Consolidating the Basics

Welcome to Part Five of the Unharnessed Potential project, an education and awareness campaign to promote the re-training and re-homing of Standardbreds that retire from racing. 

In this article series, Alistair McLean from the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (AEBC) is documenting the re-training of ‘Ideal Guy’ (a.k.a Andy), a five-year-old Standardbred pacer that is making the journey from track-to-hack. 

Last month, we saw Andy progress from the round yard to the arena and how knowledge about context-specific behaviour helped to teach him to trot, instead of pace. This month, is about consolidating the basic responses under-saddle and beginning to teach the pacer to canter – our biggest challenge yet!

Although Andy is responding well to the training and appears to have learnt a lot, it is important that we don’t move too fast in our training and forget about consolidating the basics. 

When re-training, it is the consolidation of the new responses that is most important. That is, repeating them over and over, so that the new way of responding becomes an ingrained habit.

Some basic responses may only take days to install, however, the consolidation period could be months of work when dealing with a re-trainer. Remember that re-training is about replacing old habits with new, so the consolidation process is all about reminding them of the new way that we want them to respond and suppressing the old habits.

Don’t doubt yourself just because you have to remind your horse often, he will eventually get it as long as you are consistent – horses do not understand exceptions!

Consolidation of the basic aids should not just be done in an arena. It needs to be done on rides out, over poles and in as many places as you can. This will also make the consolidation process quicker. It is also great to have as much variety in your training as possible.

A typical week for a young horse may look like this:

  • Monday – Dressage
  • Tuesday – Gymnastic work over poles and cavalettis
  • Wednesday – Jump training or ride out with some testing of the basics here and there
  • Thursday – Dressage (flat work)
  • Friday – Dressage (flat work)
  • Saturday – Day off, competition or ride out on a loose rein
  • Sunday – Day off

All of this should be incorporated into your training if you want to keep him motivated. Every element of cross training doesn’t need to be packed into one week like it is here, but should be a part of your training. By doing this, it also allows you to test and consolidate your buttons in a variety of different places and situations.

Consolidating the basics – trot aid 

Even though Andy has experienced trotting under-saddle, this by no means means that he will trot every time. Teaching Andy to trot has been very difficult. In some situations, such as when he is tense, beside other horses or occasionally even working in a different location, he can still make the odd mistake of pacing a few strides. It is the way we deal with these moments which shapes the way they will respond in these situations in the future.

When consolidating a horse’s responses, we can often spend a lot of time telling our horse what not to do instead of telling them what they did right. Rewarding them for what they did right makes it more likely for them to do it again, which is key when consolidating the trot aid.

Punishing Andy, or any horse, for pacing will never work, as it will only make him tense and, therefore, more likely to pace again. Instead, a nice transition back to walk followed by the trot aid again is the best option to correct him. If he then trots you need to make it very clear that was the right thing to do. I always say good boy and give a scratch at the base of the wither, and continue trotting. 

What if he keeps pacing? 

If he continues to offer pace and will not trot, then you may have transitioned too fast to trotting without a handler, so having a handler lead you for a few transitions may help remind him of the correct response.

The other way to teach him is by using trot poles. This will be better if done in-hand first. A good exercise is walking your horse up to the trot pole and applying the trot aid at the base of the first pole. If they are correctly spaced, the poles will encourage the correct trot footfalls.

Horses are very context-specific in their learning, so it may be that he trots more often in one area than another. If that is the case, then you can use this to your advantage. When you are consistently getting trot in that area you can move slightly further down the arena. Your horse may begin to anticipate trotting if you do this, but training often involves making compromises to get a desired response. Just correct him softly and ensure he responds when asked to trot and not out of habit.

Further developing the trot and walk 

The aids are now at a minimum of obedience level both at the walk and trot. It is now time to start further shaping the aids up through the shaping scale. The idea with our shaping scale is that we have the horse working in a natural outline until the aids are at a contact level. By doing this, our rein aids have had enough time to consolidate their effect on the horse’s legs. When a horse reaches contact level in the shaping scale, his head carriage should be stable. Your 10 basic aids should be well-schooled enough that you can apply them and there is an immediate effect on the horse’s legs, without the horse changing his outline. At this point, you are ready to start focusing more on his frame.

Working Andy towards a correct outline 

There is nothing wrong with training a horse to go into a frame, as long as it has been trained correctly and as long as all of the pre-requisites on the shaping scale have been met and have been consolidated.

Bringing your horse into the correct outline is not something that happens straight away. Like the rest of our training, it is shaped gradually.

Even though our aids are consolidated, they can still be de-trained if we, for example, see-saw the reins to ‘make them round’ with our hands – this can cause confusion with the turn response, as well as affect their head position.

Roundness should be shaped by the use of our aids and not forced. Of course, there will be a slight deterioration in some of our responses when we train something new, but as long as we keep clearing them up throughout the process, there should not be any confusion.

