Retraining Thoroughbreds for Dressage

Try these three exercises to turn a Thoroughbred racehorse into a successful dressage mount.

Credit: Horse jockey running at race.

Americans love Thoroughbreds. They carried our soldiers, they delivered our mail and their intense desire to win races inspires us every spring as we yearn for a Triple Crown winner. In my biased opinion as founder and president of the Retired Racehorse Training Project (RRTP), I am convinced that their suitability for dressage is underappreciated in today’s marketplace.

If you happen to be one of the 20,000 people to visit the RRTP website during our recent Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge, then you saw on video the process from day one to week five of four recently retired racehorses with three very competent professional trainers ( Many were surprised by how quickly these horses learned to shift their balance from that of a leaning racehorse to something closer to a Training Level dressage horse.

Applying the Training Scale
The feel of a 3- or 4-year-old horse who raced recently is different from that of a horse of the same age that is green-broke outside of racing. The sport horse is usually more reluctant to march forward into the bridle, but finds rhythm and looseness in his body more easily as long as no fear is present. The ex-racehorse tends to be eager to go forward at all three gaits but has difficulty with rhythm and looseness. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides.

It is the relationship between rhythm, looseness and contact that we must resolve early with a horse off the track, and the way we do it makes all
the difference.

For the observer on the ground, the progression up the training scale toward the ultimate goal of collection appears to be all about shifting the horse’s balance from his forehand to his hindquarters. When starting with a horse off the track, we have no choice but to address this balance from day one.

Racehorses lean into the bit and not only push from behind at speed but also pull at the ground from the front. Experts have found that a galloping horse carries 60 percent of his weight on his front legs, but that a balanced cantering sport horse carries 60 percent behind. The rider feels this leaning on the forehand with most ex-racehorses as soon as he picks up the reins and asks for a trot. With some horses it becomes even heavier at the canter. If the rider refuses to support the horse in the bridle with the reins, he will feel the horse rushing forward in a tempo so quick that he is forced to break the rhythm with inconsistent pulling on the reins. This punishes the horse for going forward. Rhythm and looseness are difficult to achieve on a fit horse who has worked daily at the racetrack with 10 or more pounds of weight in the bridle.

As dressage riders, if we are at all sympathetic, we understand that our ex-racehorse is pulling not because he wants to run fast, but simply because he has not yet found the balance that is required to do basic work in a riding arena. We want to correct the balance problem and find the rhythm and looseness, but we sometimes fail to offer the quality of contact that these horses expect, thinking that it is premature. Here is where we can learn from our brothers and sisters at the racetracks.

I will never forget the first session of our 2009 Retired Racehorse Training Symposium. Retired jockey JK Adams rode Monster Chaser fresh from the track in an exercise saddle. All 350 jaws of the people watching dropped as he walked, trotted and cantered in balance and rhythm around the indoor arena with the horse in a frame that looked quite appropriate for a competitive Training Level dressage test. His secret was his balance, shock absorbers and hands.

Exercise riders balance over their feet and allow their ankles, knees and hips to absorb the movement of the horse while their upper bodies stay still. They lock their joints in order to slow down and let them move to go forward. They place their hands on the horse’s neck in front of the withers and leave them there. That is how Adams gave us a riding lesson at our symposium. Here is how to find the balance of an exercise rider:

1. Stand in your stirrups at the halt and check your balance. You can do this in a dressage saddle, but will find it more suited to a jump saddle. Make sure that your stirrups are short enough that your seat clears the pommel when you stand straight up. Get up on your toes and then let your heel drop down without falling back into the saddle. Make sure you aren’t using your hands for balance.

2. Once you can balance with no hands at the halt, you are ready to walk. Let your hands drop down onto the horse’s neck no more than six inches in front of the withers. On the track you would create a bridge with the reins, but for our purposes, rest your closed fists on the neck near the crest as though you were punching the horse. Your thumbs can cross over the mane to create a bridge effect so that the horse pulls against his own neck and you have support to prevent toppling off the front. When you are really balanced over your feet, you will feel precariously far forward over the withers. But don’t rely too much on the neck for balance. Stay balanced over your feet.

