Welcome to Part 8 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. In the previous training article, Alistair explained introducing and training the lateral movements.
This month, Andy is ready for his first outing! It’s time to start preparing him for his Equitana experience. As Alistair explains, because Andy knows well his in-hand and under-saddle responses, he will have that consistency and predictability to relate to when he is in a new and more challenging environment.
Preparing Andy for Equitana
Andy is now in his final stages of training before our demonstrations at Equitana. This is the time where I focus on fine-tuning all that I have taught him over his time at the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (AEBC). Anything that is not quite consolidated at home will only be worse in an unfamiliar place, so in preparation, it’s important to stop teaching him new things and focus on improving the responses he has already learnt.
One of the most important things to do before a horse’s first big outing like this is to take him to new environments without the pressure of competing to test out our responses and correct any issues. It is the training in these different environments that shows us where we are on the training scale.
These outings will show how Andy responds in a pressure situation and will then give me an idea of what I need to work on at home, as well as any groundwork and undersaddle techniques I may have to use to get him to relax at Equitana. All of this preparation will help make Andy’s experience at Equitana less stressful.
Taking Andy to a new environment
We took Andy to a dressage day, just for a casual look around and to test his training. Andy will be at Equitana for all four days and kept in a stable, which will be quite a stressful experience, so we decided to arrive at the competition the day before to see what he was like in a small space and how he was to ride after a night in a yard as opposed to a large paddock.
Settling him into his yard
Staying in a yard can be a very foreign experience for a horse if he is not used to it. You need to make sure they have constant access to hay and water just like they would in their paddock. We often use a slow-feeding hay net when having a horse in a yard as it encourages them to forage rather than gorge themselves, which is better for their gut. However, for a horse that is stressed and unlikely to eat, you may want a regular hay bag to remove the difficulty from eating.
Andy was yarded in between two of our other horses who are experienced competitors and calm in a yard to encourage him to relax. Having been to so many race outings as a youngster, Andy settled in well without much encouragement. To ensure his legs didn’t swell up and to keep his mind active, we took Andy out of his yard for regular walks to stretch his legs, as well as to check his basic groundwork.
If you are intending to tie your horse to the float or the yard, you need to ensure your groundwork is consolidated and you have practiced at home. To stay tied, the horse needs to understand how he should respond to pressure from where he is tied, which is the same pressure he would feel from a handler.
Consolidating your horse’s response to a light forward lead aid, teaching him ‘head down’ and ‘park’ is essential. If the horse spooks and pulls back, this is where understanding to step forward from poll pressure will help. Rather than fight against the pressure, he should know that moving forward and/or lowering the head will make the pressure go away. Teaching and enforcing ‘park’ will help with immobility while tied.
Groundwork tools for relaxation
I have expressed on every occasion how important it is that we check our horse’s groundwork regularly. This is even more so the case with a re-trainer. Although I wouldn’t necessarily consider Andy a re-trainer at home any more, his old habits are much more likely to reoccur when he is in a new environment.
Practicing ground work at home does not need to be an extra session of training each day, it is just something that we tune up whilst leading from the paddock, grooming and saddling up. We can easily incorporate it in to our daily interactions with the horse without making a big deal of a groundwork session.
The importance of having clear rules at home means that I have a process to run through which he can easily follow in a new environment.
Horses seek consistency and predictability so, in a foreign place, the horse will try to attach himself to something he knows and, if there is nothing, he may become anxious. Our training is the one consistency we can use to help him feel secure, so it needs to be predictable and clear every time we ride (See the previous articles of this series).
This comes down to the groundwork and ridden work that I have set up at home. Teaching things like ‘park’ and basic responses at home may seem useless to some because their horse seems to be calm and obedient at home. However, the reason we check and train these responses is because the training needs to be firmly in place in order for it to work when they are no longer in a familiar environment.
It is too much pressure for the horse to be expected to learn new responses out at a competition or stressful environment, but if you have well consolidated responses at home, it won’t take much to have him focussing on you, rather than his environment when you’re out.
