Tips and Advice

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Q: Many OTT horses like to hang on the bit, how do you go about getting them soft and accepting the contact?

A: One thing that stands out when re-training Thoroughbred ex-racehorses is their lack of understanding when it comes to the basic riding aids. Whether this be cues from the rider to move away from leg pressure or yielding to rein contact.

For us to understand better, take this for an example; racehorses in training are taught to gallop at a certain speed with a firm steady contact, which the horse learns to lean on, when his rider gathers up the reins for a shorter contact it is a cue for him to gallop faster. So your job is to re-train him that contact does not mean fast!

With this in mind, one of the very first steps we take (depending on each horse) is lunging in a round yard. Lunging is a fantastic tool! Most OTT horses will have never been lunged before, so while you teach him that he needs to go forward and around you, include basic verbal commands. When you want him to walk, use a click of the tongue (or flick of the whip) and 'walk on'- the same for trot and canter. The most important ones to teach are 'steady' and 'whoa'. Anytime you wish him to slow, use 'steady' and whenever you want him to stop use 'whoa'. These will come in handy under saddle also, particularly if he is of a nervous nature..
Once you have complete control of his paces in a round yard you can progress to ridden work in a small arena (large open areas are not ideal if it is your first time until you have full control). Another tool to become familiar with is the 'half halt'. Unsure of half halt? I once read a great article on how to achieve it:
“1. Use your driving aids to generate energy (close both legs and give a push with your seat).
2. Close your outside hand in a fist to receive and recycle the energy back to the hind legs.
3. If necessary, use just enough inside rein to keep the neck straight.
4. After a maximum of three seconds, soften all of the aids.
5. Ride a few strides and repeat if necessary”
Using your verbal commands in conjunction with rein contact and the half halt will help him understand what you mean. Once he knows that by taking up the contact you wish to steady his pace, not lug and go fast, you can begin to work on a soft frame.
We like to start them off in a very light contact and long/low frame rather than a collected frame- this will teach them to travel forward in self carriage and become supple through the back and neck.
You will get better results when they work relaxed; with using more leg you will be able to encourage engagement of the hindquarters and you can then start to bring in the contact and collect the frame. To train basic collection we use lots of transitions up through the paces and back down using these tools while keeping a light responsive contact- your OTT will use the correct muscles he needs to be strong enough to work in a softer and more collected frame.
Tip to Remember:
The more rein you use the more leg you should use, you cannot use one without the other. However! Make sure your horse knows each aid on their own before using them together to avoid confusion.

Q: My OTT doesn't understand leg aids, often leg means go faster, how do you teach them this is not the case?

A: Schooling leg aids with an OTT horse can be difficult for you and very confusing for him. You should always keep your arena work short and concise, he needs time to learn what is being asked of him and you don't want him going sour when you have only just begun! I will only start schooling specific leg aids once I have full control of his paces and he is working softly.

You have three very basic leg aids: Leg on (driving), Leg on (sustained), Leg off.
You want him to go forward (both legs firmly on) and stay at the required pace (consistent but lesser leg pressure). You don't want to be afraid of using your leg. If, by keeping your legs on, he immeditately thinks faster, use your half halt and outside rein to moderate his speed. Your body should be saying “I'm driving you forward but my rein and seat does not allow you to speed up”.

Once he will work with legs on without being worried you can introduce basic leg yields, this helps to improve suppleness and to encourage the use of his hind leg. We find it much easier to school a yield on a 20m circle in the arena rather than down the long side, the horse will naturally want to move outwards and you can encourage and praise him for moving away from your leg. Always reward him when he tries (be it a rub on the neck or a relaxed walk), it doesn't matter if he only gives you a little bit, in the beginning you want him to be comfortable with what you are asking. Keep him moving forward and mix things up, Thoroughbreds have very active minds so it is prudent not to become fixated on minor details or trying to perfect a specific movement.
Always start at walk so your cues can be very clear and easier for him to stay soft, if he rushes, quietly bring him back and start again. You want to be able to bring him in (smaller circles using outside leg) and let him out (bigger circles using inside leg) at all three paces, once he does this calmly you can leave the circle and try the long-side of the arena. I like to use the quarter-line and move them away from the arena wall into the centre-line; you don't want them to be always drawn to the wall, they need to be able to work straight anywhere you place them. This will help later with laterals.
If you have trouble with canter leads, I use poles on a semi circle to encourage a leading leg using VERY clear canter aid- inside leg at the girth and outside leg well behind. Usually they will be one sided from racing and therefore unbalanced on the other, so your outside leg becomes their stabillity.
Tip to Remember:
If it seems at any stage your OTT does not understand something or is becoming upset and rushing, go back to the walk and repeat what you are asking being very accurate with aids and rewarding him by letting him walk out. A loose rein will go a long way and is good to let them stretch and think.