Curing the “Race”
By Anne Chunko, Administrator of the USTA Standardbred Equine Program
Because of their experiences on the track, Standardbreds may be aggressive, wanting to be in front to race and “win.” You might notice it when you go on a trail ride with a group for the first time, or when another rider is passing you in the arena.
If your horse has this problem, you need to teach her that not everything is a competition. Some ex-racehorses never do learn that very well, partly because of their personalities, and partly because of the patience & determination required of the person teaching them this new idea. For some horses, the best option is to find a solitary sport at which they can excel, and focus on that; some examples include dressage, jumping, trail riding alone, combined driving, endurance, barrel racing, pole bending, and other gymkhana events.
The race training and lack of turnout with other racehorses tend to accentuate this competitive mentality. Obviously, as a racing owner and trainer, it is a great advantage to have a competitive horse. However, pleasure and performance riders and drivers expect their horses to listen to them and behave when in the company of other horses.
While in race training or at the track, most Standardbreds and other breeds of racehorses only have interaction with other horses while out training on the track or stalled next to them—Racehorses are not generally turned out with each other once their training begins because of worry of injury. Sometimes, the horses seem to forget what playing is about and being a member of a herd is about and instead channel all their energy into winning and competitiveness.
The very first part of the retraining is to re-introduce your horse to the herd. Being turned out and having a horse companion can help to teach her that she can just enjoy the other horses' company without having to compete.
If your horse hasn’t been turned out with other horses before or you're not sure when your horse was last turned out with other horses, be cautious in turning the horse out, particularly when doing so with an unfamiliar horse for the first time. Gradually introduce her to one or two calm, quiet horses by letting them touch noses over adjacent paddock fences for a week or so. Then turn out your horse with her new friends for about an hour or two, and be sure to watch them for the first 15-20 minutes, since that is usually when any big reaction or fight might occur.
After a week or so of turning her out with these quiet fellows, gradually introduce her to more horses and a larger herd in a similar manner. Keep in mind that there will be some “acting up”—squealing, biting, kicking—among the horses to re-establish the pecking order. However, if she is getting bullied or being a bully in a violent manner, such as incessant chasing, constant violent interaction, you may need to remove your horse and put her in a smaller or different turnout group.
Now you've started your horse back into normal herd behavior, which is good. The next part is analyzing aggressive behavior while you are handling her. When you’re riding or working with your horse, and she has a “temper tantrum,” try to evaluate what she’s doing and what seems to trigger it. Did someone try to pass her? Or ride too close to her hindquarters? Did she hear the other horse but didn’t see it? Many times, because of the racing bridles, Standardbreds cannot see the other horses they are racing, but can hear the other horse’s approach, and their instincts to speed up when they hear another horse approach are encouraged when racing. Pinning her ears back might not be attractive, but that is much more acceptable and less dangerous than rearing and bucking.
What does she do when she gets upset or competitive? Is she jigging? Is she bucking? Is she rearing? Jigging is very frustrating, but not necessarily dangerous. Bucking, though dangerous, can be handled if you are a confident rider with a good seat. However, if she is rearing, I would strongly urge you to get professional help as soon as possible, because rearing is very dangerous to you and her and those around you.
To work through this, you will need some cooperation and understanding from other horse people. If you board your horse at a stable, ask one or more of your fellow riders or drivers if they would be willing to work with you on this. If you keep your horse at a barn and there are no other riders around, you'll need to see if you can find another rider to ride with.
Start small by first figuring out at what point she gets competitive. If she gets upset any time there's another horse around, whether you're on her or not, then start here; if it's only when you're riding, start there.
To find out, have your friend work with you and your horse in hand. Try something simple, like having you and your friend leading them both out to pasture together. If you think you need it, use a lead shank with a chain safely and securely attached over the nose of your horse. If she acts like she wants to race, first try jiggling the chain and circle and bring her behind the other horse. If that doesn’t work, take a more firm hold of the lead line and do a quick snap of the chain and immediately turn her in a circle.
The idea is that you’re refocusing her attention on you or on some task and getting her mind off worrying what the other horse is doing. Keep working at this until she gets the idea that she has to respect and focus on you and that you will not tolerate her outbursts. Keep in mind that a more skittish horse will need to be handled with a more gentle attitude and infinite patience.
