Becoming a Student of the Horse

We’re pleased to bring you a special guest blog from Athletux rider Dani Sussman, who expands on the idea of horses as teachers. Many thanks to Dani for writing, and thank you for reading! Be sure to follow her on Facebook and check out her website.

Photo courtesy of Kathleen Bryan.

Photo courtesy of Kathleen Bryan.

I am sure we have all heard many times over that you never stop learning when it comes to horses. Most riders participate in continued education coming from humans as we ride in clinics, read books and articles, and consult other professionals/peers.

That said, significantly less riders (and trainers) notice that the teacher can actually be the horse. From a trainer’s perspective, we have developed methods that work for us. We like horses to go a certain way and often expect them to conform to our training styles. As a result, we tend to gravitate towards a certain “type” of horse, be it hot or kicking quiet, sensitive, strong, quirky, or intense.

Regardless of the horse’s “type,” most trainers look for their preferred characteristics in each horse they buy, in order to mitigate the “risk” of not getting along with the horse. That said, as a professional, you don’t always get to pick your, or your client’s ride. New clients come to you with horses they already own and it’s up to you to make it work — for them as a pair, and with you as their trainer.

This situation, combined with the continued quest to pick the “perfect” mount for clients that are looking for a new horse, creates the opportunity for trainers, and riders, to diversify their skill set by learning from, and listening to, a greater variety of horses.

Recently, I had a client that was looking for a resale project. She was ready for the challenge of dealing with a green horse and learning the process of bringing it along and turning it into a sport horse. As part of this project, I found an off-track Thoroughbred that was amazing: beautiful, strong, tall, and a fantastic mover.

This horse certainly fell into the category of “my type” and had the look of an upper level event horse. His gaits were incredible, not only for being just off the track, but for any horse. He was sensitive but not crazy, with the kindest eye, another quality that drew me to him.

I have bought many OTTB’s — from 3-year olds to 7-year-olds — and have brought them along to a second career as successful sport horses, but this one stood out to me. He was special. Not only was he 10 years old and still racing but he was sound, both in the mind, as well as in the body.

Due to his age, he basically “aged out” of the track and they were done with him, lucky for me and my client. We brought him home, gave him some time to settle in, and then I started to work with him.

As has become part of my initial routine of getting to know a horse, especially an OTTB, I started out working him with a simple bridle with no flash noseband and lunging him without side reins. This approach gives me a chance to see the horse move freely and allows him opportunity to blow off excess energy. He lunged surprisingly well, as I have often found most do not know how to lunge when coming off the track.

Next, I decided to put the side reins on very loosely. Within minutes of hooking up the side reins, he came against them and completely overreacted. He slammed to a stop and reared straight up — the look in his eye telling me he was clearly scared and confused, not angry or belligerent. Rather than overreacting, I stopped to assess the situation, as this was clearly not what I was intending.

I took the side reins off and lunged him again. He calmed down and got right back to work. In situations like these, it’s important to stop, calmly assess the situation, consider alternatives and implement. Stopping and listening to what the horse is trying to tell you and finding a different approach can make all the difference.

In order to further evaluate this horse’s potential aversion to side reins, the next day I came out and long lined him instead of lunging since the side reins were too confining for him. Again, within minutes, he felt the pressure of the lines and panicked, again rearing — worryingly unaware of his own balance and safety.

At this point, some trainers may conclude that this horse had a history with rearing and that this information was not disclosed. Regardless if that was true, in this case most certainly not, it is up to us, as trainers, to find a solution to the problem.

Basically, this was a lovely horse that required a different approach, not only to effectively train the horse, but also to ensure horse and rider safety. Instead of lunging or long-lining, I decided to ride him. He was soft, obedient, and a pleasure to sit on.

I slowly started to ask for a little contact — using a soft and elastic feel — and gained his trust. Within a few weeks, he was starting to understand contact and that the pressure he felt in his mouth was meant to give confidence, not induce fear. He was starting to go very well, but chomped the bit constantly.

In order to address the chomping, I used a Nathe bit, which is what I always use to start young/green horses to teach them to take contact. Although he basically had a big pacifier in his mouth, which most horses find to be confidence-building, he continued to be over-active with his mouth.

In horses that are more broke, or not directly off the track, I would consider changing bits to see if there was a different type of bit that they prefer. However, I find with horses straight off the track, that this bit is most likely the softest, most pliable bit they have ever come in contact with. This bit encourages them to take contact, but is flexible enough that they don’t get locked on it.

As an option to changing the bit, I thought it was time to introduce the flash noseband to see if that would stop his continuous clanking of his teeth. I put the flash on, loose — very loose, knowing he had an ill reaction to confinement — and walked him into the arena. I got on and asked him to walk forward and he stood straight up. I jumped off and took the flash off immediately, since that had been the only change.

I then got back on and had a lovely ride — soft to my hands, obedient to my aids, and swinging through his back. I paused. Here was this incredible horse standing on his hind legs, yet he wasn’t being maleficent. He was telling me he wasn’t ready for that type of confinement and constriction. I had to stop and listen and learn.

Was he a bad horse? Absolutely not. Did someone sell me a chronic rearer? Again, emphatically, no. His was a specific reaction to a specific stimulus — one that I had applied. Thus, I had to change the way I approached him, again, and the way I was going to train him. I had to listen and learn what he was saying, and I couldn’t force what I wanted when I wanted it.

I ran the risk of ruining him and creating a dangerous animal. This particular horse reminded all of us to not be afraid to approach things differently. By making my methodology dynamic, including my approach and my timeline, he now is capable of lunging in side-reins, long lining, as well as working in the Pessoa lunging rig.

In doing so, he went from the track to successfully running Preliminary in under a year, even scoring a 20 in dressage at his first Preliminary event — while even wearing a flash noseband.

Overall, by listening to the horse’s reactions, his telling me what he was ready for and what he was not, this horse made me a better trainer and rider. If I had to ride him without a flash noseband, I would adjust accordingly.

We all have our own, unique training methods of how we approach young/green horses. Being able to adapt to any situation the horse throws at you and make it a successful one makes you a better trainer. This experience further validates the concept that you need to assess the horse’s reactions and use your bag of tricks to adjust your methodology.