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Off the track, but not completely

Dear Franklin,

We recently purchased a 10-year-old TB gelding racehorse that has been off the track for at least two years for our 13 year old daughter. Before he came to us the vet who took him directly from the circuit to his farm owned him. He was being ridden/broken at first by his teenage daughter (an advanced rider). We have since seen her ride other horses that are a handful and do a nice job quieting them down.

Anyway, sometime during that time, when he was out in the field, he got into it with another horse that got the better of him and kicked him over a fence. His injuries were extensive but not life threatening or enough to make him unsound. He has since fully recovered. Needless to say, he is not in the best of shape but we knew we'd need to work on that going in. Sort of like a house with bad wallpaper, we saw his potential to be a beautiful horse again with a little elbow grease. What we didn't realize was his ability for speed. I'm embarrassed to say we didn't do our homework on ex-racehorses and he was very quiet when she tried him out and came with high recommendations. He has no bad habits to speak of. His ground manners are great. She's been working on his transitions from walk to trot and circling and he really wants to do it right. We've lunged him a few times and needless to say he is directionally challenged, but if we start him at a walk when he is going clockwise he will eventually pick up the trot without too much fuss.

So here's the problem. We've had him for about a month and in that time he has taken off with my daughter twice. The first time he got spooked by something and reared up and took off. She stayed on about three times around and tried to stop him but finally flew into a fence at one of the corners. That's when we found out about the fifth leg and started reading. When he took off the second time, it was when she was cantering him. They had been around together beautifully many times but once again she pulled back on the reins when she shouldn't have but when she caught herself it was too late. This time she stayed on for what seemed to be forever before she finally got her stirrups off and bailed to the center. I have never seen a horse run like that, almost out of control. I asked her how she stayed on for so long and she said she was scared to death to jump because he was going so fast. I have never felt so helpless and terrified in my life. I was proud of her for staying on so well but now see too much potential for great injury to her and/or her to let this behavior continue. The history of my daughter's riding experience is she has been taken off on with other horses before in the form of bucking, galloping and so forth and done fine. She's had her share of spills and recovered herself nicely. She has been riding hunt seat once a week since she was in the third grade and loves it. She's been to a couple of shows and won or placed high in her classes. This is her first horse and after four weeks she's scared to death to get on him. By the way, he never bucked or indicated he wanted her off his back and when he stopped, which was right after she fell, he came over to her right away. There didn't seem to be any malice in what he did. Are we in over our heads or is there hope for success?

Thank you!

Hi Debbie,

Your daughter was fortunate she didn't get seriously hurt. Horses off the track can come with a variety of challenges. This horse was trained and conditioned to run and run as fast as he can. It is a dangerous habit for sure now that he belongs to your daughter. Racehorses are rarely trained to stop well. That is not their job. If he were my horse that is the first thing I would teach him would be how to stop. In other words, that it is OK for him to stop. At this point it seems like he does not know that is acceptable behavior. To re-train him to stop is generally not a particularly difficult procedure. Do you have a round pen or access to one? This will really help the process. Also, getting the horse to lunge well on a line and at liberty in the round pen first will also speed this process and make it a lot easier.

Basically, first the horse needs to stop well while being lunged, both on the line and at liberty. Once that is accomplished then someone needs to ride the horse while it is being lunged on the line. Cues to stop are given simultaneously by the person on the ground and the rider. The horse is trained to stop after one step, than two steps, than three steps, etc. The horse learns and practices stopping at a walk, then a trot and finally at a canter. Never go to a faster speed until the horse is very good at stopping at the slower speed. Along the way the horse is re-trained to turn well. A run-a-way horse frequently can be stopped by its being able to be turned and/or circled in smaller and smaller circles.

I teach bridle-less riding and have participants put light stops on their horses by riding them in a round pen with ropes and halters. They develop great stops with light cues first going very slowly and then gradually increasing the speed the horse is asked to stop at. Your horse is habituated to just going as fast as he can. It will take some time to develop a safe stop on him. Old habits are hard to change, as you may know. I do not think it is hopeless by any means. It is taking the horse back to the basics of its training. Teaching a horse to stop well is one of the first things it is taught under saddle. Another thing to do is to ground drive the horse. That will also help him to learn to stop. Do you know what that is and how to do it? Again, it is part of the horse's initial training. Actually, ground driving would really be a great thing to do with this horse.

It might be the key to safely developing the stop. It does require some skill in the procedure. Let me know if you understand the process.

So much of a person's life with horses is about riding the horse. Your daughter sounds like she is well on her way to becoming a fine, high-level rider. What is needed here is ability as a trainer. What is generally left out of the training of a rider is knowledge about horses. If you think about it, I'll bet she has had a ton of riding lessons and few if any lessons on horses. This is an unfortunate but very common situation. Knowledge about horses will substantially increase her skill level as a rider. It will help her to become safer with her horses and be able to handle dangerous situations that will come up periodically in her life with horses. Please consider this as an important part of any well rounded horse person and equestrian. Tell me of your facility please. Do you board the horse or keep it at your home? How old is your daughter? Have you and she ever attended a training clinic? Perhaps you may consider this as a very worth while additional to her equine learning program.

Thank you for your question and I look forward to hearing back from you. Let me know your thoughts on all this.

Sincerely, Franklin

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