they help us see key aspects of each horse’s temperament, maturity levels and background. We adapt the sessions to each horse’s needs (some do best with very short sessions, others gain confidence with longer sessions but with fewer exercises). Since we started the LOPE Ranch, we have found that these pre-riding sessions greatly help the first rides — so much so that our first rides have almost always gone well (with a pleasant result for horse and rider).
After working with PJ’s Wish and Mystery Blessing in these first sessions, we came to a couple of conclusions. First, we felt that PJ would probably do best with more transition time from the track. As a tall three-year-old, he is still growing quite a bit — and would benefit from some slower schooling activity (rather than going into a full training program). His terrific race breeder agreed — and PJ will return to his original home to have more growing and simple schooling time. He will be available for rehoming from his breeder at some point later in the future.
Second, Mystery Blessing demonstrated quite a bit of willingness and preparation to begin some specific, more structured training. Her personality, movement and demeanor showed calm athleticism — and seemed to indicate that she might be a terrific candidate for eventing type work. We could see where she might also benefit from some classical dressage schooling work — to help her build new muscles and develop her athletic talent in a new sport outside of racing.
We began interviewing potential trainers for Mystery Blessing last week — and have been excited by the level of professionalism each trainer would bring to the project. It is wonderful to see so many trainers who want to work with the LOPE training initiative! We will announce Mystery Blessing’s trainer in the next blog post — and can’t wait to watch her training progress over the next several weeks.