Rachel Lawson: Thoroughbred Champion, Through Thick & Thin

Rachel Lawson Dunning and High Tide. Photo courtesy of Equestly.

As the owner of an opinionated off-the-track Thoroughbred mare, I’ve always been fascinated by eventing’s love affair with the Thoroughbred. Though purebred Thoroughbreds have now gone out of fashion, many top riders, if not all, still choose their five-star mounts based on how much “blood” they have. No, not blood in their veins, but how much Thoroughbred breeding they have in their pedigree. Through four-star eventer Rachel Lawson’s relationship with her OTTB High Tide, you can come to understand why eventing and Thoroughbreds have always gone hand-in-hand, why they’ve drifted apart, and if the breed has a future in the sport.

Rachel Lawson’s name is synonymous with Thoroughbreds. She has built a career off of restarting off-the-track Thoroughbreds for both herself and her clients. She’s still competing the horse that inspired her love of the breed, and for ex-racehorses in particular: High Tide, a 13 year-old OTTB, owned by the rider. Despite their rocky, and sometimes scary, start together, Rachel says she wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Tell me about High Tide. What’s he like “behind the stall door?”

High Tide, barn name Kai, was my first off the track and he could not have been more difficult. He was just absolutely wild. Very anxious. He would have these just blind rage kind of anxiety attacks. So I spent about almost two months really just working with him doing natural horsemanship and just rope halter work and forming that bond and communicating with him and speaking with him in his own language. People literally joke that he was basically going to end up in the slaughterhouse, and they’ll say either ‘Thank god he ended up with you’ or ‘He’s gonna kill you one day.’

I just started to really learn that a lot of his antics were because he wanted to do the right job so bad that if he didn’t feel like he was doing his job 100 percent correct, he was almost like a little kid who was hitting his head against a wall saying, ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid.’ He wants to give you 500 percent and if he thinks he’s giving you 499 percent, he just can’t handle it. And I am very similar to him, so it was very easy for me to understand him.

I remember going around our first intermediate together and half way through I had this really emotional moment of thinking to myself, like, ‘Wow, this horse is gonna go all the way. All of my dreams are gonna come true on this horse.’

Since then, we’re constantly learning and it’s never ending and the journey is always continuing. We’re always striving to do better and improve. But he is in a place now where the pieces are in a row and he’s so confident in himself and in what he’s doing.

He’s my buddy and I love him and we just have such a great partnership. We have that great partnership because I just listened to him from day one. And I listened to all the things he was telling me, I understood him, and I took my time.

What was your mindset like when you were training High Tide, particularly through his younger, wilder years?

With High Tide, less is more. So I really kind of had to work on myself, as well as finding my own kind of zen place and peace. I am the same way as High Tide. I am an overthinker and I’m a worrier. With the whole anxiety thing– It was really all about learning how to positively influence him, essentially by removing myself from the equation in some ways, if that makes sense.

Despite all the difficult moments, has Kai inspired you to specialize in retraining ex-racehorses for your clients? Why did you fall in love with this breed?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, my barn is pretty much all Thoroughbreds. I just really love these horses. I think that it’s so incredible that they are purpose-bred to do this one thing, but they end up doing so much more. I mean, you see them in all disciplines across the board and you don’t see other breeds doing that, you know, and they’re just incredible.

They’re so smart and they have the biggest hearts. I will say maybe not all of them, but for the most part, they want to go to work and they want to please and they try so hard to learn all these new things and do the right thing. I think a lot of that is hardwired into their DNA, but also they’re put to work at such an early age and they thrive off of doing something and having a job, especially when they have a good relationship and partnership with their person.

And not all of them are like High Tide. I went to go see one and I looked in the stall and watched them pull him out. He was quiet as can be. No chain in sight. I watched him jog and I picked him up the next day. I typically don’t go for three-year-olds, but I had the space to turn him out for a while. So he got thrown out in the field for about six months and I pulled him back in when he was four and got on him. I mean, he just hacked out on the buckle and you could tell he was just such a good old soul. And he ended up being one of those horses that I would say you could give them off six months and you could go get them in the field bareback and ride them off and you know he would always be the same horse.

So they’re all so different. The brain to me is so so important. But you know, there’s all kinds of Thoroughbreds.

Rachel Lawson Dunning and High Tide. Photo by Nicole Binneman.

How does track work translate to eventing? What education do the horses bring with them after getting off the track?

I galloped racehorses and I broke the babies, I did that for years. You definitely get a much greater understanding of the start to their life before they end up in a second career doing that.

So when it comes to the leg, one of two things can happen: they don’t respond to your leg because it doesn’t mean anything to them, or they’re very explosive to your leg. So Kai was very, very, very reactive to the leg. On top of that, you have to be so still and quiet with your hands and your body because on the track, when you move your hand that means go faster.

It’s really just taking everything that they know and how they’ve been started in life and their purpose in life and basically telling them, ‘Okay, clean slate, forget all that. I’m going to teach you a whole other game, a whole other world, a whole other life.’ Some of them have really great brains where they figure it out quickly and some of them are just a lot trickier.

With High Tide, you just always had to really reassure him and make a big deal and make it very clear like yes, like that’s what you’re supposed to do, even if it’s just the thought of what he’s supposed to do for a brief second. But those brief seconds build up and then one day you have 10 seconds and then one day you have five steps and so on and so forth. Once he really figured out what leg meant, moving off the leg when you’re seeing that he’s very sensitive to what you’re seeing guys. Then you get it was the same thing with the groundwork. Then you get to a point where he’s a cool, calm, free dressage horse.

How do you work with OTTBs before getting on them for the first time?

