A Standardbred's track-to-hack journey
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We’re all excited to have Ideal Guy, aka ‘Andy the Standy’, at the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (AEBC). It is with great pleasure that we join the fantastic cause of documenting the re-training of the Standardbred from harness racehorse to saddle horse, and we cannot thank Horses and People enough for initiating this project and allowing us to be a part of it.

Of course, this would not be possible without the generous support of all the sponsors and Raising the Standards. With regular articles tracking Andy’s progress, we will explain to you both the re-training process we follow and the physical rehabilitation of the ex-racehorse.

The arrival and living environment 

As an established training centre, the AEBC is set up for handling new arrivals. Horses come and go every day and our staff are very familiar with the process. Our unloading facilities are spacious, we have an isolation yard, if required, and our paddocks are safely fenced with post and rail, so new arrivals don’t hurt themselves. Your facilities, however, may be quite different to ours, so before bringing a new horse into your property, you will need to consider how you are going to help him settle in. 

The first thing to do is decide where your new horse will stay. Although a couple of weeks’ quarantine is recommended, it is important that the new horse has an opportunity for social contact. So, if you don’t have any health concerns, a smaller yard or an individual paddock that is safely fenced and allows the horse to see and preferably touch other horses is ideal. Bear in mind, it is dangerous for horses to meet each other over a wire or electric fence, as they often strike or kick and could get tangled and injured.

Have some hay ready for his arrival, as well as clean water to drink. Another important consideration is that, unfortunately, many race horses spend most of their time stabled or confined to small yards, and have done so from an early age. Horses that have not spent any time outside and/or in company of other horses may find it challenging to adapt to the new environment, and will require a very careful and gradual approach; one that will have to be tailored for each individual horse and your particular situation. 

At the AEBC, when horses arrive for training, they go directly into their assigned paddock where they have a round bale of hay for continuous roughage, a large water trough and shelter. They are able to meet and make contact with their neighbours safely over the post and rail fencing. Once we unload them from the truck or float, we like to just lead them quietly to their paddock. We try not to add any stress, so we avoid experiences that could encourage a negative association. We stay and watch after releasing them to see how they react and keep checking them frequently to ensure they are settling in. 

Moving a horse to a new property, where he is no longer with his friends and the familiar environment is a stressful experience, so stay and watch your new horse in case he becomes distressed after being released. If he does get upset and is galloping or moving around a lot, you may want to catch and stay with him for a while (until he settles and starts eating). Alternatively, if you think it is safe to do so, you may be able to put another quiet horse in with him.

With Andy we followed the normal arrival protocol. Southern Cross Transport, who generously provided a free trip, had looked after him well on his 2,000km journey from Queensland to Victoria. He looked great and seemed to settle in well from the start. Andy soon went to meet his new neighbours (future paddock mates), and we were very pleased to see him trotting, rather than pacing, down the fence line! The staff kept a very close eye on him checking on him constantly to ensure he settled in. 

Settling into a routine 

Once the settling-in process is underway, the next thing you will need to consider is the diet. You may get some information from the previous owner or trainer as to what the horse was eating before you purchased him and this can be useful to know, but in the end the new horse will have to adapt to your own feeding routine. So, the most important part is to ensure that all feeds are introduced gradually, giving his digestive system time to adapt. 

Horses can of course eat grass, and having ad-lib access to grass hay from the day of arrival is a good way to ensure they receive enough fibre and are not left empty as you gradually introduce the new diet. Recent research has shown that the majority of race horses suffer from gastric ulcereration, so anyone taking on a horse off the track, be it a Thoroughbred or a Standardbred, should educate themselves on this condition, as it is thought to be very painful and will disrupt the horse’s digestion. 

To supplement their diet of some pasture and continuous access to grass (meadow) hay, the horses at the AEBC are fed a commercial balancer pellet and a handful of whole oats twice a day. While whole oats are not that popular a feed this day and age, we find the horses like to eat them and, when they pass through their system, the cockatoos clean them up, spreading and breaking up the manure and no doubt re-seeding our pastures too, so they serve a few different purposes!

