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Basic exercise and hacking

Schooling and training is all about getting the hindlegs more underneath the body and the back and neck supple.

Once in the saddle spend a few days walking and trotting around the school on a longer rein; whilst you shouldn’t ride with your reins loops, don’t take a strangle hold either. Have a length of rein with your hands low and held wider apart to encourage your horse to seek the bit and ride forwards.

Much as we are all taught that a horse should respond to the lightest of undetectable aids, initially over-exaggeration can help your horse understand what you want of him; this doesn’t mean a nagging leg or tugging on the reins but stronger aids than you would ideally normally give to get your message across.

Endlessly riding around the arena will not help you in your quest for a rounded, soft horse, engaged horse but it will serve to make him very bored! Thoroughbreds are quick thinking and need mental stimulation so keep them thinking with constant changes using loops, figures of eight, serpentines and so on, and remember to include transitions. If you feel confident enough, working on grass is also an excellent way of improving balance.

Your horse will be stiffer on one rein than another but don’t be tempted to work the stiffer side more, or work on the good rein more because it is easier and feels better. You cannot do enough work in walk; this pace gives both of you time to think about what you are doing and helps with horses that are naturally fizzy to slow the pace of life. Initially you are seeking a horse that responds positively to what is asked of him.

For the horse that appears stubborn or uncooperative, before blaming him for being awkward, eliminate any possible causes. For example, if a high head-carriage is a typically encountered rule out:

  • An incorrectly fitting saddle
  • Dental issues
  • Sore feet
  • An unsuitable bit
  • An inappropriate noseband (not every horse likes a lip strap)
  • Check your position and aids
  • Despite being bred for its speed, the former racehorse can have issues moving forwards off the leg. Whilst you could readily go on the gallops and have no problem going forward, put into the alien environment of a school and being asked to do strange things, some horses can seem to shut down. All that you are experiencing is a lack of understanding of the forward, driving leg aid into a proper rein contact. Ensure your hands are not being restrictive or you are not driving downwards with your seat as this can block the back and the horse cannot move forwards.

The introduction of canter often leads to problems because the horse doesn’t understand about canter strike off; he is just used to his rider going forwards out of the saddle, shortening the reins and off they go. Some horses naturally pick up the correct lead or learn whilst others end up just trotting faster and faster, pick up the wrong lead or canter disunited.

There are some good exercises for helping to achieve correct canter strike off but for those that really struggle the simplest thing to do is pick up canter from the two-point seat as by taking the weight completely off the back this eliminates the factor of the rider blocking the lift of the back which is required to bring the hind leg through to achieve the canter. Once in canter, the rider can then sit.

Training any horse is an on-going exercise to continually improve his way of going and ultimately his performance. Quite what can be achieved will depend upon whether a horse has incurred an injury during his racing career which restricts him in some way or he may prove not to be quite athletic enough for certain activities. However this does not mean he cannot enjoy a lovely life hacking out, going to pleasure rides and so on.

Hacking out

In general racehorses do not hack alone so when you elect to go out without a companion there can be a crisis of confidence; and of course if you go out in a group there is the anticipation factor of what is coming next – canter work!

The amount of traffic a racehorse has been exposed to will vary depending where they were trained. Until you have a good, solid relationship with your horse and he has a good understanding of the basic aids, go out with a quiet companion horse as this will help with confidence issues. Where it is safe to do so, ask your horse to walk alongside the nanny and when you feel ready, ask your horse to take the lead, even if it is just for a few strides at a time. When you do decide to go alone start by heading out for a few minutes at a time.

Some horses become quite excited in company as they anticipate that they will be cantering “any time soon”. One of the best ways to deal with this is to accustom your horse to working in the school with others and also when you do hack out, stick to walk and short periods of trotting until you have full control.

Unfortunately not everyone has someone they can ride out with and elect to take their horses for in-hand walks to begin with. This does help to gain confidence but is not recommended unless you are confident about handling from the ground should your horse rear up or try and run. If you do take him out in hand the horse should have a bridle on (to be compliant with the law) even though you may have a form of training halter over the top. A lunge line is recommended rather than a lead rope as this can very easily be pulled from your hand. Always wear gloves.

Having someone on foot to walk with you is a proven confidence booster for both horse and rider. Initially this person can be beside the horse but they can gradually drop back so that the horse learns to take the lead.

For those that have no riding companion or foot soldier a couple of safety steps can be taken before hitting the open road:

  • Start by riding in your yard environment where he can encounter objects that he may not have seen before.
  • If permissible go into one of the fields so your horse gets used to the idea of doing something alone. Confidence is the issue here so the rider must not show any signs of nerves otherwise the horse will react negatively.
  • Taking a horse to a new environment, to a friend’s school, etc, all helps to build confidence before heading out alone.