Once she is okay with this, vary it a little bit: Let the other horse pass her at a walk and repeat until she accepts this. If she accepts these in-hand exercises, move it up a notch by having your friend ride her horse while you lead your horse. Practice the same thing. If your horse has a tendency to act up (rear, wheel at the other horse), carry a crop, and tap her belly strongly with it, while leading her forward at the same time and/or circling her. Have your friend just ride in the general area where you are leading your horse, and gradually, over a couple of days or weeks, have her come closer and closer to your horse. Over time, work toward being able to have the horse come up and pass you, while having your horse respect you and walk next to you. Remember to always end on a positive note: If she is being good, don't push her till she blows up. The point is to reinforce her respect for you through successfully incrementally increasing the challenge, not undermine the respect by pushing her past her limits.
Next, practice this on a lunge line. Before attempting this in the company of other horses, she should already be well behaved on the lunge line and listening to your voice commands. When you add another horse to the scenario, you may want to lunge her with a bridle or a chain over her nose, so that she has a good reason to listen despite being further away from you and possibly distracted by the other horse. Again, have your friends help you out by leading a horse in hand past you and your horse. (Remember to have your friend stay well outside of the lunge circle). You can also try ground driving your horse, since doing so will allow you more control than lunging. However, if you are not good at ground driving, get a professional to help you or take lessons first before you try it on your horse with another horse around.
If her problem only occurs when you're riding, you may skip most of the above exercises if you wish. However, ground work can help establish your role as boss of your little two herd pecking order (you and her). If you work with her in hand and she learns respect, that respect in hand usually translates to respect in the saddle, too.
If the problem is under saddle only, start out riding at a walk. Ask a friend to come and ride in your general area at a walk. At first, your friend should stay a good distance away (100 to 200 feet), but near enough so the horses can see and hear each other. Gradually work the horses toward each other. Use circles, serpentines, spiral-in and spiral-out and other exercises to keep your horse focused on you. Then, as you slowly get closer, practice passing each other at the walk. If you horse starts jigging, relax and sink your weight deep in the saddle, close your leg, and ask her to make a large circle, while half-halting or wiggling with one rein (usually the inside rein). Be sure to close your leg, and maybe even squeeze a tiny bit, so your horse gets the idea that you want her to continue moving forward, but to focus and not jig.
Practice passing the other horse, then circle around behind the horse. Don't force the issue—try this a couple of times, then work by yourself for a while, and go back later to work around the other horse. If you horse wants to go forward, give her some place to go, but it should be the place you decide, not her. Once she is working pretty well and is focused on you and seems to be relaxed while passing near the other horse, then step it up a notch: Start asking her for her intermediate gait (trot/pace), and do the same thing, with your friend walking. Gradually, as your horse improves, have your friend start working at the trot/pace, and practice the same thing.
Remember, it's okay for your horse to go, but she should go where you tell her, and bending exercises, circles, figure-eights, etc., are a good way to redirect your horse's energy. Wiggling the bit or half-halting help to refocus her attention, while sitting deep and relaxed and doing the figures can help redirect her energy. If you tense up, your horse may read that as a sign that there is, indeed, a reason to be tense and upset around the other horse. So make sure you stay calm and relax; practice slow deep breaths if needed, to help dissolve any tension of your own. If you have to have a "discussion" or "argument" about the situation with your horse, then so be it; if needed, carry a crop to emphasize your message, and use it with one swift, strong tap behind the leg for emphasis only if necessary—one tap, if applied strongly, should get her attention.
The idea is to give her something else to do, to think about, rather than the fact that someone else is getting ahead of her. So circling, figures, side passes, leg yields, giving to the bit, are all things that say "Hey, pay attention to me, stop worrying about that other horse." Try just wiggling the bit in her mouth with one hand while doing a small to medium circle or on a straight line. You should focus on keeping going (close your legs on the horse), but in the direction and manner that you choose.
I hope these suggestions are helpful. I would also suggest in addition to these exercises, that you take some lessons from a riding instructor who can help you use your body more effectively to teach and influence your horse.
There is a list of riding instructors certified through the American Riding
Instructor Program online at www.riding-instructor.com. You can also check at
your local tack store/feed mill and/or the area equine newspaper/magazine. Be
sure to bring up your concerns with any professional you work with, so that
they can help you out as much as possible.
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