Andy is generally a very light and sensitive horse. His legs may be long and uncoordinated, but they are responsive so it’s easy to get them under stimulus control. This is the first stage of achieving relaxation. Once the horse is responsive to the rein aids, we can add in head control. A high head position is connected with the flight response, so gaining control of the head position is a huge help in promoting relaxation. Many trainers and handlers around the world have seen the calming effect of having the horse’s head down, but it’s important that this is not prioritised before the other responses are tested.
If your horse’s responses to the rein aids are not consolidated, ‘head down’ will not be as effective. I taught Andy to put his ‘head down’ from pressure on his pole in the very first weeks of his training once he had learned the basics to Obedience level. It has been trained regularly, which again makes it likely that it will work at a competition.
When you have established light ‘stop’, ‘go’ and ‘park’, and head control separately, we can begin to use them in combination. By adding another requirement to his basic responses, we can achieve ultimate relaxation. I now work through our basic responses in-hand and ask that he horse keeps his head low whilst doing them. In doing this, we have complete control of his body. Before getting on at a competition for the first time, I do a quick test of the basics with the head in a lowered position.
The first ride
After achieving relaxation on the ground, I started to work under-saddle. As I rode Andy to the warm up arena, I practiced some transitions and worked on straightness. It’s easy to lose track of what our horse is doing on the way to the warm up. We may be distracted by trying to remember our test or just generally unfocused on the horse, but never forget that each time you are on your horse he is learning something. Make the walk to the arena count.
You can still be relaxed, but just ask for basic straightness and responsiveness. This will help you when you reach the arena. On the way there, there were various ‘scary’ objects that he spooked at so I encouraged him to walk up to them and have a good look and a sniff. If he stalls or veers off your line, it is important that you don’t release the pressure until he gives you the correct response (steps towards the object).
For example, I walked Andy up to a trailer filled with piping and other unfamiliar shapes. At first, he stopped and started walking backwards, so I needed to make sure that I keep him facing the scary object and keep nudging him with my leg until he took at least one step toward the object, then softened and repeated. This must be repeated until you get all the way up to the scary object so that the horse learns that our ‘go’ aid always means ‘go’ no matter what is in front of him.
These challenging moments are what creates a reliable and safe horse. If your horse’s stress levels are high or you are nervous to make him approach the object, stop (facing the object) and wait for around 13 seconds until he seems less focused on the object, and then ask for another step forwards, then repeat. Research shows that it takes on average 13 seconds for a horse to show a significant positive change in behaviour after being startled, so you can use this knowledge to keep his stress levels down without giving in.
We then had the opportunity to ride him in the indoor arena, which was a great way to see how he coped in a different indoor arena to the one we have at AEBC. It was a much bigger area than what I have to work in at Equitana, but Andy responded well and did not put a foot wrong. I started by walking him around the area, testing my responses firstly with transitions, and then turn and yield.
We then went out to do some work in the outdoor arena. I tested his responses again and was pleased that he was almost as consistent as he is at home. His main issues were a tendency to run and pull against the bit, which I corrected with a downward transition, and the occasional drift off my line, which I corrected with turns. I was so pleased that he didn’t revert to pace which was my biggest concern with a new environment.
Whilst Andy is responsive to my aids to quite a good standard, he still has a slightly anxious temperament. He tends to show his anxiety with some occasional lower lip twitching. All horses are different, so don’t be worried if your horse has a unique character trait to show you how he’s feeling, but do question what areas may be causing this. If you continue to train clearly and consistently, these behaviours will subside but, for now, think of them as ‘tells’ – don’t cover them up with a tighter noseband or stronger bit. Instead, check his training and find the flaws.
In time, when his responses become clear and consistent, his ‘tells’ will dissipate. For Andy, it’s been difficult for him to learn to move his body in a new way. This caused some confusion for him for a period of time, but he is gradually starting to understand and consistently respond in the correct way.
Between now and Equitana, I will continue to train Andy at home and test him in a smaller arena to mimic the Mitavite Arena (20 x 20m). I will also habituate him to crowd noises and clapping to help make his experience at Equitana less stressful.
You can find out more about habituation techniques here.
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