Struggling to master the Monster – Retraining a tough OTTB

Eastern Hay 770x170-March

 

Struggling to master the Monster – Retraining a tough OTTB

Meet the Monster
Earlier this year, I began training a 6yo OTTB gelding who shows a lot of talent. As with most “fresh meat” off the track, he has a lot of habits to unlearn and develop a new way of going. However, he’s turned out to be one of my most challenging restarts… waist-deep into the process, I’m starting to see glimmers of hope; but there have definitely been days when I wonder if he will EVER get better!

Fresh off the track.

Standing 17.1 and weighing about 1400lbs, he is, as I call him, a “Monster.” He has huge bone, a ton of muscle, wrapped up in a pretty bay package with four stockings and a narrow stripe down his face. If you didn’t check his tattoo, you’d never guess he was a TB– with enough pedigree and class that Klaravich Stables paid $200,000 for him as a yearling. Sadly, he didn’t live up to his purchase price and that’s how he found his way to me.

He’s a smart guy, sensible and easy to have around. He puts himself away in his stall each day, I open the pasture gate and he marches directly to his stall (and no one else’s). He loads willingly in my 2 horse trailer, in which he barely fits. He makes “normal” sized horses look like ponies, but aside from a playful streak he gets along with anyone. Monster hacks out like a pro, he’s brave and quiet in new situations, and strangers are always drawn to his presence and personality.

The problem
But, for six months, schooling him on the flat (and occasionally over fences) was pure hell. He’s a BIG horse, and he knows it. He probably bullied his exercise riders at the track, and was likely galloped in tight draw reins to roll his head low and provide some control. As such, he lives on his forehand, roots the reins from your hands, and drags you wherever he wants to go. He’ll play your little games and run in circles until he’s had enough, and then his outside shoulder will bow out to the arena gate, sometimes rather forcefully. Insist that he go forward and straight, and he could throw a tantrum running sideways or backwards; touch him with a spur, and he would LEAP straight into the air like a lipizzan, bolting across the field, rooting the reins as he went. Thankfully there was no bucking, but it’s rather disconcerting to ride uncontrolled airs above the ground on a horse of that size and power, especially as he had little regard for trees, jumps, or fences in the way. He’s intelligent enough to aim for the low branches, too! He didn’t like contact, and could remarkably both curl behind the bit and hang on your hands at the same time, while behind your leg and running off. Drop the reins (“give him nothing to lean on”) and he’d go faster, faster, into the next gait until he was at a gallop. He ignored half-halts, and a full halt took dozens of strides to accomplish, even in a decidedly ugly manner.

The promise
The good news, that I figured out in the first 90 days, is this horse is a natural jumper. He’s crazy brave, very clever with his knees, and wants to get to the other side. I took him cross-country schooling in April, and when I wasn’t getting run off with (ha!), he was hopping over everything in his path, with minimal guidance from me (not from my lack of trying). He trotted over the baby ditches without a blink, so I aimed for a bigger one. Yeah, whatever, it was like a ground pole to him. I walked him around the biggest ditch I could find, to see if he gave a reaction (he didn’t). Stupid or not, I cantered him down to the preliminary-sized ditch…him pulling on me, leaning, rolled up with his nose to his chest, as I desperately tried to GET THAT HEAD UP! coming to something sure to make any green horse look twice. Two strides out his rhythm never changed, he’s still staring face-down at the gaping hole in the ground, I looked up, shoved my feet forward, grabbed mane and prepared for a reining-horse stop…and he hopped right over it, while staring into the wide, horse-eating snakepit, and charged away. Never ever have I been on a green horse that was so unconcerned.

However, that sickening, “I’m going to DIE” feeling while he was rolled up on his forehand thundering down to a big ditch we had no business doing…well, that’s when I decided to put away the jumping and focus entirely on flatwork until he had a reliable, confirmed half-halt and got his balance sorted. I had proven he was bold, catty, and had talent….now I just had to figure out how to tame the beast.

The struggle
For over a month, our daily rides ended with both of us exhausted, dripping in sweat, and not having a good time. I tried everything in my toolbox: normal progress wasn’t happening so I backed off and went very slow, spending weeks at the walk, using feather-light aids to teach him half-halts and straightness, riding mostly off my seat. It sort of worked, at the walk, but no bueno when we started trotting– I was still getting run off with and dragged wherever he pleased. I tried lots of halts, trying to use my seat, no hands, even rewarding with treats.. I was very careful not to hang on him, and use the lightest possible contact. Despite his size and heaviness, he is a sensitive horse who overreacts to strong aids. But when he doesn’t understand light aids, and only knows to bully his way through life, how do you ride that?

