Thursday, May 24, 2012

Day I with OTT Standardbred

As I mentioned yesterday, we are very excited to have a new Standardbred project here at the farm. For the next few months, you'll be hearing all about Without Fail (barn name, "Sweetie"), who we hope will live up to both her monikers. As she learns new lessons as a saddle horse, it is our hope that she will mature mentally--and also learn some valuable training lessons that will allow her to live up to her full potential as a racing trotter.

So let me tell you about Day One with Sweetie. I have to admit to some pre-conveived notions about the type of horse she would be. Owner Stephen Chambers explained a few of Sweetie's issues: "She's fast. Very fast. And smart. When you introduce something new to her, she takes it on like a champ the first day. Then, on the second day, she can have a take-no-prisoners attitude."

Stephen added, "It's sort of like she's thinking, 'Oh, no you don't. And if you do, I'm going down and you--and everyone else within 30 feet--is going with me.' "

Um. Okay.

My shoer said, "Now why in the hell do you want to be involved with that?"

Part of me kind of had to agree with her.  I have a fair amount of back, knee, and hip problems that testify to the many years I've devoted to re-schooling and competing off-the-track thoroughbreds. I thought maybe I'd gained some of the wisdom that perportedly comes with age. The kind that says, "Do you really need to do this kind of thing? Can't you just be happy on a nice, well-trained, possibly older horse?"

Alas, I fear not. I like a challenge. Challenges keep life interesting. Or so I keep telling myself.

So Best Husband in the World and I agreed to work with Sweetie.

Funny thing is that I'd worked myself into a mental image of Sweetie that involved a lot of dust, bucking, hooves get the picture. So when she got off the trailer, I was pleasingly surprised by her demeanor. This pretty little bay had her fine head in the air and was whinnying and blowing. But she was basically calm.

We gave her the guided tour. She got to meet her new roommates, Skye and Scarlett...

Skye (left) meets Sweetie

She got to explore her new housing situation...

And then it was time for work...

Many people (myself included) like to let an off-the-track horse relax for few days before starting any kind of training. Best Husband in the World thinks it's fun to skip the down time and get right to work.

We put Sweetie in the round pen. She immediately displayed a ground-covering stride with a lot of action both in front and behind. She couldn't figure out how to trot on the right rein. She couldn't figure out how to stop whinnying. She worked hard to perfect the art of trotting while eating the stubs of grass on the other side of the fence. She preferred to change directions butt-out rather than the safer (for the trainer) head-in method. In other words, she knew nothing.

After a few minutes of work at liberty, Sweetie had her first lesson at flexing.

Flexing is probably my favorite exercise, in both the rope halter and the bridle, on the ground as well as in the saddle. The art of turing your horse's head to its belly with the lead line or rein--and quickly releaing all pressure when the horse "gives"--is a masterful way to teach your horse to release to you. For a defiant horse especially, it is a brilliant training tool.  (I have written several times of the art of flexing, so check my archives for detailed information.)

Many horses spend of lot of time spinning when first introduced to flexing. Sweetie was no exception. It was a great little workout for me. And at last, she stopped moving her feet, touched her belly with her nose, and received the reward of release. We did this many more times until she understood that if she quickly touched her belly, the lead line went slack, and she got rubbed all over.

Then we got to start all over on the other side.

After a lot of flexing, it was time for the next big step: putting on the saddle. You know all those old Western movies, where the horse stands quietly when saddled--and then launches into the air in an all-out assault on saddlery?

That did not happen here. In fact, with any of our Standardbred, saddling has always been an calm, no-fuss kind of event. Sweetie was no exception. She was somewhat nervous, but basically respectful.  She kept her four dainty feet on the ground where we like them.  BHITW sent her out to the rail and, with the exception of one big buck, she acted like she'd done it all before.

This, of course, meant is was time for the next big step--mounting up.

BHITW has a little bit of this cowboy thing going on. So he's always been the one to put his foot in the stirrup first with any horse new to riding. The macho part of me was thinking, "No, wait. I want to do it myself." The achy parts of me said, "Ya know, we're good for now. Let him do it if."

No need to worry. After a little more groundwork, a lot of saddle slapping and jumping up and down against Sweetie, BHITW swung his leg up and over. Sweetie...was great!

We finished her first day of work with a short trail ride around the property. Sweetie once again left me thinking, "These Standardbreds are amazing!"

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Training the Off the Track Horse (to go back on the track)

I am super excited to announce to all the loyal ALL ABOUT STANDARDBREDS followers--all two of you--that we have a new project. And therefore, a whole new set of events and issues to blog about. Hurrah!

The new project is trotter Without Fail, known around the barn as "Sweetie." Sweetie is an extremely pretty four-year-old mare that apprarently can trot around the harness racing track like crazy.

Unfortunately, the operative word in that sentence is not "trot," but rather "crazy." There is a bit of thoroughbred running through the veins of all Standardbreds. In Sweetie's case, that thoroughbred component might be rearing up over the gentler, more common sensical aspects that make Standardbreds such amazing horses.
Four-year-old Standbred Trotter Without Fail (barn name Sweetie)

In an effort to help Sweetie's, ahem, sweeter nature to come out, owner Stephen Chambers came up with an intriguing idea: why not give Sweetie a different job to do for a while, so that she can mature, but continue in her training?

Why not teach her to be a riding horse? And then, after a few month of that, bring her back to track to see how she does?

Which is how Sweetie came to us.

Over the next several months, I'll be chronicling Sweetie's training and progress as a dressage, Western, and trail horse. I'm really excited to see how life under saddle might translate to more success at the track.
So stay tuned for more on Without Fail, our little sweetheart of a trotter.