How much and what to feed 

The first thing to do when deciding on the diet is to condition score and either weigh the horse or estimate his weight. We are lucky enough to have weighing scales on site and, as you can see in the photos, Andy was clearly in racing-fit condition with no fat deposits visible. Using the Henneke Scoring System, Andy scored a four out of nine, which is considered ‘moderately thin’. He weighed-in at 458kg and, while this is all completely normal for a 16.2hh race horse, we would like to see him develop more condition to achieve a condition score of five or ‘moderate’ (adding another 50-100kgs) during the six months he will spend at the AEBC on his road to becoming a ridden horse.

So, as well as continuous access to grass hay and a small amount of pasture available in his paddock, Andy was gradually introduced to the balancer pellet over a week and will also start to receive extra protein from his sponsors Manuka Haylage in the form of bagged lucerne. If your aim is to add condition to your new horse, remember to take time. It is important that the condition is made up of both fat and muscle, and muscle development will happen as his training progresses. Don’t be tempted to over feed your new horse. 

Health assessment 

It is very important to have any new horse vet-checked before you commit to purchasing and this should include a thorough dental check by an equine dental veterinarian. From a trainer’s standpoint, having the all-clear from the veterinarian helps, because all horses trial many undesirable responses during the re-training process, so it is important to know that these responses are not the result of pain, discomfort and/or health issues, and that they are actually associated with the normal learning processes.

Andy arrived at the AEBC direct from a known race trainer and stable, we had his full history since he was a yearling, and were confident about his soundness and health. Nevertheless, we arranged for Dr Mitch Brown from Kilmore Equine Clinic, sponsors of this project, to assess him and give us the green light to start training. He passed all tests with just one small concern of a small splint on the inside of his near front. There was a small amount of discomfort when pressure was applied on the splint, but no lameness. So, at this stage it’s just something to keep an eye on until it settles.

The ‘trot up’ for the soundness exam was an interesting one, as the lovely trot that we saw in his paddock unfortunately does not seem to be part of Andy’s repertoire for the trot up, or anywhere in-hand for that matter. Andy did not offer a single step of trot, but paced instead (let’s hope its better under saddle!). Nevertheless, Andy did pass his pace-up. A few days later, Andy had a thorough dental exam from specialist dental veterinarian Dr Shannon Lee from Advanced Equine Dentistry. There were no major concerns and we will include more details in the next issue. 

Hoof care 

Andy’s hoof care will be in the expert hands of Andrew Bowe, who is kindly donating his services to the cause, as well as documenting the process of change and rehabilitation. Andy presented with hooves typical of an ‘off-the-track’ Standardbred. They had obviously been getting trimmed regularly and getting well balanced, but were showing the effects of life in shoes with only the walls being weight-bearing, as evidenced by hoof contraction and dysfunctional frogs. 

In addition, the shape of the hooves, instinctive reaction to heel palpation and subtle discomfort when picking up the hinds are all indicative of upper body issues; again, fairly typical of a harness race horse and Andrew recommended referral to a body therapist. There are also signs of sub-clinical laminitis (showing as blood in the laminar line), so any attempts to increase bodyweight will need to be carefully planned and monitored.

Choice of hoof management parameters for these issues will potentially have a large effect on both the athletic ability and longevity of Andy. There will be plenty more for Andrew Bowe to report and this will be the subject of our Hoof Care section in next month’s issue. 

First impressions of Andy as a training companion 

Standardbred horses are renowned for their easy-going, trainable temperaments. However, when you purchase one off the track, you must never underestimate the fact that they have been trained and handled as race horses. When Andy arrived he was certainly a little nervous and insecure, yet was able to keep it together. Unlike many other horses that arrive here at the AEBC, who occasionally can make irrational and, at times, dangerous movements, Andy was safe to handle from the start. 