The best way I find to shape roundness is through indirect turns. This is because it is impossible for the horse to soften to the bit without also responding to the aid. That is the key; being able to achieve softness in the neck and poll, whilst still achieving a proportional response in the horse’s legs from our rein aid.

It works by adding a further requirement to the indirect turn response (also known as ‘increasing the criteria’).

Previously, the horse only had to respond to the indirect turn by moving his shoulders/legs to the inside or the outside. Now, there is a further requirement, whereby the horse needs to move his shoulders AND soften through his neck (lowering of his poll and slight flexion) before being rewarded. The moment he lowers his poll or his neck softens slightly, you should bring him back to a straight body, and let your hands move forwards (releasing rein pressure) to encourage him to follow the bit downwards and allow his neck to stretch down.

I find it is easiest to do this from the outside rein inwards, as there won’t be things getting in your way if the circle becomes smaller. Sometimes you may need to hold the indirect turn on for a while before you get the release – this is normal and is why the indirect turn from the outside rein generally works better.

Moving the shoulders inwards is also much easier for us, as riders, to follow. As the horse learns to soften though the neck and straighten through the body, he will begin to hold himself in a frame more consistently.

Initially, the frame is longer and, over time, can be shaped to become more raised and collected by adding this ‘shorter more raised poll’ requirement to the shorter stride response.

Teaching Andy to canter

Teaching Andy to canter has been, by far, the most challenging piece of training yet. With Andy, it is still very much a work in progress, however, it is progressing nonetheless. 

The issue with canter when training a pacer is that canter is, biomechanically, fairly similar to pace, so it’s difficult for the horse to choose canter over the well-consolidated pace response.

The other issue with Standardbreds is that they are used to pulling things and not carrying weight. Canter places more weight on a horses hindquarters than any other gait, so before you begin training canter, strengthening the hindquarters will make a big difference. This can be done up hills in trot or over polls. Depending on how naturally it comes to your horse, will determine how long it takes to establish. In Andy’s case, this will take a few months as he needs to build the muscle to help his learning.

There are many ways you can teach the canter. The main way we taught Andy was through hill work, as we wanted to strengthen his muscles at the same time.

Hill work works well because it requires more power from the hindquarters. Pace and trot would be a lot harder up a hill because only one leg at a time does the pushing up a hill, in comparison to canter where both hindlegs push – making it physically easier. It also stops them from falling on the forehand, which subsequently stops them breaking into pace. 

When I tried to train Andy to canter in the arena I found falling on the forehand was his biggest problem. He would canter about three strides and then break into pace because the canter got too flat.

Pace is an extremely fast gait with a top speed close to that of the gallop, so it wasn’t just a matter of kicking him back into canter like a regular horse. If I had done that he would have continued pacing. This is the biggest problem I have found with a pacer. Instead, I slow him down and ask again, trying to maintain balance.

The other way I have used to train canter is to teach Andy to jump. Andy is not a natural born jumper that’s for sure, but he still goes through the same biomechanical motions as other horses.

Like with the hill work, jumping over a jump is physically easier if the horse pushes with both hindlegs, than it is with one. Jumping also involves landing with both legs and, thus, sets them up for cantering after the jump. They may still flatten out after a few strides, but it is a great way to get them cantering if you are struggling in those initial stages.

The aid for canter is a squeeze with the inside leg in the normal leg position and outside leg about a hand back from the normal leg position. Your inside hip moving slightly forward is the seat aid. Do not canter too many strides as he will get tired quickly and, even more importantly, it needs to be you who decides to come back down a gait.

You need to practice a lot of transitions in the time you have, but make sure that it’s always you that makes these transitions, both up and down.

I found that Andy’s muscles were very sore for the following two days so, at this point in his training, I can only train canter twice a week at the most. The canter work in the arena has stretched out to about six strides without breaking, which may seem like a slow process for Andy, but considering the many

What’s next? 

Given that Andy has been in intense work since arriving at AEBC, we felt that he was due to be spelled for a period. I can feel he is mentally a little fatigued, and his body condition needs time to rest and develop.

Generally, our Foundation Training program works best with four weeks on, then a rest for 2-3 months, and two weeks to finalise the training. This allows time for the horse’s neural pathways to settle down – similar to school holidays for kids!

Andy is not new to demanding physical activity, but he is new to carrying a rider so, in a sense, Andy is learning from the beginning. In addition to his mental state, his physical state is in need of rest – allowing time for him to gain weight. Andy is gradually gaining weight, but the more physical the work is becoming, the more his weight plateaus. Some time to limit activity and maximise weight gain will help.

After Andy’s rest, we will continue to work on consolidating the canter and add in some further jumping training to prepare him as an all-rounder sport horse.

The Unharnessed Potential Project is 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