My mom loves natural horsemanship, and that was a huge part of my education growing up. She loved John Lyons and Monty Roberts. So that was kind of already a little bit in my repertoire, which carried over to when I first got Kai, Handling him on the ground, he was wild. He was rude. He was pushy. He had no personal space. Anything would make him nervous. I mean, like lights are on but nobody was home kind of just blacked out about things.

When he came to me he had been let down for about 10 days. And so we just started, you know, trying to do all the rope halter, just groundwork, I mean, the kind of the basic Parelli routine, getting him to ring back to work on a circle, change directions off your body language, and it was a nightmare. He was just so bad and so awful, he ripped away from me so many times and went galivanting around the property.

That’s where you could really start to read if he wasn’t sure of what he was supposed to do, his go to move was just a mental breakdown. That took a really long time to just kind of get through to him. Some days we’re about two hours of just trying to get him to turn the light on on the rounds, or just to take one step backwards. So it took a lot of patience, and it’s just about being very clear. Ask a very clear question and make a big deal about it when they give you even the slightest hint of the correct answer. And, you know, those that answer eventually it gets clearer and clearer and then you have this really, you know, well oiled second language that both you and the horse understand and that translates massively under saddle.

Where do you think the stereotype that Thoroughbreds are crazy comes from?

There’s a lot of people who want a horse. Thoroughbreds in the US are a dime a dozen off the track. They don’t have a big price tag on them. They get scooped up by maybe not the right homes, or the most educated homes, so they kind of end up getting a bad or a false reputation.

The last thing you should do when you get a Thoroughbred is just put pressure on them. You cannot pressurize them. It’s like sealing a tarp on a volcano. It’s gonna blow and that’s where it goes downhill. They’re a completely different animal than any other horse.

I think you see them shine when they’re in the right homes and then it doesn’t matter what discipline you ride. I’ve seen Thoroughbreds barrel race and in the show hunters. They can do so many different things. It just depends on if they end up with somebody who’s willing to listen and guide them, and let them shine in their own way and at their own pace. Educate them, listen to them, don’t put the pressure on them.

You go back to slowing things down a lot. Can you dive into that a little more? What does that mean in the context of training OTTBs?

So just taking the time and slowly trotting things is one of the best things you can do with any young horse, but especially the off the track ones. Their go-to answer for any question you ask them is speed. That’s all they know. It’s very hard for some of them to learn how to process things by slowing it down, slowing their brain down.

High Tide’s brain, for example, always wants to run a million miles an hour. And he had a really hard time trying to process things and slowing down. You can take him to events and he would want to run at the fences and seems so bold and brave and dragging you too much to the fence. But, if you came back around and just tried to slowly walk up to it or trot it, he would have a mental breakdown and he would spin and he would run backwards and not understand it at all.

I spent a lot of time walking cross country fences, which was the most intimidating thing I’ve ever done. In his younger years, I spent more time halting in front of jumps than I actually did jumping them, just to get him to understand ‘Hey, you have to half-halt here.’

So it was a very long process, teaching him that he can do things without speed took a long time, really well into his career I was still working with that. In the jumping phases, more so in the show jumping. I think that’s because when you go out on cross country you can allow them to have a little bit more of a gallop. But, as I said, even around his first beginner novice, he tried to go around it like he was running Kentucky.

Rachel Lawson Dunning and High Tide. Photo courtesy of Equestly.

Why do you think we don’t see many Thoroughbreds at the upper levels of eventing?

This sport used to be dominated by Thoroughbreds. The Thoroughbreds thrived in the long format because that was where they were in their element. I mean, it just comes down to the galloping and the fitness required. When we lost the long format, it allowed the doorway to open for the warm bloods to come in, the more show jumper and dressage-bred horses. The long format was so catered to the Thoroughbred that you wanted to be sitting on a Thoroughbred back then and that’s not necessary anymore.

And the problem is that Thoroughbreds are not for everybody. They’re very specific to the kind of ride that you’re looking for. I think if you’re a Thoroughbred person, you’re a Thoroughbred person. That’s all I want to sit on, you know? But I know people who can get on a Thoroughbred and it just doesn’t work.

Even though they can end up with a false or bad reputation, if we continue to advocate for them and believe in them, I think they’ll start to make more and more of an appearance again. The pendulum I think is kind of swinging back to that middle ground. The coolest thing about eventing though, is there’s so many different breeds. Like there’s not one stamp of a horse that’s an event horse. My first event horse was a Morgan and he was 14.3! I mean, you see Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods and Connemaras. I mean you can have a Heinz 57. There’s a place for all of them.

What advice would you give to someone who is looking at an OTTB for the first time?

Take your time, be patient, be quiet, listen to what the horse has to say. Let them tell you what they’re ready for. Don’t get greedy– I can’t stress that enough.

Because there’s so many equestrians who start off with an ex-racehorse and they’re like, ‘Okay, well, let’s go cross country schooling. Let’s go do that. Let’s go do this.’ And the horse does it because that’s what they know how to do. They know how to do what you ask them to do.

I think the best thing that you can do with an off the track Thoroughbred is just take your time and don’t get greedy, because it can be very easy to do. And I don’t think that that sets them up for success. I think that sets them up for being over faced or insecure and losing confidence.

This article was sponsored by Equestly. Check out their new app or shop their full line of equestrian gear on equestly.com. For her part, Rachel sings praises about Equestly. “I have two of the Lux 2-in-1 Jackets now and I wear them every single day, throughout the whole winter. But I think the first day that I wore my first pair of Equestly breeches, I didn’t want to take them off and that’s usually the first thing I want to do at the end of the day. But honestly, there’s not one thing that I can say is my favorite. It’s just all wonderful, great stuff. I mean I live in their stuff every single day.”

Click here to discover the full collection of Equestly products.

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