Thursday, March 4, 2010

My new Standardbred: Where should I start? PART ONE

Standardbred mare, Sammi, just a few weeks after leaving the track, crosses the American River in the Sierra Foothills. Her bravery is directly related to the confidence she gained from working at liberty in the round pen.


I recently received a really nice email from Stacey Parkes, who lives in the UK. Her fiance and his family own and race Standardbreds (they own the record holding trotter Stas Hazelaar, and also race pacers). Lucky Stacey has just been given one of the Standardbreds, a mare, who has been retired from the track and is ready for a new life as a saddle horse.

Stacey had a lot of questions for me on a variety of issues, including:
~ how to deal with separation anxiety from other horses
~ how to get a horse into a canter
~how to get a horse to go over a fence as opposed to through it
~how to get a nervous horse to trust you
~ how to slow down the trot...and more.

I had to laugh. The list was endless, all the questions were good, and I was thrilled to hear someone admit she needs help. Asking for guidance (instead of thinking you know it all) is a great sign of wisdom, to say nothing of grace. After re-training many Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds off the track--and competing them to very high levels--I know one thing: I still don't know it all!

Because she had a pretty long list of questions, I asked Stacey to narrow it down. She wrote me back:

First I just want to start by saying thanks for providing a great website with easy to follow training info for standie owners etc etc..... I've looked at quite a few websites and some training techniques arent clearly stated and are somewhat confusing - but browsing through some of your posts, I was impressed by articles which clearly showed some of the 'terminology,' along with great phtos. I found your advice easier to follow than what I've found elsewhere.

(Thanks so much, Stacey! That's my goal--promote the breed through education!)

Stacey continues:

I have researched immensely on re-training a stb to be a riding mount. So as you can imagine at the moment , it's a million and 1 things swimming around in my brain. I just wanted to know what is the very very first initial thing I need to start off with, in regards to tack to put on them - ground work, trot etc etc? As I have never trained a stb before so it's a learning curve for me. I shall be checking your website frequently for further tips and advice - its great!!

Okay, so Stacey has a great question: what are the first steps you should take with your new, off-the-track Standardbred?

I want to get down to the bare bones on this question, so I really gave it some thought. The first thing that popped into my head was "round pen work to develop your horse's trust, help him grow his confidence, and learn to balance himself while bonding with you." As you can tell from my many posts, I am a huge proponent of round pen work, in which the horse is at liberty.

But Stacey's question made me think...what is really the first thing a new Standardbred owner should do?

And the answer for me is "Educate yourself."

What I mean by this is read, watch DVDs, take lessons, go to clinics, do whatever you can to make sure you are giving your horse clear messages, whether on the ground or in the saddle. A majority of the problems I see between Standardbreds and their owners is that the rider has no experience in gentling a horse and developing trust in the natural horsemanship tradition--or they have developed bad habits, both on the ground and in the saddle.

So where to start: I always like to start my Standardbreds in the round pen. If you don't have a round pen, then a longe line is the next best thing. I have posted many training articles on working with your horse in the round. However, where you place your body is a subtle and critical key to success.

If you don't know if you are "doing it right," your horse will let you know. You will find him turning into you when you don't want him to, not responding to your voice commands, no staying in a consistent direction, not putting his eyes on you--all signs that you are sending mixed messages and that you are using body language that is confusing your horse.

If your horse has clearly shown you that you are confusing him, take a private lesson or a clinic with a reputable pro. If you don't have enough money for some lessons, then watch DVDs. There are many equine outlets these days that rent good training DVDs. Here in the US, Stateline Tack has started renting DVDs. I'm sure there are similar businesses in your area. Renting is a great low-cost way to get yourself some good, solid training.

I have two favorite clinicians for round pen work, regardless of whether you are going to ride English or Western. They are Clinton Anderson and Stacy Westfall.

Further to education, all of us, regardless of how long you have ridden, can use a tune-up in the saddle. It is amazing how little things can creep up on you. The simple act of sliding your leg slightly forward can cause HUGE problems for your horse. I see this so much when people come to me saying their horse is hanging on their hands.

Let me say it this way: if your horse is having a problem, it is my experiene that there is a better than 90% chance it is the fault of the rider. So take a lesson or two to make sure your position is not the reason your horse is struggling.

If you cannot afford a lesson, it's back to the DVDs. Again, I will recommend Clinton Anderson and Stacy Westfall. They have many DVDs that can help you with your position.

For English riders, you will be in excellent hands with Jane Savoie's excellent series "The Happy Horse." It is expensive (upwards of $600) but Jane's lessons, astride her splendid Friesian, Moshi, are easy to understand, present riding foundations in a simple way, and heck, it's from an Olympic level rider with a superior reputation. I did not like the price, but have to confess I use these DVDs all the time, for myself, as well as for students who need reinforcement after a lesson.

Don't forget RFD TV! Last, if you have cable (online if you live outside of the USA) check out the great shows on RFD TV. Clinton Anderson, the very excellent Julie Goodnight, Chris Cox, and more. There are numerous clinicians here with invaluable advice...all included in your cable package. Check with your television provider to find out what station RFD TV is on--these people aren't just horse friendly. They're horse crazy--just like me.

My Touchy Subjectj-The Fat Horseback Rider Last, I'd like to suggest to readers that being ready to train your horse is not just a matter of getting your brain in gear. Your body plays an enormous part in your relationship--and your success--with your horse. If you know you need to get into better shape, then make a committment to start today. If you're in denial, then just think about how you would feel if you were on all fours and a person that weighed a lot put all her weight onto your spine. You wouldn't be happy. Neither does your horse enjoy carrying someone who weighs more than she should.

Every time I bring this up, I get a slew of emails from outraged readers who say they ride just fine weighing too much. And their horse doesn't mind either. Really? He told you that?

I speak on this subject from experience. Due to an illness and medication, I weighed 205 pounds about 11 years ago. By writing down every morsel of food I ate and every bit of exercise I expended, I lost 79 of those pounds. I have been able to keep it by a simple equation: burn more calories out of my body than I take in. Adn track it.

I can tell you that I am a far better rider at 129 than I was at 205. And that my wonderful horses, who give me so much, are much happier and have less stress on their spines.

Okay, off my soapbox I go. If you are interested in losing some weight and would like to get motivated, check out This is the site I use to keep on track with my eating and exercise. It's FREE!

This great website has nutrition trackers, exercise trackers, and great forums and message borads that support you in your quest to be healthy. Don't know how to put together an exercise program? They can help. And again, it's all FREE!

So get out there, train your brain and your body, and riding success with your new Standardbred is one step closer!

Next week: Part II on where to start with your new Standardbred. Check back on March 12!