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In our final part of our retraining ex-racehorses series, Sue Jannaway takes us through the right aids to use on a ex-racer and how to go about hacking him out.
Retraining on the correct way of going takes time, as racehorses are not used to working in an outline
Often riders air on the edge of caution when first using leg aids on a ex-racehorse, in the fear that he overreacts and run forwards.
"Its important that he understands what you want and you shouldn’t be frightened to squeeze with your leg and ask him to move across, slow down or move forwards,” says Sue.
An ex-racehorse’s under neck sternocephalicus muscle is usually well-developed and their topline weak as they haven’t been working in an outline.
“Don’t be tempted to force them into an outline, as they will soften in time,” says Sue.
“Use either a set of bungee reins, a Market Harborough or draw reins to help them understand the way we want them to work.”
This is a gradual process and the working on balance and bend should be priority over outline
“We work most of our ex-racehorses in a simple snaffle, as they have light mouths, but some do prefer alternative bits like one of our horses called Frank, who works in a gag,” says Sue.
Could it be you?
However, more often than not it’s not the bit that causes an issue, but the riders actions.
“When a rider shortens the reins, they tip forward, which says to an ex-racehorse to move quicker, so its key to try and think how they think so you can anticipate their reaction.”
Often ex-racers run into the canter than respond to your leg aids
Racehorses have learnt to go from a standstill in the stalls to gallop, so re-educating them to steadily trot and go forward to canter takes time.
“Initially, ex-racers tend to rush the trot to strike canter like a youngster,” says Sue.
“Be patient and slow the trot down so they’re balanced, and ask for canter in the corner by giving a definite leg aid.”
Taking an ex-racehorse hacking
When out hacking, it’s advisable not to gallop as it contradicts the retraining process.
“We tend to use walk, trot and then eventually introduce canter on grass, so that they learn it needs to be controlled,” says Sue.
“It's essential that we know what each ex-racehorse can and can't do before rehoming.”
Some ex-racehorses are happy to hack alone while others require company
Racehorses, when in training, spend a lot of time strengthening their tendons with roadwork, but this is often as a string of horses, not alone.
“Initially we’ll ride out with another horse so they’re comfortable with the route, before we would try to hack them alone,” says Sue.
“Even though most are good in traffic we always work around vehicles on the yard first, before tackling public roads.”
Road work and hacking can help ex-racers relax and should be included in their retraining.
“After a 20 minute schooling session, we like to walk them out down the road, not only to cool them off, but to help their minds switch off,” says Sue.
If you get to a point in the retraining process where you feel progress is slow or you’re starting to face challenges, don’t feel like you're on your own and seek advice.
There’re plenty of instructors, and organisations like HEROS who are prepared to offer support and tips.
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Welcome to our new series focussing on retraining ex-racehorses, up every Wednesday!
Last year, Your Horse went to HEROS, a charity who retrain racers. Here we have their tips on establishing balance and improving an ex-racehorse's canter...Read More
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Welcome to our new series focussing on retraining ex-racehorses, up every Wednesday!
Last year, Your Horse went to HEROS, a charity who retrain racers. Here we have their tips on leading and tying up ex-racehorses...Read More
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You can do this exercise anywhere – in a school, arena, or a corner of your field. Tack up as usual but don’t mount. Take the reins over your horse’s head and lead him into your arena or work space, using the reins like a pair of leadropes. The reason for this is to give the horse maximum freedom and so he doesn’t feel held down or controlled.Read More
If your horse won't be caught there are two possible reasons why – our expert Debbie Marsden explains what they are, how to spot them and how to deal with them.Read More
Sharing a strong bond with your horse is hugely important, without it you can’t achieve a winning partnership. Here, our expert international dressage rider and trainer Claire Lilley shares some simple ways to bond with your horse at home.
1. Give him a thorough groom
Horses bond by grooming each other, so it makes sense to do what another 'horse friend' would do.
A good grooming session should last at least an hour. You can go further by using massage techniques after your grooming session.
2. Walk him out in-hand
In-hand work in the school is a great way to bond with your horse, and if you stand by his shoulder you can see his facial expression.
Practice walk, halt, walk transitions in the school to start with and progress to leading him outside down a quiet lane.
Just taking him for a walk in-hand will help you bond. Sit on a wall and pick some nice long grass to hand feed him.
3. Teach him turn around the forehand
Stand by his shoulder and with a schooling whip held alongside his body, tap him on his inside hind leg, on the thigh or cannon bone (whichever works the best) to ask him to step away from you.
Alternatively press him with your fingers by the girth where you inside leg would be.
The movement resembles shoulder-in 'around a dinner plate' with the front legs stepping around 'the plate' without crossing.