The basic responses of the majority of horses that arrive for training are either blurry or non-existent. When we say basic responses we are talking about ‘go’, ‘stop’, ‘turn’ and ‘yield’ responses, either in-hand or under-saddle. Although Andy’s stop and go responses in-hand are a little murky, he did have a basic understanding. I think that is a testament to this breed in comparison with some of the other favoured breeds that riders choose, as well as decent handling during his time as a race horse.

Issues that may arise in training 

In my few sessions with Andy, I have noticed a few potential issues that may have to be dealt with throughout the training process:

Attachment theory 

Andy appears to be quite sensitive around people. Sudden noise causes him to startle and he seems slightly insecure whilst training. Knowing Andy’s history, this is likely just a result of being in a new environment and needing time to settle in, but often or in other cases, it could also be that he is not used to having much physical contact (touch). Standardbreds begin their racing career the earliest of any racehorse – often as early as 14 months. Horses, like us, are very social animals. When we ‘send them to the trainer’, we pull them away from their social environment, and this is when behavioural issues and insecurities often arise. 

We also know that Andy was bred in a large scale Standardbred stud and, while we don’t know the exact weaning protocol Andy experienced, most large-scale breeding operations don’t follow a gradual weaning protocol and the process is likely to be stressful. There is very limited research relating to the effects of different weaning protocols have on horses, but we do know that this is the crucial time for developing stereotypes, such as crib-biting and wind-sucking, both of which are coping mechanisms that arise when horses are put under undue stress. 

Attachment theory, which describes the development and quality of mother-infant relationships, has recently been extended to potentially describe horse-human relationships. We know that allo-grooming (when horses scratch each other’s withers and back with their teeth) is used by horses to relieve stress and strengthens the bond between two individuals. We also know that when a human scratches the horse just in front of the withers it has the same heartbeat-lowering effect, so it is very possible that a stronger bond is also formed between horse and human.

I think this could be a very important aspect when re-training harness horses, because they have naturally been subjected to less human contact than a ridden horse has. In the case of re-training a harness horse, this lack of touch could explain some insecurities around people. It will be interesting to see how Andy changes when we go through our bareback backing technique, which is based on this attachment theory, where he will experience lots of touching, wither scratching and body-to-body contact. The entire first week of ridden work is predominately all bareback allowing for a very smooth transition to under-saddle.

Pacing 

One of the biggest challenges for any rider/trainer when dealing with an off-the-track Standardbred is likely to be the pacing gait and, in Andy’s case, I think it will be the same. Andy is bred to pace and with 43 race starts and all the training that went along with those performances, he has spent many hours practicing and perfecting a lateral or ambling gait.

Unlike the trot, in which the legs move in diagonal pairs, the pace is a lateral gait in which the front and hind leg of each side move in unison. It was favoured and selected for during the many centuries when the horse was widely used for transportation, because at high speeds it remains smooth and even. We now know that the Standardbred, along with other ‘gaited’ breeds, have a specific ‘pacing’ gene, a mutation in a single gene that is not present in horse breeds that don’t pace. This means that when dealing with a pacing ex-race horse, we are re-training both a well-established habit and a genetic predisposition to pace. 

A combination of watching Andy, my personal experience with training four-gaited Icelandic horses, and the thorough understanding of equine biomechanics (how horses move) and equine learning theory (how horses learn) of all the staff at the AEBC, is helping us establish a plan. We have written down a number of potentially exciting exercises to help him find his trot, which you will see unfold throughout this series.

Whip-shy 

The use of the whip in racing continues to be the subject of fierce debate. Both racing codes allow jockeys to strike their horse with a whip, and, back in 2009, the Australian Racing Board introduced rules to ‘control’ whip use in Thoroughbred races, making padded ‘shock-absorbing’ whips mandatory, and controlling the number of strikes and the force of the strikes. Despite the best efforts, the way the whip is being used in horse racing defies the principles of learning theory and compromises horse welfare.

A greater understanding of how horses learn would empower racehorse trainers and jockeys to find much better ways to train horses to accelerate. They would also find there is no need to race with whips, certainly no place for punishment, and this better training would have better results.

