OTTB training problems? Try this!

I am the proud owner of a lovely OTTB (Off the Track Thoroughbred) who just came off the racetrack in December. After the usual “cooling down” period, which can range from two weeks to six months or more, we started our re-training for his career as a sporthorse.

Not quite a dressage prodigy but still a fun OTTB!

He is lovely, and talented, and is nothing short of a saint. He hacks by himself quietly, stands in crossties, lunges beautifully and is pleasant to work around (aside from a slight tendency to mouth everything in sight!)

What we have been struggling with is his tendency to brace through the neck, particularly as we work on the left lead. He will grab the bit and brace against my hand, throwing his shoulder to the inside and bending his neck to the outside. I tried a variety of the usual exercises with minimal success. He eventually softens, but it can be a long and occasionally frustrating process.

While I was perusing the web recently, I came across a clinic review by Elizabeth TeSelle about her experience riding with French dressage coach François Lemaire de Ruffieu. Some of the concepts she described I had used in the (very distant) past, but thought I would give them a try with my stiff-necked horse. The success she obtained using his methods seemed pretty remarkable, considering she only rode with him for a short period of time. However, as she was riding an OTTB as well, it intrigued me!

I will honestly say that after trying the techniques Elizabeth learned from de Ruffieu, I was beyond impressed. Not only was I able to replicate the exercises, but he went so well I almost couldn’t believe such easy exercises could yield such an amazing result so quickly. OMG!

To highlight the schooling exercises, here is what I tried and the results with my OTTB:

  • Indirect/direct rein techniques: rotate the hand at the wrist so the fingernails pointed up, leading the nose gently in the direction of the turn for the direct rein (this for a green horse; the aid is progressively refined as training increases). The indirect rein was to rotate the wrist so that the fingernails pointed up, with the pinky finger towards the opposite elbow, and with almost no pressure in the hand, move the hand towards the opposite shoulder while stepping into my outside stirrup.
  • I tried this: After circling a few times and feeling his normal resistance on the left rein, I decided to try this on his “easy” side first (the right) using a direct rein, rotating the hand so my palm was facing upwards, fingers closed as usual around the rein. Instead of keeping the hand low, I held it about 4″-6″ above the wither while doing this exercise. I did move my hand a little bit while I rotated my hand upwards, but not much. After a few 20m circles, then a few 15m circles, he was turning to the right with bend all the way from the nose to the shoulder. Although not the ideal bend through the whole body, it was a huge improvement! As we continued onto the stiffer direction, to the left, after a few circles he was turning beautifully the left!

Of course, it wasn’t perfect, and training horses correctly takes years, but I was super enthusiastic about this great start! The next problem was addressing his “giraffe” neck, poking his nose way in the air to avoid my hand. While I would not expect him to be perfectly round and on the bit at all times at this stage of training, the upside-down “ewe” neck (where the muscle is the strongest under the neck instead of on top, where it should be) had to go. Many people try draw reins or other devices to correct this behavior (especially since it is typically learned at the track, and be tough to correct) but A. I’m not a big fan of gadgets except in specific, “coach approved” circumstances and B. I didn’t have much luck with draw reins, which my new coach suggested I try. He would turn himself into a “turtle” and just compress his neck into his body… the opposite of what I was going for! Instead, we tried this next exercise.

  • High hands to discourage giraffe neck: François emphasized that fussing and fiddling with the head is absolutely not correct, and that it is the position of the hand, rather than pressure on the rein, that communicates to the horse. As the horse raised his head above the rider’s hand, the rider raised their hands above the bit, following the horse’s head wherever it went. As soon as the horse drops his head and flexed laterally, the rider was to immediately release.
  • I tried this: The first 5 minutes at walk were spent finding the “right” amount of tension in the rein. Too much and he got fussy, too loose and it did nothing. If “2 lbs” is the right amount of rein tension, I possibly had 2.5 lbs/3 lbs to get his attention at first. It took a bit of concentration and feel at first, but immediately softening the hand (and later as he rounded more dramatically, softening the elbow/arm as well) when I could feel him soften through the neck and jaw produced the desired effect very quickly. We did this for about 10 minutes at walk, with transitions thrown in, and then proceeded to utilize this exercise at the trot. I also used the direct rein technique as noted above for nice circles. By the end of a 25 minute schooling session (preceded by a 10 minute walk hack), he was stretching his neck out and down so much he was on the buckle!

I was absolutely astonished at how quickly he picked up on these exercises. De Ruffieu’s training plan for young/green horses was to not trying to address every single problem at once, but rather break it down into smaller chunks. As a result, you may find you lose impulsion once you have the bend or flexion, and you might lose the bend or flexion once you get impulsion! His method includes focusing on one aspect of training at a time, and by alternating them in every schooling session your horse will soon be able to do several things at once. I did find that as he softened through the neck and dropped his head he did lose his power behind, and as we all know it is impulsion from behind that lifts the back and creates “throughness” into the bridle at the front. However, considering we went from excited, resistant, stiff OTTB to soft, chewy, almost peanut-rolling and stretchy, and bending in both directions, I was SO IMPRESSED with how well these technique worked!

The dressage training scale (by which most dressage enthusiasts abide by) follows these concepts, in order: Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness, Collection.

The dressage training scale, learn it!

We were really getting stuck at rhythm, because his instinct to throw his head up and brace with his shoulder/neck made it very difficult to keep him in a marching walk, active trot and three-beat canter when he had many bad OTTB habits to overcome. Now that I can “unlock” his shoulder a bit, I am really looking forward to really solidifying his rhythm properly (minus giraffe neck) so we can move on to the second tier of the scale!

I am so excited to try de Ruffieu’s activity and suppleness on a 20m circle tomorrow as well, and see how that goes!

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