The hind legs should cross over in big, sweeping steps. This is a great in-hand exercise that should get him thinking and means he’s working in close proximity with you, rather than only listening to you when you’re in the saddle.
4. Learn to long-rein
Long-reining is a great way to improve the bond between you and your horse and improve your schooling at the same time. Practice school movements in walk, such as circles of different sizes, serpentines, leg yield, shoulder-in and so on.
5. Master halting square
With your horse in-hand, try to achieve a square halt, if he leaves a leg out behind, touch the offending leg with a very long schooling whip, or use an old lunge whip with the lash chopped off (leave about 3 inches of lash attached).
Try not to fiddle around too much with the halt though. If he won’t stand square with a couple of taps, then walk on and try a new halt.
6. Just enjoy his company
Find the time to just be with your horse, whether he’s in his field or his stable. Wrap up warm and take a picnic full of goodies you can share like apples and carrots.
Sit in his stable and spend some time talking to him, stroking him and sitting with him.
Don’t miss the latest issue of Your Horse Magazine, jam-packed with training and veterinary advice, horse-care tips and the latest equestrian products available on shop shelves, on sale now.
Napping is often thought of in terms of a horse being naughty. But when he refuses to leave the yard, or goes so far and then tries to whip round and head for home, he shows another example of separation anxiety. If this sounds familiar, follow British Dressage and British Eventing Accredited Coach, Joanna Day’s tips for success:
1. Work him out
If you work your horse hard at home, then take him a short distance away, let him rest and, if possible, graze, you’ll find being near the stables will become less attractive to him, and going away from home will become more so. Repeat, gradually building up the distance.
2. Back to school
In the school, try riding a nappy horse with one other, then taking him away from the other horse while both are rested. Don’t let them stand together, but rest them in different corners for a short time.
3. Ask for help
Don’t cause yourself more problems – and risk having an accident – by trying to cope alone with napping problems. If you’re nervous and lack balance and stability, get help to give your horse confidence, which in turn will help your state of mind, and work on your own riding too.
4. Tough love
Don’t pat a horse to try and reassure him when he’s napping, because by doing so, you’re rewarding the behaviour. Pat him when he moves on, because that’s what you want to reward.
When you’re ready to ride out, once you’ve done in-hand work and separation exercises in the school you should be able to ride out a short distance and then gradually increase this. If you can go with another horse, try a useful technique called leapfrogging, where one horse overtakes the other and moves off and the one who is left behind is asked to accept this and stay calm. This work can progress to more challenging manoeuvres, including one horse going out of sight of the other. It can be used in-hand as well as ridden.
6. Be clear
Schooling for the right response will reap benefits. If your horse understands and is responsive to your aids in a schooling environment, you should have better communication away from it.
Even if you prefer to hack, establishing communication will make hacking more enjoyable and safer.
What does a horse have to worry about? Not too much, you’d imagine, as he stands rugged up and warm in his stable awaiting his evening meal. But while he may not be fretting about paying the bills or his next career move, your stabled horse could well be feeling strain of a different sort. Unable to exercise his freedom or indulge his natural urges, he might seek to relieve the stress caused by confinement or isolation by developing his own coping mechanisms.
Some horses become more anxious in the stable than others. An inability to cope with restricted movement, food or social contact can lead to undesirable behaviours such as crib-biting, weaving, windsucking and box walking – with these stereotypies (traditionally called ‘vices’) often regarded as a fault or misbehaviour on the part of the horse, rather than a result of the unnatural environment he’s kept in.
In the past, most treatments have used physical intervention to prevent the horse carrying out the activity, such as foul-tasting pastes to deter the crib-biter from latching onto parts of his stable, and tight-fitting neck collars that make it harder for the wind-sucker to gulp down air. However, instead of merely addressing their symptoms, modern thinking seeks to better understand the cause of these behaviours in an attempt to create more effective methods of relief.
Here, equine behaviour expert Dr Debbie Marsden helps us understand stereotypies.
A crib-biter will grasp a fixed object with his incisor teeth and bite down onto it.
Crib-biting is sometimes accompanied by wind-sucking – where the horse arches his neck and gulps down air, usually with a loud grunt. Chronic crib-biting can cause uneven wear of the teeth, but occasionally a horse will wind-suck without crib-biting.
The stationary horse moves his weight from side to side, usually with a corresponding head and neck motion and sometimes lifting his forefeet as he sways. Weaving is performed at times of excitement such as feed times, or continuously in the stable or over the stable door. Some horses, particularly ex-racers, who’ve had weave bars previously may have developed an ‘on the spot’ weave (less side to side and more up and down).
