Welcome to Part 9 of the Unharnessed Potential project, an education and awareness campaign to promote the re-training and re-homing of Standardbreds when they retire from a racing career.

The previous article marked the completion of Andy’s re-training, according to the shaping scale he reached ‘proof level’  which is testing the responses you have trained at home in more challenging (unfamiliar) environments.

In this article, Alistair recounts their Equitana experience.

Leading up to Equitana 

An important part of the preparation for Equitana was to take Andy to a new environment without the added pressure of a competition or performance. For this, and as explained in an earlier article, we took Andy to a dressage day, just for a casual look around and to test his training.

Training your horse in a new and unfamiliar environment, without the pressure of competing, is an opportunity to test all the responses you have trained at home and correct any issues. It is the training in these different environments that shows us where we are on the training scale.

This is the time where you can focus on fine-tuning all that you have taught your horse at home. Anything that is not quite consolidated at home will only be worse in an unfamiliar place, so it’s important to stop teaching him new things and focus on improving the responses he has already learnt.

Andy’s first outing, which took place about six weeks before Equitana, gave me some idea of how he would respond in a pressure situation and helped me identify the areas I needed to work on at home, as well as any groundwork and under saddle techniques I could use to get him to relax at Equitana.

To read more about Andy’s first outing click here.

Armed with the knowledge gained at this first low-key outing, we decided the weeks leading up to Andy’s demonstration, we would focus more on refining his gaits. We practiced riding the movements in a small 20m by 20m arena so we could see how well he coped in the smaller space. As expected, he found this quite hard in the beginning as his movement covers a lot of ground. 

It was also very important to keep him interested in his work and not get caught up in training too often. Andy has never been a horse I worked in the arena six days a week, so it was important that this didn’t just change in the lead-up.

We still went out on rides into the bush through the week – mixing the rides between riding on a loose rein and on a contact. I think this is where a lot of Andy’s improvement came from. Being able to keep him focused, riding some transitions and lateral work gave a more realistic training simulation to Equitana than the closed environment of the arena. His home environment is a great place to train as there aren’t many distractions, however, it does not train ‘proof’.

‘Proof’, the highest level on the training scale, is not something that magically happens, it comes from making the aids you have trained in a familiar environment work in challenging situations. In essence, it is when you can overshadow the environment with your aids. This is something I was well aware of leading up to Equitana, so we did a lot of ‘proof’ training under-saddle, testing all the responses in all sorts of situations. 

Arriving at Equitana 

Andy arrived on Thursday morning and joined the other lovely horses that were representing the Standardbred’s unharnessed potential at the breed village.

Andy was rarely stabled at the AEBC, so it took a while for him to settle in. Although we practiced staying overnight at our first outing a few weeks earlier, the environment of Equitana was much more challenging and the windy weather that morning did not help him settle.

We made sure that he had enough water and roughage to keep him chewing throughout the day and we were pleased to see that, despite his obvious anxiety, he began eating and drinking from the start.

We were hoping that he could have been walked more regularly but, because of the public access and the crowds visiting the breed village, he had to stay in his stable all day and was only allowed out between 6pm and 8am. This was not ideal for a horse like Andy, but a necessary safety aspect of attending an event like Equitana. Andy did, however, manage to settle down and happily posed for photos and scratches from the many fans that visited throughout the event.

A test ride 

Our next task was finding a permitted time to have a test ride. It was the day before his demo, so I really needed to see how he felt. However, the organisers could not let me out of the breed village to ride until after 6:30pm when the exhibition areas were closed to the public. Then, the car park had to be cleared to get to the warm-up arena, which was likely to be at least another hour and this was getting near dark.

Luckily, I know that Andy has well trained responses, so I could be flexible on where we train. So, in the end, we managed to squeeze a ride on a 10m x 20m area of bitumen the night before his demo. It was not ideal, but it was better than nothing.

The small space and bitumen footing of the exercise area meant I could only walk, but I was still able to get a feel for him in this new environment. There were cars nearby manoeuvring out of the car park and a lot of activity everywhere, so it was good enough to test our responses.

