Three valuable lessons eventers can learn from galloping Throroughbreds

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Three valuable lessons eventers can learn from galloping Throroughbreds

I picked up a side job galloping racehorses in the mornings, and while it isn’t easy, I would STRONGLY encourage any serious event rider to spend a month (or more) riding in the fast lane.

Is it dangerous? Sure, as are most things we do with horses, particularly riding cross-country. However, finding the right trainer is key: someone who has sensible horses and who won’t overface you. Going to a farm or local training centre will be a better starting environment than the racetrack; things are a little more laid back and beginner-friendly with less on-track traffic. The trainer I ride for actually works her horses in a big field more often than the track; she loves hiring event riders who know how to balance a horse up and down hills. (And to be honest, most regular track exercise riders aren’t crazy enough to take a racehorse out to a wide-open field flanked by cows, loose dogs, tractors and farm equipment, with downhill 90 degree turns on natural footing. But hey, that’s what we event riders are born to do, right?)

What does galloping do for you? A lot, really. It will show you how weak you are in the saddle– you think your horse is strong on cross-country? Try taking a fit, battle-tested veteran racehorse for a spin in company. You WILL get run off with, I can pretty much guarantee (unless you only ride slow babies).

Believe it or not, the just-broke 2-year-olds and unraced 3-year-olds are much easier to ride…they might be a little fresh or silly, but they aren’t strong enough and don’t know enough tricks to get away from you. I was run off with three times in one day the first week we started galloping the old campaigners. It happens to everyone; the best thing you can do is anchor down, relax, steer out of trouble, and ease the horse back slowly when he thinks he’s finished. Your shoulders will ache, and your arms will be rubber. Shake it off, and ride some more the next day. If you stick with it, you’ll get better.

Riding six or more each morning, I have become very fit and strong myself. I’ve developed arm, shoulder, and back muscles I didn’t know I had. I now know how to use those muscles to my advantage, and also when to relax and quit pulling, using my weight instead. Now, galloping my own two-star OTTB feels like a cakewalk! I have so many more tools to regulate his pace, without upsetting our balance. I’ve also become accustomed to riding with shorter stirrups; not “racing” short by any means (!), but perhaps two holes up from my cross-country length. A shorter stirrup helps reinforce your upper body strength by increasing your mass above the saddle, so you can use your shoulders and hips against the horse to help maintain control, much needed on strong pullers. However, if the horse is spooky, balky, or bucks… I want those stirrups longer to help keep me in the middle!

Another benefit of riding racehorses: you get really comfortable at speed. A typical morning gallop is about 600mpm; that’s FASTER than the average speed at Rolex (570mpm). Of course, Rolex horses will be going 600+mpm at various places to make up time, but the great thing about riding racehorses is that you go that speed EVERY DAY for miles. Instead of feeling “really fast” or “slightly out of control,” it becomes normal. Your brain adjusts, you learn to think quicker, plan ahead, and it doesn’t feel like the world is whizzing by. I feel more confident riding at the big gallop fences on cross-country, because I am comfortable at cruising speed, and I am so much more skilled at adjusting my horse’s pace on approach to the fences. It used to take me 15 strides or more to bring him back to a speed where I was comfortable (mostly sitting up and using my hands); now I can regulate him in 10 strides or less, mostly with my body, shoulders, and arms, barely lifting my hands from the neck. It’s not about bits, or raw strength– it’s about knowledge and education (for you and the horse). Knowledge is power, and that’s a heck of a lot stronger than any bit.

 


 

I’ve also learned more about conditioning. I felt like I knew a lot about fitness for an upper-level event horse. However, seeing the transformation from unfit, fat, slow TBs into fit, strong, FAST racehorses, all from five days a week of work for the last three months, has been surprising. Coming off fall vacation, these older horses were a bit chubby…now they look like the racing machines they are, tucked up and muscled. Just like event horses, they do change as they get fitter. Interestingly, the “difficult” horses may get easier, while the “easy” horses may become harder. The horses who used to try to run off, pull, and get crooked, are now straight, soft, and responsive. Meanwhile, the slow plodder who used to go with a loop in the reins is now a fire-breathing dragon ripping my arms out every day. Horses change, and you must learn to adapt and ride the animal beneath you…not who he was last month, last week, or yesterday.

I’m sure you’ve read some big name, old-fashioned eventers lamenting the skills of today’s riders. They say riders are no longer experienced at galloping; riders don’t know how to go at speed, they only know how to count strides and look pretty in an arena. That’s not entirely true, but the masters have a point: good, safe, effective cross-country riders ARE comfortable at speed, and have developed a set of instincts that can’t be learned in an arena, or even on a Novice, Training, or Preliminary horse trial course. Galloping Thoroughbreds isn’t for everyone; but if you’re committed to riding at the upper levels of Eventing, I would strongly encourage you to add it to your education.

Most days are hard work, and there are times I’m just happy I survived the works to ride my own horses at home. But those mornings when the mist lays heavy on the track, the sun peeks over the horizon and the only sound you hear is the horses’ pounding hoofbeats and rhythmic snorting breaths…when you sit still as a statue as 1200lbs of muscle eats up the ground…when you feel the horse beneath you striving to do the one and only thing he was bred to do– RUN and WIN– it’s an amazing feeling that makes the sore muscles, rubber arms, blistered fingers and aching knees worthwhile.

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