At the AEBC, we train horses to respond to a light signal from the whip (a light tap-tap) using pressure-release (negative reinforcement). We first apply a light signal, keep tapping if there is no response, then release (stop tapping) as soon as the horse responds correctly. This way the horse can learn that by responding to the light signal he can avoid the pressure. In a racing environment, the whip is used in single strikes to elicit a flight response and may align more with a punishment-based approach, rather than a reward-based approach to training. When you train and use the whip in the correct way, the whip can become a light signal in the same way as all your other pressure signals (reins, legs, lead-rope).

Standardbreds, and indeed all race horses, are likely to be whip-shy as a result of the incorrect use of the whip, and will require a very thorough habituation to the sight and feel of the whip coming into contact with their bodies. They have to re-learn that when the whip comes towards them it will just make a light contact and they can avoid any aversive pressure from the whip by responding correctly to the light tap.

We are lucky with Andy, as his previous trainer has a policy not to carry or use whips at all during training, and, although during the actual races the driver did carry a whip, he was instructed never to strike the horse, but rather make a noise on the shafts of the sulky. Despite all this, we will go through the usual process of habituation to the feel of the whip all over his body and take our time to retrain the ‘step back’, ‘go’, ‘turn’ and ‘yield’ responses from the whip, through the correct application of negative and positive reinforcement. This will delete any negative association with the whip and will help him relax.

Future expectations 

The re-training process we will follow is very similar regardless of the type of horse and can basically be divided into:

  1. Arrival and settling in.
  2. Health checks, dental, feet, weighing, start the gradual diet adjustment.
  3. Ground work training – go, stop, step-back, park, turn, yield.
  4. ‘Backing’ bareback, habituation to the saddle and equipment.
  5. Under-saddle training – go, stop, step-back, park, turn, yield.
  6. Further development – trail riding, jumping, specialised movements, clicker training.
  7. First outings to competitions

Providing that the training process runs smoothly over the next six months, Andy, like most Standardbreds, should make an easy transition from harness horse to ridden horse. Standardbreds not only have great trainable temperaments, but often have nice paces too, which is ideal when looking for a calm, yet competitive ride.

If, in six months time, we could be competitive at whatever level we reach, that would be a great result for Ideal Guy, and I’m certain that we will have no problems re-homing him and finding the perfect human partner. This is such a great cause and hopefully one that will be an eye-opener for people out there looking elsewhere for competitive, trainable horses.

Next month we will talk about ground work (training in-hand).

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

 

Alistair McLean from the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre with the Standardbred Ideal Guy
Alistair McLean, Diploma of Equitation Science
Director & Head Trainer/Coach, at | Website

The son of Andrew McLean, Alistair was introduced to horses at an early age. He began riding at age 4 and competing at age 12. As a professional trainer and coach at the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, Alistair demonstrates a clear aptitude for producing well-trained, calm and sound performance horses. He is also in demand as a clinician in Australia and internationally having presented at QLD Festival of Dressage and Equitana.

In 2010, Alistair and his partner Rikke began their own business in Europe starting young horses. Together, they’ve earned a reputation for being patient and compassionate horse trainers. Upon his return to the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre in 2013, Alistair began his role as Director and Head Trainer/Coach, and he continues to specialise in the area of foundation training.

Influenced by his parents, Andrew and Manuela McLean, along with his brother, Warwick McLean, Alistair possesses a natural talent for producing well-trained performance horses. However, he is not only passionate about enabling performance horses to achieve their full athletic potential, but also empowering riders to continue their horse’s training at home. A competent Dressage rider, Alistair is currently bringing his team of young horses up through the levels and achieving notable success. He is consistently scoring about 70% and placing within top five. With a particular interest in Dressage, Alistair intends to develop a clear training system to educate horses from foundation to Grand Prix. Through his role at the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, Alistair aims to continue producing consistent and high quality performance horses that are prepared and educated to excel at all levels.

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