A box-walker will make repeated circuits of his stable or pace back and forth behind the door. Usually a result of anxiety due to confinement and separation from others in the horse’s ‘herd’, box-walking is sometimes triggered by an unusual commotion in the yard or a move to an unfamiliar stable.
Less common stereotypies
These include circling, head twisting, tongue flicking or curling, teeth grinding and self-mutilation. While non-stereotypic or learned behavior includes wood chewing, relentless gnawing of wooden surfaces and aggressive behaviour. This can be directed at people or other horses and may take the form of kicking, biting or other threatening head movements such as teeth snapping. Other habits that may indicate unsuitable management include pawing the floor, bed eating, door kicking and head nodding.
Spotting a stereotypy
Most horses have their quirks and funny habits, but how do we distinguish between a true stereotypy (or vice) and the kind of learned behaviour problems so commonly seen on the yard? According to Debbie, one of the chief identifying factors is whether or not there is an apparent goal for the horse’s actions.
“Stereotypic behaviour is traditionally defined by a lack of obvious motivation or function,” she explains. “So while kicking the stable door at feed-time in an attempt to hurry up the arrival of a meal would indicate learned behaviour, relentless box-walking would be classed as a stereotypy – even though the calming effect a stressed horse might experience by pacing around the stable could be considered some sort of goal.”
Stereotypic behaviour can also be identified by its strictly repetitive nature, she explains, and sudden arousal such as a yell or the crack of a whip can worsen the problem. Even threats or punishment make little difference. “As the goal of the behaviour is its actual performance, subsequent pain or adverse consequences don’t affect it,” says Debbie, who adds that horses performing a stereotypy experience an increase in ‘feel good’ beta-endorphins. “This explains why horses with stereotypic self-mutilation continue to bite and lick at an open wound.”
While many stereotypies may look bizarre to us, Debbie points out all are based on elements of natural behaviour – albeit without the usual goal.
“Examples are teeth grinding without food to chew on, and tongue-flicking in the absence of grasses to be selected,” she says.
The main causes
Studies suggest that as many as one in 10 horses exhibits some kind of stereotypic behaviour – sometimes more than one type – and that the problem occurs in many different breeds and in all ages. So why do some develop stereotypies? According to Debbie, it’s a combination of a horse’s genetics, his life history and the environment he lives in.
“An estimated 40% of the equine population are genetically predisposed to stereotypy,” she explains. “Even if he inherits a predisposition to do so, however, a horse will not necessarily develop a stereotypy unless he is placed under certain management conditions. Conversely, any horse could develop one if sufficiently stimulated.”
Factors that trigger stereotypic performance, explains Debbie, include frustration, excitement, stress or pain. These could stem from the horse’s early life, perhaps around weaning-time, or by aspects of day-to-day management – especially the practice of stabling a horse for long periods so he cannot interact with company or otherwise occupy himself with activities such as grazing.
Additional triggers include feeding time, seeing stablemates leaving the yard, being moved to a new box or meeting new horses. Less frequent events such as travelling, moving yards, or alterations in work, fitness or diet are also thought to stimulate stereotypies in susceptible horses.
New behaviour patterns could indicate underlying health problems, so Debbie advises consulting your vet if you spot the onset of a stereotypy. But, in the absence of any obvious direct physical causes, it’s now thought that a horse is less likely to develop coping mechanisms in the form of stereotypies if sufficient consideration is given to his natural requirements.
“It’s now widely recognised that ‘stable vices’ are not misbehaviour but a sign or inappropriate husbandry,” says Debbie, who recommends reducing anxiety through specific and permanent changes in management. “It’s proven that the time spent performing abnormal behaviour decreases with time spent feeding, so ideally the horse should be feeding for between 12 and 18 hours a day.”
If a horse is stabled, Debbie advises providing forage in small-holed nets and feeding a high-fibre, low-calorie diet.
“Strict routine can actually encourage frustration instead of relieving it, especially around feed time, says Debbie. “Ideally, put the feed in the stable before the horse is brought in, and try sprinkling concentrates among the forage ration to avoid the arousal caused by a highly palatable diet and the associated burst of beta endorphins.”
Turning a horse out might seem the obvious solution to a lack of social contact, but Debbie advises arranging company carefully to reduce excitement and prevent stress caused by bullying.
“Select small groups of three to five horses of mixed age and gender, and allow to them to form long-term relationships,” she suggests. “Loose yarding or partitions that allow maximum possible physical contact and a choice of neighbour are a good idea for the stabled horse, while a safety mirror may relieve feelings of isolation if the horse must remain alone.
“It will take at least two to three weeks for any noticeable improvement as a result of a management change – and three to six months before the behaviour is eliminated,” says Debbie. “But the behaviour will return if the horse is placed in that same stressful environment.”
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