Wednesday, July 20, 2011

From Foal To Goal

Last week, my friend Pull The Pocket blogged about the importance of longevity in racehorses, and it began to make me think about incorporating different methods of training into their programs.  In my neck of the woods, where horses are stabled at the racetrack, most trainers take their horses out for about an hour, jog one way, then the other, put the horse back in the stall, then head off to the local Tim Hortons for some chat.  To me, this doesn't seem too productive.  A racehorse that stands in the stall for 23 hours a day, receiving no time outside, equates to a losing commodity.  And if we're going to be spending copious amounts of cash with regards to their upkeep and maintenance, should we not be investing copious amounts of time in their programs? 

Now me, I was raised as a riding gal, mostly English Equitation with a bit of Western Pleasure thrown into the mix, and let me tell you, I get quite a bit of heat from the standardbred guys when I mention the word, "longeing" (lungeing).  Usually the eyebrows go up, a snicker or two comes out of their mouths, which is then followed by the comment, "Riding horses and race horses are different!"  Yes, that may be true, but their conditioning, especially when they're a youngster, is absolutely identical.

The benefits of, and uses for longeing are so varied that it should be a part of the training and exercise program of all horses.

Tell me something all you racehorse trainers out there: What are the first injuries that normally occur when racing?  If you answered splints and bows (stifles are up there as well), you win a prize.  What's the prize?  Education.  Keep reading.

The benefits of longeing are two-fold:

1.  Develops obedience to voice commands and body language.

2.  Establishes the foundation for ground driving.

3.  Is a progressive step in the horse's education.  Makes the transition from in-hand work to training work logical and systematic.

4.  Develops added confidence and familiarity between horse and trainer; sets the stage for upcoming learning.
5.  Introduces movement principles - balance, rhythm, vertical and lateral flexion, gait extension and collection without interference from a driver.

6.  Is helpful for correcting bad habits such as impure gaits, head tossing, or spooking.

7.  Allows the horse to develop physically - left/right balance, suppleness, strength of back and loin, tendon and ligament durability without the weight of the driver/sulky.

8.  Promotes the cardiovascular system.

Twenty minutes a day is all it would take to add this short, but beneficial exercise into your program.

To learn more about longeing, you can read this article.

The next exercise that I got laughed out of the county for...was trotting poles!  Hmm, you own a trotter and yet you don't think TROTTING poles would be a smart addition to your program?  Now don't get me wrong, trotting poles are just as beneficial to pacers as well!

The advantage of trotting poles, like longeing, is it increases balance, rhythm, and stability.  It also allows the horse to extend his front end and really work the shoulder muscles, while at the same time, work the stifles and hips.  Now of course, if your horse is just starting out, you can walk him over these poles, and what I find is that first time over, the horse is a little scared, but after a few times, the fear is gone.  Now I realize that standardbred trainers use shadow rolls to keep the horse focused on whats in front of them rather than whats on the ground (shadows), but this exercise will teach the horse that even though there are SCARY SHADOWS on the ground, they will not hurt them, and the horse will eventually pay no mind to them on the race track.  Trotting poles will also teach your horse to develop an ability to adjust their stride.

To do this exercise:  Find four 4-6 rails and set them apart at a distance of 1.4 metres between the rails and you will be pretty close to an "average" horse's trot stride.  Walk him over them first using a lead line and get him acquainted with them.  If he sees you going over them, he'll know they won't jump up and bite him!  Most importantly stay safe and have fun!

Odd objects you can find around the farm (that have no sharp edges) is another way of "toughening" up your horse.  Blue tarps, garbage bags, flower pots (with some really colorful flowers in them), barrels, or anything that they may "snort" at, are things to desensitize them.  Position these items at varying spots in a sand ring or some type of an enclosure, then lead them around, getting not too close at first, but use a "gradual" introduction approach.  They may get a little freaked out, but keep in mind that YOU are the herd leader, and if you're calm, they too will soon relax.  If your horse pulls back away from you, let him.  There's no sense in getting into a tug-o-war with him, because let's face it, you'll lose.  Just calmly follow your horse, do a small circle with him, and re-introduce him to the object.  Eventually, he will be satisfied that NONE of these objects are going to attack him.  Remember, horses are prey animals and they have inherited a "Fight or Flight" reflex.  You'll know when your horse feels safe around the object when he eventually starts blinking again and tends to look off into the distance, as if to say, "Ok, this is boring, what else have you got for me?"  A horse that is blinking, is thinking.  A nice scratch on the withers is a great reward.  Try and refrain from patting his face or neck because in the wild, scratching the withers is how they show "affection".

A Blue Tarp Can Teach A Horse To Not Be Afraid

Other training techniques that can be used are:

1.  Backing - This is pretty self explanatory.  You just ask the horse to "back up", in a straight line, for about 20 feet.  Walk the horse forward and repeat.  This is a great way to work the stifles and the haunches!

2.  Circles - Asking your horse to do tight circles with you promotes flexion and suppleness in the back and loins.  Going both right and left works the neck muscles too.  Remember, when your feet are moving, his should be moving, and vice versa; when your feet are not moving, neither should his.  Always keep 2 feet of distance between you and your horse; You don't want him on top of you when he's walking, and you don't want him pulling away either.

3.  Grooming -  Now you may say, "How is this a training technique?"  Well, not only does it give you an opportunity to thoroughly inspect your horse for cuts, bumps, bruises, etc., it increases their blood circulation.  It promotes bonding and respect, and what horse doesn't LOVE the attention...who wouldn't like to be pampered?

4.  Turn-Out - For those of you stabled at a racetrack, go invest in a round pen or rent one.  Just a few hours a day of outdoor time works wonders.  It gives them a chance to stretch their legs and allows them to unwind emotionally!

For now, I strongly suggest even implementing ONE of the above mentioned techniques into your training program.  I'm not saying that you have to do all of these every single day, but incorporating something different will keep your horse from becoming bored with the same old routine.  Plus, you are working muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints that could easily prevent you a visit from your vet!  And let's not forget that emotionally, your horse will be a lot happier...and a happy horse is a winning horse!


I'd like to give a shout out to Eldorado Max, who just last Thursday, raced at Hiawatha Horse Park and finished 3rd.  He's 14 years old and this will be his last year racing!  The "old warrior" never fails to impress and just keeps on truckin'.  He's owned and trained by Danterra Racing Stable in Strathroy, Ontario.  GOOD LUCK MAX in your retirement at the end of this year!

Stay safe, keep your hooves on the ground, and keep reaching for the wire! 

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