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Retraining Thoroughbreds for Dressage

Try these three exercises to turn a Thoroughbred racehorse into a successful dressage horse.

Americans love Thoroughbreds. They carried our soldiers, they delivered our mail and their intense desire to win races inspires us every spring as we yearn for a Triple Crown winner. In my biased opinion as founder and president of the Retired Racehorse Training Project (RRTP), I am convinced that their suitability for dressage is underappreciated in today's marketplace.

If you happen to be one of the 20,000 people to visit the RRTP website during our recent Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge, then you saw on video the process from day one to week five of four recently retired racehorses with three very competent professional trainers (retiredracehorsetraining.org). Many were surprised by how quickly these horses learned to shift their balance from that of a leaning racehorse to something closer to a Training Level dressage horse.

Applying the Training Scale
The feel of a 3- or 4-year-old horse who raced recently is different from that of a horse of the same age that is green-broke outside of racing. The sport horse is usually more reluctant to march forward into the bridle, but finds rhythm and looseness in his body more easily as long as no fear is present. The ex-racehorse tends to be eager to go forward at all three gaits but has difficulty with rhythm and looseness. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides.

It is the relationship between rhythm, looseness and contact that we must resolve early with a horse off the track, and the way we do it makes all
the difference.

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For the observer on the ground, the progression up the training scale toward the ultimate goal of collection appears to be all about shifting the horse's balance from his forehand to his hindquarters. When starting with a horse off the track, we have no choice but to address this balance from day one.

Racehorses lean into the bit and not only push from behind at speed but also pull at the ground from the front. Experts have found that a galloping horse carries 60 percent of his weight on his front legs, but that a balanced cantering sport horse carries 60 percent behind. The rider feels this leaning on the forehand with most ex-racehorses as soon as he picks up the reins and asks for a trot. With some horses it becomes even heavier at the canter. If the rider refuses to support the horse in the bridle with the reins, he will feel the horse rushing forward in a tempo so quick that he is forced to break the rhythm with inconsistent pulling on the reins. This punishes the horse for going forward.  Rhythm and looseness are difficult to achieve on a fit horse who has worked daily at the racetrack with 10 or more pounds of weight in the bridle.

As dressage riders, if we are at all sympathetic, we understand that our ex-racehorse is pulling not because he wants to run fast, but simply because he has not yet found the balance that is required to do basic work in a riding arena. We want to correct the balance problem and find the rhythm and looseness, but we sometimes fail to offer the quality of contact that these horses expect, thinking that it is premature. Here is where we can learn from our brothers and sisters at the racetracks.

I will never forget the first session of our 2009 Retired Racehorse Training Symposium. Retired jockey JK Adams rode Monster Chaser fresh from the track in an exercise saddle. All 350 jaws of the people watching dropped as he walked, trotted and cantered in balance and rhythm around the indoor arena with the horse in a frame that looked quite appropriate for a competitive Training Level dressage test. His secret was his balance, shock absorbers and hands.

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