Andy felt a little tense in the beginning, but I just focused on getting him relaxed through some turns and lateral work, and got him obedient through transitions. After 10 minutes, he was relaxed and responsive, so we called it a day and hoped for the best tomorrow!

The big day 

The morning of the demonstration day (Friday) was exciting. We had a great team of helpers getting Andy ready. One of Andy’s sponsors, the NRG Team, had provided all of the show-prep products we needed to make Andy look like a star. It is safe to say that Andy had never had so much grooming in his life! This is where our ‘park’ training came in very handy – Andy stood patiently while our helpers turned him into a sparkling dressage horse.

We were lucky enough to get a short warm-up ride in a proper arena on our way to the demo arena. Again, I focused on the same things as the night before, but this time I introduced a little trot and canter.

Andy actually felt very nice at this point and was listening carefully to my aids. I knew this was a huge ask for him and I really didn’t know what to expect.

The walk over to the main pavilion was filled with nerves and excitement. Andy was still feeling great. Before getting into the arena, we had to walk through the crowd and past the booths. He was nervous, but still very responsive at this point and walked through like he had done it all before.

The demonstration 

The demo was a huge success for Andy. It was by no means a perfect demonstration, but it really showed how far this horse had come in only eight months.

The in-hand work was probably the trickiest part. Andy became quite nervous and wanted to move around a lot. It was difficult to show the things we needed to show for the demo and we didn’t have much time to spend on groundwork, so we didn’t spend a lot of time doing the in-hand training.

Because Andy was first started under-saddle at the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, his ridden work has been clear and consistent from day one. His in-hand work, however, has a history of inconsistency between being handled by different people as a foal, in training, at the races, during transport, etc.

This means that his in-hand training has been a lot more inconsistent than his ridden work, which is a good reason as to why he was instantly so much calmer from the moment I got on.

His basic responses under-saddle really stood a huge test in that small and high pressure environment, but he responded well, showing really clean transitions.

His lateral work was also nice, however, it was difficult to really show the crowd what he can really do in such a small arena. He did occasionally get his legs in a knot!

A canter 

Towards the end of the demo, Andy was getting very tired and I could feel he really needed a stretch. Andrew wanted to show the crowd a canter but we were running low on time. I was a little worried his tiredness was going to be a problem. I asked for canter from the walk as he generally stays together a bit better, especially in a small arena, and I was so pleased that he gave me a very good effort and very clean walk to canter transition.

He cantered a nice circle and returned to walk with another lovely transition. It’s quite amazing that a pacer could do that in a tiny arena, in front of a crowd, after just eight months under-saddle. It’s a testament to the breed and specifically to Andy.

All in all, Equitana was a very successful outing for Andy. He was better than I ever expected him to be in such a radiant atmosphere. He is a great example of what can be done in a small space of time with such a trainable breed.

It is unfortunate that the statistics of re-homing Standardbreds are so much lower than their Thoroughbred counterparts, as they generally have very good temperaments and make ideal pleasure horses.

From a re-training perspective, the fact that harness racehorses do not have any (bad) experience under-saddle gives re-trainers an opportunity to start them just like any young horse. As we have seen with Andy, despite their lateral gait being very well-practiced and ingrained, Standardbred pacers can be re-trained to trot and canter, and some have excellent movement by any standard.

With human injury rates in horse-human interactions so high, I hope that this project will continue to provide incentive to use this breed more outside the track.

Although Andy’s basic re-training is now well-established, I am looking forward to continuing to ride him in 2015, but that will be after he enjoys a well-earned rest in his paddock.

As well as continuing to develop and consolidate Andy’s training, the next goal in the project is to compile a Guide to Re-training the Standardbred Racehorse to help others re-home and re-train more of these wonderful horses when they finish racing.

The Unharnessed Potential Project was possible thanks to the following sponsors – Australian Equine Behaviour Centre | Greg Grant Saddlery | NRG Team | Harness Racing Australia | Southern Cross Horse Transport | Advanced Equine Dentistry | The Barefoot Blacksmith | Raising the Standards | Kilmore Equine Clinic | Manuka Haylage | Horses and People Magazine | Strong Step Hoof Care | Kompeet to Win