As a standardbred retrainer with nearly a decade of professional experience under my belt (and many more years of personal retraining prior to this), I have been privileged to share ideas, seek guidance from and collaborate with some amazing standardbred aficionados over the years.
I recently got to thinking about some of the habits and metholodogies many leading retrainers have in common. I soon realised that there some ‘universal’ proclivities successful professionals share.
I’ve listed them below, as a little peek behind the stable doors…
Horse welfare and comfort is the priority.
Every successful standardbred retrainer I know acknowledges the immense value of setting each horse up for success.
A big part of this includes ensuring that the horse is comfortable, by way of bringing up to date all necessary health care needs. This includes hoof and dental care, worming, restructuring the diet to include supportive nutrients, having a bodywork professional review the horse for any ailments, ensuring gear is a good fit for the horse (with particular attention to saddle fit) and bringing the horse’s body score and musculature up to nice level to support the weight of a rider and increasing workload.
By taking the time to address each of these necessities, we ensure that the horse is feeling really good in itself and there will be no pain coupled with beginning the ridden process.
If the horse begins to associate riding with pain, not only will they become resistant and defensive, but this may lead to dangerous reactions being offered as a way of communicating this discomfort. In these instances, it’s common to find that resolving the problem retrospectively still will not eliminate the reaction, as the horse often anticipates pain even when it is no longer present.
Treating the horse before riding starts is a good trainer’s insurance policy against problems later down the track.
Assess and respect each horse’s uniqueness.
In the case of Standardbreds, very rarely will two horses have the exact same life experiences. Some of the factors that impact upon the ‘nature vs nurture’ fabric of your horse include: breeding (we see a surprising amount of stallion traits passed down to progeny), mare temperament in shaping the foal’s first experiences, size of stud and handling as a youngster, quality of breaking to cart, competence of racing trainer and length of racing time.
Of course, it’s unlikely we’ll ever really know a horse’s full history beyond the information passed on from the racing connections, but I just wanted to highlight that there are many impacting factors that come well before the horse retires from racing.
Experienced retrainers acknowledge each standardbred’s individuality and will use the subtle cues provided by the horse to assess their learning style and speed. Being adaptable helps to bring about a positive, streamlined retraining process.
I, along with a few of my peers, have found that a ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t really work for standardbreds; flexibility and listening to your horse is key (and this is why producing retraining resources has been such a detailed, long-term project… thanks for your patience!)
Don’t rush the early stages.
Reputable retrainers who are invested in creating confident, educated horses who are suited to the discipline they’re being rehomed for (providing proof in ability, rather than speculative ‘will be good at…’ type advertisements) will always take a little longer to produce a riding mount, than those operating on quick turnover. In my experience, like all of the good operators in the equestrian industry (farriers, bodyworkers, dentists etc), these professionals will be worth waiting on.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was a good riding horse. Great horses take time to nurture. Uncovering vices or concerning behaviours, and identifying injuries which may not present until the horse is in a full workload, can take weeks to ascertain and address. These are certainly things to sort out prior to handing the reins over to a new rider!
In terms of the horse’s education, I often use the analogy of standardbred retraining being a lot like building a house; the structure relies heavily on the foundations on which it is built. If you take the time and care to lay a smooth foundation, you create an even platform from which to propel yourself to success. If you cut corners, rush or miss steps, you’ll probably get the structure built without too much fuss, but as time passes and you want to add more things on, there’s an increased risk of everything crashing down most spectacularly. In terms of horse training, this outcome can mean utter disaster; a lot of anguish, expense and potential danger when dealing with a ’problem horse’.
The old saying ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ has immense relevance to standardbred retraining!
Lots of exposure to different environments.
Like people, horses can get bored riding endless circles, in the same space each day. Providing a multidimensional training setting gives the horse the opportunity to explore interesting experiences, as well as turn their hoof to new pursuits (for example, heading for an outing to riding club can be a fantastic addition to the training repertoire and can uncover some pretty cool talents brought out in lessons!)
Likewise, getting your horse out of the familiarity of the riding arena will allow you to gauge any reactions to strange sights and sounds. This will also help your horse to learn to trust that when he’s out riding with you, he’s safe and secure (assisting you to build a bond and confidence in one another). Trail riding is particularly great for this!
Celebrate the little wins.
Like adding each tiny piece of the puzzle together, every little skill conquered adds to the mosaic that makes up a solid riding horse.
Two whole laps of consistent trot without breaking into a pace can seem like such a small fete for a seasoned riding horse, but it can be a wonderful achievement for the green, OTT ex-harness racehorse. Likewise, those first few strides of canter under saddle are monumental.
Rather than focusing on nailing the big skills, good retrainers will work towards patiently chipping away at the all the subtle foundation exercises, which inevitably lead to a well-rounded riding mount.
Astute horse folk allow themselves to be inspired by the many special little moments of success.
Write off the bad rides.
Along with the triumphs are those godawful days when nothing seems to go to plan.
Professional equestrians don’t tend to dwell on the bad rides, nor let them dictate the tone of the next workout. They just take each session as it comes and write-off any mishaps.
Similarly, a good horseperson knows never to take a bad mood out with them into the paddocks. I know on days when I myself was cranky or sore, I opted to swap my ride for another task around the farm (appreciating all too well how easily bad energy flows from rider to horse!)
Invest in personal development.
In my opinion, the best aspect of horsemanship is that is a never ending, lifelong journey. No one person can ever profess to know everything about horses; there is always a new approach, discipline or goal to strive towards!
In acknowledging this, it makes sense that the best riders, trainers and general horsefolk are the ones who hang their egos on the fencepost and keep an open mind when discovering the wisdom shared by others.
In terms of standardbreds in particular, I know that the best trainers are the ones not only producing some incredibly well-educated horses, but they’re the people I know I can pick the phone up and call to chat about any interesting or difficult horses I am working with.
Accomplished equine professionals will commit to a steady routine of learning, to ensure consistent improvement. Self-critiquing via filming oneself riding, organising rideswaps with knowledgeable peers (where one person rides and the other provides feedback, then they swap who rides and who watches for the next session) and paid formal tuition; there’s a great energy surrounded by collectively sharing knowledge and using feedback for the ‘good of the herd’, additional to self-betterment.
A couple of years ago I was out visiting an upmarket equestrian stable and noted, a little awestruck, a rather famous dressage rider’s name on the lesson list for lessons running that day. Despite successful campaigning at FEI level, this person was still booked in to fine-tune some technical skills with a coach. To me, this validated that no rider, no matter how accomplished, is above seeking help. Even the best of the best see the value in an objective set of eyes and fresh approach!
So, whether you are an experienced standy rider, or someone just beginning your retraining journey, I hope you can take some of the above ‘tricks of the trade’ and use them to unharness the potential of your champ with a stamp!