As a professional standardbred retrainer, I often get asked what the most important things standardbred owners should be doing in the early stages of their retraining journey.
My advice is twofold:
1. Take your time and be patient.
Acknowledge that your standardbred is going through a lot of mental and physical changes and that it’s going to take the horse time to form new habits, strength and coordination and to feel comfortable with new movement patterns.
2. Build an unshakable bond with your standardbred.
Devote yourself to this process.
Once you earn your standardbred’s trust, every single other aspect of retraining a retired harness racehorse becomes so much easier!
So what’s the best way to connect and build a bond with your standardbred?
Read on and I’ll spill my little ‘standardbred bonding blueprint’….
Spend time with your standardbred
It sounds a bit basic, doesn’t it?
The idea of spending time with your horse, as some sort of magic pill for standardbred retraining success.
But hear me out…
Life is crazy busy.
We’re often rushing here or there.
Flying out to the paddock when we can.
Left with less horse time than planned, due to traffic.
Got people to meet for a ride.
Got that event looming.
In a mad dash to get home to cook tea.
A by-product of the world we live in is that we’re used to the hustle and bustle.
Moving in a flurry and making every second count.
For many of us, riding a standardbred is an outlet.
A bit of ‘me time’.
A stress reliever.
The problem is, sometimes we get a little too focused on the riding bit.
Or, if we’re not in the saddle just yet, filling all of our horse time with set activities and things we’ve planned to do.
There’s little time put aside for unstructured horse activities.
Now, don’t get me wrong, being intentional about your horsemanship is fantastic.
Planning your workouts is one of the best ways to steadily work towards those big dreams.
But the relationship you create with your standardbred is equally, if not more, important than your goals.
One of best ways you can bond with a standardbred, is just to hang out.
Successful standardbred retrainers set regular time aside to do nothing in particular with their horse, except just ‘be’.
Become a friendly, familiar face.
Have no expectations.
Bring the energy down, to become a relaxed presence.
Hang out in the paddocks
Perch yourself the lip of a trough.
Take a folding chair.
Flip a bucket.
Dedicate even as little as 10 minutes to doing nothing but being near your standardbred.
Your horse may be curious about what you’re doing over there and come to investigate (standardbreds are big sticky noses, after all!)
Some of my favourite memories shared with my standardbreds are filled with ear wuffles and snotty kisses.
And if your standardbred ignores you, that’s cool too.
Like humans, horses have very unique personalities and some of them can be a little aloof by nature… or suspicious that the saddle is stowed nearby 😉
The more time you spend near your standardbred, the more likely they’ll want to be your best mate.
Watch your horse and get to know their quirks and habits.
Whilst you’re hanging out in the paddocks, “doing nothing”, you can use this time to watch your horse pottering about.
Interactions with other horses can tell us a lot about a standardbred’s unique personality.
In our 30 Days to Standardbred Success course (which is relaunching soon – keep an eye on our Programs page for updates) we talk about how getting to know your horse can be a great asset in your standardbred retraining journey.
In this program, one of the thirty trainings focuses on how you can make tweaks to your approach to standardbred retraining based on your horse’s unique personality.
For example, if you know your horse is a bit nervous and you see that they tend to follow the lead of their paddock mates, you can approach retraining little more gently and kindly than you would with a horse who gets up in your personal space, is pushy and a little arrogant.
You can identify key traits your standardbred has by watching their behaviour in the paddock.
If your standardbred is at the top of the pecking order and a bit nasty towards their paddock mates you may need to be switched on and clear with your aids, to make sure you stay safe and aren’t seen as a ‘low pecking order’ presence.
Likewise, if your horse is the one being bullied and a little more reserved, you will want to be aware of your body language so as not to overwhelm them.
Another simple one. But oh-so-important for people retraining a standardbred to be aware of.
Your breathing is something is something which can be used as a training tool.
As discussed in Week 1 of our Standardbred Groundwork Workshop, horses are able to sync their breathing with their owner.
This can help to horse to remain calm in moments of nervousness, as well as creating a connection with their handler.
You can test this out by standing yourself next to your standardbred and taking some deep breaths.
You may notice your horse starts to tune into you, matches your breaths and relaxes.
Give it a go – it’s such a simple concept, but a great activity to do (especially for those five minutes before you swing into the saddle!)
Trust-building and boundary-pushing activities
Another great trust-building exercise you can do with your standardbred is to put the horse into a scenario where they feel a little unsure or worried about an object.
By doing some de-sensitising activities, you get to reassure your horse that everything is ok and that they can trust you to keep them safe.
Plus, every minute you spend with your horse is bonus credits in the relationship piggybank!
Groundwork is the key to a wonderful relationship with your standardbred
If you’d like to focus connection-building with your standardbred, then groundwork is definitely the best approach.
All of the key points from this article are expanded on in detailed lectures in our Standardbred Groundwork Workshop. There are also some handy exercises you can try at home with your standardbred, to develop your bond.
Week 1 of this self-paced (pun intended😉) online workshop is all about developing a trust and good communication with your standardbred, which is the foundation for future success.
You can learn more about this online program, which is super value at just $29 for 4 weeks of awesome standardbred tutorials, by clicking here