I tried different bits, from a soft mullen Nathe (freight train!), to a two-rein rubber pelham (God no, the curling and leaning was unbearable), a single jointed snaffle (horrors, the nutcracker effect!), a waterford (so what), a Myler comfort snaffle (meh, still leaning), to a hackamore (haha, run away and not steer!) and back again to a loose-ring KK. He leans with his mouth open, and raced in a figure-8 at the track, so I use one as well. I tried switching the noseband (Micklem, plain cavesson, no cavesson, flash) and the figure-8 still seems best.

I should add that I had my saddles checked by a professional fitter, his teeth were done by an excellent dentist, and my vet and I could not find a source of pain. I had him worked on by a chiropractor, and he had been treated for ulcers when he came off the track, which greatly improved his appetite and weight. Monster spent most of his day outside, with free choice hay, and ate a moderate amount of grain plus beet pulp. There was no apparent physical cause of the misbehavior.

When going slow was getting nowhere but spoiling his walk and making him bored or frustrated, I changed it up again. I put him on a lungeline, where I was able to see that, physically, he COULD carry himself in appropriate balance, within reason. In long sidereins, he could go around without hanging, leaning, or running. He could travel with lightness, with rhythm…at least at the trot. The canter was still sketchy, but it’s not really fair to expect a green OTTB to canter quietly with balance at the canter on a 20 or 30m lunge circle. That had to be under saddle where I could help him and ride straight lines with gentle curves.

 


 

The creative but unusual solution
So, I got back on again. I still got dragged around, and repeated halts (attempting to regulate pace and get off my damn hands) just made him hot and jiggy. Despite my best efforts to be light, to use my seat, he still leaned and pulled, and ran from my leg. Going against every instinct and my moral fiber, I hesitantly tried a pair of draw reins. The only time I’ve needed them is for a restarting a rehab case, to maintain control while tack-walking a healing soft-tissue injury on a fit horse. On paper, it didn’t make sense to use them on Monster: let’s tie a big heavy horse’s head down, the same horse who wants his head rolled up low anyway? Draw reins are notorious for pulling a horse on its forehand, breaking the topline at the 3rd vertebrae, creating false frame and generally ruining any good effort at dressage. I know all this, and while training dozens of horses over many years I’ve never felt any temptation to wander down that short-cut wormhole.

But in this case, I needed the leverage. I was getting hopelessly drug everywhere by this ginormous animal and my half-halts were not respected AT ALL. To get any response, I had to ride rough and harshly, which I hated and Monster resented. Fully prepared to take them off in the first five minutes, I tried the draw reins, set loosely enough just to keep him from rooting or leaping about. Strangely enough, it worked! He tried to pull on me, drag me, yank me around…and he pulled on himself instead. I could put my leg on (gently), and now had enough Oomph in my shoulders to guide and direct that energy. I said, THIS is my outside rein, and Thou Shalt Not Run Through It. Surprisingly, he came UP in the bridle, just in front of the vertical, and started to travel in a better balance. What the hell just happened, in DRAW REINS?!

He was actually quite responsive to my aids, so long as he couldn’t run through them. I wasn’t pulling his head down at all, but I was able to achieve positive influence with the snaffle rein. It was like bowling with inflatable rubber bumpers: I might only knock down one pin, but my bowling ball was guaranteed to avoid the gutter. I was successful in getting easy steps of leg-yield and shoulder in– he actually could move laterally, he just lacked straightness from an honest connection to the outside rein, and boundaries in general. The explosive, wild canter departs were a little more tame, and within half a circle I had him wrangled to something that might stay inside a large dressage arena.

I was both in awe and terrified of the draw rein effect– I did not want to become dependent on them, so I often had them uselessly loose and he was never allowed to dive or lean (lots of leg and let-go). However, they were there for me to pick up when I needed to limit his escape options and make the right response more clear. I doubt there will soon be another horse that needs those draw reins, and they’ll go back to being stiff and moldy in the bottom of my tack trunk.

Making progress
After two weeks, I phased out the draw reins and his improvement has been steady. I’ve added work over ground poles and a bit of jumping, which tends to bring out the roaring lion again. To give myself some chance to regulate that enormous stride, I use a regular gag snaffle (with two reins) once a week on “jump” days. He is not a big fan of the gag action, but he can’t lean on it, and I can effectively correct his tendency to roll up on the forehand. It also gives me good brakes when he gets too strong cantering over the poles or won’t halt in a straight line after a gymnastic. As always, I’m careful to LET GO whenever he tries to respond, even if it’s not perfect.