3. Now trot in this balanced position with your hands resting in front of the withers. Feel the shock absorbers in your ankles, knees and hips. To stay balanced and not fall back in the saddle, you will need to grip just a little with your legs and to partially lock your knees. Again, you will feel very far forward.

4. Now do a transition back to walk by simply locking your hips and knees even more. It will feel like you are squeezing with your knees. That’s what eventers do to half halt in the gallop.

If it’s working well, try some canter and some transitions within and between the gaits. If you are able to stay balanced over your feet, control the degree of movement in your joints and keep your hands stable on the neck (but still sensitive), your impulsive, nervous horse might just settle into a rhythm with a connection that surprises you. Don’t be afraid to close your fingers on the reins or squeeze with your calves. You still need to ride.

Ex-racehorses will find the balance that we seek if we find perfect balance ourselves and allow them to redefine their relationship to the bit without flailing about with our hands. We seek rhythm and looseness, but we must meet the horse on his own terms to get there. An ex-racehorse needs the bit as he discovers the new balance. We must allow him to use it and not confuse him by moving it. That is why putting the hands down firmly on the neck is so effective. The horse might pull quite hard against the bit for brief moments as he seeks balance, but if the pulling is against his own neck, then the rider’s balance never shifts and the solution is much easier for the horse to discover.

But contact, you say, is not only in the bridle. What about the seat and legs? Well, yes, even ex-racehorses need some leg, sometimes quite sharply. The leg aids are more difficult to apply tactfully when riding in a half seat, or two-point, and impossible to apply in racing stirrups. But we as riders must learn to use our legs independently even when our weight is balanced over our stirrups in a forward-seat saddle. Event riders learn this skill to keep their horses balanced and flowing around the modern, very technical cross-country courses. They brag about their ability to do “dressage in two-point.” Try riding a good working trot correctly on a well-schooled dressage horse without ever letting your bottom touch the saddle. Then throw in some transitions and lateral work. That will test your skills.

Dressage in two-point: Let’s do a bit of jockey dressage. The sport doesn’t exist yet, but we expect to unveil it on a racetrack near you.

Since dressage saddles tend not to work well with a horse fresh off the track, we will not require an exercise saddle but you will need a jump saddle. Jack up the stirrups and prepare to free up those tight racehorse back muscles. Sit when you can, but understand that might not happen right away. This exercise requires balance and feel.

1. Find your balance over your feet as you did in the previous exercise. This time you will need better balance because your hands will need to remain independent of your body and connected to the bridle with the same feel you seek in your regular dressage training. You can use the neck if you need it for support briefly, but if you need it for balance, you are not ready to move on to the next step. Pretend that each time you fall back onto your seat or pull on the reins to prevent such a collapse, the jockey dressage judge will penalize you severely.

2. Ride in walk, trot and canter with the horse in a round frame suitable for Training or First Level. This means that you will seek the same connection from leg to hand that you practice in your dressage saddle. Learning to squeeze your calves from a two-point position is hard enough. Receiving the connection in the bridle while balancing over your feet is even harder. When you find this connection, you will notice that you are really riding in two-point, rather than cruising above the horse as a passenger. It is an essential skill for eventers cross country. Good exercise riders at the track manage it with even shorter stirrups because their horses need very little leg.

3. Practice some upward transitions from walk to trot and trot to canter. You have no seat bones to work with and not even much thigh on the horse. Instead, you have the ability to ever so slightly lead your horse with your upper body if you have perfect balance. You will still use lower leg, but you will lean just a bit forward in the transition to keep from falling? back. If not overdone, that forward leaning can also be an aid to ask the horse to move forward.

4. Practice some downward transitions from trot to walk and canter to trot. You may at first think that leaning back is the way to get this done, but if instead you simply make yourself a little taller and lock your hips and knees, you will manage nicely. Don’t fall back so you are behind the motion and in a driving position.