Through all of this, Monster is starting to inch toward the nice horse I hoped he could be. He is better at maintaining his rhythm, and respects my half-halts (most of the time). He doesn’t run from my leg, or throw temper tantrums anymore. He can trot quietly on a loose rein, and transition to walk from my body and voice. His straightness is improving, he’s steadier in the contact and spends less time crossing his jaw and snarling at the bit– he’s finally (FINALLY!) learning that I don’t want to be heavy, that I will always let go, and we can be light together.

Canter transitions are almost polite (though I wouldn’t say “through”), and we’ve begun working on walk/canter departs to avoid any need to run into it. His canter is more up and open, but that’s come at a price: suddenly his comfortable, average stride length is about 13 or 14 feet! He used to stay somewhere around 12ft when he was rolled up stiffly on his forehand, false “collection” that made it easier to do the proper number of strides in a line of fences. Now that his wither is up, and his back is free, he doesn’t quite know how to contain that big, powerful step: it’s a work in progress to teach him to shorten, without dumping on his shoulders. Adding leg tends to make him want to quicken, a half-halt tends to lean, and the cycle begins…this is where a ride or two in the gag helps, as it says WHOA NOW and PICK YOURSELF UP so I can let go and be soft. Even if he gets hollow or a little tense, I let go and praise because he’s learning, and at this stage, ANY attempt to lift himself up is desirable.

Despite his age, Monster is green and not used to traveling properly, so I’m careful never to ask for more than he can give. I aim for small achievements: three strides of good balance. Half a circle of not leaning. Three strides of “sit” in response to a half-halt, before he falls forward again. Do a downward transition before the canter falls apart. Do a transition, or free walk if he fidgets at the walk. I finish every ride with a proper halt (NOT on my hands!), I drop the reins and he has to stand still for a period of time before we walk home. How long? About ten seconds, or long enough to show a sign of relaxation: a big sigh, a soft snort, lower the head below the wither, lick and chew, or cock a hind leg, any one of those behaviors will earn him a pat and permission to go home.

Over the past few weeks, he’s really beginning to figure things out. Monster is starting to enjoy the work, understanding what I want, understanding that I reward him for trying even if he’s unsure of what to do. He learns quickly, and wants to please, but repetitive exercises seem to unsettle him. If he accomplishes an exercise to the best of his ability on the day, I reward him and move on to something else. Now that some of the pieces are coming together, my giant 1400-lb Monster is turning into an easier horse to ride– his sensitivity is starting to play in my favor. There’s still the issue of stopping: halting from trot, or, God help me, canter, still takes more strides than I’d like at this stage, and he still wants to hang on my hands. But, I’ve got the makings of a proper half-halt at all gaits, and as he gets more in tune to my seat and core, the better halts will come.

The long-term plan
I want to think about jumping again, but first my goal is to gain some reliable adjustability over poles. I’ll do some gymnastics for fun, but I won’t contemplate any course work until he can consistently fit 5 strides in a 60ft line of poles. Right now, it takes firm half-halts to make the 4 strides comfortable, and I am at his mercy as to any distance we take (a lot of bad ones!). With time and patience this rideability will come: first he’ll get a little straighter, then stronger at carrying himself, then softer to my hand, more responsive to the aids, and finally holding himself to a quiet distance. Months and years of work lay ahead, but it’s easier to face when you feel like you’re finally going in the right direction.

The Monster lesson
What Monster has taught me is not “reach for the draw reins to cure your problems.” Actually, I wouldn’t recommend them for almost any OTTB or green horse. But he has reinforced the notion that each horse is an individual, and sometimes the “wrong” answer is helpful for THIS particular horse in THIS specific moment of time. Sometimes all the useful tools in your toolbox just aren’t quite good enough, and you have to expand your search to find what works best for this one horse horse. It’s important to remember that a horse’s disobedience isn’t purely because he wants to be bad– it’s because he hurts, or fears, or simply doesn’t understand, and doesn’t know any other way. It’s up to you, the rider and trainer, to figure out what the horse is communicating, and how to speak to him in a way that makes sense to him. It’s also important to avoid a set timeline, and keep the end result in mind– sure, I’d LOVE to have Monster competing now, and I could probably get him around Beginner Novice cleanly– but it’s not in his best interest to force goals at the expense of his proper training. By taking the time to put in the basic framework, a horse like Monster could be a year before ever entering a show– but he could also move quickly up the levels once he begins, because the homework is already done with no holes to go back and fill in. I love working with new horses, especially green OTTBs, because they always have something to teach you, they keep you humble and yet never fail to reward you when you do right by them.

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