5. Leg yield out on a circle and then back in. Do shoulder-in, half pass or whatever you school in your dressage saddle and notice how your aids adapt. Leaning like a jockey in the homestretch won’t work. Instead, you will feel your hips move forward and your shoulders come back and up closer to a standing position. You might look like many of the modern event riders in the controversial standing position cross country. It can be effective in helping the horse off his forehand, but I can guarantee that by the end of the session you will want your dressage saddle back.

Dressage saddles put us in a wonderful position to drape our legs around the horse’s barrel and plug our seat into his back. From there we can snuggle up and dance with our horses. We can play that game with our ex-racehorses but only when they allow it. If that position causes a loss of rhythm and looseness, then it is too soon or we need to learn to sit better.

Rhythm, Looseness and Contact
Once a Thoroughbred ex-racehorse is accepting the bit, the leg and the seat in fundamental ways, and moves in all three gaits with a consistent rhythm and some degree of looseness and swing through his body, we start asking for more. Nothing is different in what we strive for than with any other breed of horse, but the obstacles to success have a common theme. These horses have a flight instinct that works for you and against you every step of the way.

When we ask for more impulsion, we might get an overreaction, leading to a loss of balance and then tension. When we make corrections to achieve straightness, the aids that we use on one side of the horse’s body might easily be interpreted as a threat to escape from. When we ask for collection, the flight instinct might again set off alarms that create a response unlike the one we seek.

I like to think of the tension in a Thoroughbred’s body as he seeks to learn the meaning of our aids as an intense desire to please us. A sensitive Thoroughbred will usually settle and return to the rhythm and looseness that we need as our foundation when he understands our exercise.

Your Thoroughbred has been winning at Training or First Level all year but now you want to do counter canter, half pass or another new movement that requires him to work in an unfamiliar way. His reaction to your aids might be not only flight from them in the moment, with head up in defense and a quickening of the steps, but also a tension that persists for the rest of your ride. You need a strategy to keep both of you calm. Here is a great exercise for the thinking off-the-track Thoroughbred trainer:

1. Warm up with your best work, doing movements that he enjoys. Introduce the challenging movements only if you are having a good day.

2. Let’s say your challenge is half pass. Break it down into parts. First do some leg yield on the same diagonal line to get him comfortable with the track he will be following. Then do a little haunches in on the rail to get the physical feel of moving in the direction of his bend, with the engagement of the hindquarters that it requires. The rail might give him the security he needs while he learns this.

3. Now ask for the actual half pass on the diagonal from left to right. His shoulders pop right. You do everything you know to maintain his bend right. The aids are too strong, they make no sense, and your Secretariat is jigging with his head up and every muscle locked against you.

4. You must make a decision. Do you kick and pull harder? Do you punish him for being a pig? Or do you rebuild the house of cards that just fell down? Please rebuild. Move seamlessly into a circle to the right. Re-establish the rhythm, the looseness and the connection that you read about in the training pyramid. Re-establish the respect for the inside leg in that circle. Get your body back into the correct position, and when you are both ready ask again, but not until you are ready.

Trust is huge. Rhythm and loose-ness are huge. Without them your Thoroughbred will not give his body to you in the way that a dressage horse must. With them you can do anything.

Thoroughbreds tend to thrive on physical movement and they are, like all horses, hypnotized by their own rhythms. Repetition of success creates a sense of peace. Little time is spent inspiring the Thoroughbred to give more effort, as they were bred to try hard.

Frequent circling back in our training to rhythm and looseness is more essential with the Thoroughbred than with most warmbloods. A good trainer on a Thoroughbred will spend lots of time reassuring the horse that all is well. Some will use voice, some will relax the legs and almost all will soften a rein to invite the horse to stretch his topline as a reminder that we seek looseness in everything we do.

Thoroughbreds seem to want to do things well, and respond to balance and tact. They are bred to be brave, to thrive on their work and to move away from pressure. Add this to the fact that they are one of earth’s most graceful domesticated creatures, and it is no wonder that so many of us call ourselves Thoroughbred lovers.

This article was originally featured in the January 2013 issue of Dressage Today magazine. If you enjoyed reading this article and are interested in subscribing, please click here.

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